I’ve used bicycle as my main transport pretty much everywhere I’ve lived: I cycled in Brooklyn after the hurricane Sandy hit, I used a bike in Scotland after I found one around the corner from my house with the sign ‘Free to good home’ (regardless the two flat tires that had to be fixed and a lock that had to be broken); I biked in a bike-city paradise, Amsterdam and I biked in a biker’s nightmare, Brussels, I tried off-road biking in Laos and lately, I cycled in the Himalayas. But never have I been so stressed when cycling as in Yangon.
One might think that Myanmar is a bike-friendly country and indeed bicycles and trishaws are very traditional mean of transport. But in Yangon, the opposite is true: cycling is dangerous and seeing a Westerner on a bicycle equals finding a four-leaf shamrock in a meadow. During months living here I’ve maybe seen 5. Even the motorcycles are banned in the city for safety reasons and trishaws are sadly to be phased out in next few years.
The traffic in Yangon is horrific and there is no-one who actually knows and behaves according to the traffic rules. No wonder, there is no proper driving training (although my Burmese teacher told me recently that she is taking some driving lessons, but that was the first time I had ever heard that such lessons exist). Honking however, is something everyone uses in abundance. I turn – I honk; I am overtaking you – I honk; I am changing lines – I honk; there is a cyclist in front of me, oh my god – I honk! No 15 seconds on roads pass without honking (I indeed actually counted seconds between honks once).
I had been bumped into by rubbish collectors with their pushcarts. I had been fallen on when another rubbish collector clumsily threw a bag full of bottles on his bike which (surprise, surprise) collapsed and I was the one to ‘catch it’. Rubbish men are dangerous. So are pedestrians when they walk directly towards you on the road, although they had seen you coming in the distance and clearly could have avoided you. And the bus drivers? They have the time of their life when racing in their antique vehicles on the ‘I’ve-seen-better-times’ roads. And the policemen are useless – what’s up with all this whistling, man? That’s just confusing people…
The positive sides on riding a bicycle here, however, exceeds the negative side and that’s why I enjoy it so much. Because people are genuinely so surprised to see me passing them on my bicycle, it is an incredible joy for me to watch their reaction. When I am sad or not in the mood for talking to anyone, all I need to do is to get out. People smile at me, greet me, wave at me, bus attendants (on those racing buses) look at me in awe and smile too. I have people who I greet regularly, I know trishaw drivers who I ring my bell at whenever I pass them. I never knew how interesting life in a back of a vehicle is – there are people sitting in a trunk of taxis, there are people sleeping among the cement bags on trucks, there are rubbish collectors enjoying the gone with the wind through their hair (together with the smell of the rubbish).
I usually see cyclists early in the morning, when the roads are emptier and biking is a pleasure. I enjoy cycling at night as well for the same reason: the traffic madness has calmed down and cycling home is less stressful. The monsoon season makes it difficult to stay dry during the day, so I always pack raincoats for me and my bag and an umbrella with me.
When riding a bike in Yangon, you have to be always present and expect that everything is possible. In general, I had been given a way more generously than in Europe. Funny enough, because there are no rules for cars let alone for cyclists, I get to break the traditional traffic rules as I like. It’s probably something I should be proud of, but it gives me freedom. Also, bike is undoubtedly the best way to get around when all the cars are stuck in traffic jams, which is essentially from 9am to 6pm every day in Yangon!
So while I am all about taking it easy and natural when cycling in Yangon, this guy here takes it more seriously (and I know he’s got a point) and if someone is considering taking up cycling in Yangon he gives an excellent advice. Being scared though doesn’t get you anywhere in this city, sometimes you have to be bold enough to cross the road. Expect unexpected, be considerate and we will all be fine.