Exploring Northern Burma by train and ferry from Myitkyina, via Bhamo and Katha to Mandalay
One of the most adventurous and “off the beaten track” trips I’ve done was the journey back from Myitkyina back to Mandalay via trains, buses and ferries. As we become more globalised and routes open to mass tourism, there are fewer and fewer places in the world that offer what Northern Burma does – a genuine feeling of adventure as you pass through towns and transit routes still largely untouched by the oncoming wave. When you include the breathtaking views of the mountains, the chance to see the real local villages along the mighty Irrawaddy River, and the old echoes of the former colonial past, this is a truly great travel experience and one that can easily be combined with a 2 weeks itinerary for the highlights of Burma.
I’ve listed more detailed tips below, but three key ones:
- Is it dangerous? The north, like many other parts of Burma, has seen continued trouble in the the form of various low-level uprisings and separatist movements in the three states you’ll be passing through (Kachin, Shan and Sagaing). But tourists are already not allowed in any of the spots where trouble is flaring up. Could you be unlucky and find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time? Yes, but bear in mind that the route you are travelling is a key transit routes for this part of the country that has various options should the situation change, and that tourists are not targeted. In short, there are far more places in the world you could get in trouble than Northern Burma
- Can my route change? Yes, it can. The ferry ride from Bhamo and Katha to Mandalay is one that seems to be consistently fine, but the bus / ferry route from Myitkyina to Bhamo seems often to be closed off. Obviously you need to check into this before you set off (I asked locals even in Yangon who were able to answer me very quickly), but even if you get stuck when you arrive you have options of the train from Myitkyina to Katha and exclude Bhamo, or just simply to fly
- Enjoy while you can! Whilst my adventure was all the way back in 2006, this part of Burma is still largely untouched by the growing tourism wave that has hit the 4 key tourist destinations in the rest of the country (Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake). Enjoy it while you can!
#1 Its cliché, but that feeling of adventure
#2 Seeing the local towns and river life dotted all along the mighty Irrawaddy River
#3 Walking / wadding into river villages where you will find yourself the only foreigner
#4 Getting to check out the buildings in Katha that George Orwell famously included in his book Burmese Days
#5 Heading deeper into some of the towns and getting to see some of the Burmese way of life outside of the standard tourist stops
#6 The lush mountain scenery - often observed from the side of a bus!
#7 The former colonial buildings and wide boulevards in Myitkyina
#8 Seeing the sheer scale of the Irrawaddy River - often too wide to see the other side
#9 The general randomness of it all!!!
- Day 1 – fly to Myitkyina (the capital of Kachin State) and take the remainder of the day to wander around the long-closed relics of the former colonial times such as the old grand schools, the wide boulevards and dotted buildings clearly in contrast to the local town around them
- Day 2 – depending on the season, make your way by bus or ferry to Bhamo. Whilst there are not any particular star attractions, this is about as genuine Burma as you are going to get and you will most likely be the only foreigner. Enjoy it as you walk through the old stained teak-houses and riverfront
- Day 3 – Either take the fast boat (6 hours) or the slower ferry (12 hours) to Katha, enjoying the ride as you see the river world come to life as you drift down river
- Day 4 – Spend the day in Katha to see the buildings made famous by George Orwell’s Burmese Days. Reading the book and seeing the place so far north into the country and away from the main tourist sites, really brings to life what it must have been like in the times of the British Raj
- Day 5-6 – take your time as you drift down on the 24hr – 40hr (depends on the season) ferry to see the varying towns and livelihoods that are fed by the mighty Irrawaddy, and just how wide it gets in its lead up the Mandalay
NOTE that the route from Myitkyina to Bhamo is the difficult one and is often closed for foreigners. If that is the case, you’ve got a few options 1. Fly direct to Bhamo and skip Myitkyina; 2. Fly from Myitkyina to Bhamo; 3. Take the train from Myitkyina to Katha (6 hours) and skip Bhamo
- You’re going to struggle to get all the travel info you need from the internet alone. The best source will be from the locals you meet along the way and, in particular, the hotel staff who will be used to travellers working their way on this route everyday (bear in mind this route is one of the main transport arteries for Northern Burma)
