The Circle Line train circumnavigates Yangon. We caught the train at the main Yangon station, off Pansodan Road, which was built by the British in the 1920s. It might be run down these days but it still has some beautiful Art Deco features.
The train is old, the fare is cheap (from a tourist’s point of view) and the route is a regular commute for many of the city’s residents. According to Wikipedia between 100,000 and 150,000 fares are purchased daily, although you wouldn’t have known that the day we travelled on the line. We took the train on a Saturday which meant it was almost empty.
For tourists it’s a great way to get the lie of the land as well as a glimpse into the day to day lives of the locals.
If you’ve read my previous posts about Yangon, you’ll have gathered by now that the standard of living in the city, and in Myanmar in general, is low. Some say the GDP is the lowest of all the ASEAN countries and amongst the lowest in the world. And there’s plenty of evidence to support that on this train trip.
I can’t pretend it’s a comfortable ride. Although we had padded seats (you can’t always count on those) we bumped and shook our way along the track. In fact, the maitre’d at our hotel said that, due to the narrow gauge of the tracks, riding on trains in Myanmar is like riding an elephant. (If you’ve ever ridden an elephant you’ll know there’s a lot of side ways lurching involved.) And, he added, laughing, when it’s not, then it’s like being on top of a cantering horse. His description was spot on. I can tell you whenever I tried to walk along the aisle my gait was akin to a drunken stagger. The local women, however, seemed to glide like ice skaters on the smoothest of rinks, often with a child balanced on their hip.
Our carriage was air conditioned. Naturally enough it was set to a temperature comfortable for the residents, not for travellers who haven’t acclimatised. What’s more, it seemed to produce cold air only when the train was stopped at a station, which was never for very long.
All this said, these are minor inconveniences worth tolerating for the pleasure of seeing the outskirts of the city and the chance to chat, even if in a limited fashion, with locals well away from the usual tourist haunts.
Foreigners are still a novelty in this part of town. We stood out even more than usual. Children in our carriage stared at us in that forthright way kids have.
Mothers showed me their babies, older women looked out for me; one bringing me my bag when I left it behind and another alerting me to my dropped phone. Many made sure to say goodbye when the train reached their station.
On the edge of the city, near the track, the houses are very simple, the struggle of living on a dollar or two a day was very apparent. When we passed through farmland I saw oxen pulling carts and people working the fields usually without the assistance of machinery.
At each of the stations children, who were helping their mothers at food stalls, waved at us. Vendors called out their wares, and people clambered on with goods they were taking to the city.
There were only two hawkers on the train that day. A young boy selling quail eggs, and another selling ice blocks. They each came down the aisle yelling their wares at the top of their voices. The eggs sold quickly enough. I thought the boy selling ice-blocks was having much harder time of it—no-one was buying from him. But near the end of the trip he plonked himself down opposite me, tipped out his money, tallied it up, then counted his unsold ice-blocks and with a jaunty air set off to another carriage, clearly happy with his takings so far.
Getting to the train station: we took a taxi to the central station. It cost us 2500k. (approx $US2:00)
Train fare: 1000k. Buy your ticket on the platform. And BTW, you’ll be asked to show your passport.
Time: allow three hours for the round trip.
1) The platforms at the train station aren’t clearly labelled, at least not in a way I could recognise. But just ask anyone and they’ll happily show you where to go.
2) Air conditioned carriage or not, it gets very hot so take plenty of water.