The halls of Hong Kong Airport feel smaller and more familiar. It is the last time the #PassportToAsia group will be in one room together before departing on separate ways to our second destinations in Asia. This time, there is no apprehension or nervousness among the group of sixteen as we say goodbye. It has been a week of incredible adventures, invaluable learning and personal growth in a city that has shown us many sides. These learnings will undoubtedly carry on in our next destinations in Bangkok, Yangon, Siem Reap and Delhi, as well as our future endeavours in different corners of the globe. It makes the goodbye a lot easier, knowing we have shared an important chapter together. The flight to Yangon is the last to depart at midnight, and my eyelids close as soon as I’m seated.I awake from a deep sleep, barely remembering the landing, immigration or airport transfer to the Novotel. In the early morning, I watch a blanket of fog lifting from the city, uncovering the stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda, a sacred golden pagoda that stands taller than any building in Yangon’s skyline. Under the blanket of fog is a city that bears no resemblance to Hong Kong. It is a new day, and an entirely new chapter for Team Yangon. A new city waiting to be discovered.
The train jolts from one side to another, propelling objects and any unsuspecting commuters that have fallen into a deep slumber. The firm plastic seats provide little grip and the bodies rock in a similar rhythm to the carriage. The stagnant tropical heat is suddenly bearable next to the open windows which propel the scenery from stacked urban buildings and tin roofs to the emerald vegetation in outer townships. As the train begins decelerating and approaching the next stop, there is a commotion as passengers scramble to collect their baskets of vegetables, trays of freshly cooked sweets or stacks of plastic chairs. In minutes, it is off again. Each passenger goes about their daily commute in a certain way; some read novels or share newspapers, others scroll through their phones or spark a conversation with the person next to them, while many simply stop and stare to watch the cross-section of life inside and outside the train as it loops through the city of Yangon.
The Circle Line is a local rail network for more than 150,000 commuters every day, looping 45km through satellite towns, suburban areas and populated city hubs. The journey in its entirety takes three hours and the cost of a ticket is between 200 and 400 kyatt (USD 0.16 – 0.33), which makes the Circle Line the cheapest and easiest method of transportation for lower-income commuters. In the sprawled and rapidly expanding city of Yangon, The Circle Line offers a unique glimpse into the pace of everyday lives of vendors, workers, farmers, students and families as they commute to and from their destinations.
Despite a sprint to the tracks, the train is already beyond the blurry horizon. The waiting game begins.
The train comes to a halt at Danyingon, a stop that is bustling with activity on Market day. The market has spilled itself over the railway tracks, with many people inching their stalls as close as possible to the platform. Before the departing passengers have climbed down the steps, others are pushing to get on, eager to make sure they don’t miss this train. Bags of vegetables are thrown from windows, some exploding on the ground and others being caught mid air. It is a quick and crowded rush to get to the platform before the train eventually leaves. Another will come in thirty minutes.
The stop at Danyingon is a colourful affair; two wooden buildings lost in a sea of rainbow umbrellas giving shade to the hundreds of vendors, selling everything from fish and hanging meats to live poultry and stacks of betel leaf, the mild stimulant that is chewed throughout most of Asia. Sprawling in every other patch of free space are stalls selling tropical fruits, vegetables and flowers, many in shapes, sizes and colours that would never make the shelves of a supermarket. Dodging through the narrow corridors of free space between vendors and into the wooden building is an assault on the senses: the pungent smell of drying fish mixed with fresh flowers, a muddy and trampled ground underfoot and peeping rays of light that seep through small cracks in the roof. The eyes take time to adjust and readjust. Suddenly, there is a horn and a similar scramble as before as vendors and shoppers cut short their conversations or purchases and dash, baskets and bags in hand. The Circle Train has arrived again.
Life appears much slower when jumping off the train at Mingaladon Bazaar in Yangon’s north. There is no pushing or shoving, but rather, only a few passengers which climb down onto the platform in the heat of the day. A handful of women get off, carrying parasols in one hand and their purchases in another, composing themselves with a distinguished elegance and grace despite the stifling heat. They breeze past a pack of barking dogs and men who barely look up from their games of checkers or sittuyin, a Burmese variation of chess; before saying their goodbyes and heading indoors.
Mingaladon Bazaar is nothing more than a small cluster of colorfully painted houses and stilted wooden huts surrounded by soaked rice paddies. By midday, most people have followed a similar routine to the group of women, going inside or finding patches of shade under a tree to cool down and drink tea. The only noise in the small township blasts from a speaker attached to a mobile cart of scripted papers, dragged by the lottery ticket salesman along the main street. A vat of oil bubbles away on a small stove, frying Indian-inspired street snacks of pakora and samosa. The vendor fans herself in a reclining plastic chair, drifting in and out of an afternoon nap. The heat slows everything and the silence of rural life muffles the sounds of the horn as the train approaches Mingaladon Bazaar. Despite a sprint to the tracks, the train is already beyond the blurry horizon. The waiting game begins.
A mother beckons for her child’s hand and he drops the afternoon snack of corn kernels to the ground to reach. An elderly man picks up a newspaper that has been left behind. A monk reaches bare feet beneath the seat, feeling around for his sandals which have shifted with the moving carriage. For most commuters, the platform at Yangon Central Railway Station is the primary destination and end of the line; a gateway to Downtown Yangon and the rest of Myanmar’s rail network.
Platform 7 is buzzing with activity as one Circle Line train departs and another arrives on the reverse loop. Regional platforms and high ceiling waiting halls are pulsing with other passengers; those that are travelling south or north on Myanmar’s extensive railway network. Families have laid out a number of blankets on the tiled floors, eating home packed lunches from stacked tiffin cases or are deep in conversation. Others simply pass the time in a slumber, reclined over benches, vendor carts, in archways or resting their heads on packed suitcases.
It is extraordinary to watch this cross-section of life from the rail network; an integral part of the ‘everyday’ in Myanmar and a piece of infrastructure that has been looping through Yangon for more than six decades. When departing, I notice the the golden tiered roofs of the station; a traditional Burmese architectural style known as pyatthat that has been incorporated into the design of once colonial infrastructure.
The Circle Line and the rail network itself may be an old legacy of the British, but over time it has shaped itself to become so much more for people in Myanmar. It now offers one of the greatest insights into the everyday lives of vendors, workers, pilgrims, farmers, students and families as they commute to and from their destinations.
Special thank you to Novotel Yangon, who hosted our travelers in Yangon during the #PassportToAsia campaign.