Most travellers in Myanmar take the bus to get from city to city. The rationale is clear: they are faster and more comfortable. So why would we sacrifice a day out of our itinerary to spend on a hot train? Well, we are suckers for epic train rides and when we heard about ‘The Slow Train From Thazi', it sounded interesting enough to mould our travel schedule around. Besides, we'd have many opportunities to take the bus on other legs and we are always up for trying something once.
The Slow Train from Thazi
‘The Slow Train from Thazi' is exactly as it sounds: it travels slowly and it leaves from Thazi, a town located in central-east Myanmar's Shan State. It covers a distance of 247km (154 miles) over 10 hours, terminating at Shwenyaung by Inle Lake to the east. The train takes you up into the mountains through a series of switchbacks, giving you stunning views of the valleys below. It also gives you an interesting window into local life, as you meander past mountain stations, homes and farms.
At the highest point in the journey you will be at just under 5,000 feet (or more than 1,500 meters) above sea level! And if your plan is to do some trekking, you can take this train and get off at Kalaw, from where you can hike the 60km down to the lake over three days.
There is only one train per day and it leaves at 7am. The train stops at Kalaw around 2pm and arrives at the final stop of Shwenyaung at about 5pm.
So, how do we get to Thazi to take this scenic train ride? Below we will describe how to get there from Yangon, as that is what we did. You can, however, also easily access Thazi by train from Mandalay, from where it takes less than 3 hours.
For information on trains and schedules in Myanmar (and around the world), we highly recommend checking out The Man in Seat 61.
How to get to Thazi & seating options
The only real option to get to Thazi from Yangon is by train. It's not a popular stop on the tourist trail and wasn't on the route of the buses we enquired about. It is possible to get off a highway bus along the road to Mandalay, and then try to make your way from there. But you'd essentially be dropped off in the middle of nowhere without any definite means of onward transportation.
The train from Yangon to Thazi takes 12 hours. In order to save time and the need to spend the night in Thazi, we opted for the overnight service (Train #3) departing Yangon at 5pm and arriving in Thazi at 4:55am the following morning, giving us about a two hour buffer before the ‘Slow Train' departed at 7am.
On most services you have the option of upper class or ordinary class seats. On this 17:00 overnight service, there was also the option of an upper class sleeper car. A bunk bed in the sleeper car will cost about US$7-8 based on the current exchange rate. Upper class seating refers to padded reclining seats and they cost about $5-6. Ordinary class is wooden seating and costs about $3. All are extremely good value for a 12 hour journey.
Note: Foreign visitors must show their passport when buying transportation tickets in Myanmar, so be sure to have it handy.
How to buy advanced tickets in Yangon (3 days prior)
Upper class seats, and especially the sleeper cars, sell out quickly, so you need to book in advance if you want the more comfortable seating options. Advanced tickets are not available from the train station itself, but another ticket office opposite Sakura Tower and only 5 minutes walk from the Yangon Central Railway Station.
This ticket office is very particular, however, in that it only sells tickets for services three days in advance, not before and not after. Train tickets only become available for purchase three days prior to departure so getting tickets any earlier isn't actually possible. If you want to buy tickets after that, say one or two days before or on the day itself, then you should head to the train station ticket counter.
Buying tickets 2 days prior until departure
There are separate counters for upper class and ordinary class at Yangon Train Station. For upper class, go to the window closest to the entrance on the left hand side. For ordinary class, go to the main counter ‘island' in the center. Windows are destination specific and signage is all in Burmese, but don't worry, the staff are able to assist in English and can direct you to the correct window if you're at the wrong one.
You might have to hold your ground a little bit in these queues because people tend to jump them and walk straight to the front. It's not aggressive, however, and in our experience no one says anything, but you'll never get served even once you reach the front if you just wait patiently, as others will start handing over their documents from the side. My best advice is to make eye contact with the staff and pass your documents under the window while stating where you want to go, as they basically just take whatever is handed to them despite who may have been there first.
We went to the train station at 7am in the hope that we could maybe still get upper class sleeper tickets for the 5pm departure, but they were sold out. In the past it may have been easier to get tickets in May (low season) at the last minute, but it doesn't seem to be the case now. In fact, I'm not sure how affected these services are by foreign tourists alone as almost everyone, including first class passengers, were locals. So if possible, try to go as early as you can within that three day window to secure your tickets.
Despite not having luck with the sleeper car, we could, however, get tickets for ‘ordinary' class. Ordinary class has wooden seating and, as you can imagine, is not the most comfortable for an overnight journey. We thought about the various other options, but they would all entail missing that 7am departure the next morning and throwing our schedule out. So we decided to embrace the adventure and get the ordinary class tickets.
Leg 1: The journey from Yangon to Thazi
Finding where we needed to go at Yangon Central Railway Station was easy as a staff member walked us to our exact car. In our case, our train departed from platform 1, which is directly in front of you as you enter the paid area. You'll no doubt notice the signs that say ‘Warmly Welcome & Take Care of Tourists' and it seems they take them seriously. The staff were extremely polite and helpful, uncomfortably so at times – they even bowed to us as we had our tickets checked to enter the waiting area on the platform.
Aboard the train, our seat mates were surprised to see foreigners and they quickly began helping us put our bags onto the overhead racks. It seems they were curious about foreign tickets and how much they cost because when we pulled them out for inspection they asked if they could see ours. They indicated that they were more expensive than theirs, but we're certainly not going to complain about $3 per person for a 12 hour train ride.
Despite what we had heard about big delays on trains in Myanmar, our train departed exactly on time at 5pm. As soon as we left the station, we could already see scenes from the city's suburbs – homes, fields and people walking along the tracks.
