Most people leave the Inle region by plane or night bus. A few catch the train.
Remember the Burmese Bounce? The phrase coined by Little Yak, who featured in my August 2015 Freshly Seen? Check out her YouTube clip below if you need reminding!
Remember my post: Yangon: The Circle Line Train? That day I discovered our host was correct: train travel in Myanmar is like riding an elephant and when it’s not, it’s like a cantering horse.
Or, perhaps, you’ve read Port Moresby’s account of the train trip from Shwenyaung to Kalaw, over on Travel Gumbo? That would put any sane person off. Or so you might think.
If researching blogs, or previous experience isn’t enough, most people might become a little concerned when they find themselves crouching in order to purchase their tickets.
I’ll only say that one of us was very keen to catch this train. I had agreed, that bit is true. But I also thought we were crazy. Hadn’t he read those blogs I’d shown him? Didn’t he understand we were placing our lives, or at least any modicum of comfort, at risk?
And then, at the station, we met some fellow travellers, three of whom decided on the spot to take this train all the way to Yangon. Thirty-six hours of the Burmese Bounce! Thirty- six hours of managing a toilet which was … Well … once I’d checked it out, it was a fore gone conclusion I’d be holding my bladder all the way to Kalaw, unless I could devise a method of getting in and out of that little room without touching anything! I didn’t.
We bounced and lurched and swayed our way through some of the most beautiful countryside I’ve seen.
The stops were frequent and there were plenty of opportunities to purchase snacks from local vendors.
At each stop goods destined for the market in Yangon were loaded,
large bundles of produce coming right through the window into the first class compartment.
The wheels on the carriages screeched all the way up and down the hills. “The wheels could do with some grease,” I remarked to John.
I adjusted to the racket. We all did. Until the train began to slow. If those wheels had been screeching before they were screaming now, joined by the brakes.
“Oh-oh”, said John. He grinned. I’ve seen that grin before. It appears when things are about to get exciting. Or, more correctly, when I’m likely to begin praying.
“You better not look,” he said. He put his head out the window, for a better view.
I looked. Because: curiosity, and the cat.
We were approaching a viaduct. A small one, but a viaduct nevertheless. A viaduct without any side railings.
“There’s no fence!” I said.
Meaning that the only thing between me and certain death was the ability of the driver to keep the train on the tracks, the hope there was enough grease on those wheels to keep them turning, and sufficient oil in the brake hydraulics.
So, while John and some of our travel companions were leaning out the window and whistling at the vertiginous drop to the river bed below, I sat back in my seat and muttered my most favourite prayer of all time. You’ll know it, I’m sure. It’s the prayer I resorted to when faced with imagined catastrophe on a bamboo bridge in Laos, an unplanned boat transfer midstream on the Mekong, and once, in an incident I haven’t blogged about but really should, an aborted landing at Wellington Airport. Yes, it’s that most helpful of all prayers when all help seems distant and likely futile: God, Help me! Please God, Help ME!
It turned out fine – no surprises there, after all I’m sitting safe and sound at my desk typing this post. In fact, the only real challenge on the entire trip, apart from the necessity to hold my bladder (a problem solved by the helpful stationmaster at Kalaw who gave me the key to the staff loo!!) was the rain.
As the train drew in to Kalaw station, the heavens opened in a way that is common in the tropics but I hadn’t experienced before. Deluge is the best, the only word to describe the situation.
The rain overwhelmed the guttering on the station roof, it flooded the platform, drenching everything, sending everyone scurrying for shelter.
By sunset, the storm had passed, Kalaw had dried out and the view from our hotel made me wish we had time in our itinerary for a trek. We didn’t. The next day we hit the road to Mandalay.
So, would I take this train again? Absolutely. Despite the Burmese bounce, despite the bathroom difficulty, despite the slow progress and other minor discomforts along the way, this train journey is well worth it. The views are stunning, the experience unforgettable, the people kind, friendly, and helpful. Although, I do wonder whether our fellow travellers lasted the distance to Yangon.
- It’s a half hour taxi ride from Nyaungshwe (the town nearest Inle lake) and the train station at Shwenyaung.
- Keep an extra layer of clothing handy, this is a relatively high altitude train jouney and temperatures can be cool.
- Cost: 1150 Kyat, approximately $US1.00
- The train did leave on time (sometimes they actually leave early!) but this is not a fast trip. Be prepared for frequent and occasionally lengthy stops.
- Duration of Shwenyaung to Kalaw leg, approximately four hours.
- Try some of the local snacks.
- The station master at each stop can usually speak some English.
- If you’re nervous of heights, don’t do what I did. In other words, probably best not to look out the window while traversing the viaduct.
- Kalaw is the starting off point for treks in the Shan state.