Train Travel vs Buses in Myanmar/Burma

Train Travel vs Buses in Myanmar/Burma

When we were in our initial planning stage of our trip to Myanmar we read many a horror story of travellers experiences of train travel in Myanmar and many strongly suggested taking overnight buses instead. But I have to disagree. Any traveller who wants to experience real Myanmar needs to take at least one train journey. It is a great opportunity to get a insight into remote village life, see some of the country’s most scenic views and it is a rare opportunity to mix with the local people.

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We found that most of the travellers we met in Myanmar travelled around the country by bus. While we also used overnight buses, the trains in Myanmar offer upper class and overnight sleeper cabins, which gave us a more enjoyable journey – albeit being a bumpier ride than any other train I have ever been on!

With any mode of transport there are always downsides and benefits to both but this was our experience. I hope this article helps you to decide what is best for you and to point out some of the misconceptions some travellers have with train travel vs buses in Myanmar.

DEPARTURE BOARDS/TRAIN TIMES CAN BE FOUND HERE:

MANDALAY TO LASHIO VIA HSIPAW 
YANGON TO BAGAN
YANGON TO MANDALAY VIA BAGO & NAYPYITPAW
YANGON TO PYAY
YANGON TO DAWEI PORT VIA BAGO & GOLDEN ROCK

FARES CLICK HERE

Train Journeys are LONG and Unreliable! 

No doubt about it! For those with precious time I wouldn’t recommend using trains. While both train journeys we took left promptly on time, both had delays and this is very common.

Our train from Yangon to Bagan was scheduled to be around 16 hours however we encountered a severe delay during the night which meant we would arrive 6 half hours late. In the end we were on the train for a full 24 hours! We were informed it was because a train in front had derailed. Our train journey from Mandalay to Hsipaw was scheduled to be 12 hours when it took 14 due to relaying of the tracks in front of our train…! *sighs*

Mandalay to Hsipaw Train Journey Myanmar

This is where buses have an advantage as we departed and arrived as scheduled with each bus that we took. We had no problems and no delays and in fact we arrived early on one occasion! 

Check out our video – An Insight Into Myanmar Train Journeys for a real insider view!

Trains are uncomfortable

This all depends on what class you have booked yourself into. Most trains have a three class system with sleeper trains having additional classes for cabins. We used both the Upper Class on our journey from Mandalay to Hsipaw and an Upper Class Sleeper from Yangon to Bagan.

Ordinary class: these are simple wooden seats, extremely uncomfortable for long journeys and they are usually very crowded. Available on all trains.

First class: usually wooden seats with cushioned bottoms. Only available on certain trains.

Upper Class Train Myanmar

Upper Class Train From Mandalay to Hsipaw

Upper class: these are “comfortable” (in comparison to the wooden benches) and are somewhat large seats. However be prepared for lack of cleaning and upkeep, broken seats and no air conditioning (ie no fan working)  Available on all trains. TOP TIP: For popular routes it’s a good idea to book two days ahead as Upper Class is often full of tourists.

Standard sleeper
: four-berth and two-berth lockable compartments, with bedclothes provided. Washbasin and toilets at the end of each sleeper carriage. Available on Yangon to Mandalay, Yangon to Bagan, and Mandalay to Myitkyina routes. (If your lucky like us you get a whole cabin to yourself!). TOP TIP: Bring a fleece or jumper as night time can get chilly and the windows have no glass in them only tin shutters. You’ll be lucky if your door locks and bring luggage that will be able to fit underneath your bunk as there is limited space in the cabin.

Sleeper Train Cabin Yangon to Bagan

Sleeper Train Cabin Yangon to Bagan

Special sleeper: self-contained compartments (maximum four people), with privacy (separate entrance, toilet, sitting and sleeping areas) but no access to the rest of the train. Water and fresh bedclothes provided. Usually only available on Yangon to Mandalay route.

The buses range in standard. We experienced the local bus from Bagan to Mandalay which was OK. They provide you with a bottle of water and a rubbish bag which acts as a sick bag as the roads can get bumpy. They also cram you in like sardines. While all the seats were full they pull out plastic stools and people sat on those in the tiny aisle making a very uncomfortable 6 hour journey. Not all buses have toilets on (benefit of the train!) and make toilet breaks every 2 or 3 hours. Don’t expect the toilets to be western one or have toilet roll. The overnight buses have a terrible problem with air conditioning so they are extremely cold. If your lucky you’ll get a blanket and a neck pillow but I only saw them on premium services. We were also cramped in the overnight bus with boxes under our chairs and feet (so we couldn’t rest our legs for the entire journey). God only knows why they didn’t put the 300 odd boxes in the underneath baggage compartment!

Buses are cheaper than trains

This is true. Trains were more expensive than the buses with ticket ranging from $2 – $40 for overnight sleeper cabins. Buses ranged from $5 from Bagan to Mandalay to $18 for a premium overnight coach from Hsipaw to Inle Lake. It really depends on what your preferences are and your budget. We preferred to take the train so we had the option to walk around, get off the train at scheduled stops, use the toilet when we wanted and be able to lie down/have our own space. But if your on a budget and short on time, buses are probably your best option.

The Toilet Issue

In a perfect world everywhere would have clean western toilets that flushed and had toilet paper. No such luck in Myanmar. This is what we heard most traveller dreaded the most on trains but in all honesty it wasn’t as bad as you think it might be!

A roll of toilet paper will be your best friend so carry it with you everywhere. The toilets on the train were better than I had expected (compared to Vietnam they were like royal toilets!). Whilst they got a bit nasty towards the end of the 24 hour journey they stayed relatively clean. Be aware, when you flush, your business goes straight on to the track so don’t look down! Oh and hold on…the train ride is bumpy so be ready for take off….#justsayin

Bus toilets aren’t much better! Bus toilets smell to high heaven and that is if your lucky enough to have on on board. Otherwise be prepared to use the toilets in remote villages which sometimes are just a hole in the ground and a pan of water beside you (and at night no electricity) Remember I told you to bring toilet paper? Bring a torch too….you’re going to want to know what your stepping in…!

Will we starve?

Most savy travellers pack a few snacks in their backpack for the long bus and train journeys. While I don’t discourage it I wouldn’t panic if you happen to forget or run out of supplies. At each stop our bus made there was an opportunity to buy snacks and on the Bagan to Mandalay route we even had time to stop and eat at the restaurant.

On the overnight sleeper train from Yangon to Bagan we had our own waiter who gave us the menu and checked on us frequently to see if we needed anything. Hot meals are available on the sleeper trains as well as breakfast and a variety of drinks. And they are reasonably priced too with not much to no difference than shop and restaurant prices.

TOP TIP: You pay your train bill towards the end of your journey to save you pulling out money every time you order.

My important tips and advice about train travel in Myanmar

  1. Tickets are almost all paid in US $Dollars
  2. Tickets can be purchased a few days in advance. You will need your passport and it can take time for the Ticketmaster to complete all the bureaucratic stuff before he hands over your ticket. So make sure you leave your self plenty of time to purchase a ticket if your buying it on the day.
  3. Trains have no air conditioning or heating so dress accordingly. Always carry a fleece or jumper with you just in case (especially on sleeper trains)
  4. If your sharing a cabin be aware of your belongings. Goes for normal train classes too.
  5. Booking early (especially for sleepers) is advised especially during peak seasons and festival times.
  6. In Yangon, Mandalay and major tourist destinations they have English Departure Boards so its easy to read and know what time your train departs/arrives. No so easy if your travelling off the beaten track.
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17 Comments

  1. Lauren
    July 14, 2015 / 12:54 PM

    You’re awesome. Needed train times from Mawlamyine to Kyaikto and you saved me from getting a mototaxi across town and back. Now I can enjoy some afternoon tea instead which is what I’d much rather do. Cheers.

    • July 14, 2015 / 5:29 PM

      Glad my blog was of some use 🙂 Happy Travels in Myanmar! 🙂

  2. martin
    September 3, 2015 / 11:01 AM

    I took the train from yangoon to mandalay in 2014 , 20 hours with no sleep ,bumpy and not so comfortable but it was one of the best travel experiences of my life , bring some snacks and beers and enjoy the ride , get to myanmar before it gets like the rest of south east asia

  3. Sayaka
    November 28, 2015 / 9:44 AM

    Thank you so much for your post! I’m currently planning my trip to Myanmar over Christmas and was deciding whether to get a bus or train to Mandalay from Yangon. I’ve also heard pretty horrific stuff about trains being VERY long uncomfortable and bumpy rides (even a local friend advised against it), I’m glad to see the positive side of it as I love travelling by trains. Looking forward to experiencing it myself!
    Cheers

    • November 28, 2015 / 6:34 PM

      Hi Sayaka So glad the post was useful to you. Yes in all honesty the trains are very long journeys, and if they are delayed like ours was they can be even longer. But take comfort in the fact there are plenty of things to eat on the train (the menu is decent and the dishes are huge) and the scenery during the day distracts you somewhat from the bumpyness. Just remember to bring a sweater for the night time because all that is between the chilly outdoors and you is a tin shutter….no glass. They do not provide blankets or pillows. None the less the experience will be a memorable one for sure!

