The Circle Train

In the 1950’s the British colonists built a 50km double railway line around Yangon, and it still serves  100-150,000 commuters daily.  With 39 stops it takes about 3 hours to complete the loop.  For a tourist or outsider it’s not about commuting but provides a wonderful alternative view of the city and it’s people.

We boarded at Parami Station, just over a kilometre from my home at the time.  It wasn’t too hard to find but oddly, considering it is a commuter train, it was hidden down a quite street away from the hustle and bustle of the busy Parami Road.  It’s about 20cents (US) for a local fare and a heady $1 for tourists.  Thankfully we had single dollars as getting change would have been a nightmare.

Even though there are 20 trains a day there’s a relatively long period between trains, so we were quite thankful we’d checked the time-table before leaving, as it was sunny and hot on the scant platform.   You could hear the train’s horn and rumbling of the engine before you could see it.  Climbing on board, it barely stopped to let everyone off and on, lurching forward the seemingly original rolling stock groaned under the strain of the engine pulling it along the infinite loop around the city.

We sat and watched men, women, and children get off and on.  Vendors peddling their wares, food, and any thing they thought there was a market for, which seemed to be anything really.  You could watch vendors prepare a meal in front of you or cut fruit. One thing that struck me was how quiet it was.  Few people spoke with each other, and many just stared out of the window, watching the world go by with blank stares.  Monks sat stoically, children sat with parents with little complaint, young people chatted excitedly at times and left a few stops later.  One woman pulled out an iPad, much to my amusement and what appeared to be consternation from neighbours.  It was an incongruous display of wealth (although my camera was certainly that, but I guess it was to be expected from the European).

The city rolled by for much of the trip, rivers chocked with garbage, and the stench of rotting waste briefly filled the carriage.  The tall concrete buildings that were once white, have long green weathered streaks of algae growing down them and they crumble from decades of neglect and monsoon rains.  The city gives way to green fields for a time and this may not be so for much longer given then high demand for accommodation as Myanmar races out of it’s hermit existence and controlling government.

Coming full circle, I couldn’t help but be struck at how forlorn many people appeared to be.  Even still, there were numerous moments of smiles and content.  Even though I hadn’t moved from my seat (except to stand in the doorway for a few minutes) the journey was just the right length to feel like I’d immersed myself in a side of life in Yangon that one would otherwise never have set time aside to see.  The train being a far more pleasant and relaxed spacious version of this than the bus and would thoroughly recommend it whilst in Yangon.

There are a few more images of the journey here.

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