A former colleague of mine had told me about this incredibly slow train through Myanmar - the Slow Train. As the name implies, it's a slowly moving train that tourism has not yet discovered for itself.
Taking this you can get to know Myanmar from a completely different side than, for example in Bagan or at Inle Lake. The slow train travels through jungle, mountains, past rice fields and small Burmese villages. Typically, such scenic train rides cost a lot of money, but the Slow Train is actually only used by Burmese and is therefore a real bargain.
Since I wanted to start my Myanmar tour anyway from Yangon towards the north, the Slow Train fit exceptionally well into my plans and so it was decided - I'm getting tickets for this ride.
For your information: I did this trip late 2017, shortly before the riots in Myanmar (or Burma) began. Unfortunately I don't have much information on how the situation is at the moment.
Preparations for the Slow Train ride
In a Youtube video of Notes of Nomads I have seen how this whole slow train story works. First of all, it means 24 hours more or less at a stretch in Burmese! trains: first taking the night train (train no. 3) to Thazi, there 2h wait and then another 10h ride with the slow train.
It is important to get a seat in the upper class or in the sleeper for the night train. Jessica from the Youtube video has only managed to get a place in the so-called Ordinary Class. That means 12 hours on a wooden bench. And honestly, I wanted to avoid this at all costs.
Apparently, however, the train ticket should be available only quite shortly before departure. So you might have to hurry to get a "good" seat on the train. After some research I found out that you can book train tickets in advance via Go-Myanmar: 25€ per person in a sleeper. Seemed a bit expensive to me, but still fair for what you get.
Picking up the Tickets for the night train from Yangon
In Yangon I received the email from Go-Myanmar that I can pick up the ticket starting from 3 days before the planned departure. When I had them in hand, I realized that the ride in the Sleeper carriage actually costs just under 13,000 Kyat, which back then was about $8. So I threw $17 out of the window.
But anyway, I had a safe place to sleep. -And actually all beds were occupied, so I wasn't annoyed for that long and was anticipating the slow train ride.
Departure from Yangon and my First Tourist Scam in Myanmar
The train station in Yangon everything was a bit chaotic. There are no displays in English and it is first difficult to see where to go at all. But the train employees are super friendly and eager to help you, even if they can't speak English at all.
Until the train doors opened at 16:30, I still had half an hour, which I spent in the Tourist Office. The staff there were incredibly sweet and cute, brought me tea and I could charge my phone.
After everyone in Yangon has been incredibly friendly and helpful so far, I thought maybe the typical tourist scams haven't arrived here yet. When boarding the train, I was taught otherwise. A guy grabbed the suitcases of a Belgian couple and carried them into the train.
To me he said, I should run after him as I would be in the same carriage. So far that was correct, but in the train he managed to grab my bag out of my hand to carry it for 2m - from train door to compartment - then demanded the outrageous amount of 5000Kyat (3.50€) for that.
Of course that was after I already tipped him. -Unbelievable level of rudeness. He also asked the Belgian couple for the same amount - 5,000 Kyat each. Since the whole situation became a bit scary after a short discussion, all of us grudgingly paid.
If you do this trip, don't let anyone grab your bag. Don't be as stupid as I was!
On Night Train #3
After this first setback, the slow train adventure continued quite well. The train left at 5 p.m. and the whole trip started. The Belgians in my compartment were super nice and we had an excellent time. Also the compartment itself looked surprisingly good, and even the beds were quite comfortable for the circumstances.
Once the sun set and it got dark, we were scared for the second time. I was sure I saw I gigantic cockroach ran across the compartment. I only saw it out of the corner of my eye and the color was a bit irritating. But as fast as it moved, it had to be a cockroach. In the past 10 minutes this happened again and again. It always happened out of a sudden, so we never had a chance to properly see it.
I was done, I really didn't want to share this tiny compartment with thousands of roaches. But luckily, just minutes after giving up hope, we saw those creatures. They were furry... with a small tail. Well yeah, these roaches were in fact mice. Seems that a whole family of mice lived in the compartment and only come out once it is dark.
To me this was a huge relief, I can easily live with a gang of mice in a compartment. My Belgian friends were not so happy with it, but it was still better than a whole bunch of roaches.
But back to the actual ride. Except for the fact that you really get shaken up and the train honks like crazy when passing through every village, the rest of the ride was pretty unspectacular. We were even able to sleep for a few hours before I had to get out of the train.
What you definitely should not not forget is to set an alarm clock. Everyone on the train buys a ticket to the final station in Mandalay. If you need to get off earlier, it's your responsibility to know when to jump off. So always keep a close eye on the station names when the train stops.
Arrival in Thazi
My planned arrival in Thazi was 5 am. So I set my alarm clock for 4:30am as a precaution. And what should I say, this train was on point. Only a minute past 5am, I could climb out of the train in Thazi. And there I was a bit overwhelmed.
