Go to Razzle Dazzle welcome page. Myanmar (Burma)

Train travel

July, 2004

Burma photo.
1. Luxury compartment
Burma photo.
2. Food vendor
Burma photo.
3. The flagman
Burma photo.
4. Railroad crossing
nul. nul.

After our very good experience with the trains in Thailand, we decided to take the overnight train from Mandalay to Rangoon. We took the advice of our travel guides and avoided the regular class seats on local trains. They are reported to be truly awful. We instead booked a sleeper berth on an upper class, express. For $55 each, we were seated in a semi-private compartment which was old, rusty, and very dirty (see photo #1, at left). The picture doesn't really convey the lack of maintenance or depth of dust in the car. The doors didn't close properly, the air-conditioning ran constantly (we could not turn it off) but did no cooling. The toilet was a hole in the bathroom floor. We decided it would be impolite to use it while in a station.

There may have been a dining car (we doubt it), but if there was, we had no way to get out of our compartment. We brought water and snacks with us. The express train stops in only about a dozen stations along the way, and there were food vendors at most of them. Even in the middle of the night. We did not stop at most stations; the train simply slowed a bit, probably to avoid derailing at the switching points. In those places, vendors would leap onto the train to sell food to the passengers, then leap off again (photo #2). This seems a very dangerous way to make what is probably a very meager living.

The rail system is antiquated and poorly maintained. From what we could see, everything is done manually. Signals are passed to the engineers by colored flags at each station (photo #3). The equipment is either old or ancient. Our train stopped between stations on two occasions. Both times, we saw crew members running to the rear of the train with a screwdriver or wrench. Once, the problem was with the electrical connections between our car and the cars in front of us. It looked as if some of the nuts had fallen off, and they had no replacements. In the end, the wires were left disconnected. We and the cars behind us had no electrical power for the rest of the trip.

At every grade crossing, there was a crossing guard who would close the cross streets with a barrier of some sort, and signal the train with a flag that it was safe to continue (photo #4). The number of people employed by the railroad must be tremendous. With wages being very low, and a need to keep people employed, it makes some sense. Unfortunately, they do not spend enough time or money on track maintenance. The track sections are bolted together, and the connections must be loose, as the train jerked forward and back violently as we crossed each rail junction. In some places, the car would lurch from side to side so severly that we were sure the train would derail. In other places, the car would bounce up and down like an automobile on a washboard road, probably for the same reason. The express train had to travel fairly slowly because of the extremely poor condition of the track. We averaged less than 25 miles per hour for our 17 hour trip. It was impossible to sleep, and we arrived in Yangon exhausted. We spent most of the next day asleep in our guest house.

It was difficult taking pictures from the moving train. The motion was so violent that it was almost impossible to hold the camera steady. Jim did manage to get a few interesting photos:

Our train trip was without a doubt the low point of our visit to Myanmar. We strongly recommend avoiding the trains. They are extremely uncomfortable, and could be deadly. Although it is expensive, flying would seem to be a much better option.


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Jim and Jamie Richter, http://gotouring.com/razzledazzle/
Website designed and created by Lois Richter, expanded by Jim.
Created 7/2004. All text & photos are © 2004 Jim Richter.