It’s illegal to ride a bicycle or motorcycle or scooter in Yangon. The rumor on the motorcycle ban is that a General was driving through Yangon a few years back and his car was hit by a motorcycle.
So they were banned.
But it might have been a scooter, the General was in the back seat I guess and he wasn’t sure, so they banned them too, just in case.
No one knows why bicycles are banned, the word for bicycle in Burmese is “set bein” or engine wheels, so maybe it was too close to a motorcycle. But they are banned as well.
Which makes Yangon a funny town and very much unlike Hanoi and its 3 million scooters or Phnom Penh with its seemingly 3 million bicycles, here it is cars and nothing, except me, now on a new Trek mountain bike.
However, the law is never applied to foreigners really, in this time of democratization of Myanmar, or at least, it’s never been applied to me, as I am the only foreigner I have seen on a bike. There is a distinct reticence on the part of traffic cops to do anything to foreigners so I ride my bike everywhere.
I find it refreshing, charming and more than a bit fun in this day and age, to be in a place where being a Westerner on a bike in the middle of the day can create such delight in people, even those same traffic cops, who should be stopping me, but instead often just take off their helmets and when I yell hello, smile and wave me through.
I am careful to only speak English at that moment.
I really enjoy riding around town, through the cars, dodging people, potholes, and new drivers. Despite the 100 degree heat and 75% humidity which I am almost completely immune to now, I can ride my bike and not even sweat anymore.
Imagine being in a tattered old city of a million people, and you’re the only person on a bike, that’s me. But riding during the day, as good as it is, it’s nothing compared to riding at night.
I first learned this riding with a group of twenty or so Burmese who met at the bike shop where I bought my bike; they take off around 10:00 pm on Friday night and convoy through the darkened city. They ride till around 11:30 pm, stop in a tea house for chatting and something to drink and then make it back by midnight.
Yangon at night is a very dark city, with few lights, and even fewer cars. The night markets are lit by single light bulbs and candles, the main streets totally deserted. As the group, or if it’s not Friday, on my own, you can fly down the main roads, twisting and turning around Shwe Dagon Pagoda, which is the one thing always lit up bright in the sky at night.
On your bike at night, you hear the flocks of parrots that still roost in the trees and you have to pay more attention than usual to avoid the massive breaks in the streets and the people walking who can’t see you and you can’t see them.
On your bike at night, you see the underside of the city more at night, the people sleeping in the parks, picking through the trash. I ride down by the river, through the center of town, I often swing by 35th Street where my father’s office was in the 1950s.
I stop and buy water from usually a somewhat shocked small store keeper as this tall sweaty American pulls in on a bicycle. It’s 35 cents for a large bottle of water; I usually go through two a night. When it’s 95 degrees or more during the day, the nights are relatively cool.
I circle the lake, I climb the road by the Pagoda, I cruise down the other side by the Army’s park. Sometimes I stop and say hello to the folks at my favorite restaurant. Sometimes I just pull to the side and listen, to the city as it starts to sleep.
When it’s time to go back to the hotel, I go slowly. I watch the people eating in the streets in the outdoor restaurants, smelling the curries and stir-fry being prepared over the open fires. I pull into the driveway and up to the house. I am staying at a small b&b on Golden Valley Road. The lone night watchman welcomes me back and then watches as I lock the bike up, leave my helmet hanging over the handlebars and head in for a shower.
The cops will all be happy now, all foreigners are off the streets, and safely home.
Things are changing here, some faster than you realize, some not quite as fast as some people would like. Maybe there will be a time when the street are crowded with bicycles, maybe they will crack down and stop even foreigners from riding the few that are around.
But for now, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to ride and see and listen and be the one man in Yangon on a bike at night.