Myanmar Travel

Myanmar train travel: Crossing the breathtaking Gokteik Viaduct

crossing the breathtaking gokteik viaduct

Standing at the old train’s open door, I gripped the bar as tightly as I could. And even though the train was moving slowly, I held my breath and tried not to gaze too far down the chasm below. 335 feet to be exact. We were crossing the famous Gokteik Viaduct, the highest railway trestle in Myanmar. And it was breathtaking.

Leaving Pyin Oo Lwin

September 15, 2015

We woke to a rainy morning in Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), the former British Summer capital. We decided to go here from Mandalay, stay for a night and take the train the next morning. Because there was no way we’d be able to make it to the first train that leaves Mandalay at 4 in the morning.

READ: Let the Journey Begin to the Golden Land: A Myanmar Travel Guide

Upon reaching the train station at nearly 8 am, we still couldn’t decide if we’ll take the train up to Nawngpeng. Or go all the way up to Hsipaw. Nawngpeng is the train stop after Gokteik Viaduct. And it is also where the northbound and southbound trains coincide.

mandalay to lashio train schedule

The train was due to arrive at Pyin Oo Lwin anytime now. We didn’t have time.

I told my newfound Austrian friends that I have to be back in Yangon before the 17th. And since they were also still undecided about Hsipaw, we booked three tickets up to Nawngpeng.

Upon arriving at the platform, we unknowingly walked in an ongoing photo shoot. Ms. Myanmar was strutting her stuff for a few takes. Looking vintage in her yellow dress, black gloves, and luggage. Everybody was enamored with her beauty. And it was a welcome break to catch our breath before the train arrived.

All too soon the 131up train arrived. Our excitement was palpable as we went up to find seats in the coach next to the first class. We purposely didn’t buy seats for first class because we wanted to have a local experience as much as possible. The coach was near full, with locals and all their belongings going to the northern states. We left Pyin Oo Lwin before 9 am.

pyin oo lwin train station

Aboard the 131 up train

The train was an old one. With hard wooden seats facing each other, and an overhead shelf for belongings. A peek in the first class coach showed only a handful of foreigners. They were mostly middle-aged.

Children crying. Vendors selling their wares. Men talking on their phone. The wind slapping our faces by the window. The old train chugging along its tracks. It was a cacophony of sights and sounds.

It was almost just like what Paul Theroux said in his book, “The Great Railway Bazaar“. That book is one of the reasons why I wanted to take this train. Aside from the fact that I really like long train rides.

SEE ALSO: YANGON CIRCLE LINE TRAIN

We busied ourselves by plotting our next move from Nawngpeng but didn’t end up with a concrete plan.

aboard the 131up train myanmar

Pia and I contented ourselves by gazing out the window while Pauli busied himself talking to the locals. I was not much in the talking mood that day. We watched the Burmese countryside go by, waved when we saw children, and took pictures. The rural landscape became monotonous after a while, making us doze off.

When we woke up, Pauli had already befriended a local. He’s an amputee and still serving in the Burmese army. He was teaching Pauli a few Burmese phrases, and we joined in on the fun. He regaled us with stories. About how the Chinese are profiting from their lands. The fighting in the other states, and his life in the army.

Crossing the breathtaking Gokteik Viaduct

Around lunch time, we finally reached the reason we took this train journey. The highlight of the Mandalay – Lashio train route. And one of the stunning and largest railway trestle in the world – The Gokteik Viaduct.

approaching gokteik viaduct

TIP: Get a seat on the left side of the train. Your first glance of Gokteik Viaduct will be on the left.

Built in 1899 by the Pennsylvania Steel Company, it spans 689 meters, with 15 towers, and with a height of 335 ft to the ground. It was built for the British Raj at that time. And wasn’t renovated until the 1990s.

The locals who were earlier minding their own business, all gazed out of the window. Signaling to us that indeed we have reached the famous viaduct. It looked imposing in the middle of the gorge, surrounded by the trees and the outcropping. With the blue sky above filled with fluffy clouds.

crossing the breathtaking gokteik viaduct

After taking a few shots by our window as the train slowed to a crawl when it reached the magnificent trestle, we joined Pauli by the open door in the right side of the train. I gazed in wonder both at the man-made masterpiece and the view below me. It reminded me of that scene in the Harry Potter movie when the Hogwarts Express crossed the famous Glenfinnan viaduct.

It was green everywhere except for the brown-black rock face that we were heading to. Even the water of the river running below was green. We spotted a few waterfalls, with its waters falling on top of the jungle below.

All too soon, the blackness of the tunnels came into view. Taking one last look behind, I tried to etch into memory the scene before me. The rattling of the train moving slowly on top of the viaduct. The enormous gorge and the green landscape. The clear blue skies and the chirping of the birds flying above.

