Recently, I commented how Anthony Bourdain’s premier episode of Parts Unknown featuring Myanmar was almost obsolete despite being filmed only three years ago. Luckily (or maybe unluckily depending on your viewpoint), there’s still one thing that not only remains stuck in yesteryear but probably isn’t changing anytime soon. Unlike most Southeast Asian trains, traveling by rail anywhere in Myanmar hasn’t advanced much since prisoners of war built the extensive network way back when. Although not recommended for long distance travel, there’s two great three-hour day trip options giving visitors a sense of the real “developing nation” feel. Commuters, merchants and vendors ride Yangon’s only version of urban rail transport as it meanders its way through rather poor looking subdivisions, garbage strewn decaying brick structures passing as train stations and some agricultural districts lining the area near the airport. Further north, we found mostly backpackers on “The Slow Train from Thazi” which offers a long but scenic option for traveling to the Inle Lake area or simply day tripping from Kalaw like we did. Arriving in Yangon first, we enjoyed the first option as part of our second day’s itinerary.
Dubbed “The Circular Train“, the 24 mile commuter rail line through Yangon’s suburban districts improved a bit since most guide-book descriptions and now features relatively comfortable trains with fans, (slightly) cushioned seats and fans to ease the heat. Slowly dragging its way from the city’s beautifully classic and antiquated central rail station north to the airport and then back again, it’s an opportunity to see the area, meet some locals and best of all, visit the city’s classic Central Railway Station. Taking a taxi from The Merchant Hotel, our first boutique option that came recommended from the proprietor of a not so luxurious lodge in Kin Pun Village, we paid about 3000 Kyat and arrived at the large dirt parking area that houses the grand colonial Central Railway Station. Like most tourist destinations in Yangon, they charge the taxi a fee to drop off passengers despite the low non-metered fares. Relying on Lonely Planet explanations, we made our way up and over the foot bridge to the ticket counter at platform seven.
Before heading up to the ticket counter, we stopped to admire the grand architecture of the city’s main rail station. From the lobby, the beautiful colonial architecture stands out like a smaller version of New York’s Grand Central Station but without anything resembling 21st century infrastructure like digital signs, LED displays, electricity or anything that indicates life after Thomas Edison. (except the ATM). Understanding the hand written signs becomes an exercise in futility although unlike India or China, almost anyone gladly offers help to foreigners in English so figuring it out isn’t that chaotic.
Crossing the railway reveals a set of train tracks so old and withered there’s grass and moss covering every inch. Totally lacking any modernity like electric switches, red and green traffic signals and safety triggers to avoid collisions and derailment, the nation’s large train network somehow operates with an odd degree of developing world efficiency. Routinely crossing tracks, people board the trains not from platforms but by simply walking on the tracks and jumping on. With no third rail or anything electrified, there’s nothing to worry about. Often needing help from other patrons to board, there’s no stairs or makeshift walkways allowing passengers to climb the five or six feet from train track to rail car nor does a conductor announce anything about departure times or destinations. One shrill sound of the loud train whistle either means move or get run over and board now or forever hold your peace.
Finding the ticket booth wasn’t difficult and after crossing some stairs Diane asked for two tickets on the next departure which wasn’t until 9:30 AM, so we walked down the stairs and waited at the platform while doing some people watching. Although there’s no track, train or destination signs anywhere, lots of locals gathered and each train that came through seemed mostly full. As the departure point for Manadaly, Bagan and all other destinations, the station bustles with commuters as well as families, groups and kids traveling with lots of luggage. Everyone smiles, people love to be in pictures and unlike seedy train stations in the “developed” Western world, there’s no homelessness, beggars or criminal element waiting to pounce on careless tourists. Myanmar people are very well dressed no matter what their social status and people are always willing to help.
Observing the trains themselves, they’re not as primitive as Bourdain described, at least from the outside, but no two trains look the same and most of the fleet are old Japanese models probably removed from Japan 20 years ago. Inquiring from a nice woman to make sure we’d be boarding the correct train, we smiled as the circular train pulled in right on time and chose seats in the middle since assigned seating is not really understood in Malaysia.* Better than what most guide books describe except for the toilet, the circular train is no longer a wooden clunker and although it does travel slowly, the carriage has cushioned seats, fans and appears worthy of making the 24 mile run mostly without incident.
