Yangon Circle Line

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.

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Looking into lives through a window of Yangon Circle Line. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

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.

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Here comes the train at Yangon train station, the first of the 38 stations.

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”.

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A vendor in her colorful longyi carrying a tray of sour fruit salads on top of her head.

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.

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The humble view of the everyday lives from the 12th station.

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.

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The deep fried dough sure looks good, doesn’t it? Imagine having it for a late afternoon coffee break. Heaven! Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

Bridge of Life

To some of us, a bridge is merely a structure that connects two points. But to many of us, a bridge can be metaphorically significant. Personally I have found solace in the symbolic representation of bridge as hope. In times of sorrow or distress, it can be comforting to imagine oneself crossing the bridge over troubled water with the prospect of better things on the other side.

I have crossed too many bridges that I am unable to remember all of them. I fondly remember the little bridge that spanned across the little river at my beloved grandmother’s place. I remember taking some I-am-trying-to-look-cool photos on a suspension bridge during a high school camping trip. Harvard Bridge was part of my do-or-die running route when Boston became my short-term place of residence. I am also fortunate enough to have crossed some of the world’s iconic bridges such as Golden Gate Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge and Capilano Suspension Bridge.

The most recent bridge I walked on is U Bein Bridge located in the ancient capital of Amarapura in Myanmar. It was no ordinary bridge that gave me extraordinary experience of the country that spelled much mystery to me prior to my visit with my mom and sister. The bridge has become one of Myanmar’s star attractions. It has been featured in a lot of postcards and paintings that attempt to depict the bridge in quiet romance. It has seen people from all walks of life cross it on a daily basis. What is it about U Bein Bridge that makes it so fascinating to so many people? Do people come to it for the fact that it is the world’s longest and oldest teakwood bridge built over 150 years ago? Do they come so they can admire the engineering feat accomplished by the man after whom the bridge is named — the local mayor at the time, U Bein (Mr. Bein)? Or do people come because the bridge is on the list of Myanmar travel guidebooks’ must-sees? I would like to think that we are all driven by different reasons to make a trip to U Bein Bridge.

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Silhouettes of people walking on U Bein Bridge against the setting sun and their reflections on the water of Taungthaman Lake.

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The Bridge is a lot more quiet in the morning.

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The beautiful surroundings of U Bein Bridge – wooden boats and their reflections on the calm waters of Taungthaman Lake, lush green fields, farmers’ hut… Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

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Lovely views of the surroundings of U Bein Bridge. The distant land is dotted with stupas and monasteries. A fisherman takes a couple on a boat ride across Taungthaman Lake flanked by green fields. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

I came for its widespread reputation as an iconic landmark of Mandalay. We visited the bridge on two different occasions —mid-morning and sunset — thus allowing us to have different experiences of the bridge. If I could summarize the two different experiences, I would say, on the surface the mid-morning visit was characterized by fewer people, and the sunset visit saw considerably more people. But on the deeper level, I would say both occasions allowed me to view U Bein Bridge as a bridge of life.

I picture U Bein Bridge as a wise old sage who has seen the arrivals and departures of hundreds of thousands of people since its inception. Through his lens, I saw how the bridge and its surroundings have become a center of livelihoods for many local people — souvenir sellers selling essentially the same trinkets on the bridge, a large group of shops and restaurants on one end of the bridge, fishermen on their wooden boats gliding across the Taungthaman Lake above which the bridge stretches out for slightly over 1 kilometer, farmers tending their crops. Looking from a wider angle, beyond subsistence, I observed monks on their way to some monastic school (I presume!), couples who seemed to be head over heels in love that they seemed oblivious to their surroundings, friends hanging out together and who could not seem to get enough of taking wefies, the solo visitors who seemed to stare blankly at the distant land (I wonder what they were thinking) and who shyly took selfies when they thought no one was watching, tourists who were probably packed with a sense of curiosity, excitement, gratefulness and much anticipation for their one-on-one encounters with the bridge. As the sunset drew a closure for all who had come to it, I watched the souvenir sellers pack their trinkets back into boxes, fishermen tend their fishing nets, farmers put down their tools, kids have the time of their lives, people leave and head home or to their next destination. Tomorrow and the subsequent days, weeks, months, and years will witness, I imagine, pretty much the same scenes — the sun rises and sets, people come and go. Indeed, U Bein Bridge is a perfect point to watch lives. Another perspective from which I look at the bridge is that my Myanmar trip was enjoyable, deep and profound chiefly because of two experiences. U Bein Bridge is one of them. It has given a precious life to my Myanmar adventure.

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The sun is slowly dipping below the horizon, marking the end of the day.

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Spectacular reflection as the sun reflects off the now-very-still water of Taungthaman Lake, appearing to form an illuminated path of sorts on the surface of the water.

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At the end of the day, fishermen, if not taking tourists out on a boat ride to view the bridge from the lake’s angle, tend their fishing nets. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

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My mom watches the day go by as she sips a fresh coconut. Photo courtesy of Shuzytha Bidder.

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My sister and the artist who painted the U Bein Bridge painting that she bought in Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon. What a nice little chance encounter!