Circle Line Train, Yangon, Myanmar
“You should try the circle line train in Yangon,” I remembered someone telling me.
“It’s a great way to see a slice of local Myanmar life,” I believe was their explanation.
Well, as it turns out, they were right. Oh, so right.
I jump on board the train with three other travellers from my guesthouse. It’s an old rattling chain of carriages that shakes my bones as much from the motion as the idea of spending an extended period of time on it.
There are long benches along each side and we squeeze into spaces scattered down one end of the carriage.
There’s a roped off area with two policemen sitting in it and they beckon a couple of us in to sit where there’s some spare room.
They smile. I’m unsure why but I smile back.
The train trip is supposed to take about three hours. It’s a huge loop from the very centre of Yangon around the outskirts of the city. There’s a departure every hour and the trains just go around and around continuously.
Very quickly I realise the journey would be even longer except the train hardly stops at each station, just slowing down and pausing long enough for people to jump on and off and throw their bags through the door before it takes off again.
There’s a commotion before each station and often commuters start hurling themselves from the carriage as soon as there is platform to jump to.
As we head further out of central Yangon, the buildings get smaller through the window, the houses become simpler and the train gets busier. The local Myanmar life I had been promised is starting to appear around us.
The carriage is gradually turning into a moving food court as vendors jump on and sell lunch. There are simple things like fruit or biscuits – and more complicated dishes that take a couple of minutes to prepare.
One lady chops up a cabbage-like vegetable into a bag, mixes in some sliced omelette, throws in sauces and spices and then mixes it all together into a tasty treat for about twenty cents.
Some of the locals, maybe initially shy or polite or even wary, begin to interact with us and it seems we have now been accepted as part of the rattling community.
I pull faces at a baby who seems to think it’s the best thing since sliced bread. (Although, because they don’t eat much bread here, I guess it’s just the best thing ever.)
They seem to be taking their cue from the policemen in the carriage who seem more interested in showing off than doing any actual policing. One hangs from the railings in a pose that looks a bit like a monkey in a zoo.
When we show interest in his antics he shows us his slingshot and demonstrates how he uses it to catch criminals. (There’s no argument about gun control here in Myanmar!).
He then wanders down through the carriage to find more props to play with. When he sees a couple of fish in a passenger’s bucket, he pulls them out and poses for photos, hanging the food off his fingers while a cigarette burns slowly in his smiling mouth.
About halfway through the trip, we hit the market in the northern outskirts of Yangon. You can hear the shouting and the crowds as we approach.
As the train slows down the first bags come flying through the doors, thrown from the platform. Then dozens of people climb aboard carrying baskets and boxes. Sacks of food are passed through the windows.
Every bit of available space on the floor of the carriage is filled with goods. Then more are packed on top. And then even more is shoved in spare spaces between legs and on laps.
The cargo now outweighs the passengers.
And so this is how we travel back to central Yangon – amongst the produce of a market.
Gradually people get off at different stops and take their bags and boxes with them and eventually I get some leg space back. By the end, we have picked up the routine of each stop and help the locals with their cargo before the train takes off again from the station.
We’re offered food to try and coffee to drink. We laugh with each other, although it’s never quite clear what the exact joke is.
At the end we say goodbye to our friends, the policemen. I now understand why they smiled at us when we jumped on board – they knew what was to come.
They knew the chaos we would find ourselves in. After all, they see it all day every day as they go around and around that track.
That’s the circle line of Yangon.