ONE ONLY HAS TO LOOK at the number of stirring, iconic songs that have been written about trains to know that there’s something about railroad travel that sets the heart aflutter. Among those enduring hits, there are mystery trains, midnight trains, trains to nowhere and even ghost trains. But our favorite kind of ride is the slow train, immortalised by Bob Dylan. Here in tropical Yangon, the slow train is simply the best way to see this unique city like a local.
On the Yangon Circular Railway, you soak up the sights before you even start moving. You might see a woman moving slowly through the carriage selling watermelons, which she carries on her head, or commuters chewing on betel nut (it’s the equivalent of about six cups of coffee, and we don’t recommend trying it!). Elsewhere, there are legions of little children in their smart white and green school uniform, their cheeks painted with thanaka bark paste to protect them from the sun. And then your journey begins...
But first, some history for you. The double tracks of the Yangon Circular Railway were laid back in 1954 by the British, as a way of connecting commuters on the perimeter of the city to its centre. Its loop connects 39 small stations and starts in the heart of the city at Yangon Central Railway Station. You’ll notice as soon as you see the famous station that it’s a distinctive blend of old-fashioned, colonial architecture and more modern Burmese flourishes—a fusion that typifies Yangon as a whole. After its construction in 1877, the station was destroyed by the British in 1943, retreating from Japanese forces. It was then rebuilt in 1954, its pyatthat tiered roofs designed by celebrated Burmese architect U Tin.
For all the stories, however, the Circular Railway journey is a living, breathing thing. It offers a passport for the adventurous to see Yangon at grassroots level—often literally—as you move from agricultural areas to suburban gardens and markets. Indeed much of Yangon life revolves around the marketplace and this is evident as soon as you board the train. There are traders hauling gigantic sacks of cabbages on their way to market and shoppers returning from their trips, bags heaving with groceries. These are people on a mission, albeit a slow one.
Yangon is a Buddhist city in the Theravadan lineage and its golden Shwedagon Temple is considered the most sacred in all of Myanmar. So it’s no surprise that you can feel its peaceful, philosophical practices in the gentle kindness of the local people here. It’s worth noting that the cultural curiosity is mutual. If you feel someone gazing at you and you return a smile, you’ll see their expression transform into a smile, too.
Of course, if you’re looking to practice meditation and mindfulness, there are temples aplenty to visit. But the Circular Railroad offers the perfect opportunity to be really present and in the moment. There are sensory wake-up calls all around you, from the gentle rocking and swaying of the train, to the hum of the fans in the carriages and the changing landscape.
It’s up to you how you choose to ride the train. The entire route takes about three hours to complete. Alternatively you can get a taster with a private tour from Governor’s Residence, A Belmond Hotel, aptly titled ‘Travel like a local’. Here, a guide will escort you on the train for a few stops, and you’ll disembark at Hledan’s vibrant indoor market. Admire the gorgeous local longyi sarongs on offer, before hopping on a bus and taking a cute trishaw bicycle ride back to your hotel.
Whichever way you decide to see Yangon, we recommend doing it in an unrushed way. As Carlos Ruiz Zafón writes in his novel The Shadow of the Wind, “Time goes faster the more hollow it is. Lives with no meaning go straight past you, like trains that don’t stop at your station.” So, take your time, let your curiosity off the leash, and enjoy beautiful Yangon at leisure.
A journey back to a gentler time
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