A trip to Yangon, particularly a short one, necessitates visits to Shwedagon Pagoda and the other historic and magnificent temples and shrines. But once you’ve done that, the best way to see the “real” Yangon is spending a half-day (or more) traveling the Yangon Circular Line.
A train line that will never be confused with Tokyo’s Yamanote Line or even Bangkok’s abysmally run MRT subway, the Circular Line is both a relic of the past and a contemporary key to life for those living in and around Myanmar’s commercial capital. While foreign tourists will find the plodding, bumpy and hot three-hour journey around Yangon charming, regular commuters are more likely to call it a necessary nuisance.
About 100,000 people a day, plus about 150 foreigners, jump on and off the decrepit carriages from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. at 39 stations – some of them little more than a platform – along a 46-kilometer (29 mile) loop. Trains travel – at a best speed of 32 kilometers (20 miles) per hour – in both directions and tickets allow passengers freedom to alight and reboard as they wish all day.
Creature comforts are non-existent. Thirteen of the 21 trains still in service are more than 50 years old, all castoffs from the Hungarian national railway. “Newer” cars, donated by Japan, were deemed unfit for travelers there in 2007. Some even still have the Japan Railways logo on the side. None have air conditioning and the fans are many are broken. Seats in the older cars are often-broken wooden benches, while the JR trains have padded seating, some of which are used as beds by those spending hours commuting.
Who would take this service more than once? Those too poor to afford alternatives or too frustrated by Yangon’s crushing traffic and overcrowded buses.
There was a time, not long ago, that anyone with even their nose over the poverty line wouldn’t be caught dead on the Circular Line. They saw it as old, dirty and full of poor people, farm products and rail hawkers. But as Myanmar has made its light-speed journey back to the future, the country’s road infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with the increased wealth of the population and explosion of cars, trucks and motorbikes. Even Bangkokians and Jakartans would find Yangon’s rush-hour traffic impressive.
So, rather than sit in traffic, more people are taking the train. Ridership has jumped more than 20,000 a day since 2012. Now you’ll find construction workers and secretaries, students and market merchants all crammed in together for a three-hour jouney around the former capital.
For the first-time foreign rider, it’s a perfect storm, a slice of life right through the heart of Yangon’s populous. And extremely photogenic.
There are no restaurant cars and no vending machines. Instead, Yangon’s trains are full of vendors selling boiled peanuts, fruit, cigarettes and traditional Burmese food. Annoyingly, water or other beverages are hard to find. Merchants not selling on board still pile their wares on the train, everything from fruit and vegetables to sacks of animal feed to live chickens. If it blocks a door, so be it. The train has other exits.
The railway likewise has a carefree attitude toward tickets, which cost 300 kyat (US0.21) for foreigners and a third of that for the Burmese. A conductor does check tickets, but it may be a while before you see one.
Heavily subsidized, the train runs at an astronomical loss to the government, with ticket revenues covering only a seventh of costs.
Cars are nearly full as the Circular Line stumbles in and out of the Yangon Central Railway Station, built by the British in 1877 and then destroyed by them in 1943 to avoid it falling in Japanese hands. The budagyi was rebuilt in 1954 and hasn’t seen many upgrades since, although the main passenger lounge for long-distance trains now has a table full of power banks where waiting passengers can recharge their cellphones, a phenomenon unthinkable even five years ago.
Monstrous thunderstorms will flood the station with station workers scurrying with brooms to sweep out the puddles. Antediluvian monks take shelter from the wind and rain in open-windowed corridors while parents and children sleep on the concrete floors. Only the kids seem to enjoy the madness, showering themselves under runoff pouring from the platform roofs. Vendors also aren’t deterred, literally climbing fences and into windows of parked carriages to make a sale.
On board, crowds start to thin out as the train makes its way out of the metropolis. Moss-covered apartment buildings give way to factories and then to farmland. At the far northern end of the loop, Danyingon Station doubles as a farmer’s market, with vegetables lining both sides of the tracks, much like Bangkok’s Maeklong Railway Market, but without the hoards of tourists.
Not far off the popular stops, though, are dozens of slum villages, where locals live in wood-and-tin huts, some with plastic tables inexplicably tossed on the roofs. Here kids run the dirt streets, men play cards and women cook communal meals for the neighbors. All appeared shocked to see a white faced photographer strolling through town, but greeted me with smiles and invitations to dine with them.
The same was true at other stops. On the western side of the loop neighborhoods were more affluent, streets were paved and apartment buildings rose higher. But in every case, kids pleaded to have their photos taken and practice English, and smiles, not scowls, greeted me everywhere.
The Yangon Circular Line, in itself, is a great way to see the real Myanmar, but getting off the train and walking the neighborhoods along the double-track line is where its real value lies.
As with so much in Mynamar, things are changing rapidly for the Circular Line. Long-promised upgrades are finally being implemented that will make the train faster, more reliable, more comfortable… and also a lot less quaint.
A US$206-million development assistance loan from the Japan International Cooperation Agency is being used to buy 11 diesel-electric multiple unit trains with six carriages each to replace the line’s diesel-powered rolling stock and install signaling systems. Another $94 million in Myanmar government funds will be used to upgrade tracks, allowing faster speeds. Completion, however, is not expected until 2022.
Currently, construction has forced the closure of some stations, meaning the Circular Line sometimes can’t complete a full circle. But once completed, the upgrade is expected to cut travel time for a full loop from 170 minutes to 105 minutes. Trains will run every 10-12 minutes at peak hour with speeds of up to 60 kmh (37 mph).
With that, however, will come more people. The Myanmar Railway Authority predicts ridership to reach 300,000 a day after 2022.
While tourists will bemoan the loss of another slice of “Old Myanmar” the folks who depend on the train every day will rejoice, even if more people are packing onto the cars. The hope is the number of new cars will keep up with the increase in ridership.