Tracks Around Yangon

Photos and words by Anne Moffat

The Storytellers was made possible by Singapore Airlines. Each of our winning Storytellers were connected to their exciting destinations via the airline's Singapore Hub where Anne had a speedy fast forward through to her next destination, Myanmar.

The Yangon Circular Railway is as close as Myanmar gets to a metro: 45.9 kilometres of track linking a sprawling loop of 39 stations through the urban, suburban and rural areas of Myanmar’s largest city.

Built during Colonial times by the British, the heavily used line is now worn and dilapidated, but not without a certain charm. Rickety carriages lazily clatter and bounce past pagodas, markets, farms, and even the airport. As the cheapest mode of transport, trains are packed with an assortment of characters: quiet monks in burgundy robes; snoozing elderlies who wake to spit out the window; lower-income commuters who use the service to carry fresh goods and produce.

The diversity of people and scenery makes riding Circle Line one of the best ways to gain an insight into everyday life in Myanmar.

1.Pre-dawn at Yangon Central Station, the air is still cool and fresh. Bodies lurk on the platforms each morning, waiting for the first train to depart at 6:10am. Services run both clockwise and anticlockwise roughly once every hour, with the last at 5:10pm.
2.Tickets can be bought from the office on Platform 7 for 200 kyats (around AU$0.20; for comparison, a small beer costs around AU$1.50). The officer asks me where I want to go. “Around,” I reply, making a circular motion with my hands, and he laughs, having learnt to expect this response from foreigners. Everyone else seems to have small, unobtrusive tickets; I receive a large “foreigner ticket” upon which I must write my name and country. The local commuters grin each time I am asked to pull it out for inspection.
3.The Yangon Circular Railway takes three hours to loop around the city. It’s a muggy 30-degree day when I purchase my ticket, and an attendant excitedly tells me that the carriages are “air-conditioned”. I find out later that this is in the form of open windows and spluttering, tired roof fans that do nothing more than add to the cacophony. A policeman half-heartedly taps one of the fans with his baton each time it drifts to a halt.
4.The carriages are filled with vendors peddling their wares: bananas, newspapers, tobacco, smoked fish, chicken and quail eggs, lurid melting icy poles in clouded plastic bags. As the train approaches each station, more traders run along the platform. Before the train has stopped they mount the steps with dexterity and begin singing and shouting at anyone who will listen.
5.Bright blue and green paintwork snakes around the tracks, cracked from use and weather. If the train is moving slow enough to disembark between stations, passengers throw bags and packages from doors and leap from carriages before fading into the distance. The best way to gauge the cause of an unexpected stoppage is to stick your head out the window.
6.Cyclists wait for the train to pass at a level crossing just past Golf Course Station, named after the two nearby 18-hole courses in the city’s far north. Potholes are common and road conditions are often poor, but traffic is considered light compared to other Southeast Asian cities. Still, a commuter does tell me that he thinks there are too many cars on the roads - the journey from the airport to the downtown area that used to take 30 minutes now takes one hour.
7.Many of the stations we pass are nothing more than wooden sheds, open to the elements. A young girl’s face is decorated with thanaka, a thick chalky cosmetic paste made from ground bark. Thanaka provides both a cooling sensation and protection from the sun, and has been fashionable amongst Burmese women and girls for many hundreds of years. Each woman applies it in a different unique design. It is believed that it helps fight acne and smooth the skin.
8.On their way to work, a trading family enjoys a meal on the train surrounded by their wicker baskets. They pass around a thin local Burmese-language newspaper titled Democracy Today. The daily 32-page tabloid was launched in February this year as a reincarnation of The Yangon Times. It costs 100 kyats and gets tossed out the window after they've finished reading.
9.A monk walks along the tracks near some paddies, carrying his lunch. Agriculture is the main industry in Myanmar; the country was once Asia’s largest exporter of rice and even today rice remains the country’s biggest agricultural commodity. By the time the railway reaches its furthest outskirts, the crumbling shanties and dusty roads have given way to lush farmland.