      • Sayaka
        December 27, 2015 / 3:47 PM

        Just came back from my holiday in Myanmar. Must say the train ride from Yangon to Mandalay is definitely one of the highlights of my trip! I shared my compartment with the most welcoming, generous, and beautiful Burmese family who made me feel like I was part of their family trip. Really glad I did it in the end 🙂 Sure it was a bumpy ride – even bumpier than I had expected but all the memories from the trip are unforgettable! Thanks again for your post.
        Sayaka

  4. Roving Willie
    December 6, 2015 / 10:14 AM

    While I am a fanatic about train travel and have lived in several developing countries, after taking the Yangon to Bagan train this week, I would advise against it for all but the truly masochistic (the kind of folks who would enjoy a weekend of waterboarding by Dick Cheney).

    My wife and I were in Upper Class Sleeper class but having a bed does not prevent you from being violently bounced to the right, left, upwards and every which way but loose for almost the entire trip. Departing Yangon in excellent health, I arrived in Bagon a few pounds lighter (diarrhea and vomiting) and with a high fever and a headache and, on top of that, could not sleep a wink.

    I did greatly enjoy the daylight hours as you get to see village life in remote areas but as the train left 2’20” late, we only had a window sans total darkness to admire on Day Two. So, yes, there is a great bonus but after all that suffering to receive it, I would heartily advise against taking this lengthy train journey.

    I would instead vote in favor of a short daylight dose of Myanmar train travel (like Yangon to Bago or the Yangon local circuit) because on a 17 hour journey (in theory, as our point to point time topped 19 hours) you really have no options to cut it short if the sojourn becomes nightmarish for you health-wise.

    • December 6, 2015 / 4:47 PM

      Thanks for your comment. Of course the train trip isn’t for everyone. It is as you said very bumpy and for some it can be too much. We couldn’t help but laugh at how bumpy the actual ride was because we had never experienced anything like it before. Luckily we aren’t travellers who fall ill with motion sickness, so I am sorry to hear you were sick during your journey. For us the experience was great and we loved interacting with the locals, but your 100% correct in that if people aren’t prepared to do the long journey they should definitely take the circle local circuit around Yangon of perhaps from Mandalay to Hsipaw over the Goteik Viaduct during the day.

      • Roving Willie
        December 8, 2015 / 6:05 AM

        I also started out laughing about how we were tossed around. I had not had motion sickness since I was roughly 10, but this trip did stretch the limits! If I did it again, I would be tempted to take a sleeping pill and wake up well rested for the daylight portion of the trip.

        We continued to Mandalay by bus and probably will only use the train again for our final circuit segment, Bago to Yangon.

        Keep up the good work!

        Willie

  5. Joanne Dillon (JD)
    February 19, 2016 / 10:10 AM

    I am visiting Myanmar on my own in August and have a strong desire to travel by train. I’m not expecting it to be comfortable and I will be surprised if it arrives on time but neither of those things has put me off. In your experience would you think travelling by train as a single woman be a problem? I’m also vegetarian so would probably travel with snacks and water.

    I recently read that trains on the Yangon to Mandalay route are being upgraded. Have you done this trip as well as Yangon to Bagan?

    • Samantha Hussey
      February 19, 2016 / 3:34 PM

      Hi Joanne. I can’t see that you’ll have any problems other than the normal staring and intrigue that comes with travelling as a solo woman. I can’t say I was hassled when I was in Myanmar when I was by myself and my partner was elsewhere however some men can treat you with less respect and won’t look you in the eye or shake hands or tough you for example but that’s a cultural thing I guess.

      Also on the train the food is mostly vegetarian stir frys if i remember correct and egg fried rice etc..I also read some of the trains have been upgraded on that route but I have not taken that train. Perhaps on my next trip!

  6. Joe T
    June 16, 2016 / 4:01 PM

    I preferred bus travel except for one journey. For timely travel train may not serve your purpose but experience is very good. Thanks for your nice article.

  7. Em Maree
    July 26, 2016 / 1:58 PM

    Thanks for this detailed info Samantha. Im planning to visit Myanmar especially Bagan and i dont really like travelling by bus overnight. I don’t mind the train as long as there’s a bed, a toilet, and stops along the way. I don’t mind spending a few more dollars as well. Thanks again.

  8. Minh H. Nguyen
    March 19, 2017 / 4:31 AM

    it is as you said such a amazing way to immerse ourselves into locals’ lives and communicate with them. My train from Mandalay to Yangon was not as bumpy as I had thought, which was good haha and people were so nice to us. I immensely enjoyed my train ride. And I don’t think trains are more expensive than buses. My upper seat did not cost me more than ̣$9. I got a VIP bus from Yangon to Bagan for $18 but I was a bit disappointed to be honest because I didn’t feel I got what i had paid. In Vietnam, I can get a sleeper bus which is way better than the VIP bus in Myanmar for only $10. Meanwhile, the train was obviously a different experience. And my train was extraordinarily punctual.

    I have posted an post on my train experience here on my blog: https://hongminh317.wordpress.com/2017/03/19/unexpected-myanmar-mandalay-at-a-glance-and-train-experience/

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