Driving rules in Myanmar (Burma)

Whoever came up with the saying: “Life is about the journey, not about the destination” had obviously been to Burma. The roads here are absolutely crazy, something which is compounded by the fact that most people drive right hand-drive cars on the right side of the road…don’t ask.

The rules of the road also appear to be very vague and often even the few red lights which are dotted around are ignored by drivers. In general it seems like the bigger you are the more say you have. So the trishaw drivers give way to motorbikes, which get out of the way of cars, which in turn are beeped by trucks and buses. So the poor pedestrian doesn’t stand a chance. It’s usually a case of stepping out when you see a space and stopping occasionally so that the other lines of traffic can go around you.  

The funny thing is that, no matter how lovely the Burmese people are in all other aspects of life, they will never, ever, wave you across in front of them. Even when there’s a huge queue of traffic directly in front of them, drivers  will put their foot down to zoom forward the extra couple of meters rather than let you cross.

So, in the short time I’ve been here, these are the rules I’ve established.

1. There’s no such thing as “too full” 

“Only seven people, only seven people”, the man assured us as he hurried us over to the waiting pick-up truck. Judging by the normal standards of Burmese pick-ups, which are usually packed to bursting, it was a number which sounded too good to be true. But as we were about to make a two hour journey it seemed like a good idea to go for an option where both bum cheeks could occupy a seat. 
We settled in on one of the long wooden benches which line each side of the truck and, along with the other occupants, we did actually number seven. However, just as we thought it was time to go, our pick-up reversed into a nearby garage where a huge pile of spare car parts, tyres and engines was loaded on.
When everything was eventually packed in around our feet and stacked up high on the roof we set off, with the two ‘bus boys’ hanging off the back. It’s their job to shout out the truck’s destination and repeatedly squeeze everyone along just a quarter of an inch in order to fit just one more person in.
This was something we witnessed regularly as the truck stop-started its way through the countryside, where men and boys climbed onto the roof or hung off the back and women with huge shopping baskets and babies squashed inside, sitting on small wooden stools in the aisle when the benches were too full. At one point there was 20 people in the back alone. 
Locals in Burma are used to getting around this way and personal space does not exist, so its normal for your neighbour to lean on you or fall asleep on your shoulder. The baby next to me had great fun using my finger as a teething device.

The funny thing is that the only place where there is space is the seat next to the driver – the ‘first class’ of the pick-up – which costs more to sit in. But for most people here it’s not an option and it’s economy all the way. 

Looking full? No, there’s still plenty of room!

2. Two wheels are faster than four

I’m not a big fan of motorbikes. My poor balance means that I’m terrified I’ll somehow manage to tip the bike over, so I spend the whole journey totally tensed up, not daring to move. Unfortunately in Burma they’re the main form of transport and you can’t walk down a street anywhere without someone shouting “taxi, taxi?” at you (whether they’re actually licenced to do so or not). 

When we arrived at the small town of Taungoo we were nearly knocked over by the group of taxi drivers who jumped onto the train as it was still moving to offer their services. As we made our way out of the station we became the Pied Pipers of drivers as they all continued to follow us, shouting out prices, despite the fact that they still didn’t know where we were going. Outside the price war continued as the men pointed out their various motorbikes and trishaws. “Car?” we asked hopefully, but it obviously wasn’t an option.

Unable to bear the thought of getting an old man to peddle us (and our huge backpacks) all of the way to our accommodation on a trishaw, we finally opted for the motorbike. The barely-teenage drivers confidently manoeuvred our big backpacks between their legs while we slightly less-confidently climbed behind them with our smaller backpacks. They set off at a frightening speed, dodging the pot holes and fearlessly overtaking cars and bikes.

So it’s totally fine to turn into this oncoming lane of traffic, right?
The women in Burma always look so elegant on motorbikes. Often they sit side-saddle, sometimes with a baby on their knee, and they rarely look as though they are holding on. I, on the other hand, was hanging onto the back of the bike for dear life and was actually considering grabbing onto my poor driver, although I thought that might be a bit weird. At some points I had to close my eyes as we approached oncoming traffic – although I don’t know whether that made it better or worse.
When we finally arrived I got off, legs shaking, with the unfortunate knowledge that we had to do it all over again the next day.    

