The sleeper train you can’t miss

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I used to think trains rolled. Maybe chugged. Sometimes even glided. It wasn’t until I boarded a train in Myanmar that I would ever have used the word “bounce”. But that is the only way to describe the movement of the overnight sleeper from Yangon to Bagan. How is it possible for a train to bounce? How can rails have giant potholes? Because that is what it feels like as we are shot up and down. We fly up, leaving the seats entirely before crashing back down onto the lightly padded bunks and holding on tight.

Not only does it bounce, it also rocks dramatically from side to side. It is as if we are at sea in a great storm, our small ship being tossed about by the waves. The fact that we are in fact firmly rooted to the earth, the wheels strictly guided by heavy metal tracks, seems improbable. The train has a mind of its own. It continues to bounce and fly and sway the whole journey through. At times it seems to settle down but just as you think its safe off it goes again. Catapulted in a way that defies logic, we fly up and down, from side to side like we are attached to bungee ropes that lay loose for a time before finally snapping taught and bringing us back to a rhythmic rolling motion.

A building site not far outside Yangon

A building site not far outside Yangon

The windows have no glass and we travel with the shutters pushed up. The hot air tastes of dust. The heat is glutinous, settling around us like jelly. The breeze whips in through the gaping holes. Without the windows up we would be robbed of the stunning views, and these are what keep us entertained on this long journey. We begin in the heart of Yangon, passing through busy streets crammed with people, traffic jams and building work. Before long the urban chaos melts, peeling back to reveal the landscape the city was founded on long before it became a city. Rust red sandy roads that are really no more than tracks, huts and homes made of plaited bamboo with roofs of straw. They hold entire families, often of a few generations, all in single rooms. The cars begin to disappear. We are no longer in the suburbs. This is the true countryside of Myanmar and we are bumping our way through towns and hamlets that will never be tourist destinations – places where the simple and back-breakingly hard way of life is entirely undisturbed.

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As we go along the landscape gets greener as glossy leafed trees and expansive fields dominate the skyline. Green rice shoots push up through muddy water as people in pointed straw hats bend at the waist to tend them. Homes are clustered together in small villages or standing alone – one family in isolation or total independence. As the train passes through, children run out of their houses to wave and their parents pause in their work to look up at the chugging monster. Every time we stop at a station there are people selling food through the open windows from silver trays balanced on their heads. There are no barriers alongside the tracks – they run uncontained through the rural landscapes and towns alike. At points where the roads criss-cross the tracks there are barriers, but they come down very late, the last motorbike sliding across the springy rails as the train rounds the closest corner.  The people held back by the barriers show no impatience or frustration. They wave and smile at us as we rumble by.

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The landscape continues to transform, now into a great sandy plain with only stumps of vegetation bristling in hollows that dot the surface infrequently. There are men driving wooden carts, loaded high with crops or empty except for a few stray leaves of their previous load and pulled by black water buffalo tinged with red dust. To us it seems picturesque, but here it is truly a way of life. It is so different to everything we know.

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The sun begins to set to the left of the tracks, casting long dark shadows into our path and bathing the fields and villages in an autumnal glow. The sun is a great, red ball, a huge sphere of burning light descending with gravitas and pride. We leave our small cabin and hunch down on our knees in the corridor, peering out of the low windows until it disappears from sight.

The night gets dark very quickly and somehow, amidst the bumping and being shot around the cabin, we manage to sleep. In the middle of the night I’m woken by a bright light and lots of chatter. The station lights are bright by themselves in the middle of the uninterrupted darkness, but the fairy lights, in green and red and yellow, make it feel like a fairground. People are selling things, catching up on gossip, greeting loved ones as they disembark. And then, with a great heaving of levers and clanking of metal, we set off again into the blackness.

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I don’t wake again till the morning light fills the cabin. Pushing sleep aside, I sit up to see the sun rising majestically on the horizon. Overnight its fire red has settled to gold and now it fills the morning with a soft and gentle glow. It rises over tall banana trees and green fields, different again to the land we fell asleep with. It is still very early in the morning, but people fill the streets and stations and wash out in their front yards. Groups of children run alongside the train, trying to keep up. People throw them packets of sweets and small change. They run along with us as far as they can, running with all their might, racing each other and the clunking machinery that takes us towards Bagan.

We arrive at Bagan and the conductor stops by our cabin to make sure we know where we are. It is a small station, dusty and sun bleached, and we are soon surrounded by insistent taxi drivers. I am so glad that we got this sleeper train. It feels like we have seen so much of the country overnight, so many different villages, landscapes and ecosystems. It has given us a much better feel for the local people’s way of life, an impression that would have been a lot shallower had we skipped this journey and taken the plane.

Tips: Buy your tickets in advance from the advance booking office on  Bogoyoke Aung San Road to the south of the main station. Its entrance is opposite the Sakura tower and traders hotel. You need a passport to book and there is only one sleeper carriage. This is divided into cabins sleeping 4, with bedding provided. Food was available on the train we took, but I understand this isn’t always the case, so its worth taking your own provisions – especially water! For more train information, see http://www.seat61.com/Burma.htm#.VU8iuZp0zIU

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