In the planning of this trip I looked at a lot of websites and a lot of pictures. This means that it is possible to mix stuff up. This is probably why, in my mind, the train we were going to be on had white reclining seats and aircon in 'Upper Class'. The reality was a bit different, though not awful. The seat did recline a bit and resembled old fashioned airplane business class seats, for people with very small bottoms. The worn and stained upholstery was covered with washable thin cotton covers and each had a table that folded out of the large plastic armrests. Ventilation was provided by everybody raising the wood framed windows to let air circulate and metal slatted shutters could be lower in the event of the sunshine getting too much. . All in all, comfortable enough though after 15 hrs we both agreed that this was about 3 hrs too long.
The journey was fascinating due to both the life inside and outside of the train.
Inside, the main activity came in the form of people selling food and drink. Firstly there was an onboard restaurant car and in upperclass poorly clothed youths would come down, sing songing their wares and offering people like us menus in both English and Burmese. I took the plunge twice and ate very good fried noodles and fried rice for $1.50 a throw. Had I seen the kitchen before I ordered I may have given it a miss, though I have suffered no ill effects for the experience. And rather marvelously, after one failed attempt we managed to communicate what a vegetarian is and J also got to eat.
Besides these guys, were the vendors who got on at every stop, travelled for a couple more stops, then got off to catch the next train in the opposite direction. These people sold all kinds of food and drinks. Fortunately, cold beer was very common and at $1 a can I did not mind the fact they were making 100% mark up. You could also buy fresh, hot corn on the cob, curries, rice dishes, dried fish & octopus, freshly cut water melon, stuff wrapped in leaves, peanuts, instant coffee, tea and lots of stuff I could not recognise. Mostly we stuck to the beer.
Many of the vendors were women who carried their items on trays on their heads. This is no bad feat at any time but on this train it was quite remarkable. The carriages often jumped around like a horse being broken in. The carriages slammed together like they were having repeated accidents and swayed like a ship in a storm. I could barely make it to the very basic, straight onto the tracks, loo without ending up on someone's lap and these ladies were carrying a ton of water melon on their head without using their hands. Remarkable.
This too-ing and fro-ing meant here was never a quiet moment but the lovely rhythmic chants and the mostly great smells were very easy to get used to and in no way detracted from the trip.
Outside the train, life was equally fascinating. We left Yangon as dawn was breaking and transited through the grey concrete and wire filled inner suburbs, then very poor outer suburbs with homes made from rattan and corrugated iron before hitting the countryside. Through all these places it is evident that Myanmar is not yet an easy place to live. The ox and cart are still very common and these beasts also pull ploughs. Some people have small 2 stroke contraptions with the same energy as an Ox, but it still looks like hard work. From dawn until dusk people were out in the fields working their small plots. Now, as we were transiting through the countryside, I cannot guarantee that the people we saw near Yangon at dawn were still in their fields at dusk, just like I cannot guarantee that those I saw in the fields at dusk near Mandalay had started their day at dawn. They may have been doing 2 hour shifts and spending the rest of the day in the boozer. But I doubt it.
The villages are probably similar to villages in Europe in the 16 & 17th century: dirt tracks, animals in backyards, small shops, small plots being farmed, water coming from wells, Oxen doing the heavy work and children playing in the dirt. The main difference is probably the amount of plastic rubbish. The other difference is the odd aerial and electricity wire though even these are very scarce in some villages even when compared to other counties in South East Asia.
Against this tough backdrop, many people smiled and waved and seemed happy to see tourists. Whilst we are becoming more common we are still a bit of a novelty. I also think that increased tourism may be a sign that the country really is coming out of isolation and most are really happy about this. Cheaper TVs for a start.
We both enjoyed the experience. Cold beer followed by a few warm G&Ts helped (but then again, beer and G&Ts help most situations seem better). We got to see a part of Myanmar you wouldn't see from the air and at a pace you wouldn't get in a bus or car. Would we do it again? Well, we are looking at every other option to get from Bagan back to Mandalay, but that doesn't mean we would not highly recommend it as an experience to be had.