Last update: Jan 5, 2022
The Shan State
Travel through the Shan Hills.
The Shan state is the most scenic and delightful area to travel through in Myanmar. The climate is very cool with nights that are surprisingly cold, because the average elevation of the Shan Plateau is about 1000 meters. The Shan Plateau, also known as Shan Hills or Shan Yoma is a vast mountainous area which has mountains up to a height of over 2000 meters. Through this high plateau several rivers have cut deep gorges, notably the Myitinge river and the Salween or Thanlwin river.
There are three major divisions in Shan state:
When the British ruled Burma they allowed the Shan State to be relatively independent; it continued to be ruled by feudal lords with small kingdoms like Yawnghwe (Nyaung Shwe), Hsipaw, Hsenwi, Lawksawk and Samka; and nowadays it is still a somewhat unruly tribal area which the central government tries to control. Up until today they have not been very successful.
Myanmar is actually a country with many different ethnic groups: in the central area the Bamar (the majority of two-thirds of the population of Myanmar), in the east the Shan, in the North the Kachin, the Karen in the South-east and so on. The Bamar or Burmese are the dominant ethnic group in Myanmar. Bamar people live mostly in the Irrawaddy River basin; the central valley through which the Irrawaddy River flows from the high mountain ranges up north to the sea of Bengal.
If you visit Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay you may get a limited view of the country; essentially visiting only the Irrawaddy River basin. Yangon is the old British colonial town in the Irrawaddy Delta; Bagan and Mandalay are in the "Dry zone" and also part of Burma proper. Inle lake, Hsipaw and Pyin-Oo-Lwin - all within the Shan state - are some of the most fascinating and pleasant places to visit. One more reason to travel there: Shan State is a tribal area and Inle lake a tribal hotspot.
After the Burmese independence the successive Burmese governments have been acting rather like colonialists towards the tribal states in the north and east of the country, and recently in the Western Arakan state hostilities have flared up. Shan state was one of the tribal states that did not even want to be part of independent Burma. In historic times, some of the Saophas (kings or chieftains) of the Shan state paid tribute to the Burmese king in Mandalay; but other Saophas had closer ties with the rulers of Chiang Mai (Lanna) in northern Thailand.
Whereas the British allowed the Shan State to be relatively independent in colonial times; Burmese governments have been very oppressive, especially the Tatmadaw has been hard-handed. That has resulted in the destruction of entire villages in the Shan state and refugees camps with displaced tribal people in the border regions of Thailand.
When Burma became an independent republic on 4 January 1948; the Shan people only joined because Bogyoke Aung San promised them the option to separate from Myanmar after a decade if they were unhappy with the central government. (www.wikiwand.com - Wikiwand: Timeline and maps of internal conflicts in Myanmar.)
Many parts of Myanmar have sizeable ethnic minorities, such as Shan state, Mon state and Kachin. These "tribal states" do not always like the "Burmanisation" of their home state and the loss of their identity. For example, on the 1st week of July 2018 large numbers of protestors gathered in Loikaw to protest a new statue of General Aung San on horseback; which would be erected on Martyrs Day.
Gokteik Gorge by rail
Mandalay to Pyin U Lwin and over the Gokteik Gorge to Hsipaw.
The best way to travel "Back in time" in Myanmar is to take the train. The train between Mandalay and Hsipaw/Lashio is the most interesting for scenery. The famous railway line follows about the same route as the highway from Mandalay and ends in Lashio; and the highlight is the 100 meter high trestle bridge over the Gokhteik gorge.
There is one daily Up-train to Lashio and one Down line train to Mandalay. Many people go by taxi to Pyin-Oo-Lwin and take the train to Gokhteik from there; because the train from Mandalay is very slow and leaves at the rather early time of 4AM in the morning. Pyin U Lwin, the Flower City of Myanmar, used to be called Maymyo when it was the summer capital of the former British colonial administration.
The Gokteik/Goteik Gorge journey.
The main train stations are (going Up-line) : Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), Nawnghkio (Naung Cho), Gokteik, Nawngpeng, Kyaukme, Hsipaw, Lashio. A few possible journeys start from:
Busses to Hsipaw: a bus takes 6 hours from Mandalay to Hsipaw, but taxis do it in just 5 hours. The busses start from the eastern bus station in Mandalay: Pyi Gyi Myat Shin Bus Station (36th, 37th & 60th). Three Bus Companies are running Mandalay to Hsipaw: Duhtawadi Express, Ye Shin Express, Power5 Express. Power5 leaves 3:00PM, Ye Shin leaves 2:00PM & Duhtawadi leaves 6:00AM & 2:30PM.
