Myanmar's Yangon Circular Train

It's the best (and most delicious) way to truly experience the culture

There are many tempting things to do when you arrive in the city of Yangon for the first time: take in the towering aura and golden glint of Shwedagon Pagoda; dine on the luscious fermented tea leaf salad at Rangoon Tea House; visit the Thiri Mingalar wholesale market, buzzing with vendors and teetering piles of sundry produce.

But brush those all aside (for now) and get yourself to the Yangon Circular Train. That's where life really happens.

It's an immediate and intimate introduction to the city and its culture. And like Mister Rogers's neighborhood trolley, it truly transports you to another world. Everyone is on this train—from stout farmers and clusters of families to business folks and monks sheathed in pink robes—as it slowly winds its way out from the city center and back again along a three-hour route.

As the 1960s-era blue-and-green train lurches from Platform 7 at Yangon Central Railway Station, food vendors proffering snacks begin to stroll through the cars. The array of foods is staggering. If you think the Amtrak snack bar is hell, then this would most certainly be your heaven. There's sweet milky tea called lapea yea, battered-and-fried bananas, steaming porridges and the makings for hundreds of salads called thoke, which are really the move here. They're cosmic mash-ups of Indian and Southeast Asian sensibilities—spices, herbs, aromatics—and heaps of them. As the vendor drops her basket and starts pulling and mixing from the botanical array, you don't really know what you're going to get, but you know it's going to be everything at once: spicy, tart, salty, crunchy, sweet.

The train passes rice paddies, farms and many urban village-like enclaves—all visible through huge yawning windows with actual wooden shutters, as it makes its 30-odd stops. You can get on and off at will, but there's one essential stop-off: Danyingon.

You don't need to look for a sign. You'll know it by its huge, teeming market that sits right in the middle of the tracks.

Hundreds of vendors are lined up against the rails. Longyi-clad men and women amble by as the sellers, their cheeks adorned with a cosmetic bark called thanaka, squat amid bundles and baskets selling tiny limes, freshly shucked bamboo shoots, earthy taro, chiles and leafy just-begging-to-be-stir-fried greens. Splashes of color are everywhere, and laughter and joy fills the air. The place is overrun, in a good way.

Poke around. Sit on the tracks. Have a blast of sweet tea. Take the next train that comes along—or the one after that.