- For the ferries you have usually got two options: the fast and the slow. The choice obviously depends on your timings. The fast ones tend to be around x3 faster, but you’re restricted in your movement as you’re in seats with rows of around 4 x 10 and can only move (easily) from the seat when you get off. You do stop at various towns where you get smaller boats coming up to sell things to you and there are open views (no windows) of the river scenes going by, but its mainly just a fast transit option to functionally get down the river. Whereas the slow ferries are much more of an experience as you have a deck and multiple levels to wander around and will be spending the evening onboard. I took the fast ferries for the first two legs of the journey and finished with the slow ferry for the final long leg to Katha to Mandalay, which I felt was a good balance
- For the slow ferries, you will have the option of a cabin (US$45) or the deck (US$9). For money seasons, I chose the deck which was an adventure and I got to speak to what felt like everyone on the boat, but I’m not sure I’d ever do it again! The deck is . . . well . . . literally the deck. You get shelter, but you’re on a steal floor
- For the buses, bear in mind that this is mountainous jungle country, so the roads will be very slow, not run on time, will often break down and often seem to defy the logic of anything you’re used to. As always just go with the flow and be prepared for this. Two examples I’d like to share (we all have them!). First one – I remember getting the bus for part of the journey from Myitkyina to Bhamo, us seeing another bus that was broken down on a high mountain road, our driver getting out and starring at the other bus (not offering help . . . obviously) for what must have been 4 hours. Didn’t move from his squat position for 4 hours, and then just jumped back on the bus and drove away. My fellow travellers were as confused as I was. Second one was on a bus from Bagan to Inle Lake. As we were driving up the mountain (with a cow strapped to the back I might add), the driver slowed down and steadily started to drive the bus into the nearby stream. I got a bit worried as this wasn’t exactly the type of bus to have a snorkel for the water (in truth it would struggle to even be categorised as a bus). The driver didn’t seem too bothered though and, after 20mins or so, reversed out and returned back to our journey now now that the bus had “cooled down”. Gotta love Burma
- As with all countries, see if you can do a bit of reading about the place to give yourself some of the context. You can get the overview history from wikipedia, but for stories that give you more depth (and are more enjoyable), I’d really recommend two books: 1. Burmese Days by George Orwell because it brings to life what it must have been like in this part of Burma (it was set in Katha) during the British Raj and the harsh contradictions this brought. 2. The Glass Palace by Amitav Gosh, which charts the story of a small number of families as they navigate their way through the fall of the royal dynasty in Mandalay to the British in the late 1800s, through to the end of the second world war, and in particular covers the teak trade which passed through Northern Burma
- For more details on the other more traditional highlights of Burma and how this adventure can fit in to a broader itinerary for a trip round the country, see:
The below map shows experiences nearby with a colour that reflect the Overall Score of those experiences
Other Remote Adventures
Background - how many times have you asked someone what a travel experience was like and the response was "amazing" or "awesome"? That response is nice to know, but it makes it hard to differentiate that experience compared to others. That is exactly what these scores are trying to do - differentiate the experience by giving a score out of 10 based on 6 categories and then giving an overall experience score
This overall experience score is calculated by: take the highest of the "Culture" or "Nature" score (1-10) + "Fun factor" (1-10) + "Avoiding the crowds" (1-10) + highest of the "Unique" or "World Famous score" (1-10). Then convert into a score out of 100
Extra detail - the logic being that I find all of the 6 individual scores important, but I don't want to mark an experience down just because it doesn't cover both "Culture" and "Nature", or because it isn't both "World Famous" and "Unique". Take the examples of Safari in The Serengeti and walking through Rome - they both appeal at opposite ends of the nature / culture spectrum, and you can have a fantastic time without needing to appeal to both sides. So, their overall scores aren't penalized for their lack of one or the other, and I've done the same for "World Famous" vs "Unique". But . . . I do think that the "Fun factor" of an experience is important, irrelevant of other factors, and so is "Avoiding the Crowds" (or where there are crowds that add to the experience). So, both of these scores are standalone