A train ride on Myanmar's narrow-gauge tracks is like going by horse, with the carriages rocking back and forth and bouncing everyone lucky enough to have a seat into the air – sleep is practically impossible. Compared to bus trips on the same routes, taking the train means extra travel time, on top of which likely delays (of several hours, if you're unlucky) have to be factored in.
However, train travel is cheap now that foreigners pay the same as locals. Routes sometimes get to areas not reached by road and the services provide a chance to interact with locals.
First introduced by the British in 1877 with the opening of the 163-mile line between Yangon and Pyay, Myanmar's rail network now has over 3357 miles of 3.3ft-gauge track and 858 train stations.
Extensions to the network, adding another 2264 miles of track, are very slowly under construction from Sittwe in the west to Myeik in the south. Japanese investment and train know-how is set to help upgrade the main Yangon–Mandalay line and Yangon's Circle Line, although when that will happen is unclear.
The 386-mile trip from Yangon to Mandalay, via Bago, Nay Pyi Taw and Thazi, is the most popular train ride visitors take. Since 2016, train 5/6, which leaves both Yangon and Mandalay at 3pm, uses new diesel electric locomotives and carriages bought from China. The train's air-cushion suspension system provides a smoother (but not faster) ride. There is no sleeper carriage on this service; if you wish to book a sleeper for this route, they are only available on train 3/4, which departs both cities at 5pm.
Other routes worth considering:
An express line connects Bagan (Nyaung U) with Mandalay, from where there are three other branch lines: one running slightly northwest across the Ava Bridge and up to Ye-U; one directly north to Myitkyina in Kachin State; and one northeast through Pyin Oo Lwin to Lashio in the northern part of Shan State.
Trains are classified by a number and the suffix 'Up' for northbound trains or 'Down' for southbound trains. There's no need to specify the train number when purchasing tickets; just ask for your destination and class.
For more information on all routes and services, a good source is www.seat61.com.
Express trains offer two classes of passage – upper class and ordinary class; long-distance trains may also offer sleepers. The main difference between ordinary and upper class is that the seats recline and can be reserved in the latter, while ordinary class features hard upright seats that can't be reserved. Some trains also offer another class of service called 1st class, which is a step down from upper in comfort.
There are two types of sleeper carriage:
In both types of sleeper carriage, linens and blankets are provided. There's a ceiling fan and the windows open for ventilation.
Long-distance trains have dining cars accessible to passengers in 1st, upper and sleeper class. The food isn't bad – fried rice and noodles. Attendants can also take your order and bring food to your seat or pass it through the window.
Trains stop fairly often, too, with vendors on platforms offering all sorts of snacks. Bathrooms are basic; there are also sinks to wash hands and brush teeth. Attendants sometimes hire out bamboo mats to spread on the floor in aisles or under seats if you can't sleep upright. It can get cold at night, so bring a jacket and/or a blanket.
The express trains are far superior to the general run of Myanmar trains. Other trains are late, almost by rule. It's not unheard of for the Mandalay–Myitkyina route, scheduled to take around 24 hours, to end up taking 40 hours. Even on the Yangon–Mandalay route delays are common, particularly in the rainy season when the tracks are prone to flooding.
Tickets can be bought directly at the train stations. You may have to persevere at smaller stations, as agents aren't used to foreigners climbing on board.
A day or two's notice is usually enough to book a seat, but if you want a coveted sleeper, you'll need at least a couple of days' notice – longer during high season (November to March). If you hold a seat on a train pulling a sleeper car, you can try to upgrade to a berth after you board by paying the additional fare directly to the conductor.
If you're having trouble buying a ticket or making yourself understood at a train station, try seeking out the stationmaster (yonepain in Burmese) – the person at the station who is most likely to speak English and most inclined to help you get a seat.