10.There’s a huge flurry of activity at Danyingon Station, one of the railway’s busiest hubs, with a market directly on the platforms and a secondary line that diverges from the circular loop. Passengers rush to various stalls; traders hustle, hurling their gear on board; and beggars clang their silver bowls at the windows, waiting for the kyats to fly. This changeover occurs in all of two minutes before every inch of the carriage is quickly packed with humans, fruits and leafy greens.
11.A trader tosses beans at Danyingon Station. All four platforms (and often the tracks themselves) are crowded with farmers who bring produce to sell to both Yangon wholesalers and the general public.
12.A station vendor prepares areca nuts and betel leaves for sale. Extremely popular in Myanmar, the betel leaves are painted with calcium hydroxide and wrapped around an areca nut. Tobacco and various spices are also sometimes added now for flavour. Betel leaves are known for their medicinal and mild stimulant properties; chewers can be seen sporting vermillion-stained grins.
13.We stop in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. Ticket inspector Htin Kyow tells me that we will depart again in “one hour”. I wander away from the platform, only to be suddenly grabbed by the arm; a man points to our train slowly rolling out of the station. Bolting across the tracks and jumping aboard, I spot Htin Kyow laughing whilst clipping tickets. He taps on his watch: “One hour!”. The dial shows exactly 1pm.
14.Burmese children chat loudly and fight with sticks that they snatch from the ground as the train rolls on. They play hide and seek through the rattling carriages, jumping off and greeting the local kids at each station, before sprinting back towards the train and magically reappearing on the steps as if they had never left.
15.Burmese teenagers chat loudly and fight over an iPod. It’s strange to hear the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘Don’t Phunk With My Heart’ and Flo Rida’s ‘Low’ pulsing from the tinny headphones while the lady beside me mumbles prayers. No one seems to mind the extra noise; passengers all play tracks from their phone speakers at the same time, singing along badly to lyrics that don’t mean much to me, either.
16.Heavy rainfall over the past few days has flooded many of the roads, like this one at a level crossing near Ngamoeyeik Creek. Passengers take off their shoes and wade precariously through the knee-deep water to reach the train.
17.An older woman laden with hessian sacks of vegetables boards the train and I offer her my seat. She shakes her head and instead taps a boy on the shoulder, insisting that he stand, rather than I. The locals really take to heart the large blue slogans pasted around the stations that read “Warmly Welcome and Take Care of Tourists”.
18.When the sun comes out, drying clothes adorn the tracks. In the downtown areas, the tracks are strewn with rubbish, so it’s a pleasant change to see colourful clothing and waving children.
19.A trader enjoys a well-earned break before once again hauling his bags out of the carriage and onto the next platform. He smokes a cheroot, a traditional Burmese cigar, popular and cheap.
20.Another loop complete, the train disgorges back at Yangon Central Station save for those left dozing in the humid air.
21.Today is a national holiday for the Tazaungdaing Festival or Festival of Lights, held during the full moon of the eighth month of the Burmese calendar, and traditionally marking the end of the rainy season. As it turns out, it is still raining big warm sticky droplets. It is clear this is not going to hamper the celebrations though, and I am invited to a street party that evening where there is food and dancing. The heartfelt and sincere Burmese hospitality astounds me and will remain the most memorable feature of my time in Yangon.
22.As the largest railway station in Myanmar, the main hall plays host to hundreds of lingering travellers who rest in the cool shadows, waiting for connections to destinations such as Naypyidaw, Mandalay and Bagan. More than 100,000 people pass through every day. At the end of a long day of circular travel I stand here for ages, amazed by the movement of people. I shift only when an approaching train gives a surprise toot of greeting, or a stray dog ambles towards me.
23.I depart the station and walk back over the footbridge into the downtown area. The last trains for the day have already left, but that doesn’t matter. As the sun sets over Yangon, the railway tracks still guide the locals home.

Did you fall in love with Myanmar too? Make sure to vote for your favourite Storyteller piece for your chance to win two return flights to the Storyteller destination of your choice thanks to Singapore Airlines. Enjoy your transit through Singapore with your complementary S$40 Changi Voucher which you can use to shop, eat, and drink at over 450 outlets at Changi Airport

Anne would like to thank Singapore Airlines for a seamless transfer through Changi.