The Train Journey from Yangon to Mandalay
Our first impressions of Myanmar Burma had been underwhelming. We couldn’t wait to leave Yangon and decided to take the train to Mandalay. The train is not a popular travel option for visitors to Burma, most fly or take a bus when touring around. Ask a local and they’ll say don’t take the train they smell and it’s very bumpy and expensive.
We don’t usually ignore local advice, but our love of train travel made this an easy decision. So having purchased our handwritten train tickets at the Myanmar Railway Booking Office, see our last Myanmar blog, we were excited about the long journey ahead. It was not the most ethical of transport options given that the railways are state run, you are made to pay your fare in dollars at a 500% mark up on local rates. That said, we decided it’s better than flying, would give us both a chance of a reasonable nights sleep and the opportunity to see some local sights which would be missed 35,000 ft up in the air. We’d also spoken to people who’d taken sleeper buses around Myanmar and they had very little sleep due to the bumpy road network.
The train departs Yangon station at 5pm and the journey is estimated at 14-16 hours depending upon where you get your information from. Our journey took us 17 hours pulling into the station at Mandalay at 10am the following morning.
We were entertained by the train stewards, who plied up and down the carriages selling drinks and food – all of which came with a visitor price tag! Which is very negotiable, even on drinks. The prices and food are OK, except for beer, and if you want you can go to the buffet car yourself. However, the smiles and conversation from the cheeky lads made up for it, at one point we had four of the staff sat chatting away. Yes, our car did smell a little, but the sheets and pillows were clean. You soon get used to the aroma and quickly forget about it as the scenery and life from the train window grabs your senses.
Watching Yangon city disappear behind us and being replaced by vast plains of fields and hills felt good. We were also rewarded with a seven out of ten sunset through the carriage window.
The sleep was long, I managed seven hours, but your sleep is interrupted periodically along the more bumpy sections of the track. We knew the journey wasn’t going to be smooth, as we’d needed to hold tight onto our drinks the evening before as the train bumped its way along (cheap Myanmar whiskey purchased on the train, and special cups loaned to us by one of the crew) lest we spill a drop.
We chose the upper class sleeper and paid US$33 each to get to Mandalay. Which we thought wasn’t bad especially as we had the entire carriage all to ourselves. Solo travellers may want to consider the cheaper option of first class sleeper seats, as this carriage was a lot busier (not with tourists though) and I guess it could be a little unnerving being the only person in the entire carriage in the sleeper car, and just a shred of plastic string to secure your compartment door shut. Although, I guess some would relish the prospect of being the centre of attention. There are armed police on the train, one came and visited us shortly after the train left the station to ensure we were comfortable, check our documents and offer advice such as don’t have anything near the window that can easily be snatched.
There is no air conditioning but the open windows and the ceiling fan cool you enough not to make it an uncomfortable ride. In fact the open windows add to the charm of the journey and allow you to do some photography out of the window when you approach stations or the train slows and settles enough that you can hold the camera steady for a shot. Due to the amount of open windows, you get lots of mosquitoes hitching a ride on the train.
Myanmar Railways will not win any awards for cleanliness, in fact I doubt they employ cleaners. The train stock was old and the standard is below those of trains in Vietnam and Thailand. However, we felt privileged to make this train journey. From interacting with the local traders at the numerous station stops, and observing Burmese people going about their business, wowing at the stunning scenery, we realised that we were starting to succumb to Burma’s charms.
After our disappointment at the hotel in Yangon we decided not to book any accommodation ahead of our arrival in Mandalay. We ended up at the ET Hotel on 83rd and 23rd street. It had the luxury of aircon, a private bathroom and a TV which was a bonus if you like watching Russia Today News Channel, which was the only English channel available, sadly no cute alien creatures were in residence at the time.
It also had the rare bonus for Myanmar, free wifi, admittedly only available at one end of the of the hotel and as slow as a snail with an elephant on its back, but it was wifi and allowed, with much patience, for us to check e-mails and do the occasional facebook and twitter update.
