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Myanmar

Exploring Myanmar by Train

Myanmar Railway: tickets, experience, best routs

Being a big fan of railways and having a rule to travel by rail as much as possible I couldn't wait to come to Myanmar. And I wasn't disappointed.
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The Network
Rail Network in Myanmar is actually more developed that you would expect in a way it's as extensive as in Thailand, nothing comparing to Indian network of course. I guess this is a part of British heritage.
You can reach all the main cities that are visited by tourist and although infrequent and slow trains usually run on daily basis.

The tickets
This is by far my favorite part. You can't book them online (daa). You can't buy them for the following day (Yangon might be an exception). You have to show up at the station about 20 minutes before train departure, skip the main ticket window and just pop your head into the station office. Someone will invite you inside sit you down and write a ticket. You get a special ticket which looks as if it was for West End show, while everyone else gets a scribble on a small piece of cardboard. Foreigners pay in Kyat same prices as locals, first class normally twice cheaper than taking a bus and a second class is next to nothing.
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The Trains
The trains look like they were delivered by Her Majesty's Rail back in royal times and are still running. There are two classes, first and second. Second class is the picture above. Basically flat plastic benches, perfectly fine for a couple of hours. First class - you get individual seats which look more like barber's chairs with armrest and everything. Just like barber's chairs these spin left and right and can recline far back - sound comfortable right? Wrong! They'd be comfortable if any of them worked. 99% chances that all levers are broken, which in best case means the chair is stiff fixed, worst case it has a mind of its own and spins out of control every time when train rocks and those trains rock alright.
We decided to be brave and took a night train in first class from Bago to Mawlamine. I remember waking up in the middle of the night, when double dose of valium has worn off, and seeing everyone in the carriage spinning around as if they were on a carousel.
The night was horrific, but experience priceless!
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Only when you experienced Burmese trains you start to fully appreciate comfort of Indian trains. And this says a lot...
The trains shake big time, you can properly appreciate the extend of rocking when you look through the passage that links two carriages as you see how they rock one against another.
The Accident
We were taking a ride from Pyin U Lwin to Kyaukme when we heard a loud bang like an explosion and the train got engulfed in ashes. After a second we realized that the train just derailed. The ashes were in fact concrete from the rail frame being sliced by wheels.
All the western folks jumped out in fascination while the Burmese hardly blinked an eye. They said not to worry this happens all the time...
And indeed no one including train guys worried. They got out a mega sized wrench which had two levers one to lift and lower and another one to shift it right or left. While two guys were spinning the wrench one was counting so they could spin it from both sides simultaneously. Within an hour we were back on tracks. More in this video.

About an hour before Kyaukme we reached the famous Gokteik Viaduct. As the train has to descent to reach the Viaduct it makes a few switchbacks so you see it from both right and left. The train slows down to about 5 km/h and crosses the Viaduct at a snail place, the views are breathtaking.

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Posted by dima.safr 06:43 Archived in Myanmar Tagged train burma railway backpacking video independent gokteik_viaduct myanmar_railway derailed Comments (1)

Motorbike Trekking in Shan State - Myanmar

2 day Independent village motorbike trek from Kyaukme


More on our Myanmar trip
Most of the village trekking in separatist Shan State of Myanmar is done out of Hsipaw. We heard that a town just before Hsipaw - Kyaukme is a viable and less touristy alternative.

Kyaukme itself is a very lively town on the Mandalay - Lashio trade route from China. There is a buzzing market where you can get all sorts of Burmese street-food and one Beer station that we found by following this instructions from Wikitravel:
(From A yone oo guesthouse turn left, then left again at the end of the street. walk for a few minutes til you go over the canal and the take another left, a few meters along is beer and BBQ!).

We quickly found Northern Rock hotel, which is made up of few large colonial rooms being partitioned into small, cozy and windowless box rooms. We got a double for $12. A charming house and a nice family, but cheep and cheerful rooms. However, since you won't be staying there any longer than a day it's not a big of a deal.

They guesthouse owner said that they can help us with a trek and put us in touch with Jay. Jay is a 20-something chap, who sometimes works as an English school teacher, grows corn to sell to China and doubles up as a cultural trekking guide.
Jay came back at 7ish bringing 2 girls back from a trek, who were very happy with their experience and highly recommended the motor-bike trek! Until this point we never heard of moto-trekking, and were more in favor of using our legs as you do.
There are a couple of options where you can do a fairly short overnight trek along tea growing villages ($20) being dropped off and picked up in the hills, or to take a motorbike a do a much larger loop visiting several villages ($25). The second option sounded more adventures!
Jay asked us about how confident we were on semi-auto motorbikes, by that point none of us had any motorbiking experience and driving it on steep mountain trails sounded like a suicide. For $10 we got drivers who were effectively Jay's students and grew up in highlands riding motorbikes since they were 5.