The Gokteik viaduct.
Gokteik is a small village on the western side of the Gokteik Gorge, and it is one of those places in Myanmar which can be spelled in many ways: Gokteik is one way, but also Gokhteik, Goteik, Goke Hteik, and probably in a few more ways. The most common name is Gokteik.
If you look down from the Gokteik bridge you can see the small support rail bridge on the bottom of the ravine; which was built underneath the main viaduct to deliver the foundations and steel girders (beams) of the towers of the proper Gokteik viaduct. The support railway has not been maintained the last few years and is starting to disappear into the jungle.
The viaduct was completed in 1900 by an American company; the Pennsylvania Steel Company. Many sources state that Gokteik viaduct is the world highest rail bridge at 300 meters. Yes, it was the highest 100 years ago, but at 300 meters the towers would be the height of the Eiffel tower. The towers are a maximum of 102 meters high - which is still quite formidable. The Gokteik rail bridge is not the highest anymore, now there are many higher concrete and steel rail viaducts.
Travel through Shan State by taxi.
Most Burmese people travel through the mountainous Shan state by shared taxis or minivans, not by large bus. Most foreign tourists have not picked up on this and use the large VIP busses. Shared taxis can be very convienient, for example, a daytime shared taxi from Inle lake to Hsipaw can be ordered from your hotel and will pick you up from there. The quality of the shared taxis can vary, but the last 10 years many new cars have been imported into Myanmar, and though you may have less space than in a bus, you will probably arrive earlier.
On the way to Hsipaw, the taxi will go from Nyaung Shwe straight up north on road nr 43 to Lawksawk, continue North on road nr. 41 to Nawnghkio; and join highway 3 east to Hsipaw. This journey takes 7 - 8 hours instead of the 14 hours in the sleeper bus via Mandalay. Note: shared taxis may not travel every day.
The minivan company Yoma also has a daily service from Nyaung Shwe to Hsipaw, and stops in Kyaukme. The ticket is 12.000 kyat, and it takes about 8 hours to Hsipaw.
Naturally, you can take a shared taxi from Hsipaw to Inle lake too; first go west on the busy highway from Hsipaw to Nawnghkio, from where you turn left and take the small direct mountain road south to Inle lake (road nr 41).
These direct taxi routes across the Shan plateau are shorter and faster than the big busses that need to take the much longer highway road via Mandalay. And there is another bonus: route 41 is one of the most scenic routes in Shan state; not a busy highway but an enchanting mountain road across the Shan plateau. It passes through the impressive Myitnge Gorge over the Myitnge river, which is the same river as the Namtu river. Namtu is a mining town upstream from Hsipaw.
The route 411 from Kalaw to Mandalay can also be done by shared taxi; it is not much shorter (about 60km less) than by taking highway nr. 4, but the taxi drivers like to avoid the road tolls on the main highway. It probably does not save a lot of time compared to the longer highway route.
Most of the road is OK, but the wriggly part up from Ywangan to Mandalay through the mountains is a bad stony dirt road. It is picturesque, and goes past the new Yeywa Hydro Power Plant which is part of the very large Yeywa Dam and reservoir. When I was there in 2010, they were building the dam. I can remember the old shared taxi with the exhaust hitting the road, and I was quite surprised that we made it to Mandalay with the exhaust still on the car.
Train travel quality and safety.
Some travelers have described train travel in Myanmar as a bumpy, which is not a fair description. A more accurate assessment of the Mandalay - Lashio train journey would be wobbly, lurching, and kangarooing. Usually, a train will run much smoother than a bus; however, the Mandalay - Lashio railway line is the exception.
The Yangon - Mawlamyine line is a recently modernised railway line, and there are new Japanese-made train cabins with an air suspension system. More on this line below.
