Illustration by Jared Downing | Frontier
Illustration by Jared Downing | Frontier

Easy rider

The new air suspension train between Yangon and Mawlamyine, with its plush interiors and pristine toilets, is leagues above Myanmar’s outdated status quo (plus, your tea won’t spill over on the ride).

By NAW BETTY HAN | FRONTIER

It had been four years since I’d last travelled by rail between Yangon, which I now call home, and riverside Mawlamyine, where I grew up and where my family still lives. In those four years, if anyone asked, I’d tell them riding a train of any distance in Myanmar is among life’s worst experiences: disgusting bathrooms, hard-backed seats, a nausea-inducing ride in a violently shaking metal shell of a train car.

But new Japanese-made train cabins with an air suspension system began running on the Yangon-Mawlamyine line on August 22, and I was eager to try it.

My standard-class, one-way ticket cost K4,000. Riders can upgrade to a first-class ticket for K8,000, which includes plusher seats that fully recline and less people per car. I learned at the station that Myanma Railways also runs the new trains on the Yangon-Mandalay line.

Inside, I immediately smelled something unusual – at least for a Myanmar train: disinfectant. Staff had prepped the cabin to adhere to COVID-19 safety precautions. Happily, these precautions also included selling only one ticket for every two seats, so there was room to stretch out. I sunk into the seat, cushioned and upholstered instead of the bare wood I remembered. Green curtains filtered sunlight through the window. The staff wore smart uniforms. Everything felt new. It even departed on time, at 9pm. Fifteen minutes later our tickets were checked. So far so good.

The conductor said the train would be stopping at five stations only, and that, as a COVID-19 and general security precaution, food vendors would not be allowed to board at stops – common practice on the old trains. Refreshments were instead being sold on the train by Myanma Railways staff. The tea, it turns out, is quite nice.

The real shock, however, came when I set my cup down. It barely rippled. The air suspension made for such a smooth ride that nothing spilled over the edge. The new bathrooms were another welcome discovery: clean and tidy, with complimentary pads for women. The toilets on the old trains are disgusting. I was liking this new train more and more.

I’d just begun dozing when the train made an abrupt and unexpected stop. Staff were rushing about. It turns out that, while the trains are new, the rails are not. A staff member told me we’d come upon a damaged patch of rail, so they’d stopped to do some emergency repairs before proceeding. They then grumbled, “The [transport] ministry cares about the trains and carriages because that’s what impresses the public, but it never thinks about the rail lines, which need care, too.”

Within 20 minutes the train was chugging along again, and over the speaker system the conductor apologised for the delay in both Burmese and English. Passengers appreciated the announcement, including the 52-year-old sitting in front of me. He said he’d been travelling Myanmar by train for more than two decades and had never heard an apology for a delay. 

The train arrived at Yangon Central at 5am, eight hours after leaving Mawlamyine – just a couple of hours more than by private car. For me, this meant it passed the final test: the old train took more than 10 hours.

By Naw Betty Han

By Naw Betty Han

Naw Betty Han is a reporter at Frontier and previously worked as a senior reporter at the Myanmar Times. She began her journalism career at the Democratic Voice of Burma in 2014, primarily doing video, and worked for the Hinthar weekly journal in 2016 as a politics and foreign news reporter.
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