Riding the rails in cities around the world can be extremely exciting. The train station, the ticket inspectors, the announcements at stations create microcosm of the world outside. There’s something about the hums of the wheels on tracks that brings rhythm and adds to the soundtrack of the traveller’s journey. The railways of Yangon are no different! In this city of 6 million, the urban pulse is accentuated by the passing of the locomotive on the Yangon Circle Line filled with commuters going about their daily activities.
The line was built by the British and opened in the mid-1950s, operating an almost 50km loop with a whopping 39 stations. It is reported that tens of thousands rely on the circular line to commute to work, do their shopping, get to school and sell their produce!
The excitement of riding the circular lines starts with the railway station! It was first built in 1877 by the British and was destroyed with the advance of the Japanese. The rebuilt station has elements of traditional Burmese architecture and has the unique tiered roofs (pyatthat). Arriving at the railway station will send you back to another time. The building is mighty, and one can just about glimpse its vitality in its glory days; walking through its gates the air is steeped in the nostalgia of a bygone era.
If the railway station feels like you’ve stepped into a time machine, then the trains themselves will actually transport you back in time! The Hungarian machines were imported in the 1960s and have dutifully performed their task, though without much comfort, of transporting the masses through the city of Yangon – an epitome of Myanmar – functional and practical.
Tickets for the train ride are sold directly on the platform – typically Platform 5 – at a little booth with a toothless smiling officer, who will wave you on your way in the general direction of the locomotive. Keep your ticket on you as the ticket inspectors will come through at a few stops for ticket inspections. Getting onboard you will find a true variety of people: Men in business suits, naked children, students mouthing words in English from their grammar books, and even a couple of officers in their military uniform. Circular fans pump air into the circular train coaches, breathing life into the stillness and muskiness of the compartments. The seats on the train are wooden benches painted green and if your trousers are especially silky, you’ll be readjusting your seating every few minutes; all part of the experience.
As the train moves out of the station there is a great sense of anticipation – a mix of the unknown coupled with the surety that at the end of three-and-a-half-hours, you will arrive back at the Yangon Central Railway Station – it is the circular line after all! The circular line starts in the wee hours of the morning and ends at 10.15pm, with some saying there is at least 150,000 tickets sold a day. It is one of the cheapest ways to travel in Yangon, making it very convenient for local people to get around the city.
As the train rolls out of the central railway station, the scenery slowly changes as the concrete buildings make way for the agriculture plains of paddy fields, streams and village huts. The movement of people on and off the train gives the visitor more than a glimpse of the lives of the
people of Yangon. It is an insight into their daily routine – from the mother herding her brood of school-going children on board with a skinny, but happy dog by her side, to the office worker lost in his thoughts with earphones and vacant eyes – it is a rare glimpse that is not easily found in any other city in Asia.
The train ride is akin to a moving picture show and you have front row tickets. The backdrop keeps changing while centre stage in your coach there are is a host of exciting happenings. Enter the travelling salesman! Fruits, drinks with plastic straws, and even pots of steaming broth is presented in an array of tableaus in baskets and trays, carried on heads, on arms and even on hips! The commerce trade is vibrant and unending – with a stream of orders and money being exchanged as the train slowly snakes its way station by station. Through this chaos children in school uniforms scurry to finish their homework as they bend over workbooks, babies cry and are shushed by tired mothers and groups of young people in smart skirts and jackets are on their phones going through the previous night’s Instagram feed. Truly a juxtaposition of old Yangon against an emergent capital city.
If you’d like to experience pagodas along the way, then these are some options: Stop at Myittar Nyunt Railway Station to visit Chauk Htat Kyi Pagoda and Ngar Htat Gyi Pagoda; Yaegu Station will get you to Kabar Aye Pagoda and Tadalay will get you close to the Tooth Relic Pagoda. Once you’re done with your visit you can get back on the train again. Just as you’re get used to the rhythm of the train ride a growing roar from the outside is bound to jolt you! The train tracks transform into a market with your fellow commuters hopping on and off to do their grocery shopping — bags of aubergines, carrots and green leafy vegetables, soybean and even pieces of fish and a host of other unique produce make their way up the train – as the circular train meanders into the next station. A rare sight indeed.
This train ride is bound to give any visitor to Yangon perspective. It will make you value the little things – a squealing child chasing a ball on a moving train to the tough old man sitting on the steps by the coach door smoking his cheroot. It’s full of colour, it brings width and depth and it’s real. An experience of a lifetime without a doubt.