Should You Take the Train in Burma?
Short Answer: Don't
Long Answer: No, really. Don't.
Ok, ok... Maybe I'm being a little harsh. After all, I've only taken one night train in Myanmar. These are my thoughts. I would be happy to hear from anyone else who had a different experience from mine.
Are the Burmese trains really that bad?
Myanmar, commonly called Burma, is actually one of my favorite places to travel. After half-a-century of relative isolation, it's now easier than ever to get a visa to visit Myanmar, a lesser-known and often misunderstood country located between Thailand, China, and India.
I also love rail travel. I don't even mind long, slightly rough journeys. I would almost always rather take a train, given the choice. I like the slow pace, the scenery, and even just the culture of train travel. I take trains all over Thailand. I anticipate a bit of discomfort. That being said, as unbiased as I can be, I found the trains in Myanmar to be thoroughly unpleasant.
For a different perspective than mine, read the reviews from The Man in Seat 61.
Part of the problem has to do with Myanmar's political situation. Since independence from the British Empire, the country had, until recently, fallen under a strict military junta. The government either didn't or couldn't relegate enough resources to keep the rails in good condition. The trains still run, but mostly on old British-built tracks from before the Second World War. Needless to say, they could use some upkeep, and as you get out of the city, the ride gets... bumpy.
Really bumpy! As in, getting several inches of clearance from the rock-hard mattress with each jolt bumpy. It really felt like the train might derail at a few points through the night.
The truth is, it was impossible to sleep. We were told that the train from Yangon to Mandalay would take "ten to twenty hours". Fortunately for us, it took only sixteen.
$25 got a ticket in a first-class private compartment, but the beds were dirty, and the single, thin sheet that was provided didn't even cover the moldy mattress.
The electricity didn't work, nor did the fan. The window was stuck open,and it was raining all through the night. And the train's public toilet... well... I have nothing to say about that.
That's not to say it was all bad. The staff provided each compartment with fresh water and moist towelettes. That was nice at least. And rail travel is still one of the more environmentally-friendly ways to travel, although the train did seem to be putting out an awful lot of black smoke...
Look, please don't take this as complaining. It was still a worthwhile experience, just not one that I care to repeat. I understand that Myanmar is not yet a totally developed country and that I should expect some discomfort. But for the price, I would much rather take a boat.
Cruising lazily down the Irawaddy River is by far the most scenic and relaxing way to see this beautiful country.
How to book tickets
However, if you REALLY want to take the train, the most comfortable way is probably in a first-class ticket ($25). It won't make the bumps any less brutal, but at least it will give you privacy. Each compartment has two bunks. For extra privacy and safety, you can pay for four tickets ($100 total) to have the entire compartment to yourself. This is best if you are travelling with friends, though.
The easiest way to book tickets is through a travel agent. You can find them online or all over Yangon and Mandalay.
Have you taken a train in Myanmar? Have a different opinion? Do you agree with The Man in Seat 61 or with me? We would love to hear your thoughts! What are your favorite rail journeys? Any tips for fellow travelers, or for us in the future? We would love to hear from you. Leave a comment below!