On the road with traveller, Luke Hero. Luke shares his personal experience travelling Myanmar with a friend –
What’s the cheapest way to travel across Myanmar? The old train network.
Myanmar’s train network was first introduced in 1877 when Myanmar was a British colony. Since then the train network has expanded to cover a great deal of the country. So this – my friend and I decided – would be the way we would travel around Myanmar.
After arriving in Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) by plane from Thailand, we certainly felt that we had arrived in an entirely new country. Still largely untouched by tourism, Myanmar is a truly unique and interesting place to explore.
While walking around with my travel buddy, we had a lot of eyes on us, which is quite understandable, as we seemed to be some of the only tourists in the city. But don’t let that intimidate you, the people of Myanmar are very welcoming and lovely!
On the Rail to Bagan
So after a few days exploring Yangon it was time to head to our next destination; Bagan.
Bagan is located around 620km north of Yangon, which is quite a distance. But for the small price of just 16,500 kyat (USD$17) we could get there by train. The train departs daily from Yangon station at 16:00 and arrives the next morning in Bagan at 09:30. “Perfect!” we thought.
Board the train in the late afternoon, take in some scenery, have some dinner and sleep the rest of the journey, waking up refreshed in Bagan.
Or so we thought.
We headed to the station with good time incase we had any difficulties. As we got closer to the station a man stood by the roadside waving to us asking if we were looking for the train station. We’re not sure if he worked for the station or just a friendly local, either way we told him we were heading for Bagan by train.
He took us to the station and helped us communicate with the ticket officer to buy our tickets, and then left.
“Upper Class” Sleeper
We had booked ‘upper class sleeper’ as we certainly wanted a bed for this overnight journey! This wasn’t my first time on an overnight train so I had an idea what the experience was like. Only my last time was from Hong Kong to Shanghai, where we had a private room, TV and shower. We soon learnt the ‘upper class’ on a train in Myanmar doesn’t quite mean the same.
We found our way to our carriage thanks to the help of a train guard and entered what would be our little home for the next 17 and a half hours.
We soon learnt the ‘upper class’ on a train in Myanmar doesn’t quite mean the same.
Luke loving his railway room
The first thing we looked for as we were sweating was the aircon. Unfortunately we didn’t have that, but we did have a rather noisy vibrating ceiling fan, which rotated awkwardly.
We then explored the living quarters a little more to find the toilet, without paper (which went directly to the visible tracks below), and a very random looking room – we still can’t figure out quite what it was.
We were very entertained by our new place for the night, as we sat down and laughed at each other deciding who would take top bunk and who would use the fold-out chair bottom bed.
Shortly after, 2 more separate travellers arrived into our cabin and got settled. Which we didn’t expect as we thought we’d have our own space, but no matter. It was then that we realized our cabin was not linked to the rest of the train by a door. There was no corridor to walk down that linked the cabins like we’d expected. The only way in or out of our cabin was the external door on the side of the train. Which is when we made our first mistake, assuming there would be a food cart.
We had nothing.
The only way in or out of our cabin was the external door on the side of the train.
Shortly after 16:00 the train departed Yangon and we were on our way! Rather excited we leaned out of the windows taking in all the beautiful scenery of Myanmar. As we started to leave the city we wondered when the train might pick up speed. It never did! The train would continue at the speed of just 12-14km/h for the entire journey. This is due to the condition of the railway tracks, which is rather poor. There were times when I would be completely elevated off my seat as the train bumped and rattled it’s way across the countryside.
It begun to dawn on us that we might not be getting such a good night’s sleep after all.
As the evening drew in and the light faded we were feeling a little hungry and no longer had anything to see out the window, so we shut the windows and switched the light on. Now this is where I should note that me and my friend are quite squeamish when it comes to insects and bugs such as moths. (I know, how manly are we?!).
One of our fellow passengers decided he wanted to keep his window open all night to help keep him cool, which was okay at first as the ceiling fan, which looked about ready to fall down, was the only thing keeping all of us cool. But as you may know, a light source is a very attractive thing to bugs.
As we started to drift to sleep, a huge moth came flying through the window and right into my face, continuing to then zip around us. We both bolted upright trying to fend it away while our other two fellow passengers looked at us quite entertained.
As the night went on the cabin slowly filled up with what seemed like half of Myanmar’s wildlife. The top bunk was no longer a place to sleep as the fan had mangled a multitude on bugs and sent them crashing onto the top bunks. Even the two locals didn’t want to venture up to the top bunks – now a bug graveyeard – anymore.
So we pretty much spent the rest of the night paranoid about being bitten, scared of bugs crawling on us, being thrown up and down by the train, hungry and thirsty.
Even the two locals didn’t want to venture up to the top bunks – now a bug graveyeard – anymore.
The Sun Comes Up
Eventually after about 12 hours of that, the sun began to rise again and the wildlife took it’s leave. We couldn’t wait to arrive and get to our beds! But then there’s something else you need to know about trains in Myanmar; they are almost never on time. 09:00 arrived and we were eagerly awaiting some sign that we would be arriving soon, but 09:30 passed and still no sign, then 10am, 11am, lunchtime and still nothing.
Finally at about 14:30 we arrived at our station with a barrage of people at our window before we even stood up, offering us lifts into Bagan.
21 hours in, we left the train exhausted, looking for water and then a ride to our hotel. Definitely not how I imagined I’d arrive when I entered the station in Yangon the day before.
It wasn’t exactly what we expected. I didn’t expect a whole lot, just a bed to sleep in and some food. I’d still recommend the journey, as an experience. And an experience it certainly was! One I’d never forget.
I did enjoy it in a way, and it was very entertaining. These are the stories that really make travels so interesting anyway. It’s easy to look back and laugh about it now with my friend and makes jokes. Knowing is half the battle. If you read this, then at least you’ll have an idea what to expect and can better prepare yourself.
Take some food and drink, and keep your windows shut at night! Maybe some sleeping pills and a mini battery-operated fan might help too…
About the Author
Luke Hero is a passionate traveller on a trip through Asia. Originally from the UK, Luke has currently set up base in Kuala Lumpur and bravely exploring the very foreign world of Asia, unafraid to go off the beaten track. He has covered cities in China, South Korea, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Hong Kong. And he’s not done yet.