How to negotiate traffic in Myanmar

Samsara Vegan Travels - How to Negotiate Traffic in Myanmar

When you visit Myanmar for the fist time, traffic can seem quite chaotic. You might get the impression that there are few rules or that people do not adhere to them, but there is actually order to the chaos. Here are some situations to look out for when you negotiate traffic in Myanmar.

Traffic Lights

In the cities it is quite straightforward: if there are traffic lights, people will generally wait for a red light, with the exception perhaps of some daredevils on scooters or on foot. However, you can never let your guard down when crossing at a green light. Keep your eyes out for crossing buses, scooters, pedestrians, dogs and small children.

Follow a Local

Most intersections in the bigger cities and the countryside have no lights and traffic seems just to flow along. If you want to wait for a gap in the flow, you can be there a while. The trick is to just go, without hesitation. Cars and scooters will most likely anticipate your move and just flow around you. Burmese people are surprisingly agile & sharp-eyed drivers.Your best bet is to follow a local for the first few times, until you get the hang of it and gain confidence.

Follow a Local

Overtaking

There are different rules entirely when you leave the city limits. Overtaking rules are quite a bit different from those in the West. Cars and buses will generally just overtake anyone in front of them, regardless of oncoming traffic. From a Western perspective this seems very risky (close your eyes and hold on for dear life), but the system seems to work rather well. People will just move out of the way, especially if the 'opponent' is bigger than them. If you are riding a scooter, expect to be pushed off the road a lot. It seems unfair, but this is the way things work in Myanmar. Nobody gets too worked up about it.

Honking for life

Expect plenty of horn honking. A lot of Myanmar roads are winding up and down hills and mountains. If you are overtaking traffic, coming up or down a narrow road, or just in general when you want to be polite or it is awfully quiet, it is best to honk your horn. Many Burmese adhere to this rule religiously.

Honking for Life
Religious Parades

Religious parades

Don't be surprised to get stuck in traffic because there is a religious parade in front of you. Relax, wind down the window and enjoy the view: it might take a while! In Myanmar you can see a lot of buddhist parades. There are many religious feast that need celebrating. Most parades you will encounter are probably Shinbyu ceremonies: a ceremony to mark the monastic ordination of a boy under the age of 20. This is a great honour for parents and very important. Parents usually splash out on these festivities with beautiful constumes and colourful cars and wagons. Unfortunately you will usually also see dressed up oxen, horses and sometimes even elephants in these parades.

Right and left mix up

An interesting fact about the traffic in Myanmar: cars are all righthand drive (steering wheel on the right side) However, they drive on the righthand side of the road. This can be a tricky situation to negotiate the roads. For this reason, bus drivers always need a co-driver to assist them in traffic. The reason behind this is quite mindboggeling: Until 1948, Myanmar was a British colony. The cars had right hand steering and drove on the left side of the road. In 1970 all traffic was moved to the right. One theory is that General Ne Win's (the then ruler of Myanmar) wife's astrologer said that the country would be better off driving on the right side of the road. Another that it was that it came to him in a dream. A lot of choas ensued and today the Burmese people are left with this baffeling situation. Somehow they manage!

Luckily, Myanmar traffic is relatively easy going compared to countries like Vietnam! There are not a lot of motorized vehicles on the roads. Just a lot of bikes, wagons, scooters and people & animals on foot. It might be a bit different to what you are used to at home, but riding a bike through the Myanmar cities and countryside is definitely a fun and memorable experience!

Right and Left Mixup