Gokteik Viaduct – A journey deeper into Myanmar

By Matt

On Wednesday, the day after arriving in Mandalay, from Bagan, I travelled a 9 hour train ride north east into remote Myanmar (and 15 back!). Overall I travelled for 24 hours without sleep with quite a few ups and downs. It was pretty mental. When I finally arrived at the hotel, I regretted taking the journey but the next day after some sleep and food, it was really up there with the best things I have done on this trip and I am so glad I went. If your interested and have some time read on. It’s not all an account of the bridge! And warning there is some swearing.

view of viaduct
view of viaduct

I had read about the Gokteik Viaduct online on a website that documents train lines in, well basically anywhere. www.seat61.com. This blokes site really gave us the inspiration to do the overland trip to Europe, seeing that it was possible to do most by train if we wanted. While looking at Burmese trains, I saw a picture of the Viaduct, saw where it was and thought “Shit yeh – I have to go see that”.

Burmese train at village station
Burmese train at village station

When we arrived to Mandalay though, we were both pretty knackered and I had to make a decision about whether I still wanted to go. The days plan would go something like this:

  • 3am wake up and walk 5 blocks to train station – easy
  • 4am departure
  • 11:30 am cross the Viaduct
  • 12:30pm switch trains an Naung-pyeng where the trains supposedly meet.
  • 1300 being trip back to Mandalay
  • 2240 arrive at Mandalay station
  • 2300 in bed at hotel happy as Larry.

But the day didn’t go fully according to plan.

The waking up part was easy! I had hardly slept! We were staying in a $20 a night hotel. In Myanmar this is very cheap (supply and demand is skewed to the demand side!) so that meant paper thin walls and a busy street below. And well in this country, people don’t “look both ways” like at home when driving. They don’t look at all and instead, people honk their horns to let them know they are coming. So it was noisy. But I got up, and left for the station. I was determined to see the viaduct, and life in the mountains.

View from hotel
View from hotel

This is where the fun started. I saw a massive dog sleeping on the roof of a car. It looked so funny, “Ooo haha look at that dog! Im gonna take a photo”…

Big Mistake. With the whole rabies thing in my head I am kind of scared of the dogs here and was only in shorts and thongs.

Alpha Car Dog wakes up looks straight at me – Perfect photo pose but I was too late. He jumps off the car and starts this booming barking and summons about 4 other dogs. I shit myself and start running, Alpha Car Dog was huge. Two choice flash in my mind. One is the obvious choice. Flight. I run to a street corner where luckily there is a guy washing the path. Its just me, him and dogs running towards us. He says “is OK is OK and throws water at the dogs”. I didn’t fuckin feel is OK!! So the dogs calm after being sprayed and I move to the next block. What do I find? Another dog pack. Fight or flight kicks in but this time I have to fight. There was no one around and I needed to get to the station! I mean I had gotten up firkin early.

It seems Mandalay has a pack of dogs ruling each street. During the days they mostly sleep but once the humans go to bed the city is literally taken over by dogs! I had 4 more blocks to go to the station and at each one I had to fend off a different pack of dogs. Some more vicious (maybe not vicious, but definitely scary) than others. I armed myself with bits of broken concrete at each street corner, took a deep breath and entered the fray.

By the time i reached the station my heart was racing. I had had 4 streets of me screaming at dogs to “FUCK OFF GO AWAY RAHG RAGH!! FUCK OFF!” and throwing rocks. I was fairly terrified and just wanted to get on the train (or to be honest go back to Australia) but I had made a choice and I am too stubborn, even with myself, to change my mind. I am seeing this god damn piece of steel!

I had the choice of upper or lower class. Of course I chose lower and was so glad I did. Even I was culture shocked when I walked on. There were people sleeping in the aisle, betel nut, tobacco and rubbish and crap just all over the floor. Some people, it looked like were moving house! It was confronting but pretty awesome at the same time. I love this shit.

Lower class
Lower class

 

I was sat down in front of a family group of three. Mother, young daughter and young son. They were extremely curious of me, as were most people on the train. “why is he not in upper” I am sure they were saying. I felt like the only westerner on the whole train.