Next day we all met up, stocked up on water and petrol and hit the road.
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Very quickly we left the road and hit a dusty trail, and when I say trail I actually mean quite literally a cattle trail! Our first point of call was a fairly large village sporting a local school.
Out first point of call was large_IMG_4070.jpglarge_IMG_4073.jpg

All the adults were away away, either in field a working elsewhere until the dry season ends. A guy showed up selling ice lollies from the back of his motorbikes, Jay bought a whole bunch for all the kids, who were needless to say, happy to have their lesson interrupted.
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And as a gratitude they sand us a song. I included it into this short video which should give you an idea of what we encountered on the road.

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And in case you wonder - it's dusty - very dusty!
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After riding for another hour or so we arrived at a small roadside village to grab some Shan noodles for lunch!
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Than we arrived at a more substantial village featuring a pagoda, school and communal hole.
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It's worth to mention here that Shan is a separatist state, there are still occasional skirmishes between Shan army and the government troops. In fact Jay had to adjust our route as there were some reported fighting on one of roads.
People are quite open about supporting independence, in almost every house you will see pictures and calendars featuring Shan army Burmese opposition leader - Aung San Suu Kyi, who at that time was still under house arrest.

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Us having an afternno nap through the sticky March heat.
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Our moto-drivers having a tea break
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We were very happy that we decided to take drivers and didn't try to wing it and learn riding a semi-auto on this mountain trails. Most trails are as narrow as the one below, plus a lot of them pass along steep cliffs and sharp turns.

As we were approaching our overnight stop, one of the motorbikes broke down. large_IMG_4149.jpg
These were unbranded Chinese 125 semi-auto bikes, a brand new one costed only $300 and could be bought in any town. Apparently they were not half bad, to be ridden by two people up and down the hills on nothing more than a hiking trail is a lot of punishment to take. Next time I'm in Myanmar for a month or so I may just buy one for me.
The kids spend about half an hour trying to fix, than Jay took a second Argentinian girl on his bike and we left for the village leaving one of them behind. After dropping us of at the home-stay and introducing to the hosts Jay with one of his students went to his man's rescue.

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The home-stay was very basic but comfortable enough, we had a nice vegy dinner and a couple of Chinese beers for $1. My favorite moment when I told our host that this is beer from China, and he said it wasn't. I was like common it has Chinese written all over it, it's from China to what he responded - no it's from Lasio!

Later on the guys brought back the broken motorbike. Turns out that one of the kids forgot to top up oil and the engine simply burned out. So one more point for the Chinese bile, after all it hasn't simply died on us.

As a way of entertaining themselves and us, Jay and his kids engaged into improvised karaoke performance. It's so popular over there that every self respecting Burmese teenager has a Karaoke up on his smartphone.

Next morning we left one of the kids with a broken motorbike, the plan was for him to push it downhill to the next small town where there is a garage. He told Jay if I haven't called by end of the day please come and find me...

We rented a really shitty, oil leaking bike from one of the local guys. That guy wouldn't rent us his good bike even if it was for a half of a day, instead he gave us the shitty one and asked for $20. Jay said it was a really dick move, as the guy new we were desperate and in Kyaukme you could buy a used bike like that for $50.

We were off to the tea plantations...
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In the next village we visited Jay's family. He sent one of his cousins to drop off the rented bike and got the the other one to take a position of substitute driver with his good bike.
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After that we came down towards rice fields, which gave us a very welcome change to lush green from the gray dusty hills.

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By 5 pm we were dropped of at the highway bus station to catch a bus for Inle Lake.

Great trip, great value for money, the fee we payed included everything we had on the trek (except $1 beer obviously). Jay and his kids are very keen and sincere and I would definitely recommend them.

More on our Myanmar trip

Posted by dima.safr 04:17 Archived in Myanmar Tagged trek tea plantation myanmar backpacking costs independent village_trek motorbike_trekking kyaukme shan_state Comments (3)

3 weeks in Myanmar - Independent backpacking

Sample Itinerary, top highlights, transportation, accommodations, costs

This is my 3 week itinerary around Myanmar. We aimed to fit as many as possible sites which provide for variety of activities, while deliberately avoiding beaches (this because we had plenty of that on Tiaman island.)

Yangon

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Get To
Fly in from KL with Air Asia for next to nothing. A $10 taxi ride from the airport.

Top Highlights

  • Yangon itself - a great place to get a sense of Myanmar. Get accustom to pollution, street food and buzzing nightlife around the pub street.
  • Shwedagon Paya- the biggest and greatest Pagoda complex in Myanmar, a good place to visit at the beginning before you become totally sick and tired of Pagodas. $8. Make sure to cover your legs (man and women) otherwise you will be pressured into buying a Burmese skirt. I got one which made for a nice souvenir, don't see myself wearing it around London though.
  • take a circular ride around Yangon. $1 from central train station (site to behold!).

Where to Stay
Mahabandoola Guesthouse, Cnr of 32nd st and Mahabandoola Rd (directly opposite Sule Pagoda) - $12 double.

