When we first started researching how to get around Myanmar, Anna-Lisa’s brother sent us a link to a very interesting website, Seat61.com. This website was started by a guy in England whose goal was to provide people with a place to find accurate train destinations and travel times for trips around Europe. Over time, the site has grown enough in popularity that he now spends most of his time traveling the world via rail in every country and documenting it. The first time I arrived at the site, I could see why it was so popular. I searched for Myanmar (ok, I actually did Burma), and was quickly taken to the front page, which has a map of the country with the train routes crossing it. It was on this page that I first read about the Slow Train from Thazi and decided that we should try to fit it into our plans while in Myanmar.
The Slow Train from Thazi is aptly named; the train line takes you up and over some reasonably sized mountains on the way from Thazi (Myanmar’s railway “hub”) to the Shan State, where Inle Lake is located. The line was built many years ago and has some unique features which were needed to deal with the geography; namely multiple switchbacks along the side of the mountain, and a point where it actually crosses a bridge over itself. The average speed is barely 20km/h (12mph), so the train from Thazi to Shwe-Nyuang (the closest stop to Inle Lake) takes about 10-12hrs. The train is an excellent way to go back in time and get a glimpse into the lives of the people in Myamnar while experiencing some beautiful scenery.
Because we had already decided to fly from Bagan to Heho (the closest Airport to Inle Lake), the only way we could experience this train ride was to do it in reverse, leaving Shwe-Nyuang either at 8 or 9:40am, with a planned arrival in Thazi at about 11 hours later. I say planned because the trains can be delayed, or actually early; ours ended up pulling into Thazi about 20 minutes early.
The whole experience can only be described as unique. At the time, Seat61 still had old timetables posted, so we had planned to get on the 10:30 train. That morning we thought to confirm the time with the hotel owner and he informed us that our train was actually leaving at 9:40 and we needed to leave in 20 minutes! He booked us a taxi to arrive at the station at 8:30am. Once at the station, we could see why. Purchasing a ticket as a foreigner requires a passport and the ticket agent takes about 5 minutes to complete all the information by hand before handing you the ticket. Our first class ticket to Thazi cost $7 each, which amazingly is 5 or 10 times more than the Burmese have to pay.
We then saw the train pull into the station around 9am. Since we hadn’t been given an exact departure time, we quickly grabbed the noodle lunch we bought from a vendor just outside the station (we picked her because when we stood by her little fire to warm our hands while waiting for the train, she offered us some free hot tea!), and jumped into our “first class cabin”.
Are you ready to see our First Class seats?
If you believe it, the photo below is of the “2nd class” seats. I’m guessing the locals spent mere cents on these seats. If the seats weren’t wooden I would stayed in here! So much cleaner and newer looking!
It was not a moment too soon either, as the train started pulling away from the station, a full 30 minutes before its scheduled time. Just as we finished thanking our lucky stars, it stopped again and reversed itself, adding some more cars to the back. It then returned to the main station to wait for more people until 9:35am, when it finally departed about five minutes ahead of schedule.
By the time it left, our first class car was filled with a middle aged German couple next to us, and a big tour group of older American and British tourists. These tourists made the initial stop very interesting, as many of them hopped off the train to use the bathroom, and suddenly the train pulled out without some of them. We all had a huge commotion trying to figure out how to stop the train, but then it did on its own, and reversed again to add more cargo. Clearly this was a very tricky train!
Note from Annalisa: Aurelien has not mentioned how bumpy the ride was! Put yourself on a horse, make it gallop, and you will then experience what we experienced for two full days. I have never been on a train that was so bumpy (side to side, forward and back, up and down). A few times we were sure the train was going to derail. The amazing thing is the vendors would come on the train balancing baskets of food on their heads! I could barely walk to the bathroom and yet they were walking around like it was no big deal.
I should also mention that at this stop, along with all the others, we got to experience all the vendors running out to meet the train, carrying their fruits and snacks on their head to tempt us as we looked from the open windows. One of the British ladies wanted 2 banana’s, but the vendor didn’t have change for her 1000 Kyat bill (about $1), so she had to buy a whole bunch of 15 bananas instead. There were soda’s and prepared meals for 500 Kyat, chips for 300 Kyat, and everything in-between.
Upon our arrival in Kalaw (from which many trekking expeditions to Inle Lake begin), all of our Western companions left us. A couple hours “experiencing” the ride was all they needed. Thus began the rest of our adventure. The 1st class car was empty aside from us, but that only lasted until the next stop, when a large group of locals piled in, along with about 15-20 large bags of food and provisions. It turned out that they were going back to their homes, in one of the “switchback” villages we passed through on our way down the mountain.
Due to the steepness of the mountains between Kalaw and Thazi, multiple switchbacks are built into the track along the side of the mountain. The train will be moving forward, stop, and then reverse down another track in the opposite direction. It was clearly an engineering feat when it was built. We finally arrived into Thazi at about 8:15pm, over ten hours after we had departed.
The other issue is that the train schedules are not set up well to immediately hop onto another train that evening. We were heading down to Yangon and had to wait until the next morning, the last night train from Mandalay having passed through perhaps an hour earlier. A quick horse-cart ride into town led us to the two guesthouses in Thazi, which are directly next to one another on the main road through town.
We stayed at Wonderful Guesthouse, which is nicer but more expensive than Moonlight. After the long day in the train, we were happy to pay the $25 required to get us our own bathroom. The owner really lived up to the name of her establishment, serving us a large breakfast in the morning. We then headed out for another full day on the train, this time to Yangon.
Some lessons we learned from our experience:
- Always double-check the train departure times, and go to the station early; at least 30-45 minutes, but preferably an hour or more.
- We enjoyed the day spent from Inle Lake to Thazi and recommend that others take the Slow Train from Thazi. However, we suggest taking it in the opposite direction, from Thazi to Inle Lake as the name suggests. Were we to do this again, we would have taken the bus from Bagan to Thazi, then the train to Inle the next day. This blog has a good account of the exact trip, although the times may not still be accurate.
- Try not to do two consecutive days on a train if you can help it. We ended up being on the two trains for a total of 24 hours within a 36 hour period! We were beyond fried when we finally arrived in Yangon at the end of the second day.
- If you must do the route the same way we did, take the 8am train out of Shwe-Nyuang. Based on the current timetable, you should arrive in Thazi around 7pm if your train is on time, allowing you to catch the #4 train from Mandalay to Yangon at 7:45pm. I wish we had been aware of this, although in the end it was nice to spend the night in a real bed.
At one point on our ride to Yangon the next day, Aurelien befriended a young girl and exposed her to the game Angry Birds on his iPad. At first she just wanted to watch him play, but then, she slowly gained more courage and started playing herself. They played together for probably one hour!