Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Archive for March 2013

Cycling Yangon’s gridlock apocalypse

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The author enjoys/endures a bike ride in The Golden Land of Gridlock. (photo by Aung Htay Hlaing)

I wrote the following long essay/rant one morning last week, immediately following a 13-mile bicycle commute during which I was nearly knocked off five or six times by very bad drivers. This is not an unusual occurrence while cycling in Yangon. I think my frustration is fairly evident.

ONE of the great advantages of cycling in Yangon is the fact that you’re not delayed by the increasingly problematic traffic and congestion.

But cycling also makes you more vulnerable to the root causes of that congestion: not only the growing number of cars on the road, but also the astoundingly rude, ego-centric driving habits of many of the city’s residents.

The general philosophy among many drivers in Yangon seems to be that it’s okay to do whatever is necessary to shave three seconds off your own driving time, even if that means putting lives in danger, delaying everyone else, and contributing to the traffic chaos for 500 metres in every direction.

The city’s traffic police are all but useless in solving these problems: A few seem to be on the ball, but most operate under the impression that standing on the corner and wailing away on their whistles will somehow magically dissolve the gridlock. In reality, all this does is create noise pollution and make the cops look lazy.

Many city planners around the globe have discovered that bicycle riding not only allows individuals to beat congestion, but can also be a means of reducing the congestion itself – if concerted efforts are made to urge more people to get out of their cars and rely on pedal power.

In short, if you encourage cycling, more people will cycle; and if more people cycle, the roads will be less congested.

Smart Growth America, a national coalition of organisations dedicated to improving living standards in US cities, writes on its website that “designing streets only for automobiles reduces opportunities for safe travel choices that can ease traffic congestion: walking, bicycling and taking public transportation.”

One common method of getting people out if their cars is integrating dedicated bike lanes into urban planning.

A study of 90 of the 100 biggest cities in the US by researchers Ralph Buehler and John Pucher, published in July 2011, found that “cities with a greater supply of bike paths and lanes have significantly higher bike commute rates”. Other studies have found that the presence of bike lanes reduces traffic congestion and actually provides an economic boost to business districts through which bike lanes pass.

Unfortunately, the Yangon Traffic Police and Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) are not among the enlightened in this regard. They have always taken a backward approach to cycling in Yangon, and continue to do so.

Too much congestion? Why, let’s ban bicycles and force more people to rely on motorised transport in precisely those areas where the problem is at its worst.

That’s exactly what the Yangon Traffic Police did on July 5, 2003, when they announced that certain “busy roads” would be closed to bicycles, namely Pyay Road, Kaba Aye Pagoda Road, U Wisara Road, University Avenue and Kandawgyi Park Loop Road.

The downtown area would be a logical place to encourage people to get out of their cars, but instead the police banned bikes from a big chunk of the grid: from Bogyoke Aung San on the north (inclusive) to Merchant Street on the south, and from Phone Gyi on the west to Bo Aung Kyaw Street on the east. (Oddly, the downtown restrictions are in effect from 5am to 11pm, while the “uptown” roads are closed 24 hours a day.)

With traffic congestion growing worse in Yangon, has this attitude changed? Not one bit. One YCDC spokesperson told The Myanmar Times earlier this month that there was no special plan to accommodate cyclists in Yangon because “Yangon is not a bicycle city like Mandalay”.

Let’s apply this mind-blowing logic to another sector:

Patient: Doctor, what plan do you have for operating on my cancerous tumor?

Doctor: I have no plan to operate on your cancerous tumor because you already have a cancerous tumor!

Patient: Whaaaaaaah?!?!?!?!?

Another YCDC official, Department of Engineering (Roads and Bridges) deputy director U Myo Min, said there was no plan to include cyclists in the traffic plans “for at least the next three years”.

“We are improving the standard of roads in the city but it is not sure for bicycles. We are not sure about including special lanes for bicycles,” he said.

One gets the distinct impression, upon hearing this supremely wishy-washy response, that bicycles are nowhere close to becoming part of Yangon’s road-planning equation.

In the meantime, we who cycle in Yangon must continue dealing with the situation that has been handed to us.

I spend a significant amount of time cycling around the city, usually about seven or eight hours a week. I live in Insein township and work downtown, and my commute (which I usually do five days a week) is about 21 kilometres (13 miles) each way. This takes me 45 to 50 minutes one way, up to twice as fast as I can cover the distance in a taxi.

Before moving to Myanmar I lived in Los Angeles for 10 years, and before that spent three years in New York City. In both cities I cycled nearly every day, and throughout that entire 13-year period I didn’t experience as many close calls with bad drivers as I do in Yangon on a weekly basis.

Anyone who mounts a bicycle in Yangon will face crazed drivers who don’t seem to know what traffic lanes are for, or swerve without warning, or make abrupt turns without signaling, or think it’s a good idea to crawl up the opposing traffic lane. The worst are bus drivers, who apparently believe that beating the other driver to the next passenger stop is more important than life itself.

And a note to drivers: If a pedestrian is crossing the road 100 metres ahead and they’re already three-quarters of the way to the curb, it’s not necessary to honk at them. They’ll be long gone by the time you get there. Honking can be a useful means communication when used judiciously, but when every fool on the road honks at every shadow that moves, it’s reduced to annoying background noise that doesn’t communicates anything to anyone.

