‘Don’t lean out any further,’ I heard a voice behind me say. ‘It’s a 100 metre drop.’ I was standing on the steps of the carriage with the door open as we crossed the Gokteik Viaduct, Myanmar’s tallest and most spectacular railway bridge, over a deep river gorge. Every window on the train had at least one head hanging out, taking in the vertigo-inducing view.
The train had slowed down to a creeping speed, which made me feel relieved. The violent sideways rocking of the carriages on the narrow gauge tracks at normal speed, made the journey like a game of ‘who can stay on their seat the longest’. And with no security rails on either side of the bridge, I am sure we wouldn’t have made it across.
With a vague idea of what lay ahead, we got the morning train at Hsipaw. It was a 7-hour ride to Pyin Oo Lwin, a summer retreat during the British rule. We’d heard all about the Lashio line and its breathtaking scenery, so we boarded full of anticipation. But the star attraction was the famous Gokteik viaduct.
The Gokteik Viaduct, built in 1901 during the British Rule, was once the longest railway trestle in the world. The bridge is now a crumbling antique, and the crossing itself can be a white-knuckle experience.
‘If you want to observe local life, ordinary class is the way to go’, somebody told us.
So with our 1,200 kyats (£0.70) ordinary class tickets, we made ourselves at home on the battered wooden seats. The locals looked like they were camping out for the day, with their multi-level food tins, flasks and blankets. This made me think that we should have prepared better for the journey.
There was no need to worry about food in the end. At every stop, food vendors invaded the carriages, balancing on their heads trays of noodles, fried bananas and chicken and rice parcels. It all looked very precarious, but I have never seen anyone walk so steadily while scrambling over the parcels on the aisle.
The food sellers, mostly women, were wearing a yellowish paste on their faces. Thanaka is made from bark and is used for cooling the skin and also to protect it from the sun.
At one of the stops, a lady with a box on the back of her bicycle approached our window. She was wearing a bright pink longyi, the traditional Burmese skirt, a blouse of the same colour and a straw hat secured with a lime green tie around her chin. I asked her what she was selling and she handed me a small paper cup with pink and purple ice cream of unidentified flavour, but quite delicious.
A long day
As we swayed past little towns surrounded by dramatic landscapes, the comings and goings of other passengers kept us entertained. But in the last hour of the journey, the excitement of crossing the Gokteik Viaduct and the novelty of the train ride had worn away. It had been a day out of the ordinary, a lot more physical than anticipated. We were all wishing to get to our destination and set our feet on terra firma.