India's major passenger and freight railway routes use a Broad Gauge of 1,67 meters wide (1676 mm); Thailand's and Myanmar's railway tracks are meter gauge (1000 mm wide). Because the metre gauge is much narrower the trains are more prone to swaying. Most of the narrow rail tracks in Myanmar have not been maintained very well and thus the swaying motion is stronger than that of the Thai trains. This can make rail travel, shall we say, more adventurous than in India or Thailand. The good news is that some tracks and material are now being upgraded, for example the Yangon to Mandalay rail track. Another railway line that has been improved is the Mawlamyine to Yangon line, more on that below.
The railways in Burma were created in colonial times; and because most of these old railroad tracks are not properly maintained, they are a bit wobbly nowadays. The rail lines are just as they were 117 years ago when the Gokteik bridge was completed (in 1900). As a matter of fact, the rail line was perfectly smooth then, and now it is in a worse state. The wobbly rails are the cause of the rocking motion of the wagons, and this ads to the charm, as long as nothing derails obviously.
There are improvements being made to the main railway lines; for example, the re-welding of the steel rail-tracks (continuous welded rail, instead of gaps between steel rail beams), and improvements of the railway track bed.
How safe is the trip? Well, delays are common, but the top speed of the trains is so slow that accidents are rare. The full Mandalay to Lashio line is 280 km (175 miles) by train in 14 to 15 hours, giving an average speed of 19 km/hour. And remember, train delays are quite common, and on some days a train can be cancelled.
Take care if you sit next to a window as you can be whipped by the bushes and trees that are growing along the trackside. In the unlikely case that you are sitting on top of the carriage (like they do in India), you could see the trees and branches coming; but in a window seat a sudden whack by a branch can hit you very hard in the eyes. This is a perfect example of the negligent maintenance of the railways in Burma: why does no-one make the effort to cut the overhanging branches of the trees along the line? That is not a very difficult task; or is it?
Concluding; if you are travelling by train then daytime trips are preferable to nighttime sleeper trains. If you fancy an adventurous daytime trip, like the one from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin, then the train is the best option. The other good train trip through the Shan Hills is the slow train from Thazi to Kalaw, which makes a few switchbacks as it zig-zags up the Shan mountains, until you reach the old British hill station, Kalaw.
Mawlamyine to Yangon by train
(Malawmyaing / Moulmein)
Another beautiful daytime train trip is from Mawlamyine (Moulmein) to Yangon, it starts in Mawlamyine at 8 am and runs over a long viaduct above Mawlamyine town and then crosses the wide mouth of Thanlwin (Salween) River before descending to ground level. The train moves slowly along the roughly 6-kilometre-long modern viaduct, and there are great photo opportunities.
Unlike Indian railway carriages, the ones in Myanmar do not have steel bars blocking the view, and the trains are diesel trains so there are no electricity poles outside. Since August 2020 there are new Japanese-made train cabins with an air suspension system on the Yangon - Mawlamyine line. The train trip between Mawlamyine and Yangon used to take around 10 hours, but since the upgrade it should arrive after 8 hours. There are two trains per day.
The Thanlwin rail/road bridge opened quite recently in April 2006. There are two classes; Upper Class and Ordinary Class; foreigners are usually assumed to want upper-class seats.
Train ticket price - for the comfy seats.
Lastly, train travel in Myanmar is very cheap; the government recognized the inferior quality of their trains and reduced the ticket price to the same fee that local Burmese people pay: it is now so cheap that ticket prices are not even worth mentioning.
Just to give an example a ticket from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw costs only 3 dollars upper class, and one and a half dollars lower class (wooden benches). If you want to do the full trip from Mandalay to Lashio is will set you back 6 dollars for upper class. Yep, six dollars for a full day of train travel; 15 long hours which you probably would not want to do on a wooden bench ... so I would seriously consider the six dollars investment for the upper class comfy seats.
Trekking in Northern Shan state.
The Kalaw to Inle trek can be busy in high season, which is why some people like trekking around Hsipaw. In 2016 there have been a number of reports of landmine victims in the northern Shan State north of Hsipaw and Kyaukme. In April 2016 two tourists were hurt by a landmine in the northern Shan state.
Note that the unrest is in villages north of Kyaukme in Kyaukme township; which is a very large area more like a district and which includes for example Hsipaw, Namtu and Namshan. Trouble in Namtu is thus quite far away (100 km) from Kyaukme town. Namshan is "off limits" at the moment.
