Yangon has got a lot going for it. It’s green with trees lining the streets and a fair few parks. There’s some beautiful old architecture, indeed it is the most intact colonial city in Southeast Asia . It’s a Melting Pot of cultures with Chinese Indian and of course local influences. Yet in spite of all these features I wasn’t sold on it. It had one flaw so great that it overrode them all. Bicycles are banned. And motorcycles too. How backwards is that? Although it is probably down to the nature of the regime rather than any inherent hatred of two wheels.
Apparently shortly before the ban was introduced a motorbike appeared next to the car of some government officials and the pillion passenger made a gun from his fingers and mimed a shooting action before they sped off through the traffic.
You probably could just about pull off an assassination on a bicycle in Yangon too. Obviously there are virtually no motorbikes and public transport is dire so as a result the streets are like car parks for much of the day. Of course there’s no cycling infrastructure but you can kind of wiggle your way through the lines of traffic. But I have to say cycling there is no fun. The drivers are terrible, on a par with Iranians for lack of courtesy towards cyclists and there’s the terrible congestion to negotiate. Then there are all the potholes. You are that busy making sure you don’t die you just don’t get a chance to see any of the city.
Once we’d ditched the bikes I did quite enjoy the place. We went to a couple of temples and the cathedral and down to the river and then wandered around taking in the hustle and bustle and absorbing the contrasts between the crumbling colonial buildings and the shiny office blocks and shopping malls that are popping up here and there. My enjoyment was tempered by a feeling not exactly of guilt nor shame nor sadness but some blend of them all whenever I caught a glimpse of poverty or decay (which was frequently) and was reminded that my privilege had been created by the empire that had also created much of that poverty.
Years ago my country had invaded Myanmar, changed its name to Burma and then ruled it as part of India. For the next years they proceeded to bleed it dry, plundering teak from the northern forests, rubies from the hills and ripping out the mangrove forests in the irrawady valley to grow rice for export. During the campaign to conquer the country villages which resisted were raised to the ground and their inhabitants massacred. Many landowners were driven from their farms by unscrupulous money lenders and agricultural labourers lost their jobs to immigrants from India. After nearly a century of pillage the British allowed the Japanese to invade and the fight to recapture it caused further destruction.
Then in the instability after independence was finally granted the army which was formed from former units of the British army and the Burmese independence army who had been fighting each other took control in a coup and have been ruthlessly ruling the country ever since. Wherever I am in the world the blood soaked fingerprints of my country are never that far away.
We’d arrived in Yangon by bus from the border. We only have 28 days in the country so we will be taking a lot more public transport than we have previously. We crossed the border the previous evening and then set about trying to find a bus for the next day. One company wanted to charge more than the price of the ticket to take the bikes and the others didn’t leave until late morning. The only one we could find leaving early was a minibus, but they assured us they could fit our bikes no problem. I anxiously watched as they threw our bikes on the roof and then another passenger turned up with a bicycle and lots more luggage. I turned away for a second and the guy on the roof was standing on my cassette, he moves quickly when I shout at him and then tries to balance the third bike on my rear derailleur. Next he’s climbing on my bike and steps off my frame and onto my forks. I wince and shout at him again. Luckily he was light and my bike is strong. I manage to stop them piling more bags on top of the bikes and settled down for 11 hour drive. It was only when we stopped for lunch that I noticed they had put a heavy looking sack on top of my derailleur when I wasn’t looking. Everything was well strapped down so there wasn’t much that could be done about it then so I spent the rest of the journey hoping that there wouldn’t be any damage. Fortunately rather than the 20 kg of rice I had imagined the sack only contained a light desktop fan and no lasting damage was sustained. We cycled off into the gathering gloom to find our host for the next few days.