Riding the Yangon circle train around Myanmar’s capital is like watching a life-sized flip book illustrating Burmese life. The train seems to travel through time and space. Scenes flicker and evolve, but you never go so fast that the story becomes a blur. Replace Mr. Stick Figure with smiling faces, vibrant fabrics, and the greenest of green watercress paddies, and watch the 3-hour show snap by.
The circle is a three-hour loop around the outskirts of Myanmar’s financial capital. Unlike The Loop preformed by the orange, green, and purple L lines in Chicago, the Yangon circle train loops around the outskirts of the city, taking in a mix of urban and (very) rural life.
You can pick up the Yangon circle train at any railway station in town. We started our trip at the once colonial Central Station.
Myanmar train service is as scant as it is slow. As such, Yangon Central Station doesn’t see a whole lot of action. Crowded Indian train stations often felt like an extension of the slums surrounding them. In comparison, Yangon Central felt like an empty set awaiting the director’s cry for action.
The four shared platforms are dotted with a few vendors. One woman called out her wares in a beautiful lilting jingle. Most others dozed and played with their babies.
When a train finally did pull into the station, its swarm of exiting passengers felt almost out of place on our monastic platform. There were more vendors, more food, and more brightly coloured longyis. Then quiet once more.
The Yangon circle train makes stops throughout the day (schedule predictions are out there, but we followed the show up and wait method). In the 40 minutes we waited for our train, this one was the only other arrival we witnessed.
When we lived in San Francisco, I would ride the streetcar to work some mornings. It was by no means the fastest way to get from upper Market Street to the Ad Ghetto, but it was fun to play tourist and take in the sights. And it was warmer than walking in fog season.
I suspect that the Yangon circle train line holds the same appeal to Yangon locals who enjoy taking the scenic route over the faster, more jostled bus. It definitely attracts visitors from elsewhere in the country (the line is becoming a known thing in the backpacking community, but we were the only whiteys on board our train). Passengers sit perpendicular to the benches so that they can see out the window. Local women in our carriage alternated between chatting, weaving bead baskets, and gazing at the scenery. Tattooed youngsters congregated in open doorways. Junior monks jumped on and off commuting between the city’s many monasteries.
We sat across from a visiting monk and his local brother. Quicker that I could plot how to discretely sneak a photo of the longyi and robe-clad duo, the monk whipped out a camera, pointed it at me and cocked his head for permission to shoot. Deal.
The Yangon circle train snakes along behind the city’s neighbourhoods giving passengers fascinating glimpses into thousands of private lives (there’s very little distinction between public and private in developing countries; less if you live on the tracks).
The scenery starts rolling in the moment you leave the station. Citizens engaged in everyday moments are the best views. The anonymity granted by the moving train carriage makes snapping photos feel blissfully less voyeuristic. The railway is such a part of the natural landscape that throughout our loop, we pass people using the tracks as benches without a hint care toward oncoming traffic.
The vibe inside the train is just as authentic and engaging. Few people speak any English, and we can only say mingalaba (hello) and kyeizu tin ba de (thank you) in Burmese (and it’s our first day, so both phrases are raw at best). But we all speak smiles and food. It isn’t long before a young couple passes us fruit, and a middle-aged woman begins feeding us fresh fried bread.
There’s a steady flurry of action at every station. But as we pulled into Danyingon Station, there was a full-blown fruit and vegetable farmers’ market in full swing. Some passengers jumped off to pick up essentials while intrepid vendors jumped on to the train to chase a sale. The exchange resulted in more edibles in our carriage, and even more offers to try some new fruit or fried food.
We gained a new seatmate with beautiful English who said that the market is even bigger at night. A monk we later met told us that it’s the wholesale market where Yangon vendors go to buy produce to mark up and resell on the streets.
A few short chugs of the engine after pulling out of the station, and we got to see how this amazing bounty is so readily accessible in downtown Yangon. Just past the airport at the north end of the city, the landscape explodes into vibrant, lush, paddy covered farmland. The paddies are filled with villagers thigh-high in their work. They’re growing watercress, and it is one of the most beautiful crops I’ve seen.
The work is intensely physical and non-stop wet. Farmers put in 10 hour days with bare skin and bare feet; no plastic or rubber pants. They use very basic irrigation and farming tools.
Yangon village farmers are in an ongoing legal dispute with the government over land rights. It’s hard to imagine the families who have worked these paddies for generations not loosing their land to developers as Yangon inevitably sprawls outward. We feel incredibly lucky to have seen this way of life before it goes the way of Bangkok’s canal culture.
The whole Yangon circle train circuit feels like a bygone treat that can’t last much longer in its current state. The common thread throughout our travels in Myanmar is that we didn’t visit a moment too soon. Unlike the Yangon circle train, Myanmar is moving a mile a minute. We’re so glad we carved three hours out of our 24 in Yangon to ride the rails.