I have ridden the rails in Africa, the Americas,Asia, Australia and Europe in steam trains to TGVs!
Today’s report talks about a train ride in Myanmar (Burma) from Mandalay (the country’s second biggest city located in the centre of the map) to Bagan (the tourist and spiritual heart of the country located southwest of Mandalay). This ride has to be simultaneously one of the best, worst and funniest rail journeys I have ever done!
Some websites warn tourists that trains in Myanmar are expensive compared to buses, slow, uncomfortable, dirty, noisy and smelly. True.
Others extol that this is one of the best ways to experience the “real Myanmar”, see the countryside, interact with locals and travel at a relaxed pace. This is true too.
Mandalay to Bagan is a mere 179km (110 miles). The train takes just under eight hours to complete the trip- yes an average 14mph! Interestingly, the distance is similar to that between Nagoya and Osaka in Japan which takes a mere 50 minutes by Shinkansen high speed train! What is extraordinary is that Mandalay to Bagan is the newest and most modern rail line in Myanmar, having been built in 1996.
Thanks to the man in seat61 for your excellent advice on Myanmar Railways including agents you can but rail tickets through. The rail company do not yet have a website. To buy tickets, we contacted a travel agent: Exotic Myanmar Travels & Tours Company whose motto is “Clients Satisfaction is our goal”. Sadly, our satisfaction was not achieved! We are not sure whether we had a uniquely bad experience or train tickets are not a priority for this company. It took 26 emails over a two month period to buy what we thought was a basic rail ticket. Information from the company was not forthcoming. The experience so disappointed us that we went to another agency to book other things. Having said that the tickets were waiting for us in Mandalay and were entirely correct. Payment was by Mastercard payment online. All rail booking Travel agents will deliver your tickets to your hotel or a travel agency office.
We were glad to have booked as the train was completely full.
In April this year, the government removed a requirement for foreigners to buy tickets in US dollars, dramatically reducing the charge for this sector to $3 for Upper Class and $2 for Ordinary Class. Exotic Tours did not pass on the reduction onto us despite buying the tickets after April 1.
Check in: 7/10
We were told to check in half an hour before and we were glad we did. Mandalay station is not huge but the signage which is mostly in Burmese was not clear. We wandered in circles for a bit until we asked at a ticket window where to go. The staff member studiously ignored our questioning. I suspect because his English was very limited. When he realised we had tickets and only wanted directions to the Bagan Train, he brightened up: “Bagan?” “Bagan, yes” “Ah Bagan Platform 1A. 1A. Okay?”.
We found Platform 1, Platform 2 and Platform 3 but no 1A until station staff went out of their way to rescue us. Platform is like that platform in the Harry Potter series. It is hidden. You walk southwards down to almost the end of the main platform one and then cross the tracks to Platform 1A which sits West of platform one.
The station was filled with people sitting, eating, chatting, sleeping – mostly in family groups who all stared fascinated by the westerner heading for a local train.
We were in Carriage Number One (the “Upper Class” carriage). It was not the first carriage at the beginning or the end of the train so not sure how the numbering worked! The entry to the car was a confusion of boxes, bags and people. Full entertainment value!
Seat numbering was very clear but there was a huge debate going in between two groups of people over their seats. We didn’t understand the dialogue but the gestures clearly indicated the discussion which halted us moving through the carriage. Eventually this was resolved to the satisfaction of everyone it seems. The train conductor swooped down on us and very kindly guided us to our seats, formally checking and marking our tickets.
On Board: 4/10
The carriages seemed very old and a little grubby. The floors had been swept, however and each seat in our upper class carriage was covered in a spotless white sheet. There were 48 seats were arranged in groups of four around a small table with two seats facing forward and two seats facing backward.. Leg room was great. The luggage racks above the passenger heads gave each passenger a very generous amount of luggage space.
Ventilation came from the windows which were all wide open and roof mounted electric fans. Insects poured in through the windows attracted by the electric light bulbs. The ride was very rough and at times comical as heads bounced up and down everywhere.
There was a squat lavatory at the end of each carriage. Take your own wipes and even a plastic bag to place them in. Do not attempt to flush them down the toilet or do what some locals did and throw their used wipes out the train window.
We were the only “foreigners” in our carriage. There were two others on the train sitting further down in an ordinary class carriage. We never had a chance to chat with them.
Pedlars wandered through on a regular basis selling snacks and drinks. At many stops, people walked past the train windows announcing their wares. Food was passed in and money passed out the windows!
Take plenty of water! While we had brought our own drinks, we drank them very quickly in the hot climate.
There was obviously no internet, no on board movies and no commentary but there was plenty of other stuff to entertain us:
Firstly, there was the view from the train windows. The moon rose as we rode (slowly) through the Burmese countryside. Moonlight reflected off the curved roofs of pagodas through the night. Très romantique !
Secondly, the scenes at the train stations we stopped at were enthralling. Families, kids, station workers, dogs, food sellers all competed for space and gave a very real glimpse of Myanmar life. Many mouths dropped open, smiles widened and hands raised in greeting when they saw a white face gazing out the window.
Thirdly, those around us shyly interacted. One guy revealed his Dad was the train conductor and pointed out that about one fifth of the passengers in the Upper Class carriage were related to him. Another explained he was on his way to Bagan for a ten day vacation with family. Much amusement was provided by the couple seated opposite us. Somewhat drunk, he lay down on the floor and slept, his feet protruding across the carriage. The ticket inspector ignored this completely stepping over the sleeping passenger as he walked up and down the train. The gentleman in his sleep, stretched his arms out a few times wrapping them around my legs and hugging them tight. One way to get to know a local! His wife was very embarrased by this and would grab his hands back. At one point she sat on them to prevent his hands from reaching toward me.
After finishing the book I had brought, I fruitlessly tried to sleep, as did most of the train including our ticket conductor who rested with his bag on his lap.
I was shocked that the train arrived bang on time at the modern Bagan station (below). I was both disappointed that the journey had finished, relieved it was over and excited to be in amazing Bagan.
There were plenty of taxi drivers bargaining over the journey to the nearby towns of Old and New Bagan. Our driver started at 50 dollars for the trip! One of our fellow passengers advised us he was paying five dollars for the same trip! Interestingly this guy did not want to get involved in negotiating with our driver at all! We bargained the driver down -not reaching the local price of five dollars but way less than 50!
I will write about our amazing time in Bagan on Thursday.
My Trip Rating: Overall 66% (3.4 out of 5).
Positives: On time Arrival, Experience
Negatives: Booking system, slow train
Would I ride this train again? No but I would take another train in Myanmar!