For multiple day trekking it is necessary to hire a good, certified guide. The safest town for trekking in Northern Shan state is probably Pyin Oo Lwin; which is the closest to Mandalay and has a large army presence and an army school; there are students everywhere around the town. For some reason Hsipaw has been much more popular for treks than Pyin Oo Lwin.
In November 2019 a German tourist went on a motorbike into unauthorized territory, hit an anti-personnel mine, and was killed. The man was travelling between Pan Nyaung Village and Kun Hauk Village, near Hsipaw Township, with an Argentine woman, who was also injured in the blast. The woman had gotten off the motorcycle when the road became too bumpy and was walking behind the vehicle when it struck the mine. The rider reportedly died at the scene after sustaining severe injuries to his legs, chest and midriff. Since then foreigners are no longer allowed to rent motorcycles and drive them independently, one must travel with a local guide. Trekking tours and hikes from Hsipaw to near-by villages continue as normal.
Incidents in the northern Shan State.
Two armies have been fighting each other since 2015 in northern Shan State: the TNLA (Ta'ang National Liberation Army) and the SSA-South (Shan State Army-South). Since the spring of 2016 the Burmese Army (Tatmadaw) has also gotten involved.
The Northern Alliance is a coalition of the Arakan Army (AA), the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). They have been very active against the Burmese Army in the last few years, and especially in 2019.
Confused about the many armies that are fighting each other? Here is a report by the United States Institute of Peace explaining things: www.usip.org/publications (June 2018).
Peace and conflict Monitoring in Myanmar.
Historical books on Shan State.
Here are some book suggestions for the Shan Hills:
Sao Sanda Simms, the "Moon Princess", who now lives in England, has also published an extensive overview of the history of the many Shan rulers: Great lords of the sky: Burma's shan aristocracy (2015).
Other, older writers about Burma and the Shan Hills are for example Maurice Collis and William Somerset Maugham. In the 1920s Somerset Maugham travelled through Burma and the Shan state and wrote "The Gentleman in the Parlour". In the 1930s Maurice Collis travelled there, and wrote a now rare book, "Lords of the sunset, a tour in the Shan states". Maurice Collis wrote several interesting books about Burma, but I consider Somerset Maugham the better writer.
The Gentleman in the Parlour is the story of a tour through SE-Asia. Maugham cruises up the Irrawaddy river to Mandalay, then treks in 26 days by donkey train from Taunggyi to Kengtung through the mountains and forests of the eastern Shan State, from where he continued to Bangkok and Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
George Orwell and Somerset Maugham were contemporaries; though Orwell was younger than Maugham. Orwell has said he was influenced by Maugham. Somerset Maugham was an established wealthy author when he published The Gentleman in the Parlour in 1935, Orwell was very poor when he wrote his first novel "Burmese days" in 1934. Maugham travelled like a gentleman through Asia; Orwell lived years in Burma and had a totally different view of the country and of the political systems of the period, colonialism in particular.
Two more great books on Myanmar's past are: Through The Jungle Of Death: A boy's escape from wartime Burma, by Stephen Brookes. In 1942, as war spread in Burma, a 11-year-old Anglo-Burmese boy and his family found themselves trapped in the path of the advancing armies. Their only hope of survival was to try to escape on foot to India through the dense jungles of Northern Burma; it took them through the jungle swamps of the remote Hukawng Valley. The writer's father is a stubborn, "stiff upper lip" army man, who makes all the wrong decisions, and this is in a large part what makes it a riveting story.
And also on the Hukawng Valley, a wonderful book by Alan Rabinowitz: Beyond the Last Village: A journey of discovery in Asia's forbidden wilderness. Alan Rabinowitz played a vital role in the creation of Hkakabo Razi National Park, and the Hukawng Valley Tiger Reserve; both in the remote Northern part of Burma, which are now some of Southeast Asia's largest protected areas.
And finally, some books about elephants: Elephant Bill by J. H. Williams - The tale of Billy Williams, who used elephants to help defeat the Japanese in Burma. Elephant Company by Vicki Constantine Croke; a good book about Elephant Bill. Shooting an Elephant and other essays by George Orwell. One of Orwells' best stories and his first anti-colonialist essay, situated in Moulmein. More entertaining than "Burmese Days".
More information on rail travel.
"Mandalay for the speaking, Yangon for the bragging, and Mawlamyine for the eating".