One of the first things we did in Myanmar is renting a car. Most families at the international school, particularly the wealthy Myanmar, have drivers who drives them around town and in-country. Not the hand-full, mostly Northern Europeans and Australians, that drive their own cars. Particularly Dutch mothers are well-known for it 🙂
Driving your own vehicle gives you a sense of freedom. You don’t have to ask some-one whether he can take you to the market, school, your work etc. and you don’t have to let him wait for one, two or three hours, before you want to go back home. Doing this makes us feel uncomfortable as we are not used to employ maids, drivers and nannies.
The alternative of driving your own car, is taking one of the million cabs that drive around this country. At times, a handy back-up, but after having spent hours in taxis we started to dislike being dependent on them. Many taxis are worndown Toyotas shipped over from Japan, having reached the retirement age some 10 years ago, lack any suspension, smell like garlic and other food odours, and are driven by beatle nut chewing drivers who spit out their dump through the door or window every time you have to wait for traffic lights, and that is, unfortunately, often.
Driving your own car in Myanmar however, quickly makes you realize that traffic rules are NOT universal. In order to survive while driving in Myanmar you have to let go all your principles as only the fittest survive. At the beginning this was a serious challenge as you are brainwashed by the European traffic rules which, with some exceptions, mean every one obeys the rules. For instance, at a crossroad in, let’s say Barneveld, you can be sure that cars coming from the right get priority. Not here in Yangon. If you let other cars go first, people behind you start horning and giving you light signals to hurry up. The car that comes from the right, however, also gives light signals which does not mean ‘you can go first’, but ‘get out of my way’. The only right thing to do is to take a decision. You can not please both of them. For us this usually mean that we ignore the horning from the back, or, at bad impatient days, which we also have, start horning too.
Car drivers in Myanmar are furthermore first class in cutting the line (‘voordringen’ in Dutch). They on purpose take the wrong, much shorter lane in front of traffic lights and then at the very end of the line park their cars in front of you by first putting a hand out of the window to tell you to back off and, two, by pushing you to the right, knowing that you do not want to damage your car. Bus drivers, in particular, are masters in this.
We are still surprised that the otherwise so friendly Myanmar people behave like this when driving a vehicle. Where does this all come from?
In the countryside it is not much different. Going to the North you have to take the only high-way in Myanmar, ‘Expressway number 1’. With the lack of high-ways and people not driving there often, only little people know how to speed-drive, or perhaps this is again our Dutch misperception of how to do this; we are seriously getting confused about right and wrong here. One way or the other, what happens is that, while cars are passing with 100 KM per hour, whole families just take their picknicks on the high-way, people from surrounding villages cross the street walking, there are passing dogs (and consequently also many dead ones), turning cars and busses, ghost-riding motor-bikes, dropped-off packages to be picked up by who-knows-who, and so on and so forth.
And it is not only the drivers it is also the infrastructure and lack of control that makes driving a matter of life and death. There are no proper acceleration lanes (invoegstroken) so you just turn onto the road, hoping that the cars heading you at high speed either slow down or have the room to swirl around you. Driving here is at at the right side of the street (we think…) so with the vast majority of the cars with the steering wheel at the right side (one of the impracticalities of importing cars from Japan where they drive left), this leads to a constant blind spot for many drivers. Furthermore, the roads are like waves, going up and down, so you often can not see what is coming towards you, many sign boards are unclear (e.g. in Nai Pyi Daw traffic speed boards indicate that you can not drive faster than 48 k/h :-)) and there is hardly any traffic police.
Express-way number 1 is also called the ‘death highway’ and indeed we saw many accidents last week when doing a roadtrip during Thadingyut: the Buddhist light festival and busiest travel week of the year. We survived, not being the fittest but probably one of the most alert drivers. And despite the risks we still love making roadtrips that feed our senses of freedom. Now only even more conscious than before.