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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.
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:
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*
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: 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.
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
- Tickets are almost all paid in US $Dollars
- 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.
- 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)
- If your sharing a cabin be aware of your belongings. Goes for normal train classes too.
- Booking early (especially for sleepers) is advised especially during peak seasons and festival times.
- 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.