The taxi rumbled over the bumpy, dirt roads of Bagan as we navigated towards the train station. My stomach flip-flopped a bit as I anticipated the journey ahead—a seven-hour train ride across Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country that had made headlines for its former military dictatorship and recent ongoing genocide. Until recently, a boycott of the regime virtually prevented tourists from visiting, leaving it nearly perfectly preserved from westernization—making now a good time to go.
My train was departing from Bagan, where I’d spent two days exploring its thousands of temples and pagodas that dot the green countryside. I was traveling solo and heading for Mandalay, the second largest city in the country and its last royal capital. I planned to arrive that afternoon and take a flight back to Thailand that evening, where I’d been living as a digital nomad for the past month. I didn’t know much about train travel in Myanmar, but was up for an adventure and decided to give it a try.
Oh, how I wish I’d known what I was in for.
The Truth About Train Travel In Myanmar
I had my first inkling that I might have been in over my head when my driver dropped me off at the station saying, “You are crazy! You are going to have real problems, my friend.” And then he drove away, laughing.
It was too late to turn back, so I walked into the station and found my platform. My ticket was scrawled in handwriting on a crumpled piece of thin paper, left at my hostel reception desk for me the day before. After some research on train travel in Myanmar, I’d chosen The Man in Seat Sixty-One to book it, and was really happy with their service. (They’re a pretty reputable site for booking travel tickets through third-party companies all over the world.)
It was before seven in the morning, and the station was quiet. I was the only woman around, and certainly the only Westerner. When my train arrived, a kind older man helped show me how to find my seat. It seemed like a pretty decent train at first glance, but I soon realized that my satisfaction was a little premature.
I’d tried to do some research on train travel in Myanmar before my trip, and didn’t find very much. I did find a lot about the well-known Goteik Viaduct, the railway bridge frequented by backpackers with selfie sticks out the train windows. Unfortunately, my ride was going nowhere near the popular tourist spots, and I was a bit disappointed.
The rail system in Myanmar is much less developed than in other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Vietnam. It was built in the late 19th Century under British colonial rule, and seemed like it hadn’t had any upgrades since then—I felt like I could have landed on a train in the early 1900s. The lower-class seats were nothing more than hard wooden benches, and my seat, in second class, looked like a bench seat out of a bus. It was covered in a dirty green fabric that didn’t quite fit, and I was afraid to look underneath.
There were only a handful of people in my carriage for most of the ride, and after staying in hostels for the past few days, I was excited to have space to myself. I planned to read and listen to podcasts and maybe even write in my journal.
Then the train started.
Ratty Hair & Ratty Mice
It quickly became clear that I wouldn’t be doing any writing, and we certainly weren’t going to arrive anytime soon. The train lurched from side to side as if a ship in a storm. It crawled along painstakingly slowly—I think a bicycle might have been faster. The deafening chug-chug-chug noise was straight out a children’s movie, punctuated every few minutes by a whistle that always made me jump. I had to brace myself with my feet on the seat in front of me, arms on the armrests, gripping tightly. My hair in the back became a knotted, ratty mess against my seat as a result of train’s constant jerking from side to side. At one point, a few mice ran about under the seats, scurrying up into the seat cushions. My strong phobia of rodents had me trying not to hyperventilate, but no one else seemed to mind.
It was only one hour in. I already couldn’t wait for it to be over.
Beyond the discomfort of the train though, the ride itself was actually incredibly beautiful. We rumbled past lush, verdant fields dotted with palm trees and cows and the occasional farmer—the immense green of Myanmar is simply stunning. I felt acutely aware of the fact that I was seeing a part of the country that most people don’t see, and I was so excited every time we passed a group of children or a simple village. The sun was shining brightly, the heat was bearable, and everyone we passed seemed happy.
In fact, the people of Myanmar are what made my visit the most worthwhile. Every person I came across was smiling—quite literally. Trains carrying passengers in the other direction were always full of smiling faces and the townspeople gathered at the stations along the way waved to me happily. People that passed by my seat made eye contact and nodded kindly. I got the impression that it was uncommon to see a Westerner on a train in the middle of nowhere in Myanmar, and yet I never felt unsafe or out of place. I felt accepted and welcomed, and I’ll never forget that feeling.
The train eventually—finally—made its way to Mandalay, and I was mostly just excited to use the restroom. (I didn’t want to get dehydrated, but I also really wanted to avoid using the bathroom on the train, so I rationed my water and held it for the eight-plus hours!) Because of the delay, I needed to get right into a taxi and head for the airport, disappointed in missing the sights of the city. Comfortably seated in the air-conditioned cab, I could feel my muscles relaxing and recovering from the stress of the journey.
I knew train travel in Myanmar would be an adventure. I didn’t book it expecting comfort or peace or ease—I booked it to experience another side of this country I knew so little about. While I wish I had gone in with a little more awareness of just how uncomfortable the ride would be, I felt so grateful for just being able to witness Myanmar’s remote countryside and incredibly kind people.
It’s an experience I’ll never forget.
Suggested next reading: How To Go Rogue And See Southeast Asia By Motorbike