Massice numbers of Burmese were already at the station at this time of the day. Some seemed to spend the night on the station. On top, I was the only "tourist" there and was critically assessed.
There were boards with ticket prices everywhere and train schedules written in Burmese characters - no one who spoke English. So what did I do? Actually nothing. Until the slow train leaves at 7am there was still a plenty of time and I thought it's better to rest shortly and wait for the sun to rise.
Only 10 minutes later a man suddenly appeared behind one of the counters. He was the first guy that could speak two or three words of English, and he also understood "Shwenyaung" is my planned destination.
He somehow explain to me that the train runs on one of the rear tracks and that the tickets are also sold over there. But only starting from 6 am.
Waiting For the Slow Train at the Chaotic Station in Thazi
From the small station building, I then walked across the rails to the middle of the platforms. Everywhere Burmese sit and lie on the ground, alone or with the whole family. Sometimes they cooked or grilled, others just slept.
For a quick moment I felt a bit like an intruder. And since it was still pitch black until shortly before 6 o'clock, everything looked somehow but slightly eerie.
I sat down to wait on a small bench next to a Burmese mommy with her two children. The three ate something crazy, rectangular and offered me to try something. Even if I did not feel like eating, I broke off a small piece.
All three were very happy when I tasted it. After this first experience the uncomfortable feeling was blown away. Unfortunately, I didn't take a picture of the food and the taste is really hard to describe. Pretty sweet somehow and overall not quite as tasty with a consistency like fudge crossed with polenta. -I know it sounds weird. But this tiny piece of this whatever it was made me astonishingly full.
Shortly after, I could finally buy my ticket for the slow train. And this time, the man at the counter could even speak English quite well. He explained the different train classes, and also at which track the train leaves.
200km or 10 hours ride in the Slow Train Upper Class cost per person just 3000 Kyat, so not even $2. -As previously mentioned, it's a real bargain!
Let's go - 200km with an average of 20km/h
Despite all posts and articles I found about trains being delayed for hours in Myanmar, the slow train also entered the station on time at 10 to 7 and then left punctually at 7 o'clock in morning.
What I have noticed is, only tourists get an assigned seat. Besides me, there was one couple taking the train as well.
All others can sit wherever they want. But I guess that's quite a good way to make sure that - as a tourist - you know what to do. And you even get the good seats with perfect views.
A Real Little Adventure
After just a few km the first involuntary stop happened. We stopped just before a bridge over a rather dangerous looking river. A few Burmese jumped out, stood in front of the train, and discussed heatedly.
I immediately thought: "all right, that was is - my train ride ends in the middle of nowhere". But that wasn't the case. The guys outside repaired the bridge hectically and then the slow train ride continued. I was still a bit worried but the sight was pretty impressive.
The rest of the trip was not that adventurous, but no less impressive. We drove at a super slow pace through primeval forests, past small villages and through the mountains with a view into deep gorges. The slow train really lives up to its name, as you first realize how slow 20 km/h really are.
During the ride, women get on and off at various points, carrying food in baskets or balancing it on their heads.
The tourists in the train were a big attraction. I can't remember the last time that so many people waved at me. Even in the big cities of Myanmar you are often approached as a tourist curiously, but on the Slow Train you are a star.
Special Stretches of the Slow Train Ride
There were two things I particularly liked about the Slow Train route, besides the scenery and the people. One was the stop "Zit Zat Reverse", a dead end into which the train first enters and then exits backwards for several minutes. And on the other hand there is a 360 degree turn where everyone is filming the bridge from below with their cell phones that the train just passed over. -I also did.
The last two hours on the slow train you pass fields and meadows, a total contrast to the mountains and dense forests the hours before. Basically, the landscape suddenly looked very European.
But the last 50 kilometers from Kalaw the train is full of tourists. There are many trekking tours offered around Kalaw, and they then to take the Slow Train towards Inle. From then on the trip wasn't quite so idyllic, but at that time I was already pretty tired and was already looking forward to Inle.
Would I Take the Slow Train Again?
This one is hard to answer. Spending 24 hours on the train is quite a lot; -Especially in Myanmar. As there are more comfortable ways to reach Shwenyaung, I would probably not doing it again. But I'm so glad I did the trip this one time. It's such a special experience to be that far off the beaten path in a relatively undeveloped country like Myanmar.
The tour with the Slow Train or much more the whole trip from Yangon is a real adventure and a unique experience. You see a lot of the country in a quite comfortable way. But I have to admit that the 24 hours turned out to be very long at some point and I was super happy once I finally arrived in Shwenyaung.
I could hardly wait to finally get to the hotel at Inle and take a hot shower.