After almost a year living in Yangon and having ticked off most things there are to see and do, I’d resisted the temptation of the Yangon Circular Line until a few weeks ago. Seven years ago I had taken the train from Yangon to Mandalay on a ‘reclining seat’ where all foreigners were consigned to the one carriage. What I remember most was the ‘bounce’ of the train, a kind of bobbing on the sea as opposed to a swaying motion, that and the fact that the reclining seat couldn’t be adjusted upright and so the lush countryside rolled by at a slovenly laid back angle and pace.
While you can take the Circular train from any one of 39 stations, I decided to start at Yangon Central Station and in the interests of completion, finish there also. Trains run from 3.45 a m to 10.15 p m daily and I went for the more leisurely 10.30 a m on a Saturday morning which departs from platform 7. You can buy a ticket on the platform (you don’t need to queue at the booths on the outside of the station) and foreigners are ushered inside a ticket office for a ticket the size of an old cheque.
A sign proclaims that from April 1 2014, foreigners no longer have to pay in US dollars or have passport identification and the fare is now kyat 200 for a foreigner as opposed to the ‘local fare’, which I believe is between K100 and K200, depending on how far you are going.
It represents good value if you’re not in a hurry and have three hours to spare to complete the journey. The length of the line is just shy of 46 kilometres and connects with 39 train stations, many of which don’t appear on most city maps. By my reckoning the train travels at approximately 16 km per hour. Between 100,000 and 150,000 tickets are sold daily. To avoid rush hour it’s probably best to avoid early morning and late afternoons, late morning (although stiflingly hot) and weekends are probably best.
As soon as I paid for my ticket I was gestured to the train that took off almost immediately and there was that gentle ‘bounce’ again and a swaying this time and the age-old clickity-clack sound always associated with trains and yet rarely heard anymore.
In my carriage there were two long plastic seats on either side and everyone was sitting on these with shoes off, backs turned in and looking out of the open windows. Not the most comfortable way to travel but I stuck with this for most of the journey only realising later that these carriages were best for filling with produce and cargo.
The train moves at a leisurely but determined pace and stops at stations are brief. It quickly became like a moving bazaar with hawkers selling everything from quail eggs, avocado and pickle, breads that appear like Spanish churros, betel nut, newspapers and of course the inevitable sanguine betel spit splatters. At Shan Road Station a blind troubadour with a guitar gets on and sings. A man moves from across the carriage to sit next to me while holding a personal loudspeaker attached to his phone and on at full blast. On my other side, an elderly lady hocks vigorously out the window and I’m glad for once, that there isn’t a breeze. Certain concessions are made to modernism and a digital display is sighted at Thamine Station, which appears to have once been a large railway junction. Just after Gyogone Station, tracks branch off ominously to huge gates and a vast compound; immediately inside the gates are empty sentry boxes on stilts. But as the train draws alongside, I realised that this is one of the largest yards of rolling stock I’ve ever seen and most of it appears to be steam locomotives. What I would give to see the inside of this cemetery of steam engines. As the train moved away, too soon to grab my camera, I saw the legend, ‘Carlisle, England’ painted on the side of one engine.
Danyingon Station appears as one large vegetable and fruit market with buying and selling taking place all over the platform, it’s colourful and vibrant. At this stop, my rearranged and plucked them until they appeared like fresh bundles again. Further on, a dousing of water came in through the open window and I just managed to see the culprit who clearly has premature water festival issues to deal with. The passengers almost empty carriage filled with produce, fertiliser bags, orange crates and baskets, n the train, many of whom were drenched, were good-humoured about it. Watching this unfold and with people sitting on produce and counting money etc. you realise that what happens inside a train is just as interesting as what passes by outside.
This train journey offers both, alongside brief glimpses of Yangon city, suburban and almost rural life.
Soon after the fruit market we’re virtually in the countryside or market garden terrain and clearly the market at Danyingon is the interface between the city and the countryside. I saw rice paddies and solitary egrets and moorhens and then realised we were skirting the fringes of the airport and crossing an actual flight path as one very low flying plane flew over the train to land much to the amazement of two young boys on the train.
At Pa Ywet Sate Kone station I’m deciding whether to take a discreet photo of a novice monk on the platform when the conductor gestures to me. I imagine it’s to tell me to stop photographing but soon realise he’s telling me to move into the next carriage. Why? Because it’s almost empty and more comfortable with upright seats. I literally have to crowd surf my way out of my carriage over bags of produce with lots of helping hands, it takes a further two stops to actually get off as between carriages and to the ceilings are boxes and bags of vegetables. When I finally got to the more comfortable carriage with ceiling fans I notice other foreigners who have cannily chosen this carriage from the outset.
I sit back for the remainder of the journey and the home straight. You get a sense you are approaching downtown by witnessing depressing amounts of rubbish strewn alongside the tracks and could be forgiven for thinking that the train has been routed through a municipal dump? It’s the only downside of the journey. If the train is to be upgraded which a Japanese company is proposing I hope the surrounds and the stations will also be. The upgrade will shorten the journey from just under there hours to 30 minutes.
But for now the leisurely pace is to be enjoyed, that and the friendly encounters with locals who use the train and for whom it is a lifeline and simply for the split-second glimpses of Yangon life it offers.
Soon after I saw the last batch of washed clothes drying on the tracks, held down by stones and being baked dry, the train chugged into Yangon Central Station. It was on time, just shy of three hours and in time for lunch. I felt like I was stepping off the Trans-Siberian for all I’d seen in three hours.