“We call it buffalo train,” our guide in Hsipaw had said. “Because it goes slow. We also call it bumping jumping train … You will see.”
We waited on the platform as the train chugged into Hsipaw station – late of course – with a degree of fanfare. A station warning bell heralded its approach and the engine whistle celebrated its arrival. We scrambled onto the first class carriage with the rest of the tourists. The locals resigned themselves to the wooden benches of ordinary class but given our guide’s warning, we settled for the cushioned seats of the privileged.
Getting the train to or from Hsipaw is a reason in itself to go to there. Most tourists catch the train to Pyin Oo Lwin (a six-hour ride) rather than continue on to Mandalay. It’s much slower than a coach and lacks the same comforts (no air con, no TV showing local singing competitions too loudly). But the ride is an unmissable journey through some of Myanmar’s most stunning scenery.
The upper class carriage consisted of some 40 brown-cushioned and bouncy seats. Five green mini-fans swiveled from the roof. (A handy hint to those planning the journey: the first class carriage windows are partially shaded, frustratingly obstructing the view. Ordinary class carriage windows lack any glass, providing an uninhibited view, but also leave you unprotected from the leaves and branches that whip through the opening as the overgrown bushes scrape the train’s sides).
As we waited at the station, women vendors frequented the carriage, selling fresh pineapple, boiled quail eggs, samosas, corn cobs and shelled peanuts on metal trays balanced expertly on their heads. We bought four large slices of pineapple for 200 kyat (about 20 cents) and bags of fried noodles for the same price.
The train finally departed the platform an hour behind schedule, chugging over tracks raised above rice and corn fields. When it accelerated, the carriages rocked violently. From time to time, the train also jerked forward abruptly, abusing the rhythm our bodies had embraced with the side-to-side swaying.
Not only was it a physically violent journey, but it was a loud one. The wheels constantly scraped on their iron rails and hit joins in the tracks, producing a consistent clackety-clack. Occasionally, mother nature added to the percussions with the scratching of branches along the roof, and the whistled flicking and shredding of leaves that got stuck in the opened windows en route.
The Gokteik Viaduct
Any well-researched tourist knew to request a seat on the right for the best views. These were supposed to be at the Gokteik viaduct. This railway bridge, the longest in Myanmar, spans 689 metres across Gokteik Gorge. When it was completed in 1900, it was the second highest railway bridge in the world; its tallest support tower is 102 metres high.
We caught tantalising glimpses of the bridge’s fragile white framework through the trees on our approach. The tourists eagerly rushed to the doors and, in a scary example of Myanmar’s lax safety regulations, flung them open to better enjoy an uninhibited view of the abyss.
The train slowed to a crawl and passed through a tunnel, a metaphorical drum roll for the grand experience to come. Everything blackened. Excitement swept through the carriage.
Then, suddenly, light was cast onto the most exhilarating view. Directly below us, a silent river snaked through a verdant valley. Higher up, several birds cartwheeled and swooped between steep slopes.
Looking down the train, we could see that the locals shared our excitement; their heads were popped out of the windows of the ordinary class carriages beyond. I stood on the doorstep. There was about a foot of extra bridge width but beyond that, the sharp drop lent an air of thrilling freedom.
Even after we had crossed the bridge, excitement and enthusiasm rent the air. Tourists felt bonded by the experience and marvelled together at the ingenuity of humanity and the wonders of mother nature.
The hubbub soon died. We capitulated one-by-one to the cradle effect of the rocking and settled in for a slumber. We awoke to find ourselves covered in shredded leaves from the poorly abused bushes growing on the sides of the track; we had forgotten to close the windows.
It was dark when we neared Pyin Oo Lwin. True to its nickname, the buffalo train had taken eight hours rather than six. But it hadn’t felt like a travel day, an A to B day. The train from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin was an experience to relish long after the journey was completed.
More about Myanmar
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