Yangon Circle Train

I’ve officially been on the road for a little over a month now. I haven’t written in almost three weeks. I’ve been soaking it all up, and I’ll tell you, it’s a lot. Smells, views, places, people. Oh, the people.

I’ve now made it to Luang Prabang in Laos. Life is slow here and I am able to process the past weeks a little better. I have a lot to share, and I don’t intend to skip anything.

Bear with me as I take you back to Yangon and we work our way over from there. There’s been a lot of beauty, I promise you.

On my fourth day in Yangon I took a ride on the so-called circle train. Our hostel had a deal where if you check into the location on Facebook, you get a ticket for free. Together with a backpacker I’d met the day before, I checked in and got my ticket. Off to the train station we went.

The Yangon circular train connects the city with the suburban areas outside of town. It’s relatively low cost means it is the mode of choice for lower income commuters. The train passes through the city, out to the countryside and back. It takes 3 hours total.

We sat at the train station –which is to say it is a platform with no more than a roof over it and some benches- waiting for the train. 11.15, they said. At around 11, a train rolled up. We trust that this must be it. I’m curious to finally see why everyone is so excited about sitting on this particular train for a full 3 hours.

We board the train and walk through, looking for seats. There is a lot of staring, but as with the rest of my days in Yangon, these stares aren’t unkind. They are inquisitive; curious. And when you flash a smile, the smile returned is shy, but it is genuine. It’s limited by our cultural and linguistic differences, but it’s a smile that says: I am glad to know you.

We soon find ourselves immersed in a culture of selling and sharing. Vendors hop on and off the train with massive bags and baskets of goodies. Oranges and other citrus fruits I’ve never seen before, sesame desserts, sliced mango with chili, cigarettes, you name it.

We are hesitant at first and we watch it all go by. But when a woman buys a bag of oranges and insists that we take one, we quickly learn that this is the way to go. This train isn’t just about getting from one place to the next, it’s about connection.

My mind dubs it the connector train, and we quickly make our own purchase.

We buy a bag of little oranges. The vendor recognizes that we clearly have no idea what we’re doing so he points at one and pops the whole thing into his mouth. He’s showing us that you’re meant to eat it with the peel. Connection.

A vendor passes by with mango and chili. I’m transfixed by the dexterity with which she sits down, takes the basket off her head without dropping it, prepares a bag of mango for someone, and walks away, basket back on her head. I want some too but I’ve been watching in awe for too long and now she’s gone. The lady who bought some sees my awe. She hands me the bag and gestures. She smiles, I smile. I take a piece of mango. I smile again. My eyes say “thank you so much, this is delicious.”

We spend the next hour this way, buying food and sharing it. Sharing smiles. We practice our thank you’s (“kyay zuu par”), trying to get the pronunciation right. I suspect we aren’t getting it quite right because of the giggles when we say it.

We try anyway; connection.

Eventually the tattered buildings give way to rice fields. Clothes are laid out on the tracks to dry and children play along the railroad. There’s an openness here, and I walk to one of the open doors and sit there, letting my feet hang out over the tracks. I observe the houses that we pass. I watch my fellow travelers and wonder about their lives. As we pass through the rural areas, more produce is added to the train. Vegetables and fruits galore, all heading back to the city markets.

Eventually we start the loop back. The buildings make their return and we slowly head back into the bustling city.

At this point we also meet two monks. One of them speaks quite a bit of English. He’s eager to tell us about himself and to learn about us. It’s still incredibly difficult to understand what he’s saying, but he is kind and open so we continue to nod and smile.

The other monk sits next to me. She is the first female monk I have met. She wears a pink robe with an orange sash. Her hair is shaved but beginning to grow back a little. Her teeth are stained red from chewing betel nuts – like most people in Yangon. She smiles with her whole face and giggles endlessly.

She speaks no English but she takes to me. She touches my hand, pointing at things around us. She wants to show me things; she wants to teach me. I’m quite certain she makes jokes about the other monk. He smiles. As she chatters in Burmese and giggles, I smile and giggle back. We don’t understand each other’s languages but really, the giggles are all we need.

The male monk continues to speak to us and the one part I am actually able to understand is this.

He asks us repeatedly: “are you happy in my country?”

We nod and bow, we smile. We say yes, we are. We are so happy in your country.

I feel like I am smiling with my whole self.

One final note: if you buy a ticket yourself, the cost is about 200 kyat. That’s 0.11 euros. It’s worth it, I promise you.

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