Train from Thazi to Shwenyaung

Trip Start May 23, 2014
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Trip End Jun 04, 2014


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Where I stayed
Inle Inn

Flag of Myanmar  ,
Thursday, May 29, 2014

Jeff and I completed a 28-hour marathon journey from Yangon to Inle Lake aboard Myanmar Railways Train 143, a torturously slow local train that took 11 hours to travel about 90 miles up the mountains from the junction station of Thazi to Shwenyaung.

Despite the extreme discomfort of traveling 28 hours overnight with no sleep on turtle-speed trains with no air-conditioning or decent bathrooms, the final part of our trip was incredible as we got an up-close view at life in a rural part of central Myanmar as we sluggishly crawled from station to station through western Shan State. This ranks high up on the list of amazing train rides I've taken around the world.

Jeff and I had arrived into Thazi Station at 2:55 this morning after a grueling 12-hour trip from Yangon Central Station aboard Myanmar Railways Train 5. Our two-hour layover turned into 3 hours when the locomotive on our connecting train had to be repaired before we departed Thazi Station 87 minutes tardy at 6:27 a.m.

The man across from me in Train 143’s sole Upper Class carriage is smoking at 6:46 a.m. as we roll eastbound toward the hills. I walk to the car’s bathroom, which consists of a "squat toilet" – a hole in the floor. Perhaps the most unpleasant dump I’ve ever taken in my life. The waste falls right through the hold to the ground as we head toward our first stop. There’s no toilet paper in the bathroom. Instead, there’s a small bowl you can use to wash yourself with some water, little of which comes out of a small faucet. Thank goodness I had some emergency toilet paper with me.

That’s one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever done.

We make our first stop at 6:58 at Hlaingdet Station. Vendors are selling pottery. The man sitting across from Jeff and I buys two pots. This line has only one track. I wish the windows were larger. It’s not as comfortable as our last train from Yangon to Thazi, one of the “express” trains that run between the nation’s two largest cities (Yangon and Mandalay). We had cushioned recliner seats on that 12-hour journey. On this local train, we have bench-style seats even though we’re in Upper Class (the same class of service as our first train).

Train 143 blows its horn loudly as we pull into Payangazu Station at 7:16 a.m. There’s no way you could sleep on this train. It was totally insane to take these two lengthy train trips back to back overnight without any sleep. We should have spent the night in Thazi and continued to Inle Lake the next day -- or skipped this train adventure entirely and taken a faster bus or flight from Yangon to Inle Lake instead.

Yangon to Nyaungshwe by bus is 378 miles by road, according to Google Maps, which estimates a drive time of 7 hours 36 minutes. Or we could have taken a 70-minute flight from Yangon to Heho, an airport about 20 miles from Nyaungshwe.

“Taking the train is invariably slower than taking the bus and, for reasons that range from flooded tracks to mechanical problems, trains are less reliable than buses; apart from the usually reliable Yangon to Mandalay express train, journey times can vary wildly,” according to go-mayanmar.com.

Riding trains is definitely not the most efficient way to get from Yangon to Inle Lake. If we assume a bus ride would take about nine hours, the train trip took us three times longer. It did provide us with a spectacular experience, however. I just wish we’d planned it out better and not tortured ourselves by traveling 28 hours without a rest stop.

“Another charming Myanmar rail journey is the branch off the main Yangon to Mandalay line that veers off at Thazi, heading to Kalaw and Shwenyaung (for Inle Lake), and further onwards to Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State,” according to go-mayanmar.com. “This line winds its way very slowly through beautiful hill scenery, and is a wonderful alternative to the (much faster) bus route that most people take.”

After departing Payangazu Station, we start climbing uphill. There’s vegetation right alongside the tracks. It pokes through the open windows at some points. You have to watch your head!

It’s 7:29 a.m. We’re only an hour into this ride and I’m getting bored. We are crawling along. I’m reading a magazine.

