I was introduced to Myanmar trains on the bumpy Yangon to Mandalay night train. I grew up on one of the world’s most epic train journeys, the train across the Gokteik Viaduct. Third, I became a seasoned traveller on the scenic ride from Kalaw to Shwenyaung.
This is #5 of twelve articles describing my 2013 visit to Myanmar. In addition there are 7 videos and a large picture album.
Before I went there
While planning my trip to Myanmar I had come across a few accounts of the train journey across the Gokteik Viaduct. This is what I wrote in my planning document:
“Also take a note of the rail option described on this rail page and commented by Wikitravel in this way “The rail journey from Mandalay, up switchbacks and hairpin bends to Pyin U Lwin, and then across the mountains and the famous bridge at Gokteik, is one of the great railway journeys of the world.“”
I fell in love with that statement, but my concluding remark was this: “Beware the train leaves at 0400 and returns at 2240. I don’t have time for this. The viaduct looks nice though.”
I had taken the night train from Yangon to Mandalay. It was a fascinating journey, some would say mad. In my hotel I was given this (credible) advice: The centre of Mandalay could be visited in half a day. Visiting the surroundings of Mandalay (like Sagaing and Inwa) would require a day. Having booked a flight out of Mandalay three days later meant I actually had a day to spend on something else. Not being scared by the night train, I actually went to to the ticket office later that very day and bought a train ticket for Nawngpeng the following day.
Myanmar trains comes in classes: Standard class, first class, upper class. All tourists are placed in the latter (best standard) and are obliged to pay cash, in US dollars. The standard procedure is to buy the ticket at least one day in advance. I found the proper counter (upstairs in the Mandalay train station) the day before my departure and got my hand-written ticket swiftly. Passport is necessary.
Visitors to Myanmar are advised to know that trains run on narrow gauge rails with normal width carriages. You may consult other websites to find the reasons but trust me on this consequence: It causes the carriages to swing from side to side a lot more than you are used to from most other places. This may be alright on shorter rides, even on longer daytime rides, but I had behind me a night train based on the same “principle”.
The ride, before the bridge
The train left on schedule, 4 in the morning. My carriage had locals and tourists alike. There were not many stops on the way but we eventually made a long halt at Pyin Oo Lwin. This town (ex-Maymyo) was once a British hill station and served as the summer capital of Burma when the entire British military and civil establishment would flee the heat and humidity of Rangoon (now: Yangon).
I had decided not to give enough priority to a visit here, but there were a number of tourists boarding the train here. Most of them were continuing to Hsipaw and even Lashio further north. They all had favourable impressions of the atmosphere in Pyin Oo Lwin.
Mandalay lies in a very wide valley at the foot of the mountainous Shan State and we had until now been climbing into this fascinating region. After a long delay the train continued into the highlands but not with the same ascent as earlier in the morning. Daylight had come and we were able enjoy the very green, lush farmlands and hills as the train was pushing forward. One may wonder what makes a visitor want to go on a day-long excursion just to ride across a bridge for a few minutes. Actually, the Shan State mountains made the trip worthwhile even without the bridge. The scenery was beautiful.
Crossing the bridge
As we approached the bridge we would get into a series of hairpin curves, slowly descending to the level of the bridge. All foreigners ran from side to side of the carriage to capture the glimpses that would pop up in between the dense vegetation.
Finally, after endless screeching from the train’s bogies and carriages we could roll onto the viaduct itself. Not one open window in our carriage was empty – everybody were hanging out the get the best views and best photo opportunities.
The Gokteik viaduct (sometimes written Goteik or Gohteik) was built in 1899-1900 by an American company on behalf of the British authorities. Back then it was the largest railway trestle in the world. It is 689 metres long and 102 metres high. The bridge was and still is acknowledged as a great engineering achievement, and has reportedly been well maintained over the years.
The train was moving very slowly across the bridge, almost as if it would not wake a dormant giant. This, of course, gave us plenty of opportunities to shoot film and pictures. The view was astounding: There was a river running wild and and brown deep down in the valley; a huge waterfall cascaded into the abyss; the surroundings were amazingly green and lush; on the hillside at the far end of the bridge there was a golden pavillion of some sorts; and there was a mist hanging over the valley providing an eerie atmosphere.
This was worth it!
On the other side of the viaduct we entered a tunnel and it felt like a spell was broken.
The return: Not so easy
We arrived at the very small station of Nawngpeng 8.5 hrs after Mandalay, as opposed to the scheduled 7 hours. I was the only passenger getting off here, all other foreigners were continuing north. I had a couple of ideas of how I would be able to return to Mandalay, but nothing was certain. The previously mentioned website had stated that it would be possible to jump on a return train on this station, but there was no train. It would in any case not be arriving in Mandalay until very late in the evening.
I approached a Burmese lady who was guiding an American couple. She asked the station officials a few questions and came up with the answer I was seeking. The main road to Mandalay was passing by not far from the station and I would possibly be able to get a ride back from there. Somehow.
Sensing the big eyes of the other travellers I jumped onto a motorcycle and was driven through the village a couple of kilometres to a combined garage and petrol station on the main road. A guy here spoke some English and I was told there would be a bus coming by in a couple of hours. We had already passed lunchtime so I was getting hungry. There was no hotel, no restaurant, nothing in Nawngpeng. But there was a genuine hospitality at the garage.
A happy ending
I was given a glass of juice, biscuits and local snacks. The residents would come out, young and old, playful and joyful at meeting the visitor from far away. I was not the first who had come here. The garage guy told me of a Dutch couple a few weeks ago. We had an interesting conversation about life in rural Myanmar, and about being a Muslim here.
I did not have to wait very long. The garage man hailed a car rushing by. It was some sorts of unmarked taxi with three other male passengers. We agreed on a price and I was let in.
The journey to Mandalay took only three hours, for one reason alone. The driver was driving like a madman. He had death in his eyes and Buddha on the dashboard. I returned to my hotel very content, safe and sound, before six in the evening.
The video from this train ride to Nawngpeng
My travel map of Myanmar
This article is part of a series from Myanmar, describing my travels in August 2013. My visit is presented in ten chapters, a planning document and an article with some final impressions from a country which is included on just about everyone’s bucket list. Read all chapters:
THIS CHAPTER (5) The Train Across the Gokteik Viaduct