Walking to the Yangon train station I was unsure how the train ride was going to go. I overheard one of the hostel employees recommeding a traveler to take the bus and not the train because it is a very long and rough ride. From what I have heard most of the train travel in Myanmar is long, bumpy and rough. I was running late but needed some snacks, I stopped at the Ruby Mart convenience store and made it to the station with 5 minutes to spare before the departure time of 0400 pm.
The train left at 0415 pm, I was in a sleeper cabin with four other guys. An older Aussie man named Wayne, an English guy named Jack and two other English guys named Ollie and Dave. Wayne had just spent some time traveling in India, Jack has been traveling for a few months through Europe, Mongolia and Asia, Ollie and Dave were traveling through Myanmar for 10 days on vacation. The train windows were open and we had a great view of the countryside.
Bang!! bang!! clack! The train slammed back and forth rocking constantly on the tracks. It was beyond bumpy, litereally getting tossed from my seat at times. It was a slow train, our maximum speed must have been 30 km/hour. We stopped at many stations along the way, picking up and dropping off local people in different villages.
I was introduced to some Myanmar train toilets, the system is pretty simple – a standard squatting toilet, where the waste goes directly on the tracks. Anyone who has taken the train has noticed the funny sign that asks the passenger to ‘refrain from using the toilet over the bridge – for bridge preservation reasons.’
Throwing garbage and littering is a normal habit in the Myanmar culture. A daily example: A man on the train buys a cob of corn in a plastic bag, after he is done eating his meal he then throws the plastic bag and all the trash outside of the window. All of the local people seem to do the same. A good opportunity for travelers to lead by example through simply throwing trash in the garbage bin.
It was an 18 hour journey on the train. There was no food dining cart so we bought our meals [from outside the train window] at different stations along the way. I ate some chicken and rice, people were selling drinks and other food options at some railway stations along the way.
The countryside is beautiful in Myanmar, the slow train affords you the time to take it all in. We exchaged stories and talked until it became dark and late enough to try to get some sleep. With no air condition the windows were open most of the journey, by this time many bugs and insects have flown into our cabin. We decided to leave one small light on to attract the bugs (I particularly appreciated this being on the top bunk). After laying down I got tossed around the bed a few times but was happy to be able to stretch out my legs. I’m not sure if it was more of a miracle that I got some decent sleep or that the train did not derailed.
Heading north towards Bagan morning broke into a clear sky, the rain had yielded and it was a change to see dry streets again. I leaned out the window and bought some fresh pinapple for breakfast, it was a quick exchange as we weren’t stopped at the station for long. The last few hours of the journey we saw people working all pieces of the land from ox pulling plows aerating the land, cattle being herded on farms and rice fields being worked all around the countryside.
Arriving around 0930 am the 18 hour sleeper train had ended up costing me 16,500 kyat ($18 Canadian), saving more than $10 in comparison to taking the bus. All the negatives I had heard about the train were outweighed by the benefits of traveling locally and seeing the countryside.
Leaving the train Jack and I had booked into the same hostel in New Bagan at a Ostello Bello. We managed to get a shared truck taxi for 2,500 kyat per person at the train station. Initially the driver wanted 6,000 kyat each but the price dropped significantly when we joined with another group heading into Old Bagan. Funny enough, three of the nine of us heading into town were backpacking with ukuleles. Heading into Bagan we stopped at a tourist office and were each charged the standard 25,000 kyat ($30 Canadian) entry fee to the town for five days.
Bagan is a mystical place with temples and pagodas all around. There were over 10,000 temples and pagodas from the 11th to the 13th century. Today there are more than 2,200 remaining, most of which can be explored. It baffles me that at one time in Bagan there were two temples being built per month.
After arriving at Ostello Bello and having a quick bite to eat, Jack, Hannah and I rented some electric motorbikes (ebikes) and set out to explore the area. Ostello Bello seemed expensive costing $18 Canadian/ night for the 12 person dorm. The room included sample pasta 3 times per day, free Myanmar cigars, coffee, tea, clean failities and has a great atmosphere so in the end it was definetely worth the stay.