Bago

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Get To
Take a train. No need to book, just turn up at the ticket office an hour before, someone will see you take you into the station chief's office and write up a foreigners ticket - first class $1. Foreigners now pay in Kyat and the same fairs as locals.

Top Highlights

  • Reclaining Budhe - believed to be the longest
  • Shwe mawdaw Pagoda (Golden God Temple) - believed to be the highest

Both cost $10 - but actually free after 5pm.

Where to Stay
San Francisco Hotel, No.(14), Main Road, S/Zainganaing Qr - $14-25 double.

Mawlamine

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Get To
Nerve-wrecking night train from Bago. Don't remember the cost, but no more than couple of $.

Top Highlights

  • Pa Auk Taw Ya Monastery - 15km south of town, ask in your hotel about where to pic up a truck.
  • Kyaik Tan Lan Pagoda. Up on the hill, this is great place to see the sunset over town.
  • Rivera for a nice meal after the sun set.

Where to Stay
Breeze Guesthouse - 6. Strand Road $15-20 double

Hpa-an

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Get To
5 hour boat ride - $12, or Bus - $2.

Top Highlights

  • Biking around the cliffs
  • Bat Cave - be there at sunset for an unforgettable show of nature.
  • Shweyinhmyaw Paya - a pilgrimage site, for great views and authentic experience watching locals and pilgrims.

Where to Stay
Soe Brothers Guesthouse, No.(2/146), Thitsar Street - $12.

Golden Rock

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Get To
5 hour bus ride from Hpa-an to Kyaiko - $5, and a 30 min pic up truck to Kinpun where you spend the night.

Top Highlights

  • Golden Rock (surprise)
  • Ride to the Golden Rock (my personal favourite)!

Where to Stay
Once you get of the pic up truck there will be hoteliers offering rooms, they shout out prices so it's quite easy to spot the cheap one. I believe we stayed in a place at the end of the main road (it's a one road town) for $12.

Bagan

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Get To
An overnight Bus from Bagan (10-12 hours) - $15 and a $5-$10 for a taxi to take you from the bus stand on the highway to the ticket gate at Bagan.

Top Highlights

  • 1000 temples of Bagan, quite obvious
  • Sunrise view from the top of a Pagoda
  • E-biking around ancient temples!

Where to Stay
Plenty of places all along the main road. Prices higher than elsewhere in Myanmar. 20 fan double, 25 AC double.

Mandalay

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Get To
A 6 hour bus ride from Bagan - $8 from door to door.

Top Highlights

  • Snake charmer by the main Pagoda!
  • Not many other...

Where to Stay
ET Hotel, 83rd and 23rd/24th Street - $20 for fan double. Pay an extra $5 and get AC - really worth it!

Pyin U Lwin

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Get To
2 hour pic up ride from central Mandalay, ask at your hotel and they will easily explain where to get it, also confirm the price. I believe we paid 1500 Kyat.
Top Highlights

  • Anisakan Falls - make sure to take a dip in the ice freezing water.
  • The night food market - all sorts of stuff!

Where to Stay
Cherry Guesthouse, next to the clock tower on the Lashio Road. $20 for a double

Kyaukme

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Get To
Only the train! Well there is a bus of-course, but you must take a train which takes best part of the day and in the general class costs around $1.

Top Highlights

  • Motorbike village trekking, what a great alternative to reportedly overcrowded Hsipaw.
  • Train over Gokteik Viaduct - I'll have a separate post on this point!

Where to Stay
Not a lot of choice. Northern Rock, Shwe Phi Oo Road - $12 per double.

Inle Lake

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Get To
12 hour excruciating bus ride from Kyaukme - $15, the bus leaves from a station on the Lashio highway, your hotel will arrange a ticket and call a tuk tuk to take you there. You will need to take a tuk tuk from main road to the town - $1.

Top Highlights

  • Boat ride on the lake. Make sure to include further side of the lake where monastery is.
  • A bike ride around the lake to hot springs!
  • Trek to Kawar (we haven't actually done it)

Where to Stay
Diamonds star guesthouse, Yone Gyi Road, a short walk from the pier - $15 for a double.

Kalaw

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Get To
3 hour painfully slow train from Inle or a 1 hour bus.

Top Highlights

  • Circular village trek - can do on your own with a GPS map
  • 3 day Kalaw - Inle trek

Where to Stay
Pine Land Inn - main road, $12 for a double

After researching the web and reading a lot about high accommodation costs and inflated attraction fees we have set ourselves budget of $70 per couple per day. In fact $50 was more that sufficient.
ATMs- plenty
USD - if binning cash, make sure it's brand new - literally brand new!
Language - English is widely spoken
Internet - widely available, cheap and slow

Posted by dima.safr 11:05 Archived in Myanmar Tagged accommodation hotel bus train bagan mandalay golden_rock pagoda transport inle_lake yangon backpacking viaduct kalaw independent bago bat_cave myanmar_rail motorbike_trek e-bike Comments (0)

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