Transport in Burma: Getting around the city
First published 9th August, 2011
The trusted taxi. Always there, always taking you to where you want to go on time, and almost always the easiest choice when you're trying to cross the city. Because it is so easy, though, it quite often ends up being a crutch for most travellers in Burma. Fortunately though, it doesn't have to be this way. Burma's cities provide a plethora of colourful and interesting ways to move about. So skip the taxi and try some of these ways of getting around the city.
If you have time and you don't want to pass anything by, walking is the perfect way to get from point A to point B. It's a slow way to move and it will probably be made slower by the innumerable locals who will inevitably stop and talk with you, but in order to enjoy the small things in this country, this might be the best way to move. Especially in the dense cities like Rangoon and Mandalay, walking is the best way to get a sense of your surroundings and to poke your head into temples, shops, and anything else that might catch your attention.
Tips: Watch where you are walking. Betel nut spit, dog faeces, live animals, and literal pitfalls are just some of the things lying in wait for you.
For most people in Burma, this is the primary means of transportation. Cars and motorbikes are just too expensive to own, so usually a steel-framed cruiser bike is the most popular way to get around. If you really want to travel Burmese style, have one of your friends hop on the back, side-saddle style, while you cruise around town. Don't worry if you don't get it the first time: it's a lot harder than it looks.
Tips: Go slow. None of the bikes are made for speed, so you might as well slow down and enjoy the scenery. That, and your brakes probably won't work that well, so going fast will make it harder to stop.
Cost: At most, about 1,500 kyat * ($2) per day for a beat-up cruiser bike.
Side car (Trishaw)
If using your own power to move a bicycle is too much, you should just hire someone else to do it, right? That's where the trishaw comes in. For a dollar or less, you can hire someone to do the hard work while you sit in cushioned seats. Plus, it comes with free air.
Tips: In Burmese a trishaw is called a "side car", so if you're looking for a trishaw use that word instead, as many locals will have no idea what a trishaw is.
Cost: 1,000 kyat ($1.25) at most for a one-way, 10-minute trip no matter how many people. You can bargain hard, but remember that these guys work at perilously low margins.
In many ways Burma is like stepping back into the past. Riding in a horsecart is another one of those things that makes you feel like you are visiting another time. In many places, like Mamyo (Pyin Oo Lwin), the horse carts don't only exist for the tourists, either.
Tips: Don't get in one of these if you are actually in a hurry. The only thing that seems less intent than the driver on getting to the destination is the horse.
Cost: Around 2,000-3,000 kyat for a 10-minute ride. Bargaining is expected.
If you've ever wondered how many people can fit into the back of a covered pick-up truck, Burma has your answer. (Hint: It's more than 20.) Oh, sure, sitting on a hard wooden bench while a truck with very little suspension rumbles down potholed city streets is not exactly the Ritz Carlton of travel, but locals will love you for joining them. As a bonus, it's the cheapest way to get to where you are going without using your own two feet.
Tips: Be the last one to get on. Being crammed behind rows of other people with their vegetables and livestock is not an enviable position. If you are one of the last ones on, not only is it easier to literally catch your breath, it's easier for you to hop off when you need to. Since you probably don't know exactly where you are going, being able to get off quickly will be handy.
Cost: 200 kyat at most. Tell the money collector where you are going and he'll tell you the price. These guys are honest, so don't worry about being ripped off.
Outside of Rangoon, it's possible to hire a motorbike taxi or even rent your own, assuming you don't mind driving an automatic transmission. For just city travel, renting a motorbike is not recommended, but the motorbike taxis are a cheap alternative to traditional car taxis. That's assuming you can find them: with nothing marking them as a taxi, the taxi drivers look like every other motorist on the road.
Tips: If renting a motorbike, inspect it thoroughly before leaving. Many motorbikes are imported illegally over the Chinese border in order to skirt the official tax on imported goods. This is typically done by driving the bikes over a period of at least a day at blazing speeds over poorly maintained roads. Add to that the normal wear and tear of a Burmese road and you have the makings of a worn-out bike.
Cost: No more than 2,000 kyat for a ride anywhere in the city. Bargain hard with these guys. For rental, they go for around 10,000 kyat ($12) a day for a hunk of junk. It's not as cheap as Thailand, but given the relative freedom it affords you, it is sometimes worth it.
They're big, loud, belch ugly fumes, and were made in Japan in the 1960s. It's a city bus in Burma, what else would you expect? On the good side, they're cheap, fast and reliable, and always full of interesting people. If you're near anything solid, though, you're going to have to hold on tight as the buses alternate from accelerating really fast to braking even faster.
Tips: Ask your hotel which bus to take and the bus stop name to get off at for your destination. Then get them to write the bus number on a piece of paper as the bus numbers are all in Burmese script. Once on the bus, you just need to tell the money collector (called a "spare" in Burmese) the name of your stop and they will usually help you get there.
Cost: 200 kyat at most.
* All prices in this story are based on the street prices (ie black market) you will pay in Burma -- not on the official exchange rate.
Story by Edward Moore
Related readingKnow Before You Go: Burma
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