* Domestic flights in Myanmar all have unassigned seating and we observed several Myanmar young adults trying to swap to more expensive Premium Flex seats on our return flight home to Penang. Clearly unfamiliar with international aviation passenger protocol, they looked sadly confused when forced to turn off their phones and put the seats in an upright position and seemed dismayed to learn you can’t change your seat even when the plane isn’t full.
Unfortunately, seeing the thousands of vendors, commuters, and locals all scrambling to transport their goods somewhere is for very early risers so we didn’t see the crush of morning commuters but we did stop at several locations where people got on with some stuff and mostly slept. At the risk of sounding blunt, most stations seem dilapidated, very shanty looking and sadly in need of an upgrade which clearly illustrates the extreme poverty that many city residents live with. Please note my blog is observational and never meant to pass judgement. In fact, the people are the main reason to visit Myanmar. Always the friendliest, we found some great kids that hung out with us, a few interesting locals willing to share stories and a very well dressed mom with her two adorable kids that practiced their English with us which helped pass the three hours in no time at all. Highly recommended, the Circular Train is a fun way to spend some time among the real “Yangonites” but once you’ve had an uneventful on-time experience, albeit an old-fashioned one, you long for the real adventure where derailments, long delays and a myriad of other unplanned delays are possible. And that’s why we took Train 143 a week later.
Mostly used as a base for treks to Inle Lake, Kalaw sits in the base of the wonderfully cooler mountains of Shan State, about 240 miles north of Yangon. Oddly, there’s about six domestic airlines that serve Myanmar but they’re all about the same price. Drastically ripping off foreigners for a short 45 minute jaunt on a 60 passenger turboprop, we paid $450 USD for two round trip tickets from Yangon to HeHo, a small airport sandwiched between Kalaw and Inle Lake. Having already taken three bus trips we didn’t feel like two more so we caved and used the startup airline called Asian Wings, mostly because it was the only website that allowed online purchases using our shitty home wifi.
Discussing domestic air travel needs its own post so to make a long story short, if you want to fly, ignore all the horror stories and use the re-branded national airline (Myanmar Airlines). Prices and service are about the same but the planes are newer and our bizarre little 30 minute flight from Mawlamyine to Yangon arrived at the little airstrip an hour before the scheduled departure, boarded us and five other foreigners and took off. Just like that. Arrive at small airports early or risk being left.
Originally planning one day at the nearby Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp, a sanctuary for “retired” working elephants too old to do heavy labor, we changed our mind due to their exorbitant prices based on what’s offered. Staying at the Thaitaw Lay House, the number one rated B&B in Kalaw on TripAdvisor, the proprietor provides suggestions for self guided day treks in the surrounding area not found in guide books. Enjoying a four-hour trek, we still needed a substitute activity to replace the elephants so we decided on a three-hour train ride through an area much more scenic than Yangon’s commuter train. Arranging for a local taxi driver to drop us at the train station and pick us up later at Schwen Yanug, the closest train stop to Inle Lake, we met our reliable driver at the B&B fro the two-minute drive. Arriving at the beautiful red brick station in Kalaw, our driver went in the little station with us to help us buy tickets which was helpful since the process is literally a throwback to another time.
Transporting you back a few decades, the station master works out of a small dingy room using absolutely no computerized anything. First and most importantly, you need to arrive about 30 minutes before the hypothetical arrival time of the slow train from Thazi (11:35 AM). Speaking no English, the station master used a walkie-talkie circa “my early childhood” to communicate with the arriving train. Informing us it wasn’t delayed that day by rain, debris, or any other physical obstacles, our taxi driver handed our passports to the manager who wrote out a paper ticket and recorded it in a large ledger book (for the internet generation, that’s an archaic method used for accounting purposes).
