Rail and Natural Wonders of Burma
Burma, today known as Myanmar, is a fascinating country of mountains and a central plain dominated by the great Irrawaddy river. The country is predominantly Buddhist and has many spectacular temples such as the Schwedagon Pagoda, Mount Popa and of course the temple studded plain at hot and dusty Bagan. There is great sightseeing around incomparable Mandalay and Lake Inle, with its floating gardens and village on stilts, but for many the attraction will be the characterful metre gauge railways, which pass through splendid scenery with many reminders of their British colonial past. The Namtu Mines Railway offers steam hauled trains with spirals and switchbacks through great scenery where the train stops to pick up locals, even though it’s a PTG charter!
Starting and ending in the capital city Yangon (formerly Rangoon) we fly to north east Burma for the Namtu Mines Railway, before travelling to the former hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin then on to fabled Mandalay. Bagan, with its temples is in south central Burma on the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy. Finally we travel by train to Lake Inle before flying back to Yangon.
Tour Manager: Paul Griffin
Day 1 Friday 10th November Flights depart the UK for Yangon.
Day 2 Saturday 11th November (D) ) Arrive mid morning at Yangon (Rangoon) where a coach will take us to our hotel. In the afternoon we have a walking tour around Yangon, visiting the major sights including churches, Buddhist temples the old Post Office, and the vibrant markets of Little India and Chinatown. We stop for the opportunity to buy a drink in the wonderful old Strand hotel, outside which Yangon’s new trams can be seen. Three/four star hotel for two nights
Day 3 Sunday 12th November (B,L,D) No-one leaves the amazing Schwedagon Pagoda, the holiest Buddhist site in Burma, without taking more pictures than they will ever look at! The tip of the gold covered pagoda is the umbrella crown which is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. The very top—the diamond bud—is tipped with a 76 carat diamond. This is a place where everyone goes barefoot. Next we drive to the colossal statue of a reclining Buddha, rather difficult to fit on one picture as its indoors! Yangon railway station was built by the British and is the starting point of our journey on the Yangon Circular Railway where we hope to take a locomotive hauled service train. With many air conditioned DMUs now in operation we will have to pick our train. This is the way to see life on a Burmese railway, as we travel for three hours on this fascinating railway with its many stops. Sometimes the markets cover the tracks!
Day 4 Monday 13th November (B,L,D) In the north east of Burma, set in forest, is the town of Namtu, located in a restricted area of the country. We will probably fly direct to Lashio for a coach transfer over poor roads to Namtu, arriving after dark. The next two nights will be spent in the wonderfully situated Namtu Mines Guesthouse, recently refurbished and a little less basic than it used to be though there are no single rooms, and some very large rooms with several beds!
Day 5 Tuesday 14th November (B,L,D) A full day on the amazing Namtu Mines Railway, probably with steam, though this cannot be guaranteed as the whole operation runs on a shoestring and money for repairs is difficult to find. The steam engine is not in the best of health and the outward journey will have a diesel assisting. We travel from Namtu to Tiger Camp and the incredible Wallah Gorge Spiral where there will be plenty of opportunity for stunning photographs. From Tiger camp we transfer to a Hino lorry railcar and continue past Tiger Camp tunnel to zig zag up the mountain and reach the point where the bridge has been washed away. Another lorry railcar (assuming it’s not broken) should take us from the other side of the bridge to the mine at Bawdwin which has some fascinating relics, including the incredibly antiquated mining equipment still being used. Second night at the Namtu Mines Guesthouse.
Day 6 Wednesday 15th November (B,L,D) In the morning we have an short excursion by to the Old Mill by train, and the vast, mothballed site makes for fine photography as we wander around. In the afternoon we must regretfully leave as we have a coach transfer to the tourist centre of Hsipaw, a centre for trekking into hill tribe territory. We will arrive in time for a walk around this attractive little town, where our special train may be sat in the sidings ready for tomorrow. Good quality hotel.
Day 7 Thursday 16th November (B,L,D) Today we start our journey by charter train enjoying a unique view of Burma from the security and comfort of our diesel hauled train. We travel over the amazing Gokteik viaduct, one of the railway wonders of the world when it was built in 1901 and still very impressive today. The 318 feet high structure creaks alarmingly as trains crawl across and the locals pose for selfies with our train in the background! Our destination is Pyin Oo Lwin, a former British Hill Station called Maymyo in colonial times. We may have time for a walk around the city centre before transferring to our hotel, probably the characterful Royal Parkview Hotel.
Day 8 Friday 17th November (B,L,D) A morning tour by horse and buggy allows us to enjoy the old colonial buildings, ending at the 435 acre botanical gardens of this former summer capital for the British colonial administration. The gardens are sublime and invite comparison with Kew. Rejoining our charter train we descend from the plateau by a series of switchbacks in spectacular scenery to the lowlands of the Irrawaddy Valley and exotic Mandalay. Assuming no delays, we should be able to enjoy the sunset from the temple terraces of Mandalay Hill and maybe have a chat with the monks who come out to practice their English. Overnight at four star hotel.
