Riding the Circular Train in Yangon, Myanmar

Riding the Circular Train in Yangon, Myanmar

Our guide, Mu Mu, wrinkled up her nose when she learned I planned to take the Circular Train in Yangon. “It is not very comfortable,” she said. “Hard to go to the bathroom and takes a long time.” It sounded perfect to me.

Later that morning, I traipsed through the mud to a dilapidated ticket window in a dingy train station where chickens roamed, only to discover I was on the wrong side of the tracks. By the time I had located the correct platform, the train whistle was blowing, so I hastily paid my 20 cents and ran for the carriages. With no pass-through available between cars, I checked for an available seat before climbing aboard. I finally found one in the fourth carriage and settled into the hard wooden bench just as we jolted out of the station.

Huge bags are loaded onto the Circular Train at Yangon Central Station

Huge bags are loaded onto the Circular Train at Yangon Central Station

Now it was my turn to wrinkle up my nose; the stench that permeated the car was equal parts stinky feet, stale urine, and sewage. The breeze through the open windows did nothing to reduce it, and I realized the smell emanated from the surrounding land, where squatters had constructed shacks of woven bamboo and corrugated tin sheets. Lacking sanitation facilities or city services, land along the tracks was serving as both toilet and dump. The poverty that unfolded as we rolled lazily along was pervasive but not startling. Myanmar emerged from an oppressive military dictatorship in 2010 and economic sanctions are still being imposed by some countries, including the United States. Though conditions are improving rapidly, the majority of the population still lives below the poverty level, earning on average only $100 to $300 per month.

At Danyingon Station, vendors heaped produce into every inch of available space in the aisle

At Danyingon Station, vendors heaped produce into every inch of available space in the aisle

Halfway into the trip, we pulled into Danyingon station. Unlike other sleepy stops in the countryside, this one was a beehive of activity. Even before the train stopped, men and women dressed in long tubes of patterned fabric known as longyis were hefting huge bundles of fresh produce into the car. Within moments, my feet were wedged between two huge parcels.

After loading produce onto the train, this young girl enjoys the scenery

After loading produce onto the train, this young girl enjoys the scenery

Father and daughter look out through the window of a carriage on the Circular Train in Yangon

Father and daughter look out through the window of a carriage on the Circular Train in Yangon

Smiling their toothy white smiles, the vendors piled bag upon bag, until I was sure the towers would topple. As we got underway again, they wedged into chinks of floor space or balanced precariously on top of the stacks, sticking their bare feet out of the carriage windows. Women with faces painted in Thnakha paste as protection from the sun teased the young men, who responded with raucous laughter as they peeled and rubber-banded bunches of broccoli, kailan, and Morning Glory.

Vendors used their time on the Circular Train to peel and band produce for sale

Vendors used their time on the Circular Train to peel and band produce for sale

We had left the city behind by that time. All manner of leafy green vegetables were being grown on patchwork plots separated by earthen mounds. In flooded paddies, women wearing conical straw hats stood waist deep in the water or squatted between the rows, pulling weeds. Though the population of the two largest cities, Yangon and Mandalay, have swelled in recent years, 70 percent of Myanmar’s 52 million citizens still live in countryside, where electricity and running water are luxuries and roads are little more than dirt tracks. Without the Circular Train, rural residents would have little access to medical services, store-bought goods, or markets where they sell their farm-grown products.

Typical rural scenery seen during the three-hour ride on the Circular Train in Yangon

Typical rural scenery seen during the three-hour ride on the Circular Train in Yangon

At the halfway point in its journey, the Circular Train rounded the northern edge of the airport and headed back toward Yangon through fields shimmering in the midday heat. Gradually, open land fell away and the city began to reappear. When we finally returned to Yangon Central Station, I climbed down gingerly from the carriage. On one hand, I was relieved to be done with the hard bench that had battered my back for 2.5 hour ride, and my nose was certainly happier. On the other hand, I’d do it all over again in an instant.

A hive of activity at one of the stops while riding the Circular Train in Yangon, Myanmar

A hive of activity at one of the stops while riding the Circular Train in Yangon, Myanmar

Disclosure: Viking River Cruises sponsored me on their Myanmar Explorer cruise/tour however the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items or services will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and the truth that Viking River does a fabulous job with their tour/cruises.

8 Comments on “Riding the Circular Train in Yangon, Myanmar

    • LOL – it was my first experience like this on a train as well.

  1. These experiences are so interesting. I love train travel, not just because it is a relaxing way to travel and a good way to see the scenery of a place, but because you get to have a truly local experience. This looks wonderful to me. I love how the train is full of vegetables and everything else that they locals want to load on. So very Asia 🙂

    • Hi David: It was just by accident that I ended up n the local carriage rather than the “ordinary” carriage, but those are the kid of mistakes/experiences that make for a lifetime of storytelling. And you so correct – it is SO Asia.

  2. Sounds like one of those experiences that gives you a unique glimpse into the heart of a community. Thanks for sharing!

    • It definitely did, Sarah. It was right at the beginning of my trip, so it set the tone for the entire experience.

    • Oh, DO take the train when you visit, Kristen. It was a wonderful adventure.

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