Forget about expensive taxis and exhaust-filled, hectic traffic. Explore Myanmar’s biggest city, its suburbs and nearby villages on a historic, laid-back ride with the locals on the Yangon Circle Line.
Since my childhood, I’ve always been a fan of rail travel. So, whenever I have the opportunity to take a train, I’m all in. Some of these adventures are long, multiple-day journeys, like the one I took across Canada from Vancouver to Toronto on the VIA Rail Canadian. And some are simple day trips, like my recent ride on the Yangon Circle Line, which, while brief in comparison, will stay in my heart forever.
The Yangon Circle Line is not exactly high-tech transportation. The railway tracks in Myanmar are in bad need of repair (as is most of the infrastructure here). In fact, most of the rail systems in Myanmar date back to the British Colonial era, with little or no upgrades. So, expect a slow, bumpy but very memorable ride.
The Yangon Circle Line main station is the start to your train adventure
In spite of the fact that Yangon was once the nation’s capital (formerly known as Rangoon) and remains the center of commerce, the central station is primitive. As such, be sure to allow some extra time to figure out where to catch the train, as finding the right track can be a bit mystifying (signage in the main station is pretty scarce, especially in English).
Luckily, the friendly Myanmar people will be eager and glad to help you the best they can, and once someone has directed you to the correct platform (Number 7), it’s fairly easy to find the ticket booth.
You have two choices: buy a one-journey ticket for about 25 cents or buy a multi-stop ticket for about 85 cents. Since the multi-stop ticket is only 60 cents more (and we highly recommend you get on and off a couple of times), that’s your best option. There are a few trains that offer air conditioning for a little more money, but I wouldn’t recommend taking them unless you like being surrounded by other tourists. The basic “local” option is much more fun and interesting.
If you want to live dangerously, you can probably buy a one-trip ticket and get on and off as many times as you want (nobody ever checked our tickets), but hey, it’s only a 65 cents, and I hear the jails in Myanmar are pretty scary.
Get ready for a bumpy, slow ride on the Yangon Circle Line
As mentioned before, the rails here are in pretty bad shape. So, get ready for a wobbly, bouncy ride. Luckily, we’re not talking break-neck speeds here. In many sections I felt like I could have walked faster.
But hey, what’s the hurry? We were there to see the country; so we sat back and relaxed. Although, on second thought, you might want to stand … legs are much better shock absorbers.
Riding the Yangon Circle Line is going local
The Yangon Circle Line is the city’s subway, and as such, it’s a local’s ride. There were few times in Myanmar when I felt more “in touch” with the Burmese people than on this train.
On this long slow ride, families were getting on and get off, people were coming and going to work, market women were preparing their goods for sale, and officials were doing whatever it is officials do in Myanmar. We also saw merchants loading goods at one station, and other merchants offloading them down the line, which shows you how honest and trustworthy people are here.
If you want to ride the full 46-km/29-mile-long circular route (hence the name), it’ll take about 3 hours. Along the line, many street vendors come on and off the train selling goods — not tourists trinkets, but yummies for locals, but it’s buyer beware. I was so enchanted by red-glowing slices of watermelon a woman was selling, I almost forgot the terrible bug I got on a recent trip to Cambodia. However, Michaela’s raised eyebrow underlined with a knowing smirk reminded me of the traveler’s credo “boil it, cook it, peal it or forget it”.
The further we got from downtown Yangon, the more natural and bucolic the vistas. People were plowing their fields, harvesting water hyacinths or fishing in local ponds. Housing changed from corrugated iron roofed slums to standalone, palm-thatched huts in lush green, empty fields.
Sights along the Yangon Circle Line
Our adventure took us far out into the countryside of Yangon, passing an odd mix of incredible sights and garbage-filled backyards.
The garbage can be explained, in part, as it was mostly plastic. In the old days, before plastic, everything was wrapped in natural products — leaves, etc. So whatever locals dumped in their backyard would decompose or be consumed by pigs. But apparently, the Burmese don’t quite understand yet that plastic stays around forever.
If you don’t get off the train at all, it might be a little dull. So, be sure to hop off and hop on, as there are many interesting sites to explore.
The Secretariat or Ministers’ Building
This beautiful former home and administrative seat of British Burma is more than 120 years old and takes up an entire city block (bordered by Anawrahta, Theinbyu, Maha Bandula and Bo Aung Kyaw streets). It was here where Aung San Suu Kyi’s father and other cabinet ministers were assassinated in 1947. Unfortunately, it’s totally abandoned and in disrepair. Never the less, it’s a worth checking out before you start or after you end your Circle Line adventure, as it’s a very short 800 m/0.5 mi walk from the central station in Yangon.
This gilded, massive Pagoda is situated on Singuttara Hill is the most sacred Buddhist temple in Myanmar and a major tourist attraction. Scientists claim that it was built between the 6th and 1oth century. Although local legend claims it was built more than 2,600 years ago. Like at all Burmese temples, you will have to take off your shoes here to visit. There are many stops along the Circle Line that will get you close to the pagoda, but the closest one is Phaya Lan/Pagoda Road, from which it’s a leisurely 30-minute stroll (2 km/1.2 mi).
My favorite attractions along the way were the many markets. Some are official, large, sprawling markets that provide much to explore if you want to hop off and wait for the next train. Others are small ones set up on the railway sidings or platform where, if you’re fast, you can hop off, grab something quick and hop back on the same train.
Either way, they’re all good reasons to stretch your legs. The most interesting markets are the Danyingon Vegetable Market (stop: Danyingon) and the Hletan Market (stop: Hletan). The latter one offers countless food stalls, and “50th Street” behind the market is really buzzing with students in the evenings because of its proximity to the University of Yangon.
The Circle Line is also a viable means for accessing the city’s airport. The nearest stop is Pa Ywet Sate Kon. It’s still 2 km/1.2 mi from the Yangon International Airport, but you’ll save a lot on taxi fare and you’ll spend less wasted time in Yangon’s daily traffic, which can extend the normal taxi ride time from 30 minutes to 1.5 hours. You can also walk if you’re “traveling light”.
If you do get off for an extended break, make sure you know when to catch the next train. In spite of the apparent primitive crazy nature of Myanmar (and this train), the schedules are surprisingly accurate. We missed our train after arriving at the station less than a minute late.
If Yangon is part of your visit to stunning Myanmar, the Circle Line is a must do. You’ll get more out of a ride on this train than from a hundred taxi rides in the congested city. When you get off the train to explore, remember, you can hop back on trains going in either direction, as they all end up in the same place; it’s a circle after all!
Have you been on the Yangon Circle Line? What were your best memories? Share them with us in the comments below!
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