It's bedlam at 1 in the morning on the Mandalay Express from Yangon. Just a few hours ago, I had been lounging by the pool at the luxurious Savoy Hotel in Myanmar's largest city, but now it feels like I've been on this rickety old train to Mandalay, once known as Burma, for a lifetime. And the trip is hardly half over!
The voyage started out as a child's dream come true. The train looked just like the kind of toy I had when I was young. But this trip was wilder than any game I ever played.
Upper Class was encouragingly printed on the car I was in. I had been promised a reclining seat by the window and this is exactly what I got: The chair reclined, there was lots of legroom, but the seat swivelled around so much that I had to plant my feet onto the chair in front to avoid turning around in circles for the whole trip. Unfortunately, that chair also swivelled.
As we pulled out of the station, the bells were clanging and the whistles were blowing with all the pomp and ceremony that accompanies a propitious train journey. And yet we were travelling at a snail's pace, and I was beginning to wonder how we could possibly get to Mandalay in 14 hours.
As we left the city behind, the sight of overly abundant garbage was replaced by timeless rice paddies, muddy streams and rivers, water buffalo and round piles of straw.
In the fields, there was a multitude of crisscrossed sticks dug into the ground. Most of village houses were built on wood stilts and constructed of woven bamboo walls and thatched grass roofs. The back doors to many of these houses seemed almost close enough to touch from our open windows. Strategically situated under palm trees, these cozy villages reminded me of the kampongs of Java, also close to the train tracks, for their orderliness and use of natural materials.
Meanwhile, the train had been picking up speed between momentary stops.
At speed, the train felt like a small roller coaster going over endless bumps as we bounced and jounced in our seats. At times, I was literally hanging on to the armrests so I wouldn't be catapulted out the window as it lurched from side to side. Would it lurch too far and suddenly go off the tracks?
No one else but me seemed even remotely perturbed, and I realized it was time I adapted to Eastern fatalism. Once I willed myself to stop thinking, I began to enjoy the cool air streaming through the steel shutters that we could pull down for the night. I allowed myself to be momentarily lulled into a stupor by the clickety-clack of the wheels on the track and the gentle swaying of the car.
I was pleased to see the sun come up in a glowing red ball over the horizon, bathing all the countryside, and my frazzled nerves, in a swath of heavenly, pink light. We were approaching Mandalay. The whistles began blowing as the train lunged undeterred toward its destination.
At 5 in the morning, exactly 14 hours after our departure, the locomotive eased us into Mandalay station on time and unharmed.