When planning my travels to Myanmar I wanted to use the trains as much as possible. However, it ended up being practical to use the train just once, the overnight train from Bagan to Yangon. I am so happy for this decision because although it wasn’t the smoothest ride, and it wasn’t a great night of sleep, it was one of the highlights of my travels in SE Asia. Bold statement yes, but there was something about the scenery, and seeing Myanmar from a different perspective than in the cities, that made the journey very eye-opening and unique.
As the train arrived in the station, about an hour late, we were led to our sleeping car, given our sheets for the beds, and within a few minutes we were on our way. The train seems to have two different types of cars. Most of the cars are what you would expect- bench seats mostly made of wood and open windows with no glass. In addition there were two sleeping cars, which also had no glass in the windows, and it seemed like only foreigners were in the sleeping cars.
Even inside the station there was a separate lounge for foreigners which the ticket guy led us to. It seemed designed to keep the foreigners separate from the Burmese people but I still hoped we would be joined by a Burmese couple or family. All of my train trips abroad with locals have been enjoyable because even with a language barrier, somehow I have managed to have a great time talking with the people I encounter while on the train. It’s a nice way to get to know other people, and see a different side of local life. Sadly this didn’t happen, as it ended up that my husband and I were the only ones in our sleeper car that could sleep four.
The height of the experience was looking out the window and seeing a totally different way of living, and watching the local children running to the train to wave and yell “Hello.” The ride was very bumpy and I imagined it felt like being on a stagecoach, bumping and rolling from side to side, looking out the windows with no glass or screens, and watching as the landscape drifts by, allowing for glimpses into everyday life for people in rural Myanmar. Relaxing with a cold beer as the sun was setting, I sat in quiet contemplation thinking of how life would be lived without electricity and running water, and the thrill of running to watch the train pass with some faces very different from my own. It was eye-opening for me, and by far the wildest train ride I have ever experienced, and maybe ever will.
As the light faded, I started to feel sleepy, so off to bed we went. The sleeping part was not as romantic and amazing as looking out the window. Aside from being very hot, the constant bumping and jerking of the train woke me up every time the train slowed downed, stopped, or sped up. We were a far cry from the quiet, smooth train rides of Japan. Luckily I was able to get a few hours of sleep, and I ended up giving up trying around sunrise. This was just as well however because it was beautiful watching the sunrise over the fields, with smoke billowing up from all over. I enjoyed watching people wake up, catching glimpses of people bathing (don’t worry, they all bathe with sarongs on), washing their faces, brushing their teeth, or just heading to get some water for whatever household chore it was needed for.
Pulling into each station also brought another opportunity to see into local life. Along with passengers moving to board or exit the train, there were many vendors walking up and down along the train selling anything from beer and water to fruit and prepared food. This created a very noisy atmosphere with people shouting, money being exchanged, and people rushing to get on and off the train. The vendors ranged in age from children selling their own goods, or helping out a mom or relative, to older ladies barely able to lift their heavy baskets. You could find different kinds of fruits, but mostly mangoes, apples, and grapes. For food options there were beef samosas, hard boiled eggs, and plastic bags filled with what looked like home made potato chips, as well as other salty snacks. Late at night there was only snack options for food while the morning brought more substantial offerings. Basically each stop served as the dining car, and you didn’t need to leave your seat, just stick your head out the window and see what was offered.
Making our way closer and closer to Yangon there were more houses and people to see but not as much as I would expect. I kept expecting a big city to materialize with a big sprawl of suburbs, but for the most part Myanmar is still pretty rural, and it doesn’t take long after leaving a small town or small city to find yourself surrounded by rice fields and other crops, as well as water buffalo here and there. But it doesn’t matter if it’s the city or the countryside, you will find many pagodas and monasteries. They are everywhere, shining big and gold, and if you’re lucky you can hear chanting as you slowly pass by.
Even though I experienced a difficult night of sleep, I was not cranky or upset. The train ride was amazing. It was definitely one of my favorite parts about our short trip to Myanmar. Seeing the people and the beautiful countryside made me wish we had more time. Time to jump on a motorbike and travel around this wild country. Or a chance to befriend some people and see Myanmar through their eyes. But either way, I will return to this amazing country. I worry that it will change too quickly and not be recognizable in just a few short years, but I can only hope it can keep some of its wild and friendly feel for all to enjoy.
Although you can buy bus tickets all over Bagan, you can only buy the train tickets at the station. This gave us the chance for a fun ride on motorbikes to the other side of town. Unfortunately we arrived and the ticket office was closed. Thankfully, after waiting about 20 minutes, a man let us know that it didn’t open until 3pm, so plan accordingly. You can even tie in buying tickets with the local market in Nyaung-U.
You can book tickets the day of your trip or a few days in advance. It seems that foreigners can only book sleeper cars on this route. The price was much less than what was quoted in town and on websites. We ended up paying about $30 for 2 people in our very own sleeper car. There is only one train that leaves from Bagan to Yangon, leaving at 5pm, arriving at 11am the next morning. But expect it to be late, as it was the day we booked the tickets as well as the day we left. There is a special tourist lounge that the ticket agent will lead you too, but there are seats out near the train tracks if you want to do some people watching.
What to bring
Before getting on the train, it’s a good idea to either eat a big meal or bring snacks, water, beer, and toilet paper. There are a few small shops and restaurants just outside the station and next to the tracks. We bought some water, beer, some biscuits for breakfast, and I saw a mango in the fridge, which I am pretty sure wasn’t for sale, but the lady was kind enough to sell it to me. (It was quiet possibly the best mango I have every eaten so I still thank that woman for appeasing a crazy lady). Again, the train has no dining car, but at each station stop you can buy anything, from water and beer to random snacks and fresh fruit from vendors who walk alongside the train.
My last piece of advice is to wear clothes you are comfortable in, and that you don’t mind getting dirty. Along with it being a bumpy ride, it can get quite dirty with all the dust and smoke flying in as you go.
Have you ever had a unique train ride somewhere in the world or in Myanmar? What was your experience like, and what made it so memorable for you?