When we stopped at stations, food and drink sellers would bring their goods onto the carriages, often staying on for a stop or two before getting off. We brought enough food and drinks with us for the overnight journey and we suggest doing the same as what we saw was mostly snack foods. But rest assured you can get more water/drinks and some things to tide you over onboard, including fruit. There was apparently a restaurant car but we didn't utilize it. In all likelihood it was attached to the upper class cars and I'm not sure if we would have been able to access it from our ordinary class car. In any case, be prepared with what you need in case you don't have this option.
There was no air conditioning so the windows were left open all night to keep the air circulating. It didn't get cold though (May is the hottest time of year) and we didn't have problems with bugs as some people have said they have.
The toilet was western style that went straight onto the tracks, so naturally only use it when you are not stopped at a station. It wasn't too bad – especially as train bathrooms go – it was just really bumpy. People who presumably couldn't get a seat were sleeping on the floor around the toilet, making it tricky to get in and out. Luckily a friendly passenger around the corner pulled people's legs away from the door so I could squeeze through. Thank you, my friend!
We arrived in Thazi right on schedule at 4:55am as the sun was starting to rise. We said goodbye to our seat mates who we'd had many broken conversations with during the journey and went towards the exit to find out where we'd need to go for the next leg of our trip.
Leg 2: Thazi to Shwenyaung (The Slow Train From Thazi)
In Thazi, someone quickly approached us and asked where we wanted to go. They directed us to a ticket office on another platform, where we were told that they weren't quite selling tickets yet for the 7am train to Shwenyaung, and to come back at 6am. So we went to have a cup of tea at one of the stalls at the station.
Come 6am and we were able to buy tickets, this time for ‘upper class' seats. We had really enjoyed the experience of the ordinary car on the first leg, but you do start to feel numb and uncomfortable on that kind of seating after a while – Hai stood the last two hours because he said he just couldn't sit anymore. So we were thankful to have some padding for what would be another long day on the train and the added luxury only came to a total of around two dollars each.
Again, the train left exactly on time at 7am and we started our ‘slow train' towards Shwenyaung. During the first hour or so, we have to say we were starting to question whether all of this effort to sculpt our itinerary around this experience was going to be worth it. While the countryside is wide, open and freeing, it wasn't the spectacular scenery that we were expecting. As the only other foreign pair on the train with us said, “The people who said this is one of the best train rides in the world haven't been on many train rides.”
But then we starting going up into the mountains, and then the switchbacks started, and we all changed our opinion. We have experienced switchbacks before but never had we been on a train service that did so many of them – we honestly just stopped counting after a while – and that took us to around 5,000 feet above sea level. There is something so beautiful about taking the long way around and having nothing to do but simply soak up your surroundings. Locals live in these mountains and it was so interesting to see them going about their everyday lives up there, and rushing with big bags of produce as the train pulled in – even in these quiet mountains, villagers were having to arrange their comings and goings according to a train schedule.
At the stops, there were again people selling drinks and snacks. We didn't see any proper meals though until around 1 or 1: 30pm and we didn't see anything after. Best to grab a meal around lunchtime when you see one as there might not be another opportunity later, and at this point you still have a number of hours to go. We had rice with chicken and bamboo shoots that we bought from a lady out the window for 500 kyats (that's only 35 cents!).
The toilets were decidedly worse than the previous leg. I don't have a problem with squat toilets; these ones were just dark and dank, and not as clean. But you will survive!
On the mountain, the scenery is very lush with lots of greenery and even palm trees. During the last few hours, the scenery becomes more arid, with the soil becoming an intense earthy red at times.
During the journey there were a couple of other interesting things, such as a tunnel that saw us suddenly under a cover of darkness for about a full minute, and the bridge we crossed and then looped around and went back under.
We pulled into Shwenyaung on time – in fact, even a little early – and were quickly approached by drivers about onward transportation.
Leg 3: Shwenyaung to Nyaungshwe
We arranged for a tuk tuk (thoun bein) to take us the additional 12km to Nyaungshwe for 6,000 kyats (around $4.50). Nyaungshwe is considered the backpacker hangout of Myanmar and is where most people take a boat tour of Inle Lake from. We left immediately and it took less than half an hour. The ride was extremely bumpy, much more so than at any time on the train.
Make sure you have some cash on you as you'll need to pay for your Inle Lake zone entrance fee at the ticket office on your way into town – your driver will stop there. Tickets are mandatory for all foreign visitors and cost 12,000 kyats per person (less than $9). They are valid for 5 days and you should keep your ticket on you at all times during your stay in case you get asked to show it, although we personally were never asked for it.
The Slow Train from Thazi didn't necessarily have the wow factor we had envisaged, especially in the beginning. But was it scenic and interesting? Absolutely. Would we recommend it to others? For sure. If you have the time and want to experience a train, then this is one of the legs that provides the most interest. This and the Goetik Viaduct (also written as Goteik, Gokteik or Goktheik), which we want to do on a future trip.
Trains are not always as punctual in Myanmar as our experience may lead you to believe, but it seems services that depart from Yangon Central Railway Station are quite reliable – in our two weeks in Myanmar, we took three trains from there, all without issue – and from our research, others have had similar experiences. Most of the issues seem to be on services going back to Yangon, on which a delay of 2-3 hours or so seems to be a regular occurrence.
See what the journey from Yangon all the way to Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake) is like in our video.
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Do you like train rides? Would you like to take ‘The Slow Train from Thazi'? Let us know in the comments.
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