Even though it gets quite bumpy, and the carriage rattles as the train trudges along its well-used tracks, I wouldn't call it so much of a ride. It was to me, rather, a journey; a journey of rediscovering the kindness of strangers, one that transcends language barriers - and often, beginning and ending with a smile - the simplest yet most significant gift a human being can give to another.
The Yangon Circular Railway, as its name suggests, runs on a circular route through central Yangon and the surrounding suburban towns, taking between 3 to 4 hours (depending on its irregular pauses) to complete the 45.9km journey. Note that the train runs several times a day, in both East (Anti-clockwise) and West (Clockwise) directions. At the time of this entry, the train runs approximately every 45 minutes, alternating between East and West directions.
Yangon Central Railway Station
It would be useful to take a photo of the route map so you will have an idea of the train's current status during the journey. A photo of the timetable would be helpful if you intend to drop off along the route and rejoin a later train.
I started my journey at Yangon Central Railway Station Platform 7, where I bought my ticket (just 200 kyats) at the ticketing booth at the platform. The ticketing staff instructed me to wait near his booth so he could direct me (and a sprinkling of other adventurous tourists) to the right train. It was very nice of him.
The train (I took the one departing at 10.10am) was on time, and as we left the station, the journey of rediscovering humanity began.
It was an interesting experience from the start, with hawkers moving between carriages to peddle anything from betel nuts to cooked food to fresh produce. Along its route, the train passes through a diversity of landscapes, from forested areas to fields, zinc and wooden homes to high-rise apartments. As it is one of the cheapest form of transport in Yangon, the train is an important transport mode for people to transport their goods and wares. You can get a deep slice of the daily life in Yangon on this journey.
One of my first observations was how considerate the commuters were: when lounging on the benches, all footwear were left on the floor - something you don't quite see on the urban subways of the world's metropolises.
As I have learnt, a smile goes on a long way on this journey. Smiling to strangers on the platforms from the train's window was almost always acknowledged and returned in kind - no one would think you are a creep, quite unlike on the subway systems of mega-cities where no one notices the existence of the other anyway; on this train, it was a sincere greeting that was appreciated. It heartened me that such a simple thing such as a smile to a stranger, could bring about strong emotions: in acknowledging the existence of the other, with the full knowing that you may not see each other again.
Kindness certainly manifested itself on this noisy and rattling vehicle. Strangers would help one another to quickly offload their goods before the train leaves the platform (like time, the train waits for no man!). The one incident etched in my memory was the young mother who enlisted a help of a male stranger to hold her young child as she hurriedly offloaded her plastic bags (far too many of them) of fresh produce from the train. Another stranger jumped to assist her and they managed to offload everything. Just as the train moved off, the temporary nanny passed her young child to her from the train window!
In my own encounter with kindness, a betel nut seller showed me how he wrap up the betel leaves for sale, and in our brief conversation, he learnt that I would like to go to Danyingon Market. As he was alighting earlier, he helpfully sought the help of another commuter to let me know when I should alight. The betel nut seller bided me farewell, and left me in the kind hands of the other stranger - who, though he didn't speak English, definitely took that responsibility seriously, updating me constantly of the remaining number of stations until my stop, then guided me off the train as the train arrived at my desired stop. Even though I had the photo of the route map on my phone, I was truly appreciative of the helpfulness of the two strangers in ensuring that I alight at the right station - this was very important considering that the next train in the same direction would come 1.5 hours later!
I took a breather about mid-way on the route, at Danyingon Station, just as my butt was feeling the ache of sitting on the wooden benches, and to stretch my legs. Right next to Danyingon Station is a fresh product market, which is a great place to mingle with the locals and observe their way of life (it can get muddy here though - so you may want to avoid long pants or jeans, and nice shoes, if you intend to alight to explore this market).
A video of the market experience can be seen here:
After an immersive cultural experience at the Danyingon Market, I hopped back on the train 1.5 hours later (which arrived on time), not after meeting even more kind people, including a young man who borrow an umbrella to shelter me from the rain until the train arrived. At Danyingon Station, you will see people frantically uploading their goods on the train before it leaves. The chaos in people getting off the train and others scrambling to get on is the only somewhat unpleasant experience of this remarkable journey.
Everyone soon settled down, and tickets were checked by the train conductors. I observed a young boy who came up with a huge sack of green vegetables, whom he slowly separated into neat bundles and tying each bundle with a plant's vine. His productivity paid off when he managed to complete separating the huge sack before reaching his stop. I spotted him passing the bundled vegetables to a lady waiting at the platform (probably his boss or a buyer). Perhaps, in alighting the train, it was the end of a productive work day for him.
The rest of the ride were filled with other interesting characters, more acts of kindness, and the warmth in the smiles of the local people. I got caught up in an almost one hour delay at the last station before my arrival stop, but I just waited patiently and peacefully, chatting briefly with my seat neighbor, a monk, and watched the world go by, knowing that I would reach my destination eventually.
I paid 200 kyats for a ticket onboard this 3-4 hour journey but when I disembarked, I left richer with life experience, a regained faith in humanity, and a treasure trove of joyful memories.
Some tips before you go:
Keep a picture of the train's route map and timetable with you for your reference during the journey
Relieve yourself before you go - there are no toilets on the train
Take some water or snacks along to enjoy during the journey
Don't wear long pants/jeans or nice shoes if you intend to explore Danyingon Market
Keep your ticket with you for checks during the journey
If you are unsure, seek help from the helpful locals: you will surely meet someone who speaks at least a bit of English
Smiles are universal, and rewarding
Know that the train will take 3 to 4 hours to complete the entire route: be patient, and immerse yourself in the relaxed pace of life on this journey
Be open-minded and you will surely create your own unique and lasting memories of this train journey
For the video experience of my Yangon Circular Railway Journey, please see below: