The Train Journey from Inle Lake to Kalaw

There’s something romantic about train travel, something old-fashioned, that evokes the movies back when they were called “the pictures” – the tooting of the horn signaling it’s time to go, the slow churn of the wheels starting, and the landscape passing by the windows like frames on film.

As soon as I read that it was possible to take a scenic train from Inle Lake to Kalaw I was sold. I had to do this. Forget the popular trek, I was captivated by the idea of seeing the countryside of Myanmar from a rickety train cabin.

So that’s exactly what I did.

The train only leaves in the morning, 8:30 and 9:00 am I was told, so I left my hotel at 7:30 am for a piercing cold 30-minute tuktuk ride from Nyaungshwe to the Shewnyaung train station. I didn’t mind the cold though; I looked out at the passing land blanketed in mist and reflected on where I was, how far I’d come in the past eight months, and how I felt about my trip. Overall, fantastic, but those thoughts are for a different post. I got my ticket when I arrived at the station for the whopping price of 1150 kyats (about US$1.50) and was rushed out to the platform – the train was leaving at 8:00 am. In a country where buses are perennially late, the train left earlier than expected. Good thing we’d left a little early.

I quickly found my seat and not a minute later I heard the horn prompting our departure from the station. My car was nowhere near full and all the windows were open, so I settled down in my jacket, hat and gloves, ready to watch the world pass by.

The train is scenic in a uniquely “Myanmar in the dry season” way. We rumbled slowly first past green farmland, then through a forest, engulfed by tall trees on either side with a misty background obscuring any distant view. We popped out of a narrow mountain passage and the scenery changed entirely: rolling hills were covered in trees and home to an occasional small wooden cabin. I wonder what this looks like in the rainy season when everything is saturated and green.

Just as quickly as this landscape appeared it disappeared and we were in a town with small single-room houses and people on the streets. I could see people going about their lives from my window, something I wasn’t privy to in the hotels and restaurants of the tourist hubs I’d been staying in.

The next scene was dry farmland, tan and brittle, with a backdrop of rolling hills covered in a patchwork of browns, reds, and golds. Sometimes there were people working in the fields, sometimes cows grazing. We passed another small village. People of all ages came to the tracks to watch the train pass by and wave. I waved back. I watched a kid racing to try to catch up to us; I hoped he would make it but he disappeared behind a bush and I didn’t see him again.

The train moved slowly and jumpily, the car behind us visibly shaking back and forth. At one point I was worried we would actually tip off the tracks but it held on. We stopped only twice along the way, and each time women approached the train with all manner of snacks perched on their heads in case someone in the windows was hungry.

It took 3.5 hours to get to Kalaw but I could’ve stared out the window for even longer. This was my activity for the day. I’ve taken many night buses, prioritizing activities at the next destination over the route to get there, but once in a while I love making the journey the priority. The whole ride I watched the world go by, the world of rural Myanmar, not tourist Myanmar, and by the time I got to Kalaw I felt like I’d already had a full day.

 

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