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When you think train travel, you probably think of looking out the window at greenery rolls by. Relaxation, quiet, each person in their own meditation.
Not so in Myanmar. As the Yangon circular train chugged along at a jogger’s pace through the lush countryside surrounding the chaotic capital city, first I found myself staring out the window. I frantically snapped photos of modest homes, children playing, grassy fields. But as we drifted further away from the center, picking up more people, a rollicking show began to play before my eyes, stealing my attention.
Women with thanaka (a rice paste Burmese people wear for beauty and sun protection purposes) smeared across their cheeks in different designs smiled at our group, asking us where we were from. Men and women alike peddled their goods – mangoes, pineapples, betel nut, fried tidbits – to groups of interested buyers.
As we passed the main market place outside of Yangon, people waved, smiled, and stared at our foreign faces as we slowly drifted by. I’ve never felt more like a celebrity than in Myanmar. Others went about their business, selling food, preparing tea, walking alongside the circular train trying to sell things to train riders through the window.
When we finally came to a stop at the market outside the center of Yangon, it seemed like the whole world boarded the train. It became a riot of colors: green from the myriad bundles of vegetables, pinks and purples and reds of the gorgeous traditional garb of the Burmese women. A friend helped a woman make little bundles of some leafy vegetable with twine, and she smiled as if to scold him and showed him how to do it properly.
Despite our ragtag group of backpackers being such obvious outsiders, I’ve never felt so at home, so welcomed. The Burmese people are truly some of the warmest people I’ve ever met. As we rambled on through the countryside, we all stared at one another. We stared without the usual accompanying shame, but rather a sense of comradery — perhaps even joy.
After eight years of riding the NYC subway, where avoiding eye contact approaches an art form, I thought of how different this was and nearly repressed a smile – before I remembered I was in Burma, and I let it wash over my face.
Be prepared for the three-hour journey. Bring snacks or be prepared to buy them on board. I saw mangos with chili sauce, mini pineapples on a stick with the rinds carefully carved away, and some not-so-fresh fried skewers on board.
Don’t take the air-conditioned Yangon circular train or you won’t see many locals on board. The breeze from the windows is more than enough to keep you from feeling too stuffy, and this is coming from a whiny baby.
If you want ideas on what other things to do in Yangon, consider getting off at Pyay Road (ပြည်လမ်း). Walk north towards the Shwedagon Pagoda a few blocks and turn right on Pyidaungzu Yeiktha Street to eat at my favorite restaurant in Yangon, Feel Myanmar. I ate one of the largest feasts of my life including multiple salads, main dishes, sides, coffees, beers, and gratuity for about $7 USD per person. It wasn’t the cheapest meal I ate in Myanmar, but it was one of the most memorable.