Astrologers, assassins & armistice: Motoring in Myanmar

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Chris Rees takes a trip to Myanmar and report back on the motoring landscape. 

Traffic jams in Yangon - note no motorbikes (480x640)

Traffic jams in Yangon – note no motorbikes

To the west of Thailand lies one of the world’s most magical and unspoilt countries: Myanmar. Much of the reason behind the mystery in a country that used to be called Burma is political.

Until power devolved from the long-running military dictatorship to the democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, tourism in Myanmar had been tricky, not to say unethical.

But I’ve always wanted to visit Myanmar, and with democracy blossoming, finally got to go there. I found a heady mix of Buddhist culture, gentle manners and unspoilt nature.

But of course, I can never take off my motoring journalist’s hat, so…

First surprise: Myanmar drives on the right. 40 years ago, everyone drove on the left, as in neighbouring countries like Thailand and India, but the capricious government decreed that all traffic should swap sides. The reason? An astrologer recommended it!

Yet 99 per cent of the cars on Myanmar’s roads have their steering wheels on the ‘incorrect’ right-hand side, and all tollbooths are arranged for RHD cars. Why? Because almost all of Myanmar’s cars are sourced second-hand from RHD Japan.

Toyota Probox is the Myanmar taxi driver's favourite

Toyota Probox is the Myanmar taxi driver’s favourite

Five years ago, spotting any car in Myanmar would have been a rarity. The cheapest car of any description back then cost $40,000 because the government applied some of the world’s highest tariffs on cars. Surprise, surprise, that meant only government officials could own cars. The tariffs were finally removed five years ago, causing huge numbers of cars – an estimated 400,000 – to flood into the country.

But my unscientific local traffic census revealed almost no brand new cars: I saw a few new Ford pick-ups and Korean cars and a solitary MG3.

Every Asian country I’ve visited has a car that pretty much all the taxi drivers choose. In Laos, it’s the Hyundai H1. In Cambodia, it’s the Toyota Camry. In Myanmar, it’s the Toyota Probox (pictured) an MPV unknown in Britain, but it majors on practicality and value and happens to look quite nice.

Taxi! - Tata Nano

Taxi! – Tata Nano

Ex-colonial cars are extremely rare though: I saw just one ‘classic’ – an ancient Mahindra jeep – plus a few buses dating from the 1950s, still smoking their way around city traffic.

Curiously, motorbikes are banned in the former capital, Yangon – the government removed the seat of power to Naypyidaw some years ago. Officially, this was due to the high accident rate among bikes – the son of the military leader died while riding one. Unofficially, everyone says it was because the paranoid junta thought would-be assassins were most likely to use motorbikes.

As a result, Yangon is utterly log-jammed with cars and taxis; most of the time, it’s quicker to walk. But this being Myanmar, you see no signs of ill feeling or frustration in queues; the population of this beautifully serene nation simply smiles.

Which is exactly what I did all the way through my stay.

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