A Ride on the Circle Train – Yangon, Myanmar
On yet another hazy day in Yangon, we headed up the road to the main train station (the same one that would carry us off days later on the overnight Yangon-Mandalay train) to board the Circle Train, taking us in a circle around Yangon’s “suburbs” and then back into the city.
Because most locals can’t afford apartments in the city proper, the vast majority lives in the suburbs but finds work inside the city. This Circle Train is the preferred method of transportation in and out of the city as traffic can get pretty brutal (and, of course, you have to own a car or motorbike). So, riding this Circle Train provides an unspoiled glimpse into local life away from the gleaming, golden shadow of the Shwedagon Pagoda (save for the handful of fellow tourists that received the same tip as us).
The Circle Train is anything but glitz and glamor. We arrived to the ticket booth at 10:07am, just in time to purchase tickets for 500 kyat each (around 50 cents each) and quickly board the train for its 10:10am departure. The run-down, open-windowed train was mostly empty when we left from the main station; a few Western tourists were on board, but, for the most part, the train cars had locals of every age riding (presumably) back to their homes. Luckily, there are plenty of cars and we found that one pair of camera-slinging sightseers is more than enough for one train car. For the next 3.5 – 4 hours, the commuter train served as the “subway” of Yangon, picking up and dropping off passengers at each stop. Sometimes, people would be waiting to throw live chickens, fresh crops and vegetables and more through the open windows, seemingly to their friends on board to take back into the city.
For the first 20 – 30 minutes, the train is somewhat underground (or at least surrounded by tall walls on each side of the track), but you can still see the tops of buildings as we traveled farther out from the city. It’s not boring, though, because the train’s passengers concoct a story that’s different each day, and different in each train car. A family with three little girls boarded at our very first stop and the giggling little ones chose to sit next to me (despite the almost empty cabin). It was fun to smile and wave with them and see the city and its countryside light up through their eyes. I think they thought it was fun to see me react excitedly to mundane, everyday scenes in their world (like an ox being pulled on a rope next to the train tracks!).
At each stop, vendors were waiting on the train tracks and, before the train had even crawled to a stop, they’d board with their wares (cold drinks, hard boiled eggs, flowers and newspapers seemed to be the most popular items), then they’d jump off before the train started rolling again.
As we churned along, we passed farms of watercress plants, with people literally neck-deep in the water, farming. Monks waited to cross the train tracks, smoldering fires blazed outside of houses, goats chomped on weeds by the side of the tracks and women expertly balanced big bags of textiles, fruit, etc. on their heads.
A couple hours into the trip (and about an hour until our return to Yangon), we met a friend who was on his daily commute into the city to work security at a hotel (shout out to Nay!).
Nay works six shifts/week for about 8 – 8.5 hours and lives out of the city on the circle line with his uncle – his family lives in Mandalay. He was eager to practice his English with us and learn about our lives – who we were, where we came from, which cities we were visiting in Myanmar and where we’d go after Myanmar. Once we arrived at Yangon’s main station, he led us to one of his favorite lunch spots (the mall food court, no less) and helped us order lunch before heading off to work. Nay was a prime example of the friendliness and kindness that we encountered in all of the Burmese people, a refreshing change from traveling in places where the locals only want to talk to you to see how much money they can scam from you.
Because many travelers give Yangon a bit of the short stick and only linger for a few hours in the city, they miss out on the intricacies of local life in the big city– not catching the minutiae of a local’s 3 hour daily ride on the Circle Train. If you’re looking for a place to really brush shoulders with the local Burmese, take the time to travel on this Circle Train. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised, as we were, at the candid friendliness of the Burmese who sit next to you on your journey.
And now, here’s Jeffrey with the nerdy train stats:
Here’s the full route map:
Here are the stats:
Check out more photos of our ride on the Circle Train below: