Just over a year ago I flew into Yangon, Myanmar. With the Military Coup in Myanmar less than a month old, I feel it’s timely to write about my experiences on the Yangon Circle Line.
What is the Yangon Circle Line?
The Circle Line is exactly that, a circular train route that starts and ends at Yangon Station. A ride on the Circle Line provides the perfect introduction to the people and country and on my first day in Myanmar I took myself for a ride.
Walking to the closest station to my accommodation, I pass people setting up pavement food stalls. Workers sit on small stools eating breakfast before making their way to work. A man throws handfuls of seed to pigeons. Another stokes a pot of hot coals.
Buying a ticket
The sign on a simple concrete building blackened with age and grime reads Lanmadaw Station. I cross the road and approach the counter. The ticket conductor is asleep. He eases himself off the old wooden bench and ambles to the ticket window. My ticket written in the curly Burmese script costs the equivalent of 20c for the three-hour trip.
Men and women wearing the traditional longyi look down the tracks expectantly. When the train pulls up, people push and shove to step up through the open doors. Although there’s plenty of room, a woman makes space for me on one of the worn blue plastic benches lining the carriage.
Passengers make themselves comfortable. They remove their slip-on sandals to sit cross legged on the bench facing the open windows. The old train rattles as it rocks from side-to-side.
The Relaxing Rhythm of the Train
My body relaxes into the rhythm of the train as the scenery flashes by. Men sleep on a raised platform next to the tracks. At a railway crossing a man warns motorists and pedestrians of the approaching train with a green flag. The driver blasts the horn.
Another man sits on a thin foam mat between the tracks.The baby lying on its stomach beside him lifts its head to look at the passing train.
A billiard table stands under a makeshift shelter. Houses rest on rickety wooden stilts over stretches of water, their walls made from woven panels, pieces of metal and other found materials.
Passengers Load their Goods
The train stops. People crowd the door to load their goods. They pass baskets filled with terracotta pots and tall rolls of brightly coloured plastic floor mats into the carriage.
It’s a social affair. Everyone seems to know each other. They chat and laugh.
Women smudged thanaka carelessly onto their cheeks before setting out this morning. Others applied it more carefully in circles or patterns. The distinctive pale-yellow paste made from powder ground from a tree similar to a sandalwood tree and water is used for sun protection and as a moisturiser.
Selling Wares on the Yangon Circle Line
A man chewing betel nut sits cross-legged on the seat preparing betel nut chews. With rubber tips on his fingers, he dabs a white chalk (lime) onto betel leaves one by one, overlapping the leaves on the tray in front of him. He shakes a powder (cardamom or clove perhaps) over the leaves.
Picking up two leaves he adds an areca nut, folds the leaf and secretes the betel nut chew in his palm. Occasionally stopping to spit betel juice out the window, he continues folding the leaves until they are held in his palm with his baby finger. Then he repeats the process.
Vendors pass through the carriages selling their wares. A woman enters with a large aluminium tray balancing on a ring of cloth on her head. She has a little green plastic stool in her hand. At a gesture from a customer, she carefully places the stool on the ground. Keeping her back straight she slowly lowers herself onto the stool and places her tray on her lap.
Taking ingredients from various plastic bags on the tray, she prepares a meal which she serves on a little polystyrene tray with tiny chopsticks.
I’m peckish and keen to interact with the vendors, but I’m also cautious about eating street food. I watch and wait until a young boy with a basket of mandarins passes through. I buy a small bag of mandarins and then some peanuts still in their shell. They are warm.
At each stop more and more passengers get on. It’s heating up outside. The ceiling fans remain still. Perhaps they don’t work. Men give up their seats for women with kids. Vendors shout their wares. Groups of people chat.
Chatting to Locals
The woman next to me strikes up a conversation. She is researching tricycle riders for her Master’s degree and has good English. She’d like to work in human, child and woman’s rights.
An older man (he tells me he’s 75) wears a crisp white shirt and blue hat with a big rim. He tells me the prices of the mandarins and bottled water. He shows me some photos, but communication is difficult.
His cheeks filled with betel juice, a man balances two small tray-like tables carrying what looks like pots of yoghurt on either end of a long pole on his shoulders.
He carefully steps off the train and lowers the load onto the platform. He places his pith helmet on one tray and removes his shoes. Bowing to the first load he puts his palms together and prays. The train moves off.
A young woman of 28 tells me she worked in Singapore and is now studying Japanese as she wants to work in aged care in Japan “More money there”. Her boyfriend is in Singapore.
Everyone has a story.
Where are they now?
Three hours on the Yangon Circle line is a perfect introduction to Myanmar. With what’s happening in Myanmar right now, I fear for the people I met on the train and in my travels.