For just one US dollar you can experience the true essence of local life in Yangon as you travel for three hours through the city’s rural landscape. While Yangon is a fast-paced, chaotic city to get lost in, riding the Circle Line train provides a window into the daily routine of the Myanmar people away from the commercial centre of the country.
I immediately knew I had to get on board.
When you arrive at Yangon’s Train Station, train guards will immediately point you in the right direction of the tourist ticket booth as you pass through the aged platforms, rusting antiquated trains and families sleeping rough on any spare space available.
With handwritten train schedules and passenger lists listed in old paper books, sitting in the office is like stepping back in time as your vintage looking ticket is neatly inscribed and you are walked across the tracks to the appropriate platform ready for the ride.
The carriage rocks and rumbles as you slowly make your way through 45.9 kilometres of track via 39 stations which form a loop around Yangon. Stopping at each and every station for only a minute or two, people clamber on with only seconds to spare, lugging on more belongings than you can squeeze into an average sized car boot. The train returns back to Yangon’s city station before making the same journey over and over again throughout the day, until the early afternoon.
The more stations you pass, the more the landscape changes from city concrete to paddy fields and rustic villages, and the more passengers the train picks up. This is, after all, one of the main and cheapest forms of transportation for the populace.
Local ladies sit peacefully with their plastic baskets (one of whom gave me a lollypop in the same manner in which your grandma would kindly give you a sweet to appease you on a long train journey), monks peacefully stare out the window, eager food and drink vendors wander the carriage trying to rapidly quench the hunger and thirst of every passenger and many people are quick to sit next to you just to strike up a conversation – you will be possibly the only or one of the few foreigners they have ever had contact with.
Later on as you make the approach to the market towns, locals may jump on with a bundle of 20 live chickens, tied up and ready for sale, tucked neatly under the seat for safe keeping until they arrive at their destination of slaughter. Huge white sacks full of fresh food produce are heaped amongst the people like a vegetable garden, while the train guard sits idly watching the commotion in his reserved spot at the back.
Your senses are on overload in the carriage, while your eyes also want to divert to the tranquil countryside outside of it. You relax for a few moments in the calm that sometimes passes through the carriage yet you watch eagerly for the next commotion to unfold.
Before you know it, the train pulls into its next stop and the theatre stage your carriage has become in swapped for a new scene, as a whole new set of mysterious baggage and new characters enter for the next leg of the journey.
The three hours was maybe a little too long, especially as you are sitting on a hard seat, and the final hour can seem painfully slow. However, the journey itself is unique, not only because you get to interact with the locals and witness their daily routine, but because this really is an intrepid adventure in the big city… and the best value you’ll get from a dollar in Yangon.
The Yangon Circle train departs daily from Yangon Central Railway Station from 8:30am and departs every 45 minutes to an hour, from platforms 6 and 7. Passports are required for ticket purchase.