On the three-hour circular railway, a slow ride though the outskirts of Yangon is a way to see a cross-section of the daily routine of the poor away from the bustle of Myanmar’s largest city.
Located at the central of Yangon, or Rangoon as it was once called, the local commuter rail network, built more than 60 years ago during the British colonial period, takes about three hours to complete on a 46 km loop and connects satellite towns and rural suburbs to the bustling city center. Each of the 38 stops provides, quite literally, a different view into the Yangon’s daily routine.
Nearly 100,000 people, mainly the lower-income commuters, vendors and farmers, use this transport every day. They traverse the city center to earn their living, then head home in the afternoon. At just 200 kyats (15 cents) for the entire circuit, the train is affordable even for the poorest. Perhaps this is the cheapest train over the world.
From the Central Station – the country’s largest train station, the old-fashioned green train carriage slowly rocks and rumbles out of the city. The train, as old as the line itself, hobbles along at a speed that seem a little more than jogging, stopping at every station for couples of minutes. Passengers, usually vendors, farmer, students and monks, hop on and off the train even it’s still running. After 15-minute riding, the city landscape leaves behind, give way to the fast developing suburbs and shanty towns.
On board, some try to find a spare seat on the benches of the cabin located right next to open windows – the only natural air-conditioning in the heat of Yangon. On the benches, some take a quick nap while other perching, crouching and lying down. Local boys go along the coaches, sell seasonal fruits and snacks like boiled peanuts, quail eggs to the hungry and thirsty passengers. Monks in saffron-hued robes wait silently for their stop whilst young buddies sit at the entrance door looking outside and whispering. Some women seem to think about something very far away, while others are gossiping. You can also witness Burmese, men, women or children, practice a traditional habit: betel-nut chewing (small parcels known as ‘quids’, wraps of the areca nut coated with slaked lime and often tobacco, inside a betel leaf). Don’t be too surprised when locals jump on with bundle of live chickens or ducks, tied up and ready for sale, or huge sacks full of fresh products.
As the train arrives at the northern part of Yangon, past paddy fields, a golf course and palm huts where some of the Yangon’s poorest live. The more station you pass, the more you see, and the more landscape changes, from concrete roads to paddy fields, into the rural villages and farmlands.
Markets by the tracks are common in Myanmar. At the Danyingon Station, an open-air market often opens in the afternoon where villagers from nearby areas sell fresh potatoes, mangoes, chilies, fish, meat and other kinds of produce for a reasonably price. More down along Yangon’s western side, the train pass at Insein Station, perhaps the most well-known stop on the loop, once a military regime prison of the same name, where dissidents were locked up after the so-called Saffron Revolution in 2007.
Three hours on the train maybe long, especially in the heat of Myanmar with no AC, you have to sit on hard seat. You might be the only or few foreigners on the train. You might get curious looks on gentle faces of strangers. That will be okay. Just smile and say Mingalabar, many people are quick to sit next to you just to strike up a short conversation, or you immediately receive warming friendly smiles and hands wave goodbyes before they hop off the carriage.
It’s a worthwhile experience not only because you get the real interaction with the locals and witness their daily routine, which only cost you less than one dollar, but also make you feel like a step back in time. The railway, with about 200 coaches and 20 daily runs, have remained almost unchanged for decades. It can be said that to ride the “charmingly old lady” is to ride through history.
Modernization is on the way. A major upgrade for the Circular Train Line has been implementing since 2012 in the hope of replacing all of the existing trains and engines by 2020 along with the automation of the aging tracks, as well as the manual, push-button signaling systems. The time completing the circuit will be reduced to less than two hours. For most commuters, upgrading the system is the best solution. But that might put an end to the old aged charm of the Circular Line. For those who are looking for a slice of a bygone era in Yangon, go for it now. Or never!
Personal tips: You have to go to the platform 7 in the Yangon Central Station to catch the Circular Train. Remember to ask the ticket seller carefully to avoid buy the wrong ticket of other routes.
By Vivian – For the Myanmar I love