The ride out of Mandalay was unremarkable as it was dark. I could hear dog packs doing their barking which now sent chills all over me and I thought “What poor bastard have they got now”.

After about an hour we stopped and 5 minutes later after some random clanging, we started going backwards. This in fact was a Switchback. This is what trains use to go up the side of really steep hills or mountains. Awesome! We went back and forth up the side of the hill, I monitored my phone and saw that in 45 mins we had climbed to 600m! It was instantly cooler up here. We continued over some impressive hill sides, offering me views to the valley below and climbed to 1,000m. Up here was a completely different Myanmar. It was like their food bowl. Crops of all sorts including Chrysanthemums, strawberries, watermelons etc, were as far as I could see, fresh fast flowing streams and village life. It was really refreshing, to know its not all stinking hot and dry, just a couple of hours from Mandalay.

(Upon doing some further research and looking at google earth, most of Myanmar is actually like this. Yangon and north to Bagan and Mandalay is the dry zone and is a far cry from the remainder of the country. If you come to this country you must visit some of the mountainous regions – Inle Lake for example is supposed to be beautiful).

The remaining time to the Viaduct was much the same, it did get drier. But it was what was going on inside the train that was more interesting. In lower class you basically get a front row seat into the life of Burmese in this part of the country. There was a fairly heavy military and police presence on the train, most likely going further north into the restive parts of the country where tensions are extremely high. (Since writing this, I checked the Smarttraveller security warnings for Myanmar. Dated 23 Feb 2016: “Due to ongoing and sporadic armed conflict, we now advise Australians to reconsider their need to travel to central Shan State.” Whoops! that’s where I went hehe). One bloke got his handgun out at one stage and I kinda pooped a bit. You don’t usually see that at home. These guys went through a packet of about 20 Cheroots and a few packets of cigarettes between them. I couldn’t believe it.

*Everyone smokes on Burmese trains even though your not supposed to. It smells so bad that you can relieve yourself of gas at will – no one can smell it. You get used to the smokey smell quickly and after a while you can’t even smell when the guy a few seats in front lights up a cigar!*Matt Cann, 2016

I bought a bunch of about 12 bananas at a village station for 50 cents. I ate 6 of them and offered the rest to a group of child monks. I thought this would just go by un noticed but half the car started smiling and talking and pointing. I felt like I had just don’t something almost saintly! I sat down pretty quickly to avoid all this attention. It was weird and I’m not sure what happened. I think perhaps, it is a custom here to give food to monks. You see the locals doing it early in the morning, and perhaps because a foreigner participated in this custom that it kind of surprised them? To me I was just offering some kids some fruit.

The little kid chatted to me in Burmese for most of the journey and kept me well entertained! My highlight was when he stuck a tight little plastic bag over his head – the sister tried to suffocate him with it. Another funny culture difference is their rubbish disposal. The Earth is their bin here (though that might be slowly changing). At one point, the girl in front of me, dropped a piece of plastic on my bag. Her mum growled at her, pointed to the plastic and then motioned to the window. She had basically said “The rubbish doesn’t go there, throw it out the window, naughty girl”!! The whole train ride, bags and packets and waste just gets flung out the window, and the ground is littered with rubbish.

Great Snap..... Shame about the rubbish
Great Snap….. Shame about the rubbish

So at around 1130 we arrived at Gokteik station where you can see the Viaduct. It looks so incredible. You have traveled through farmland and villages and then you come across this steel monstrosity in the middle of no where. Earlier I wrote that I felt like the only westerner on the train? Well here I realised I was far from it. Tourists appeared as if by magic, all from the Upper class car snapping photos of the viaduct. One turned to us plebs in lower and said a friendly “Ming Gar La Baaar” and just so happened to look at me! hahaha the look on his face was gold. Yes mate, its not just locals in lower class you wanker. I didn’t say this to him though.

Westerners!? Where did they come from?
Westerners!? Where did they come from?

We crawled over the viaduct. It really is one of those incredible incredible places where you think “Cant believe I’m doing this”. At this point the journey is totally worth it. The locals were as awestruck as me.

