The Road to Mandalay — Yangon to Mandalay By Train
Yangon to Mandalay by train will go down as one of the most memorable journeys of our lives. We loved it so much that ever since we did it we’ve been looking for an opportunity to do it all over again.
We’re nearing the end of a month in Myanmar — a month filled with the sort of travelling experiences we relish that are increasingly rare in a rapidly developing Southeast Asia. We’ll be sorry to see it come to an end.
Yangon to Mandalay by Train — Our Road to Mandalay
We kicked off our adventure almost four weeks ago with a long travelling day on the train to Mandalay. That leisurely 647 kilometre journey from Yangon to Mandalay by train has remained one of the most memorable experiences of our trip.
Our slow day of travel from Yangon to Mandalay by train began with a 6am departure and ended as we pulled into the station soon after 9.30pm.
We had read that the train to Mandalay was one of the most memorable train trips in Myanmar so instead of taking a flight — with a total air time of one hour and ten minutes — we decided to spend almost 16 hours bumping along the old British-built colonial-era railway, watching the passing countryside at a pace a snail would scoff at.
We really couldn’t afford the time to do this. We had come to Myanmar to update a guidebook and our schedule was already tight as it was. For various reasons we had to postpone another rail adventure due to follow the Myanmar trip. Ironically, a luxury train journey.
But we also couldn’t afford to keep travelling the way we had been recently. Lara had begun the Thailand part of the guidebook update while I was in Vietnam for two weeks on a photography assignment for a travel magazine that involved seven flights in two weeks. That’s right, one flight every couple of days.
I’d only been home in Siem Reap for 24 hours before I was back on a plane to Chiang Mai via Bangkok. That hectic pace, which is not at all how we like to travel, didn’t stop during our time in Northern Thailand where we took on even more work.
Arriving in Myanmar, where nothing is rushed, provided the perfect opportunity to recharge our wanderlust batteries while still getting work done. A long, slow train journey seemed the ticket.
Some of my fondest travelling memories feature train travel. Relaxed rail journeys trundling through whitewashed seaside towns and russet desert landscapes in Morocco. The opulent Eastern and Oriental Express clickety-clacking through the rice paddies and jungles of Northern Thailand’s Isaan region and Lanna kingdom. The brilliant Swiss and Scandinavian trains with their enormous picture windows offering breathtaking mountain and lake vistas. The sleek Spanish train that sped us from Jerez to Madrid with a great bottle of wine and outstanding food.
But one train trip that will always stick with me is our first train adventure many years ago in Italy. We were on our way from Genoa to Rome, when our train pulled into Pisa. We had not planned on getting off at Pisa, with its cheesy photo-ops of the leaning tower. But Lara and I both looked at each other at the exact same time and thought the very same thing — how could we not visit Pisa! —and we grabbed our backpacks and jumped off the train just before the doors closed.
While the luxury of having the time that enables that sort of spontaneity is not possible on a guidebook updating trip, we decided to take the Yangon to Mandalay train as much for research for the guidebook we’re working on, as for the chance to see more of Myanmar than we would if we were just covering the ‘must-do’ destinations of the book we’re working on.
It was still a working day for me, but it was the closest thing to having a day off as we were going to get on this trip. It was impossible to work on my laptop because it was so bumpy. A guide later in the trip likened it to riding a horse for 16 hours. And there was no reason to use my iPhone because we had not yet purchased local SIMs. Reading a book was also difficult because of the rough ride. So I just settled in with a camera and a few lenses and snapped the day away.
For a photographer, it was pure bliss. Out the window, the often-stark countryside was periodically enlivened by green irrigated fields, while dust plumes rose regularly from bovine-powered wooden carts tilling the soil.
On our frequent stops at tiny train stations, masses of people awaited our arrival, quickly clambering aboard to settle into seats or sell Burmese street food snacks and drinks. The day surprisingly passed quite quickly.
If I missed a photo opportunity because the train had actually managed to outpace the afore-mentioned bovine-powered wooden carts, the next sequence of countryside/village/train station afforded another opportunity to try it again.
I quickly got a handle on the series of events that would unfold with each train stop.
There was the initial flow of people disembarking with children and shopping and gifts and goods they’d brought to take home to give away or sell. There was the flurry of activity of those struggling to get on board with their troupe of family and friends and helpers passing bags through windows and doors.
And there was the hurried salesmanship of the hawkers moving quickly through the breezy carriages, selling everything from boiled chicken and quails eggs to curry and rice that they combined with their hands on the spot, to tea and coffee made to order from giant flasks of water.
