Standing at the old train’s open door, I gripped the bar as tightly as I could. And even though the train was moving slowly, I held my breath and tried not to gaze too far down the chasm below. 335 feet to be exact. We were crossing the famous Gokteik Viaduct, the highest railway trestle in Myanmar. And it was breathtaking.
Leaving Pyin Oo Lwin
September 15, 2015
We woke to a rainy morning in Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), the former British Summer capital. We decided to go here from Mandalay, stay for a night and take the train the next morning. Because there was no way we’d be able to make it to the first train that leaves Mandalay at 4 in the morning.
Upon reaching the train station at nearly 8 am, we still couldn’t decide if we’ll take the train up to Nawngpeng. Or go all the way up to Hsipaw. Nawngpeng is the train stop after Gokteik Viaduct. And it is also where the northbound and southbound trains coincide.
The train was due to arrive at Pyin Oo Lwin anytime now. We didn’t have time.
I told my newfound Austrian friends that I have to be back in Yangon before the 17th. And since they were also still undecided about Hsipaw, we booked three tickets up to Nawngpeng.
Upon arriving at the platform, we unknowingly walked in an ongoing photo shoot. Ms. Myanmar was strutting her stuff for a few takes. Looking vintage in her yellow dress, black gloves, and luggage. Everybody was enamored with her beauty. And it was a welcome break to catch our breath before the train arrived.
All too soon the 131up train arrived. Our excitement was palpable as we went up to find seats in the coach next to the first class. We purposely didn’t buy seats for first class because we wanted to have a local experience as much as possible. The coach was near full, with locals and all their belongings going to the northern states. We left Pyin Oo Lwin before 9 am.
Aboard the 131 up train
The train was an old one. With hard wooden seats facing each other, and an overhead shelf for belongings. A peek in the first class coach showed only a handful of foreigners. They were mostly middle-aged.
Children crying. Vendors selling their wares. Men talking on their phone. The wind slapping our faces by the window. The old train chugging along its tracks. It was a cacophony of sights and sounds.
It was almost just like what Paul Theroux said in his book, “The Great Railway Bazaar“. That book is one of the reasons why I wanted to take this train. Aside from the fact that I really like long train rides.
We busied ourselves by plotting our next move from Nawngpeng but didn’t end up with a concrete plan.
Pia and I contented ourselves by gazing out the window while Pauli busied himself talking to the locals. I was not much in the talking mood that day. We watched the Burmese countryside go by, waved when we saw children, and took pictures. The rural landscape became monotonous after a while, making us doze off.
When we woke up, Pauli had already befriended a local. He’s an amputee and still serving in the Burmese army. He was teaching Pauli a few Burmese phrases, and we joined in on the fun. He regaled us with stories. About how the Chinese are profiting from their lands. The fighting in the other states, and his life in the army.
Crossing the breathtaking Gokteik Viaduct
Around lunch time, we finally reached the reason we took this train journey. The highlight of the Mandalay – Lashio train route. And one of the stunning and largest railway trestle in the world – The Gokteik Viaduct.
TIP: Get a seat on the left side of the train. Your first glance of Gokteik Viaduct will be on the left.
Built in 1899 by the Pennsylvania Steel Company, it spans 689 meters, with 15 towers, and with a height of 335 ft to the ground. It was built for the British Raj at that time. And wasn’t renovated until the 1990s.
The locals who were earlier minding their own business, all gazed out of the window. Signaling to us that indeed we have reached the famous viaduct. It looked imposing in the middle of the gorge, surrounded by the trees and the outcropping. With the blue sky above filled with fluffy clouds.
After taking a few shots by our window as the train slowed to a crawl when it reached the magnificent trestle, we joined Pauli by the open door in the right side of the train. I gazed in wonder both at the man-made masterpiece and the view below me. It reminded me of that scene in the Harry Potter movie when the Hogwarts Express crossed the famous Glenfinnan viaduct.
It was green everywhere except for the brown-black rock face that we were heading to. Even the water of the river running below was green. We spotted a few waterfalls, with its waters falling on top of the jungle below.
All too soon, the blackness of the tunnels came into view. Taking one last look behind, I tried to etch into memory the scene before me. The rattling of the train moving slowly on top of the viaduct. The enormous gorge and the green landscape. The clear blue skies and the chirping of the birds flying above.
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Arriving in Hsipaw
We dozed off after the tunnels and ended up missing our stop. When we woke up, we were already near Hsipaw. Gold tipped stupas came into view as well as a cluster of houses.
At one point, the train stopped for a few minutes. Our local friend told us, they might have let an anaconda pass by. He said there was even one time when an anaconda got into the train. Scary.
At quarter to 4 in the afternoon, the train stopped in Hsipaw. And we bid adieu to our local friend.
Even after traveling for a month now, goodbyes still don’t come easy. And maybe that’s a good thing.
Do you like long train rides? What’s the most scenic train ride you’ve experienced? 🙂