I was drawn to Yangon Circle Line precisely because of the way Lonely Planet (2017) described it — that it can feel like traveling in a washing machine on spin cycle. I had dreamed of embarking on such a crazy adventure. At the end of the day, I did not experience much spinning sensation from the train ride. But I got something better. Far better.
Following the suggestion made by Lonely Planet, we decided to not do the entire three-hour, 30-mile circuit. Our plan was “if the train ride rocked and bounced us to the point of getting sick, we would get off at the 9th station. Otherwise, we would do it at the 12th station” (as if there was a huge geographical distance between the 9th station and the 12th station!). We were lucky enough to be seated as the train became crowded with both local people and curious tourists. My excitement grew bigger as the train left Yangon train station toward the next 37 stops. However, in contrast to my anticipation of a wild, head-spinning, back-and-forth-rocking train ride fantasy, the ride was slow and quite smooth. Though my expectation and reality did not match, I was not disappointed. I guess a much bigger portion of my attention and interest was focused on the lives that were unfolding right before my eyes, both the lives on the train and lives outside the train.
On the train I carefully watched my fellow passengers. Sitting right next to me was a teenage boy who had his face adorned with Thanaka powder (I was wrong for thinking this traditional beauty secret was for the Burmese girls/women only). He seemed to be lost in his smartphone, but when I asked my sister to take a photo of me, he respectfully moved away from the frame (he was still in my photo but that’s just how I loved it). Standing close to where we were seated were three pretty young ladies. They all had shiny long black hair and were dressed very beautifully. They were probably out for their usual Sunday get-together with friends. As they were not talking to one another, I wondered if they were friends or they just happened to be standing close together. In fact, most of the passengers seemed to have activated their silent mode. Some looked as if they were engaged in some deep thinking. I wondered what was going through their minds. Some others were dozing off. The day must have felt long to them though it was not even 11AM. The sight of people — young, old, men, women, rich, poor, local people, and tourists alike — sporting colorful longyi was almost everywhere. When the train stopped at the designated stations, people selling food, snacks, water, fruit and who-knows-what-else climbed aboard the train trying to sell their offerings to the passengers. I found it tremendously fascinating to watch some of those sellers gracefully carried trays filled with their offerings over their heads. Not everyone could do that, I thought.
I looked outside the train windows. We passed by shabby apartments, little wooden stands selling fruit and vegetables, charming street food scenes, farmers toiling under the blistering sun… it was Sunday and I remember asking my mom and sister “What do you think the people in these apartments are doing right now?” One particular sight sticks with me till today. It was the sight of women laying colorful clothes on the unused, rusty train tracks to dry at the 7th station. That sight was poignant yet beautiful. I feel I am unable to perfectly, or at least fairly, describe how I felt when I laid my eyes on that scene of life. I just know it put me at a crossroads of emotions. So much of my daily life I tend to take for granted when for some people they don’t even have proper space to dry their clothes! It would be great to take some photos of such scenes, but perhaps sometimes certain sights are best left “unphotographed”. My sister said “it is like looking into lives through windows”.
We disembarked at the 12th station. We took our time to walk across the train tracks to the other side. While waiting for the train to come, I studied my surroundings closely. At the back of the station there were a few shops that ran along the road. One of them was definitely in the telephone business as it had a giant banner bearing the words “Telenor 4G” that hung over the entrance of its front door. Traffic seemed quite busy. A city bus pulled over at a nearby station to drop off/pick up passengers. I wondered if local people traveled by bus more than they did by train. Sitting close to where we were at the 12th station were three women selling various things — pickles and sour fruit salads, betel nuts and the other ingredients for Kun-ya chewing (I didn’t know betel nuts chewing was a serious addiction in Myanmar), deep fried dough that I would have liked to try if my fever was not causing a decreased appetite. My sister could not seem to contain her insatiable craving for mango salad tossed with salt, licorice, chili and ginger so she went over to one of the women to get some (she did get a mild diarrhea later in our trip but it could be due to something else). My mom’s eyes were fixed on the small house/shop located right across the tracks from us. A mother was rocking her baby to sleep in a baby hammock. My mom thought the hammock was hung a little too high from the floor, and the rocking was a little too rough. I guess my mom was scared for the baby as she finally said “Will the baby not be thrown out of the hammock?” I watched people cross the rail tracks on their bikes or by foot. The sight was nothing extraordinary but it allowed me to catch a glimpse of the everyday lives of the local people. For me, that was very interesting.
We were still lucky enough to have found available seats on our ride back to Yangon. Sitting next to my sister was a local man who, just like the teenage boy sitting beside me in the morning, appeared to be so immersed in his smartphone that he seemed oblivious to his surroundings. I guess he did notice me trying to take a photo of vendors because he later asked us where we were from. We quickly fell into conversation. If my fever was not so bad I would have asked him an endless number of questions about Myanmar. We learned that he was in Japan for a couple of years to be trained as a Sushi chef and that he was currently running a guest house in Yangon. I discovered from him that the local people prefer traveling by train to traveling by bus because the former is cheaper, faster, and less crowded. When I asked him about the strawberries that the vendors were selling to passengers, he said they were locally grown in Inle Lake. When we told him that’s where we were heading to next, he was very quick to respond “Inle is a very beautiful place. The air is cool and fresh…” He described it so beautifully that I became very excited about leaving for Inle Lake by bus at 6PM that very same day. It was also immensely engaging to hear him speak about the tourism industry in Myanmar and Japan’s contribution to the development and growth of rail transportation in the country. I could tell that this man definitely knew a lot! When we told him about our plan to take a taxi to the Bogyoke Aung San Market, he quickly pointed out that we could get off at the 2nd station as the market was right next to it. He just helped us save some taxi money and precious time! It is always interesting to talk to local people for reasons 1) we can really learn about things that may not be covered in travel guidebooks in the most honest, fair, objective and accurate manner; 2) they may have tips that can help you avoid unnecessary time and money spending; and 3) they can add weight and meaning and satisfaction to your trip, hence more precious memories.
Whether the ride on Yangon Circle Line was no spin at all, or the ultra-extreme super spin, or the high spin, it no longer mattered to me for I found a much better way of enjoying the ride.