Yangon to Kalaw By Train
We were warned by a few locals that it wasn’t common for westerners to take the trains north, “take the coaches, it will be much more comfortable”, and “why would you want to do this?”, were just some of the reactions we got as we tried to source our tickets in the hot streets of Yangon.
18 hours of total travel time later, profuse sweating, and a pretty rough ride, it was easy enough to look back on those words of warning and see the truth in them.
That said, find out how to get from Yangon to Kalaw by train (and eventually Inle Lake) was one of the most rewarding experiences of our trip. All our apprehensions dissolved away as train slowly trundled out of Yangon at 15mph and the wider, golden sunrise-bathed Burmese countryside opened up around us. We travelled how the locals do, and saved a little money at the same time.
After all, why else do we travel but for adventure?
The Destination – Kalaw – Why Go There?
Walking down the streets of Kalaw, with its Victorian-era hotels, cool evenings and mornings, you might be forgiven for thinking you were in a British seaside town (it’s the large and pretty dangerous potholes in all the pavements that give it away).
The hilltop town of Kalaw was often sought out during British colonial rule as a place to escape the stifling heat of the plains, and is today the perfect place to begin a guided, multi-day trek to Inle Lake – which is exactly what we did.
There’s plenty of cheap accommodation, good eateries and choice of reputable trek companies to choose from. Most trekkers will pick up your luggage from your hotel in Kalaw and deliver it to a hotel of your choice in Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake’s main town) so you can travel lighter when you hike – so best to book your Inle Lake hotel in advance.
Which Train to Get?
There are a couple of options for getting the train from Yangon to Kalaw
- If you are a glutton for pain, then you could take the direct slow 141 train from Yangon that leaves at 11am and arrives the next day in Kalaw at 1.15pm (this train has no sleeper compartments).
- Or do what we did, and take a faster ‘express’ (still 13 hours) train and stop overnight at the crossroad town of Thazi, before catching the slow 141 train as above .
We went for option 2.
Yangon to Kalaw Train Itinerary
Day 1 – 12 hrs, 12 minutes
5.30-5.45am – Arrive early at Yangon Central Train Station to secure your seat on board (best to book in advance, see below)
6.00am – Depart Yangon Central Train Station on the 11 Express Train
6.12pm – Arrive in Thazi, stay overnight in a hotel, we highly recommend the Wonderful Guest House
Day 2 – 6 hrs, 15 minutes
6.15am-6.30am – Arrive at Thazi Railway Station to purchase tickets. Ask for help from hotel if possible with booking
7.00 – Depart Thazi on the 141 slow train to Kalaw
1.15pm – Arrive at Kalaw
Getting Tickets for the Yangon to Kalaw Train
There are a number of ways to grab your ticket in Yangon, we think the best is to go and do it in the person. Take your passport and cash of course. There are online options for grabbing your tickets, but as the website take a cut, along with the local agent that needs to deliver your tickets, the cost effectiveness of travelling via train is soon negated.
Picking up your tickets between 1-3 days in advance? You need to go to the Advance Booking Office, which you can find on Bo Gyoke Rd near the Sakura Tower. It’s open 7am-3pm.
Booking same day, or the previous day after 3pm. Go to the main train station. The large, British-designed station is unmistakable, and you want to enter the entrance on the left side. Head to the kiosk that is first on the left, near the entrance (not the one in the middle of the entrance) with the green signage – this kiosk is for trains that go north to Mandalay and Bagan – see the pictures below for reference.
We booked the day before, after 3pm, so we had to go to the main station. The gentleman we spoke to on the kiosk spoke English so we had no problem. We asked for the Upper Class ticket, but I’m pretty sure they would assume that foreigners would want this class rather than the Ordinary Class.
Ticket cost – Yangon – Thazi – 7350 Kyats per person (2017)
There are ordinary class tickets available for 3700kyats too, so if you really want to save and don’t mind hard seats and being squished in with a few more locals and their baggage, then go for it.
Getting on the Train
Arrive on the morning of your departure with some time to spare so you can find your train and compartment. Remember you are grabbing the number 11 train.
Check the compartment and seat numbers on your ticket. Get comfortable and settle down for a long, hot adventure ahead.
Myanmar Railways operates on the old British railway system that was created in the 19th century, and hasn’t been much maintained since. Therefore, expect a pretty bumpy journey throughout, and low speeds. The 13 hour journey ahead will be hot, so you can open your window and keep plenty of water available.
Although not as exciting as tomorrow’s journey, there’s plenty to see as the rickety train grinds and bumps through rice paddies, little villages and fields, all the while you can spy distant gleaming gold pagodas and the wheels of Myanmar’s economy slowly turning as everybody goes about their everyday lives.
