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The road to Mandalay

The railway through central Myanmar is a long bumpy ride into the past

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The Norton bombsight was said to be so accurate that a WWII airplane could plop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 10,000 feet. This outrageous claim crossed my mind as I braced myself against a wall and took another shot at the hole in the floor of the Mandalay express. But with the train lurching and bounding along its aging roadbed the hole in the squat-toilet was an elusive target that had clearly been missed by many others before me. Ignoring the collateral damage to my shoes I stepped carefully across the clattering coupling between cars and into the next coach. The metal plate that once bridged the gap had failed long ago, and like so many other worn out things in Burma, it has never been replaced. The rolling stock of the Mandalay express is about the same vintage as the Norton bombsight — aging coaches lurching back into the last century.

It was pitch dark when we boarded the train in Yangon at 4:30 in the morning and made our way by flashlight to our designated seats. The lights, we were told, are “temporarily out of service” — a minor inconvenience that didn’t really register until about five hours later when the temperature in our coach soared into the 30s. Not only the lights didn’t work, the ceiling fans hung motionless in the stale air and most of the windows refused to open. I made my way into the breezeway between coaches where the metal cover on a rusted out electrical panel flapped back and forth with each lurch of the train. Inside the box a snarl of wires crisscrossed the missing circuit breakers. No wonder the electricity failed. I leaned out the open window for a welcome blast of fresh air. The trip from Yangon to Mandalay takes 14 hours, but despite the humidity, heat, and jolting ride it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed for anything.

The rail line cuts through the rich agricultural land of central Myanmar where the rice harvest was in full swing. Small groups of men and women, protected from the sun by their traditional conical bamboo hats, attacked the vast expanse of paddies with tiny hand scythes and tied the stalks into bouquet-sized bundles. Many of the fields were still flooded from the recent monsoon and workers stood knee-deep in water. Two-wheeled carts, drawn by oxen or water buffalo, hauled the bundles to higher ground to dry before being fed, one by one, into small portable thrashing machines.

Clusters of thatched stilt houses were tucked into groves of trees between the vast fields of rice. Kids waved at us as we slowed down through their village. Beneath the houses and trees Brahman cattle, pigs, chickens, and water buffalo shared the village shade with their owners. Gold plated stupas popped up in the most unlikely places — wedged in among the dismal dwellings of a city slum, in the middle of a rice field, and on a scrub-covered hillside miles from nowhere.

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