The place to rent ebikes is right outside of the hostel. Initial the price was 3,000 kyat for an ebike and laundry [unlimited laundry included]. The two shops were competing offering better prices and the price quickly became 1,000 kyat from 0100 pm until nightfall. One dollar to rent the ebike all day and have my laundry done.
We spent hours driving through different areas, passing rice fields, countless pagodas and temples. Passing through fields where the trail was made of sand and extremely slippery we found our way to some secret pagodas. The weather was great, I couldn’t believe the change from the constant rain in Yangon to the sun in Bagan. The three of us had a great time enjoying the temples, many of which didn’t have anyone there but us.
We grabbed a bite to eat and a bottle of rum at the corner shop. I was playing ukulele on the rooftop watching the sky change colour while the sun set. Each night in the hostel there is some entertainment or activity going on. On this night it was a ‘quiz night.’ Jack, Hannah and another English guy and I entered a team. We weren’t quite as good as expected but we had a good time regardless.
I rented an ebike early morning and went riding into the dark to see the sunrise. The monsoon brought some unfortuante clouds and haze this morning. The views were not postcard perfect but the landscape is serene.
After taking a nap I awoke a putrid odour in the room. “Ahem, cough, cough”, trying to clear my throat, struggling to breath the odour was toxic. Thinking I’d prefer the limited oxygen in the air above 5000 meters in Nepal’s Himalaya mountains. There was a sewage problem in the room and I was upgraded to a 4 bed dorm room free of charge.
Ostello Bello and Hostelworld each sent an email to confirming my booking, not something that usually happens. Most often I make a reservation online on hostelworld or hostelbookers and only they send an email.
In the Ostello Bello email it stated that if you play an instrument, have a skill, or provide entertainment you are eligible to receive a free night accommodation. I confirmed this with them on arrival. Shortly after my arrival I was told that I would be playing on my second night and could receive my third night free of charge.
‘Ukulele live by Patrick‘ was posted on the big whiteboard all day. I spent a few hours putting together a set list including some songs on both the ukulele and guitar. I’m still new at the ukulele so I was a bit hesitant when night rolled around. It was too late to back out as it had been advertised for a day and a half so the show must go on.
I played a few songs on the ukulele and then switched to a 6 string guitar and then switched back playing a few more songs on ukulele. It turned out to be a success playing from 8:30pm until 9:30pm. The ukulele ($10) paid itself off twice on the savings I got from having a third night free for providing entertainment ($22). Likely the most profitable show of my music career so far.
Many parts of Myanmar remain closed to tourism, people often travel similar routes when exploring the country. I have run into many friends in Bagan who I met during my time in Yangon. I ran into Justine from Toronto (we met in Yangon) and some friends in the morning as they were waiting to check in.
It was a nice day so I rented an ebike for 2,000 kyat and had my shoes washed [included in the ebike rental]. I rode to the bus station and bought a ticket to Kalaw on a VIP bus for 0600 am the following day for 11,000 kyat. In the afternoon I ran into Justine and some other friends at the hostel. We took the ebikes throughout the temples throughout the day and had a blast. We played chinloo with some local guys. We watched the sun set over the temples, someone dubbed the group of us the ‘Bagan Biker Gang.’ I ran into some friends from Yangon, also sitting on the same temple watching the sunset.
Many people had issues with their ebikes, batteries dying, not starting, etc. Thankfully I was able to ride for 3 days with no issues. Be sure to get the name and phone number of the company the bike is rented from because they will bring a new ebike if there are issues.
The only place I’ve been that can compare with the vastness of the temples in Bagan are the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia. Though still they are very different, Bagan is unique and beautiful in many ways. Three days of visiting the temples and pagodas was sufficient for me, particularly with the expensive accomodation.
After adventuring around and watching the we all headed back and had some dinner. It was my last night in Bagan, the hostel had BINGO as entertainment. We played for a couple hours, the prize was one free beer per BINGO. I called it an early night because I was catching the 0620 am bus to Kalaw.
I have heard nothing but good things about the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake so I’m excited to do some trekking and see the Myanmar countryside.