Unimaginable that a national rail system exists today with no computerized services, no electrical systems, no signals, archaic track with no crossover options, hand-operated crossing gates and workers literally looking under the train for obstructions as it passes through mountain passes, it’s a fascinating glimpse of how economic sanctions kept Myanmar stuck in time. With so many things needing upgrades, it’s doubtful anyone will modernize the trains or the system anytime soon and basically, it works, so if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Several foreigners and a few backpackers looked baffled as they waited behind us and asked questions about the ticket purchasing process and we emerged grateful that we had help. Waiting patiently, we enjoyed the serenity but sure enough the train whistle sounded about five minutes after the scheduled arrival time and the clunky old blue train pulled into the middle track. Totally unattended, some passengers disembarked and we followed everyone else, stepped off the platform to the middle track and carefully helped each other on another train with no modern features like platform arrivals or stairs for boarding. Always selling the “upper class” seats to foreigners, most locals are stuck with wooden benches and our cushioned seats had a modicum of comfort but nothing resembling any other Southeast Asian train you may have been on.
Once on board, it took only a minute or two for the stern looking Myanmar Police Officer to arrive with a clipboard and we needed to record our passport and visa numbers as well as showing the little paper ticket. Smiling isn’t this guy’s thing and it’s wise to always carry something showing your identity once you leave the big city despite the fresh wave of tourism. Glancing at the particulars, the wooden floor boards have holes that lead right down to the track, the windows have no protection and be warned: DO NOT lean any body part even one inch out the window or you’ll risk a large cut like from the untrimmed shrubs and tree branches that line the train’s route. Thankfully, the train goes slow enough that the gash on my finger only bled for a few minutes and being married to a nurse comes in handy since Diane always carries bandages, napkins and some sort of wet-nap.
Traveling slowly, the train meanders its way through lush mountains and green fields, making two stops at small towns along the journey. Mostly paralleling the national highway, it’s not the Canadian Rockies or the Patagonian Highlands but at least there’s less garbage scattered along the side due to sparse population and it does make for some nice pictures. Creaking along, it’s hard to stand by the door for pictures because the train rocks back and forth, sometimes kind of violently when they speed up a bit and make sure you use the bathroom before boarding, especially if squat toilets aren’t your thing. Train doors may be closed and nobody cares if you open them since they’re not automatic or anything.
After about two hours, the most fascinating part of the trip occurred. Approaching a bridge, the train creaked and moaned as it attempted to make sharp turns without computerized technology that protects most of the world’s trains from derailments. Eventually, it ground to a halt and we saw a bunch of Myanmar locals all huddled on the side. Carrying little tiffin boxes, they appeared to be workers although nobody on the train except the police officer wore anything resembling a uniform. Jumping off the train, the driver (I can’t really call him an “engineer”) began shouting things at the workers who appeared to be physically inspecting underneath the train. Unsure what they were looking for, the train proceeded at about 2 MPH over the course of the sharp angle turn while they continued to look under the train. Assuming it’s to make sure there’s no debris, rocks, animals or anything else that might prevent safe passage, it might be kind of scary if it wasn’t so unbelievably interesting.
Eventually the train made its way to a broken signal of some sort right before the bridge crossing and stopped again. Standing outside, a woman appeared to be taking some cash from the driver which they told us is a toll to cross the bridge. After another few minutes, the train made its way across the bridge and continued its slow but steady journey to the next station. Kids went back to playing on the train bridge and life went on.
Even with the delay, the train pulled into the Shwen Yuang station only about 20 minutes behind schedule and our driver was waiting as promised. Unlike the picturesque Kalaw station or the grandiose terminal in Yangon, this train station was unflattering, dirty and lacking any character. Unlike most other places we’d been, the locals seemed indifferent, the taxi drivers didn’t jump right out at us and people went about life as if the train’s arrival was just another event in an uneventful day.
Used as a junction between the national highway and the Inle Lake turnoff, there’s nothing to see at the destination and it’s a one hour drive back to Kalaw on a road that parallels the scenery we’d just seen so you may want to plan on traveling on from this point. Others prefer taking an overnight train all the way from Yangon whereby you’d transfer to a bus and catch the slow train in Thazi on your way to the Inle Lake area. Although the train was interesting, we wouldn’t recommend using it for intercity transfers and each time we suggested it as a possibility, the locals gave us a look that said “Why would you want to do that?”. But experiencing how trains work in a nation left out of the modern world for so many years is a highly enjoyable way to spend some time and may even make you think twice when complaining about the crappy service or endless delays of your local commuter train. Well worth your time.