The following is the translation from the Myanmar Popular Journal – a leading weekly journal from Myanmar (Burma). The original article is written in Burmese, in journal vol. 13/No. 1. It has some interesting facts about train travel in Myanmar which would be of interest to some of my visitors.
To all the visitors who would travel by train to Bagan (Pagan)
It has been quite a long time since I visited Bagan the last time. While I was visiting Mandalay this time, I think I should visit Bagan. Bagan is quite pleasant during this time of the year, with green grass, blue sky, beautiful clouds, colorful twilight and the reflection from Irrawaddy (Ayarwaddy or Ayeyarwaddy).
In my mind, I was thinking of the old scenes of Tuyin Mountain from the green fields in the beautiful sunset, endless series of pagoda festivals one after another, hundreds of bullock carts of visitors from villages all around Bagan, and the green trees and grasses of Bagan during the cool season.
This time, I was thinking of the way to go to bagan. I have already traveled to Bagan by plane. I have already used Highway buses to travel to Bagan. But I have never used train to go to Bagan. I thought it would be a nice experience to travel in a train to Bagan. I would also like to see the new Bagan Railway Station too. With excitement, I tried to buy tickets to Bagan one day ahead. “No Ticket” was the answer. I then asked help from the government department (note from translator: it seems the author is a government officer or have good connection with the government organizations), met the Manager of the Railway department to ask help for a ticket. Finally, we got one ticket reserved for the government officials and another one reserved for the tourists. I was so lucky! Finally, I had a chance to ride a train from Mandalay to Bagan, which indeed was a very rare chance.
I arrived to the Railway station half an hour before departure time, and get on to the Upper Class carriage. My God! Only when I was inside the carriage did I realize the features of the upper class carriage. The whole carriage was pitch dark. Only two small red light bulbs on either end of the carriage. It was a relieved to see these two small pathetic light bulbs: without them, I would have to use candle lights to find my seat.
Found the seats. I looked for the overhead cabin to put my luggage: nothing which looked like an overhead cabinet. My friend who accompanied me to the carriage comforted me in a little comical way: “Looks like they are afraid the bags might fall down onto your head.” Finally, I had no way but to put my bags below my seat and on the floor. I have never been traveled in such a nice train in my life before!
After everything was finished, my orderly who accompanied with me on my trip went out to buy some betel nuts (translator’s note: in Myanmar, it is customary to chew betel nut mixed with other herbal ingredients wrapped with a few betel leaves). Once he returned, he said: “Out of three upper class carriages, ours was the worst; others have more foreigners.”
“It is good that there are no foreign tourists on this carriage. Otherwise, I would not know how to show my face to them”, was my only answer.
“It is good that they sold us reserved ticket for foreigners. Otherwise, the one who is going to buy our ticket will be the lucky draw winner”, was his sarcastic comment.
“The foreigners buy tickets in US dollars. They will complain a lot if they have to travel in such a train like us. Once, I saw a scene happened at Rangoon (Yangon) Railway Station.”
“Please tell me about it sir.”
Thus I told him the following account which I had actually seen at Rangoon Railway Station:
A foreign tourist entered a sleeping cabin of upper class, and tried to open the window. He could not open however much he tried, and finally, being quite angry, hit the glass window with his bag. Other passengers gathered around to look at the scene while the manager of the station ruched to the scene. However, he dared not say anything to the angry foreigner. The foreigner was keep on getting angry while the manager was undecided whether to arrest the foreigner or to apologize for the incident. The onlookers were also undecided whether to get angry at the foreigner or the indecisive manager. Finally, one impatient passenger could not hold his tongue anymore, and speak out loud: “If it were us who did such kind of act, we would be immediately arrested for being a Burmese who bought ticket in Myanmar kyats and for destroying the public property.”
At the end of my narration, the train was getting ready for departure. We could hear the noises coming from the train engine. at that time, the guard of our carriage walked into our carriage, with a flashlight in his hand, shouting the following announcement.
“Passengers, please listen carefully to me. The trip we are going now is through the villages. The trip is also a night trip. There are frequent attack by stone throwing on the train. (translator’s note: some children and teenagers throw stone at trains just for fun in some parts of Myanmar). Therefore, I urge you to close the windows. If you are hit by the stone for not closing the window, we will not take any responsibility. There are two window panes here: glass one and wooden one. If any of you would like to open only the glass window pane, please let me know. If the stone hits the glass panel and breaks the glass, you have to pay for the value. If you cannot close the wooden windows, let me know. You have to put some force to open or close the windows. If the locks are not working, sorry for that: I cannot do anything. One more thing. This is the train, not your home. So don’t fall into sound sleep. Be alert while you are sleeping. You have to take care of your own luggage. Don’t trust other passengers. The thieves don’t have any horn. That is all.”
With these stern words, which sounded like a military speech, the guard took his seat. The passengers looked at each others’ faces with suspicion. We felt like we should run away from the train at once, or better to recite the Thanboddhay Mantra a thousand times (translator’s note: Thanboddhay Mantra is a very popular mantra among Myanmar Buddhist), or to hold all our belongings in our arms. Was the one in front of me the thief? Was he beside me the one? Those two monks sitting near our seat the real ones or not? With these in mind, we were busy closing the windows, looking at each others’ faces in the darkness trying to judge his or her character.
I looked at my orderly’s face and told him not to sleep, while promising myself not to fall asleep too. My orderly who once told me we were very lucky to get two upper class seats could not say a word now.
The train was starting its journey, until we reached one station, when a large number of seatless passengers entered our carriage, filling the whole train. Now, there was no way we could go to the toilet as the whole carriage was full. The happy thought of easily assessable toilet was now gone.
The train was shaking like a baby’s bed, but I dared not sleep. I could not take the great speech of the guard out of my mind. However, with the train slowly made its way, more and more passengers fell asleep, snoring. I was quite afraid of the small light bulb, now swinging violently, in case it hit the roof and fell down on the sleeping passengers. What if the broken glass piece goes into the mouth of a snoring passenger? Gradually, I slipped into a deep sleep, until I was woken by a bright torch light shone into my eyes. I was startled but soon realized these are the taxi drivers getting onto the train one station ahead before the train arrived to Bagan. They tried to grab customers. I looked for the guard but he was no where to be seen: probably very tired after his great speech.
Well, like I told you at the beginning of this article, my mind was quite fresh with the thought of seeing the beauty of Bagan, althoug my body was quite tired.
Mhan Soo, Popular Journal Vol 13/ No. 1