Direct demise, three-point turns, unwritten customs, bumper-sticker brethren, corridors of commerce, mimicked Morse code & Myanmar.
On Myanmar’s most important road, the taxi drivers have an impressive disregard for safety. Part of this is by design: most steering wheels in Myanmar are on the right-hand side of the car, but cars also drive on the right side of the road. In order to pass the big lorry trucks carrying everything from watermelons to razor blades, drivers have to swerve all the way out into oncoming traffic to see if the coast is clear.
For passengers, this presents a stark choice. In most taxis, the only seatbelt is in the front passenger seat—casualty number one if your driver decides to overtake at the wrong time. So you can either sit there and see your death coming straight towards you or take a seat in the back and adopt the brace position for several hours at a time.
The sight of another car seems to inspire sudden bursts of speed, and taxis will pass each other, sometimes over and over again, as the drivers argue about who should be in front.
On a steamy morning in April, I sat up front next to Ku Nyi, who drives up and down Highway 3 every day. Eighty percent of Myanmar’s imports are trucked in along this two-lane highway, from the Chinese border in the northeast down to Mandalay, in the heart of the country. Large numbers of people also move between the cities each day, and men like Ku Nyi take them back and forth for ten dollars a trip. They try to do it in record time, by passing other cars as often as possible. The sight of another car seems to inspire sudden bursts of speed, and taxis will pass each other, sometimes over and over again, as the drivers argue about who should be in front.
Ku Nyi is forty-seven years old, and he thinks my worries are misplaced. “I have been driving since before you were born,” he assures me. “I will never crash.”
On the back window of his old Toyota, Ku Nyi has pasted a bumper sticker showing an image of two hands grasping each other over the words, “We are drivers We are brothers.” Almost every taxi driver in Myanmar has that sticker. It is a signal between professional drivers, a kind of club membership that ensures highway camaraderie.
Like many things in Myanmar, the rules of the road are governed less by law than by unwritten custom among its inhabitants. When Ku Nyi wants to pass a truck on an especially winding stretch of road, he swerves out into the oncoming traffic and flashes his lights at the truck’s side mirror. To indicate that he understood, the truck driver will put on his right-hand turn signal, a sign that means, “Do not pass yet.” When he sees from his elevated seat that the coast is clear, the truck driver will switch on the left-hand signal, and Ku Nyi guns the tinny-sounding engine and pulls hard into the left lane.
There are other informal rules like this. Honking the horn becomes a kind of Morse code on the highway. Hazard lights are used only to indicate that you are passing straight through an intersection without turning. None of these customs are written down, but that doesn’t seem to matter, because no one knows what the written rules are anyways.
When people in Myanmar apply for their driver’s license, there is both a written and a practical test. The written test is long and heavy on driving theory. When a friend of mine took it, she told the instructor that she wasn’t able to answer any of the questions. “That’s OK,” the instructor told her, and then offered to fill out the test for her for five thousand kyats—about three dollars. After that, they moved to the practical part of the exam, where she had to drive once around an empty lot without hitting any cones, execute a three-point turn and show that she knew how to use the turn signals. Her only penalty was for not using the hazards when she went straight through the imaginary intersection. One hour later, she was licensed to drive anywhere in Myanmar.
W hen our car breaks down, with a sudden and distinctive popping sound from the engine, Ku Nyi pulls over into the small shoulder and screeches to a halt with the parking brake. He scrounges around for rocks and branches on the side of the road and constructs a little buffer around the back of the vehicle. Standing there on the dusty shoulder, we are peppered by hot wind and dirty gravel whenever trucks whizz by. However many people move up and down Highway 3 every day, it feels like a lonely place—a corridor of commerce with little regard for the safety of the human beings attached to those goods.
But, after five minutes, another cab with the “We are drivers We are brothers” sticker pulls over and we pile in and move up to the next town to buy some spare parts.
None of these customs are written down, but that doesn’t seem to matter, because no one knows what the written rules are anyways.
Cars used to drive on the left-hand side of the road in Myanmar. But in 1982, the dictator at the time, General Ne Win, issued a sudden decree that all road traffic had to switch the next day. Ne Win was obsessed with numerology and prophecies, and it was said that he made the switch after consulting with his fortune teller. Others said that it was a way of shrugging off the country’s colonial baggage. Ku Nyi has another opinion:
“It was just about power,” he says to me, sandwiched in the back, adopting the brace position as our new driver swerves out into oncoming traffic. “They just want to show the small people that they can do anything. It was stupid. Now driving is much more dangerous.”
Daniel Combs is the author of Until the World Shatters: Truth, Lies and the Looting of Myanmar. He is currently working on a book about Germany.
Lead image: Sippakorn Yamkasikorn