We pass through a short tunnel at 8:10 and the car goes dark for a few moments. We arrive into Yinmabin Station at 8:22. I purchase a snack from one of the numerous vendors: four samosas for 200 kyat (21). Several women have large baskets full of beverages and snacks balanced on their heads.

Our tickets are checked for the first time at 8:57, shortly before we roll into an unknown station at 9:02 (while some stations have signs in both Burmese and English, the station name sign here is only in Burmese). A lot more people board the train here. A few folks are sitting in the aisle of our carriage. There’s several people and their goods in the space at the rear of our car near the exit doors. It’s getting hot, crowded, and uncomfortable.

I’ve been reading and trying not to think of the fact I did not sleep and how uncomfortable I am and the agonizing fact we still have another seven hours of this to endure. This is way, way too much in one sitting. Five or so hours would have been plenty enough adventure for me.

We’ve turned south at 9:24 and are rolling along the tracks at 8 mph. The train stops at another unknown station at 9:45. Someone is playing music in our wagon at 10:00. The next stop is Lebyin Station at 10:08. The music is really annoying me. And the heat. My lack of mobility. My lack of sleep. Jeff and I are the only foreigners on these trains. For good reason! Lack of decent bathroom. Bus occasionally at my arms and ankles. I can’t believe someone is so rude as to blare music to the whole carriage. Ugh. This is the journey that will never end. Extremely unpleasant. This is why I do not do these marathon overnight trips by ground transportation.

Another station stop at 10:48. Lots of people are on the platform unloading goods. Must have been 50 people awaiting this train’s arrival. Pottery, sacks of rice, and all sorts of other items are being loaded and unloaded. There’s a swarm of people. This is a long stop. We depart at 11:00 in the reverse direction. Must be one of the switchbacks to climb higher into the mountains. Five minutes later, we move forward again, stopping briefly at 11:23.

Khewyok Station at 11:34. Elevation: 3,031 feet. Again, lots of vendors here. Jeff buys a bunch of bananas for 500 kyat (52). We depart backward at 11:41 and then reverse direction at 11:54. A sign states we’re now at 3,237 feet.

The next station comes at 12:17 p.m. at 4,150 feet. We pass through a tunnel at 12:38 at 4,470 feet and another tunnel five minutes later. Then at 12:44 a sign indicates we’ve reached the summit: 4,608 feet. Jeff has been lying on the train’s floor with his feet kicked up on the bench seats.

Ten minutes after passing the summit and beginning our descent, the train stops in the midst of heavy vegetation. The engine cuts off. This can’t be good.

It starts raining at 1:04. The engine comes back on at 1:12 and we’re moving two minutes thereafter. We halt at the next station at 1:25. A westbound train is here – the first train we’ve passed. There’s quite a vegetable and plant trade going on at this stop. We roll out at 1:37.

I finished reading my Myanmar guidebook at 2:03. I’m hungry for lunch, but no stops recently have had vendors come aboard to sell any warm food.

Kalaw Station is next at 2:08 (4,297 feet). This is one of the major towns along our route today. We’ve now been aboard Train 143 for 7 hours 41 minutes, yet we have only traveled about 60 miles. Our average speed thus far has been 7.8 mph.

“A vestige of British colonial days, the Myanmar Railways began with a line from Yangon to Pyay (formerly Prome) built in 1877, with extensions to what would become the Yangon-Mandalay line beginning seven years later,” according to The Diplomat. “These steel rails have not been properly maintained since the British left after WWII, leaving warped and offset tracks that restrict speed to about 25 mph and torment passengers with backbreaking jolts strong enough to send full-grown men several inches airborne.”

Stewardship of these rails is now once again set to pass into the hands of a foreign power.

“Japan has  committed about $194 million to upgrading the system,” according to The Diplomat. “It expects to dispatch experts to begin fieldwork by 2016, with work scheduled to be completed sometime after 2020.”

