The 10 days Mia and I spent in Burma was one of the highlights of my 5 months in Asia. It’s so incredibly different than any other place I’ve ever visited. I don’t feel comfortable using the phrase, “it’s a country locked in time!” (which is popular with many guidebooks) as I feel that makes it sound like some sort of artifact suddenly made available for the viewing pleasure of western culture.
But it truly is a unique place that has obviously not evolved at the same speed as the countries around it.
Places like Yangon, Bagan, and Inle Lake have developed very quickly since the collapse of the military junta in 2011 and the country’s shift toward democracy. Because of the massive explosion of tourism, those areas have seen huge economic growth. Surely positive in some ways, though perhaps happening at a rate that is likely unhealthy and unsustainable.
Still, the development is great enough at this point that travelers who see only those cities may leave with a rather skewed view of what Burma looks like today.
Because in reality, those developed areas of Burma are few and far between. Most of the country is still incredibly poor and untouched, and virtually impossible for foreigners to visit due to the lack of infrastructure.
But there is one totally unobtrusive way to catch a glimpse at how the rest of the country lives.
Traveling by train.
We initially decided to take a train from Yangon to Bagan because it was cheap and the two cities didn’t seem all that far apart. It seemed like a very easy trip. However, we didn’t take into consideration the type — or should I say, the age — of the trains we’d be riding in.
These things were old. Really, really old.
Though the handwritten tickets we received should’ve been our first indication that everything about this experience would be a little out of date…
The change in scenery and demographics happened almost the moment we pulled out of the train station.
Very quickly, the infrastructure seemed poorer and the land became more rural.
The people we passed also seemed much more taken aback by our appearance than those we met in Yangon. Being two pale, tall blondes, we obviously evoked a few stares from locals in the city. However, as we rode by these small villages, people would openly gawk at us. The train moved so slowly that some were even able to run along side it for a while, usually laughing and waving.
A few others who were casually watching the train roll by looked visibly stunned to see our blonde heads poking out the windows. Our appearance was certainly jarring.
We weren’t the first or only westerners to travel through the area, though. Many have done so before us, and there were a handful of others also on our train at that time. We shared a car with a couple from London, who were only traveling through the country for a few days before returning to England. Thankfully the were very nice, as the space was rather cramped, despite being “first class,” which, as an aside, is the only type of ticket foreigners are allowed to purchase.
Mia and I had one side of the car, and were supposed to each have our own bed. However, because the train rocked so violently from side to side, we decided it probably wasn’t safe for either of us to sleep on the top bunk so we just shared the bottom. It proved to be fairly wide and comfortable, though the rocking was so intense that neither of us slept at all.
In total, the journey took about 24 hours, though it was only supposed to be around 12. And for those of you who just watched the video: yes, it really was that loud, and yes, it really did rock that violently. The entire time.
Despite that, or perhaps even because of it, I highly recommend taking the train while traveling in Burma. It was honestly my favorite part of the entire trip.
For me, there’s nothing quite as meditative as listening to music while staring out of the window of a moving train. Something about the way the sounds complement the scenery, and your inability to ever lock in and focus on one particular thing as everything passes by in such a flurry. So soothing and stimulating at the same time.
Plus, there’s the fact that Burma is absolutely beautiful.