Grasping my thin, paper ticket, I walked up to my seat, took one look at it, and had a mini panic attack.
You’ve really outdone yourself this time, Kay. What on Earth were you thinking?
Three days into my solo trip through Southeast Asia, I found myself boarding the ordinary class car of a rickety, overnight train from Yangon to Mawlamyine, Myanmar. If you don’t know much about train classes, here’s a visual to help your imagination:
To be fair, I only paid $2.80 for my ticket earlier that day, and I should have seen the warning signs saying “this ticket price is too cheap to be comfortable.” I knew Myanmar would be cheap, but $3 for an overnight train seemed almost absurd.
A cheery man at the ticket counter in Yangon had sold me my ticket, squinting to read the Roman alphabet letters on the tourist leaflets. He didn’t speak or understand much English, but he was jovial about it. Laughing nervously, he pulled out a booklet of papers, opened it haphazardly, and ripped out a thin sheet – my ticket. He smiled at me and handed me one with a shaky palm.
“Two thousand eight hundred kyat.”
Before I even thought to ask him about what section I’d be placed in, I found myself handing over the money. It wasn’t until I was well on my way back to my hostel that I thought to myself – “wait…this can’t be right.” I spent the next hour researching the Burmese train system, and Googling what ordinary class train rides would be like. Wooden benches? Overcrowding? Livestock? Frequent overturning train cars? Ancient train tracks? It all sounded mortifying.
I even considered foregoing the ticket I bought and instead taking a bus. But, when the bus station informed me that all of the buses to Mawlamyine that day were full, I decided to take the leap of faith and accept my fate of riding the intimidating ordinary class. At the end of the day, the experience and the adventure that would come out of this ride would ultimately be worth the lack of sleep and comfort.
And then, come nightfall, I was prepared to board the 9:00 PM train from Yangon to Mawlamyine. It was empty when I got on the car – the first car after the engine – except for a middle-aged woman loudly selling mandarin oranges and an Indian-Burmese couple.
Silty, dirt-ridden metal walls enclosed this area. There were no glass windows, instead open-air holes that could be covered by rusted metal and wooden shutters. The seats? Wooden benches that were perhaps large enough for two people on a day ride, but hardly big enough to get comfortable on an overnighter. The restroom consisted of a squat toilet that led directly to the tracks below. If this was the real world, I’d surely been sheltered my whole life.
At this point, it was too late to change my seat class. Plus, I’d already paid for my ticket and I needed to get to Mawlamyine by morning. I took a deep breath and sat down – I was luckily placed in a forward-facing seat, so at least I could rule out motion sickness.
A few minutes later, my seatmates arrived – a Burmese woman and her daughter, who looked as if she could be around my age. I flashed my most genuine smile at them as they took their seats, which were the backward-facing ones in front of mine. They both smiled back, and the mother made a kind gesture at the woman selling oranges and bought about a dozen from her. Everything about them seemed gentle and friendly. I was instantly at ease.
With a rumble and a high-pitched squeal, the train began to take off. Since we were so close to the engine, we could hear the horn directly through the open window each time it sounded. Within minutes the train was swaying violently side to side and occasionally jumping off the tracks. Occasionally it felt like the car was actually airborne. Amidst the bumping and hopping, we swayed like a metronome, a rhythmic series of rocking accompanied by my pounding pulse and tensed body. I was terrified. How could I possibly sleep here? What if I died tonight?
The only thing keeping me sane was the presence of the lovely ladies sitting in front of me. They seemed so calm and collected, almost as if they were enjoying the motions of the train. I wasn’t sure if they spoke English. Should I talk to them? What should I say? Man, I wish I could speak Burmese…
I snapped out of my worry-infused reverie as the mother offering me an orange, complemented with a big, toothy smile. I politely accepted, secretly relieved they’d broken the ice. They began talking to me in their language, thinking I was Burmese, and I admitted, embarrassed, that I wasn’t. They found this amusing and we all laughed together over sweet oranges and the smell of Myanmar’s night air.
A small, Burmese-looking American girl traveling by herself in a car entirely full of other Burmese people? I must have been a hoot.
Being with this family helped me relax a little bit, and although the bumps and sways of the train were disconcerting, I eventually began to feel my eyelids weighing down heavily. By now, I’d found out through a series of English words and frenzied hand signals that the family was from Mawlamyine, but the daughter had just finished school in Yangon. She had learned a little bit of English in school.
To my surprise, they kindly offered me some of their dinner, a fragrant and spicy fried fish dish with rice and chilies, to date one of the most delicious meals I ate in Myanmar. They smiled at me as I cringed from the spiciness and encouraged me to eat as much as I wanted. I felt guilty that I had absolutely nothing to offer them, but they didn’t seem to mind.
Burmese people are truly kind souls.
Eventually, it was time to sleep. I placed whatever jackets and sarongs I had on the hard, wooden bench and laid down, feet extending into the aisle of the train car. The mother gave up on the bench altogether and just put a sleeping mat on the floor of the train. Miraculously, we all fell asleep in minutes. The swaying and bumping that started off so terrifying now began to feel soothing, almost like the sensation of being on a boat in the middle of the ocean.
Of course, I would awake with a start every half hour or so to a sharp bump or severe rocking from side to side, or the train’s blaring horn that was all too close for comfort. At times I seriously thought the train would derail. But every time I woke up, my seatmates and I would exchange quizzical glances followed by giggles. Life was good for the most part, and sooner that I realized, the sun began to rise outside our half-open window. We were almost in Mawlamyine.
I found myself face-to-face with a surprising feeling – I didn’t want the train ride to end.
When we arrived at the train station, I gave my Burmese train family giant hugs and thanked them profusely for their hospitality and snacks. Without them, my trip could have been 100 times more miserable. Walking away from them, I felt the first pangs of separation anxiety that I had felt since I left for my great adventure. Meeting people on the road is hard in that respect.
In the end, I actually quite enjoyed my experience in a weird way and felt that it brought me closer with the Burmese people and their undeniable kindness. I got a decent amount of sleep and ate a delicious meal (for free!). What else could you ask for?
After the train ride, I quickly realized that I passed a judgment on the experience too quickly before trying it. This is how Burmese people get from place to place, as most can’t afford the cushy upper-class seats. I was lucky that I found myself in this situation, and I will always regard this experience as one of my most authentic and adventurous ones.
Was it terrifying? You bet.
Would I do it again? Perhaps…
If you are considering traveling by train in Myanmar, check out these articles that I found helpful/entertaining:
Traveling by Train in Myanmar – The Man in Seat 61
The Worst Travel Experience of my Life – Turnipseed Travel
How to Travel By Train In Burma (if you must) – Jaunted
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