Yangon's train to nowhere

The circular train that starts and ends at Yangon Central Railway Station gives a glimpse of daily life in Myanmar's biggest city

It is the train to nowhere that lets you see almost everything. Where other cities have open-top buses or river boats that show tourists the heart of the place, Yangon has a rickety old train which runs in a loop.

The train starts and ends at Yangon Central Railway Station and, in the three hours it takes to complete a 46km loop through the suburbs, its passengers are offered great insight into daily life in Myanmar's biggest city.

The train brims with energy. Packed with schoolchildren, commuters, monks and drink vendors, it passes close to many of Yangon's main sights - the gleaming Shwedagon Pagoda, bustling Bogyoke Market, magnificent St Mary's Cathedral and lush Kandawgyi Park.

Combined with the low cost of tickets - I spend only $1 on mine - this has made the train an appealing way for tourists to explore the city. At the station, peering through a small window, a friendly ticket attendant asks me which circular train I wish to board, the one heading right or left?

I have no preference - they both end up in the same place. But it is mid-afternoon and the next train is heading right, so my choice is easy.

The circular train may be slow, but it is easily the cheapest way to get around the city and so it is heavily used by Yangon locals, with tens of thousands of passengers a day. That makes it the city's main mode of commuter transport, the equivalent of Singapore's MRT.

  • GETTING THERE

  • Yangon has an international airport and there are several direct flights from Singapore every day on Singapore Airlines, Jetstar and Myanmar National Airlines.

    Yangon Central Railway Station is in the city's downtown area in Kun Chan Road, close to most of the main tourist attractions.

With half an hour to spare before the train arrives, I wander around the station. Embellished by four towers, each topped by golden, pagoda-like ornaments, it is unmistakably Burmese in its appearance.

The original station, built by the British in 1877, was destroyed during World War II and rebuilt in the 1950s using the design of a local engineer. Its grandeur may have faded over the past 60 years, but there is much charm inside and outside its walls.

Many of the trains which depart from this station offer much longer journeys than the circular train, some of them taking more than 12 hours, such as the trip to the northern city of Mandalay. So there are people everywhere preparing for big voyages.

Elderly people sleep together on the ground to build energy for their sojourn. Families carry giant boxes of products destined for their home towns. Children from the countryside excitedly play with toys purchased in the shiny new shops of this swiftly expanding metropolis.

As I'm staring at the weathered ceiling of the station's once- magnificent entrance hall, I realise my train is due to arrive in just a few minutes. I dash through the station - the train is on the platform already.

All the seats have been taken and I'm left standing in the aisle. This is not as big a problem as it first seems because the train stops so frequently - there are 39 stops - that people are vacating their seats regularly.

Settling into a newly open spot by the window, I quickly realise why this circular train has become so popular with tourists.

Train travel is fantastic for admiring scenery. The circular train moves so slowly that you are able to absorb each neighbourhood you pass through, observing its character and noting its rhythms and idiosyncrasies. Where fast, modern trains reduce the passing environment to a blur, Yangon's ever-so-slow variety almost gives you enough time to count the screws on the rail track below.

At one point, I watch a group of rambunctious boys climbing a tree by the trackside.

Later, I witness a lively bartering session over a bag of coconuts as we pass a market.

In the city centre, the streets are clogged with cars, trucks and motorbikes weaving with minimal caution around this moving metallic mess.

The further we venture out into the suburbs, the more slowly everything and everyone seem to operate, the frenetic energy of downtown Yangon having dissipated.

I can see into many humble railside houses, where I spot a surprising number of new flat-screen TVs, connected to the satellite dishes which seem to top every other building.

Shortly before my journey finishes, I look on intrigued as three young monks take photos of one another with smartphones while lying down in a park. It is evidence of the increasing modernisation of a country which, until five years ago, was in many ways closed off to the world, under heavy military control.

Foreign brands and cutting-edge technology were rarely seen before the new civilian government removed old trade bans. I had read about this time of great change and now I'm witnessing it at the ground level.

These observations are the kinds of small joys I cherish while travelling. It is why I love to investigate cities on foot. Over the course of such exploration, the traveller slowly begins to ingest the environment, gaining a deep sense of a place's identity.

Yangon's circular train allows me to do just this without having to tire myself.

I just sit, watch and let the city come to me, slowly, slowly.

•The writer is an Australian photojournalist who splits his time between Ireland and Thailand.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 27, 2016, with the headline 'Yangon's train to nowhere'. Print Edition | Subscribe