Scroll down for the first part of this post. Here we start with the train from Yangon to Mawlyamine.
The title is a reference to Kipling's story of the same name. I'm not that clever, it was quoted in the guide book, but I do love the ring of it. Mawlyamine is difficult to write and a bit tricky to pronounce at first but after many repetitions (its basically phonetic) it becomes fun to say. The town is south of Yangon, further down the peninsula Myanmar shares with Thailand and Malaysia, and sits on a bay facing towards the Andaman sea. (Heads up, I'm about to geek out) It was the capital of British Burma from 1826 to 1857 after they won the first of the British-Burmese wars. Ugly colonial business obviously but the residual architectural effects are quite lovely. Mawlyamine was a port from where the British exported a lot of Burmese teak which was brought down river by floating the huge logs. Teak, rubber, oil (discovered bubbling up to the surface) and I think tea were and remain important exports from this part of the world, and Burma was, relative to size, an extremely wealthy dominion for the British Empire. Mawlyamine is interesting for another fact in that it is where George Orwell's mother was born and raised in a Franco-Anglo family. Orwell started his career as a policeman in Burma and spent some time in what was then called Moulmein with his maternal grandmother. "To shoot an Elephant" was written about his time in Burma. I won't go into how the social, racial and economic realities of working for the East India Company in Burma informed much of his later work.
We took the train from Yangoon to Mawlyamine and what a fantastic choice that was. Somehow, in the decidedly not bilingual conversation had with the ticket agent the day before I ended up buying us "ordinary class" tickets rather then the recommended "upper class" tickets. I should mention here that you should remember to either memorize or jot down your passport number because you are going to need it to do everything. The government is trying to keep tabs on foreign tourists and therefore at any hotel (which I find normal) and on any mode of transport other than a taxi, you need to register with your passport number. Anyhow, back to the train adventure. We showed up the next morning for our 7:15 am train to discover we had been assigned three seats in the ordinary class. Even the conductor was a little confused, at first taking us to upper class only to look at our tickets and direct us down a carriage to three wooden slated hard seats. Frankly, it was the best mistake of my entire trip. The only difference between the two classes is that upper has 'carpeting' and bus-like seats.
The locals, I suspect, were a bit surprised to find us in their carriage so we had a lot of starring and shy smiles to contend with. Not a problem obviously as everyone was lovely, sweet and very friendly. We were offered food three times, we gave food back twice. We had a lot of giggling and smiling and some halting conversations that unfortunately couldn't get past the "where are you from? Where are you going stage?" due to our non-existent Burmese. We were all amazed by how much food the hawkers could carry on their heads, especially one young woman who walked up and down the moving and rocking train with a huge spinning tray of giant fried crickets. So so so much food was hawked - fried fish, fried vegetables, entire lunches, fruits of all sorts, jaggery of all sorts, coffee, betel leaf, beer and more. The train rolled through beautiful countryside especially when it started going down the coast towards Mawlyamine (we had to head north first). Lush, green, flooded rice paddies and tall palm trees with hills rising like a spine down the coast covered in golden pagodas.
The people, the landscape, the food, all of it was striking, but the thing I think we will all remember most is the feeling of riding on a probably 100+ year old single gauge track in a 50+year old carriage, rocking rather violently and being swung side to side as the train made its way down. There were a few moments where I thought we were going to just rock off the side of the rails and into a muddy rice paddy. But we didn't, and even better, I don't think I need to go see that chiropractor about my chronic back pain. I'm not joking. Our average speed, calculated by our diligent Dane, was 15 MPH. Which explains why it took us about 11 hours to make it to Mawlyamine.