We were reluctant to travel by train in Myanmar - the Internet consensus is that train travel in Myanmar is slow, hot and very, very bumpy. However, sometimes things don't go as planned and when we tried to book a bus from Mawlamyine to Nay Pyi Taw two days in advance it turned out there were no seats. And not only for that day, but for the next four days. The choice was to stay in Mawlamyine another 5 days, alter our plans and go somewhere else or take the train. However bumpy, train it was.
It was slow, although not that much slower than bus - the 500 km between the two cities took a little over 16 hours. It was hot too - no aircon in upper class (we would've splurged for first, but there was no first class on this particular train) and the day temperature was pushing 40C, but not unbearably hot as all windows were open the whole time and while moving there was a breeze. It was a bit bumpy too, but on our route it was not that bad at all. The price was quite low at 6700 kyats or less than $6 per person.
The train was to leave Mawlamyine at 6:15 AM, so a taxi took us from our hotel at 5:15 that morning. Driving through the still sleeping town and the empty streets we were able to enjoy the old colonial buildings once more before leaving this unique place behind.
Reaching the train station the driver asked if we had tickets already - we didn't, the people from the guest house we stayed at had called the day before to book them, but we did not have the paper tickets. So the driver came with us to the ticket counter where we presented our passports and after some writing in various notepads (no computers) we were issued the ticket. The driver then took us to the platform where he gave our tickets to an official looking man sitting on a bench and left us with him.
I was a bit worried as the information on the ticket was in English (which is done to make it so we can understand it) and not many people speak or read it in Myanmar, but the man - a train inspector maybe, I am still unsure - looked at it for a while then got up from the bench and escorted us to the correct carriage. Once in, he made sure we are seated where we should be and left us. So far, so good.
The train had 8-9 carriages, only one was upper class. Seating in lower class is on wooden benches, while in upper class we get soft seats covered with white sheets and more foot space. It was a bit dirty, the white sheets didn't seem like a good choice, and by the end of our journey - 16 hours with windows open, through dusty fields, they had turned a shade of gray. The seats, however, were comfortable and people around us were giving us curious looks and nice smiles, we smiled back and made ourselves comfortable for the long trip ahead.
It quickly become apparent that food or drinks was not going to be a problem during the ride - no restaurant, but plenty of "vendors" were carrying big plates on their heads filled with fruits or hearty meals or lugging heavy bags with various soft drinks, water and ice to keep them cold from one end of the train to the other the whole time. There was even a walking coffee and tea shop that would give you your choice of hot drink in a plastic cup.
A word of caution here - be wary of water bottles and look for a proper seal. Some bottles are obviously used and then refilled - they sell them cheap (300-500 kyats for a sealed bottle, only 100 for refilled) and there were locals who bought some, but quite probably drinking that water would not agree with our unused digestion and wouldn't be different than drinking tap water from a bottle used by someone else. Most of the water sold would be with a plastic seal over the cap, some may not be, but it is still easy to spot the manufacture seal of the cap.
There was a sweet couple sitting behind us - a young man and his wife, heavily pregnant. They smiled kindly at us as we went in, and then the husband made sure to shake our hands. The language barrier was real, as they did not speak a word of English, but the young man was excited to see tourists and decided to adopt us during our train ride.
Even before the train left the station he offered us some water - we showed our bottle and he sat back satisfied. Soon after that he gave us a packet of tissues. When the food vendor was passing by he made sure that we understand that it is food that is being sold by making the universal gesture of hand putting invisible food into mouth. We smiled and nodded understanding, the food however was rice with some pickled fish and green leaves and the smell was quite strong for our tastes so we decided to pass. The young man thought that we will stay hungry and a minute later he tried to give us a plate that he had just bought for us and we had to refuse. Later he just put in Pavel's lap a can of soft drink and again smiled nicely.
At this point, we decided that whatever is offered next it would have to be eaten or drunk - it would be rude not to. And it didn't take long - the next vendor brought fried crickets! It was time for Pavel to be "the man" and eat a cricket - we've traveled throughout Asia, but always avoided eating bugs. So far. Pavel managed to dissuade the the young man from giving us the whole bag, but thanked him and obediently ate two crunchy crickets - said it wasn't so awful, grassy taste, might have been better with more spices.
We had a packet of choc chip biscuits that had traveled several thousand kilometers from Australia with us and were the only thing we had to share with the lovely couple, but they seemed to enjoy the unusual threat, so we were happy.
It was a humbling experience to have someone who most probably made a lot less than us try and make us feel welcome with so many small gestures. This type of kindness really warms the heart.
The train went through vast fields, small and big villages, busy markets and run down stations, past shiny pagodas and busy roads. Wherever there were houses there would be children standing by the track waving at the passing train - toddlers or teenagers, it looked like this was the main entertainment point of the day. It was a very enjoyable ride, the view from the window always something new.
The last couple of hours were more subdued - it got dark after 6 PM, so we sat and played with our phones or read a book. At some point our train stopped and some men gathered at the front - something was wrong. We stayed for 30 minutes until they managed to fix it, which delayed our already late train even more.
Either because of that delay, or maybe it was that the tracks so near the capital were better it felt like the train started gaining speed after the unexpected stop. It was clacking and shaking more than before and it was looking like we are even going as fast as the cars on the nearby road. A bit worried that we might loose a wheel I checked my phone to see what velocity we've reached - and with a confused expression I had to tap on my screen to make sure it was showing correctly. It was - what felt like a preparation for liftoff was actually 55 km/h. Yep, we were gonna be late.
The scheduled arrival was at 9 PM, at 10:20 we alighted at Pyinmana, the stop before the main Nay Pyi Taw station, but closer to our hotel. It was dark, the platform was full of people, some already sleeping, there were no signs in English, we weren't sure which way to go. Out of nowhere a man in pants and a shirt appeared - the station master. "Where you go?" he asked with thick accent, "Hotel" we answered thankfully. "This way, this way" - we were once more taken care of during this long day and shown where to go to take a taxi.
In the open back truck we were loaded to get to our hotel, in the warmth of the Myanmar night I thought about the journey behind us, all the sights, all the smells and the nice people and was happy there weren't any bus tickets that day.