The location served us well and there were enough cheap places to eat and buy supplies nearby, such as mosquito cream and hand held fans. There is also a little shack outside the entrance where you can pick up cold water and drinks on the way back in run by a lovely Burmese family.
Things to do in Mandalay?
Mandalay had a more energetic feel to it than Yangon from the moment we arrived, yes the sun was shining and we weren’t tired after our pleasant journey on the train, but it just seemed all that more welcoming than Yangon. One of the main reasons for visiting Mandalay are to see the amazing temples, but there are other things to occupy you.
The old 80s Mazda and Datsun taxis of Yangon gave way to a variety of similarly aged pick up trucks which, if you were lucky your seats consisted of a bench seat in the back (called blue taxis), and if you were not, a reed mat thrown over the bumpy metal floor in the back of the pick up.
These were our main form of transport during our time here. You pay more for a ‘proper’ taxi car here so a van seemed right for our flashpacking budget. Like all Asian cities taxi fares are a subject of negotiation and it seems to us more here, more than anywhere else, that they have all been meeting and agreed said fares to the main locations – hardly any negotiated downwards despite John’s best efforts. The prices we found that could not be moved from our hotel on 83rd/23rd street area were to the following locations :
- Train Station or Mingun Ferry Pier, – 2000 Kyat each way
- Mandalay Hill, Mandalay Palace – 4,000 – 4,500 Kyat return and for the driver to wait
- Highway Bus Station – 5,000 Kyat one way
- One Day (9am – 5pm) tour around Mandalay to AmaraPura, Inwa and Sagaing – 20,000 Kyat
Prices for moto’s (behind the motorbike driver) were about half of the above, but seeing as there were two of us it seemed a no brainer to go with the pickups even without seats.
Great Views from Mandalay Hill
This is the must do destination to view Mandalay. It seems there are two ways to get to the 760ft summit, the hard way or the easy way. We chose the hard way.
This consists of your driver dropping you off and waiting at the bottom of the hill just off the main road opposite the Southern end of the Palace. You climb barefoot up some steep, some very steep and some ridiculously steep stairs until you reach the top thirty minutes later (thankfully all the stairs are shaded to prevent sole burn).
Hot, sweaty but with the additional little treats of the Shrines you have witnessed on the journey and feeling righteous that you have earned your view and your visit to the summit, we made it. You will be asked for a 500 Kyat camera fee at the top but if you are feeling annoyed, you can lie and promise you won’t take any pictures (not that I would do that of course).
The easy way is to get your bike/pick up to take up the winding road and then you hop on an escalator for the final few feet of the ascent and have a lift back down. I still think we made the right choice of ascent, but at the time we were jealous of those that arrived at the summit sweat free!
The sunset views are spectacular across Mandalay and beyond into the Shan hills looking east. You will also be treated to hoards of Burmese English language students, often with a monk in tow to add a bit of local credibility, who are eager to practice their speaking skills with you. They are charming and unlike other Asian countries where this is a prelude to a scam, these are genuine and will give you some interesting local titbits in English. We leant about the freshwater dolphins that the local fishermen are eager to engage in helping them source shoals of fish and up their catch quota for the day. Fascinating, if they like you will also get an invite to attend their school and teach the whole class. We didn’t actually manage to take any decent pictures of the sunset as we were totally engrossed in conversation, admiring the scenery, and it seemed rude to dismiss our new friends in order to take pictures.
From Mandalay hill you get a beautiful view down the moats of the Mandalay Palace and its vast gardens (and barracks!) which dominate the centre of the city. This is one of the other sights of Mandalay.
Mandalay Palace or is it a Fort?
We decided to walk to the palace from our hotel. Given that foreigners can only enter the compound from the East entrance for us this meant a 5KM walk from our hotel in 38 degree Celsius heat.
We made an early start to give us a chance of slightly cooler temperatures. It was a pleasant walk around the moat and, as ever, when you decide to take walks around the city you get to see a little bit more life.
At our halfway point we were in desperate need of some liquids and stumbled upon a promotional event for some new taurine laced soft drinks. We emptied the samples tray and then felt guilty so bought some extra cans for our final leg of the walk. The promotions staff were so impressed with our fondness of the new concoctions that we were photographed drinking said beverage , no doubt to appear on some Myanmar advertising hoardings. In fact, since arriving in Mandalay we’ve been approached several times by people to have their photographs taken with us, all this has been genuine.
It takes quite a long time to do things here, apart from the heat hitting 40 degrees, it sometimes feels like everybody wants to talk with you. It usually starts with “Hello, where you from? That’s a great country, why are you in Myanmar?” We’ve got very used to this as part of our around the world trip, from people selling things at popular tourist sites in the various countries we’ve visited. In Burma, this happens all the time, the difference is, nobody has anything to sell, just a healthy interest in what is happening outside Burma, your impressions of Myanmar and an eagerness to share stories and improve their English. Even those with something to sell, will still carry on chatting when it’s clear to them that a sale won’t be occurring. This makes John very happy as he likes to talk about anything, and this can make for slow progress, but you do learn so much from taking your time and engaging.
Our visit to The Palace wasn’t that impressive as it had been completely rebuilt after it was destroyed in WWII and lacked any wow factor, it has some plastic facsimiles of past kings and some edge curled fading reproduction photos and that’s about it. Although the moat and palace walls and grounds are fairly impressive, I suspect the best parts are not available for public consumption.
The most interesting bit in a perverse way is seeing the maps of where you can and can’t go within the palace walls as the place is still primarily a military barracks for the Junta. We were however knackered and no amount of energy drink intake made us feel we were ready for a walk back so we hopped on two motorbikes and let the wind whistle through our hair bald patches on the way home.
The remaining sights of Mandalay are a mixture of temples, markets and a visit to a Gold leaf manufacturing shop, and gem shops. We skipped on the in town temples and the gold leaf shop (this one by accident we had planned to go then realised it was a Sunday and missed the chance). We did try the markets. They are vast and housed in a couple of multi storey buildings around 84th and 26th Street. A lot are wholesale operations shipping out Longyis by the lorry full, but in amongst them if you have the time (and the stamina – its hot in them there markets) you could find that little something you need.
Eating in Mandalay
We tried a couple of places recommended in the guide books, but weren’t that impressed. However, we found a couple of places of our own we liked.
The first is a bar/restaurant overlooking the west palace moat at the very end of 23rd street. They speak not a word of English but pointing, sign language and their patience and humour fed and watered us for a whole evening. This place is packed with locals and has an open-air BBQ, and specialises in the Myanmar produced Grand Royal Whisky. They serve Spirulina beer on draught at 500 Kyats a pop and quarter bottles of local whisky at a 1000. We loved the beer and its anti-ageing claims. The friendly staff will keep feeding you free soup until you leave at least half in the final bowl. We got through four as it is quite tasty.
We also found a great chapatti stall not far from the hotel. It sets up outside the labour exchange on 83rd street in between 23rd and 24th street. A chapatti and a small dahl curry dish will set you back a mere 300 kyat, they are tasty, freshly cooked and we ate there a few times and their cold chicken marinated in oil and spices was delicious. The chai is damned good too to wash it down with.
This northern end of Myanmar is a mix of Chinese, Burmese, Nepalese, Tibetan and Indian cultures and you will find the food offerings around the city reflect this mixed culture.
We liked Mandalay much more than Yangon. In the area we were staying you could have thought you entered the industrial zone as lots of the shops are selling generators, scrap metal, motors and air conditioning equipment.
But don’t let that fool you, look in amongst this and you find a friendly group of people and some great little places to have a bite to eat and drink if you don’t mind struggling through the language barriers. It’s so worth it.
Most of all though Mandalay is a great place to explore the city’s surrounds and the vast number of temples, shrines and Payas which adorn this area of Mandalay. In our next Myanmar travel blog post, we will explore the temples of Mandalay in a bit more detail.