Taking the train to Mandalay

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Mandalay

A new border crossing, an old, notorious trainline, modernising worlds, ancient scenes – the rail and road ride from Bangkok into Burma is a journey through time

With shirts wet against our backs we reached the brow of the hill. I could finally see the view. And it was magnificent.

Mandalay
The vast sweep of the Salween River delta stretched at our feet towards the setting sun – red as a blood orange and leaking colour into the horizon. Crimson light shimmered off myriad streams, silhouetting stands of coconut palms and a distant boat ploughing a tiny, glittering wake. Mawlamyine city was off to our left, its towering pagodas brilliant as glowing embers in the dying light.

Low mist rose from the scrubby forest below and sound drifted up towards us – the distant tinkle of prayer bells swaying in the gentle breeze, a yell from fishermen casting their nets, the chatter of a passing parakeets. ‘Mist on the rice fields, the sun droppin’ slow, the tinkly templebells…’ Kipling’s poem was ‘long ago an’ fur away’ – but I understood his Victorian soldier stuck in winter London, and longing to be in Mawlamyine, on the road to Mandalay.

Railway respects

I’d set off on the road four days previously, beginning my journey a country away in Thailand amid the skyscrapers and rushing highways of 21st century Bangkok. I was nursing a hangover as I travelled to Thonburi railway station for the train to Kanchanaburi.

The new border crossing into Burma lay there, at the start of the Kwai Death Railway built at the cost of thousands of Allied lives – immortalised in the 1957 movie Bridge Over the River Kwai and, more recently, in Richard Flanagan’s 2014 Booker Prize-winning novel, The Long Road to the North.

I’d been enthralled by the book and by dreams of Burma fostered by Kipling. I planned to follow the Death Railway’s route as far as I could, crossing David Lean’s famous bridge, entering Burma and connecting with the old British line that rattled on to Mandalay. Burma, people told me, is changing. Come before it’s too late, and take the train to see the real country.

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