The Most Stunning Train Journeys in Myanmar
A railyard near Yangon's Central Railway Station, Myanmar | © Chase Chisholm
Myanmar’s historic railroads get travelers to several destinations off the beaten track, and provide plenty of opportunities to engage with locals. From conversing with monks to watching a whole new world pass by, here are some of the most unforgettable train journeys to take in Myanmar and tips to help navigate its railway system.
All Aboard the Trains of Myanmar
Myanmar’s train system tends to be unpredictable, especially the further away tracks go from Yangon. Expected arrival and departure times almost always vary, often by hours, so be flexible to get the most enjoyment out of train travel in Myanmar.
Standards for train cleanliness and comfort are relatively low as most trains in Myanmar are very outdated. Seats and aisles are pretty scuffed and stained, bathrooms are basic and the overall ride can be extremely jolting regardless of class.
A Burmese monk waves out of a train window in Yangon, Myanmar | © Chase Chisholm
Types of Train Cars in Myanmar
Riding ordinary class is the cheapest way to rail around Myanmar. It comes with simple wooden benches. First class has wooden benches with cushions available on certain trains. Upper class cars have larger, cushier seats.
Standard sleeper compartments with two or four beds and shared bathrooms can be reserved from Yangon to Mandalay and Mandalay to Myitkyina. A special sleeper cabin, usually only available on the Yangon to Bagan route, is the most expensive option. Each comes with beds and linens for up to four people, a sitting area, as well as a private bathroom.
Booking Train Tickets in Myanmar
It’s possible to book train tickets online, but for a fee through private providers. When reserving seats for train travel in person ahead of time, tickets for ordinary and first class seats can be purchased one day in advance at stations throughout Myanmar, and at a separate advance booking office in Yangon. Upper class and sleeper cabins are able to be booked up to two weeks before planned departures. It’s best to reserve spaces early, especially during major national holidays.
Myanmar Railways Booking Office, Yangon, Myanmar
An aerial view of Yangon’s Central Railway Station, Myanmar | © Chase Chisholm
The train trek from Myanmar’s royal city of Mandalay to hilly Hsipaw promises gorgeous views and perhaps the most exciting ride out of all railway expeditions in Myanmar. This route passes by the summer getaway city of Pyin Oo Lwin, and inches over the Goetik Viaduct about halfway between Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw.
The Goetik Viaduct was considered one of the world’s most astonishing structures of its time when completed around 1900. It remains Myanmar’s highest railway bridge to date, but due to disrepair over the years, trains crossing it must slow to a crawl for nearly half a mile of pure thrills.
Book round-trip tickets or plan to take the train one way and bus the other. An upper class seat costs about US $5. Mandalay to Hsipaw is approximately 130 miles and takes roughly 10-15 hours.
Crossing the Goetik Viaduct by train in Myanmar | © Steve Photography / Shutterstock
Journeying from Mandalay to Myitkyina gives true train enthusiasts the chance to experience a railway very few have gone on before. A bumpy, rough ride from Shwebo, the first main stop, through thickly forested patches of jungle, leads to Indawgyi Lake.
Disembark at Hopin to get to Indawgyi Lake, among Southeast Asia’s largest inland bodies of water and one of Myanmar’s most underrated natural wonders. A foggy sunrise view of the Shwe Myitzu floating pagoda or simply enjoying the scenic beauty of Kachin State might be enough to make Indawgyi the final stop.
Book a standard sleeper compartment if possible, as the approximately 340-mile stretch to Myitkyina may take well over 24 hours. The price for an upper class sleeper section is under US $25. A train ticket to Myitkyina and back to Mandalay might be the best option, or fly in one way and out the other.
Shwe Myitzu floating pagoda on Indawgyi Lake in Kachin State, Myanmar | © JekLi / Shutterstock
Taking the train from Yangon to Bagan gives passengers a truer sense of Myanmar’s agricultural side. The tracks pass by farms and through rural villages, next to tall palms and across rugged landscape dotted with golden stupas. Ride in ordinary or first class to chat with locals while watching an unforgettable sunset through wide-open windows, together.
This ride lasts anywhere from 16 to more than 24 hours depending on what happens along the bouncy way. An upper class seat is around US $12, and an ordinary class spot is less than US $5 for comparison.
Burmese people waving and smiling out of a train window in Myanmar | © Chase Chisholm
Looking for the perfect day excursion from Yangon by train? Venture in comfort to Taungoo via the Yangon to Mandalay route, stopping briefly in Bago to see the Mahazedi Pagoda. Once in historic Taungoo, a former dynasty capital of Myanmar, tour several of its famous sights. Among them are well-known bridges, markets, gardens and pagodas.
