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 7, 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 – our train 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 has used rough bathrooms before, she laughed, and this one lived up to its reputation. We watched other trains come and go and watched as passengers pushed and shoved their way on and off trains – they haven’t yet mastered the concept of letting those 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.
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