A Train Trip to Remember: Mandalay to Myitkyina

I continuously tell people who want to travel to Myanmar that they ought to avail themselves of information before they go. Read up on the history, learn as much as possible about the complicated geopolitics of the region. And of course, stay updated about any conflicts in the more remote areas, like the Kachin State in the north or Shan State to the east. During my visit to the country, the north was calm and I ended up taking a 24 hour train from Mandalay up to Myitkyina for the Kachin State’s annual manaw (state fair). Arriving in Myitkyina, dazed after the long and bumpy ride, I had a few days to get to know the town before the annual fair began. I’ll post on the fair and Myitkyina itself shortly, but the trip was worth its own entry. Note that from recent news, this ride is temporarily off limits and access to Bhamo is restricted too, due to flare ups in fighting.

Chaos boarding the train midway from Mandalay
Chaos boarding the train from Mandalay

Train from Mandalay: not the most efficient choice!

I already needed a half-day to recover from the bus to Mandalay, and a flight seemed like the fastest way to arrive (and the easiest too). But I was wary of spending money on flights, both because of where that money went and how little access to funds I had inside the country’s closed monetary system. I made up my mind fairly quickly that I wasn’t going to be leaving anytime soon, and extending my ticket meant that I’d need to spread out my dollars and kyat a little more thinly than planned. So, the train it was. Another centrally-run enterprise, tickets were considerably cheaper and a friend who had taken the ride prior promised an eye-opening experience, full of colour and chaos.

He was right.

Jostling for a place on the train to Myitkyina
Jostling for a place on the train to Myitkyina

The train was terrifically rickety, covered in alternating layers of rust and grime. Spider webs coated the ceilings and the narrow hallways were packed with people and cargo and all sorts of produce. I’ve always advocated public transportation as the best way to get to know a place, and a train ride is no exception;  those 24 hours from Mandalay were a fascinating snapshot into a country I already wanted to know better, both good and bad. The train left in the mid-afternoon and chugged through half-logged forests and tiny towns, stopping every few hours throughout the night to cough out passengers on the side of the dusty tracks.

A contrast of stations:

Train to Myitkyina
Train station outside of Mandalay

and a bit further on:

Shwe Bo station on the way to Myitkyina in Northern Myanmar
Shwe Bo station on the way to Myitkyina

And even later in the afternoon:

Tandem trains on the road to Myitkyina
Tandem trains on the road to Myitkyina

Definitely not a boring ride.

As the afternoon wore on, the scene went from city to forest to smaller towns. Sun-streaked temples were built next to the tracks, their stupas glowing in the late afternoon light. Every tiny stop along the way made for a fun encounter, from buying the samosas and fried corn snacks piled high on the sides of the road, to conversations with those inside the train, what little words we had in common. When I got on the train the police came to say they were here if there was any issue – just let them know. But as the trip went on, I’d see them outside the car, pointing at me to the curious onlookers with a wide smile. Tourists on the train – look! They would catch me watching them and give me a sheepish grin. It wasn’t just the police, either. Popping my head out the window at any given town immediately drew a crowd. From the women selling snacks on head-held wicker baskets to the clusters of children that found their way my window as soon as the train sputtered to a halt, it was an amusing, privacy-free afternoon. While tourists were few and far between in some parts of Mandalay, the trip north made it clear that they were rarer up near Myitkyina.

Sunflower fields on the route to Bhamo
Sunflower fields on the route.
Sun-drenched roads alongside the train to Myitkyina
Sun-drenched roads alongside the train.

In that last stretch before dusk, fields gave way to sparse palms and tried to capture some of the rainbow dusk as the train pushed through toward the north. On my return ferry ride down the Irawaddy, the scenes were completely different, though the parallels remained: crowds of people confused about my presence, piles of snacks and shared food and bright, thanaka-covered faces smiling from ear to ear.

Throughout the day, I was distracted from the chaos outside by a vaguely unquantifiable smell. Sour plums were stuffed in canvas bags under my seat, stinking up the surrounding berths. I actually didn’t realize that they were there until a particularly forceful shove in the middle of the night forced the train to grind to a halt abruptly. Out rolled a dozen tiny plums, the smell growing stronger. Rotting fruit explained my wrinkled nose quite well and I learned an important lesson: check under your seat when you get on the train – you never know what will be there.

