One of the most fascinating experiences to have while visiting Myanmar is to walk in the footsteps of locals and learn about Burmese culture, customs, and lifestyle. The easiest way to do this is to hop on the commuter rail in Yangon. The circle train is an excellent thing to do on your first day in Yangon, Myanmar so you can become familiar with the local cultural norms and have the chance to mingle with the incredibly kind Burmese people. Here’s a glimpse into local life in Yangon from the circle train.
The Yangon circle train quickly became one of my favorite travel train experiences that I’ve had–a big feat considering I’m terrified of trains and don’t often opt to ride them.
I was enamored with the kind people I met as I sat and observed for three hours as the train spun around the outskirts of Yangon.
The Yangon circle train experience is overstimulating with a constant flux of crowds, some baring unimaginably huge loads of produce, flowers, and the local chewing tobacco, betel nut.
Fresh air spins through the open train compartment and longyi skirts in dazzling patterns are worn by both male and female commuters passing by.
The best way to experience the Yangon circle train is to go with a local guide who can share with you information about the villages, way of life, and help you communicate with locals by translating for you. This 11-hour tour is just US$60 and includes lunch at a local spot, visits to village markets, temples, and more.
Even when there was hardly room to stand the atmosphere on the train remained lighthearted and warm. Strangers greeted each other with smiles and people made room for monks and elderly to sit down and rest for a while. I played games with sweet children, protected from the sun with thick coats of thanaka painted on their cheeks.
Men openly smoke cheroot as women mingle over the farm fresh produce.
As always I was intrigued by monks and was surprised when they were eager to converse with me and pose for photos.
There’s no need to pack snacks for the Yangon circle train as vendors walk through the cart selling their homemade traditional treats. If you’re a picky eater like I am you might want to bring something to munch on as you’re unlikely to be able to find someone to help you translate Burmese to English. Bring your own bamboo utensils to avoid unnecessary plastic waste or risk eating off of a contaminated fork. A 3-hour journey is quite long so be sure to fill up your eco-friendly reusable water bottle before the ride!
We zipped past stations and had a few moments to look out into the passing villages to see houses, farmland, and ordinary daily interactions.
I sat at the back of the train, which was quite refreshing as there was extra air circulation from the open back door. However, I’d recommend sitting towards the center of the train so you have more time to capture photos of your surroundings at the station stops.
Some important Burmese etiquette to keep in mind while riding the circle train in Yangon is to never touch monks, especially not if you’re female. Always follow the lead of the local that’s greeting you if they go to shake your hand, accept it, but otherwise don’t be the first to make contact as they may be uncomfortable with your touch. It’s improper to touch someone’s head, even children. If you purchase something it’s polite to accept it with two hands rather than one. Public affection is frowned upon so if you’re traveling with your SO keep the snuggling and handholding to a minimum. I probably don’t have to tell you it’d be rude to kiss in public, right? Riding the circle train in Yangon is a very localized experience so it’s important to dress in a way that respects cultural norms. It does get hot so opt for lightweight clothes that are modest, and cozy. You have a long ride ahead of you!
My time in Myanmar was excellent for my practice in portrait photography. Everyone is so eager to have their photo taken, hold a camera, and try out taking a few shots on their own. I really want to get a portable printer so I can give people the portraits I take of them. Who wants to buy me this HP portable photo printer?
As always, I try my best to communicate with my subject to make sure they’re comfortable with their photo being taken before snapping away. Always respect someone’s privacy if they don’t want their photo taken and be aware of unspoken cues that may show they’re uncomfortable. This isn’t so easy out of the back of a moving train so I hope these passerby’s don’t mind that I took their photos.
While on the Yangon circle train remember that you are the foreigner here. Its possible people may have never seen someone with your features before. Don’t be offended if you’re being stared at. Make eye contact and warmly greet them with the local greeting, mingalaba. Burmese are so wonderfully kind, they’re likely just as curious about you as you are of them! If you are truly uncomfortable with any stares just discreetly move to another part of the train. The train is monitored by law enforcement and conductors who collect tickets so you really don’t need to worry about your safety. Just be respectful and gracious for this unique experience to take a glimpse into local life in Yangon.
Figuring out the timings of the Yangon circle train can be a bit tricky. The train only leaves a few times a day and only from the Yangon Central Station. I grabbed the train that departed around 11 AM but I wish I had gone earlier when there would have been more people coming and going to the markets as the train ride surely would have been a bit more lively. If you have time to go by the Yangon Central Station a day in advance to check the schedule at the information desk. There is no need to buy a ticket in advance, you will purchase your ticket on the platform before entering the train. Usually, the Yangon circle train departs from platform 4 or 7. I had read that it was required for foreigners to show a passport but never needed to show mine to any officials. At any point, if you get tired of riding the train you can hop off and get a Grab ride back to downtown Yangon.
The scenery on the Yangon circle train changes rapidly from urban to rural. The entire journey takes about three hours to complete the loop.
For another memorable train ride check out my photo journal from the train route between Ella and Kandy in Sri Lanka.
To learn about the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and why I don’t support a travel boycott please read my article on Matador Network.
before exploring Yangon to protect yourself should any accidents ever occur! Word Nomads offers travel insurance can be even after you’ve already started traveling.
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