3. If plan A fails, there’s always Plan B

“The mountain is broken”, the station master told us gravely. To illustrate his point he drew a diagram of a mountain split in two. We took in the news about the landslide and the fact that it would take “many, many hours” to clear and considered our options. In the end there was nothing for it but to forgo one of Burma’s most scenic train journeys and head back to the hotel we’d just checked out of. The lovely owner instantly sprang into action, promising to flag down every passing bus to see whether it had three free seats to Mandalay.

We were just about to head for a quick breakfast when she came running after us. “You are very lucky”, she said as she explained that a man who was heading to Mandalay would take us for the same price as the bus. Where the man had suddenly appeared from and how he had heard about our plight so quickly, I have no idea. But half an hour later we found ourselves squeezed into the back of his 4×4, while his wife and daughter shared the front seat. Unlike most of the children here, the little girl was completely oblivious to us, as though her father quite regularly picks up foreigners and drives them to cities five hours away.

We actually ended up getting there faster than if we’d taken the bus and even got door to door service to our hotel. Which just goes to show: If plan A fails, there’s always a Plan B.

4. The way you start your journey is not necessarily the way you’ll finish it

My journey to Bagan started like many others. I was on one of the more expensive ‘luxury’ buses and was being frozen by the air-con and deafened by the never-ending video karaoke. I think the term ‘luxury’ can be used in the loosest sense of the word in Burma. I’m sure when the buses were first made they were very fancy but seeing as that was about 30 years ago it doesn’t really apply now. 

“In my day I used to be fancy. Honest.”

The only thing that makes most of them stand out from the ordinary buses is that they have padding on the seats, rather than just wooden boards. Oh and the tvs, which, when they’re not playing terrible Burmese cover versions of the Black Eyed Peas’ Where Is The Love?, show soap operas which are just as bad. I can only assume that the Eastenders script writers moonlight for the Burmese soaps too as so far I’ve seen plot lines which include a long-lost brother and sister falling in love; women coming to blows over a man they both fancy and many, many, tearful girls being kept apart from their one true love by their parents.

Anyway, I digress.  The point is, I was on a bus which suddenly stopped – not actually that unusual in Burma. Everybody jumped out and the men appeared to tighten – although not actually change – a tyre. We then, worryingly, all piled back into the bus and appeared to coast to the nearest town. Once there we immediately went to a garage where we were told the bus was broken and would take two hours to fix. But the conductor told us not to worry as another “bus” was on the way.

The “bus” turned out to be a pick-up truck, already packed to bursting. After reassuring us that we didn’t have to pay – due to the fact that we’d already paid a (relatively) huge bus fee – we were squeezed in. So I spent the last two hours of my journey sat backwards on a small wooden stool clinging to a strap above my head, squeezed between the knees of local women, many of whom were throwing up due to travel sickness. Like I said, not quite the journey I was expecting.

5. Never forget that people can be kind
Sometimes when you’re travelling you can get a bit cynical about people. It sometimes feels like you’re wearing a great big flashing sign saying “Tourist” which gives everyone the green light to try and scam you. People let you take a photo and then ask for some money, kids wave to you before holding their hand out for a “present”. So often it’s easy to forget that some people will help you out – for nothing.
We’d just come to the end of a two-day trek in the most ridiculous heat ever. As we sat under a shelter trying to summon up the energy to tackle the main road which stood between us and a shower at our hotel, a man stopped next to us in his little tractor/truck. “Hsipaw?” he asked, before waving at us to jump in.
At that point we were so exhausted that I’m pretty sure we would have accepted a ride from anyone. But as we bumped out way back to town we started fretting about how much money he would ask for. “He won’t be doing it for nothing” I said grumpily as we tried to come up with a reasonable amount to pay. (The general rule in Asia is to always agree a price before setting off anywhere as its difficult to argue after you’ve taken the journey.)
But, much to our surprise, the man dropped us off outside out hotel with a quick wave over his shoulder. Leaving us feeling very guilty and with a lesson learnt: sometimes people are just being kind.