Glimpses of Myanmar ~ Riding the Ring Train, Yangon

A woman on a crowded Yangon train is quick with a smile for the camera.

After thirty-six hours of airplanes and airports, and sixteen hours of sleep, I’m sitting on my balcony with a coffee while welcome swallows and noisy miners swoop around my head. My ears are ringing with the screech of lorikeets and rosellas as they jockey for position in our trees, and light is falling on the estuary as the pelicans glide in for graceful landings.

It is nice to be home, but my head is still swirling full of images of monks and temples, stilted houses and leg-rowing fishermen. I’ve just had the privilege of spending two weeks in a different time and place: in Myanmar, a magical land poised on the brink of change. I’ve come home with full CompactFlash cards, a full hard drive, and a full brain; it will take me ages to sort through the images and impressions.

Where to start?

With the golden beauty of Schwedegon Pagoda? The iconic wooden U Bein Bridge? The confusion and noise of colourful markets? The profusion of purple-robed monks or pink-clad nuns? The mystic calm of the Began stupas? The balletic-grace of Inlay Lake’s leg-rowing fishermen? The shy smiles of the people everywhere?

In the end, I’ve decided to leave the more “iconic” images for later, and to start at the end: with the oppressively hot, crowded and chaotic Yangon ring-train, where the dusty darkness inside the old carriages contrasts with the blinding light outside, where the fragrance of fresh flowers alternates with the stench of dirty refuse, and where the press of people transporting themselves and their belongings or wares around the rails of Yangon provide a microcosmic view of the country as a whole.

I was travelling with photojournalist and phototour-workshop leader Karl Grobl, his trusty Myanmar “fixer” and guide, Mr. MM, and nine other intrepid culture and photography enthusiasts. For two weeks we’d been touring around this amazing country, treated to local sounds and sights, tastes and smells; searching for “the” iconic Burmese image – all while fiddling with ISO settings, f-stops and exposure compensations. The Ring Train was our last stop and ultimate test: to find subjects in the dark and crowded carriages; to find light where there wasn’t any; to manage exposures in rapidly changing conditions – in short, to make pictures in a nigh on impossible situation.

Most of the the pictures I attempted that day will never see the light of day, but I found a few that I think give us a glimpse into everyday Burmese life.

Man in a longyi on a bright railway platform, behind the rails of the waiting room.

Stark Contrasts: extremes of light and dark illustrate the difference between long periods of waiting and sleeping on the floors, and the purposeful rush when the right train comes in.

A scattering of people in banks of colourful plastic seats in a railway waiting area.

Waiting in Colour: The railway station in Yangon was a much more orderly place than I expected after my experience of trains in India.

Burmese traditional architectural styles

Burmese Tracks: The current Yangon Central Railway Station was built in 1954 in Burmese style.

A clutch of people sitting and lying on a railway platform.

On the Platform: One of the hallmarks of Asia is people’s ability to wait…

A running water tap with a plastic cup attached.

Water for travellers is shared all over Myanmar: for a scarce and precious resource, people seem to be rather profligate with it!

A Burmese man in a train window smiles out.

Passing Passenger: An elderly Burmese gentleman smiles for the tourist.

Glass-front railway office with billboards posted all over.

Posters all but obscure the platform office. The man working the window is barely visible.

A man in a singlet in a small office with slatted windows.

A Glimpse into the Office: With the oppressive heat and humidity, and minimal ventilation, it is no wonder that this worker is down to his singlet.

A Burmese man and boy sitting on a railway platform.

Waiting for the train.

Portrait of a Burmese Theravada Buddhist monk

Portrait of a Burmese Theravada Buddhist monk – after he put his cigarette out!

Burmese woman carrying a large package on her head.

All over Myanmar, women carry goods on their heads effortlessly.

Portrait in profile: Burmese man in a peaked cap.

Contrasts: a man looks out from the dark train interior to the bright Yangon afternoon.

Chickens on the floor of a Burmese railway carriage.

Trussed live chickens vie for space on the floor of the railway carriage.

Silhouettes look out onto a Burmese train platform.

Looking through the crowds out onto a Burmese train platform.

Young Burmese man on the steps of a moving train.

And the world goes by…

A Burmese man jumping from a moving train.

