Finding the real Yangon; a journey on circular railway line
‘Come back at 5pm if you want to see the national women’s squad train’ said the old men in vest, who had amazed us with his elastic moves to keep a rattan ball of the floor. This was the last thing we expected when we curiously had entered a nondescript building in Mahlwagone intrigued by a loud cheering from within, only to find ourselves in one of Yangon’s most well-known chinlone clubs.
This was one of the many hidden gems we – a group of local students and enthusiasts – found during our month long exploration of the neighbourhoods along the circular railway line. In this story we share some of the highlights of this exciting journey to map local life and community culture in along the train tracks.
What did we know about the Yangon circular railway line? Well, that it opened for service in 1954 and still has an operational fleet of 200 coaches on double track, used by an astonishing 150,000 passengers every day to travel to work, shop and play. The full loop, a 46 kilometres long snail pace journey, takes about three hours, and that in total there are 39 (!) stations along the route. So if three hours is a bit of a stretch, where to get off?
We did our research and out of those 39 stations we picked six friendly neighbourhoods with a story to tell. This is where the students came in. These are not just average students, Pre-Collegiate is an international liberal college in Yangon. Students are challenged inside and outside of the classroom to become change-makers of tomorrow. A group of 10 final year Under the guidance of passionate facilitators Anna Livia Cullinan, Sara Candiracci and Bob Percival we embarked on a journey to map local life along the railway tracks.
We divided into groups, bought our tickets and hopped on the train to explore the city. We followed the tracks, wandered the streets, walked a thousand steps and got really lost…
We chatted to trishaw drivers to find the best local food joints, to rice and pomelo sellers on the market to understand their trade, to librarians to learn about local legends, and to monks to figure out where to find the best karma.
We ate steaming hot Chinese soup dumplings, freshly made noodle salads and crunchy paratha and drank beer and tea, lots of it!
We read, we talked, we laughed, but most of all we listened and we heard some beautiful stories of old buildings, close-knit families, famous poets, legendary people, traditional trades, local customs and ancient recipes.
It was a journey extraordinaire. We weren’t looking for grand monuments and elaborate temples, but trying to find the beauty of this mystical and vibrant city in small things, to find the spirit of place.
And so we did! Our most surprising finds:
- watching in awe at the skill and soulless of the Chinlone players in the Chinlone sports club
- riding a boat to a small mythical temple at the other side of Pazundaung creek to find our inner peace
- buying a handwoven Karen longyi at the Baptist compound in Ahlone
- climbing the tower of the famed Judson Chapel at Rangoon University campus
- dipping into a hidden swimming pool in the railway-workers complex in Insein
- shopping at the famed socialist era market in Hledan
- eating the best Rahkine food in the city at a small restaurant in Mahlwagone
- having our fortune told at the Koe Htat Gyi Pagoda in Kyeemindain
- admiring a master sculptor at work in his garden workshop in Tadagale
But the most of all, we enjoyed the ride. The Yangon circular train is a humbling and immersive experience of Yangon local life. We saw the city through the eyes of its people: we learned what they loved. Where will journey take you?
In loving memory of Bob Percival.
Yangon Circle Train: the details:
- Buy tickets from Platform 7 of Yangon Central Station. The fare is 100 or 200 kyat depending on distance.
- Trains ride in both directions. ‘R’ indicates eastbound at Yangon central Station (anticlockwise) and ‘L’ is westbound (clockwise).
- The train starts running at 6.10 am with the last departure at 10pm, but the earliest full circle train leaves at 8.20am heading west (clockwise) and the last one departs 5.10pm.
- Whole circuit is 46 kilometre long with 39-stations and the snail pace journey takes about three hours
- The tracks are old, carriages are a bit dated and non-air-conditioned, so be prepared for a hot, bumpy ride and a great experience!