Scroll using the arrows in the pictures below
view from viaduct
crawling over the viaduct

At Naungpeng I disembarked the train and asked a tour guide who was “touring” a white couple, where the returning train was. He told me it would be arriving at 3pm – 2.5 hours from now! Well that would mean that I would be getting back at around 2am! Fuck. I was not happy, but what can you do. I bought a quarter of a watermelon for 60 cents and ate that while keeping my distance from any dogs walking past. After about 10 minutes, I was offered a seat by a young man about my age. I sat down and he started talking to me in Burmese. I had to do the “sorry I don’t understand” action and we sat quietly for a few minutes, until about 8 other blokes rocked up. Two extremely cheeky looking ones sat either side of me. “here we go” I thought. I was so tired and a bit worried and I thought what is going to happen here..

Well, within about 2 minutes the younger cheeky one had his phone out and got a picture with me. The older cheeky one took his phone out and showed me his large and impressive phone porn collection. It seemed they liked me and I already started to like them. They offered me smokes, Betel nut and rattled Burmese off to me for some time! Even with the language barrier we had a shit load of laughs. I love how humour can transcend language and these guys and I had a lot in common I could tell (and they were pulling the piss out of me like mad I suspect). Their boss later rocked up who knew a fair bit of english so communication opened. I then had a baby plonked into my arms, photos taken, then the boss “Ko Soe” and his daughter, and more pictures. Then some more pictures and more pictures.

The first thing we discussed was CoC. Or Clash of Clans. Boss man Ko Soe, gave me one of his phones and we both destroyed someones village together – what a beautiful moment between a Burmese and an Australian. Destroying one of his mates villages on his smart phone. Oh how the world is getting smaller. I learnt about them, they were construction workers form Yangon and were in the area building.

They then took me into the food hut next to the station where we drank coffee, had some laughs and joked about our differences, particularly rubbish disposal (they thought it hilarious that I put rubbish in my bag and I brought the house down when i gave chucking it out the window a go and pretended to enjoy it) and our skin colour. After a while we just sat there and watched Myanmar Idol on TV. Sometimes I think fuck Globalisation. We are moving to a world of mobile phone games and reality TV. Even in the “untouched” countries, its just too late. We can’t wind the clock back now and I guess its the new normal. Oh well.

These guys were absolute legends and I was so glad to meet them. It was apparent that we had a lot in common including our sense of humour. Ko Soe let me use his wifi on his phone and everytime I typed, I had a group of people hunched over watching me. Ko Soe said “Hi speed – Hi speed” hahaha. They type their characters in English letters I think and they must have to type very slowly. I felt weird to have my typing watched but I realised none could understand it anyway so it was OK.

The train finally arrived at 1530, and we got going (upper class home this time!). The group of tradies, departed at another village a few hours away. We waited about 15 minutes to let the smoking from the brakes stop. They all waited on the platform to wave me off. Seriously? Who does that at home! It just doesnt happen and because of things like this you can’t help but fall in love with the people of this country.

Nice people :)
Nice people 🙂

The train made up a shitload of time, racing along at 30kph bumping us around fairly violently, getting into the last village up the top of the Switchbacks at 18000!!! I was treated to some lovely views as the sun went down!

Scroll through photos with arrows below


I thought I could be getting back to Mandalay early. I was mistaken. We had a 4 hour stop at this village and our locomotive had completely disappeared taking half the cars with it. At this point I was so hungry, I had had some bananas, a bread and jam bun and some deep fried Unknown, all day. I was famished, freezing cold and I missed Sheree dearly. At 2100 I clambered off the train and asked an old Burmese man in military clothing when the train would leave. He said 9 and then told me to “Get back on train. Me – Burmese soldier – you get on train, stay”. I thought “Okaaaay”. I was in no mood to piss this guy off, he looked scary and had tattoos of scorpions on his hands. I got back on. 10 Minutes later he was at the windows saying “Me Burmese soldier” and then telling me to not talk and putting his index finger to his lips with a mean ass look on his face. I looked away, but he only persisted, coming onto the train and standing over me telling me to stop talking. I wasn’t talking. It was a super scary moment, I wondered if he had a gun like the other young soldier had. At this point I thought “Have I made a costly mistake coming here”. A moment later, another soldier came on and dragged him away. I pretty much curled into a ball on my seat and closed my eyes, wishing the train to come back and take me from this place.

