The International Steam Pages

Slow Train to Kalaw, 2009
Part 1, Early Morning

This is the ninth part of our 2009 Burmese Odyssey. Click here for Part 2 or Part 3 of the Slow Train account. To read more about our 2009 bash which includes many non-steam items, please see Rob and Yuehong in the Golden Land 2009.

It's 01.00 in the morning at Thazi station and I have that Gyobingauk feeling, only this time we are voluntarily spending the night in the open air in Burma. We are en route to Kalaw in the highlands of southern Shan State. Guide friend Han has a lady he wants to surprise further on in Taunggyi and has vanished with our luggage on the night bus we rode down from Mandalay. We could have stayed on it too but that, for me, would have removed the whole reason for being in this part of the country. If there was such a thing as a 'Campaign for Real Trains', it would give a ringing endorsement to what Burma has to offer - the kind of experience where the travelling is more important than the eventual arrival and while some journeys across Burma's dusty plains pall, this one, like the Gokteik Pineapple Express, comes highly recommended.

The only trains from Thazi to Kalaw both leave early in the morning and they're not the most convenient of departures to connect with which is why we arrived after 22.00 and too late to make it worth while checking into the guest house at the end of the station road. For some reason the locals prefer to camp out directly on the platform so we are granted total occupation of a couple of benches, but with the mosquitoes buzzing around it's hard to get enthusiastic about our sleeping arrangements.

At 03.00 I am (very) politely called inside the on-platform ticket office where there is already a long queue snaking back outside. While the seats last, ticket selling goes slowly, identity cards are required and recorded on the reservation chart and each Edmundson card ticket stamped twice, thereafter things speed up as the tatty pieces of paper money are thrown in the wooden box. 

Eventually after half an hour of sitting patiently, it's my turn, the staff knew we are here and there are two empty spaces on the chart for us, "facing the engine" I am told (on the left/north side as it turns out which is great for the station stops) and at USD 2 each ordinary class for the anticipated 6 hour journey, it's not a budget breaker. After which there's plenty of time for tea and a bun, although Yuehong looks as miserable as she always does when she has had less than 10 hours sleep. Never mind, she'll soon cheer up once we get going. The train leaves spot on time and trundles off into the dark, it appears to be rather full without threatening to become totally uncomfortable. After a couple of stations it is beginning to get light and it is clear we have started climbing through the forest. Mother and daughter opposite start to tuck in:

We pass over a big bridge and a few minutes later as we complete the horseshoe we can see it across the valley but the grab shots are hopeless in the poor light. As the train twists and turns in the hills we are treated to several instant sunrises:

While the sunlight streams in a little boy is hoisted to the window opposite to pass his stream out:

And when he steps aside, we can see traditional local houses surrounded by smallholdings:

It's too early for the sun to reach everywhere:

At even the smallest of stations, there are crowds of people, but not many are real travellers:

The hawkers on the train are doing brisk business. What is she selling? Don't ask, it may have had feathers once!

Click here to continue to Part 2.

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

Rob and Yuehong Dickinson