The Long Way Round – Taking Yangon’s Circle Train

by Brenna Holeman

Yangon Circle Train 17

Yangon, Myanmar

Last year, my friend Michael of Time Travel Turtle wrote a brilliant piece about the Circle Line Train in Yangon, complete with stunning photographs. I read it again when it came up on the shortlist for Hostelworld’s Travel Story Awards and was reminded of my similar journey, nearly three years ago.

I arrived in Yangon extremely ill – a terrible cold that would later turn into bronchitis and a lung infection that followed me for two months through Southeast Asia. Still, I was so excited to be in this place, this secret, sacred place. Things are changing constantly in Myanmar, and it is becoming increasingly easier to travel there; but only a few years ago, it wasn’t an easy country to travel to, with strict visa regulations and very limited ways of changing money once there. Looming over all of that, of course, was years upon years of political strife, oppression, war, and sadness.

And yet when I arrived in Yangon I did not find a sad place, or sad people; I found quite the opposite, a place filled with those eager to smile and share a story, with those who would invite us into their homes, with those who would give us gifts of food and friendship, with those who would laugh with us, talk with us. There is that condescending travel writing cliche, that one of “friendly locals”, but I have never met people friendlier than the people of Myanmar. Never have I been so welcomed.

Yangon Circle Train 14

On our third day in Yangon, my lifetime travel partner Kerri and I decided to join our new friends Uros and Jerome for a ride on the Circle Train. We had all heard that it was a great way to spend a few hours, a great way to see some of the sights of the city in a unique way. I couldn’t wait – to see a country through the window of a train is one of my favourite ways to sightsee. The train in Yangon is so named because it literally circles the city; the whole journey takes approximately three hours, and a train comes every hour.

We sat waiting for the mid-day train, children daring each other to come closer and closer, laughing as we snapped photos. It was a sunny, hot day in February, the air filled with that familiar train station odour of rotting vegetables and diesel oil. A few women had set up stands selling water, fruit, juice in bags, beedi cigarettes.

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When the rickety yellow train finally rolled into the station, we jumped on it, finding seats on one of the wood benches. Slats in the bench were missing, and we’d shift in our seats often, trying to find the most comfortable position.

We were excited. Though a regular commute for most, to us it was an adventure, a chance to see something new. We drew stares, but never intimidating or negative ones; they were stares like our own. Curious.

Yangon Circle Train 13

Yangon Circle Train 4

We whipped past the city, occasionally recognising places we had previously walked or cycled. Soon we were out beyond the hustle and bustle, passing fields and crops. There were settlements of houses and shops, and occasionally we’d pull up to a platform that was a market, filled with people selling their wares. Throughout the journey men and women would load and unload supplies from stop to stop, or come onboard to sell snacks and trinkets: oranges, quail eggs, bracelets, flowers.

Yangon Circle Train

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Yangon Circle Train 7

The defining moment of the journey happened near the beginning, when Kerri and I had left our bench seats and migrated to the door of the train carriage. There, we sat on the steps in between stops, our legs feeling the breeze, our view unobstructed by other people, cargo, or windows.

Yangon Circle Train 12

Each time we pulled into a station, we’d stand up to let other people pass. The train never really stopped moving in these stations, just slowed down significantly to allow people to jump on and off. At one stop, we thought everyone was on the train; as it started to roll out, however, a man attempted to step on where we were sitting. Scrambling to let him pass, Kerri stood up quickly; and, straight out of a traveller’s nightmare, her purse tumbled out of her hands and onto the tracks below.

She had only a moment’s time to reflect, and she did what all of us would have done: she jumped off, too, retrieving her purse in the process. It held her camera, wallet, and passport, there was really no other option. Because we were the last carriage, however, by the time she got her bearings we were already on our way, picking up speed.

Onboard, I started panicking. I can only imagine she was doing the same, watching the train with her best friend and travel partner (one who held the train tickets) became smaller and smaller on the horizon as she was left at an unknown station where few people spoke English. I briefly contemplated jumping off the train myself, but we were going too quickly and the people around me, who had now caught wind of what was happening, advised against it.

Instead, the most miraculous thing happened. People started shouting, calling up the carriage to each other. Men and women started waving anything they could out the train window: scarves, shirts, plastic bags. It created a wave, a ripple that started in our last carriage and made it all the way to the front of the train.

I know this, of course, because we started to slow. And then, somewhere on the outskirts of Yangon, in between two stations, the train shuddered to a stop.

It has been nearly three years since this incident and still I cannot believe it. This train, the one responsible for carrying thousands of people around the city, stopped for Kerri. Uros, Jerome, and I waited outside the train, not quite sure what we were even waiting for. I turned and snapped one photo, of everyone watching us.

Yangon Circle Train 11

And then, she appeared; later I found out she had been instructed to run after the train, along the tracks. The series of events – the falling of the purse, the chaos on the train, the stopping of the train, seeing Kerri turn that corner sweating but smiling – can play out like a movie in my head. We hugged, a giddy, incredulous hug, and boarded the train to cheers. Nobody seemed angry or upset that we had stopped for a few (arguably irresponsible) tourists. Everyone was simply happy to see us reunited, and then returned to their business.

A video we took a few hours later in Yangon (warning: we sound a bit daft. I blame both that delicious food and the fact that we were still reeling from the day’s events. I still maintain your purse or bag should have a long strap, though) 

The rest of the journey was much quieter in comparison, but it remains one of the best journeys of my life. On it I not only got to experience a little bit of the local life in Myanmar, to see the way the people live, work, and commute, to see what they eat, what they wear, and where they live, but I also got to talk to them, to wave, to share oranges, to smile when we had no words in common. More than that, I saw the kindness and generosity in a country that has often seen little of either. I saw a country that would stop a train of thousands to not leave one behind.

Yangon Circle Train 2

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Jenn January 6, 2014 - 7:56 pm

What a great story to have! It is so encouraging to see people in a country that has been through so much be so happy and welcoming! I felt the same way when I was in Costa Rica! By our standards in America, they have so little but they are so happy and content, it’s always so inspiring 🙂

Brenna Holeman January 6, 2014 - 11:35 pm

Thanks for your comment, Jenn! I’m really glad that I have this story, too.

Julie January 7, 2014 - 3:35 pm

What a touching story. Although my own travels in the developing world have showed me that it is the people of those places that are usually the kindest and willing to go out of their way to help a complete stranger.

I would love to visit Burma, ever since I read “Finding George Orwell in Burma.” The train seems fascinating too, I first learned about it last year from another travel blogger!

Brenna Holeman January 7, 2014 - 7:10 pm

Thank you for your comment, Julie! I think you would love Burma, there is so much to see and do there. And, of course, the people are wonderful.

Cujo January 7, 2014 - 6:24 pm

Love it. And yet most people here in the west consider ourselves the peak of civilization … can you imagine a US train doing that?

Brenna Holeman January 7, 2014 - 7:12 pm

I can’t imagine a train doing that in many countries, you’re right! The closest I’ve seen is when the driver holds the door for someone running for a bus or in the tube…

Ryan January 8, 2014 - 10:30 am

What an exhilarating train ride, and such an amazing thing that they did to help your friend. Wow. Blown away. I feel like I need to get to Myanmar now before it gets too traveled. Lovely story by the way, train travel is by far my favorite mode of transport. I saw you on Backpack and Bunks top ten bloggers and had to say great job!

Brenna Holeman January 8, 2014 - 6:02 pm

Thanks for saying hello, Ryan! Great job to you, too.

I was blown away by what happened, too. I’m sure you would love Myanmar!

Zalie January 8, 2014 - 3:54 pm

What a beautiful story! It is so nice to know that there are people, and entire nations at that, which are so caring and kind 🙂

Brenna Holeman January 8, 2014 - 6:00 pm

I agree! Thank you for your comment, Zalie xo

Amy January 12, 2014 - 9:59 am

Great story; I can’t imagine where else in the world a train would stop for you like that. I’m heading to Burma at the end of February and don’t really have much idea of what to expect since like you say, things are changing fast. I’ve heard from other travelers that it’s pretty hard to find to find accommodation and it can be a bit pricey than other countries in SE Asia, did you find that?

Brenna Holeman January 13, 2014 - 12:21 am

I can’t imagine where else, either! I’m sure you’ll really love Myanmar, I’d love to go back. When I was there I didn’t find it that expensive at all, but I think that things have really changed in the past three years. I stayed at Motherland Inn 2 in Yangon if that helps; they were extremely helpful and friendly, and I was able to rent a bicycle just around the corner.

Amy January 15, 2014 - 7:13 am

Thanks for the tip Brenna; I’ll look up Motherland.

Leeward Cruise January 16, 2014 - 6:39 am

One of my travel destinations on the bucket list, the place has so much to offer but the political issues have hindered tourism in a major way. Looking forward to riding that train:-)

Brenna Holeman January 16, 2014 - 5:24 pm

I hope you get to visit soon, too!

Turtle January 20, 2014 - 11:22 am

What an amazing story! But it really doesn’t surprise me that something like this would happen in Myanmar. it’s the sort of place where people go out of their way to look after you.
I’m I’m also pleased to see that the train hasn’t changed much in 3 years. I hope it never does – it’s a great little adventure through the city!!

Brenna Holeman January 20, 2014 - 1:24 pm

Totally agree – people definitely went out of their way to help. I hope the train doesn’t change either, I’d love to do it again!

Adventures of the Burmese Bicycle Gang (Part One) - This Battered Suitcase October 9, 2014 - 4:13 pm

[…] For another story of the kindness of the people in Myanmar, click here. […]

Simon Uribe-Convers November 19, 2014 - 6:10 pm

What a great story Brenna!

My girlfriend and I arrived in Yangon two days ago, found your website, and took the train today. We loved it! Myanmar is a great country but the best part of it is its people, their friendliness, kindness, and smiles.

Brenna Holeman November 19, 2014 - 7:25 pm

Aw that makes me so happy! I’m so glad that you took the train, too. Enjoy Myanmar!

2014: A Year in Review - This Battered Suitcase December 28, 2014 - 1:16 am

[…] The Long Way Round: Taking Yangon’s Circle Train […]

nelson January 6, 2015 - 12:53 am

What a nicely written story.i admire you and your writing style.i want to learn from you teach?
and I want to go to Myanmar now.

Circular Rail Yangon Tour: Backpacking Bear January 30, 2015 - 4:40 pm

[…] “On it I not only got to experience a little bit of the local life in Myanmar, to see the way the people live, work, and commute, to see what they eat, what they wear, and where they live, but I also got to talk to them, to wave, to share oranges, to smile when we had no words in common. More than that, I saw the kindness and generosity in a country that has often seen little of either. I saw a country that would stop a train of thousands to not leave one behind.” -This Battered Suitcase […]

Elisa March 1, 2015 - 8:08 pm

I discovered your blog yesterday and fell in love with it! You are so inspiring!! Am truly impressed 🙂

Brenna Holeman March 1, 2015 - 9:44 pm

Thank you so much, Elisa! I’m really glad that you’re enjoying it so far… hope you’ll keep reading!


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