Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Riding the Circle Train in Yangon, Myanmar

I awoke to rain. My plan was to take the ferry to Dalah, return to Yangon for lunch at a tea house and then the circle train in the afternoon. I decided to change my plan since it was a beautiful rainy morning and I wanted to stay dry for a couple hours. I decided to start with the circle train of Yangon.

I took the scenic route to the train station as I wanted to see the old train station first. It was another beautiful colonial building that needed some repairs. A sort walk and I arrived at the current train station. I walked in and looked at the board trying to figure out where and when the circle train was leaving. A Burmese man saw me and waved for me to come to his table along the side of the wall. Why not? I walked over and greeted him in Burmese. He asked where I wanted to go. I told him I was interested in the circle train. He smiled and asked me to follow him. As we walked across 7 rail lines he asked the standard Burmese questions. Where are you from? How long are you in Myanmar? When did you arrive? Are you traveling alone? Where is your husband? I smiled and answered each one. He walked me to a small yellow building and pulled out a chair in front of a small table. I obliged and sat down. He poured me a cup of tea and said it would be one minute. I waited wondering what was going on. Three men walked in, pulled up chairs and poured themselves a cup of tea. Uh-oh! This was concerning to me. I smiled and greeted them. One of them pulled out a ticket book and asked me to write my name and country of origin. They all talked amongst themselves and smiled at me. Then he handed me a ticket, told me the price was 1000 kyat ($1) and said "Ms Michelle from America, have a pleasant journey today and the rest of your time in Myanmar. We have a police officer that will escort you to the train. There will be another officer on the train. If you need anything please ask him." I thanked him for his hospitality and said my goodbyes. A police officer stepped into the office and said the train had arrived. He escorted me to the train and reminded me if I needed to use a bathroom or needed food to please let the officer on board know. Wow! I felt like I was receiving special treatment.

I boarded the train and sat down. The car was empty for the most part. A few people looked at me and nudged their friends to check out the foreign girl. They smiled and waved or nodded their head at me. I waved back and they giggled. As the train pulled out of the station, I followed the actions of the locals and removed my shoes and curled up to look out the window. It was harder for me as the window was really low but I figured it out.
The train does a circle of the city of Yangon which takes about 3 hours. I was excited to get to meet the locals and see life in the surrounding areas. The train moved on from one station to the next. A man entered with a bag of food, roasted bugs of some type and sat down next to me.

I asked if I may take his photo and he said no. I was respectful and fine with that. Two women sitting across from me smiled and waved. I took there picture as the train continued on the journey. They were animated and it appeared they were getting caught up on each others lives.

The woman smiled at me and I pointed to her hair and smiled. I loved the jasmine flowers she wore in her hair. The appearance and smell is beautiful. She thought I wanted it for my hair. I told her no thank you. She giggled and said something to her friend that made both of them laugh.

A man was watching all of this going on and took out a cigar and lit up on the train. Yes, on the train! I smiled as I realized that this was allowed here. He looked at me and offered me a cigar. No thanks. Then he pretended to take a photo, indicating I could take his if I wanted. I took his photo as he pretended t light his cigar again. I got up and moved next to him and showed the photo to him. He laughed and stared at it. I got the impression he had not seen a picture of himself in a long time.

Above his head was a sign about tourists. This was placed on the trains and throughout the station and on billboards in town. The Myanmar government definitely wants more tourists and for them all to have a good experience.

As we continued into the suburbs, salesmen/saleswomen entered the car selling food, tea and betel nut (chewing tobacco). The betel nut chew is the most interesting to me. They start with a stack of small, green betel vine leaves, a pot of white, gloopy-lime paste and an array of herbs and fillings, including cloves, aniseed, grated coconut, cinnamon, camphor, cardamom seeds, cumin and tobacco, plus small, broken pieces of the actual betel nuts.  It is all rolled up into a pouch. The people chew it and spit red globs onto the ground. Yes, red! The betel nuts stain their teeth red...or the teeth that are left. This rots their teeth and you will see people with red stubs of teeth.  It is the Burmese version of chew. I saw everyone from grannies, to monks and teenagers enjoying the betel nut. I laughed each time they see me and point to my teeth. At first I thought I had food in my teeth. No, they admired the whiteness of my teeth. A woman came over and asked me how I kept my teeth so white. I smiled and told her no soda, little coffee and tea and regular dentist appointments. She was shocked and wanted to know what I drank. I told her water, beer and wine. She laughed. The rest of the trip she continued to show her friends my white teeth.  (Thanks Dr. Laura and JoAnn for making my teeth look so pretty!)

As the train journeyed from one station to the next, people got on and off. The people all seemed shocked to see a foreigner on the train. They would smile and point me out to their friends. Some would come over to take a picture on their mobile phones. Everyone loved America and were so appreciative that our country was taking steps to bring tourists and investments to their country. Everyone is hoping for better jobs. They all asked me to send my friends to Myanmar. I made friends with two young men. They would point out the window and pretend to take a photo when something of interest was ahead of me. It was fun to see what they thought were interesting sights. At one point one of them came and pulled me towards the train door. I was interested to see what was of such importance. Ha, ha! It was a car junk yard. They laughed as they acted out to cars crashing. There were a lot of them. It made me think about all the buses and taxis I have been in the last 3 months with no seat belts. Ugh! I keep my fingers crossed! The guys told me goodbye and posed for a photo at their stop.

At the same stop, the train quickly filled with people and enormous baskets of produce they were bringing or taking to a market. The train had been empty but was suddenly filled. The aisles were packed and nobody could move. The woman with produce baskets started removing vegetables and cleaning them as we continued on the train. The waste greens were tossed out the windows.
Conversations with friends and laughter filled the train. The children looked at me with interest. I was amazed at how the train had become transportation for the markets. I had not thought about this before. The people use it to get places they needed to go. I noticed that there were workers at the stations that would help the women load and unload the enormous baskets on the train. This was done quickly. We never stopped for more than 5 minutes.

The train stations were interesting. Life went on here. Nuns, monks and families waiting for a train. Others selling food. The children found ways to entertain themselves while their parents worked.

Some played soccer while others played marbles or hula-hooped. As the journey continued, I saw the poorer areas of Yangon. I thought the bamboo bungalows in the countryside were poor. Then, at the end of the journey, the train passed through the saddest neighborhood.

There were mounds of rubbish along a river. Families were bathing in the river. I suspect they used it for cooking also but I can not be certain. There were children and animals playing in it. It broke my heart but I knew these things go on around the world. It was good for travelers to see this and understand the real life situations of the people. In the western world we take for granted our unlimited electricity and water. We think little about our garbage once it has been collected and taken away. It isn't that way for everyone.

As the train returned to the station, the local police officer informed me I would be getting off at the next stop. I gathered my belongings and waved goodbye to the girls across from me. As I stepped off the train I was happy I had the experience. I walked back across the tracks. Many Burmese yelled out "Hello" and waved. This was a land of smiles, the happiest and most friendly people I had met on my trip.

A man walked up and asked where I was going. I told him I had just taken the Circle train and he was shocked. He asked why I would want to see that when there are more beautiful areas of Yangon for tourists. I smiled and told him "I am not a tourist. I am a traveler." He was confused and I explained that I wanted a cultural experience and to see and meet the people of his country. He was intrigued. He was studying tourism at the university and asked if I had been to the Shwedagon Paya. I told him I was going in the evening and he said that he would love to show it for me and to better understand the differences between a tourist and a traveler. I agreed to meet him at 4:30 pm at the southern entrance. We said our goodbyes. I had a wonderful experience on the circle train and was looking forward to my visit to the pagoda with my new friend this evening.

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