Day 9 Saturday 18th November (B,L,D) A full day of sightseeing at some of the wonderful sights around Mandalay. After breakfast we take a cruise up the Irrawaddy to ancient Mingun. The base of what would have been the world’s largest stupa dominates the view as we arrive and nearby is the Mingun Bell (the world’s largest uncracked bell) and the seven wavy whitewashed terraces of the Hsinbyume Paya Temple. We return to Mandalay for lunch at a riverside restaurant, then go sightseeing in Mandalay itself including the world’s largest book (not what you think), temples and handicrafts. Second night in four star hotel
Day 10 Sunday 19th November (B,L,D) We take our own charter train across the Ava River Bridge over the Irrawaddy, a 1000 yard long, 16 span cantilever bridge built by the British in 1934. Our waiting coach takes us to Sagaing Hill which is covered in stupas and temples and together they make a stunning ensemble. Across the river is the old capital of Amarapura and the wonderful U Bein teak bridge where you can either walk across the teak bridge or take a small boat onto the lake for great photographs of the bridge at sunset. Look out for duck herders and young boys chasing water buffalo!
Day 11 Monday 20th November (B,L,D) Our destination today is Bagan, but there is a choice of how to get there. A journey by boat is possible (at extra cost), but can be noisy and rather boring as the view is mostly of miles wide flood plain with occasional temporary fishing villages. An experience rather than a ‘scenic highlight’. If the boat runs aground (not uncommon) arrival at Bagan may be after dark. Our charter train offers a faster journey, with a different view of Burmese village life as we are now in the Irrawaddy valley rather than the highlands. There will be time to stop at some of the more interesting stations for a look around and a runpast over a road/rail bridge. In Bagan we stay in a three or four star hotel.
Day 12 Tuesday 21st November (B,L,D) Bagan is amazing. Imagine a plain the size of Manhattan studded with over 4000 temples by the side of one of the world’s great rivers. Thousands of temples were commissioned by the Kings of Bagan over a 230 year period and many have now been restored, sometimes rather controversially! Nevertheless, there is nowhere like it, and we have a full day sightseeing at some of the larger and more interesting temples, partly by horse and buggy. As the sun starts to set we climb the very steep steps of one of the highest temples and join many others watching a huge orange sun sink over the Irrawaddy. A magical experience. Back now to our hotel and a well deserved meal.
Day 13 Wednesday 22nd November (B,L,D) Early risers may wish to enjoy an optional early morning balloon flight over the temples. This must be pre-booked, preferably before arrival in Yangon. It is an amazing experience. Balloonists will join the main group for breakfast before we set off for Mount Popa. The roads are (for Burma) good and en route we see how to make Palm Wine from the sap of the Toddy palm. Mount Popa is actually the name of the extinct volcano of which the volcanic plug of Taung Kalat was the centre. Steps lead up Taung Kalat which must be ascended barefoot, past numerous Nat temples and even more numerous monkeys which have larceny in their souls. Watch your possessions! Nat worship predates Buddhism and is still widely observed. From the temple on the summit there are great views over the forest-clad slopes of the volcano. We travel on to the small town of Thazi, an important junction station for the railway where we will spend the night at the best available guesthouse in the town.
Day 14 Thursday 23rd November (B,L,D) A great railway journey today as we travel from Thazi to Schwenyaung, initially over the plains but then ascending by a series of switchbacks to reach a plateau. There is delightful scenery as we head for the hill station of Kalaw with its mock-Tudor station building. It gets cold up here at night and fires are lit in the hotels to keep people warm. We continue through Heho, then around a spiral to descend through forest towards Schwenyaung. The station is a 25 minute coach ride from the town of Nyaungschwe, where we transfer to small boats for a magical journey in the dark to our four star lakeside hotel.
Day 15 Friday 24th November (B,L,D) Inle Lake is set in a valley and has its own micro-climate, which we may first see manifested as early morning mist on the lake. It burns off slowly and gives delightful effects as we set off on the lake to see the stilt villages and floating gardens of the Intha tribe. The fishermen have a unique leg powered rowing action as they fish the lake with their nets. Great photography! Indein is reached by a narrow canal through reed swamp and we stop at a busy jetty and walk to the ruined stupas at Nyaung Ohak from where a covered wooden walkway ascends the hillside to the Schwe Inn Thein Paya, a pagoda with golden spired zedi and extensive views. The lakes tribal market rotates between different villages, but if we are fortunate enough to be in the right place then we will enjoy a photographer’s delight. There are other temples and craft workshops and we will visit as many as possible. As we return Egrets and Cormorants will be flying into the trees behind our hotel to roost. Second night in four star lakeside hotel.
Day 16 Saturday 25th November (B,L,D) Today we drive to Heho airport for the morning flight to Yangon. The afternoon is free for sightseeing and shopping in Yangon, possibly in the huge Bogyoke market. Or for a few dollars have more rides on the trains of the Circular Railway or maybe even the new trams. We stay in the same hotel as before.
Day 17 Sunday 26th November (B,L,D) Coach transfer to the airport for flights to major southeast Asian cities and onward connections to the UK.