Published over 30 years ago, Paul Theroux's vivid and endearing documentation of his railway journey across Asia is said to be a modern classic within travel literature. The book inspired me to retrace a leg of his journey, aboard the Mandalay Express, from the current capital of Yangon, to the old capital of Mandalay. Myanmar is a magnificent country, only recently opened to tourism, and so it was very easy to place myself amidst the adventures depicted within Theroux's original writing.
The series is focussed on the people I met along the way, the ever changing cast echoing Theroux's own words 'I sought trains, I found passengers'
This colonial styled building is where the journey begins. The route from Yangon to Mandalay has existed since the British expanded the Tuangoo line to Mandalay as early as 1889.
The ticket offices are notoriously fickle with their opening times. I visited Yangon Central station the night before departure, only to be told that the ticket office was closed, by the ticket officer, who was standing in the open ticket office. I instead bought a ticket at 4:30am, 30 minutes before departure.
The train ambles along politely, bisecting daily routines and offering a genuine glimpse into life on the outskirts of the city. It's been said that to really know a country, you need to smell it, and a journey on the Mandalay express does exactly that. This is why train travel strikes me as so unique, because you are traveling so intimately within your surroundings, you get the opportunity to experience Myanmar as you travel through it. You can't do the same from a coach, or aboard a plane.
This lady barters with a merchant as the train slows and passes a market located within a station.
A vendor distributes noodles, offering passengers an opportunity to eat a surprisingly fulfilling meal aboard a train that never stops for more than 2 minutes in an 18 hour journey to Mandalay
Suspiciously delicious train food.
There is a wonderful serenity to be found aboard the trains of Myanmar, a stark contrast to the mayhem of the cities. Passengers become placid observers of the outside world as the train calmly makes it's way through the outskirts of the city.