Family inside the circle train.

All Aboard! Yangon’s Circle Train: A Photo Essay

Myanmar, Photo Essay, Photography

We walked into the once grand Yangon Train Station and stood there with dumb looks on our faces. We were unsure where to buy tickets or what platform to go to. Soon, a friendly security guard appeared and drew a circle in the air with his finger. YES! We were looking for the circle train. He pointed us to platform seven, where at the ticket booth the attendant drew another circle in the air. We paid about $1 and waited on the platform where a local drew another circle in the air and put us on the right train. Everyone seemed to know we were looking to take a ride on Yangon’s Circle Train, a line that makes a three-hour circumnavigation of the city of seven million people.

Our circle train experience was a play in three parts. Act I was like Thoreau’s Great Railway Bazaar – the train carriages bustled with activity, the internal happenings were more interesting than the scenery outside. We were in the rear car, seated by an affable police officer and a young conductor who offered us snacks. Food vendors rotated through the cars, serving up fresh homemade treats to the constantly changing cast of characters. At various points, we sat next to teens on cell phones, a young couple with a baby, a monk with religious paraphernalia, a family having lunch and commuters engrossed in newspapers.

For Act II, we disembarked halfway through the journey at Danyingon Station and entered a busy, dirty, chaotic, and colorful market. Kristi asked about a bathroom and a local pointed in the right direction but warned that it might be “rough.” Kristi was undaunted. “I’ve used rough bathrooms before,” She said. “That one lived up to its reputation,” she said later when the shock had worn off.

We watched other trains come and go and observed passengers shove and push their way on and off trains. In Myanmar, they haven’t yet mastered the concept of letting passengers in the train out before piling in.

Many locals came over to chat with us, and others, not used to seeing tourists in the area, just stood and stared at us unselfconsciously. When the staring got awkward, we’d smile and say “Mingalaba” to which they’d always smile and return the greeting.

Act III was about the landscapes and happenings along the rails. We boarded the next train on the line and to my sadness, this one was much nicer and had less activity than the first. However, from the comfortable seat I trained my eyes and camera out the window, witnessing little glimpses of the rural life around Yangon and preserving moments in pixels. The Circle Train turned out to be the unexpected highlight of our trip to Burma.

Yangon Circle Train Photos

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Currently living in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. I travel, write, take photos, and stalk street cats. ~

26 thoughts on “All Aboard! Yangon’s Circle Train: A Photo Essay”

  1. Fabulous! For some reason we decided not to take the circle train but went across the river instead. Now I wish we had. Still we each got a slice of unique Burmese life. I loved it – all of Burma. It remains a highlight of all our travels for me. Amazing country.
    You got some great shots – as usual – really capturing the life and the business.
    I’m surprised to read that the circle train was the highlight of your trip to Burma.

    • It was the highlight, in part, because we only hit 4 destinations – Yangon, Bago, the Golden Rock, and Hpa-an. I am sure Bagan and Inle Lake would rank higher. I think I liked it because it was an effortless way to get a glimpse into everyday life. We were passengers cruising along, mixed in with all the locals, seeing life go on.

  2. Todd Duffey Writes on Things says:

    What an amazing trip! Those photos are incredible, and the different sections of it – wow!

  3. Duly noted. This looks like a great way to spend part of a day. Although it was probably wayyyyyy different, my sister and I grabbed a (roughly) circular train for a ride in Finland and it was a highlight for us, too – just a great way to be with local people doing their thing.

    • Your trip in Finland probably was different, but I think anytime you can ride along with locals on something like this it offers great insight to a culture and country.

  4. Lovely slice of life in Myanmar! Will remember this for whenever we make it there. Question for you though: is it very different than the other SE Asian countries – Thailand, Cambodia etc…? So much of it looks similar!

    • It looks similar, but it is a lot different. I think Myanmar is Thailand 40 years ago. Yangon is very unique, maybe more like India than southeast Asia I think.

  5. Love it when something unexpected like a train ride turns out to be the coolest part. What I miss most about Burma is the monks. Don’t know why, maybe they make me feel calm? The painted faces…not so much.

    • Yeah, the monks there were really friendly and talkative, more so than Thailand. I posed for a few photos with monks and got a lot of shots of them. I liked the painted faces a lot – it is nice that they still do it. Something tells me that will go away.

      • I took one of my best shots of a monk in Rangoon (I’m calling it Rangoon and Burma). But maybe the best shot was in Bagan.

  6. Felt as though I was with you on the train. Loved the descriptions and of course your gorgeous photos. Circle apparently is the same in many languages. 🙂

  7. What a fabulous post! My favorite photos are of the monk on the bench and the family snacking. We were in Myanmar last December and it really was an incredible experience. Your photos and words capture it so very well. Thank you.


    • Thank you Peta. We were pretty happy when that monk got on board and sat across from us. It is amazing at how elaborate the street food was on the train. In the west we’d sell prepackaged sandwiches or something but these guys sat down and mixed a bunch of stuff together before selling it.

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