All change for Yangon’s historic joyride

26 Feb 2019

The Yangon Circular Railway is an amazing travel experience and no Myanmar photography tour is complete without it. This wonderful relic of British colonial power is, for me, one of the great railroad journeys. Started in 1877 and finished in 1954, this is a slo-mo museum piece of track, infrastructure and ancient diesel rolling stock brought in 50 years ago, second-hand, from Japan.

As great railroad journeys go, it’s a modest run: just 46 kilometres (28.5 miles) linking 39 battered stations in a loop around Myanmar’s commercial capital. The precarious state of the railroad means that average speeds run around 15km per hour, delays are lengthy and unpredictable, and departure times often posted impromptu on handwritten placards. The entire Yangon loop takes about three hours.

But this is not about the ground covered, nor about the scenery passed. It’s all about the amazing opportunities for people-watching and observational travel photography offered en route.

80,000 commuters jam onto the platforms and trains each day. Choose the right stretch and the right time and a wonderful hodgepodge of humanity will pass in front of your lens. Tired business commuters, shopped-out mums, street urchins using the carriages as playground rides, live chickens… they’re all there, deftly serviced by intrepid street vendors nipping nimbly on and off at stops, bringing aboard everything from quail eggs, smoked fish and spiced-up mangoes to cigarettes and cheroots, betel-leaf stimulants and chilled water, the latter ingeniously but unhygienically dripped through a filthy cloth containing lumps of ice.

The entire railroad carries this authentic grungy patina of history, dirt, honest wear and vaguely remembered maintenance.

As the photo-set above demonstrates, this is a camera-friendly place to shoot. The entire railroad carries this authentic grungy patina of history, dirt, honest wear and vaguely remembered maintenance. There’s no glass in the carriage windows nor doors in the doorways, so your subjects interact freely with the interior and exterior. And of course, all of the action is perfectly side-lit as the railroad cars block Myanmar’s blisteringly sharp toplight and grudgingly admit a softer light exclusively through the door and window ports.

But all this beautiful decay is on its way out, and it’s no mere lick of paint. Kick-started by a US$230 million Japanese development loan and a chunk of Myanmar public funds, work has already begun on an ambitious refurb that will see shiny new track, signalling equipment, level crossings and — most important — new Japanese carriages. Due for completion by the end of 2019, the improvements will cut the loop’s travel time from three hours to two and provide Yangonites with a slicker commuting experience.

So it’s all change for the Yangon Circular Railway. No doubt the new makeover will usher in shiny new photography opportunities but meanwhile, hop aboard with us for a final joyride to capture the wonderful sights and seductive shabbiness of Yangon’s ramshackle metro.

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