… Jump!

A Burmese child

A face in the crowd.

Portrait: Elderly Burmese beggar-woman

This old lady had a bucket full of kyat, so was doing quite well begging on the train.

"betel quid" seller on the train.

Betel nut and “betel quid” chewing is ubiquitous in Myanmar. Even on the trains, vendors are ready to fix a chew or three.

Back view: a Burmese woman with snack foods on a tray balanced on her head.

The snack vendor is ready to change train cars; she hasn’t sold much on this one.

Young Burmese girl and her mum, both sporting thanaka on their faces.

Daughter and mum – both sporting thanaka,the cosmetic paste made from ground bark, on their faces.

View from a train: soldiers in uniform and markets under umbrellas.

Markets are everywhere; the military presence is reportedly less than it used to be, although visitors like us still meet friendly “strangers” who ask pointed questions about our group’s size and purpose.

Burmese woman

Looking outside.

Vendors squat on the floor of a Burmese train selling their food and drink.

Vendors squat on the floor where they can find space, selling their food and drink.

Indian Man and Burmese woman: portrait

Myanmar is home to a number of ethnic groups – most of whom get along well, notwithstanding various fights for independence going on around the country.

Portrait: beautiful young Burmese woman on a train.

Harsh light can’t dim a beautiful Burmese smile.

A beautiful Burmese boy with his mum.

A cherished boy-child is there to farewell me as I finally leave the Ring Train in the same place I got on.

Text: Happy TravelsLike I said, just a glimpse into the colour and magic that is Myanmar; I can only hope it retains what is good and innocent as it is thrust, with the opening of it’s borders, into the future.

I will get back to the more “classic” images soon – in the meantime, I wish you Happy Travels!

Photos taken: 24September2012

  • karlgrobl - September 29, 2012 - 4:58 am

    Love it, love it, love it!
    Ursula, you did it again….capturing the essence of the story through your engaging images and rich, colorful, descriptive text. It’s a wonderful package with your signature “Ursula insights” and your vivid descriptions, all of which make us all feel like we were along for the ride (and some of us were…and we all wish we could describe it as eloquently as you did). Thanks for sharing. Bravo on a story well told. In-flight magazines across the region are in need of stories like this one!

    • Ursula - September 30, 2012 - 5:59 am

      Thanks so much, Karl and Ayn!
      It was so lovely to share the adventure with y’all, and even nicer that you’ve popping in to my PhotoBlog. 😀ReplyCancel

  • Ayn - September 29, 2012 - 12:48 pm

    Wow, transported me right back there In an instant. We “worked” the same car, so wonderful to see your perspectives. When I am “homesick” for Myanmar, I will be a frequent visitor to your blog!! Please keep posting!! Great story!ReplyCancel

  • Bonnie Stewart - October 1, 2012 - 1:14 pm

    Great job Ursula! Wonderful story and pictures. Enjoyed meeting you. BonnieReplyCancel

  • Signe Wesetrberg - October 2, 2012 - 1:56 am

    What Karl said and more!!!! excellent just loved it. 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Kat Miner - October 2, 2012 - 11:13 pm

    Lovely shots, Ursula! My favs – obscured Platform office and the colorful waiting room.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - October 3, 2012 - 12:26 am

      Thanks so much for the visits and comments, Kat, Signe and Bonnie. 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Patrick - October 10, 2012 - 5:56 am

    Very nicely done, Ursula.ReplyCancel

  • Sarah - November 3, 2012 - 9:24 am

    Excellent series of photographs. InformativeReplyCancel

    • Ursula - November 3, 2012 - 10:29 am

      Thanks, Sarah and Patrick – glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Darrell - November 9, 2012 - 7:54 am

    Fantstic job Ursula. You have real talent both with the pen and the camera.ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - November 9, 2012 - 9:49 am

      Thanks, Darrell. You are too kind! 🙂ReplyCancel

  • […] about the “Circle line” (one including a multimedia piece the other just photos) and a more comprehensive blog post about the journey, wonderfully crafted by Ursula Wall,  just click the appropriate link and […]ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - March 14, 2013 - 12:29 pm

      Thanks SO much for the mention, Karl. 😀ReplyCancel

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