Tag Archives: Burma

The Unique World of Burmese Driving

Some of the world’s drivers are used to sitting on the left side of the car and driving on the right side of the road. The UK and most former British colonies are used to sitting on the right side and driving on the left side of the road. Switching from one to the other takes some adjustment but, as Sandeep can attest from his Indian driving experience, it’s not that hard.

But how about having right hand steering and driving on the right hand side of the road? Myanmar has the distinction of having this split personality.

Myanmar was a British colony until 1948. The cars had right hand steering and drove on the left side of the road. In 1970 all traffic was moved to the right. I asked several people for the cause of the change and there are two commonly held theories, both of which point to the eccentricities of General Ne Win. One theory is that Ne Win’s wife’s astrologer said that the country would be better off driving on the right side of the road. The second is that the General had a dream that the country should switch directions. Either way, the General called the shots and traffic was directed to move sides overnight.

Despite the lane shifts, virtually every vehicle in Myanmar has right hand steering. Many vehicles are very old, and those that are considered modern are second hand imports from Japan. It isn’t just the cars that have to catch up. One can still see old traffic signs in downtown Yangon facing the wrong direction.

I would think all of this would increase accident rates and confuse drivers. However, Myanmar drivers appear orderly, within the cities as well as the countryside. Whether they are in two, three, four or eight wheelers, drivers stick to the right side of the road and, despite logistical challenges, take-over without any negative consequences.

There is one anomaly we found to the right hand driving set up. The boats in Inle Lake still stick to the left when they pass each other. Perhaps time has indeed stood still in some parts of Burma.


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Exploring Mandalay on Cycles

Travel websites, visitors to Myanmar, and even our Burmese friends told us that Mandalay was avoidable. The city, after being razed to the ground most recently in World War II is a new metropolis of wide multi-lane roads and buildings. Despite its name conjuring up exotic images, Mandalay is on the surface another city in an emerging country. My parents were keen to see the surrounding areas, so we spent a couple of days in Mandalay. While they went off to the hill station of Pyin Oo Lin we decided to rent bikes and discover the city. One of our first observations when we arrived was that it appeared very bike friendly. To us New Yorkers, who fear for our lives every time we get on bikes, it was an opportunity to hop on cycles.

Before we wheeled in, we spent an hour observing the rush hour crowd, most of them on bicycles. They all appeared to be riding at a leisurely pace and in a very orderly manner. No one wore helmets.

Cycling in Mandalay, more or less without any destination, was easy. The roads are generally smooth. The cycle lane is only shared by motorbikes, who respect cyclists and don’t move too much faster than cycles themselves. It was much less stressful than riding a bike through the streets on New York City, even without a helmet.

Experiencing Mandalay on a cycle rather than a car made a big difference to our appreciation for the city. We were able to wind through little alleyways where locals spin sugar into jaggery, pound metal for pots and carve wooden boats. We even crossed a local teak bridge above an Irrawaddy River tributary.

Since we cycled outside of the city, we were also able to enjoy a quiet lunch perched over the Kandawgyi Lake at Secret Garden Restaurant.

Our post lunch entertainment was being caught in the middle of a Shinbyu, an initiation ceremony of Burmese boys into a monk order. Most Burmese boys spend some time in their youth as novices in a monastery. The occasion is one of joy, and includes a colorful procession of the dressed up boys on horses, several animals, loud music and plenty of dancing. The entourage encouraged us to join, and we briefly did before starting the return trip home.

We wound back through a settlement alongside a canal that ran the length of the lake. Each house had a bridge driveway leading to its door.

Our final stop was at a longyi stall. Longyis are wrap around skirts worn by men and women. I was so intrigued by my fellow cyclists’ ability to ride in them that I had to try it out.

We’re happy to have had our day in Mandalay. Cycling gave us a feel for the city and we can now look back on it as a city with its own soul, rather than just a launching pad to its outskirts. It also allowed us to take our time and speak with the people of Mandalay. Sandeep made a quick friend at the end of our cycling day. This man came up to him and proclaimed, “You’re going to look like me when you get older!”

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Off The Tourist Path in Kyaiktiyo Myanmar

I have had a mystical notion of Burma (now Myanmar) for years. The fact that it has been difficult to reach, generally closed and politically tumultuous intrigued us even further. The timing of recent government reforms was perfect for us to include it on our itinerary. We decided to do Myanmar without Ava and Kayan as we were advised that the medical facilities and infrastructure are challenges. In hindsight, we could have taken the kids, but going without them enabled us to do a few off-the-beaten path things like trek and stay in a monastery. Our travel partners were my parents and this gave us some time to bond with the generation ahead of us. Meanwhile, Sandeep’s parents were on baby duty back in Kerala.

One of our first stops in Myanmar was Kyaiktiyo, about 130 miles northeast of Yangon. Kyaiktiyo is home to the Golden Rock, a 25 foot boulder precariously teetering on a cliff. Its position is said to be possible due to a single enshrined strand of Buddha’s hair, which allows for just the right balance. Private vehicles are not allowed in the area, and the ride up from the base of the mountain is only possible in the back of an open air truck, efficiently outfitted with seven benches, each seating six people.

I embarrassingly admit that to being ‘that tourist’. The one who takes pictures of an entire family on motorbikes, people hanging out of trucks or clinging onto the back of buses. This was our chance to experience what it’s like to be ‘those people’. Even though our rears took a beating and the truck huffed up like the little engine that could, it was wonderful. During the half hour ride, we had the opportunity to literally get up close and personal with locals and in touch with nature.

Our hotel was a 10 minute uphill walk from the designated drop off point, and we recruited porters to help us carry our bag. They must not have been used to carrying 20 kgs at a time, because an intense negotiation ensued about which one would be brave enough to take the bag up. Finally one hardy gentleman agreed, and hoisted another back on top for good measure.

My mother, who doesn’t have the lung capacity to walk uphill, was ported up by four men in what looked like a very comfortable sling chair.

The official statistic is that Myanmar welcomed only 300,000 tourists in 2011. However, our experience is that we all seemed to be after the same targets, and tour buses galore followed us wherever we went. Since we were told that most foreign tourists don’t visit Kyaiktiyo, so we imagined getting some peaceful time with the boulder. However, the Golden Rock is a pilgrimage site and draws Buddhists from all over Myanmar as well as the rest of the world. Some pilgrims believe that three visits to the rock in one year will bring wealth and recognition.  (That’s a great marketing technique if I’ve ever heard one…). Unfortunately, only men are allowed to touch the rock, so I suppose the women search for their wealth and recognition elsewhere. As a tourist, the experience was somewhat anticlimactic due to the crowds. The boulder itself is quite a sight and I would have loved to enjoy it in serenity. Luckily, the camera is able to ignore crowds.

Determined to find a peaceful spot, we decided the following morning to take a walk to a monastery that we were eyeing across the valley from our hotel. The entire night, we heard monks taking turns reciting prayers and we wanted to walk to the source of the readings. The monastery was not on the tour bus route. It requires climbing half an hour of continuous steps to reach. During the early morning trip, we saw a village waking up and collecting water.

At the top we found the peace we sought. The quiet view from our hidden monastery of the Golden Rock in the distance was almost more rewarding than the view of the Golden Rock from its own platform. When we found ourselves jostling herds of tourists, we initially thought that the trip to Kyaiktiyo was a mistake.  However, with some adjustments, and off-the-beaten-path adventure we were able to experience a slice of the Myanmar of our imagination.


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