That we were the only Westerners on the train was a source of continual fascination and amusement to the local travellers. Vendors with baskets of samosas and pots of curries and rice would walk right by us, thinking that foreigners would be too scared to sample the local food, however hawkers with a few beers in their cold-drinks bucket quickly zeroed in on us. Clearly 9am was the traditional cocktail hour for foreigners on this day-long journey!
It was about this time, as the train cut through another languid village, that Lara turned to me and smiled and said: “If we’d have flown, we’d be at our hotel in Mandalay by now.” She didn’t appear at all concerned. After way too many short-haul flights in recent weeks (eleven, but who is counting), I didn’t care either.
The train to Mandalay was exactly what we had needed to remind us how much we loved rail travel and what a joy it could be just to look out the window and not at a phone or laptop screen.
Tips for going from Yangon to Mandalay by Train
How to buy tickets for the Yangon to Mandalay train
Tickets can only be bought three days in advance of your journey, directly from the main Yangon railway station and travel agents in Yangon. Good hotels will also buy tickets for you. Tickets could not by bought online at the time of writing this post.
Ticket fares for the Yangon to Mandalay train
At the time of travel (April 2015), tickets cost US$25 / 25,000 kyat (pronounced ‘chat’) per person for reserved soft seats in the Upper Class carriages; US$10 / 10,000 kyat for hard bench seats in the Ordinary carriages, which can’t be reserved; and US$50 / 50,000 kyat for Sleepers. Although a Sleeper service was offered, there were no Sleeper carriages on our train. This was apparently due to it being low season, even though we traveled during the very busy New Year water festival period.
What to expect on the Yangon to Mandalay train
The carriages on our Yangon to Mandalay train, the popular 6am, were grungy old carriages with grubby floors and grimy walls. The broken seats were permanently in the reclining position. The ceiling fans didn’t work and the only air was from the open windows. The rustic toilets (Western-style sit-downs at one end, Asian squats at the other) were clean at the start of the trip but quickly deteriorated. Our train was not as nice nor clean as the trains in the photos on the The Man in Seat 61‘s site, nor did it have a restaurant car. The trip was wonderful all the same.
Take toilet paper/tissues/damp wipes, sunblock, a longyi (the sarongs worn by men in Myanmar) to put on the window to block out the blistering sun, water, a thermos of coffee/tea, plenty of snacks in case you don’t like what’s being sold on board or you’re fearful of getting sick, and insect repellant for the few hours after the sun sets. Hawkers also sell water, hot and cold drinks and food on the train, however, there are long periods at times when nothing is sold, so stock up when you can.
Use a porter if you have heavy bags
Porters will greet you at the train on the station in Mandalay. We recommend using one if you have weighty luggage as it’s a long hike up the stairs and then back down the stairs. A tip of US$1 / 1000 kyat per piece of luggage is appreciated.
Organise a taxi in advance
Ask your hotel to organise a taxi to meet you at the train station in Mandalay and know the fare up front. There will be some taxis at the station but they will most certainly try to over-charge you.
For more information, see the Man in Seat 61 for lots of good detail about travelling by train in Myanmar.
Postscript: a note on our use of Myanmar over Burma
It’s officially called the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, yet many prefer to use ‘Burma’, the English translation of ‘Myanmar’, which came into popular usage during British colonial rule. The military government rejected the use of all English translations in 1989, reinstating the original names, however, many foreign countries refused to use these simply because they were reintroduced by the government.
During our month in Myanmar, the vast majority of locals we met, everywhere from Yangon to the Shan states, called their country ‘Myanmar’. We found that only those with connections to the colonial past (eg. British educated or Anglo-Burmese) used ‘Burma’. They explained to us that the name ‘Myanmar’ was more inclusive; whereas ‘Burma’ suggests that it is the the country of the Bamar/Burmans or Burmese-speaking people, who comprise around 68% of the population, ‘Myanmar’ includes everyone.
While the government identifies only eight main ethnic groups, including the Bamar, Shan, Kayin, Rakhine, Mon, Kayah, and Kachin, there are actually well over a hundred ethnic groups, including Burmese Indians, Burmese Chinese, Anglo Burmese; a long list of hill tribe groups such as the Lisu, Naga, Padaung, etc; and let’s not forget the Rohingya people, who the government claims are recent ‘Bengalis’ or Bangladeshi refugees, although historians argue their presence in Rakhine state dates back centuries.