Train eases from a jog to a cautious walk across spectacular bridge, writes Anna Bracewell-Worrall
If you want to get somewhere in a hurry, you don't catch a train in Myanmar.
It's not that the trains are late — although they often are — it's just that they are so slow it's impressive they generate enough momentum to move forward at all. And that is exactly what makes the journey so much fun.
Trains chugging along the historic, beautiful, must-do route across Shan State's Goteik Viaduct move at an average speed of 15km/h.
Our trip from colonial hill station Pyin Oo Lwin to trekking base-town Hsipaw took seven hours to cover a grand total of 100km. But when you're moving at the speed of a light jog, nobody's counting, and the sleepy pace sets the tone for the whole journey.
There's an indisputable serenity to getting on a train with a carriage full of people who all know it's going to take seven hours to travel 100km, but bought tickets anyway.
You bump along, sharing snacks with your neighbours, sticking your head out the window, waving to local kids and ducking back in when the track-side vegetation whips into the carriage.
Only two trains do this route each day, one up, one down, so it's a constant battle between the track-side wild flowers and the train's gaping windows. The train moves through the flora like a very slow, very blunt weed eater. Don't wear white — you will definitely get grass stains.
As the train jogs through the picturesque countryside, women move through the carriages selling their wares. We get canned coffee, steamed peanuts and fresh noodles.
Our neighbours lean over to offer us some of their betel. "Makes you cuckoo," the man says, pointing to his head.
It's a mild stimulant; peppery, spicy and numbing at first, then it gets you a bit tingly all over. We spit the juice out the side of the carriage. Great globs of red spit join the rail-side shrubs. The head rush makes it all hilarious.
With your head out of the window, you get a great view of the incredible sideways swing of the carriages ahead.
According to train-nerd website Seat61, the swinging is thanks to a mismatch between the size of the tracks and the width of the (very old) Chinese carriages. It's pleasant, not sickening. Perhaps that's because we are moving, in case you forgot, at the speed of a herd of cows meandering home for the night.
The train buffs are on board to experience an incredible feat of engineering — the Gokteik Viaduct. The bridge spans a deep, astonishing gorge. At the time of construction, it was the world's largest railway trestle, and it remains Myanmar's highest bridge. It was built to last 100 years. That was in 1900. There have been maintenance works since then, but the train slows to a cautious walk across the bridge, giving everyone plenty of time to gape at the scenery. Vast and wild, for me, the gorge itself inspires more awe than the bridge across it.
We travel in upper class, which means the seats are padded. It doesn't mean much more. The carriage is grubby and my footrest falls to the floor with a clank. A mouse runs by.
There are USB plugs that don't work and A/C vents that also don't work. Seats have a reclining function, but they might not. None of this matters. The trip is beautiful, hilarious and serene. We paid $6 for two tickets. This is quite possibly the world's cheapest trip of a lifetime.
Many things in Myanmar are still done manually, including the train ticketing system.
If you don't want to pay a small commission to an agent or guest house to sort it out for you, you have to buy your ticket from the station you're travelling from.
Smaller stations may open for just a couple of hours each afternoon. If you're travelling upper class, you can buy your ticket three days in advance. Ordinary class tickets are only available the day before. There is no website for Myanmar Rail — the internet is about as fast as the trains.
The train chugs up through Shan State once a day, leaving Mandalay at 4am, arriving in Pyin Oo Lwin at 7.40am daily (where it will wait for 30 minutes) and getting to Hsipaw at 4pm, where most of the tourists will get off. Seats on the left-hand side offer the best views.