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A Three Hour Tour

the circular train of yangon

Story by Lee Cohen February 29th, 2016

A bit of housekeeping

These photos were taken during one trip on the 3-hour route of the Yangon Circular Railway. With five million inhabitants, Yangon is the largest city in Myanmar, though not the capital. Yangon used to be named Rangoon, and Myanmar used be named Burma. To make things more confusing, all four names are used interchangeably.

A man waits for the circular train  on platform 6 at the Yangon Central Railway Station

on transportation

The circular train of Yangon is the only “mass-transit” system available to the five million citizens who live in the city and its’ suburbs. This will be immediately evident to anyone trying to get anywhere inside the city, which is in a perpetual state of traffic. There are ebbs and flows to its’ severity, but the traffic is always there. And unlike other major cities in Southeast Asia, the motorists stuck in said traffic experience a mixture of outrage and disbelief on an almost minute-to-minute basis. “How can this be happening to me again?” they seem to be saying, pressing down on the horn for minutes at a time.

The circular train then is the ultimate reprieve. A trip above the traffic. Wide-open windows look out onto the passing scenery. A 35 cent $US ticket ensures that most people living in the area around Yangon have access to the train (according to Wikipedia around 150,000 people buy a ticket on this route per day). If cities are experiments in democracy, as the Athenians believed (city-states were called “polis”, which also referred to “citizenship”), then surely public transportation is its laboratory, where tests are conducted, people pushed together and forced to unite.

A city without public transportation cannot be democratic, and therefore, not a real city.

A woman watches the passing scenery

face painting and other fun activities

It’s easy to look at Burmese and immediately be drawn to the “paint” on their faces. (see? I warned you. We still use Burmese, even though the country is called Myanmar, because “Myanmarese” sounds ridiculous. This is how ethnic labels endure revolution and social upheaval—they sound better than the alternative [better to Western ears at least—within Myanmar using words like “Burma” and “Burmese” imply your support to the “Union Solidarity and Development Party” which ran against, and lost to, the National League for Democracy Party, famously led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The Union Solidarity party is basically the military, and despite only winning 10% of the votes in the unprecedented November 2015 elections, they’ve managed to retain control of several key Ministries including Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs, as well as a “guaranteed” 25% quota of all seats in the House of Representatives.])

Arriving in Myanmar, the face paint is generally the first thing people comment on. I immediately thought that the face paint held some traditional symbolic meaning, or perhaps was the domain of one particular ethnic minority that had been passed down from generation to generation. In reality, it’s an organic sunblock called Thanaka that pretty much everyone uses to keep from burning (or worse, tanning, as dark skin in Southeast Asia is associated with field work, something poor people do, and we can’t have that can we? It’s hard to avoid the persistent advertisements for skin whitening cream, including the now viral commercial with the slogan, “White Makes You Win”).

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The first 45

I confess to experiencing the travel-induced anxiety one gets when trying to see many sites over an extremely short period. The anxiety says to you, “this was a waste of time—you could have been doing something better.” The first forty-five minutes only strengthened the inner voice’s resolve, as rather dull scenery passed by, with only the occasional passenger getting on or off. The view out of the windows were of small rice field plots, shadowed by drab concrete buildings. While the ride itself was comfortable enough, the thought of continuing on for another two hours and fifteen minutes was not appealing.

The view for the first 45 minutes of the train ride

The invisible line

Based on an unscientific methodology, I think the line is at Okkyin, the 12th stop. Around Okkyin the quiet, unremarkable train transforms to a raucous party of market sellers, farmers, and kids returning to their villages from the big city. I’d been advised to get off at “insane” (actually Insein). It’s what the guidebooks say, and is supposed to be at the two hour mark in the circle. If you consult the map below you’ll agree that this seems to be physically impossible. It’s barely a third of the way into the trip. In any case, ignore this advice. Insein is just when things start to get interesting. Groups of women get off and on at each stop, hauling impossible loads of vegetables and rice on their backs. Everyone knows one another—they joke and and laugh and give all their ticket money to the youngest in the bunch who goes scurrying off to buy train tickets for everyone, reveling in the attention he’s getting.

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the real yangon

As the atmosphere inside the train changes, the scenery outside shifts dramatically. Almost all at once you’re confronted with wide open fields that stretch to the horizon, and it’s almost impossible to remember that a short time ago you were in a city choked with cars.

After enduring the initial train ride the landscape opens up dramatically
Ladies returning home after a morning spent at the market
Everyone on the route knows one another, and passengers joke and play to pass the time
A woman on her smart phone heading back to her village
A woman rests in the sun after a day at the market. She's responsible for loading, unloading, and transporting all of the bags behind her

Sam

For the final hour of the trip a boy saddled up next to me, introduced himself as Sam, and proceeded to be my traveling companion for the remainder of the journey. Sam is 12 and is in the 7th grade. Unlike most of the passengers, he was traveling into the city center, as his school was out in a rural area. This was all the information I was able to ascertain, and on several instances had to watch as he desperately searched for the English words he’d learned.

It was a fitting end to the trip—two travelers, unable to communicate through language, left instead to watch the passing scenery and occasionally smile in recognition of the companionship.

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Footnote: I learned later that there is an air-conditioned train. I advise against it. The windows are sealed, and the more expensive tickets ensure your traveling mates will look exactly like you.
Yangon Region, Myanmar (Burma)