A tale of two journeys, Mawlamyine-Bago and Bago-Mandalay

People playing football on the sand
This is where Google thinks the night market is in Mawlamyine – continue further North (or just don’t come this far South).

Not a complicated tale – two journeys, two days. I have lost track of what day it is, and amuse myself by working out how long I have been in this country, counting back or forward from whichever point of reference I can think of. I remember where I’ve stayed and for how long, my watch tells me what the date is, and I can just about combine the two to work out where I am. All that by way of telling you that when I say ‘on Friday, I…’, that simple statement took a bit of work.

On Friday, I reversed my trip from a few days (four nights, anyway, I remember that) before and hopped on an early morning train from Mawlamyine to Bago. The train leaves at 8am, so I took the chance to have a day off running, and walked to the station. That’s nearly 3km, and the hill-with-pagodas is in the way, so I left before 7 to make sure I had time to buy a ticket. It felt early when I got up and left, but it was light and there were people everywhere. Heading for the temples, mostly. The locals are obviously more suited to the temperatures here, but even so, they get up and about their business early while it’s cooler – so far as I can tell, Friday isn’t a special day to be heading to temples, but boy, was it busy, so the narrow roads were a riot of colour, honking traffic, and cars, people and scooters just about getting along. I picked the shortest-looking route on the map, not following the main road I’d taken on the way there; that took me straight up the side of the hill. On steps, but still – I passed plenty of people who had stopped for a breather because it was a long way up. If I have a favourite thing in Myanmar, it’s the happy smiles – either you are greeted with them, or people beam them at you as you smile at them. Completely fantastic, particularly when your thighs are starting to complain halfway up some steep (did I mention the steepness?) steps. We shared a laugh or two about walking up the side of a hill. I sort of expected to stand out more as an oddity (why is the Westerner not in a taxi?), until one lady swung her arms and said ‘Hiking?’ to me – yes, that’ll do, that’s what I’m up to. Up early for a hike. Once up the top, the road taking me on to the station was a gentle downward slope. Yes, I had climbed further than I needed to. But also received more smiles than I would otherwise have had, so what the hoo.

Old and new buildings, cheek by jowl
Old and new on the waterfront in Mawlamyine. Likely to become only a more common sight in years to come.

That was the action of the day, anyway. Quick tip – in Bago station, the ticket desks on the left as you look in are for future travel, those on the right are for today. I was sold a ticket for Yangon, but at an extra 1,000/1,100 (today seemed to be the latter), it really makes very little difference. And that was it. 7 and a bit hours later, we were in Bago – early, which foxed an American. He’d been told 3.30 for his train, due to leave at 3.24. It might have gone on time, but it was in at 3.10, and I suspect it left early. He had duff info and missed it, at any rate, and was taken in to see the station master for his pu… to see if they could help. They could not, and he strolled off to catch a bus.

I saw all of that because I was hanging about. There were trains onward to Mandalay at 4.44 and 6.48, and I was up for either (while also thinking that one more night in town would be a better idea, before doing the 13 hour trip the next day). The latter might even have a sleeper carriage. But the station was full of people lying around waiting for the ticket office to open. So I grabbed lunch (1,500 kyats, opposite/to the left of the station as you come out, a by-now-usual ‘pick your meat, you’ll get a small dish of that and we’ll bring you rice, salad and various dips).

Sunset in Mawlamyine
Sunset – from Thursday evening in Mawlamyine, I didn’t take any pictures on the train.

Eventually a local wandered up to me and talked about tickets etc., before taking me in to the station master’s office. There, I found out that all the upper class tickets were sold for today, sleepers only available in Yangon. But I could make a reservation for tomorrow, and got myself booked on the 7.45 train – come back tomorrow to pay, just walk back into the office for that. All of that certainty was reassuring and valuable. I would have one more night in Bago.

I’ve been unsure as to what the deal is with the various helpful people I’ve encountered. Some, pointing out the right carriage and so on, are clearly just helping. But at Yangon, a youngster in t-shirt and shorts took my ticket, took me to my seat and refused a tip. When I was at Bago before, a gent with betel-stained teeth ‘helped’ me to the ticket counter, where I bought my ticket. I didn’t offer him anything, but maybe I could have. This time, though, he’d been genuinely useful – I could have waited a while. So I gave him 500 kyats. He smiled, laughed a little, and said ‘this is very cheap money’. Yes, it is. Shamed, I gave him another 1,000, he checked I knew a hotel to go to, and we shook hands. Phew.

Bedsheet has the word Diamond, twice.
Equus fans, the San Francisco guesthouse in Bago.

The next day I was on the train – this time post run, as early mornings are becoming more normal, so I’d got up at 5.30 and run through Bago as monks walked the streets to pick up the food the devoted offer them every morning (or every morning they can remember the schedule, if what the owner at the hostel in Yangon said is any guide). And it was 13 hours. A journey of several parts – the early morning, cool but warming temperatures, and eating the food I’d brought, then snoozing. The middle of the day, heating up, leaning away from the seat to ease the sweat and reading. And later on, once the hawkers had left us to it, as it became almost cold with windows and doors open, fans on, the moon shining bright off to my right and me, enjoying being almost cold but frankly, ready for the journey to be over.

A bridge over a river, as the light fades from the day
Two bridges in Bago. Pictured is the main highway. I’m standing on a smaller, wooden bridge, where it is much more peaceful (though used by scooters). Not shown – a banging street party behind me. I wandered into it, lured by the music, but turned down their offer of food.

Eventually it was, we were a handful of minutes late coming in to Mandalay just after 9pm, and I said no to a few taxi drivers to walk to my hostel. Honestly, it’s not far, just leave me to it. I feel a small guilt in depriving them of business, but it was a mile or so, and I’m not convinced that I should become artificially lazy/navigationally confused just to prop up an economy. Mandalay seemed immediately welcoming, wide, open streets, a mixture of tall and short buildings, and easy to navigate. I took myself off to the hostel’s roof terrace before tiredness put me in bed around 11.

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