Riding trains in Myanmar

Riding trains is a different way to explore a country’s interior. It affords the user a steady means to observe both the landscape of a place and the culture of the people. While on our last trip to Myanmar (Burma) we spent many hours riding the rails from Shwenyaung to Thazi and then from Thazi to Bago.  Riding the train in Burma was definitely an interesting and memorable adventure.

The first leg of our journey was a day train from Shwenyaung near Burma’s Inle Lake to our transfer point in Thazi. The latter was a key train center for the British in the 19th century where they took trains heading north to the hill station of Kalaw where they could have a respite from the oppressive heat and humidity of Yangon’s weather.

With our tickets in hand, we were taken to our seats where we could take advantage of an open window view of the passing landscapes that were ahead of us. The seats themselves were dilapidated and old. The passenger cars were probably anywhere between 40-60 years old and the age and wear was quite evident. Nonetheless the seats were comfortable enough for our long journey ahead.

We left a few minutes past eight in the morning and set a course to Thazi across arid landscapes and leafy mountain tops with their accompanying valley floors. We traversed down a number of switchbacks to back our way down a steep mountain. Although we crossed only 130 kilometers to Thazi, the first part of the journey lasted over 11 hours. With the speed of the train and the infinite number of stops in each village, I was surprised we finished at all.

The seats in front of us were persistently changing with each stop. A mother and her son were our first visitors and stayed with us for a couple hours before they got off in a dusty outpost in the midst of a maturing wine industry in Myanmar. Later on several traders took temporary possession of the seats and stacked their produce purchases with each stop at a passing town.

Across the hours we saw a number of visitors from different ethnic groups board and depart the train along the journey, but the last two riders were most fascinating and reflected a lot of the struggles of what Myanmar is going through now and for the future. These two young women boarded the train several hours into our travels and from the beginning it was evident there was substantial differences between them that echoed through their actions or lack of interaction.

We watched their interactions with curiosity as both the young mothers were roughly of the same age with two young infants to care for and they seemed to resist any interaction whether casually or accidentally with the other. They came from two different ethnic backgrounds along with differing socio-economic classes. Within Myanmar many groups do not get along with other and we saw it first hand on our train ride that day. Bridging gaps of mistrust and fear that have been perpetuated over generations will be a significant hurdle for the Myanmar society as the society gradually opens up.

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