A legacy of Myanmar’s colonial past is a sound railway system. Myanmar’s British- built railways are less developed than other countries in Southeast Asia, but you will definitely find travel by train is a wonderful way to get around and experience the country. The railway journeys always offer scenic views and chance to mingle with local people that are often not otherwise possible. The journeys is an adventure as the country itself!
There are over 5.400 kilometers of railway track, covering most parts of the country, which is operated by Myanmar Railways, a state owned organization. Myanmar’s railway network serves some 858 stations on 10 interconnected train lines. A few Myanmar private enterprises have come into existence as well.
On premier routes like Yangon to Mandalay, the trains are reasonably clean, comfortable, and relatively speedy. On the other routes, don’t expect western standards as train travel in Myanmar is an ‘adventure’. It is painfully slow, and furnishing such as lights and seats are not in good state of repair. But above all, the glass panes are secured out of the way, giving travelers a clear and fascinating view of the countryside and villages, the ‘real’ Burma.
Myanmar’s trains are divided into express (yellow engine) and local (blue engine). Express trains are usually fairly comfortable, and have dining car. They run on the main routes like Yangon- Mandalay. Local trains are less desirable in terms of punctuality, comfort, and safety.
There are normally four types of seat available on Myanmar’s trains: ordinary class, first class, upper class, and sleeper class.
Ordinary class has basic wooden seats, extremely uncomfortable for long journeys and usually crowded. It is available in all trains.
First class is almost identical to Ordinary class with simple wooden seats but with cushioned bottoms. It is only available on certain trains.
Upper class has comfortable (in comparison with wooden seats), reclining seats. The seats normally face the direction of travel, but can be rotated to face each other. Be prepare that they are lack of cleaning and upkeep! It is available on all trains.
There are two types of sleeper class, standard sleeper and special sleeper.
Standard sleeper: operate on Yangon- Mandalay, Yangon- Bagan, and Mandalay- Myitkyina routes. It has 2 to 4 berths in compartment, washbasin and toilet at the end of each carriage.
Special sleeper: usually only available on Yangon to Mandalay route, self-contained compartment (maximum of 4) with their own toilet and entrance from the platform.
Tickets and time
For most major routes, you need to buy ticket directly at the train stations, from which you will be departing. There is no computerized booking system, reservations are based on hand- written lists, and train tickets are also hand-written. Have your passport handy as your name, nationality, and passport number will be written on your ticket.
At railway stations, you can book tickets one day in advance for normal class, three days in advance for upper class, and it may take one or two weeks for sleeper class. There is no way to buy them online as there isn’t an official Burma train ticket booking website. You can ask your hotel before arriving to know if they can book the tickets, or try going through a travel agency.
Tickets are paid by kyat. Since 2014, foreigners pay the same fares as Burmese citizens, this makes train travel in Myanmar even cheaper, though it wasn’t too expensive before.
Myanmar train are unreliable. Delays can vary from 5- 10 minutes on short trips to over 12 hours on long trips. Therefore, build some flexibility into your plan.
Standout Myanmar railway journeys
Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw – the Gokteik Viaduct
One of the most spectacular journey in Myanmar, this route will take you in the beautiful of Shan State and the towering Gokteik Viaduct. This journey has many fascinating stops, the first is the old British hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin, well worth a visit with its colonial buildings and botanic gardens. After Pyin Oo lwin, the train snakes its way through pleasant countryside to the highlight of the journey, the crossing of stunning valley on the dramatic Gokteik Viaduct. This steel structure is considered as a British engineering masterpieces. It was the largest of its kind in the world at the time it was completed. The train passes over the deep ravine at walking pace to the countrified town of Hsipaw. The best option to experience this journey is to take bus one way and back train the other.
A journey to Inle Lake on the slow train from Thazi
This route is a forking off the main Yangon and Mandalay line. The train line takes you up and over mountains and hills on the way from Thazi to Inle Lake. This 10-hour ride has multiple switchbacks along the side of the mountain, and a point where it crosses a bridge. This journey is a great way to go back in time and get a glimpse of the life of local people while contemplating the beautiful scenery.
‘Circular train’ in Yangon
While Yangon is a bustling city, riding the ‘circular train’ provides a window into the daily life of local people. This commuter train rides a three-hour loop around the city, traveling through the urban area and out into villages in the countryside. There is a departure every hour and the train just go around and around continuously.
Train travel in Myanmar may neither be the fastest nor the cheapest way to get around, but it is the super way to get a different perspective on the country, experience some spectacular sceneries, and interact with local people.