The train makes plenty of stops at stations along the route, where a myriad of locals will efficiently board the train with drinks, beers, snacks, water, local produce and fruit, before quickly jumping off as the train rolls out again. There are some pretty delicious and simple dishes to be had, often rice with some form of sambal and dried fish served in plastic containers or even banana leaf. Don’t be afraid to grab something if you desire – the prices are very cheap.
To be honest, the toilets in Upper Class are fine, just a hole in the floor of the train – a much better experience than we had on some of the more expensive upper class sleeper berths in Vietnam. Just don’t use the toilet in the stations out of respect!
Arrive at Thazi – 6.12
Arrive in Thazi with the setting sun. Always worth having some charge left on your phone to make sure you are getting off at the right stop.
When you disembark you can either get on a horse and cart to your chosen hotel, or just walk – it’s a 15 minute stroll – but it may be a walk in the dark depending on the time of year.
Where to Stay in Thazi – Accommodation and Hotels in Thazi
As of 2017, there are only two guesthouses in Thazi with licenses for foreigners. The Moonlight Guesthouse is the most written about, but we stayed in the ‘Wonderful Guest House’, which comes highly recommended!
Booking a room in advance may be possible, but you would have to give them a call as they don’t have a website or email address. Google lists their number as – +95 9 793 969068. You shouldn’t have to book in advance however – we were the only ones staying here apart from one other person.
Unfortunately, we can’t remember the price we paid for the room, but it wasn’t expensive. We had an issue with our hot water, but the young chap came up immediately and fixed it for us. The room was spacious, had air conditioning, and we were provided with a takeaway breakfast box complete with sandwiches, fruit etc the next morning.
The lovely guesthouse organised a horse and cart to the station and the son of the owner even helped us book our tickets for the onward journey.
What to do in Thazi?
Thazi isn’t a town a tourist would normally aim to visit. It’s a simple, noisy crossroads town for rail and road. Time and energy-wise, there’s probably the opportunity to grab something to eat, get a shower and go to bed.
We asked our guesthouse about food options, and they said there were a few Chinese restaurants around. We found a rough and ready Myanmar beer sponsored place that we wouldn’t recommend (see the green noodles above!). There are probably some other options around if we would have looked harder, or maybe you could stock up on food before you leave the train.
Day 2 – Thazi to Kalaw – Slow Train 141 at 7.00am
We got down to the station early, as you can only book tickets on the day. It’s definitely worth asking your guesthouse if they can help you book the onward tickets, otherwise you should be able to book in the person (just don’t expect the kiosk attendant to know any English).
Remember that this train is the slow one from Yangon that left 11am the day before.
When we boarded we found our seat to be occupied! Fortunately the helpful train attendant managed to ask the rather disgruntled gentleman who was in our seats to move (we later figured that this guy was some kind of high ranking officer, as members of the Myanmar military kept coming on board and saluting him).
The slow train begins its ascent up the mountain range roughly 1 hour into the journey, and quite honestly, this part of the trip makes the whole escapade completely worth it. The old diesel train roars up through slowly ascending bamboo forests, making a series of switchbacks and ‘zigzags’. The air becomes slowly cooler and the vegetation more temperate. You can lean out of the window and take in the whole curve of the train as it struggles up the track.
We were told that the railway is an integral part of the local region, and we could see why. At each and every beautiful stop, we would see lots of locals, many with different varieties of bananas, fruits, foods walk beside and through the train.
Arriving in Kalaw – 1.15pm
Finally, you will arrive in the township of Kalaw. Jump off and talk to a taxi driver – we grabbed a tuktuk to our hotel.
Take the time to enjoy this incredible place! Walk the streets, take in the very welcome cool evening air. Grab a meal – we sampled the up-market Thirigayha 7 Sisters, the cheap bar Emerald Restaurant for lunch and the fascinating Thu Maung restaurant, which will allow you to sample a local, Shan-style platter (there’s some weird stuff in there!) with your chosen dishes.
Find a Trekking company and hike to Inle Lake – we went with A1 Trekking, our guide Elias we would highly recommend.
Is the Train Worth It?
Flights from Yangon to Kalaw or Inle Lake’s nearest airport, Heho, come in around 140,000 kyats, plus the taxi fee of around 15-30,000 kyats to Nyaungshwe – total 170,000 kyats (£86/$110USD)
VIP buses cost 20,000-27,000 per ticket (£13/$17USD)
The train costs around 9,200 kyats (£4.50 or $6USD)
Cost wise, the train obviously comes out on top, with the VIP coach not far behind, with the flights considerably more expensive. In terms of luxury, of course it’s the other way round. We argue that the train is the best way to experience your surroundings – it stops regularly and you get views that you just can’t on a coach – and it’s the best way to immerse yourself in the country whilst trundling along at 30mph.
A big shout out to Mark over at Seat61, whose expert information in the field made this journey possible!