Bye bye "bikepoo": New era of transport dawns on Myanmar

Wed Oct 10, 2012 5:13pm EDT
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By Damir Sagolj and Aung Hla Tun

YANGON (Reuters) - Holy water is sprinkled over a new Honda sub-compact festooned with flowers and red ribbons.

For more than a century, owners of ox-drawn carts, World War Two-era trucks and decrepit buses have descended on the Shwe Nyaung Pin Nat Shrine under a banyan tree in Myanmar's biggest city to bless one of the world's oldest vehicle fleets, dominated by Japanese rust-buckets from the 1980s or older.

Today, as the country emerges from 49 years of isolation, the shrine has new visitors: freshly minted cars. The Honda's owner, Nyein Chang Aung, hopes the blessing will protect him from accidents in a country with some of the world's most treacherous roads.

"My elders were coming to this tree and I'm doing the same," he said. "They never had any accidents."

As Myanmar opens up, its antiquated transportation system is undergoing dramatic change. New cars are plying roads dominated by rattletrap buses -- known as "bikepoo", or "big belly", in the Myanmar language -- and wheezing taxis.

The decades-old buses as well as trains are being retired. Airlines are updating fleets of mostly ageing Fokker planes from the 1970s.

Yet, despite the changes, travelling in Myanmar remains a colorful, surreal and daunting experience -- a legacy of rules drawn up by paranoid generals who governed since a 1962 coup until last year, ruling by fear and superstition.

Most vehicles, for instance, are right-hand drive, a throwback to British colonialism. Yet the roads are right-hand traffic, similar to the American system, reducing visibility and keeping drivers on perpetual alert. As more vehicles are imported, such quirks worsen the strains of already-congested roads.   Continued...

A young man hangs from a moving train in Yangon's suburbs September 17, 2012. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj