Spending three hours sat on a hard wooden bench inside a hot, dusty train carriage isn’t most peoples’ idea of a fun day out. In fact, its usually something that most people, myself included, would actively avoid. And yet there I was, willingly sat inside that hot, dusty train carriage on Yangon’s Circle Line, and it was one of the best experiences of my entire time in Myanmar.
It seems an odd thing to consider as a highlight of my trip doesn’t it? A circular ride on a train around a city. If someone told me to jump on London’s Circle Line and ride around on that just for fun I’d tell them where to go.
But this journey was different. This short train ride gave me more of an insight into the daily life and culture of locals than anything else I did or saw in Myanmar. Being a solo traveller and the only tourist in the carriage certainly helped – it meant that the locals were quite happy to come up and talk to me. People were curious, watching me and smiling and waving across the carriage, asking me in broken English about my life in the UK and telling me about their life in Myanmar.
The Circle Line in Yangon
The Circle Line lives up to its name – a commuter train that takes a circular route around the suburbs of Yangon. It takes about 3 hours to travel the entire 30 mile route, on the way passing through countryside, small rural villages and bustling market towns. And for the bargain price of $1, tourists can hop on and ride the whole route.
Arriving at the train station earlier that day I had been completely overwhelmed – I find foreign train stations challenging at the best of times (the memory of Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station still gives me nightmares) but Yangon station was even more difficult to navigate than most. There were people darting around in all directions and no easily visible signs to give me even the slightest inkling as to which platform I needed to be on or where to buy tickets from.
My confusion clearly showed because as I stood there looking around anxiously I was approached by a concerned looking Burmese man asking if I was trying to find the Circle Line train. “Quick, quick, its about to leave” he shouted as he frantically pushed me across the platform, guiding me through the crowds of people pouring out of the trains. A minute later I was stumbling through the doors into a small carriage with hard benches lining the walls. I thanked the man who had helped me, picked a space and settled in ready for the journey.
The train started to move at a snails pace, bumping out of the station on rickety train tracks. If I thought it would speed up I was mistaken – it continued its slow crawl for the entire duration. But that gave me the opportunity to watch what was going on outside.
We travelled through small villages where people would climb on board holding what appeared to be their entire wordly belongings and market towns where people clambered on with anything from bags full of vegetables to piles of live chickens tied at the feet. It was a different side of Yangon to the one I had already seen and a relief to be away from the chaos of the city, moving through places where life moved at a much less frenzied pace.
Outside we were travelling past small villages and peaceful countryside. But inside the carriage was complete sensory overload. The heat was stifling, people were chattering all around and street vendors were pacing up and down the carriage trying to shout over the noise. The various smells of produce, meat and street snacks were mingling in the air. And people were staring at me. At any point on the entire journey there would be at least half the carriage looking my way, curious about where I was from and why I was there and, probably, why I was travelling alone.
Speaking to Locals
I’d been sat there for about 15 minutes before the first local approached me. A well-dressed man who spoke excellent English and had spent time living and working in both Bangkok and the UK. We spent the time discussing his job as a historian, his life in Myanmar and reminiscing about life in the UK.
When it was his time to jump off I was left sat next to the man who had been sat on the other side of him and had been eyeing me warily for the entire duration of the journey. From the way he had been looking at me I had thought he was suspicious of me and not keen on me even being there. But that wasn’t the case at all. A few moments later he started gesturing out of the window, pointing at sights he thought that I should take photos of. He pointed out temples, schools, cafes and other interesting little pockets of daily life going on all around us. He could speak no English and my Burmese was pretty much restricted to “Mingalar Ba” (meaning Hello in Burmese) but we sat there quite happily for a good 15 minutes, communicating through hand gestures and smiles.
After that I sat a while watching people and villages speeding past. The train would be quiet one minute and then utter chaos the next. I was often struck by the poverty outside the window. Although, poverty is evident in parts of the city itself, out in the suburbs it was on a completely different level with entire communities of people sleeping under simple tarpaulins strung between trees. It was a stark reminder of how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to travel so extensively.
A bit further along the track we stopped at a busy market town and within seconds the carriage was full. People were piling in through the doors with sacks full of vegetables and plants. A group of women squeezed themselves into the spaces all around me, making themselves comfortable before pulling out huge bundles of some type of green plant. I watched fascinated as they sat pulling leaves (or were they thorns? I can’t quite remember) from the stems of the plants before tying them together in a small bundle and placing them into another sack on the floor beside them.
The man opposite me was able to speak a bit of English and explained that they were preparing the plants for resale. Sensing my curiosity, the woman sat next to me handed me a bunch, putting it underneath my nose for me to smell. I still have no idea what that plant was but it certainly must be popular over there because there were crowds of people around me all going through the same exercise.
Whilst all of this was going on around us, there was one woman sat on the opposite side of the train a little way down the carriage. She sat there quietly and gracefully, in a beautiful dress, every now and then glancing over and watching me with curiosity. This went on for a good 30 minutes until it was her time to leave. She stood up, looked over one final time and unexpectedly flashed me the biggest smile ever and waved goodbye. You would have been forgiven for thinking we were old friends. And that is why I love Myanmar.
I have no doubt that my experience on the Circle Line would have been very different had I not been alone. In fact, at one point towards the end of the journey I saw a group of Western tourists pacing up and down the carriage with huge cameras, taking photos of anything and everything but not stopping for even a moment to take in what was happening around them. One woman stuck her huge camera into the face of one of the locals who was sat there minding her own business. I cringed when I saw that, taken aback by her rudeness and the fact that she had not even requested permission to take such an intrusive picture.
Being the only foreigner in the whole carriage for the vast majority of the journey had meant that people felt comfortable approaching me. The locals in Myanmar are very interested in tourists – genuinely curious about where they are from and what made them want to visit their country. The friendliness of the Burmese is the thing that stuck with me most when I left the country and the memory of that train journey and the people I met still sticks with me even now.
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