That is my take anyway, most of the locals were having a great time! I’m sure I had nothing to worry about but that is hindsight for you.

At approx 2200 and after a few more interactions with drunk soldier, the train did come, to my immense relief. Apparently they were worried about the brakes though and repeatedly stopped to cool them all the way to Mandalay. We arrived at 0240 but I still felt far from the hotel. Human city was dead and Dog city was in full swing. I could hear different packs barking and howling. Fucccck. At this point a punk-themed Burmese guy came up to me and asked “hotel? Taxi?” “YES PLEASE” I wanted to hug the guy. I would have paid 10 bucks at this point to go the 5 blocks on a bike. He said “3 thousand Kyat” – about $3. He felt like an angel and I was so happy for him to be there. He took me back to the hotel and we only got chased by 2 dogs on 2 of the blocks. He did a weird tongue knock sound and pretended to throw something which seemed to stop the dogs, If only I knew this trick!

I was so relieved to be walking into the hotel and back to Sheree. At one stage that night I felt I was another world away, struggling hard mentally, and it was a really testing time. Character building maybe, but I needed a little more time to digest the whole thing. This all sounds dramatic but its all a true account of how I felt. If you remove the dogs at 3am, if I ate more proper meals and rode upper class all day I do believe the day would have been different (bar the delays). But its amazing what not eating, being tired and exhausted can do to your mental state when you are in a totally new environment, especially at night.

A pretty crazy experience, I am glad I did it, I wouldn’t do it again and if anyone wants to do repeat this do it for sure, but keep going to Hsipaw, and stay at least a night there (but monitor security warnings obviously). Also visit Candagraig, there are colonial mansions and Eucalyptus trees and it looks like it would be good.

If you got this far, thanks for reading 🙂

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This entry was posted in Myanmar, Uncategorized

5 thoughts on “Gokteik Viaduct – A journey deeper into Myanmar

  • Fleur March 29, 2016 at 1:52 pm Reply

    Promise me that you and Sheree will please go to bed and stay there during Human City from now on, Matty!!!

    • Matt and Sheree March 30, 2016 at 3:25 am Reply

      Hahaha that really made me laugh Fleur!! I promise 🙂

  • Floora March 30, 2016 at 4:43 am Reply

    Awesome story. I like the start of the day, getting chased by Alpha Car Dog. hahahaha. sounds scary but funny coz i’m in a cosey room at home. Great photos of the culture. You must be really immersed in it now. Dog City sounds too scary, so do trains where brakes may potentially fail. but you gotta take risks right (p.s. i hope you’ve upped your life-insurance).
    enjoy!

  • Adriana July 4, 2016 at 10:44 am Reply

    Hi Matt,

    you made me laugh because I can well relate to those kind of stories in Myanmar. I’ve done the train journey from Pyin U Lwin to Hsipaw, only going few kilometres out of Pyin U Lwin before we too went backwards- but this was no Switchback, the locomotive stopped working and the train was returning to the station to wait for a new locomotive from Mandalay. It took them 8 hours to get us moving again and when we were finally passing the Goteik Viaduct, it was dark! So even though the locals shouted ‘Look, look, we’re going through the Viaduct’ we couldn’t see a thing. But the experiences on the train and the connections made are priceless! Thanks for sharing, I hope you’ll manage to come back to MM before it changes 🙂

    P.S. not only Mandalay, Yangon too is a dog city at night, I once begged a taxi driver to drive by me just to scare those packs of dogs away when I was going home at night.

    • Matt July 16, 2016 at 3:48 pm Reply

      Hi Adriana!

      I’m glad you can relate! And thanks for the comment 🙂 I actually was recently going through some memories of this trip and today this trip up to the viaduct is one of my favourites. Myanmar is such an amazing country for authentic experiences like this, which really to me are what makes travel wonderful. Haha I am not surprised about the delay hey, I guess it is a part of life on the Burmese Railways! Thanks so much for leaving a comment it’s nice to know that someone else out there had a similar experience 🙂

      It’s not a question of if I will go back to MM, it is a question of when.

      All the best!
      Matt

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