Getting from Yangon to Taungoo takes just over six hours and costs less than US $2, not including a quick, optional stopover in Bago. An early morning departure from Yangon and a late afternoon train or bus back allows for a very full day of exploration and change of pace.
Mahazedi Pagoda in Bago, Myanmar | © Boyloso / Shutterstock
Bago to Mawlawmyine: A Sacred and Sobering Experience
Voyaging by train from Yangon to Mon State takes rail users by Kyaikto, the stop for Myanmar’s iconic golden rock, and then onto Mawlawymyine – Myanmar’s fourth largest city. Mawlawymine has lots to experience such as striking colonial architecture, renowned mosques and spectacular river views from Kyaik Than Lan Pagoda on a hilltop overlooking the city.
Approximately 40 miles south of Mawlawmyine is the town of Thanbyuzayat, recognized as the start of what’s soberly referred to as “Burma’s Death Railway”. The nearly 260-mile stretch of tracks connecting Myanmar to Bangkok, Thailand, was constructed during World War II under the Japanese military. Thousands upon thousands of Southeast Asian civilians and prisoners of war were forced to build it in less than a year, and hundreds of thousands of those lives were lost as a result.
There’s a primitive memorial marking the beginning of the Death Railway in Thanbyuzayat, a newer museum and a very well-maintained war cemetery to visit.
The total distance from Yangon to Mawlawmyine is approximately 175 miles and takes around 11 hours to do. Upper class seats cost about US $6. Take the overnight route, spend the morning soaking up Mawlawmyine, move onto Thanbyuzayat in the afternoon to learn more about this somber piece of world history, and then head back to Mawlawmyine for the night.
Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery, Thanbyuzayat, Myanmar, +95 9 960 993634
Stupas at Kyaik Than Lan Pagoda silhouetted by sunset in Mawlawmyine, Myanmar | © Chase Chisholm
Branch off the main Yangon to Mandalay train route at Thazi, and then head to Kalaw and stop at Shwenyaung, Inle Lake. This rail journey slowly rolls through hills upon hills of colorful scenery to get to Shwenyaung, not to be confused with Nyaung Shwe – Inle Lake’s main hub approximately seven miles away.
The distance between Thazi and Shwenyaung is only approximately 150 miles, but the tracks wind up and down several switchbacks along the way making this one of Myanmar’s slowest rail jaunts. Sit back and relax for the 10 to 11-hour duration, or consider getting off at Kalaw to hike to Inle Lake.
A scenic view from a train on the way to Shwenyaung from Thazi, Myanmar | © Clay Gilliland / Flickr
Curve around Yangon by exploring the city and surrounding area aboard its circular railway. Primarily used for commuting, this nearly three-hour train experience gets up close and personal with bustling markets lining the tracks, and the more rural outskirts of Myanmar’s booming commercial city.
Tickets for less than US $1 can be bought at any of the 38 stations found on the circuit, or at platform six or seven at Yangon’s Central Railway Station. The main train station in Yangon is great for people-watching, and a large railyard nearby—usually full of rusted, vintage-looking train cars and locomotives—is quite the sight to snap a photo!
Yangon's circle train curves under a walkway | © Chase Chisholm
The Yangon to Mandalay express train is one of the most ridden routes, since it connects Myanmar’s two largest cities. The degree of cleanness, luxury (think air conditioning) and timetable are much more reliable. This train commute works well for a punctual trip to Mandalay and back to Yangon. It isn’t necessarily the most spectacular of train journeys across Myanmar, but more so practical to get to the good stuff.
Stops along the way include Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar’s capital city. The total distance is approximately 400 miles and lasts 14-15 hours. Taking the overnight option works well for saving precious daytime for short trippers to Myanmar and money on accommodation. Definitely splurge on a sleeper compartment for only US $15!
A train about to depart Yangon Central Railway Station, Myanmar | © Chase Chisholm
Since most of Myanmar’s amazing train adventures take many hours to complete, it’s best to dress comfortably, pack a pillow for extra support and bring plenty of food and water in case the train doesn’t come with a restaurant car.
Additionally, locals selling anything from pineapple slices to individual cigarettes usually hop on for a few moments when the train rolls through towns, or jump off to grab a quick bite at a near-to-the-tracks teashop if time allows.
A woman selling pineapple on a train in Myanmar | © Chase Chisholm