Riding the Yangon Circular Train in Myanmar – A Window into Rural Life by Railway
Myanmar’s former capital, Yangon, is full of things to see and do – from its impressive collection of colonial-era architecture to its sacred golden stupas. But the most interesting thing about the city isn’t its grand buildings or religious sites, you can try to experience the true essence of local life in Yangon by riding the Yangon Circular Train for three hours through the city’s rural landscape.
While the city is a fast-paced, chaotic city to get lost in, riding the Yangon Circular Train provides a window into the daily routine of the Myanmar people away from the commercial centre of the country.
YANGON CIRCULAR TRAIN HISTORY
The Yangon circle line train was built by the British during the colonial times and it was opened in 1954. The train operates on a 45.9 kilometers long loop and it stops at 39 stations. This means that the Yangon circular train stops almost every kilometer, making it very convenient for local people to get around the city.
This circular railway was built to connect the metropolitan area in Yangon and is used daily by tens of thousands of people. Although plans have been made to modernize the trains, they are still almost as old as the line itself.
Some of the trains were imported from Hungary in 1960s while the newer ones, imported from Japan, were introduced in 2007. However, even the Japanese ones were already old when they were brought to Myanmar.
NAVIGATING THE YANGON CIRCULAR RAILWAY
When you arrive at Yangon Train Station, train guards will immediately point you in the right direction of the tourist ticket booth as you pass through the aged platforms, rusting antiquated trains and families sleeping rough on any spare space available.
With handwritten train schedules, passenger lists listed in old paper books and a hand-scribbled map of the circle line train stations, sitting in the office is like stepping back in time as your vintage-looking ticket is neatly inscribed and you are walked across the tracks to the appropriate platform ready for the ride.
RIDING THE YANGON CIRCLE TRAIN – WHAT TO EXPECT
The minty green train carriage rocks and rumbles as you slowly make your way through 45.9 kilometres of the track via 39 stations which form a loop around Yangon city. Stopping at each and every station for only a minute or two, people clamber on to the circle train with only seconds to spare, lugging on more belongings than you can squeeze into an average-sized car boot. The train returns back to Yangon’s city station before making the same journey over and over again throughout the day, until the early afternoon.
The more stations you pass, the more the landscape changes from city concrete to paddy fields and rustic villages, and the more passengers the train picks up. This is, after all, one of the main and cheapest forms of transportation for the populace.
Local ladies sit peacefully with their plastic baskets (one of whom gave me a lollypop in the same manner in which your grandma would kindly give you a sweet to appease you on a long train journey), monks peacefully stare out the window, eager food and drink vendors wander the carriage trying to rapidly quench the hunger and thirst of every passenger and many people are quick to sit next to you just to strike up a conversation. You will be possibly the only or one of the few foreigners they have ever had contact with.
Later on, as you make the approach to the market towns, locals may jump on with a bundle of 20 live chickens, tied up and ready for sale, tucked neatly under the seat for safekeeping until they arrive at their destination of slaughter. Huge white sacks full of fresh food products are heaped amongst the people like a vegetable garden, while the train guard sits idly watching the commotion in his reserved spot at the back.
Your senses are on overload in the carriage, while your eyes also want to divert to the tranquil countryside outside of it. You relax for a few moments in the calm that sometimes passes through the carriage yet you watch eagerly for the next commotion to unfold.
Before you know it, the train pulls into its next stop and the theatre stage your carriage has become in swapped for a new scene, as a whole new set of mysterious baggage and new characters enter for the next leg of the journey.
The three-hour journey on the Yangon Circular Railway was maybe a little too long, especially as you are sitting on a hard seat, and the final hour can seem painfully slow. Yangon time is a long time.
However, the journey on the Circle Line of Yangon is itself unique, not only because you get to interact with the locals and witness their daily routine, but because this really is an intrepid adventure in the big city, and the best value you’ll get from just one dollar in the city.
THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE YANGON CIRCULAR TRAIN
- The Yangon Circular Train departs daily from Yangon Central Railway Station from 8:30 am and departs every 45 minutes to an hour, from platforms 6 and 7. Passports are required in order to purchase your ticket.
- The price for a single journey loop ticket on the Yangon Circle Train is around 200 – 500 Kyat (20 to 60 US cents).
- Plan the train journey as a day trip from Yangon, given that you need time to get to and from the station, take on the three-hour journey and have time to spare for any delays. The Myanmar railway is an old institution and far beyond the romantic images of the Orient Express.
- If you don’t want to ride the full loop of the circular train route you can still ride the train five or 10 stations and get a taster of the experience. Simply jump off at your chosen station, cross to the other side of the platform in the direction of Yangon and head straight back.
- When is the best time to take the circle line? It’s best to head out in the morning around 10 am (as it can be crowded in the early morning with locals commuting to work), and noon to early afternoon to avoid the late afternoon rains that occur often in Yangon.
- Support locals and purchase snacks, fruits and other treats throughout the journey. Bottled water is also available. In short, you don’t really need to bring anything with you.