We moved to Yangon in June 2009, but I realised as Christmas approached and we had made no plans, that this would actually be my first Christmas in the city. In 2009, I was in Bangkok between chemo sessions. In 2010 I headed out of town to the beach at Ngwe Saung and had a very different Christmas indeed to the previous one. And last year I trundled off on an adventure to Rakhine State and the ancient city of Mrauk U with its mysterious temples.
This year a series of challenges, mainly health ones, meant that we were hesitant to book anything and almost by default, decided to stay home. Christmas is an interesting blend of the tropical with random appearance of a plastic row of snowflakes, Santa on a sleigh balanced precariously on a bougainvillea hedge and Christmas trees and ornaments for sale in the local supermarket. Christmas carollers singing in the streets, from gate to gate add to the fascinating mix of the tropical tinsel atmosphere. So there are options for a Christmassy Christmas here, and a number of hotels have events and opportunities. However, I knew that this was not quite what we were looking for. Inspiration came in the form of an idea to catch the circular train which runs around Yangon! Now that would be an easy and interesting escapade for a Christmas morning!
Apparently, the Yangon Circular Railway is the local commuter rail network that serves the Yangon metropolitan area. Operated by Myanmar Railways, the 45.9-kilometre (28.5 mi) 39-station loop system connects satellite towns and suburban areas to the city. The railway has about 200 coaches, runs 20 times and sells 100,000 to 150,000 tickets daily.The loop, which takes about three hours to complete, is a way to see a cross section of life in Yangon.
And it certainly keeps its promise. As a foreigner, you buy your ticket at the little office at Platform 6/7, producing your passport and 1$ per person. to enable to transaction. The ticket for the whole journey is a set 1$US which is phenomenal value for a journey of just under three hours, which transports you around Yangon’s peri-urban and rural edges, in the midst of the city’s life.
Leaving Yangon Central Station, the train was very quiet and there were not many passengers in our carriage. The train slowly travelled through a number of local stations, stopping for a few moments at each. Or actually, the train did not stop. Rather it kind of rocked – a little bit forward, then a little backwards. Then the conductor would stick his green flag out of the window and the train continued its motion forwards.
There was quite a clear etiquette in the carriage. People mainly sat cross legged on the seats, their shoes neatly on the floor underneath them.
As the train skirts around Yangon city, it travels through rural and urban settings, and it is entirely usual to hang out of the doors to get a breeze and to see what is going on.
We passed teashops, as we travelled through daily life across the city, spotting trishaw drivers sleepily awaiting custom near the stations.
The train slowly filled, as it continued its journey. This woman had just given her ticket to the conductor – she stored it in her hair, tucked under her clasp!
We even trundled past what appears to the car graveyard for all the old cars which were withdrawn, children playing with the surreal backdrop of car wrecks.
Then we pulled into a station with a very different feel. There was a distinct buzz, and even before the train had stopped we saw bundles of goods – mainly vegetables, passed through the windows. The traders had been at the early market, picked up their provisions and would now transport them to the local markets to trade. An incredible amount of goods found their way into the carriage in a matter of minutes, as an incredible orchestration of cooperation and precision engineering saw the transfer from the platform into the carriage before the trained moved out of the station.
The carriage was instantly transformed into a hive of activity, bustle and purpose. The traders immediately set about the work they had to do on the train. The woman sitting next to me had a sack of small aubergines and she spent the whole journey, sorting them into bundles of six and tying them with an elastic band. By the time she reached her station, they were all sorted and packed back into the sack, ready to be sold at the local market. Another woman spent the whole journey working her way through a sack of leafy greens, bundling them into the required weight and throwing the waste out of the door.
Another layer of local economy worked alongside this, as traders worked their way through the carriages selling a variety of wares and snacks, and even ice cream.
In fact the ice cream seller nearly missed the train as he hopped on board as the train was moving out of one of the stations.
The journey around Yangon took just under three hours, but I was not bored or ready to return to Yangon Central Station. By the time we did roll back to where we had started, the carriage was again quiet and the few remaining passengers relaxed in the last minutes of the journey.
It was a really special way to spend Christmas day, and another memorable escapade to add to my bag.
PS – This is just a small selection of the many photos I took – a larger selection is being uploaded onto the sister photography blog here.