By driving the final bolt, a silver one, into the first steel pier, the Lieutenant-Governor of Burma declared the world’s largest railway trestle bridge of the time officially open. That was on the 1st of June, 1901, but still today the viaduct which straddles Gokteik Gorge stands as a testament to the foundry and engineering capabilities of America and Britain. An unexpected union in a remote land once called Burma and now known as Myanmar.
The British constructed railway in Burma predominately to profiteer from local resources and gain political advantage. Following Burma’s defeat in the 3rd Anglo-Burmese War in 1885, Britain’s land grab was complete. Upper-Burma was annexed and the Colonial Power cast its gaze to new frontiers of fortune in the Far-East. Merely a decade later, an ancient trade route once documented by Marco Polo was surveyed for a railway. It was the most direct path between Mandalay, Myanmar’s regional northern capital, and South-West China. However, just 55 miles along, a deep crevice obstructed the way.
Designed in London, Pennsylvania Steel Company from Steelton USA was awarded the contract in April 1899 to construct the trestle. Three steamers laden with steel components departed New York in August, October, and November of the same year. The construction of the bridge was started shortly after. Setting an extraordinary pace in a remote and difficult environment, the trestle was complete and ready for the track in just 11 months.
From end-to-end, the Gokteik Viaduct measures 2,260 feet. In his 1975 travelogue, The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux described it as “a monster of silver geometry in all the ragged rock and jungle”. His observation still stands 45 years on. Though low-lying scrub has replaced the dense jungle that once lined the tracks along the plateau, 320 feet below the gorge floor is hidden by an unruly mess of overgrown foliage. More grows perilously from the vertical rock walls on each side.
These days, Myanmar trains are a cheap and rudimentary form of transport for locals that
tourists happen to travel on from time-to-time. So don’t expect comfy seats and air-conditioning. Anticipate windows down, wind in your hair, grit on your face, and delighted locals sharing the experience with you. The train crawls across the bridge at walking pace, so there’s plenty of time to appreciate and photograph the inspirational view. On the far side, the train labors on, tackling a hill-climb as it weaves in-and-out of a series of tunnels carved into the edge of the precipice.
The line stretches 175 miles between Mandalay, and Lashio, a bustling trading town just 100 miles shy of the Chinese border. With an average hourly speed of 12 miles, most tourists don’t stay on the train for the long haul. Gokteik is close to the picturesque, colonial-hill-station of Pyin Oo Lwin. – A four-hour train ride and a car waiting at the first station on the other side of the bridge for the return trip will have you relaxing in your comfy hotel, sipping on a G&T, by mid-afternoon.
More adventurous? Stay aboard a little longer and journey a path less-traveled to visit Hsipaw. The laid-back and friendly town of the Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess Fame, is surrounded by a charming farmland district where fields are tilled by buffalo and rustic riverside villages are linked by meandering country lanes.
Gokteik is one of the few historical rail journeys of the world still functioning that operates for the local community. Whether you are a train enthusiast, a traveler with a keen sense of the intrepid, or just content to join in on a unique and local experience, train travel in Myanmar is a must-do experience.
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