WATCH THE VIDEO BELOW IN HD 

Arriving in Hsipaw

We dozed off after the tunnels and ended up missing our stop. When we woke up, we were already near Hsipaw. Gold tipped stupas came into view as well as a cluster of houses.

At one point, the train stopped for a few minutes. Our local friend told us, they might have let an anaconda pass by. He said there was even one time when an anaconda got into the train. Scary.

hsipaw train terminal myanmar

At quarter to 4 in the afternoon, the train stopped in Hsipaw. And we bid adieu to our local friend.

Even after traveling for a month now, goodbyes still don’t come easy. And maybe that’s a good thing.


Do you like long train rides? What’s the most scenic train ride you’ve experienced? 🙂

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  • Ian Martinez
    November 13, 2016 at 9:00 am

    Anaconda in Burma? They are only in South America! Me and Filipina girlfriend are going to the viaduct tomorrow, hence our visit.
    Did you know that manila was once part of the British empire too with Cavite as the capital?

    • Darlene
      December 21, 2016 at 5:00 pm

      I was surprised too when I heard about the anaconda story but didn’t bother correcting the local we were talking with. 🙂 And yes, I know about the British occupation in Philippines too. 🙂 How was your visit to the viaduct?

  • Let the Journey Begin to the Golden Land: A Myanmar Travel Guide
    October 7, 2016 at 6:32 pm

    […] Train travel in Myanmar is a different experience. Some tracks are already run-down resulting to a bouncy ride. But it gives you the chance to mingle with the locals and has a more authentic transportation experience. The scenery is also incomparable, with the train going to Hsipaw taking the cake. […]

  • Pete Mahon
    August 22, 2016 at 9:54 pm

    Looks like a lot of fun! Love your writing style! Keep up the great work 🙂

  • Marge
    August 22, 2016 at 9:27 pm

    Oh wow I wanna take this train ride too, that view is stunning! But I think my heart will be in my throat because imagine how high that train track is. If ever I go there I’ll make sure to put that in my itinerary and I’d love to experience it the way you did, no first class for me haha..

  • Johna
    August 20, 2016 at 9:22 am

    Sounds like you had quite an adventure!! I actually don’t mind long train rides as long as the view is amazing hehe. The long train ride I’ve taken was from Paris to Venice, around 6 hours 😀

  • Adrenaline Romance
    August 18, 2016 at 7:30 pm

    Amazing views! The karst formations and jungles are really nice. We have never rode a train before (well, except for our LRT and MRT, which we don’t count as “real” trains); riding a train across the country is one of our greatest dreams.

  • Corinne
    August 18, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    What a great train ride. I would love to see the gorge and views, but the idea of wooden benches…hmmm…not so sure.

  • verushka
    August 18, 2016 at 1:15 pm

    amazing experience ! Would love to do a journey like this some day. Love how you mention reading a book made you do this YES I too am that kind of girl.

  • Christina
    August 14, 2016 at 11:58 am

    This sounds like a great train experience. What a view! I was glad to read that the train slows down as it approached the viaduct as this would have allowed for pictures to be taken. I definitely would like to add this to our Myanmar itinerary. Thanks for sharing!

  • Vyjay
    August 14, 2016 at 12:43 am

    It is a breathtaking view. I loved the part where the train curves over the viaduct. really spectacular. The video is well made.

  • anna
    August 13, 2016 at 10:21 am

    Sounds amazing! I have yet to travel to Myanmar but its high up on the list. Love that you chose not to get 1st class tickets in order to make sure you get a local experience. Definitely something I would do too.

  • JM
    August 12, 2016 at 11:53 pm

    Hi Darlene. It is really breathtaking. I also want to experience this ride.
    Myanmar is in my travel bucketlist and but I don’t really know much about this country, where to go and what to do. But this train ride has earned its spot in my future itinerary.

  • Arni
    August 12, 2016 at 11:18 am

    That was such a jaw dropping experience, to enjoy such the heights and a gorgeous view from the train which goes right into a dark tunnel. I do enjoy train rides. The most unforgettable one for me was the Peru Rail particularly from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu. I enjoyed it because the ride was slow and we were lost in nature in the Andes Mountains for an hour and a half. Would love to visit Myanmar one day and this should definitely be a part of the itinerary. 🙂

  • Angela
    August 12, 2016 at 7:04 am

    Breathtaking is an understatement! What a cool way to enjoy the views. The longest and most scenic train ride was in Alaska to Denali National Park. It was pretty spectacular, but way different than your experience.

  • Jakey @ Tarot and Coffee
    August 11, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    That view from the train is probably one of the most majestic views out there. Unless, the person’s having a bit of an altophobia. But then again, a view from the train window (or door) gives that unexplainable feeling of euphoria, most especially in a foreign land.

    Ms. Myanmar sure looks beautiful. 🙂