We get to go to the Bawgyo Pagoda festival. I can’t believe how lucky we are to be here. Auspicious. The place is packed with Buddhists from all over the region. The religious aspect centers on the four figures of Buddha being on display, newly gilded with gold leaf inside the pagoda. Outside on this warm, black night, sprawled over acres, are the jewelers, food sellers, home goods merchants and pavilions packed with families chowing down all this good and greasy food. Everyone is dressed up. Hipsters in western clothes with orange and yellow dyed hair. The young and old don their traditional wear. Gambling, usually forbidden is in full swing during festival days. We watch a Mandalay singer performing and can’t quite appreciate the dissonance. Then we hear a Shan singer and wonder who stepped on the cat. The crowd is loving it. Men with blinding headlamps are moving through the audience hawking snacks. It is a great big party. Everything is over the top. Sound, food, smells, colors. Girls are doing hip hop routines and there are carnival rides. In fact the most unbelievable sight is the Ferris wheel. It is not mechanized. Several young, strong, agile men scramble up the internal framework and by balancing and tipping their weight bring the cars into motion. Then they gradually bring the cars to a halt jumping onto the moving cars and countering the centrifugal force. We couldn’t stop watching. What a fun night.
And we go again the next morning to view in daylight. Totally different, equally wonderful. We spend time inside the pagoda. Many people are praying and others are picnicking heartily on the floor. It is a truly a festival of the heart and soul.
The bulging eyes caused by numerous gold leaf wishes for eye healing
We snake through the crowds to exit the festival. As always, the coordination between our guide and driver is precise; we step away from the festival and into the car in one motion. We will be taking the train that traverses the Gokteik Viaduct on its way into Pyin Oo Lwin, It runs once a day and we have some distance to cover.
This railway system provided one more link for the British to expand its influence in Myanmar connecting Lashio in the north and the British summer capital of Maymo (now Pyin Oo Lwin) in the south. Nowadays it provides foreigners and locals a more pleasant ride than traveling the gorge with its steep switchbacks and hairpin turns. We drove that hellish route from Mandalay a few days go, wedged between caravans of melon filled trucks going to China in the north. Not that long ago, soldiers rode the trains to protect passengers from skirmishes between government and Shan forces.
Sithu got us tickets in “ordinary class” (about 700 kyat or 50 cents) as opposed to an Upper Class compartment where the luxury is soft, no longer reclining seats and a neck cushion instead of our wooden benches. I am good with it. We are waiting at Naung Peng station after leaving Hsipaw, and a train is already on the tracks waiting to depart towards Lashio. Women are selling food and trinkets to passengers through the windows, dogs are hanging out by the steps of the cars.
There’s no sense of urgency and I’m wondering when our train will arrive and then we notice a second train hidden behind this one and it is ours. We scramble up this train’s steep steps, cut through the car and jump out the other side to board our train as it is readying to pull out. We take our seats, breathe deeply and look out the open window…
The train rocks and rumbles over the worn tracks. Clickity clack, the sound is lulling, the scenery epic and the soup of conversation blankets the train’s steady cadence. Men sell soft drinks and women carry baskets on their heads piled high with snacks swaying with the movement. The whole experience feels dream like and as I look out the open window I see people leaning out, touching branches and waving to each other, laughing with the adventure of it all.
The viaduct built around 1900 with Pennsylvania steel, is the second longest railway trestle in the world at 689 meters or 2240 feet and 100 meters high. The river is a long way down and we wave to a tiny farmer who waves back. After three hours, we are back in Pyin Oo Lwin, greet our stalwart driver and depart Shan state to head back to Mandalay.