I am a friend of slow travels. Myanmar trains – even the ones on tracks less than 30 years old – are notorious for their slowness. And when I heard about the “Slow Train to Thazi,” meandering at 30 km an hour (or less) through the highlands North of Inle Lake and Kalaw down to the Myanmar plains along the Irrawaddy River, I was keen to jump onboard.
The beauty of Myanmar train journeys
The only way to buy a ticket is to be at the station before the train arrives. So I leave the Song of Travel in Nyaung Shwe at 7 am to be at Shwenyaung station in time for the 8-am train.
I don’t have to stand at the counter; my driver takes me to the back room. The Myanmar Railway staff asks to see my passport, and I pay 3,000 Kyat ($3) for my Upper-Class ticket. Upper-Class seats are padded and extra-wide with only three seats per row.
My seat is one of the individual ones. I stow my large backpack in the space behind my chair and my daypack by my feet. Across from me, a Myanmar woman in her 50s sits down. When we leave Shwenyaung station, there are plenty of empty seats, and she moves to get her own set of two benches. But with every stop, the train becomes a little fuller, so the lady eventually returns to sit across from me.
The only thing that is uncomfortable about my lush seat is the fact that I am looking against the direction of the train, which makes me feel slightly nauseous and is also not very good for photography from the moving train. After about an hour (or two – time is of no importance on a slow train in Myanmar), however, a group of Indian Myanmar people enters and immediately proceeds to turn two seats around so the elderly man traveling can travel face-forward. What a game changer! I immediately inspect my chair to find that it, too, can be turned. Looking into the direction the train is going is much more fun.
The landscape is mostly mountainous with lush foliage. The vegetation is so dense that I could touch it if I weren’t too scared to stick my arm out of the window.
Every half hour or so the train stops at a station. The lady across from me gets out and buys heaps of produce: beans, cabbage, herbs, eggs, tomatoes,… There seem to be slight differences in the product ranges at every stop, and sometimes she waits until the train is almost departing before she lets the vendor lingering below our window know that she will buy whatever produce is left. One time, she empties a large bowl of beans on a seat, the vendor frantically waiting for her money as the train rolls out of the station.
A few stops in – there is never an announcement letting the passengers know how long the stop will be – I gather my courage and leave the train. I need a bathroom, and I would love coffee. After asking the conductor, who sends me to the station manager, who sends me to a restaurant owner, who hands me a tiny padlock key and points to the other side of the train tracks, I finally find a very simple toilet hut. It’s not luxurious but cleaner than the train.
The restaurant owner doesn’t have coffee and instead sells me a typical Myanmar sweet milk tea along with orange biscuits she says she made herself.
A few stops later, a massive rain front halts the market activities for 15 minutes. But as though the train was only there so locals could sell their produce, we wait until the stalls are set up again, and all passengers have completed their shopping.
At four in the afternoon, the train suddenly stops and goes backward, then forward, then backward, finally forward again. It takes me a few minutes to realize that we are not going back and forth but zig-zagging out of the Myanmar highlands.
The sun sets before six, as it does in this time zone, and I am starting to get a bit worried.
Based on the info I could find on train travel website Seat61, I had hoped to catch the sleeper train to Yangon: We would arrive from Inle Lake at, 7 pm, and the sleeper train is supposed to leave Thazi for Yangon at 7:49 pm. That should be ample time to buy a ticket, stretch my legs, find dinner to take on the train. There is a 10-pm train but it doesn’t have sleeper berths, just seats and it is a lot slower than the sleeper train.
We’re still a fair bit from Thazi, and even though we’re now in the plain, the train is not any faster than it was in the mountains.
(story continues below the photo gallery)
Getting from Thazi to Yangon
I start chatting with a Singapore woman. She needs to be in Yangon the next day to catch a flight and was planning to take the bus from outside Thazi station. I tell her about the 7:49-pm train, and we decide to get tickets together.
But 7 pm comes and goes, and we’re still far away. We get into Thazi station at 7:30 pm – 250 km have taken us 11.5 hours – and I, backpacks at the ready, jump out of the train to get to the ticket booth where I intend to buy two tickets while my new Singaporean friend would follow with her suitcase.
There is no line at the ticket booth, and the gentleman behind the glass is amiable. “Sorry, no tickets,” he smiles at me apologizing. My friend has arrived and asks about the bus to Yangon.
“Tonight no more buses from here. Take the taxi to the bus station. Maybe there is a bus at 9.”
“But where is the bus station?”
Meiktila is about 35 km from Thazi.
My backup plan if the sleeper train to Yangon shouldn’t work out was to stay in the only guesthouse recommended in the area, the Moonlight Guesthouse in Thazi, and then catch the train the next morning.
But now I am concerned about my new friend and her getting to Yangon on time.
So I decide to get in the horse-drawn carriage with her: For 2,000 Kyat each the cabby promises to take us to the bus. We swiftly get going while the cabby is frantically talking on his phone. I assume that he is trying to get the bus to stop somewhere close to Thazi as I don’t think we’ll go 35 km in a horse-drawn carriage.
We soon find out that he was calling a minibus to take us to Meiktila. The minibus will cost us another 5,000 Kyat each, but now we are in the middle of nowhere and have no other choice but to accept.
The minibus driver also gets on his phone right away. In the breaks between his calls, I keep insisting. “You get us to Meiktila to the Yangon bus on time? Yes?”
He nods and smiles.
“For the 9-pm bus. Yes?”
He nods and smiles.
And despite having to stop for ten minutes because the recent rains have flooded the road and cars can only pass in one direction at a time, we get to a bus at 8:50 pm.
But when we try to buy tickets we are told that there were no more seats.
The staff at the bus company is very apologetic, and a passenger does his best to translate the urgency of our case – we have to get on a bus to Yangon tonight.
Finally, after a few phone calls, another bus is found.
And they have only one seat left.
Of course, I leave the seat to the Singaporean, and whip out my phone to find a bed for the night. It seems as though there are only two affordable hotels in downtown Meiktila: The Shwe Lamin and the Honey Hotel. Once I’ve bought a ticket for the next day, one of the bus company staff is kind enough to take me there. But his first choice, the Shwe Lamin, doesn’t have room for me. So I check into the Honey Hotel. It’s a whopping $30 per night – I didn’t pay remotely as much for my lush private rooms in Mandalay and Inle Lake – and takes some discussion to have breakfast included. But I’m not in the mood the go looking for alternatives or go back to Thazi for the Moonlight Guesthouse. At least, I get to choose my room: A simple and clean room with an antiquated 100-dB air condition or a modern and quiet air condition but in a filthy room with cobwebs and gecko poo all over. I value my quietness more than I mind webs as long as the bed looks clean.
The next morning at 10, I catch my bus and have a comfortable, uneventful journey to Yangon.