Upper Class on the Mandalay to Rangoon Express has the most comfortable seats I have ever experienced on any railway in the world. I wish I could say the same about the ride, so bouncy that I was often reminded of the train in Alice Through the Looking Glass, which leaps over brooks rather than bothering with bridges. But who cares? Nobody makes this journey for comfort. I am writing for travellers for whom things worth seeing and experiencing do not always involve butler service.
Actually, I can’t think of anything I want less than a butler, except perhaps a lecture from someone recently returned from Cuba, telling me that it’s unethical to go to Burma. Because, you see, the Havana despotism really is largely sustained by gullible, modish tourists who think it is funky and cool. Whereas Burma’s regime is now guaranteed by China, and Burma’s people (in my experience) welcome foreign visitors and in some cases are helped by their presence.
I have loved all trains since, at the age of three, I first saw the King’s Cross sleeper snort and storm into a Scottish station, its roaring firebox illuminating the night with a red-gold glow. Even privatisation has not cured me. But I took this particular train on a quest for Burma’s secret capital, the new city of Naypyidaw, smack in the middle of the country and closed to foreigners.
I tried to fly. I wasn’t allowed to book. I tried to go by car. The driver, appalled at the very suggestion, took a 150-mile diversion to avoid it. That was how I found myself in Mandalay, a curious, dusty city subject to frequent blackouts and overlooked by an 800ft hill. From this holy eminence you may gaze in one direction and see one of the loveliest landscapes in the world fading into mist and soft hills like a Chinese painting. In the other direction, you can peer almost straight down into the dismal courtyards of the city’s gigantic, yellowish semi-circular prison, crammed with political detainees.
Mandalay also contains the Moustache Brothers, a troupe of comedians who nightly risk their liberty by performing subversive jokes to a tiny audience in their little store-front theatre. I cannot give you any assurances that they will be there when you pass by and can find little recent news of these movingly brave and very likeable people. But if they are free and you are there, do please go. By doing so, you help to keep a small light shining in the gross darkness.
The Rangoon train leaves at dawn. Do not be seduced by its more touristy rivals, which do the journey almost entirely in darkness. Buy your provisions, your mosquito repellent and your loo-roll the night before. Do this, that is, unless you are brave enough to risk those brought to you by gorgeous, dignified young women with curiously painted cheeks. They have unusual snacks for sale. Are these really fried crickets? Could that conceivably be a whole frog, frizzled in some ingenious way? Or perhaps a pig’s pancreas? I was not sure and did not try, and had no way of asking. And in any case I had some egg sandwiches. Others may be braver.
Visit the teeming carriages reserved for the Burmese, Edwardian in their crowded discomfort. You are not allowed to book seats in them even if you want to. Then sit back in your vast, grubby armchair as you begin your slow, friendly journey across one of the most picturesque, gentle and un-English countryside you will ever see, with a placid, untouched, pre-modern pastoral loveliness that is all the more powerful for being wholly unexpected.
Be ready at the window when you roll into the Forbidden City of Naypyidaw. The train, never fast, picks up speed at this point.
It does not stop at the ultra-modern station, almost Swiss in the clean, sharp lines of its glass and concrete architecture.
Presumably only official trains are allowed to halt. One sees mad, enormous avenues as wide as airport runways, stretching out of sight amid trees, colour-coded suburbs where the roofs are all blue (or all red) a monster pagoda and an almost total absence of people. The secret residences of the golf-obsessed generals are hidden in wooded hills in the middle distance.
The mere fact that you are not supposed to be there at all gives the sight a special thrill. But it is only a small part of the delight of this journey, through the hearts of ordinary Burmese towns innocent of tourism or its plagues. Night falls as you approach Rangoon and, far off amid the impoverished darkness of that sad, captivating city, you glimpse the great gold steeple of the Shwedagon Pagoda, which you will never forget.
Cox & Kings organises tailor-made group and individual trips to Burma. A 13-day private tour costs from £2,545 per person, including international flights with Thai Airways, transfers, excursions, accommodation with daily breakfast and most meals.
0207 873 5000
Thai Airways flies from London Heathrow to Rangoon via Bangkok.
020 7491 7953
Visa All visitors to Burma must now get a tourist visa, valid for 28 days, before they travel – you can no longer get one on arrival. Most tour operators will organise a visa on your behalf (for a fee) but if you are travelling independently it is very easy to get one in person from the Embassy of the Union of Myanmar (19a Charles Street, London W1J 5DX). The visa costs £14 and you can download the application form online.
Where to stay
The Governor’s Residence
This is the place to stay in Rangoon, with wonderful service and the magic of a pool in the stultifying heat. Greeted beautifully upon arrival, you are then led along a little walkway through the garden and over a bridge for a drink by the pool before being taken to your room. Some of these are terribly dark but some are definitely better than others so go for a view of the pool or garden if you can. Supper in the garden by twilight and then candlelight is delightful.
0095 1 229 860
The colonial feel and old-school charm of this hotel make it similar to the Governor’s Residence but on a much smaller and more intimate scale. With just 30 rooms, it is cosy and comfortable, the staff are lovely and there is some great art on the walls that is for sale. It is a little bit out of the hustle and bustle.
0095 1 526 289
The Mandalay Hill Resort
There isn’t a huge amount of choice of hotels in Mandalay and though this one is big and slightly impersonal it remains the most luxurious option. Contrary to what its name suggests, the building is actually a rather ugly high rise in the centre of town but views are over the pool and gardens to the hills of Mandalay beyond.
0095 1 235 638
Hotel by the Red Canal
This lovely little hotel on a quiet street not far from the palace is the boutique alternative to the Mandalay Hill Resort. The food is delicious (have the mango lassi served with a heart-shaped straw) and the service is wonderful, as always.
0095 1 268 543