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The Varsity

The University of Toronto's Student Newspaper Since 1880

In Photos: A day in Yangon, Myanmar

In Photos: A day in Yangon, Myanmar

Taking a ride on the Circle train

In only five years, Myanmar has gone through extreme political and economic changes set in motion by the switch from military dictatorship to a young democracy.

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Despite making drastic changes, much of the country remains the same. Myanmar’s culture, including food, clothing, betel chewing, and chinlone playing, remains largely unchanged. Regardless of its rich culture, whenever I travel home to Yangon, people nod blankly or only have a vague idea of what the country is like.

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I brought my camera to one of my favourite parts of Yangon — the Circular Railway— in hopes of bridging the gap between Canada and Myanmar.

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Also known as the Circle train, it is Yangon’s public railway line. Built in the 1950s, its 46 km route starts in downtown Yangon and passes through a few university campuses before snaking through farmland.

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It takes three hours to ride the whole circle. Its age and poor maintenance have made it slow enough that riders can easily hop on and off while it’s still running. They do so with caution, however, so as not to step in a pothole... or in someone’s vegetables.

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On an early afternoon in December, I paid for a ticket (200 kyats, or 20 cents) for a seat at the front of the train. The cabin wasn’t air-conditioned, but a cool breeze came in through an open door. The conductor hopped on and the train began to crawl. A young girl sat on a makeshift seat next to him to get the best view.

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A few stops later, two young monks-in-training came on the train and snagged a seat on the ledge in front of her. Needless to say, the train doesn’t have any seatbelts. Some people chatted and others scrolled through Facebook on their smartphones since, as of two years ago, SIM cards had become widely available.

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The train is mostly used by commuters and people transporting heavy loads. Some carried bags bigger than their bodies.

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One woman carried what looked like two hundred eggs. Every once in awhile, a vendor would walk along the aisle shouting the names of their various products. The man beside me bought a pack of betel parcels from one of them.

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Betel is similar to chewing tobacco and its sale supports thousands of families around the country. The vendor mixed the betel nut with spices before wrapping it in lime-coated betel leaf. He asked me if I wanted some, but I didn’t feel like taking photographs while buzzed.

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I got off at Insein station right next to Insein market. The train stopped next to thoughtfully curated piles of vegetables, fruit, fresh meat, and dried fish.

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I ended my ride to buy some cheap produce, but in a few more stops I would have been on actual farmland. The Circle train takes you through both the city and its outskirts, while also introducing you to the many people who hop on and off.

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These photos don’t really do Yangon justice. The city, its people, and its many scenes and foods mean a lot to me. This ride is one of my favourites.