Visiting Myanmar alone was already an adventure, but using the local train system, Myanmar Railways, was certainly something else.
While staying in Thailand and getting a Myanmar visa in Bangkok, I had heard already some rumors about the local rail system. Some people had mentioned that Myanmar Railways was best to be avoided, while other talked about beautiful sceneries and an epic train adventure. The internet warned simply of the poor rail and bridge conditions, while the guide-book recommended using the bus. But what was really going on, I was about to find out once I managed to get the required crisp US Dollars for Myanmar in Bangkok and then took off for Yangon.
As it turned out, already the first guesthouse strongly discouraged me from using the railway, not only because it was more expensive, but also because it took more time than the bus. Travelling from Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin for example took two hours in a slow pick-up truck, while the train needed more than four hours to cover the same distance. Luckily I decided to take the pick-up, because the train managed to have an eight-hour delay on my day of travel. For me, this was a really telling moment, realizing that it was actually possible to have an eight-hour delay on a four-hour train ride that should really only take two hours…
Background of Myanmar Railways
In an attempt of trying to understand these circumstances, it came up that the railway in Myanmar was actually established during British colonial times. Britain had been using the railway already for many years when they established the first colonial line in British India in 1853. By 1877 Myanmar was following with a track starting in Yangon that stretched by 1898 all the way to the northern town of Myitkyina. Nowadays some of the old British infrastructure was still in use, like the nice colonial railway station of Kalaw for example were people could still be seen arriving in a horse Buggy to catch a train.
On the other hand, WW2 and the Japanese occupation with its dark Death Railway chapter left the train system apparently in a really bad shape with only one-third of it operational. Some great repair efforts and extensions of the railway system were launched after Myanmar’s independence with the result that the rail network nowadays was almost twice as extensive as it used to be under British rule. As a result, trains and platforms were always busy with people selling fruits or dragging bags of produce into the compartment. That the trains felt rarely overcrowded was probably the only positive side effect of the comparatively expensive and slow train service.
The Railway in actual Use
But the real adventure started when actually using Myanmar Railways and first off there were three different train classes to choose from. The Ordinary Class was the cheapest, came with wooden benches and could be paid for in Kyat. The Upper Class offered actual seats, but for some strange reason had to be paid for in crisp US dollars, which was obviously also true for the even more expensive Upper Class Sleeper that was offered on overnight trains. I even spotted a restaurant car once and was simply amazed by the fact that they managed to cook food on their two flame coal stove while the train was in full motion.
How much the train actually was in motion, I came to realize on my very first Crazy Train Ride to Naba and Katha. I was simply in disbelieve how much the carriage was shaking, swaying and moving sideways, starting right from the minute we pulled out of Mandalay station. In order to stand up straight, it was necessary to spread out arms and legs while holding on to fixed items, in order to simply avoid being tossed around in the cabin. Sometimes the train moved sideways and jumped up and down in such a dramatic way that it seemed we might actually derail any given minute.
Luckily no derailing ever happened on my train rides, but the constant motion and the snapping branches of the bushes on the overgrown single tracks was really something unique to the Myanmar Railways journey. I had never experienced something like that before and it was the exact same situation on my two other train rides, from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw and from Shwenyang to Kalaw. On these train journeys, not only was I covered in leaves after a while, but also the motion was so strong that it was simply impossible to even read a book. Crossing between coaches or attempting to use the toilet became then a real travel adventure.
The Rail Conditions
The reason why the trains were moving and bouncing so much although they were going at a really low-speed was well beyond my understanding. Actually some freight trains were apparently only allowed to go as fast as 25 km/h while some passenger trains had to move as slow as 15 km/h to avoid putting too much stress on the existing rail structure. This seemed very strange to me considering that the railway in Myanmar was established by the British at the same time as the one in India. Why was the situation so much worse here in Myanmar?
Only when investigating the issue further and walking along some railroad tracks, I realized in which poor condition the rails actually were. Just by looking at the rail heads with the bare eye, it was already possible to see how much they were bent and warped. Strangely enough, but this was the true for old and new tracks alike and the reason lay well beyond my understanding. On top of that, the big gaps between the individual rail pieces probably also did not help the effort of providing a better train experience as well.
But the other thing that apparently happened was that India upgraded most of its tracks to a broad gauge system while Myanmar was still using an old-fashioned, narrow one meter gauge. Paired with the poor rail conditions and probably worn out suspensions of the carriages, there seemed to be at least some sort of an explanation why taking the railroad in Myanmar had become such an adventurous experience. Also the fact that some stretches of the rail network were so little maintained and overgrown that they were used my locals to walk or feed their cows seemed also quite telling.
At the end of the day, I found all Myanmar Railways rumors to be true. As a timely means of transport the trains were best to be avoided, they were surprisingly expensive compared to the bus, the rails were in poor condition and it really was an epic adventure to ride in a coach. On top of that, the views of the landscapes and rural areas were simply amazing and could be fully enjoyed due to the low-speed. Also crossing engineering marvels like the Gokteik Viaduct was a fun bonus that lead to the conclusion that using Myanmar Railways was a not-to-miss adventure that certainly made sure that the journey became the true destination.
Myanmar Railways in Motion
Have you used Myanmar Railways before? What was your experience?