The train journey from Yangon to Kalaw was a memorable experience even though it took 21 hours and during which I had to change train once. Of course , I could have taken the bus, which would have taken about half the time, but traveling is about experiences and if I may add some cliche, it’s about the journey as much as it is about the destination. Also, the bus would be full of backpackers and travellers and there would be next to zero local interaction or experience.
I took the train from Yangon to Thazi on the 11th of July and the train surprisingly started at its scheduled time of 5 p. m., contrary to what I had read online regarding the trains in Myanmar being late. I had booked the upper class ticket ( meaning sleeper cabins), the other option being ordinary class sitting coaches. The cabin I got was for two people ( there was four person cabins also in my compartment) with two bunk beds, charging points, water bottle provided and a mini table .. way more than I had been expecting. Making things even better for me was that the dining car was right next to my compartment and I had the entire cabin to myself as the other seat was empty for the whole duration of the journey.
I entertained myself eating some local snacks bought from one of the food vendors who walk up and down the train to sell his food stuff. No less interesting was watching the Burmese countryside of paddy fields, farmers and their buffalos working in the fields, small villages complete with its own monastery and pagodas and the occasional small town. As the countryside merged into the darkness of the night, one of the dining room attendant came to remind me that dinner was ready . After a simple dinner of fried rice in the dining car I went off to sleep early. The dining car had other small groups of men eating and drinking, and most probably going to Mandalay for work, as the train goes from Yangon to Mandalay – two of the biggest cities in the country.
The train pulled into Thazi station at about 4.30 a. m. – 30 minutes before the scheduled time. Thazi is a small town and junction on the Yangon – Mandalay line that branches out to Nyaungshwe ( the main town around inle lake). Since my connecting train from Thazi to Kalaw was at 7 a. m., I had enough time to kill. I walked around near the station and had an early breakfast of Mohinga – rice noodles and thick fish soup. Mohinga is essentially a breakfast food but it’s eaten by many people at all times of the day and it’s also considered by many as the national dish.
Thazi station was an interesting place filled with countryside folks – farmers, small traders, monks, sellers of fruits, vegetables, food items. etc. Also for being the only tourist at the station and bring trigger happy with my camera I got quite a few looks, though mostly out of curiosity. My train pulled in just after the one compartment train ( I had never seen a single compartment train before) left. Mine was a steam engine train with 7 or 8 boggies and the seats were all sitting only. It would do the 120 kms journey in 7 hours on tracks laid out through hills and forests climbing from Thazi at an elevation of 600 feet to the old colonial town of Kalaw at 4300 feet and at times passing though even higher altitudes during the journey. The train is also the lifeline of some of the hill villages as they do not have any road connectivity.
The train at 7.00 a. m. and after about half an hour it started climbing uphill, passing through forests, crossing bridges and chugging along tracks cut out through the mountains. The views got better as we climbed higher up the mountain and passed quaint mountain villages inhabited by some of the many ethnic minorities of Myanmar. The train would stop at small stations and the platforms would have vendors selling all kinds of eatables from snacks and fruits to full fledged meals. The station before Kalaw seemed to be in a valley where many vegetables were grown as the station was filled with vegetable vendors. Also, I saw an unusual looking vehicle on the next track. Seemed like a van on tracks running on diesel, most probably used by the railways to do maintainance work on the tracks. The train adventure ended as we finally reached Kalaw around 2 p. m.