Myanmar: Mandalay to Myitkyina by train

This journey definitely deserves a post to itself. The previous evening had been spent drinking with river-workers in a local bar, so i was feeling a touch groggy as I made my way to the train station to take the 05:15am train from Mandalay to Myitkyina. I’d bought my ticket the previous day and already scoped out where the train left from, so i was able to board half-asleep. I was questioning my decision to travel third class for a journey that is scheduled for 24 hours but is known to frequently take longer.

The train set off promptly, and I made myself as comfortable as I could on the hard plastic bench to enjoy the ride out of Mandalay as daylight approached. I had the bench seat and the one opposite to myself, so I could stretch out and watch the passing rural scenes through the window. The window itself is wide open, i.e. the glass is raised up, which I was thankful for as third class does not have fans to move the air around inside the carriage.

The scenery is generally rural scenes that probably haven’t changed in centuries. Farm labour is mostly carried out without modern machinery, with oxen pulling wooden ploughs and carts.

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Food vendors walk through the aisles – and also outside near to stations – selling a variety of meals, snacks, and drinks. You certainly do not need to pack food for this journey.

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We’d been travelling a few hours when the train stopped at a town with a very full platform. New passengers rushed into the carriages, and sacks of rice and baskets of vegetables were passed through the open windows to be stored under seats, between seats, and in the aisle. Suddenly the carriage was not sleepy, but full with chatter and laughter. I received a lot of smiles and nods, and food was offered to me as the train set off once again. You can never say the people of Myanmar do not make you feel welcome.

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I looked at my GPS occasionally to see where we were, and noticed the train’s speed ranged from approximately 35kph to around 50kph. We appeared to be making good progress. When approaching the higher speeds, the carriages would start to sway violently from side to side, requiring the driver to slow down again. It’s also the bumpiest train journey I’ve ever been on, and there were times when passengers were momentarily airborne, before returning to their seats with a bump. The two children sat nearby had a great time, and thought it very funny to be sliding and jumping around with the movement of the carriage.

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To relieve the boredom I gave my compact camera to the children to take photos. They loved this and we had a lot of fun as they photographed me and each other. The parents were really happy to see their kids having fun with the foreigner, and filmed us for a while on their smartphone. After this, the children lost a lot of their shyness, and sat next to me occasionally to peer out of the window.

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Rubbish generated on the train is disposed of by throwing it out of the window. The lady opposite helpfully explained this to me, stating that I do not need to keep rubbish under my seat, but simply throw it outside. It’s quite bizarre to watch adults teaching their children to through plastic bags into the environment. The sides of the tracks are littered with various plastic and polythene receptacles, which increases in density with proximity to stations.

At stations we would often wait for a train coming the other way, and end up ‘parked’ alongside. It gave good opportunity to look and smile at the people on-board.

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As the journey progressed, the trips to the toilet – which is just a hole in the floor – were faced with greater reluctance. With the rocking carriage, it was quite difficult to use with accuracy, and the odours were getting rather unbearable. The fact there was no running water did not help matters. I was very glad my seat was exactly in the middle of the carriage, and only infrequently did the odour reach me there.

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As darkness fell, so did the temperatures. I opened my bag to retrieve clothes to stay warm. The family who I sat with were very organised, and set out sleeping mats with blankets for their children. I was getting aches and pains from the cramped sitting position and the hard plastic seat. I knew that the cold temperatures and bouncing train were not going to help me get to sleep. We pulled into Nebo in darkness (many towns have no electricity other than generators and so lighting is very limited). I wondered if there would be any food vendors. I needn’t have worried as dozens of women, balancing plates filled with food and lamps or candles, looked for sales through the carriage windows.

It was very chilly indeed when the train pulled into Myitkyina at around 5am. Remarkably, the train was not late. I wandered out of the station in darkness to find my GPS did not have the street map for Myitkyina loaded. A motorbike taxi driver asked me if I wanted to go to the YMCA and quoted K1000 as the fare. I knew the YMCA had cheap rooms so jumped on. The ride lasted around 1 minute, as it turns out the YMCA is just a around the corner.

Would I recommend taking the train from Mandalay to Myitkyina? Well, there are other options available including bus (foreigners are now permitted), boat, and airplane. The bus journey may be a little quicker, but will surely be less enjoyable than a crazy train-ride. The boat journey is much better to do on the return, when you travel with the current, and flying is convenient but you will have no great memories. If you can take a little sleep deprivation and use an unpleasant smelling toilet then I really recommend travelling third class on the overnight train.

A couple of tips for your journey:

  • Buy the train ticket before your day of travel. You can then brave the early morning knowing your seat is secure and don’t risk delays at the ticket office.
  • Consider taking a cushion if travelling third class, as you will suffer many hours on a hard bench seat (second and first class seats are more comfortable)
  • Take a blanket or warm clothing for the night-time
  • Look around for an immigration desk when you arrive at the Myitkyina train station. If there is one, I missed it, which led to a small problem when leaving Myitkyina a few days later, which i will detail in a later post.
  • Book your accommodation beforehand, and consider asking if you can check in early. I was lucky that someone at the YMCA let me in and gave me a room in the early hours of the morning.

1 Comment

  1. Paul Taylor

    It was obviously a great experience despite the discomforts and will get all the more interesting with subsequent recollection and retelling. From your pictures I now have a more concrete notion of my colonial era road to Mandalay fantasies.

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