Pedestrians are another hazard, and they’re often less predictable than drivers. I’ve had people stand on the curb watching me pedal closer, closer, closer, and then when I’m 2 metres away they decide it’s the perfect time to step in front of me and start crossing the road.

There are also the human squirrels who step forward, then back, then forward, then freeze, then step back, then forward until you have no idea what they’re going to do next. Another all-too-common oddity are pedestrians who walk across the street while staring intently in the opposite direction from which the traffic is coming, a habit for which I have no reasonable explanation. (Are they time travelers from the past? Do they think it’s 1961, when Burma was still a left-hand-driving country?)

One must also expect the unexpected: Two weeks ago a pedestrian who was running for a bus ploughed into me at full speed while I was sitting on my bike waiting for a red light. I saved myself from being knocked over by putting my hand out and propping myself up on a car parked to my right. The pedestrian bounced off me, muttered an apology and continued his blind, thoughtless dash for the bus. As I type this, I’m still feeling shoulder pain from the collision.

Sad to say, but other cyclists also cause plenty of headaches. They can be just as unpredictable as drivers, but without the speed or deadly force. It’s especially strange how the slowest among them (including trishaw drivers) are the keenest to place themselves at the front of the queue waiting for the light to change green.

A city with dedicated bike lanes, and competent police to enforce their proper use, would not have such a big problem with this.

This essay appeared in slightly different form in The Myanmar Times Wheels in Motion Supplement.

Written by latefornowhere

March 27, 2013 at 2:48 am

Images of Saddar Cave in Kayin State

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White elephants guard the entrance to Saddar Cave

Saddar Cave near Hpa-an in Kayin State, southern Myanmar, provides a unique opportunity to walk all the way through the center of a small karst mountain and out the other side. Like many of the caves in the area, Saddar contains numerous Buddha images and shrines, making it a popular destination for religious pilgrims.


Entering the cave

I recently made an early-morning excursion to the cave, during which I was the first visitor of the day. In order to walk through the mountain, I had to plunge into the darkness alone, the feeble beam of my borrowed flashlight showing the way. It was an eerie feeling turning the first corner away from daylight and descending rocky stairs into primordial darkness with no one alongside. I could feel the closeness of the earth above, below and all around, and I could hear no sounds except my own oddly amplified breathing.


Buddhist shrine inside the cave

The air was thick with the smell of bat poop, but I soon passed along a narrow section where fresh air blew through with the intensity of a wind tunnel, then through a cavern with daylight streaming in from a crack in the ceiling high above, then back into a long tunnel of absolute darkness.

Out the other side

Out the other side

Huge stalactites glittered in the beam of my flashlight, and bats shrieked in the darkness above. In one huge chamber the sound of squealing grew loud and intense, and when I shined the light at the ceiling, I saw the eyes of thousands of hanging bats glowing back at me.

The lake on the other side of the mountain

The lake on the other side of the mountain

I kept walking, for maybe 20 minutes, and eventually saw daylight ahead. The tunnel opened up into a chamber decorated with more Buddhist shrines and pagodas, and narrow stairs led down between the rocks to a small lake nestled among rocky crags, where ducks swam and fishermen rowed small boats.

Through the tunnel to the second lake

Paddling through the low cave to the second lake

I hired one of the fishermen to row me across the lake, through a low cave, across another lake, and into a narrow channel between paddy fields still wet with morning dew. He dropped me off at a muddy bank in the middle of nowhere, and indicated the direction I needed to walk to get back to the front of the cave.

The boat guy

Poling among the paddy fields

This was a highlight of the trip: walking barefoot on the soft earth (Sadder being a Buddhist shrine, visitors are required to walk through the cave without their shoes, and I had left mine at the front entrance). At times the soil was muddy, other times dry and cracked, as the path meandered between high cliffs riddled with small caves on one side, and rice fields rustling in the wind on the other.

The walk back to the start

The walk back to the start

I walked slowly, savoring the view and the feeling of being alone in such a beautiful area — during the 30-minute walk back to the start, I saw only one other person, a farmer working in his field in the distance.

Note: After reading the above post, Alex Ni Ni To from Yangon pointed out that the cave referred to in the story is also commonly called Sa-Dan Gu, Sa-Dan being the name of a legendary elephant king who, according to legend, once took shelter there (thus the white elephants at the entrance), and “gu” being the Burmese-language word for cave. I used “Saddar Cave” instead because it was the name that appeared on the map of the region given to me by Soe Brothers Guest House in Hpa-an. This discrepancy brings up an interesting point about spellings and place names in Myanmar. First, there is no standard system for rendering Burmese script into phonetic English, so even in Yangon it is common, for example, to encounter three different signs with three different English spellings of the same street or township name. Second, there are a number of common ethnic languages in use in Myanmar that utilize different place names. One example that is well-known among travelers is a town in Shan State known as Thibaw in Burmese language and Hsipaw in Shan language. As for writing about Myanmar in English, there’s never a dull moment.


Written by latefornowhere

March 5, 2013 at 10:02 am