Hello, get aboard that train again because today I’m reminiscing about a wonderful train experience in Myanmar. Today’s journey is from Thazi, in central Myanmar, to the stunning if touristy Inle Lake further east. Thazi was a sort of midpoint for me between Inle Lake and Bagan, being slightly closer to Bagan but with no train connecting this section. By bus it was only about 3 hours if that, but be warned – by train or bus it will take you a lot longer to Inle Lake!
Having said that, train is again significantly slower than bus. But for people who like trains, like being able to walk around, have an open window, and see how life is for a place, there is no competition, train is almost always the choice. Unless the travel time difference is just obscene.
Of course, trains in Myanmar are pretty unpredictable and can often leave horrendously late and arrive even later. My journey on this train started pretty much on time, but ended some two hours later than it was supposed to. But what’s a couple of hours, honestly?
What can I tell you about the departure point, Thazi? Not much. There’s not much there and I only stayed overnight as was leaving early in the morning. I stayed at the Moonlight Guesthouse, which was on the main road. The manager said it was common to go by horse and cart to the station, so she ordered me one that arrived nice and early at around 6am to take me to the train that left at 7am for Shwenyaung, the closest station to Inle Lake.
It was a really beautiful, cool morning and the station had a low buzz of activity. It had several platforms, far more than was needed I’d say in 2015 for the volume of trains that went through. I had to go to special office to get my ticket as a foreigner, but that was taken care of quickly without issue.
I nearly hopped on board a train that was waiting thinking it was my train. From the track side of the train! Well, locals were doing it, however, I was pointed to the correct platform and the train arrived soon enough.
The upper class carriages were set out like the ones on the Pyin Oo Lwin ride, with large seats that once were comfortable thirty years perhaps ago, and now were so worn it was sad. These ones did not have the clean, white coverings of the previous rail journey, and the condition was significantly worse overall as well with some seats locked into position, some impossible to lock. I took a seat facing forwards which I always like, across the aisle an old lady had a number of bags and four seats to herself. It mattered little, the carriage itself was less than half full. The ceiling fans, the ones still in position, didn’t work, there were wires sticking out here and there, this carriage had really been left to deteriorate over the years. Having said that, when you pay $1.70 for a 10 hour journey, well, what can you expect?
We moved off roughly on time, give or take five minutes. That’s 7.00am. The midway point would be the town of Kalaw, in the cool hill region, due in at 13.15, the destination of Shwenyaung was scheduled to be reached at 17.00.
The first part of the journey was across fields and flat land, and after about an hour or so we slowly moved into the mountains. Up the mountains we went and stopped at a village station. This was the first of the switchbacks as the train left the station going back the way it entered and onto another track heading further up the mountains. The train did this I think three more times (no other stations involved), I meant to make a note of how many times, but to be honest I lost count. The mountains were densely forested and green.
It had heated up as we entered the mountains, but up the top it was a beautiful cool place as we finally stopped at the mid-point (in truth a bit closer to the end of the journey, but we had just done all the climbing) of Kalaw. It was around 2pm, around 45 minutes late. But over a 6-7 hour journey that’s not too shabby in Myanmar.
The descent followed and one of the highlights was this little loop the train did as it went over this one-track thin bridge and slowly circled round to go under the same bridge doing a 270 degree slow turn left.
Things flattened out, there was lots of farmland and somehow it felt very different to the other side of the mountains. It was dryer, browner, I suspected they didn’t get as much rain. We stopped at a station at just before 5pm. After some research it might have been a town called ‘Heho’, but it was pretty dusty and pretty quiet. Here the railway staff seemed to check the couplings between every one of the carriages on this pretty long train. On the Pyin Oo Lwin experience they had tightened wire around the couplings for safety, and it seemed they were doing that again. It took a good hour before we moved again.
I knew we weren’t that far away, so to wait so long started to get frustrating! Nevertheless, off we went for another hour or so, and pulled into Shwenyaung a little after seven pm. Not too bad, and a wonderful experience that really only started to lag in the last few hours. A couple of other backpackers on the train, I think they got on in Kalaw, I don’t recall seeing any other westerners on the journey.
We shared a sort of large tuk-tuk to Inle Lake, Nyaungshwe being the main tourist town there, it was perhaps 15-20 minutes. It stopped outside the town so we could by the tourist entrance card. And that was that. 12 hours on a rickety old train. Not so comfortable, but nevertheless, an amazing Journey.
I’ve compiled a six-minute video here as well, please do have a look!
Oh before I sign off, the lady opposite me with her bags got off at Kalaw. However, far earlier before the mountains ticket inspectors entered the carriage and demanded a ticket from her. She clearly had no ticket. She yelled and argued with them for a time, and eventually they just gave up. Good for her I say! May the Journey Never End!