Our stop at Kalaw took only four minutes. There wasn’t any real lunch food for sale on the platform. Bummer. I bought some more samosas and a small can of Lychee juice for 800 kyat (83). Two white women boarded the train. These are the first foreigners we’ve seen since Yangon.

This must be the longest train (or bus) trip of my life. Never again! We’re coming upon 24 hours since Jeff and I departed our guest house in Yangon. That is totally insane. There’s no trash cans on the train that I can see. We’ve got garbage everywhere. My hands are disgustingly filthy.

I start watching TiVoed shows on my phone at 2:40. We arrive into Aung Ban Station at 2:57 (4,219 feet). There’s pretty rolling hills scenery in this area. We pass farmers and their animals working the fields. Rolling at 10 mph. This trip feels like going back in time by 75+ years. There’s only 14 other passengers left on our carriage. Many have already disembarked. Jeff is napping on a bench.

The train halts at an unknown station at 3:47. There’s just a couple houses here; it doesn’t even look like a village. Several flies are bothering me. I want this trip to be over so badly.

We pass Heho Airport at 4:19 and reach Heho Station at 4:26. Now I know we’re in the home stretch. That’s the airport we would have landed at had we flown from Yangon. We pass a large Buddhist temple complex on the hills on the east side of Heho.

Our train creeps along for another 70 minutes, then finally we roll into Shwenyaung Station at 5:42. Travel time since our first train departed Yangon Central Station yesterday afternoon: 26 hours 43 minutes. Travel time of this train: 11 hours 15 minutes.

The two European women who boarded at Kalaw also step off the train at Shwenyaung. We negotiate with a taxi driver to take us to the nearby town of Nyaungshwe (yes, the two towns contain the same two words in reverse order) for 10,000 kyat ($10.36). As we depart, a sign states it’s seven miles to Nyaungshwe.

We stop at a tollbooth at 6:07 on the northern entry to Nyaungshwe. The taxi driver says we have to pay a $10 foreigner entry fee for Inle Lake. What the hell is this?! I am extremely exhausted and crazy cranky after that lengthy train trip. The last thing I want is someone trying to charge me money just to reach my hotel so I can finally sleep. I refuse to pay the fee. I don’t understand what it’s for. All I want to do is get into the town and find my hotel. I’m upset. Jeff pays for me, not wanting a confrontation here at the tollbooth.

At long last, we find the Inle Inn at 6:16 p.m. and check into Room 203. Travel time since leaving our Yangon guest house: 27 hours 53 minutes.

Jeff and I book bus tickets for 7:30 a.m. Saturday to Bagan. Ugh, so early! :-( The hotel clerk says it’s eight hours travel time by bus to Bagan. Compared to the 28-hour ordeal I just endured, that sounds absolutely wonderful (except for the 7:30 a.m. departure – why does it have to be so early?!) The only other option is a 7 p.m. departure, arriving into Bagan at 3 a.m. What an insane schedule. Who would want to take that bus arriving in the middle of the night?

Jeff arranges a 7:30 a.m. boat tour of Inle Lake tomorrow. It’s extremely unlikely I will make that, and I’m shocked he expects to be up at that hour. I imagine I will need to sleep at least 16 hours tonight after getting zero rest last night. Probably a wasted day tomorrow and then a 7:30 a.m. bus on Saturday. So basically coming here to Inle Lake was pretty much pointless then. :-(

To add to my misery, the WiFi is not working. I’m getting the dreaded “No Internet Access” alert on my laptop. The lamp next to my bed has a broken light bulb. The room is pretty nice but lacks air-conditioning -- unbelievable in a tropical nation. It’s a sweltering 83 in our room, according to my alarm clock. I could have a hard time sleeping in this heat. It’s awful. Thankfully there is a fan.

There’s too many things going badly. Not a good beginning to this trip. :-(

Bed at 7:24 p.m.

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