The International Steam Pages

The Moulmein 'Express' 2010

This is the fifth part of our 2010 Burma Crusade. Click here for the index.

If you want to get from Yangon to Moulmein (Mawlamyine), then for all I know you might be able to fly as there is some kind of airport on the outskirts of Moulmein, but I wouldn't recommend it on safety grounds. There are express buses between the two cities, but the companies are so fed up with tourists complaining bitterly about the difference between the sleek modern air-conditioned creatures on the booking office wall and the bone shaking reality that they tend to deny the services exist. So, it's Hobson's choice, it has to be an express train and this is the short list on the board at Bago in November 2010. Even a typical Lonely Planet traveller with no brain should be able to work out that trains 89/90 are strictly for the masochists even if they run anything like on time - which they rarely do. Please do not be tempted by the prospect of a little extra time in bed in the morning offered by 175/176, the times may have been relaxed by an hour compared to 2009, but our friend Han in Bago says he will never use them as they are always at least 3 hours late at their destination. So it has to be 35/36, which are made up of Chinese stock from the Kunming (Yunnan) - Hanoi railway, the coaches are hardly China's finest especially after 4 years of Burmese abuse, but they are still a better ride than the original local stock, especially if you are female with an average (or above) size bosom. Last minute tickets may or may not be available for all I know, but it should be easy enough to book a ticket a day or preferably two in advance. In 2010, it was USD 7 single for ordinary class - which comes with free street theatre - or a little bit more for upper class if the sight of passengers spitting in the aisle or out of the window upsets you.

We pitched up at 06.15 having enjoyed half a breakfast at our budget hotel nearby (the eggs would probably have still been with the chicken when the train left) and found we had been reseated to the sunny side to accommodate a heavily pregnant lady. The one other (upper class) European fellow traveller was told to relax and wait awhile by a member of staff when shown his ticket (until 07.15, train 175 of course). Fortunately, at 06.28 he had the sense to get a second opinion, unfortunately, by the time he had got himself and his luggage up and over the footbridge to platform 4, the train was already moving. He hurled himself at the steps; unsuccessfully, twisting his knee in the process... Fortunately again, people on the station came to his assistance and hoisted him, luggage and all on to the carriage and he lived to tell the tale. All of which we missed and I only heard about it over dinner. 

I had seen our loco the previous day and was a little bit fascinated by its non-standard numbering, DF 1200.03. Now was the chance to look at it more closely and ask a couple of questions. Despite what is said on the loco, I suspect it is a rebuild rather than a new build. The crew said it had a new American engine, an interesting answer given current sanctions, I hope it is so because it will last a lot longer than the more obvious Chinese alternative. Later, we saw DF 1200.02 on train 36, the balancing working.

There were a couple of very young temporary monklets in the front coach who were only too pleased to oblige photographically, our own coach had a sprinkling of middle class temporary nunlets who spent the whole trip gorging themselves on their parents' leaving gifts and what they could buy from the travelling vendors.

As the train pulled out in the first rays of the morning sun, we passed some semi-permanent residents camped out on the platform, Indian style.

I spent the next couple of hours trying and utterly failing to get some nice shots of the nunlets with the ever changing rural scenery behind until the large pagodas on the skyline indicated we were approaching Bago. At which point one of the monklets 'did the business' for me and I found that rumours of the demise of semaphore signalling at Bago were just that. (There are detailed pictures of both Bago signal cabins in one of our second 2009 reports.)

In Bago, I leapt off the train to record one of the few known English language versions of the current timetable (see start of the report) and the official tin rattler in chief. Fortunately another visiting tourist gave me a nice smile and invited me to spend the rest of the journey with her.

Sundry pagodas came and went and at Abya I was treated to a personal first - a Buddhist monk(let) flagging us into the station:

The light outside was now abysmal and it was time to watch the street theatre. Firstly the peanut and chocolate cookie lady trying to seduce a monk and then the betel nut lady silently cursing me as she knew that foreigners never buy her product... And an old Indian gentleman asked Yuehong ever so politely for a kiss.

At Mokpalin was a stark reminder of the former steam age and at Boyagi soon after disused train control equipment:

At Mokpalin, I decided it was high time I photographed the new 'Myanmar' flag, introduced at great expense just before the recent election. But why on earth were we propelling the wagon which must surely have been against regulations? "This is Myanmar" said the station master and that was that.

When we crossed a similarly adorned northbound train, all was explained. The security situation in the area had declined recently and the wagons were a necessary precaution, not that they would have been much use in the event of a mine or other attempted derailment. Still, the possible activities of the local 'Liberation Front' would have been a great excuse for the line speeds which did not exceed 25 mph (40 kph) at any point on the journey. Whatever the real threat level was, it wouldn't stop the locals holding a celebration of some auspicious event:

It was lunch time, a delicious chicken with onions and rice. They say the camera cannot lie, but the nunlet found the proceedings hysterical for some reason.

The final couple of hours combined beautiful scenery with ever improving photographic light. The temples of Thaton were a delight and all along the railway, the rice harvest was being brought in.

The Yinn Yein pagoda is one of my favourites as it features in one of my all time best steam loco pictures here; immediately after it the old rice mill has now vanished leaving just its disused steam engine and boiler looking for new owners.

Along the way we had seen not a single working rice mill, not that there were many candidates. Finally, just 40 minutes late, we were approaching Moulmein. The ghastly new bridge is best viewed from a distance (preferably a very large one), but even it cannot totally detract from the city's skyline.

As promised, Han, who had business in Yangon, had laid on transport for us and we were whisked to the Breeze Guest House on Strand Road in no time. Alas, I had survived the 10 hour journey better than Yuehong who although loving every hot moment then curled up and went to sleep. I didn't mind missing the sunset, but my supper was another matter. While I was out of her sight, it was a perfect opportunity to guzzle a plate of pork ribs and chips washed down with draught Myanmar beer. Yummy! Next day Yuehong was back to normal but the generals had their revenge when a fried noodles with chicken lunch bounced resoundingly at regular intervals during the night.

If you enjoyed this account of train travel in Burma, you will also enjoy other journeys we have made recently:

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson