Mandalay to Lashio Train: Slow but Thrilling
If there’s one thing bungy jumping in New Zealand prepared me for, was leaning out the window looking down into the valley floor 100 metres below, as the train slowly chugs across the impressive Gokteik Viaduct.
After 3 days of waking up before 5 am to see sunrise in Bagan (totally worth it, btw), I must have been a bit delirious when I decided to take the 4 am train from Mandalay to Lashio.
But with the promise of adventure too great to resist, I found myself, barely functional, getting onto the train at Mandalay Railway Station a few minutes before 4 am.
Just in the nick of time too. With a long blast of its horn, the train pulled out of the station (somewhat surprisingly) promptly at 4:01 am.
Like any sane person, I attempted to catch up on some sleep in those pre-dawn hours.
But the train was not having any of that.
‘Bumpy’ doesn’t begin to describe it as the carriage swayed from side-to-side, bounced up-and-down, twisted, lurched and jolted. All with the screeching of metal that was totally the opposite of relaxing.
Besides being reminiscent of some maniacal disco ballroom dance, this reminded me quite a bit of some of the sleeper train journeys I took in Malaysia when I was little. So I was probably a little less terrified / bothered than some of my fellow passengers, but still…
The morning air is chilly so I close the metal shutters, which slides down abruptly and slams shut with a bang, making me wary of putting my fingers or neck in the window. A small rat runs by my feet.
And yet, I find the train with its unapologetic flaws strangely charming.
I discover that by coincidence the occupier of the seat next to me, Valerie from Singapore, is also traveling all the way to Lashio for outdoor activities with Myanmar Adventure Outfitters (MAO). We pass the time chatting freely while periodically lifting our feet to avoid Mr.Rat who is scampering around looking for breakfast scraps.
Nearly 4 hours later, we pulled into Pyin Oo Lwin, a colonial hill station town in the hills (some 1070m above sea level).
This is where most tourists start their journey, since it is only 1.5 hours by road (i.e. taxi) from Mandalay.
It’s also where, in contrast to the previous rather sleepy town stops, everyone is wide awake and buzzing. A mini army of food vendors surround the train, offering their goods for some breakfast.
I spot fragrant fried noodles, samosas, bananas, oranges, quail eggs… As it is rather chilly in the still early morning in the hills, I settle for a steaming hot cob of corn (500 kyat = US$0.65), which hits the spot.
After a 30 minute stop, the train conductor rounds everyone onto the train and with a blast of the horn we’re off!
The next advertised stop is Gokteik Viaduct (bridge across a valley), which is for many the highlight that makes the journey a must-do.
But actually, there are a number of smaller stops on the way before we get to Gokteik. At each of these, locals get on or off, often with a some interesting baggage. Apparently this sometimes includes livestock like goats, but I didn’t see any on our train.
Everyone is in good spirits and there almost a sense of camaraderie that is rare on modern trains where people are more likely to be buried in their headphones/books/laptops.
On the approach the Gokteik Viaduct, the train zig zags its way there, which gives us our first sights of the bridge. Everyone clambers to the side of the train where the bridge can be seen and we snap away on our cameras.
When we get going across the Gokteik Viaduct, the train slows down to almost walking pace. Which is a relief, considering how much the train was yanking from side-to-side and with pretty much every passenger (including me) leaning outside the train windows to snap the perfect picture.
And what a view!
Hanging out the window and seeing the 100m drop down to the valley floor with no guard rails on the side of the tracks was EXHILARATING.
It actually reminded me of that time when I did the 134m high Nevis bungy jump in New Zealand. But thankfully there was no plummeting down towards the bottom today.
All that excitement had gotten me hungry. So thankfully, soon afterwards we got to one of the larger stations where there was a variety of food on offer and an opportunity to stretch my legs on solid ground.
I manage to grab some fried noodles and a cup of coffee, and the train is off again.
At the town of Hsipaw, literally all the other tourists get off with the exception of me, Valerie and a couple from Australia. I later find out that all 4 of us are headed to Lashio for tours with Myanmar Adventure Outfitters (MAO), which I’ll write about in a separate blog post.
Hsipaw is growing as a tourist destination. In fact, when I was planning for the trip, I had read about Hsipaw as a good place for treks, which led me to find how to get there and this train. Being me, I then decided to see where else the train went and found out about MAO and Lashio, which was definitely ‘off the beaten path’ and much more my style.
The next few hours, the train took on a different feel as the locals reclaimed their train and happily chatted, played music and spread out.
The railway follows the Myitnge River, giving a splendid view of the river banks when the trees aren’t in the way, and at one point we spot a roaring waterfall in the distance, which led to us speculating whether it was Dark Horse Falls on our MAO itinerary.
Just when I was getting bored and hungry, what I also discovered is that the mini army of snack sellers also seems to have left with the tourists at Hsipaw.
I ended up wandering the entire length of the train and back before I find the lone seller of snacks who is ironically just passing by my seat.
Quails eggs and peanut brittle make for a high protein, healthy snack, but I’m also curious about the packets of green leaves so I get one to try.
Just as I open the packet, realisation hits me that it might be betel nut/leaf. But no better way to find out than to give it a go…
Yup, betel. Peppery tasting at first, my mouth and throat start to go numb as I continue to chew on the enclosed betel nut.
Barely a minute later and I’ve had enough as I start feeling (or imagining) my mind’s state alter. Taking my cue from the passenger in seat in front of me, I spit out the window, taking care to avoid being hit in the face by the passing branches.
As dusk settles, there’s no scenery outside to help keep boredom at bay. The last couple of hours really drags on.
The train gets progressively emptier at each stop.
Finally, just after 8:00 pm, and 30 minutes later than scheduled, the train arrives into Lashio.
At 16 hours to travel 280km, the train is by no means the fastest way to get to Lashio. But what an epic and marvelous journey. Far from feeling like I had wasted half a day travelling, the Mandalay-Lashio train (with its imperfections and discomforts) counts as one of the most interesting travel experiences I’ve had.
Watch the Video
You’ll get a much better sense of what the entire Mandalay to Lashio train journey is like by watching the vlog I made below since the visuals and sound were such a big part of it all. Plus you’ll feel my exhilaration and frustrations.
The video is just over 8 minutes long. Check it out now by clicking below.
Seats in the train are in a 1-2 configuration, so get an ‘A’ seat if you want a solo seat, and ‘C’ and ‘D’ if you’re traveling as a pair.
The best views when crossing the Gokteik Viaduct going towards Hsipaw/Lashio are on the left side of the train (i.e. ‘A’ seat) , since the bridge curves to the left. But if (like me) you don’t land the left side, you can also commandeer the windows in between carriages or make friends with someone who has an ‘A’ seat.
Myanmar Railways ticketing is fully manual (literally handwritten) so you’ll have to get it in person a few days before travel or use an agency like 12Go.asia. As far I could tell, the train was pretty full from Mandalay to Hsipaw (some locals were sitting in the aisles) so pre-buying or booking is a good idea.
At Mandalay Railway Station, there are hotels connected directly to the train station (although can be quite noisy) or across the road. I stayed at Diamonds Inn, which I can recommend - use this link for 10% off.
The following is the Train Time Table as displayed in Mandalay Railway Station. But don’t expect Japanese train precision.
The most useful website for train travel in Myanmar is Seat 61, which will give you all the key info I haven’t covered here like fares, booking options, and other travellers’ reports.
What’s your most memorable train journey? Leave me a comment below 😸