Content last updated - November 2016 - please contact me if you have an update!
Travel is slow and exhausting unless you fly. However if you fly you miss out the main point of Myanmar, which is the people and landscapes rather than specific attractions. Frankly after 2 weeks I never wanted to see another Pagoda or Buddha(reclined, seated or otherwise). Unless you have a very specific interest in the country’s spirituality or history don’t get too hung up on the “big 4” (Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Inle). Instead slow down and check out the smaller towns - and the local transport.
Most tourists don't take the train in Myanmar: the rich, or rushed ones fly, the cheap end of the market take over-night buses. The Lonely Planet strongly suggest that tourists shouldn't take the train because Myanmar Railways is owned by the ruling junta. But frankly, as every world leader from Obama, down, line up to go to Myanmar, this advice seems out of date.
Advantages of Taking The Train in Myanmar
The trains are full of locals, not tourists, more so in ordinary class, but even in first. The train offers a great deal more leg room and seat width than most of the buses we took. I believe the super-delux overnight buses are quite comfortable, but the daytime trains we took were not!
You arrive and leave from the centre of town, rather than some distant bus station.
You get to see something. All the trains we took were day trains, and the views are great as there is no glass to get in the way. Much easier to take photos than on a bus. If you can't get a sleeper (and I think the only route with sleepers is now the Yangon-Mandalay trip) then I'd skip a night train.
The Downsides of Burmese Train Travel
It's more expensive than buses, though the gap is narrowing - the prices we paid were as per the current Lonely Planet guide book, the bus fares were higher than in the guide.
You have to pay in US$ and have your passport with you to buy tickets.
They are bloody slow - the last people to do any track maintenance were the British - pre 1948.
Myanmar Trains We Took
Yangon - Mawlyamine 12 hours $14 upper class departed 7:15am arrived about 7:30pm
Single track train which unfortunately left us sitting for a couple of hours in the middle of the day while waiting for the passing train to appear. Very, very rough track - I ended up with bruises on my back, and we were often airborne, while seating. It's scenic though, particularly the second half of the trip. The bridge at the end is new, up until about 2006 the train terminated at the river and you had to get a boat across - which probably added another 4 hours to the trip!
Bago - Thazi 11 giyrs $24 departed 8am arrived 7pm
This is the main track from Yangon-Mandalay - so was in better condition than the other trips we did - and the only one that was a standard wide gauge. The seats were a bit more padded too. It's a long trip from Yangon to Mandalay though - 6am to 11pm I'd say, honestly, I'd fly - it's a fairly dull scene, very flat. We took it because we wanted to take the
Thazi - Kalaw 6 hours $5 upper class, departed 6am arrived midday
Spectacular mountain trip from sea level to 4290 feet, via a lot of switch backs, which the train reverses up, a man manually pushes the points over and then the train goes forward to the next switch, each switch had a man operating the points, the other end tended to have a small station come market, there were at least six on the way up
Hsipaw - Mandalay 10 hours $8 upper class departed 10am arrived 8pm
We took the bus up - and although it's quicker by about 4 hours, it's much more uncomfortable as you literally have to cling to your seat as the bus goes around hairpin bends which don't seem designed for mechanised transport. The train is a lot smoother which is not something you can say about Myanamar's trains very often! The higlight is the Goitek Viaduct, built in 1906 and still in operation, the train literally crawls across, you will have plenty of time to hang out of the window to take photos.
What You Need To Know About Catching The Train
- As a foreigner you will pay more than the locals, and you will pay in US$, pristine crisp bills, they will have change, within reason.
- Someone will approach you and show you where to go to buy tickets, we were always escorted to the station masters office and allowed to sit while the long-winded process of writing out the ticket occurred. You will need your passport.
- There is first and ordinary class - there is not a lot of difference except 1st is not very crowded, and you will get an assigned seat number, that you will be escorted to.
- The system is entirely uncomputerised - that's why you can't buy a ticket until a few days in advance, and why although your station may be sold out the day before, there may be seats the next day if you are getting on at an intermediate station (as happened to us at Bago, when the train left Yangon, we got a ticket).
- There is always a sign in English clearly showing the train times and prices for tourists. The trains pretty much left on time, they never arrived anything like on time, so the further up the line you are getting on the later the train will be.
- There isn't a dining car - but there are generally lots of vendors, the exception to this was the Hsipaw trip where there weren't hat many villages.
- There is no air-con - but the windows open and have no glass, good photo opportunities, shame about the damage the overgrown vegetation can do if you get too close.
- There are western style loos in 1st class, they weren't too disgusting in our experience.
- You can wander across the tracks at any time in a station, the over-bridges are just for show.
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