900m above sea level, early morning in the small town of ‘Shwe Nyaung’ the town closest to the famed Inle lake in the south region of Shan state, Burma. Everything is covered in mist and traces of clouds stretch across the sky, with mountain tops disappearing the in white blanket looming over the landscape. The train station lies in the heart of the town with a few food stalls surrounding it. The station is quiet, almost deserted except for the few passengers preparing to aboard the train, and a tiny ticketing office with two sleepy workers sipping on their morning tea. I’m standing on a platform waiting for the only train of the day heading west.
I heard this train is unlike others in Myanmar, often nicknamed the slow train to ‘Thazi’ the final destination on the west end. I’m waiting in anticipation for my long journey wondering if the train will be stable enough to read through my book without my stomach turning. Before too long, the sound of the train horn cuts through the silence, and the train started appearing through the mist. I’m setting up my camera knowing that this isn’t a usual train journey, so I wanted to document it from start to finish. I hopped on board after taking a few snaps, found my seat and peaked my head through the window feeling as excited as always when starting a train journey.
The train started moving and as we roll out of the station, I realize we’re on a single train track, and before long I came to see how the train got its infamous nickname. The train was moving at a speed which feels you could hop on and off it without stopping. I’m staring out of the window trying to catch a glimpse of the landscape. I could see the mountains through clear patches in the mist, and soon enough we rolled into the next station, where everything changed completely. Suddenly, nothing is quiet or sleepy anymore. It seemed we have rolled straight into a village market. Tens of fresh produce sellers flock onto the train, hoping to sell their produce to the passengers who were very eager to buy straight from the farmers, bargaining to get the best deals. It was quite different from anything I’ve seen before. I jumped off the train in the middle of this hustle, started shooting around the train, it was an open theatre where one could get overwhelmed by all the action along the length of the train. I tried to focus on what drew my interest the most, which was the trading action through the train windows. I was thrilled by the shots i was getting. the train started moving but it took me a few seconds after to actually start chasing the train jumping aboard, which wasn’t a tough mission. As we left the station, I realized that this train journey is far more interesting than i expected, and I couldn’t wait to see what happened next.
This scene was repeated in different stations, each time with different goods being sold. It felt more like a tour of the Shan townships than a train journey. I kept hopping on and off the train, making my way through the crowds, getting a few shots with different pace and biting through as much delicious local snacks sold by the station vendors as I could before the train started moving again. I also took a few strolls along the length of the train photographing the passengers, the hop-on sellers and their state enduring the long hours of traveling. I was lucky enough to run into a few passengers who could speak English, and I wasn’t surprised by their openness and friendliness, even offering their translating services for other curious passengers who spoke to me in Burmese.
It felt like forever waiting for the infamous bridge connection between “Yin Mabin” and “Pyangazu” towns. I located myself at the end of the train to make sure i can capture the length of the train body over the bridge and heading into the hills. I leaned out the door to get a better angle as my train companion held his breath thinking what is the whack doing outside the door. I was too excited to get this shot to hold myself back. Before long the train was showered by golden sunset light, which gave me a the perfect chance to get some contrasty moody shots full of orange light crashing against black shadows. At this point, I’ve completely lost sense of how many hours it had been since I boarded this train in the morning. It wasn’t before another couple hours till we reached ‘Thazi’ town in the dark. The town is tiny and doesn’t have much to offer. You could surely tell this is a layover town. I walked to the nearest hotel and checked myself in before I went out hunting for a late meal.
Out of over eighty train journeys that I have done. The slow train to Thazi is probably the most eclectic of all. It was unlike any of my other travel experiences; slow yet not even slightly boring. This single train track going through the narrow valleys of Shan mountains, keeps you wondering what you’re going to see around every one of its curves.