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A Ride Around Rangoon

Steve Tickner The Irrawaddy

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If you are familiar with Asian cities, one of the first things that will strike you in Rangoon is the complete absence of motorcycles in the streets.

A strictly enforced ban on motorbikes and mopeds—the first choice of transport in virtually every Asian city—gives the city’s road system a strange appearance of calm and order; though it apparently does little to relieve the serious gridlock during peak-hour traffic.

For a visitor to the city, the most practical option is to flag down one of the city taxis, which range from dilapidated wrecks to an occasional newer compact model. The drivers are usually friendly, chatty and helpful, though they face the significant problem of a saturated market and frequently complain about competitiveness leading to serious price undercutting.

Fares are relatively cheap—normally around one to three US dollars within the city center. However, the low fares do come at a price. Very little revenue is re-invested in maintenance, air conditioning is rare, and windows and even doors often don’t work or simply don’t exist. In a Rangoon taxi, it seems, you pay your dollar and take your chances.

For the local population the most practical alternative is the bicycle, an option to warm the heart of any Western environmentalist, while for the elderly or less energetic there are numerous rickshaws available for local journeys.

For Rangoon residents, longer trips are a different matter altogether. Both the bus and rail systems are antiquated, insufficient and strained to maximum capacity. The local rail system is particularly run-down and consists mostly of one circular route around the city, leaving significant areas without any access to a local rail network. The carriages are positively ancient, with wooden benches for seats, heavily rusted and seemingly held together by numerous coats of colourful paint. For a visitor wanting to take a leisurely look at urban Rangoon, a round-trip will last about three hours and offers a wonderful insight into Rangoon life.

The more common option is a smoke-billowing ancient bus jammed tight with passengers. But good news is nigh—the rickety old buses may be on their way to the scrapyard since a Japanese company announced it was exporting a fleet of 3,000 new buses for public transport use in Rangoon under a joint venture with Burma’s Ministry of Transportation.

There are several river options—look out for the smaller traditional Burmese boats known as ngyet, meaning “bird,” so named for the boats’ distinctive winged stern. These birds work the waters of the Rangoon River. Cross-river ferry services are available for workers going to and from the city and its outlying areas.

Unlike Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River which is a vital and well-used part of that city’s transport system, this water-borne potential seems largely under-exploited in Rangoon, remaining utilized mainly as a port of trade and commerce. However, it does play a role as a cool and relaxing place for tourists to spend a few hours.

Then of course, there is walking, though the city’s high humidity can make this a less appealing option for most, not to mention the city’s drivers apparent total disregard for pedestrian safety, and the awful pot-holed sidewalks.

Many Burmese enjoy a quiet stroll around pastoral places such as Inya Lake, also a popular spot for jogging and exercise. In the cooler evenings, young romantically inclined couples stroll the shores and watch the sunset.