It’s a staple of all must-do lists but is the Yangon Circle Train really worth it?
So far in Myanmar I have not had a more serene moment then about halfway through the circle line train ride. The crowd had dissipated, the landscape flattened, and everyone on the train had quietly agreed to a few moments of peace. As we rumbled along the tracks, no one spoke, no one was selling anything, and I was able to just appreciate everything happening around me...
Getting on the train is a little confusing. There are lots of different ways to secure a ticket and different sources will tell you different things. We managed to get our tickets and board the train without too much trouble, but with more difficulty than usual for a metropolitan train. We arrived by taxi right outside Yangon Central , the main railway station in the city. There is a big ticket booth in the main entrance but you don’t need to stop at it. You can walk around to the left where there is a gate, turn left and head towards the staircase at the end. There are security guards at this gate, so if you need help vaguely give them a circle-like gesture and they will point you in the direction of Platform 7, from which the circle line runs. As you walk towards the stairs you might notice a tourist office to your left. You can go in there but I think it is unnecessary and you may end up paying more for your tickets, but I imagine they have English speakers in there who can help you if you are lost or confused.
Once you reach the staircase go up to the top and walk all the way until you can’t anymore because of a wall. You have reached Platform 7. Go down the stairs to the right and you will see a ticket booth down the platform in front of you. You should be able to pick up tickets here for no more than 250 kyats. You can try getting a 100 kyat ticket, but they seem to automatically sell the 250 kyats “air-con” ticket to foreigners.
The guy at the booth on the platform didn’t speak English very well and there were so many people rushing up to him that we weren’t entirely sure what happened in this transaction. There was a train on the platform leaving at 11:50 that we had intended to get on, but the same guy seemed determined that we get on the 12:20 train, which isn’t on the schedule anywhere (more on that later). I’m not sure if the train running was full, (although I don’t think so because we saw 5-10 people buy tickets and run to the train) or if the 12:20 train was supposed to have air conditioning (also more on that later), but we ended up waiting for the 12:20. There were people around we tried to ask but they seemed just as confused as us. It also seems that different types of trains run on the circle line at different times, and that might affect the price, but this is not posted anywhere.
Suffice it to say this doesn’t seem to be the most well-organized train station or system in the world. That said, it was lively and fun, and it was nice to observe for a half an hour. We noticed some other foreign-looking people coming to the track and figured that was a good sign we were in the right place. But then things took a turn for the worse. We saw a big group descend the stairs with what looked like a local guide complete with flag to wave in case people got lost. I was suddenly less excited to get on the train.
12:20 did eventually come around eventually but no train came to the platform. What did happen was: (1) A train arrived three platforms over. (2) All the local people crossed the tracks to get to it as an announcement was made in Myanmar language. (3) The tour guide started taking people across the tracks too. (4) Suddenly the rest of the foreigners were racing across the tracks to get the train. We also had to cross the tracks towards said train, walk down the track and along a fence that divided us from the platform, walk in front of the train (not knowing when it could start to move), then race ahead of the tour group to get on the last car on the train at its other far end which looked less crowded. And a good thing too because the last of that group just made it on as the train started moving.
Getting on a crowded train with a bunch of other tourists wasn’t exactly my idea of an “authentic” Yangon experience, so I was pretty miserable standing on the crowded train in the heat for the first 20 minutes or so. But slowly the mob started diminishing and we were able to grab two seats. Then the tour group got off at one of the earlier stations and the train was looking a lot more attractive. The scenery was changing as rapidly as the crowd and we were finally able to relax and settle into the upcoming journey.
Our train was actually a lot more comfortable than I had prepared myself for. The “JR” signage on the car, and writing in Japanese implied it was used Japan Railways stock. We had nice padded seats all along the sides, loops overhead if you were standing, and fans spread evenly across the ceiling hitting you with a nice breeze every so often. The ride was certainly bumpy at times but the cushioned seats really helped. I don’t know if this was officially “air-con” class, but it was fine by me as we had planned to ditch the A/C anyway. It has been implied that all the air conditioning units have been removed from the trains due to the Japanese equipment malfunctioning in the Myanmar heat, which wouldn’t surprise me. Or perhaps A/C means ceiling fans combined with windows that opened and sun blinds.
The ride itself was quite entertaining for something that amounts to sitting on public transit and people . watching for 3 hours. There was a lot to see out the window to keep you occupied, and you get a pretty good idea of life outside the center of the city. Most of the time will be spent in the suburbs of the city, so don’t get the idea that you will be seeing authentic untouched villages or anything like that. You’re more likely to see an expat walking through their neighborhood. Despite that though, there are some interesting sights with people going about their daily life.
One of the stations is surrounded by a lively market, and at this stop, many people were bringing on, or dropping off, huge bundles of produce. There are some stops that are so quick, and the station so small, you might blink and miss them. People wave as the train goes by and it’s fun to wave back especially when they see faces that are quite different from their own. You can feel free to get off the train at any time with your ticket; there don’t seem to be many rules about that.
We found the most interesting part of the journey to be just around the second major turn in the oval shaped track. It’s very peaceful here with the clear land, trees, and very few people or houses around the train.
You will also see lots of vendors selling their wares up and down the train cars. They are very polite (if occasionally loud) and not normally pushy at all. The stuff they are selling looks great. I was most tempted by the corn on the cob that I could smell coming a car away. I noticed most of them are very friendly with the conductors and police officers on the train and would offer them something from their basket - the officials didn’t seem to take too much advantage though.
As the train rolled around and came to a stop again at the Central Station. We both felt happy, relieved, and quite satisfied. What was supposed to be just a simple train ride had actually turned out to be an emotional rollercoaster, but not in a bad way at all. So was the train ride worth it? Definitely, no it’s not a life-changing experience, but for less than $0.20 USD I can think of a lot of worse ways to spend 3 hours.
My Advice For The Train -
A lot of foreign investment is being put into the rail lines in Myanmar. Train cars for the long distances routes to places like Mandalay are being built and brought from China and soon to be produced here with Chinese technology. I also just read today that the line is going to get an upgrade, funded by a loan from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, to improve the track, amenities, and cars. This upgrade will also shorten the journey to two hours and probably increase the price. So it may not last for many more years in its current state. While improvements are much needed for this system to be on par with most major cities, it was still nice to get what feels like a classic experience - the only thing that was missing were steam engines! I’m sure it will still be great after the improvements but get on in the next few years if you want to experience it how it is today.
How to Get There - If you’re coming by taxi just say the "Yangon Railway”. If you’re coming from Downtown walk north on Pansodan street and one the left side of the street there is a covered walkway on the overpass. About halfway through you will see a staircase that if open will take you straight down to Platform 7.
Train Stops - Information and Maps ...accuracy varies.
Times - The first train leaves at 6:10 am (06:10) and they depart the station every 45 mins - 1 hour until just after 5:10 pm (17:10).
Cost - 100-250 kyat. Our taxi also paid 200 kyats to the security guard to get into the drop-off area outside the station, not 100% sure about this but for a few cents I wasn’t going to argue.
Have you been on the train? Was your experience similar to ours? Are you tempted to get on the train now and experience Yangon? Have updated information about the train? Let us know in the comments.
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