I’d read quite a few accounts of this 17 hour train journey before deciding to go ahead and buy the tickets for us both on the 4th January 2017 from the very helpful people at Go-Myanmar.com. Would I recommend it? Absolutely! But don’t expect the Orient Express. A rule of thumb is that if you enjoy independent travel or have backpacked you will not be daunted by the facilities or length of trip. The few other non-Burmese on the train were all European, which perhaps says a lot about who this trip would appeal to.
There are several ticket options, but in reality upper class sleeper tickets are best if you want to get some sleep, although you need to book in advance rather than turning up at the station (which is beautiful!). Tickets were a very reasonable US$28 through this website. It’s worth noting however that sleeper tickets are only available if there is enough demand in Bagan for them to put on a sleeper carriage. Luckily for us there was. Although there were a couple of Italians who didn’t get a sleeper berth and ended up in upper class seating, where I suspect they had access to a bar and the opportunity to mix with the locals.
We arrived at 4pm with the train due to leave at 5pm. We were able to board our 4-bed compartment immediately, where we met our two Slovakian companions for the trip. As we could not access the main train from the sleeper carriage, the train attendant took our orders for dinner and breakfast. Menu choice was pretty limited – chicken curry or chicken curry – but the supply of cold Myanmar beer (recommended!) made up for it.
Rattling out of Bagan with the windows fully down you got a real sense of the countryside, which was magical as sunset approached. As darkness fell, we spent a few hours drinking beer and solving the world’s problems between the four of us, before settling down to sleep. Not sure if it was the beer or the rocking of the carriage, which at times felt like we were gong to get catapulted out of the windows, but none of us found it too hard to fall asleep, despite the noise of the wheels and the occasional massive jolt as the train changed track. The pull out beds were comfortable enough and a small pillow and sheet were supplied. In terms of other facilities, there was an overhead fan that was pretty effective and the toilet was adequate enough – no water in the pan, just a circular view of the railway track! The most dangerous aspect of the journey was successfully navigating the short journey from your seat/bed to the toilet and shutting the door while bouncing off the walls as the train rattled along.
The nearer we got to Yangon, the less picturesque our journey became. But I guess that’s what you would expect. The lack of care for the environment was evident with lots of plastic and rubbish. But there’s something about the track running right through towns and villages that also gave you a real sense for how people lived. Something I suspect you wouldn’t get on the bus driving through a major road.
As the sun rose we got a fascinating glimpse of daily life from people washing in streams; locals selling huge platters of food balanced on their heads; children travelling to school on bikes or motorbikes, sometimes three at a time; farmers cultivating rice fields with oxen and cart; basic wooden living accommodation with livestock running freely around the yard. As we got closer to the city of Yangon, a more urban lifestyle emerged.
We were due to arrive in Yangon at 10am. Our actual arrival time was 11.30am, but as the train never got faster than about 27 miles per hour I suppose we were lucky to arrive without any real major delays or incidents that can sometimes happen.
So, if you are up for an adventure, are not stuck to a strict itinerary, don’t mind a lack of comfort, meet likeminded travellers and want to a closer view of life in Myanmar, then I’d highly recommend the sleeper train.
Deborah Benn, January 2017