November 29, 2020

The joy of slow travel by train in Myanmar 

Writer: Morris Averill.

The trains of Myanmar are legendary - for the adventure of riding on a narrow-gauge train track in carriages that is vintage 1960’s or earlier. For those who have never experienced travel on a narrow-gauge train track (one metre wide), the ride is rough leaving passengers bouncing up and down.  Even for those who’ve paid for a train sleeper there is no cushioning from a bumpy ride. 

Investment in new rail-lines and upgrading existing tracks and rolling-stock is happening, as well as creating rail connections with China, Bangladesh and India. However, Myanmar is still a long way from reaching the standard of rail travel that can be experience in China, Korea and other developed railway systems.  

The circular train around the Township of Yangon, which can be caught from the Central Railway Station near downtown Yangon (or any station on the line), is a 3-hour journey through the suburbs, which is enough to give you the idea of travelling by train in Myanmar.   

The Myanmar Railways Network has over 11,000.00 km (6,835 miles) railway track. The best source of information about train travel in Myanmar is the website of ‘The Man in Seat 61’ . Booking tickets in advance is possible using a Myanmar travel agent or online providers such as 12GoAsia.

In Yangon the booking office, for travel 1-5 days in the future, is accessed from Bogyoke Aung San Road (opposite the Sakura Tower main entrance). The office hours are 7 am to 3 pm. Passports for all foreign passengers need to be produced to make a booking. For same-day departure, including the Yangon Circle line, you can buy tickets at the office on Central Train Station.   

The pleasure of trail travel in Myanmar is that you can sit and look out the window and watch the country unfold before your eyes. Travel by air between Yangon to Bagan or Mandalay or Inle Lake may provide a fast journey, with glimpses of the landscape, but not the experience of seeing the farmers in their paddy fields.

Travel by bus can be faster than by train, although public buses tend to be overcrowded, with loud music videos playing on many long-distance buses. If you have come to Myanmar for slow-travel, then Myanmar Railways provides that experience.  

The overnight train from Yangon to Bagan for my family was truly, slow travel, we experienced a 6-hour delay in the train starting the journey, which, to accentuate the positive, gave us a longer time the next day to view the countryside.  

On our overnight journey from Yangon to Bagan, as a family of 4, we were squashed into one berth for the journey.  Be prepared and stock up with food for the journey, unless your happy to buy from local vendors who sell you food and drinks at villages along the way.  

There is one train journey that is worth the inconveniences resulting from the current state of Myanmar Railways, that from Thazi to Kalaw, and on to Shwenyaung (for Inle Lake) or the reverse trip. To get from Thazi (altitude: 252 metres, 830 feet) to Kalaw (altitude: 1,339 metres, 4,396 feet), the track zigs and zags up the escarpment. At each switchback the train has to reverse direction in order to continue up (or down) the escarpment. At each zig or zag the train stops for a short time for the lines to be switched, which gives photo opportunities in the communities at each stop.  

A complication in arranging the journey from Thazi to Kalaw, and on to Shwenyaung. Is to co-ordinate that journey with trains on the Yangon to Mandalay line, which stop at Thazi. You may have to stay overnight in a guesthouse at Thazi, in order to catch the early morning train to Kalaw; or if travelling from Kalaw or Shwenyaung, because the late arrival of the train at Thazi does connect with a train on the Yangon to Mandalay line.  

There are other famous Mayamar rail journeys, such as Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), Hsipaw and Lashio (15-16 hours), which travels over the Gokteik viaduct.  The rail bridge was constructed from 1899 to 1900 and is 689 metres (2,260 ft) from end to end, with 15 supporting towers; a maximum height of the bridge from the ground below being 102 metres (335 ft). Experiencing the Gokteik viaduct can be done as a day trip from Mandalay by catching the return train at the station after crossing the viaduct. However, the train from Mandalay has a 4 am departure time!  

Train to Bago

Others trains will get you long distances, although taking a longer time.  There is the 24 hour train journey from Yangon to the southern port town of Dawei, which passes through Bago (the gateway to Kyaiktiyo Pagoda (the Golden Rock), Mawlamyine (Moulmein), with a change of train at Ye for the onward journey to Dawei.  

For slow-travel, Myanmar offers a variety of experiences, with the train journey being the experience or providing photo opportunities of Myanmar. Travel by train in Myanmar, will not be suitable for those on a tight timetable or for those that expect a level of comfort similar to that found in countries with developed rail systems.   Another drawback is the height of the stairs to enter the carriage.  Getting up and down with suitcases can be quite a challenge. 

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