The state owned Myanmar Railways (MR) first came into being in 1896, when the British consolidated and combined all previous private railway construction and ownership into a single entity to form a state owned public undertaking, which from 1928 until 1989 was known as Burma Railways until the name was changed to the present Myanmar Railways. The network consists of a 1-metre gauge railway with main lines generally running north to south and branch lines from east to west.
Myanmar Railways Gateway
Located in downtown Yangon sits Myanmar’s largest railway station, Yangon Central; an imposing building that is the gateway to the Myanmar Railways network that currently consists of over 5,400 kilometres of track. The first Yangon Central Railway Station, built by the British in 1877, was destroyed in 1943 during WWII. The present structure was completed in 1954; its prominent feature is its indigenous multi tiered roofs (known as pyatthat). The station has been a designated landmark building since 1996. It was designed by prominent Myanmarese architect and engineer Sithu U Tin, who was renowned for fusing features of Myanmarese and Western elements. Yangon’s High School No.2 Dagon and Yangon City Hall are good examples of his work where he has used this design process.
Running through the station is a double track circular railway that encompasses Yangon. Operated by MR, the system comprises of a 39-station loop system covering 45.9 kilometres, which takes approximately 3 hours to complete. The circular railway has 200 carriages and its trains circle the city 22 times a day, connecting satellite towns and suburban areas to the central part of Yangon; between 100,000 to 150,000 tickets are sold daily.
An Unusual Tourist Attraction Looking out from a carriage window while travelling by train in Myanmar can be compared to watching a constant street theatre, providing views of every form and style of life, some of which have remained unchanged for many years. Amongst these glimpses of a bygone era that has disappeared in most countries is the spectacle of working steam locomotives; belching smoke, with hissing pistons beating out a rhythm as they push the huge driving wheels, these mechanical beasts driven by fire and steam still hold a fascination to many.
The sight of steam locomotives in a working environment, although not yet extinct, is becoming an ever increasing rarity throughout the world. In Myanmar there remain some 40 steam locomotives still in service, most of which are employed hauling freight. Despite the age of these locomotives, the MR engine works in the Yangon suburb of Insein keeps them running. The engineers at these works are experts in their trade; if a part on these ageing locomotives is broken beyond repair, their skill is such that they will fabricate a replacement in the workshop.
Repair and maintenance is an ongoing operation, and with three to four of these locomotives being completely overhauled each year, the future use of steam does not appear to be under immediate threat, enabling the country to continue providing a somewhat unusual tourist attraction, much to the pleasure of the many steam enthusiasts who come from all over the world. There are specialist companies in Myanmar who arrange tours to visit the Insein engine works and also negotiate with MR for the charter of steam locomotives for hauling special excursion trains for transporting these tourist groups from Yangon to various destinations across the country.
Out of Yangon The British first introduced rail transport to Myanmar in 1877, with the opening of 262 kilometres of track running northwest from Yangon to Pyay, a town on the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, which was established by the British Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC) as a transhipment point for cargo, mail and passengers (especially British soldiers) between Upper and Lower Burma. The IFC grew into the largest fleet of river boats in the world, with over 600 vessels carrying some 9-million passengers a year, and was indispensable for carrying supplies and heavy equipment to the oil fields up river at Chauk and Yenangyaung.
Kyaukpadaung Diversion Leaving Pyay, the line continues northwards through the river port town of Aunglan on the Ayeyarwady, afterwards calling at Kyaukpadaung, which is the main access point for Mount Popa, an extinct volcano a short distance from Taung Kalat, a sheer sided piece of volcanic rock that rises 737 metres above sea level. The Buddhist monastery at its summit can be reached by climbing a stairway consisting of 777 steps carved out of the rock. Due to the volcanic ash, the soil is extremely fertile, resulting in the surrounding area providing an ideal habitat for the proliferation of flowering plants, trees, shrubs and herbs; prominent amongst this fauna are Macaque monkeys, whose presence has become an additional tourist attraction, and Taung Kalat is now a designated nature reserve and national park.
Mount Popa is a solitary conical peak 1,518 metres above sea level, the inside contains a 610 metre wide caldera that drops to a depth of 914 metres so that the mountain, when viewed from different directions, appears to take different forms, giving the illusion of having more than one peak. Although Mount Popa is a tourist attraction, with numerous temples and religious relics, it is a significant place for Myanmarese pilgrims, many of whom walk the 16 kilometres from Kyaukpadaung to climb the mountain every year, particularly during lunar festivals and in April for the Myanmar New Year (Thingyan) festival.
There are many Myanmarese myths about the mountain stemming from ancient times, when it was believed that victory would be guaranteed to any army that assembled on its slopes. Today, by linking the cultural identification of life and prosperity with the mountain, that belief is translated to one of good luck and happiness, which can be achieved by such a visit. This exemplifies that Myanmarese people strongly retain ancient traditions in their daily life; they travel great distances to assure their good luck for the coming years by visiting Mount Popa, which hosts an immense festival on its summit during the annual Thingyan water festival that celebrates the Myanmar New Year.
The train journey continues to Bagan on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, where 800 year old temples and stupas stretch across a 42 square kilometre plain. King Anawratha unified the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar under Theravāda Buddhism (the oldest surviving form and the closest to the earliest traditions of Buddhism, which today is still followed by 90 percent of Myanmar’s total population), making Bagan his central powerbase. From the 9th to the 13th centuries, it is estimated that 13,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and stupas stood on the Bagan plains; Marco Polo described Bagan as “…a gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sound of monks robes.” In 1287, this golden age came to a close when the Kingdom was invaded and sacked by the Mongols, the monasteries were plundered, and its population was reduced to the size of a village that remained amongst the ruins of a once large city.
Approximately 2,200 temples and other religious buildings survived the Mongol onslaught and remain today, albeit in various states of disrepair; some of the larger temples are still well maintained, but a lot of the lesser religious buildings are overgrown with vegetation and have become tumbledown relics. However, all sites are considered sacred. The shape and construction of each is highly significant in Buddhism, with all components having a spiritual meaning. Being home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas, relics and ruins in the world today, many of which date to the 11th and 12th centuries, Bagan remains unique.
From Bagan, the train travels to the Ayeyarwady River port of Myingyan, an important cotton trading centre with cotton ginning and spinning mill operations. It is also the head of a branch line that travels east, eventually connecting to Thazi, south of Mandalay. This branch line passes through Meiktila, which, due to its central strategic position, has a military air base that is home to the Myanmar Air Force Central Command, and also the Myanmar Aerospace Engineering University, making the city the country’s aeronautical engineering centre. After Myingyan, the journey ends upon the train’s arrival in Mandalay. Although this route that began in Yangon along the first railway track laid in Myanmar, it was another line out of Yangon that started seven years later that would be the first to reach Mandalay.