I wasn’t aware that train journeys could be bumpy. Not just jostling, jerky or swaying, but actually horse-cantering, bouncing-up-and-down-on-my-tired-tush bumpy. The rails, which appear straight and flat, are actually warped from the many years of use since the British colonials installed them in the 19th century. The wooden railroad ties are partially replaced by cement slabs of varying size and the yearly monsoon season causes the dirt and gravel to shift, thereby producing this irregular track. The result is a long, slow and often uncomfortable journey for the passengers, but one that we are fully enjoying as we bump across Myanmar.
So far in our travels, we’ve rode the rails in every country except train-less Cambodia (including the only passenger train in Laos – a whopping 3 kilometers of track which crosses the border into Thailand). Trains are the ultimate travel experience for us because they combine passing scenic landscapes with local life and long-distance transportation. The railroad tracks run through wild back country, but also straight through towns or villages – sometimes practically in folks’ backyards – giving an interesting and varied glimpse of the countryside. Most trains are used primary by local people as a cheap way to get across the country, so you get a real peek into the lives of families or individuals you’re traveling with. As I’ve mentioned before, the nature of traveling is to move from place to place, so choosing a form of locomotion is essential; we chose trains whenever possible.
The trains in Myanmar are often eschewed by tourists in favor of the quicker, air-conditioned buses or low-cost flights. We don’t blame them for choosing the comfortable or easier options for getting around, but we would encourage anyone traveling in Myanmar (time-permitting) to take at least one long distance train. It is a unique experience.
However, there are quite a few quirks that characterize the Burmese train system. Here are some of its unique points – pros or cons, depending on your tastes and expectations.
The time schedules seem surreal
Our first journey from Yangon to Pyay took 12 hours to go…161 miles (257 kilometers). We checked the math several times because it seemed so impossible that any form of mass transit could possibly go as slow as 13 miles an hour. But it’s correct – these trains are sloooooooooow. If you’re lucky, you can find an actual train schedule posted in some of the bigger railway stations showing train journey hours often in the double-digits. It’s also a good rule of thumb to add 2+ hours to the arrival times of these schedules for any delays or extra slow downs, which are frequent.
The coaches are decrepit
I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the trains still in use date back to the colonial days. They are old, crusty, and worn down. The windows are just open holes in the sides of the train, sometimes with a metal blind which partially lowers to protect from the sun or rain. The doors stand open for the whole journey, allowing for passengers and fruit vendors to hop on and off at intermittent stations. Narrow wooden slat benches with straight backs are jammed in so close that you’re often touching knees with the folks across from you. Squat toilets with an open hole leading straight to the track below have a distinctly acrid smell from so many years of streaming urine. The coffee I found in the restaurant coach was sufficiently hot and tasty, but had some misplaced rice noodles in the bottom – probably bounced into my mug from a neighboring plate in the kitchenette. The incredibly bumpy tracks means that bags and food stuffs frequently come tumbling down onto passengers from the overhead luggage racks. The tracks run next to trees and bushes which, untrimmed, reach inside the open windows to whip you as you chug past. This is not luxury, but it is so much fun.
Cheaper travel, you will never find
We traveled up the country from Yangon to Mandalay (434 miles – 700 kilometers) on three separate train rides for a total of $9. Nine dollars! Train travel in general is a cheap option across South East Asia, but this is kind of incredible! We are admittedly quite lucky though, as the Burmese government only recently decided to drop the prices of train travel from the previous tourist tickets to the local price. We were consequently shocked upon our arrival in Bagan, that a 10 minute taxi ride into the city would cost us 3 times the price of the 12 hour train we just got off. Even the Upper Class and Sleepers are super cheap. The trains here, although uncomfortable and slow, cost mere pennies compared to trains back in Europe.
They’re not set up for tourists
Imagine taking a tuk-tuk to the train station, located in the middle of a cornfield about 6 miles outside of town. By the time you get there, dusk has fallen and you can only barely make out the outline of small building with its lights out. When your driver unceremoniously drops you and your bags off in front of a dark building, you pull out your headlamp in order to hunt through the abandoned rooms of this ‘station’ to find someone from whom to buy tickets. A man with a stationmaster’s cap indicates that you can’t buy tickets until 10 minutes before the train leaves. No signs in English or even the Roman alphabet, so you have no idea where to go, what to do, or for how long. Settling into the platform seat in the dark, your only choice to wait an undetermined amount of time for a supposed train to come. Six hours later, around midnight, a lone train chugs up to the platform and other waiting passengers bustle onto the coaches, so you blindly follow suite. As you squeeze onto a hard wooden bench, you just hope that the next 10 bumpy hours will bring you to your destination (or a destination). Unsurprisingly, you are the only Westerner on this train.
In Myanmar, unlike other neighboring countries, the train system isn’t really tourist-friendly. There are rarely signs or schedules in English. The stationmasters often aren’t around (or they’re napping somewhere in a hammock). The delay to buy your tickets is always changing – sometimes you have to buy the day before, sometimes only 10 minutes in advance. The tickets themselves are individually hand-written, which takes about 5 minutes per ticket, causing interminable lines at rush hour. These idiosyncrasies might be completely acceptable to the local people who are used to them, but they can cause enormous frustration to our Western traveler mentality as we seek efficiency.
Despite all these quirks and difficulties, Burmese trains and our train journeys will remain the highlight of our time in Myanmar.
For more information on train travel in Myanmar (and all over the world), please visit the venerable and invaluable Man in Seat 61.