Ffestiniog Travel tour leader Michael Whitehouse shares his expert knowledge of travelling by train around Burma in advance of our very first rail tour to this wonderful country in January 2016.
"The world was once stranger than it is today, much larger, even mysterious, great portions of it unknown, unrenowned and full of hidden harmonies"
This trip is an adventure which will encompass all the main highlights of a visit to a fascinating hidden country, described by George Orwell as being "a land like no other". Mynamar is now only just opening up to the world after over fifty years isolation. It is one of the most amazing and relaxing countries in the world to visit and we have negotiated both two foot narrow gauge and metre gauge steam trains for our trip; the latter have not been seen for many years.
I will be your tour leader. Apart from having been connected with the world famous Ffestiniog Railway for many years as a volunteer at Boston Lodge and a past Chairman of the Ffestiniog Railway Company itself, I have travelled to Myanmar very many times and am quite familiar with the country, its culture, its people and what we will see. I have made over ten visits to Myanmar, both as a participant in groups and on my own with friends and business colleagues. So, whilst you may be coming along for your first trip to Myanmar, I am fully aware of what we will see and experience and I have stayed in the majority of the hotels personally. I have made six visits to the Burma Mines Railway in Namtu, the railway manager is personally known to me and I know all the railway staff will do their utmost to ensure we enjoy our stay in this remote place.
Our trip is an exciting blend of railways and sightseeing wonderful and amazing things. We are taking an adventure to the Burma Mines two foot gauge railway in the north east of the country in Shan State where we have arranged to see, ride behind and photograph two of their steam engines, both of which passed their annual boiler exams in April. They are a 102 year old Hunslet 'Huxley' 0-4-2T and a Bagnall 2-6-2 tender engine. The railway and its equipment is pretty much on its last legs so we must not delay in making our trip before it expires for the last time. We have also negotiated with Myanmar Railways for the use of some of their metre gauge steam engines on the main line which have not seen use for many years, following a personal suggestion that the state railway re-introduce steam engines for tourist use. We expect to use a YC Pacific and a YD 2-8-2 tender engine on our trains; these will be the first special trains run for tourists and railway photographers for very many years. A diesel engine will accompany all our steam trains on both gauges and do much of the haulage to help ensure timekeeping, apart from run pasts where we will detach the diesel for better pictures. We will travel by a mix of train, air and road so we can see as much as possible on our trip, yet have some time to relax.
We will be using the services of a local travel agent I know well. Kyi Kyi will be with us for all the railway trips and she is fully familiar with our expectations having masterminded many railway photographic tours to the Burma Mines already. Zinko Win will be with us for the whole tour and he has accompanied me on many trips within Myanmar as a guide and a friend. They know their stuff and both speak excellent English.
Myanmar is open for tourism. Actually it never closed but, externally, tourists were externally discouraged from going due to the political situation of a military government. You will find that development of comprehensive tourist facilities countrywide is still work in progress pursuant to a plan prepared by the Norwegian Government. This means that tourist hotels in key destinations are much in demand and so expensive which has had a key bearing on our tour price. Travel around the country is still fairly basic but safe and reasonably reliable. Local people are very friendly and strive to speak English. Family and Buddhist cultures are paramount. Locally the country is referred to as Myanmar, not the English form of Burma.
Myamnar is run by a military government, although it is now taking steps to open up to the modern world. You will hardly see any signs of the military and most of your encounters with Myanmar people will be with ordinary citizens who you should expect to find are unfailingly courteous and helpful but maybe somewhat shy. Expect to be transported back to a world of fifty or more years ago.
Myanmar is truly a golden land with very many things to see. The only realistic entry points for tourists are Yangon (Rangoon) and Mandalay and these cities are both on the 'must see' list, especially the world famous Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon and the U Bein half mile teak bridge just outside Mandalay. Other key tourist destinations include Bagan (the town of 1,000 pagodas), Inle lake and Golden Rock. We will be going to all these places and there you will find more tourists and generally better facilities.
We have included the Burma Mines Railway in the itinerary because it is a classic unspoilt and original railway in a remote silver mining location very far off the tourist beaten track. There are no tourist facilities there at all and, in fact, whilst we are there you will meet no other tourists and we will have a permit to visit granted to us specially as, otherwise, the region remains 'off limits' to the general tourist. It is an effort to get there and back but well worth it, with some amazing things to see along the way on the 'Burma Road' and railway to China.
Some more detail
- A trip to Myanmar, even as an organised excursion such as ours with experienced guides, should be treated as an adventure and you should prepare much more carefully than for a usual holiday, especially if this will be your first visit to Myanar or Asia. Whilst it will, of course, be a holiday, it will also be an experience as many things will be very different. Essentially, Myanmar has missed over 50 years of development, but is now starting to catch up, so we must go now to see it before it changes too much and for ever. Already mobile phones and Korean clothing styles are creeping in.
