The man from Seat61 has a lot to answer for. My 0300 alarm call for a start. We’re taking the “Train over the Gokteik Viaduct” today, the train goes from Mandalay to Lashio, and the only train each day leaves at 0400 and an upper class ticket will cost 3950 kyat (US$ 3.05) each, although you DON’T need US dollars to pay.
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Apart from today. (Well it still costs the same, but…) Today it left at 0947.
We spent the intervening nearly 6 hours sitting on the platform floor at Mandalay Station, because it wasn’t clear if the train would be arriving in the next hour, three hours or not at all.
The guy from the bus station said it wasn’t coming at all, but his bus was going to Hsipaw (our destination). We’d have to take a tuktuk to the bus station 45 minutes away to catch the bus though. He promises we’ll be there by 10am – just a five hour trip by the time we get to talk to him. In the space of 10 minutes he changes this to 6 and then 8 hours. We send him on his way, but not before it’s been mooted that we might want to get a taxi for “just” 80,000 kyat. (US$61.86)
When we travelled there was very little online booking available for buses, trains and ferries in Myanmar and South East Asia – the folks at Easybook have now remedied that – check timetables and book tickets online now – its WAY easier!
It’s pretty tough in Asia figuring out who works for who. So we end up asking multiple folks and taking an average. And then following what the locals do. One family goes home and goes back to bed. We should have done that. our hotel is minutes away from the station. In the end we do go back, to get one of the night staff (it’s still dark) to come to the station and find out what’s going on.
The train will now arrive here in Mandalay at 6am. It then needs to rest for three hours and it will then leave at 9am.
The train finally arrives around 0915, although we’re unsure if it’s fully rested or not, everyone else who’s been sitting/sleeping/standing around waiting gets on, so we do too, along with our new Israeli best friends, Roti and Rhona.
Rhona’s made a new friend. He’s Burmese, with a Chinese mother. Rhona lives in Beijing and they converse in Mandarin. One of my more surreal moments traveling, but he’s the one who was able to piece together a lot of the information for us, so I figure surreal is good.
When finally we get moving it’s like no other train I’ve been on. Firstly Upper Class makes an Indian Train look positively magnificent.
And once we achieve high speed (of about 25 km an hour), it makes the Sri Lankan train to Jaffna (where our train jumped up and down on the track) look positively safe.
Our rolling stock doesn’t quite fit the tracks. I believe it’s a Chinese train on a British track. Or something like that. We are quite literally rocking and rolling. The side to side sway is incredible. You really don’t want to swap between carriages while we’re moving.
Lulled into a false sense of security by previous Sri Lankan, Thai and Indian trains we assumed that it would be easy to buy food. There are vendors, walking up and down the carriage, but watching fellow passengers pick up what looks like every piece of fruit/crisp/vada before making their final selection is off-putting in the extreme. So we wait until we arrive at Pwin Oo Lwin before eating.
En route we go up the switchbacks to make altitude. It’s such a simple way to get up a gradient that is too steep for the train, and it feels very quaint, but also somewhat scary heading backwards down a track that you think you’ve just come up.
Rhona worries we’ve gone the wrong way and are going back.
The food option at Pwin Oo Lwin, where we still (despite being 6 hours behind schedule) follow the printed scheduled stop time is limited. A store with packets of crisps, canned drinks and this little old lady on the platform.
It definitely looked better than it tasted. Seriously greasy, oily vada and rice for 500 kyat (US$0.39) was NOT a bargain. The cold Sprite at 1000 kyat (US$0.78) will have to provide such sustenance until we arrive in Hsipaw.
We’re riding this train to go over the Gokteik Viaduct, which runs between the Gokteik town station and the Nawnpeng station.
Originally we planned to do this as a day trip – take the train to Nawnpeng, jump off and get onto the “apparently waiting to go down to Mandalay train” and head back to Mandalay. It would be a long day, not getting back to Mandalay until the scheduled time of 22:40, but in desperate need of a lie in, we wrote off the three dollar tickets we’d bought and turned off the 0300 alarm, choosing instead to head to Hsipaw where we’ll go trekking for a couple of days.
It’s 280 kilometres between Mandalay and Lashio, this stretch of track took 8 years to build, with the Gokteik Viaduct being built by the Americans in 1903. The bridge spans a 300 wide gorge, where It’s 102 metres above the Dokhtawady River and originally used parts cast the the Pennslyvania Steel Company. It’s single track most of the way.
It’s not just themanfromSeat61 who’s been here, Paul Theroux wrote about his 1973 trip in The Great Railway Bazaar. I reckon they’re still using the same rolling stock…
And it’s a good job. We arrive at the south side of the viaduct, at Gokteik at 1645.
The return train is waiting. If we’d tried this as a day trip we’d just be looking at the viaduct from a distance, not crossing it. This seems to happen on a regular basis now.
So, we waited nearly 6 hours on the platform floor, then we rocked and swayed for 7 hours for the next five minutes. Because that’s all it takes to go across the viaduct. We do, however, slow down for the trip over the viaduct, so there’s no swaying, either that or the train fits the tracks here.
It’s stunning, but I’m not convinced its worth the 13 hour investment so far.
Excitement over we get something of a sunset, and a lot more swaying,rocking and every bug and insect in the entire history of man makes it into the carriage. The carriage has fans and open windows, the lights unfortunately work, which attracts all the wildlife. The last two hours in the dark are completely miserable and it’s a blessed relief when we pull into Hsipaw at 2030 in pitch darkness.
Our hotel – the Lily have sent a free tuktuk to pick us up for which I will be eternally grateful, my appetite has gone, I just want a shower and my bed.
The train over the Gokteik Viaduct is one of the fabulous train journeys to take, you can read about one of the others, the Slow Train to Thazi here.
- Where we stayed in Mandalay – the 79 Living
- Where we stayed in Hsipaw – the Hotel Lily
- The Man from Seat 61 on Burmese Trains
- Like trains? Read about our experience on Indian Trains.
- What to Eat in Myanmar
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