I’ve taken the Yangon circular train almost a dozen times and I can’t get enough of it. Such is the dynamism and purity of the best way to know what was the capital of Myanmar until the Burmese military junta, advised by astrologers, decided to take such an honor to the central, and deserted, Naipyidó.
No matter which city appears on political maps as the capital of the country, Yangon remains the engine of Burma’s economy and urban life.
A colonial and Burmese station
Yangon Central Railway Station is the largest and most important in the country, being the main gateway to the more than 5,000 kilometers of tracks that branch out throughout the territory.
Built by the English in colonial style in 1877, it was destroyed by them in 1943, when the bloody events of World War II forced them to prevent it from falling into the hands of Japanese troops.
Its reconstruction, in clear Burmese estino, would be completed in 1954, being declared as one of the points of major interest of the city in 1996.
Today, the Burmese government is working with a Japanese company to modernize the country’s railroad, which is why the stop of the circular train route is under construction. Changes for the better. Or not.
The circular train: a train of life
Yangon is considered by tourists as a city of passage. Most international flights, whether they come from Europe or Asia, usually land here and in the face of humidity and chaos, the majority choice is to flee as quickly as possible.
However, for those who have some patience and know how to look beyond, Yangon is a fascinating city.
In addition to Myanmar’s most spectacular and sacred pagoda (and one of the most renowned in Southeast Asia), Shwedagon, there are sunsets on Lake Inya, the immense park of Kandawgyi, the colourful Chinatown, the colonial buildings of Pasondan or the magnificent, colonial Strand hotel. Just to name a few things. There are also options for nightlife and a hard-to-equalize street environment.
But undoubtedly the best way to soak up Yangon’s true life is to take its circular train.
The best time to take it is early in the morning, when Burmese are moving to their jobs, universities, schools, markets, etc. It is not a tourist train and, in fact, you will see very few Westerners on it (especially during the low season, which coincides with our summer).
The old blue train starts at about 8 am and I’m getting on it by the hair. Sometimes there is a kind of beep that warns of its departure, but in the rest of stations that mark the almost 3 hours of travel will not make any sign. That’s why they advise you to stay on the train under almost no circumstances. Although it starts at a derisory speed, it is not difficult to stay on land because of an absent-mindedness. In any case, there is no drama, because you just have to wait for another train to pass by and get on it.
Once you get on the train, life flows smoothly.
Some Burmese have a lively chat with each other. Others limit themselves to looking at the mobile phone, or beyond the non-existent windows, without fixing their eyes on anything concrete. For them it’s just another day, but you keep looking at everything with the curiosity of a child who’s learning something new.
As the train slowly crawls along the track past the city centre and into the wide suburbs of Yangon, a saleswoman passes by offering tasty pineapples. Soon after, another sells areca, mixed with tobacco and a strange paste, and wrapped in betel leaves. It’s a kind of mild drug that many Burmese chew to stay awake. Then they spit out the reddish saliva that “decorates” so many Burmese streets. Lottery tickets, quail eggs, press, mangoes, watermelon, rice… The train corridor becomes a travelling market.
However, if you want to know real markets, the circular train will allow you to see life in them. In Danyingon, the government decided to build a roofed market, so that people could put their stalls there, safely. However, almost no one has opted for this option, because although this construction is less than 5 minutes walk from the railroad tracks, the vendors know that the business is on the same tracks.
There’s a peculiar agitation at that stop. Women and men go up and down loaded with sacks containing all kinds of vegetables and fruits. Cucumbers, onions, garlic, spinach, aubergines, chili… The colour and the hustle and bustle is such that the camera can’t cope. It’s better. Try to capture all those images for your memory, but only with your eyes.
The market has begun at dawn, and if you arrive at noon, many people are already heading to their homes in the countryside, after selling their production in the city.
Outside the centre, Yangon’s inequality becomes more evident. Rickety shacks next to stagnant water and mountains of rubbish. Among them, there is an orchard from which the livelihood of a family is obtained.
There are also several monasteries where monks in reddish-brown robes devote themselves to meditation after their only main meal of the day.
And pagodas. Of course. Also pagodas in which the faithful Buddhists pray.
And if for you everything is new and you wonder at every moment, for some Burmese you are the exotic on the train. Some will want to photograph themselves with you and everyone, almost without exception, will smile at you if you smile at them.
Because, kind reader, Myanmar is the real country of smiles.
Although due to the works, the route of the circular train has been reduced to just over an hour, it is an experience that I continue to recommend to everyone. The perfect first contact to get to know the Burmese idiosyncrasy.