- The country can be assumed safe. Whilst there have been reports of minor insurgencies between locals, in the event anything untoward like this was encountered, the State would be the first to look after us as it jealously guards its tourist reputation. In over a dozen trips to Myanmar I have experienced nothing but welcome. Generally speaking, tourists are not permitted within areas where unrest exists or may exist and we will not be going to the Kachine State in the north. There will be no issue if you wish to wander around where you please, even in cities and at night. A special permit is necessary to visit Namtu and the mines area, but granted on application, simply because apart from the railway no tourists would normally wish to go there; sometimes an armed police guard may accompany the mine train. The Namtu area is a complete British mining system in a time warp from a hundred years ago (although it does have diesel engines as well!).
- The weather in January should be fine, sunny and warm. In Yangon and on the Irrawaddy plain, the sun will be hotter, generally expect 30 degrees. Once we have climbed the escarpment north of Mandalay, we will find it cooler, especially above Pyn Oo Lwin, requiring a pullover at night and, in Namtu, expect early morning mist (so a fleece and woolly hat is useful for the early morning and the late afternoon railcar rides!). There is the possibility of rain if a high pressure belt occurs over the sea.
- The Buddhist religion is a way of life in Myanmar and should be respected. At least within temples, appropriate clothing is required and recommended for the entire trip. Shorts should not be worn on the trip at all. Please do not even think of bringing any as I will not take you out on the day trips wearing them, even though you may see other tourists doing so in Bagan.
- The longye is still the main dress for Myanmar people (as opposed to trousers and skirts) but foreign ways, especially Korean style jeans and hair colour, is fast arriving with youngsters. The longye is simply a square piece of cloth which the Myanmar people wrap round them and tie in a knot round their middle.
- UK mobile sim cards will not work in Myanmar and no reliance should be placed on a holiday needing them. Whilst wifi if now available in some hotels, and even at the Namtu No.1 guest house, it does not always work and so must not be relied on. Internet cafes are available (when working) in towns. You will be able to buy a local sim card in towns fairly cheaply which come with prepaid vouchers for either international or local calls. Whilst international telephone calls can be made from hotels, they are expensive and can only be used when the hotel purchases a line which you will have to pay for whether you get through or not. On the other hand, in cities like Yangon, public telephones are available on streets. Laptops and blackberries will connect to some local hotel wifis when available. But by far the best approach is for travellers to assume no connection with the outside world whilst they are in Myanmar; you will also enjoy it much more and find that, when you immerse yourself in the day to day in Myanmar time will run slower and be more fulfilling.
- Myanmar is a CASH economy. ONLY NEW US $ NOTES may be exchanged for local Kyat notes. Do not expect to be able to use any $ notes which are damaged or marked in ANY way. Do not bring £s or Euros. Do not rely on debit or credit cards; whilst some hotels in major cities may say they accept them, their machines are unreliable and rely on internet connection to work. ATMs now exist and cash can be extracted from them (up to $300 per time) but it would be unwise to rely on this. The ONLY reliable way to pay within Myanmar is in CASH in KYATS. Change money at airport or with ground handlers (rate is controlled, reasonably fair and the same everywhere – there is no longer any black market in currency exchange). More local Kyats will be given for $100 notes. Our guides will be able to change money at a fair rate as we need it and as we go along. You shouldn't need any money other than for drinks, souvenirs, presents, pocket money, the occasional meal which isn't included in the tour price and anything you may decide to do away from the group. However, I would recommend you bring extra dollars in case of emergencies. Only you will know the likelihood of that, but if there is even a remote possibility you might need to go home early or seek medical help, you will not be able to unless you can pay for it in new dollar notes on the spot. The tour leader will be carrying a surplus amount of cash for medical emergencies.
- Sensible precautions for personal hygiene should be followed so as not to be ill, however, the country is regarded as cleaner than, say, India, but nevertheless tap water, washed salads (and milk) should not be consumed unless processed. Bottled water is available everywhere and we will provide it as well. The main alcohol available is Myanmar beer, but town restaurants and the better hotels will have wine and spirits.
- Anyone in less than 100% good health should come prepared with any medication needed (plus spares). There is no free medical health and any doctor or hospital visits will need to be paid for in cash (in $ in advance) before treatment and it is not cheap. Hospitals exist in the major cities but not elsewhere and travelling whilst ill is, at best, tedious, because away from hotels the quality of toilets is poor (and along the Burma Mines Railway only wooden drop box huts above rivers!). All inoculations on any list should be had before travel. Consult your doctor and, if in doubt, get inoculated (including rabies): prevention is better than cure. There are mosquitoes in Yangon but I understand no malaria in the towns, but you must take your own doctor's advice about that. There are NO suitable hospital or doctor facilities in Shan state or outside Yangon and Mandalay and, if you are ill in the Shan state, it will take a VERY long time to get you home.
- Nearly all internal flights are by turbo prop planes which are great fun and most internal airports are 1950s style with Avery weighing machines, manual bag handling and even paper airline tickets! Yangon domestic airport is a happy shambles.
- Bagan levies a $20 tourist tax on arrival at the airport and the receipt may be checked at pagodas and temples, so don't lose it if you want to get in – this will especially be the case for the visit to the sunset pagoda.
- Participants might like to find out on which day of the week they were born to get maximum benefit from the Shwedagon visit in Yangon. A visit the shrine of your day of the week is not to be missed, very therapeutic and thought provoking. It matters not whether you believe or not, you will be enriched by the water pouring opportunity which we will explain.
- Most hotels have two pin plugs, but some of the better ones also have English style three flat pin plugs. Voltage is standard 220, at least in theory. Bring suitable adapters and, if you have lots of equipment needing to be charged, think about this in advance especially if sharing hotel rooms as the numbers of sockets in each room may not be very many.
- Bring as little luggage as you can. When you have laid out your clothes and packing, try to halve it. You can get clothes washed very cheaply as we go along provided we are staying in the same hotel for at least two nights. Even in the Namtu guest houses, clothes can be washed. You will need a pair of stout shoes, a pullover and a spare pair of trousers/skirt. You will not need a jacket or tie for any dinners. You may wish to bring a sun hat and, for Namtu, a woolly hat. At night in Namtu I wear a t-shirt under my pyjamas as it can be a bit cold.
- A word or two about the Burma Mines Railway and Namtu. You will find this fascinating. A trip back in time by 100 years! But...it takes a long time to get there and back. There are no tourist facilities beyond Hsipaw (where you may stay and rest a while and walk or take river excursions if the Mines visit is beyond you). The Namtu guest houses are not even one star hotels and the facilities there would not meet any Western standards. Look at the accompanying photos! The beds and pillows are hard; a blanket will be provided but not sheets. Hot water buckets will be brought to your room each night to accompany the cold showers. But there are flushing western toilets in the guest houses only – but some may not work very well! Breakfast will invariably be fried eggs or omlettes. Dinner will be Chinese style dishes. The guest house will provide picnic lunches of noodles with egg which will arrive warm and be delivered by Wickham railcar. The railway will try ever so hard to do everything we want, but the steam engines may be shy of steam or break down and trains may derail; they are not used except for tours like ours. We will take a passenger coach with us on all trains but you may also ride on the hopper wagons. There are NO western or even Asian style toilets along the line: just wooden huts with a drop over the river...Our train will run along the river gorge, round a complete spiral, over zig zags and you will be fascinated by the mining and ore loading areas.
- Myanmar State Railways runs well despite some appearances. We will first come across this on our return from Hsipaw across the world famous Gokteik viaduct. Our 'Upper Class' coach will rock alarmingly and brush past lineside vegetation. At stations there will be opportunities to buy all manner of snacks. From Inle lake, we will have our own train, variously diesel and steam hauled. The coaches will be tourist saloons made in Korea around the 1960s and they will each take six people, complete with their own dining area, kitchen and cook. We will spend one night sleeping aboard. The metre gauge steam engines have recently been through Yangon workshops, but the railway is nervous about letting them out unaccompanied, except for the YD 2-8-2 at Bagan. So you should expect the YC pacific to be accompanied by a diesel as we will be running along the main line. The diesel will be detached for pictures and runpasts.
- We had originally planned to charter an ST 2-6-4T to run partially round the Yangon circle line but this would have increased the cost of the tour beyond what we thought was a reasonable selling price. However, if you want to pay more, we can still fix this...!
- This is not an English or European holiday. It is an adventure! We have arranged the itinerary as far as possible to allow you to acclimatise and recover in stages! Make the most of the Singapore, Mandalay and Hsipaw hotels before we go to Namtu! The Bagan hotel is a good four star and will seem like an oasis after Namtu! The overnight trip on the metre gauge train will be fun and not a trial if you embrace it, but don't expect to take a shower whilst on the train. Myanmar is a 'fragile emerging market' country and standards are not those you may expect to read on Trip Advisor. Nevertheless, everyone, locals included, will do their very best and be unfailingly courteous and helpful. Generally speaking, it is not a 'scruffy' or dirty country and any deficiencies will simply be because Myanmar has effectively been a closed country for nearly fifty years and so behind the times. That is one of the great attractions of our trip!
- I will hold a briefing meeting for those interested around September, so I can answer any questions you may have, show you some photographs and persuade you to pack less (!). I will hold this meeting at my home in Worcestershire which is easily accessible from the M5 and we will also run our steam miniature railway and enjoy some tea and cake.