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The worst travel experience of my life: The overnight train from Bagan to Yangon

Updated Wednesday, 29 January, 2014

WHEN you're a frequent traveller, you're bound to have some ups and downs.

However, this overnight train ride from Bagan to Yangon in Burma turned out to be memorable for all the wrong reasons. Vanessa Chiasson, who has ventured around the world and writes at TurnipseedTravel.com, describes it as the worst travel experience she has ever had ...

"The train seemed to be an efficient and economical way to get across the country without losing a precious day of sightseeing to transit and we (Vanessa was travelling with her husband Ryan Wright) were excited to try something new.

A glimpse into the first-class carriage she travelled in from Bagan to Yangon. Courtesy: Tout/Vanessa Chiasso

Vanessa Chiasson on the train. Picture: Ryan Wright/Turnipseed Travel Source: Supplied

Our expectations for the train were very modest - we had done considerable research. We were expecting a slow and bumpy ride with very few creature comforts and knew we were travelling on a rail line that had seen little maintenance since it was built by prisoner of war labour in World War II. But the general consensus was that conditions, while basic, were relatively comfortable and clean.

We were about to get quite a surprise.

First, a primer on Burma trains. There are several classes of train travel in Burma. Ordinary and First Class seem to differ mostly in the placement of cushions on the First Class wooden benches. Upper class features the padded individual seats commonly found in train compartments in North America or Europe.

There are standard sleeping cars, which feature small private compartments with an upper and lower berth and a common washroom down the corridor. There are also "special sleepers" on the Mandalay-Yangon line, they are separate, self contained compartments with no access to the rest of the train. They contain two upper berths and two lower sections, which are seats by day, beds by night.

We were feeling confident that our sleeper car would have access to the train dining car, so didn't bring much food along.

Now there are not many things that make my jaw drop but boarding the train was one of those times. Ryan and I stared at the compartment, and then at each other, our mouths agape with incredulity. We weren't in a sleeper car as expected, but instead in a "special sleeper" car, the kind that is only supposed to be on the Mandalay-Yangon route. Good thing we had grabbed some cookies and water at the station - we would have absolutely no access to the dining area.

Worse, the carriage was filthy. The floors and tables were covered in dirt and the upholstery had clearly absorbed decades of human grime. Thankfully, the provided blankets were clean and we used them to cover the seats.

There were two doors in our compartment. One was the entrance to the scariest looking electrical room I've ever seen in my life, it had a hole in the floor! The other door was the entrance to the bathroom.

Oh, the bathroom.

The terrible toilet. Picture: Ryan Wright/Turnipseed Travel Source: Supplied

No, it wasn't a hole in the floor, but that might have been preferable. The toilet had seen better days and the sink contained a dish of clean water. This kind gesture would end us causing us grief when it sloshed over the bathroom floor. And the walls! I think they may have once been a kind of faux wood panelling, one that had been dissolved into shreds through decades of heat, humidity and dirt.

I'm a pretty tough gal, having seen my fair share of humble outhouses and squat toilets etc all over the world. But this is one toilet that truly scared me. I knew, given the choice between frequent bathroom trips or dehydration in the 46 degree Celsius heat, I would happily side with dehydration.

And in the midst of all of this was a new blue sticker, proudly adhered to the wall of our carriage that said "Warmly welcome and take care of tourists".

The new welcome sign amid the grime. Picture: Ryan Wright/Turnipseed Travel Source: Supplied

A smiling staff member said the trip would take 12 hours, several hours less than we were expecting. Hooray!

As expected, the train moved at a slow pace, but aside from an exaggerated back-end-forth sway, things were relatively comfortable - it actually seemed like it would be conducive to sleep.

As dusk came we were able to catch glimpses of village life. Kids ran alongside the tracks, laughing and shouting.

And then the bumps began. The sway soon gave way to a new sensation. Not little bumps, like driving your car over loose gravel. Not occasional big bumps, like going over an unexpected speed bump. Instead, imagine an advanced slalom ski course. We were thrown violently around the carriage when we stood up to change position.

We tried lying down on our newly constructed "bed", only to have our bodies lift up to half a foot in the air with the bumps. The train shook so violently and so loudly that the idea of derailment seemed both possible and inevitable.

The view from the train. Picture: Ryan Wright/Turnipseed Travel Source: Supplied

For hours we lay in the dark, our bodies slamming back and forth against the wall and the armrest, trying to keep our wits about us. Hours in, it became obvious that no rest or sleep would come. The padding on the bed was painfully thin and did nothing to help cushion the blows as our carriage danced on the tracks. The only saving graces were the working fan and open windows, keeping temperatures somewhat comfortable.

After about seven hours of body-hurling misery, my need to use the bathroom was no longer something I could ignore. And suffice it to say that Ryan and I have agreed to never share the details of exactly what happened!

It was hour 18 and still no city was in sight. Our ears were ringing from the constant sounds of metal on metal, impossibly loud bangs, and horrible crashing sounds against the sides of our carriage. Ryan looked at me and flatly said "I think I'm finished with the train". The last surviving thread of humour had left his voice. We. Were. Done.

But the train wasn't. We rolled on for another hour when, finally, we found our place on the map. We had finally reached the outer limits of the Yangon suburbs! Utter relief!

Inside the cabin. Picture: Ryan Wright/Turnipseed Travel Source: Supplied

Many guide books recommend riding the circle train that connects the Yangon suburbs as a unique travel experience and we were eager to take in the sights, thrilled that we had finally reached something that was supposed to be pleasant. The suburbs were fascinating but they certainly didn't quality as anything I'd recommend as a tourist activity. It was humbling to see how other people lived, and also saddening. This is not a tourist attraction or spectator sport.

Seeing the abject poverty of the Yangon suburbs, with no stunning landscapes to cloak their dire conditions, suddenly changed my perspective on the past 19-and-half hours. It's true, we had one miserable night, one that was uncomfortable and unhygienic. But we travelled in first class, while over a hundred other people did not.

We would soon be able to walk away from train, while the majority of my fellow passengers would be making a return trip. I could wash the experience away with the luxuries of a hot shower, a private room and endless food and drink, but the majority of the population lives without comfort, security and financial stability. The train may have been the worst travel experience I've ever had, but it was also the most eye-opening.

Our friendly rail attendant announced that Yangon would be the next stop, in just 10 minutes. At 12pm. Ah - 12 o'clock - not 12 hours! And just like that, after 19 hours and 45 minutes, we were on firm land.

Ryan takes photos from the train. Picture: Turnipseed Travel Source: Supplied

I don't know if a shower has ever been so welcome in my life. The suds were brown with dirt as they washed down the drain! It took 40 hours for our queasy stomachs to recover and for my balance and equilibrium to return to normal. Our plans to catch an overnight train left us feeling like - pardon the pun - an utter train wreck.

If you are looking to test the mettle of your marriage, this is the experience for you. For everyone else, may I suggest the bus?"

Vanessa is a blogger from Ottawa. Her Burma train experience was part of a round-the-world trip with her husband. Read more of Vanessa's adventures at TurnipseedTravel.com.

The train journey. Picture: Ryan Wright/Turnipseed Travel Source: Supplied

Vanessa Chiasson. Picture: Ryan Wright/Turnipseed Travel Source: Supplied