Late afternoon on the water, from the train window in Burma
Late afternoon on the water, from the train window

It was a sleepless night. Squished into the train with its loud noises and jarring movements, I was struck by the serious contrast to the infrastructure in far more barren Siberia where I slept quite well, perhaps due to the vodka foisted upon me by my cabinmates. Somewhere in the darkness between Mandalay and Bhamo soldiers got on the train, tromping up and down the aisles and waking people up to look for something, or someone, barking loudly in Burmese. Throughout the night, small stretches of quiet were broken with the hissing of the engine or someone’s radio broadcasting news in staccato bursts. A monk, swathed in his burgundy robes and a matching sweater and hat, stood in the hallway gazing out into the night and talking loudly to his friend. Soldiers came on again, soldiers went off.

At 4am I had to pee and I tiptoed to the end of the car in the darkness, slamming against the walls as the train rocked unevenly along the tracks. Soldiers sat huddled side-by-side in the hallway, pressed together for warmth with their guns laying at their sides. Weaving between them, they looked up in surprise – I’m pretty sure I was the last person they expected to see on that slow train. Their white smiles reflected off the flashes of lights at the side of the tracks; watching their wary friendliness, I wondered what they thought I saw in them. By morning, they were gone.

Dusk from the Mandalay to Myitkyina train
Dusk from the Mandalay to Myitkyina train

The train arrived in Myitkyina as the sun was rising, covering the tiny town’s tracks in a misty haze. The entire place centred around a small space between those tracks and the Irawaddy river just over the horizon. The market stretched out from where the trains stopped, winding its way through town till the water’s edge. It would be a small town to explore but one that brought me great joy (and a terrible bout of food poisoning).

Misty, sun-spotted train tracks in downtown Myitkyina, Burma
Misty, sun-spotted train tracks in downtown Myitkyina

But first things first: there was breakfast to be had.

Breakfast of champions: Shan noodles with silken tofu, peanuts and fresh herbs and spices
Breakfast of champions: Shan noodles with silken tofu, peanuts and fresh herbs and spices.

More to come from Myitkyina, including the State Fair, in my next post.

For more about train travel in Burma, see Seat 61 and The Wandering Wanderluster.

-Jodi

41 thoughts on “A Train Trip to Remember: Mandalay to Myitkyina”

  1. What a great travel tale, Jodi. Myanmar has been whispering my name for some time, and this has just made the whisper a bit louder. More than likely it will be on my next SE Asia sojourn, so I will be putting those recommended reads on my list.

    The line about the train “stopping every few hours throughout the night to cough out passengers” made me smile.

  2. Amanda Slavinsky

    Myanmar has been on my SE Asia for a while now and while I am somewhat nervous this post has definitely made me rethink if I should add it to my itinerary. What a beautiful country.

    1. wow!!! Thank you so much for writing such great article about the favorite place i’ve travelled so far……..it really is a really beautiful place….Myanmar also is really nice & beautiful……every town & city is quite attractive & travel-worthy….

  3. I’ve always advocated public transportation as the best way to get to know a place …

    Couldn’t agree more Jodi, what better way to be introduced to a place than by crossing its border on a train? Thanks for the remarkable photos.

  4. I LOVED reading this. I sympathize with the ‘dazed after the long and bumpy ride’ remark. We tried the roads (via public transport) to Hsipaw from Mandalay, which doesn’t look that far but took a full day, and our brains were so shaken about that it was hard to hear or think till the next day! We went to Hsipaw after reading “Twilight Over Burma- My Life As a Shan Princess” about the life of an Austrian woman who met a Shan prince at the Colorado School of Mines and married him in the early 60s- very interesting if you haven’t picked it up. Can’t wait to read the next installment of your post!

    1. The Hsipaw roads weren’t any better – that bus from Bagan to Inle was absolutely ridiculous, made even more so because it left at 4am. I can only imagine how the roads were heading to Hsipaw given that my route was the ‘more touristed’ one! Thanks for the kind words – next entry is now up.

  5. Love your travel post and can’t wait to see your next post about Myitkyina. Because I am a native Myitkyina and currently in US. I shared your post on our Myitkyina facebook page.

