When the British ruled Burma it was 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 are in the Shan hills and 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 independance the Burmese (the Bamar rulers) have been acting rather like colonialists towards the tribal states in the north and east of the country. 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.
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.)
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 its 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.
Gokteik Viaduct Map - the Mandalay to Hsipaw train route.
The Gokteik/Goteik Gorge journey.
The main train stations are (going Up-line) : Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), Nawngkhio, Gokteik, Nawngpeng, Kyaukme, Hsipaw, Lashio. A few possible journeys start from:
- Mandalay. The Up-line from Mandalay departs at 04:00AM in the morning. If you really like train travel you can start in Mandalay, but it will take 4 hours to get to Pyin Oo Lwin - the train has to zig-zag up the mountains. By taxi it is only 1,5 hours.
- Pyin Oo Lwin. Up-line from Pyin Oo Lwin: 08:15AM departure and 12:00 arrival at Nawngpeng. Take the Down-line train from Nawngpeng at 12:30 back to Mandalay. You only have about 30 minutes at Nawngpeng, so if the Up-line train is running more than 30 minutes later you'll miss the Down line train.
- Nawngkhio. Take a taxi to Nawngkhio station which is the closest to the Goktheik threstle bridge, pass the bridge and get of at Nawngpeng where you meet you taxi driver.
- Hsipaw. A very nice downhill trip: take a taxi or bus to Hsipaw, and take the 09:40AM train down to Pyin Oo Lwin or Mandalay. Arrival in Pyin Oo Lwin is around 4PM. The tickets are sold from 09:00AM onwards at the station.
Busses to Hsipaw: take 6 hours from Mandalay to Hsipaw, but taxis do it in just 5 hours. The busses start from the easten 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.
Flight to Lashio: Another smart option is to fly from Yangon to Lashio or from Heho to Lashio; and then take the Slow Train down to Mandalay.
If you look down from the Goktheik bridge you can see the small wooden trestle bridge on the bottom of the ravine; which was built underneath the main viaduct with its own 3 mile service track to deliver the foundations and steel girders (beams) of the towers of the proper Goktheik viaduct. The small wooden support bridge 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. It is not the highest anymore, now there are concrete and steel rail viaducts. The towers are a maximum of 102 meters high - which is still quite formidable.
The train to Pyin U Lwin/Mandalay slowly pulling into Hsipaw station.
Train travel quality and safety
Some travellers have described train travel in Myanmar as a bumpy and uncomfortable. That is not a fair description. A more accurate assesment would be wobbling, lurching, jumping and kangarooing. Most people don't sleep much on an overnight bus because of the movement; trains run usually much smoother but - Myanmar trains are the exception. As soon as your sleeper train leaves the station a swaying and bumping motion will make you realise that you will not get much sleep.
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 Thai trains are more prone to swaying. The narrow rail tracks in Myanmar have not been maintained very well and thus the swaying motion is much stronger than that of the Thai trains. This makes rail travel, shall we say, more adventurous than in India or Thailand.
The railways in Burma were created in colonial times; and most of these old railroad tracks are not properly maintained and nowadays a bit wobbly. The rail lines are just as they were 117 years ago when the Goktheik 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 ads to the charm, as long as nothing derails obviously. And even a derailment can be most amusing if not educational, though it will delay the official arrival time even further. (A derailment story here: diytravelhq.com) There are some improvements being made, but new railway lines will take many years to build.
How safe is the trip? Well delays are common but the top speed of 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.
Train delays are common.
Take care if you sit next to a window as you will be whipped by the bushes and trees that are growing along the trackside. If you are sitting on top of the carriage (like they do in India) you can see the 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 lousy maintenance of the railways in Burma: why does no-one make the effort to cut some overhanging branches of the trees along the line? That is not a difficult task; or is it?
Concluding; if you are travelling between major tourist towns then busses or flights are probably the best way to go. However if you fancy a relatively short daytime trip, like from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin then the train is a great 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 to Kalaw hill station.
The great thing about train travel it that is very cheap; the Burmese 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 it's really not even worth mentioning. Just to give an example 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 wouldn't want to do on a wooden bench... so I would seriously consider the six dollars investment for the upper class comfy seats if I were you.
More information on rail travel.
- wikipedia.org - Wikipedia.: Goteik viaduct.
- www.seat61.com - The timetable for trains.
- www.arte.tv - ARTE video report with great drone-shots: Der Mandalay-Lashio-Express (German, 42 min.)
- inwa-advisers.com - History of the Mandalay-Lashio rail line and viaduct with old photo's.
- turnipseedtravel.com - A cautionary blog on the overnight train from Bagan to Yangon.
- www.pyinoolwin.info - Tourism info. Just over an hour's drive from Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin is an ideal and refreshing destination.
- www.unpo.org - Forbidden glimpses of Shan state. The vast majority of Shan State is off limits to foreigners. (PDF, map of historic sites in Shan state)
Driving very slowly over the breathtaking Gokteik viaduct.
Safety situation in Hsipaw, Kyaukme and Pyin Oo Lwin
Trekking in Northern Shan state.
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. There is a negative travel advice from most governments for the area outside of the Mandalay-Lashio highway and railway; and beyond villages like Hsipaw and Kyaukme. Check your governments travel advice, it is probably negative for trekking there though many people still do it. Travel insurance companies will not cover the cost of hospitals nor flying out to Thailand in an emergency. The Kalaw to Inle trek can be busy in high season, which is why some people like trekking around Hsipaw.
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.
The situation around Hsipaw is normal and for a one-day walkabout there are no problems. 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; students are visible all around town. For some reason Hsipaw has been much more popular for treks than Pyin Oo Lwin.
Spot the boobytrap (near Namkhan, Northern Shan state).
Photo is from the TNLA. This type of antipersonnel mine is activated by a tripwire, stretched between the 2 poles.
An anti-personnel mine can be a buried landmine or a boobytrap; in Shan state they call it a "trap bomb".
The soldiers from the TNLA (Ta'ang National Liberation Army) and the SSA-South (Shan State Army-South) armies have been fighting each other since 2015 and have planted landmines. Since the spring of 2016 the Burmese Army has also gotten involved.
Peace and conflict Monitoring in Myanmar.
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.
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"Mandalay for the speaking, Yangon for the bragging, and Mawlamyine for the eating".
copyright © 2016 Rolf Schierbeek. Any comments or improvements? Please mail me at : bytelife AT gmail.com