The Road to Mandalay

So, I’ve finally found my way to Mandalay. Not by ‘the road’, which, incidentally, is actually the Ayeyarwady River in Kipling’s poem, but by train.
The adventure began when we hailed a taxi to the station. Actually, we hailed three who either a) refused us point blank b) tried to overcharge us because we looked like tourists or c) did not understand what we wanted. Eventually an English speaker offered a fair price and we were helped on our way by a couple of the Orange Shirt Assistants from work, whom we’d met in the meantime.
At first I was concerned that we had found another cabbie who hadn’t quite understood us. The route he took to the station was not one I’d ever used before. The roads he used were like the stairs at Hogwarts, changing our direction until we were disoriented, glimpses of familiar landscapes passing us by before discovering yet another unfamiliar part of town just seconds later. However, we arrived at the station in plenty of time and were directed to Platform 1 (not 9 3/4) to wait.
Our tickets (which I’d purchased three days before) were simple slips of paper which were handwritten with our name, passport number and seat then stamped in official blue ink. To our amusement the price of the ticket was four times that of the life insurance our purchase also included. Apparently, we were only worth 3000 kyat (£1.80) each!
You may wonder why we would need life insurance on a simple train journey. Well. The train, and the tracks, have definitely seen better days. Our carriage was rusty, our seats grimy, the wooden bunks looked rotten, spiders and cockroaches hitched a free ride and everything rattled with the movement of the train. It could be said we were taking our lives in our hands by choosing this method of transport.
We did have a toilet to alleviate the discomfort of this 14 hour journey. I had been warned that they could be pretty gross and envisioned it to be like Glastonbury on springs. However, the toilet itself was fine. A typical, stainless steel, western toilet over the tracks. Positive luxury as long as we didn’t stop to wonder when it was last cleaned. Of course, remaining seated was a challenge and probably the reason we needed life insurance. That said, we were at greater risk of either getting locked in there by the dodgy lock or exposing ourselves to the compartment if the door rattled itself open over particularly bumpy sections of the track.
We were sharing our sleeper with a Dutch couple who were following a similar itinerary to us over the next few weeks so we spent the first hour of the journey discussing Yangon and Thailand. I felt quite the traveller as we shared experiences about Yangon and I offered advice for their return trip there.
Night fell quite soon after we set out. The purple and blue sunset gave way to a canopy of stars. If I stuck my head out of the window (avoiding passing trains obviously) and looked up, I could see all the familiar constellations of the Northern Hemisphere. Although Orion’s Belt was ‘hanging low’ according to my companion.
Bedtime also arrived quickly. The lack of sufficient beer, lousy snacks, a rather grumpy co-traveller and the typical Myanmar mixup of lights to light switches left us preparing for sleep around 8.30. I had the top bunk, which I was initially grateful for having witnessed the broken nature of the lower one. However, I revised that opinion quite early on when I found myself bumping around like an over enthusiastic teenager having bad sex!
Sheer exhaustion and a good sense of balance kept me up on the narrow bunk for most of the night, shivering under a thin sheet and my travelling scarf until I could lie there no more. Bruised and battered I clambered down from the top and managed to witness multiple sunrises as the train bumped around a ridge of hills to the east, that re-revealed the golden sun to me time and again.
A few hours later and we had arrived in Mandalay: sleepless, bruised and hungry. But we had arrived, in one piece, ready to explore Mandalay and beyond.


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