The Yangon Circle Line train is the exact opposite of Chinese high-speed rail. Over the course of three hours, the Circle Line traces a route only 28.5 miles long; there are points when the train moves so slowly that it seems like it would be faster to get out and walk. During the short stretches that the train picks up some speed, the carriages bounce and rattle with such force that it’s a wonder they don’t leap off the tracks. The women who walk back and forth through the cars balancing baskets of snacks for sale on their heads don’t seem to notice the rough ride, though: even during the bumpiest patches, they keep moving, only occasionally raising a hand to ensure the stability of their baskets.
Following the advice of guidebooks and travel blogs that told me riding the Circle Line was the best way to get a quick glimpse of Myanmar’s countryside, I show up at the central Yangon railway station at 8am on Saturday to hop on board. Signs throughout the station vow to “Warmly Welcome & Take Care of Tourists,” and I soon find that this is not an empty promise. While there’s almost no English-language signage anywhere, and I don’t speak a word of Burmese, railway employees and security guards point me toward platform 7 as soon as they catch sight of me. They clearly know that most foreigners who venture into the station are there to take the Circle Line.
I buy a ticket at the booth on the platform, handing over 200 kyats ($.20) and receiving a thin rectangle of paper in return.* The ticket seller directs me to wait farther down the platform for the next train, which will be departing at 8:20, and I hang out for a few minutes watching people prepare for the journey. The platform isn’t terribly crowded, but the food vendors are doing a brisk business, ladling out bowls of freshly cooked noodles to customers seated on low plastic stools arranged in semicircles around each pot. Suddenly, the mood shifts to one of busy anticipation, as diners slurp down the last of their noodles and people waiting on benches gather up their bags and baskets. Far down the track, the train is slowly coming into sight.
Verrrrry slowwwwly, it moves into the station, many of the passengers currently on board jumping down from the open doorways rather than wait for the train to come to a complete stop. The other embarking passengers and I wait in line to climb aboard, which is a calmer process than I’m used to in China. Maybe it’s because the train clearly won’t be crowded and everyone can expect seats, but there’s no rush to get on the train and claim the best spots. I find a mostly empty bench and settle down next to the window, rearranging myself a few times in an effort to figure out the most comfortable position that will enable me to look outside. (I still wind up with a crick in my neck in no time flat.)
Right on time, according to my phone’s clock, the train pulls out of Yangon and begins its long clockwise circuit around the city. The Circle Line is a route for locals: the conductor never calls out the upcoming station stops, and the maps of the line posted inside the train are only in Burmese script. I resign myself to not knowing where I am. The heat inside the train is a little harder to accept, as I look up at the small fans in the ceiling and wonder how hot it has to get before the conductor will turn them on. A slight breeze comes into the car whenever the train picks up speed, but such moments are few and far between, and I realize that I should have worn a skirt and sandals rather than jeans and sneakers. I sit and sweat.
As we leave central Yangon behind, the city’s cement-block apartment towers disappear and small houses topped with thatch or corrugated metal roofs begin sprinkling the countryside. A couple of the towns we pass through have proper train stations, while most of the others have nothing more than a ticket window and an overhang to protect waiting passengers from the sun. Almost all of the stations have food vendors set up on the sidewalk next to the tracks, and occasionally a passenger inside the carriage will quickly call one over to buy a packet of chips or bottle of water before the train moves on. Others get their snacks from the vendors inside the train, who sell peanuts, fruit, and cups of sweet milk tea. A man walks through the cars selling newspapers, too, but doesn’t have any English-language ones, so I continue watching the scenery through the window.
The countryside keeps getting greener and greener as we move farther away from the city, and I begin seeing people working in fields next to the train tracks. But there are small construction sites scattered along the route, too, workers laboring away at unidentifiable projects. There’s a lot more construction going on in Myanmar than I had expected, and I wonder what I would find if I came back to ride the Circle Line again in three or five years.
I finally decide that I need a change of seat—my neck is aching, and the sun is beating down intensely on my side of the train—so I walk back a car and wind up sitting at the end of the last carriage, next to the conductor and his wife (girlfriend?). The fifty-something conductor sticks his head out the window at every stop, waving a green flag when the platform is clear and the engineer can start the train again. In between stations, the conductor and his companion make out like teenagers. I wonder with amusement if this is why he seems happier with his job than any Amtrak conductor I’ve ever met.
Sometime around 10:45, I begin to wonder how much longer the ride will last; I have no idea where we are on the route or if the train is running on time or not. Even on the shady side of the carriage, I’m still sweating, and the increasing sameness of the scenery is making me antsy to get off the train and see something new. I don’t seem to be the only one who has had enough: a Chinese tourist who has spent the journey taking countless photos with a massive camera finally sits down across the aisle from me and begins checking his watch every couple of minutes. I try to relax my brain and wind up dozing off—the heat, the sun, the jolting rhythm of the train lulling me into a brief nap, somewhere between consciousness and sleep.
I open my eyes again and see church spires coming into view, immediately recognizing them as belonging to a church a few blocks away from the Yangon train station, and in another minute I spot the station’s gold towers. The conductor turns to me and says, “Yangon station,” and I nod in response. My ticket is valid all day and the train will keep running in its slow circle around the city, but for me this is the end of the line.
I step off the train and check the clock on my phone. 11:19. It might not be Chinese high-speed rail, but we still arrived one minute early.
* Lonely Planet and every website I read said that the ticket price for foreigners is 1000 kyats ($1). I don’t know if the ticket seller gave me a break by charging the local price, or if the fare has recently been adjusted so that everyone pays the same amount.