By train to the south of Myanmar - a leisurely trip
The morning is still surprisingly cool on the platform in Mawlamyaing, dozing wild dogs are lying on the track bed, coiled tightly and protecting themselves against the morning freshness. Sleeping travellers lie on the wooden benches under coloured blankets. Other sleeping people spend the night directly on the grey concrete floor in the station lobby. The light breeze mixes the smell of tar from the railway sleepers with the vapours of an open canteen on the platform. The hand of the station clock jumps to four o' clock. Two hours more until the train from Yangon arrives on schedule.
The day before, after spending several weeks in in a Buddhist monastery near Mawlamyaing, I decided to spend my remaining time in Myanmar in the south of the country. I want to take the train to Ye, a small town on the river of the same name. The night before I tried to get a ticket in advance, but it doesn't work in Myanmar because there is no computer system or something similar, so you have to be at the ticket counter in the train station before departure to get a ticket. And early means three hours before departure, so in my case at three o' clock in the morning. After my monastery time I was used to getting up early and so I buy my 1st class ticket at the counter, where there is already a longer queue. For a fabulous 2600 Kyat, converted 1.70 Euro, the ticket will be issued for the 160 km distance. I indulge in luxury, because otherwise you have to sit on wooden benches in the wooden class, probably for eight hours. For a Burmese, that's a lot of money if you keep the average monthly salary of a teacher at around 80 euros.
An hour before the train arrives, life on the platform slowly begins. More and more salespeople with their small mobile kitchens, mostly everything balanced on the head, arrive. Fruit and beverage sellers join in. With astonishing skill, little colored plastic chairs, dishes, small gas cookers and food items are juggled with hands and heads through the crowd, and as soon as a customer asks for something, the seating is placed and the women prepare the small snacks with great skill. The many different delicacies are available for a few Kyat. Some passengers wash their faces at a faucet on the platform. The colourful blankets are rolled up, time for a first breakfast.
Around six o' clock the train announces itself with the first distant whistles, surprisingly punctually he then rocking and squeaking into the track. The old British diesel locomotive then brings the black-blue-yellow wagons with screeching brakes to a halt. From the dark wagons, sleepy heads stretch out and watch the bustle on the platform. I find my seat quickly, everything numbered well in the comfort class car. The upholstered seats and the headboard even have white fabric protectors. At the open window, which can't be closed anyway, I can now watch the events in the station and the compartment for almost an hour.
As the train sets off at about seven o' clock, it is still dark. Squeaky and swaying, like a ship in heavy seas, we leave the station. The last few lights of the city disappear with the rising fog over the rice fields. We reached our top speed relatively fast, it is more like walking speed. The ramshackle Myanmar's track network does not allow for an audible speed. The wagons occasionally sway so badly that you get scared that they might jump out of the tracks. The rail network and trains still come from the colonial age of the Britons , after that, the subsequent governments and the military junta have done little to deserve their support. It was only a few years ago that the expansion began - for example, the extension of the route beyond Ye to the south.
The train slowly creeps towards the sunrise, small villages and agricultural landscapes pass by at walking pace, and thanks to the comfort seats, you can easily endure the sometimes hard shocks and fluctuations. Some bamboo hut villages are located directly at the track bed and you can observe the morning activity in their courtyards and the smoke of the small fireplaces draws into the open wagons. Monks leave small monasteries for daily alms collection. Waiting women, with food for the monks, have already positioned themselves on the dusty paths. In the pale light of dawn, one can see the smoke from the numerous clay brick distilleries along the route, where work is already in progress.
On wobbly rail
Women with Thanaka paste on their faces walk through the rolling wagons with hot or cold drinks, instant coffee or tea bag tea, lemonades or juices. Others offer warm rice curries or dumplings with dips. If that's not enough, you can get help from a wide range of offers at the stations where you stop. Numerous women, with a tray on their heads and all kinds of delicacies, walk along the open windows. Travellers are then served directly from the platform at the open window. Some of them also board the train during their stay and then try to get rid of their goods on the train. Few people even travel to the nearest train station. The play repeats itself at every station.
At one of the stops in the small town of Thanbyuzayat an elderly woman with flower in her hair gets in, six or more baskets pile up on the platform, the farmer's wife begins to move her goods into the passage between two wagons in peace of mind. I help her to load the wicker baskets and see that they are all filled to the brim. In broken English, they try to explain to me that the market in one of the next places must go. Some of the travellers are small-scale farmers who are currently commuting between local markets. As the train sets off, she plumps into one of the first-class armchairs and remains seated until the conductor shows up. Smiling, she moves to her eggs and returns when the conductor has disappeared.
Meanwhile, the midday heat has drove away the initial coolness, only by the wind of the open windows the climate in the wagons is pleasant, even if occasionally insects, bushes or leaves of the densely overgrown railway line fly into the wagons. At the continuous metallic squeaking of a wagon wheel, one develops with the hours a feeling for the driven speed, with crossing of bridges it is a long squeaking, on free distance the rhythm increases and mixes with the Rat-ta-tang - Rat-ta-tang of the track pieces.
Even if some pieces of luggage are catapulted from the upper shelves from time to time, I have become accustomed to the rocking, but not while I am walking to the toilet. The adventure begins with entering the toilet area, when the door is open you can see that everything is under water, when the door is closed you stand in the dark and in an unpleasant smell, only the light from the hole of the toilet bowl through which the railway sleepers can be seen helps a little with the orientation. Dangerous is the strong swinging of the wagons, no grip, no handle, only a support on one of the walls prevents you from banging against the metal walls. Maybe helpful not to drink too much or dare to go to the toilet in a station.
Despite the ban on smoking, passengers are repeatedly allowed to stand at the exit of the open wagon doors, snort their cigarettes while slowly passing through the countryside, and sometimes wave to the children in the villages. In the wooden class, with their worn-out wooden benches, the passengers sit densely crowded, but still have a smile on their faces, chatting, sleeping, eating or playing with their children. Golden radiant pagodas, richly decorated Buddhist monasteries, green jungle, monotonous rubber plantations, irrigated and harvested rice fields, small village festivals and shreds of music, thick water buffaloes in the mud, white and colourful water birds in rivers and lakes, smells and noises in the villages, abandoned railway stations, everything passes by at a snail's pace, much time.
The destination of this train is the small town of Dawei, a port city in southern Myanmar at the mouth of the river of the same name and the capital of the Tanintharyi region. The southern rail network also ends here. This train has started in Yangon, the journey to Dawei will take about 24 rocking hours for a distance of about 600 km, unimaginable in the western world, but for Burmese it's a common occurrence. Even businessmen who don't have the money for a plane ticket can travel around the country by train. Besides buses and taxis, this is the cheapest way to travel through Myanmar.
My destination Ye is halfway between Mawlamyaing and Dawei. Around four o' clock in the afternoon, the train arrives in the small town after the nine hour ride. An intense experience of deceleration and mindfulness, plenty of time for the little things, fragile and funny conversations with people, looking at passing mountains and landscapes, inspecting stations and unending relaxation.
At the bustling little train station of Ye I start looking for a taxi after leaving my train. I have plenty of time.
The railway line from Mawlamyine to Ye