  6. Train rides can really make for some interesting experiences and situations, and can contribute some wonderful observations. This ride sounds like it was quite a journey and I can almost smell those plums. I’m looking forward to the state fair article!

  7. Wow- 24 hours on a train would freak me out. Especially with all those people clinging on as well. You got some great pictures out of it though. Love the one with the sunset.

  8. Train is most definitely my favourite way to travel – I am really lamenting the lack of them here in South America! Any recommendations for one I can take somewhere in Bolivia/Chile/Argentina?

    The story of your ride sounds so similar to many of my experiences riding the rails in India – the ultimate place to take the train, in my opinion :)

  9. Pingback: Attending the Kachin State Fair in Myitkyina, Myanmar | Legal Nomads

    1. Soup for breakfast is a big favourite, which is funny considering I rarely, if ever, eat soup in North America. But there’s something about the noodles and the broth and fresh herbs that make a breakfast soup so compelling in Southeast Asia. Yum!

  10. Soup is a perfect breakfast. My son wanted ramen for breakfast EVERY DAY from about 18 months till 8 years old! Now 19, handsome and healthy as a horse!

    Just wanted you to know you’ve inspired me. Read you all the time. I am what I call a “recovering attorney:” I haven’t chucked it all (yet), but have started taking more and longer trips, and just started a blog. Love to have you check it out if you get a sec.

    Keep up the great work!

  11. I was in Myammar from 15-22 August 2011. Had planned to take the train from Yangon to Mandalay (as it was kind of a must do), but changed it, as the locals and tourist alike had very bad opinions bout the trains there.

    Coupled with the unsuitable timing, we ended up taking bus.

    Guess I missed quite a lot!

    1. I ended up on the train because I do love trains as a relaxing way to get from A to B. As you can see, this wasn’t so much relaxing but it was certainly an adventure! Hope you enjoyed your time in Myanmar and thanks for reading.

  12. Pingback: Photoessay from Myanmar: Mandalay, Myitkyina, Inle Lake and More | Legal Nomads

  13. Hi Jodi – I’ve just returned from my second trip to Myanmar and plan to go again. I caught an eleven and a half hour train from Mandalay to Hsipaw. Yours sounds like an amazing trip as was mine – although yours was twice as long as mine. I can relate to your experiences and how incredible it must have been. I have to do the trip you did including returning by ferry. I also took a ferry this last trip – Sittwe to Mrauk U – 5 hours or so but also amazing stopping off at small village wharves on the way. Another experience I’ll. Never forget. Enjoy your future travels!

  14. I also recently wrote a post about this very same train journey and it is hilarious to see the differences between the two. I agree with everything you said and found the journey fascinating as well. At the same time, I was hating life pretty much the whole way. I didn’t do so out of pessimism though, but simply for the humor. Misfortune is funnier than amazement.

    I also really loved your pictures from Myanmar. Seeing them made me go back through my own, which always brings back wonderful memories.

    1. Oops, I forgot to finish a sentence in my post, but I couldn’t figure out how to edit it, so I just posted it again. I hope that’s alright.

      I also recently wrote a post about this very same train journey and it is hilarious to see the differences between the two. I agree with everything you said and found the journey fascinating as well. At the same time, I was hating life pretty much the whole way and that’s the aspect I focused on in my post. I didn’t do so out of pessimism though, but simply for the humor. Misfortune is funnier than amazement.

      I also really loved your pictures from Myanmar. Seeing them made me go back through my own, which always brings back wonderful memories.

  15. Pingback: Myanmar, el balance |

  16. We have experienced the same commotion in India…Though we learnt our lesson and boarded a luxury train for visiting places such as Rajasthan, Agra and Madhya Pradesh. We were pleasantly surprised that these luxury trains in India provide quite the opposite experience than what local trains had to offer. It was a great experience.

    1. This was from 2009 – not a clue what the time table would be for today, or if the route is even the same. You’d be best checking a travel site that is updated as a guide, versus a narrative one. Apologies!

  17. Hey Jodi! Thank you for including my link! This post is great – gives a great sense of what the train journeys are like! I miss Myanmar so much and although the trains were bumpy as hell I’d do them all over again!

  18. This post is great – gives a great sense of what the train journeys are like! I miss Myanmar so much and although the trains were bumpy as hell I’d do them all over again!

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