Around Myanmar by train

Around Myanmar by train

Traveling by train is by far the cheapest way to get around Myanmar. However, it also is the slowest way. I’d say that most people only do the popular touristic train journeys, the Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw ride being the single most popular one in the country. After all, who wouldn’t like to see the Gokteik Viaduct, a masterpiece of British railway engineering with stunning views over a deep gorge? Some other rides popular with tourist include: Yangon to Bagan and Thazi to Kalaw. And the circular train in Yangon is a popular tourist attraction, too.

As far as I am concerned I travelled so much more by train than this in Myanmar. Apart from getting from the border with Thailand and back to the border and two other trips by a bus and a minibus I travelled all around Myanmar by train. I was the only foreigner on some trains.

My first train ride in Myanmar was the one on a circular train in Yangon. Although it’s some sort of a tourist attraction there weren’t many foreigners taking the train. It’s called a circular train because it goes from the central railway station in Yangon to the suburbs and then back along a loop. Why is this an attraction? Because you get to see locals engaged in different activities both on the train and outside or just getting from point A to point B. As a person who likes people-watching and experiencing local life, I had to do it.

On the circular train in Yangon

On the very same day I took an overnight train (a sleeper class) from Yangon to Bagan last night. A train journey that some people have described as the worst they have ever experienced. Although not entirely sure at first whether to go or not, when I found out that tickets were available I simply bought one. I expected a jumping train, and a jumping train it was. Sometimes a rocking train though. I had that rocking feeling in my head even after the ride had ended. I wouldn’t describe it as the worst journey, because it was an adventure for me. I was really excited all evening.

Leaving Yangon for Bagan
An upper class and a sleeper class carriage (Yangon – Bagan)
The sleeper class carriage (Yangon – Bagan)

The night, however, wasn’t that exciting. It was too cold. Unexpectedly. And of course noisy. Which I didn’t mind while being awake. The sound of the train was like that of heavy machinery in a factory at times. Sometimes it sounded like rocks were falling on the roof. The wheels seemed to have the shape of a square or at least an octagon instead of being round. Using the toilet was the most challenging. I was literally being thrown from one side to another. Except for the lack of sleep I laughed at the situation.

Do I regret it? Absolutely not! Do I recommend it? Absolutely. But only if you are someone not afraid of stepping out of their comfort zone.

I have just arrived in Bagan
An ordinary class carriage (Yangon – Bagan)
The departure and arrival board in Yangon in the Myanma language
The departure and arrival board in Yangon in English
The railway station in Bagan

My next train ride was from Bagan to Mandalay. There a couple of carriage classes in Myanmar, the lowest one being the ordinary class. I often take the cheapest trains but in Myanmar I had quite a few health problems and so when I was leaving Bagan I really wanted to feel comfortable. And so I travelled in the upper class. The windows are open like in the ordinary class, it’s noisy but there are what I would call luxury seats.

Off to Mandalay from Bagan
An upper class seat (Bagan – Mandalay)
One of my train tickets. They issue tickets manually.
Hawkers selling snack at major stations
Myanmar countryside from the train
Myanmar countryside from the train

From Mandalay I continued traveling by train to the northeast of Myanmar. First I took a very early train to Pyin Oo Lwin. It departed at 4 am so I had to get up at around 3 and then walk to the railway station listening to stray dogs howling all around the empty city centre of Mandalay. If there is something that makes me feel uneasy it’s stray dogs. It was a slow journey during which I could see the sunrise. And yes, this time I was in the ordinary class.

An ordinary class carriage (Mandalay – Pyin Oo Lwin)
Sleeping in an ordinary class carriage
Arriving in Pyin Oo Lwin
The Pyin Oo Lwin railway station

The Gokteik Viaduct was definitely the highlight of my next train ride from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw. The views of the gorge were breathtaking and the bridge is said to be a masterpiece of British architecture. And again I travelled in the ordinary class.

The Gokteik Viaduct from the distance
Approching the Gokteik Viaduct in Myanmar
The gorge at the Gokteik Viaduct
Passing the Gokteik Viaduct in Myanmar
Passing the Gokteik Viaduct in Myanmar

After that I went on by train to Lashio. I only did it because I wanted to reach the end of the railway line and get as far north and as close to China as possible. I just did it for the experience. I was the only foreigner on the train because this is not a tourist attraction like the previous section. And this journey was a nightmare. It was the second time I got sick in Myanmar, so I was shivering with cold while having a very high temperature and a headache. I couldn’t wait for the ride to finish. The train was one hour late and I still had to take a motorbike taxi to a hotel which was 7 km away. I certainly didn’t enjoy this journey. On the way back to Mandalay I decided to take a bus as I couldn’t imagine traveling 18 hours with a possible delay when the bus would take less than a half.

An ordinary class carriage (Pyin Oo Lwin – Hsipaw)
A short stop at a small railway station (no English signs) while waiting for a delayed train from the opposite direction to pass
A short stop at a small railway station (no English signs) while waiting for a delayed train from the opposite direction to pass

The remaining train rides were from Manadaly to Thazi, from Inle Lake back to Thazi (this was supposed to be a scenic journey but being sick for the third time I didn’t find it extraordinary in any way), from Thazi to Bago and from Bago to Thaton from where I wanted to get to the border with Thailand. There were no foreigners on these trains, so again these rides weren’t the touristic ones. I just did it because I love traveling by train and also it was the cheapest way to travel.

And like I mentioned, also the slowest. Train travel is Myanmar was probably the slowest I have ever experienced with frequent delays. I believe the speed of the train at some stretches was somewhere between 15 and 30 kilometers and hour. And I doubt it ever exceeded 4o or 50. Sometimes I just wanted to get off the train and help it move on by pushing. No kidding. I was glad when some rides were over. Yet I am also glad I made it all around the country by train because that’s what few tourists or travellers do. And that’s what I really like.

People selling food at a railway station (Kalaw – Thazi)

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