What could possibly be interesting about a train going around a city? What looks like an ordinary local train in Yangon, Myanmar turned out to be the perfect way to learn about this Southeast Asian country and its culture. Here’s my experience of a train ride like no other.
I buy my train ticket from a small grim-looking old ticket booth. The ticket might as well cost nothing at all because I only pay a ridiculous amount of 200 Myanmar kyats. 200 kyats equals to about 20 cents. Twenty. Cents. For a three-hour train you can hop on and off. And that’s actually the high price for foreigners. Locals pay 100 kyats.
There are two directions of the circle train: clockwise and anti-clockwise. From the ticket seller’s gestures I understand that I am supposed to take the 11.20am anti-clockwise train from the opposite side of the tracks.
The adventure starts at the platform
I sit down on one of the benches on the platform while the locals look on curiously. After a few minutes, a lady comes to the platform. She feeds all the pigeons, then takes out some fresh flowers on strings from her bag and hands them to me and a few other women.
Unsure, I take them politely, wondering if I am supposed to pay for this but another lady just gives me an encouraging smile and points to the flowers in her hair. I follow her example and tie them around my ponytail. She approves. It is common for women in Myanmar to wear flowers in their hair.
I haven’t even stepped on the train yet and I am already getting a taste of the local experience!
The circular train soon arrives and I get on with the locals. There is a row of benches on each side, which reminds me of underground trains. People on the train are pointing out empty seats to the new passengers.
I think to myself how nice it is when people are helping each other out instead of racing for seats. The carriage is quite busy so I stand for a little while but someone soon gets up to get off at the next station. The locals are immediately showing me the newly vacant seats behind me, so I sit down.
Now that I am seated, I finally take a proper look around. There are locals of all ages, riding the train like they probably do every day. Some of them are giving me curious looks. I am the only foreigner in this carriage.
The circular train is not a sightseeing train – and I am sitting with my back to the window anyway; this is about life on the train.
And there is so much going on.
Life on the Yangon Circular Train
Vendors are bringing their goods on board to sell at the market later. I watch a guy purchasing a bubble blower for his kids from a seller next to him. Many food vendors are also walking through the train. They even sell and prepare betel on board – the popular addictive plant consumed (clearly) everywhere in Myanmar!
We stop at the main railway station slightly longer while many passengers get off and on. Some women walk through the train with baskets on their heads offering food to passengers, then exit the train just as it starts pulling away from the station. I see two foreign girls arriving on the platform a few seconds late. The train is going very slowly and they could have still easily jumped on if they wanted to. But they don’t so I remain the only foreigner on the train.
The train is slowly rocking back and forth, stopping at a station every few minutes. It moves so lazily that many people jump off before we even come to a complete stop. It is now raining a little and fresh air is coming from the open windows.
About half an hour into the train ride, an inspector walks through the carriage checking tickets in a very relaxed manner. So relaxed, in fact, that he skips me for some reason. Or maybe he has already seen my “foreigner” ticket in my hand, which looks different from the locals’ tickets.
A young guy next to me starts chatting to me, curious where I come from. The other locals on the train look curious, too, and watch our conversation, probably wondering what the two of us are saying in a different language.
Free Lunch from a Local Lady
The lady sitting next to me on the other side buys some quail eggs, peels one, then hands it to me. I eat it and suddenly she’s giving me a big handful of them. She even gets up, walks over to a nearby food vendor and comes back with a small plastic bag so I have somewhere to put the egg shells. I put aside my plastic bag aversion this time and politely eat my eggs. I am even given a wet wipe.
Food vendors keep walking back and forth, carrying baskets full of grapes, oranges, eggs and other food. Eventually, the lady next to me stops one woman with a tray on her head. She puts it down and starts mixing fried tofu, cabbage and various sauces in two plastic bags.
When she’s done, she puts two small wooden sticks inside each bag and gives it to my neighbour who pays a very small amount of money. I have a feeling she is not going to eat both portions… and sure enough, she hands one bag to me. She doesn’t speak a word of English, yet she has clearly made it her responsibility to make the foreigner feel welcome.
The food is very good. A little bit spicy but I eat it. I feel like I should give the lady next to me some money for the lunch but after three weeks in Myanmar I know she wouldn’t accept it. Still, the hospitality towards foreigners in this country keeps amazing me.
The act of kindness is only ruined when my neighbour throws her plastic bag with rubbish out of the window. Where else. When I look out later, I can see she’s not the only one doing that. ‘Next to the tracks’ seems to be the equivalent of a rubbish bin for passengers…
Before I even finish eating my food, the lady is already getting up and so is the guy on the other side. We are approaching the northern bus station and many people get off. The carriage goes quiet for a while.
So here I am, taking the local train around Yangon, fresh flowers in my hair, eating local food from a plastic bag. All I am missing right now is thanaka on my face, I think to myself with amusement.
The People and the Market Stop
I quietly observe the remaining people on the train. The boy with the Spiderman T-shirt standing on the bench so he can see outside. The lady snoozing across from me. The guy selling tea and saying hello to me.
The beggar shuffling through the carriage. The passengers killing time on their smartphones which strikes me as odd in contrast to the rusty interior of the train. Eventually, I spot two other tourists in the neighbouring carriage.
After a while, a sudden hustle can only mean one thing: We are approaching the famous Danyingon market station. And I mean, the train literally stops in the middle of a market. Most people exit the train into the madness outside – there is food and goods everywhere!
Even though I stay on board, I don’t know where to look first, trying to capture the crowds amongst piles of vegetables on my camera and waving back at the men in longyis (traditional Burmese wear) who have spotted the foreigner in the window.
After leaving the market, the rest of the journey is quite uneventful. Now even the train staff have time to have their lunch. I just lean out of the window, feel the breeze on my face and take in the countryside views, which are soon replaced by buildings as we head back towards the city centre.
Exactly three hours later I get off at the same station where I boarded the train. My destination may be the same as my place of departure but that doesn’t matter because this train ride was about the journey, not the destination.