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15 April 2014

O-shaped circular train ride in Yangon



Piles of market produce stacked up

There is something romantic and soothing about train travel. I associate it with time to reflect and take in life. The vibration and the noise puts me to sleep and calms me down. It also awakes feelings of melancholy and nostalgia, particularly if I am away.

Back home, I used to spend hours every day commuting to university or to work by train, the carriages overflowing with passengers eager to get to their destination, half asleep, dreaming about the coffee they would get near their offices, leaning on other passengers in an overcrowded train, hot in the winter with all the warm clothes on and the heating at full speed.

I used to take direct trains which did most of the trip to Barcelona in one go. I took a seat and watch the world literally go by through the window. The tunnels crossing the Garraf Natural Park with openings through which I could see the sea waves, the beaches, the towns and the continuous stream of buildings closer to the metropolis that Barcelona is. And every evening, I would repeat it back.

I have taken longer train trips too. The 24h Blue Train in South Africa from Joburg to Cape Town, the 8 day Maharaja's Express Luxury train which I wrote a review about here and I long to be able to jump on the Orient Express in any of its journeys and the Trans-Siberian.

When a friend told me about the circular train taking a loop around Yangon city in Myanmar I knew I had to try. He described it as a way to see the more rural part of the country without leaving the capital and he was pretty accurate. 

One of many stops

Yangon is still a very underdeveloped place by Western standards but when I first went there shortly after it opened up to tourists I remember thinking that it was much more advanced than I had thought given the embargo and the self-sufficiency of the place for most of the last decades.

Roads were in better state than many South-East Asian cities and definitively better than most of Africa which I had wrongly presumed Yangon would resemble. That is not to say the country is developed in any way but the infrastructure in the capital is much better than you would expect and that first impression started in the airport, a modern and just renovated building.

Shwedagon pagoda
That being said, most of the other indicators of development still lack behind. Street lights were nonexistent except for the main roads and the only way to find your bearings at night was to wait for a passing car with the flashlights on or to carry a torch. 

I went to Yangon for work a couple of times within the space of a month and took advantage of the business trip to stay over for the weekend. Yangon has a few touristic places including the large golden pagoda almost everyone has heard of after the country's opening but what fascinated me the most is the quiet flair and the air of calmness and old world charm it exudes. Because tourism is yet to take off the capital is largely made of locals going about their lives and you are likely going to meet very few other tourists. That is changing rapidly though.

Every type of item is being taken to the market, including balloons

I love wandering the bustling streets of emerging countries because I thoroughly enjoy being part of the noise, the dirty alleys, the hot steaming and smelly food stalls, the variety and madness of the street markets. I simply enjoy walking about, observing, watching and taking in the smells, sounds and colours. Yangon has a lot of those and very little structural buildings or eating places so it was a joy to my senses just to be there.

The circular train is just another expression of local life and an unparallelled insight into the lives of the local population. 

The journey is just that, a circle surrounding Yangon starting and ending in the same place in downtown and which is used by the farmers living in the outskirts of the city to bring their produce to town. It is an explosion of colour that I had never experienced before so close and so real.

The inside of the train is really basic with wooden benches lined up on either side, a no-doors hop-on/hop-off policy, no AC and extremely uncomfortable seating very hard to be on for 3h. And because you want to watch the landscape and the scenes of everyday life through the window you end up sitting sideways with your legs crossed, until the train is packed that is.


At every stop hordes of people and produce would try to board the train, others would try to jump off, bags of vegetables were shovelled through the windows, women with babies were crawling between the mountains of produce. 

Every time it felt like nothing more could fit in yet everyone and everything squeezed and some more managed to fit in. 

I first sat side ways watching the small villages go by through the glass-less window but as the train got more and more crowded that was increasingly difficult. 

From sitting facing the passengers in front of me I ended up squeezed by vegetables and people, trinkets of all sorts, plastic stuff, balloons...

And the train stops every few minutes and travels at a very slow pace making the 3h journey enough to take in a lot of the suburbs of Yangon.

People and stuff
Inside the train, no time was to be wasted. Market stall owners and vegetables growers were cleaning and sorting their stock on the train taking advantage of the 3h journey to get their produce ready for delivery to the final customer. Mountains of spring onion and leafy vegetables were being manually sorted, cleaned, cleared of dead leaves and packaged in small bundles with a rubber band. They would then be repackaged in the large plastic bags they came in. By the time the train arrived at its final destination it was all done.

You can buy food, drinks, tea and paan, a mixture of betel leaves and tobacco the local population is addicted to and which has very negative effects on health.

The entire show was an incredible spectacle of life, an example of what it must have been like in Medieval times when the farmers and peasants used to bring their produce to the walled cities in carts to be sold in the markets. All with the modern touch of a train line.

Man selling paan

The journey cost around USD1 for the 3 hours, a steep premium when compared to what the locals pay yet still an insignificant amount for such an incredible tour around the Burmese life.