January 17, 2014 6:48 pm

Postcard from . . . Myanmar: On the slow train to Mandalay

The slow train to Mandalay is picking up speed and our carriage has begun to corkscrew in an unpredictable way, bringing up an important question.

“Can you get seasick on a train?” asks Charlie Bibby, the FT’s photographer, his normally smiley demeanour replaced by the look of someone whose gut is threatening to revolt.

A few minutes go by. We pass a branch office of Aung San Suu Kyi’s once-banned National League for Democracy. The grumpy old monk across the aisle with the half-empty bottle of Grand Royal whisky at his feet has curled up into a foetal ball in his seat. The breeze is building through the carriage’s wide-open windows, the curtains waving. The train’s horn is blasting every few seconds as the driver tries to clear the tracks ahead, which are hemmed in by homes and hawkers and gangs of children who run alongside and wave.

And then, after a particularly violent series of jolts that cause even the sleeping monk to stir, Charlie mutters quietly: “The answer may be yes.” I smile. We are 15 minutes into a 15-hour journey.

Myanmar is bursting back into life after decades of brutal junta rule. Like nearby Cambodia and Vietnam before it, the country is also contemplating an awkward transition in how it engages with the outside world. Isolation has left much of the country and its infrastructure looking like entrancing remnants of a long-ago colonial past. But modernity and the tourist hordes beckon. Foreign investors are coming. So, too, are rational economics. The slow train to Mandalay – like the crumbling grand old former ministries of downtown Yangon (formerly Rangoon) – will eventually make little sense economically. But it remains emblematic of why one should go as soon as possible: there is still a slow train and there may not be one for long.

Taking the “up” train to Mandalay, as George Orwell presumably once did, is a romantic decision rather than a rational one. The overnight train rattles precariously along narrow-gauge tracks from another era and derailments are common. The $33 one-way fare for the luxury sleeper doesn’t buy you air conditioning or a particularly good night’s sleep. Commercial flights take just 90 minutes. If it’s cost I’m worried about, a bemused Burmese tells me, then the overnight buses are cheaper and more comfortable. Plus, as one earnest young Burmese doctor adds, “they have films”.

But the train ride is magnificent. After 40 minutes, we clear Yangon’s gritty suburbs and the landscape opens up into lush green plains with a cloudless deep-blue sky. The train assumes a more comforting rhythm and Charlie is joking again.

“Deep fried sparrow!” he laughs, waving the laminated menu offering meals from the dining car next door, where a young cook is already labouring over a single flame-fired wok.

The landscape rolls by like a timeless picture show. Strip away the occasional advertisements and it could be a journey at any point in the past century. Children cheer as we pass through villages. White cranes stand tall in rice paddies and sternly watch us go by, water buffalo wallow in the mud and ignore us. There are gilt pagodas and monks to be seen every few minutes. At one point I feel something tickling my elbow and realise it is the long grass that grows right up beside the tracks.

Two hours in, at Bago, the first stop, Charlie and I race along the platform to our sleeper car, which is tucked behind the engine and isolated from the rest of the train. As we settle into our seats, Charlie is doing his best to wave away one particularly persistent hawker until he realises, just as the train is starting to pull away, that it is the dining-car attendant, who has our dinners and two big cold bottles of “Myanmar” lager.

As we pull away I do that thing that you now see only in period movies: I open the door and move on to the metal step below and hang on to the railing with one reckless hand. As the train picks up speed, I’m living out a middle-aged man’s juvenile fantasy.

We drink our beers and poke at our meals. Then, before long, it’s time for bed. Charlie and I battle over bunks until I win the bottom one and the right to stretch out next to the open windows and watch the gloaming fade into black and a star-filled sky emerge. The carriage is still swaying. The horn is still sounding. I look at my phone, which remains reassuringly without signal. We are still more than eight hours from Mandalay.

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