The taxi driver turned and laughed as he gestured with his hands at the Toyota cars in the traffic jam before us; the same traffic jam we had been sat in for forty-five minutes. I wondered whether it had taken him this long to make the joke up, or whether it was an old favourite that he saved for frustrating occasions like this; for times when his passenger was dangerously close to getting out and walking to the meeting they were fifteen minutes late for. Disappointingly it turned out that this was the only joke he would make in the ninety minutes we were together.
I am aware that I could have got out and walked; I could have probably travelled the entire six-mile journey faster on foot; however his delightfully powerful Japanese air-conditioning persuaded me to stay the course in this cortege and allowed me to eventually make my apologies for tardiness at least in an un-sweaty way.
As the number of cars hitting the streets of Yangon (primarily imported – very much alive – from Japan) continues to increase, you will undoubtedly have suffered a similar experience. A few years ago you might have struggled to hail a taxi, settling for the first car that eventually came along, and been alarmingly surprised to watch the road pass beneath your feet through the holes in the floor as you motored through the near empty streets. Now you can practically pick and chose almost everywhere in the city, based on journey-price, size, air-conditioning or even colour. There is no getting away from the fact that with the improvement of taxi availability has come the cost of length of journey; as the Yangon roads continue to fill up, the time we are spending in taxis is getting longer.
You might have also noticed, as you sit in your slow moving hopefully air-conditioned comfort, an increase in the numbers of bicycles passing you on the road. These cyclists smugly nipping in and out of traffic, edging towards the front line at the traffic lights are seemingly getting around a lot quicker than the drivers and their passengers; and if you’ve been paying close attention you might have noticed that some of them are not actually pedalling.
Faizal the energetic owner of of Shwe Myanmar bike shop out at Nan Tha Gone Bicycle Ground (Insein Township) has seen a massive increase in the sales of bikes in the last year or so – he credits this to the increase in the number of cars on the road.
And if you have the energy and the interest, and the availability of a shower wherever you are travelling to, then travelling by bicycle is definitely a great way to beat the traffic.
Cycling for an hour at a moderate pace can burn as many as 800 calories, so it is also a great way to get fit as well as reduce your journey time. Now that’s all well and good when you are taking a day trip out on a Sunday with Jeff from Bike World to see some countryside away from Yangon, or nipping to the supermarket at the weekend. But if you are trying to travel from Parami to downtown to attend an important meeting then you might be less concerned about the health benefits, and more worried about what state you’ll be in when you arrive.
And this is where the e-bike comes in. Faizal has a big range of these electric assisted bicycles for sale as well, and apparently they are flying off the shelves.
“We sell sometimes as many as one hundred and forty a week” and although some of these are to expats, the main clientele are local Myanmar cyclists”, said Nay Lin Tun the English-speaking manager at the shop.
The e-bike is a motor-assisted bicycle, this means that although you can ride it as a normal bicycle through pumping the pedals, with one turn of the throttle located in the handgrip you activate a battery-powered motor that can take the strain and drive the bike along, reducing the effort of pedalling or even the need to pedal at all – thus reducing the sweat you might produce otherwise.
Nay Lin Tun, explained “They are environmentally friendly – no dirty exhaust fumes, and economical to run as well; after being charged-up for three hours you can travel for another three hours” – which, depending on the bike and size of battery could be as far as sixty kilometres; not that you’ll be going that far in Yangon, but it does mean you can depend on them getting to where you are going and back without fear of running out of battery.
Some of them are pretty nippy too; if you are prepared to invest as much as $500 you could buy a machine that can reach speeds up to 30kmph (depending on the traffic), but you can also spend less- Shwe Mingalar has over a hundred different bikes to choose from, you could be on the road and scooting through the traffic for as little as USD$100.
The e-bike is completely legal to use in Yangon too, technically they are bicycles, they have pedals, you might not choose to use them, but they are there, so as long as you stay on the right streets you will have no problems.
And if you want to beat the traffic, and stay moderately sweat-free the e-bike is a great solution. Alright you won’t be benefitting from the excellent air-conditioning that some of the Japanese taxi’s have on offer, but you will also not have to worry about moving those pedals, the distinct lack of hills in Yangon is a plus, and the e-bike can power you through and around even the thickest of traffic jams.
That’s not to say that cycling in Yangon doesn’t have its downside. You have to plan your route carefully as there are still many roads in Yangon that bicycles are not allowed on (they are clearly signposted) and you have to have your wits about you when the traffic is moving, as you sit very close to the bottom of the food chain when it comes to road priority.
You also have to stay alert when the traffic isn’t moving as pedestrians are likely to step out in front of you – the e-bike is silent so they have no idea you are coming through the traffic jam so efficiently. And keep a keen eye out for betel spitting! Also be prepared for taxi doors to open without warning as frustrated commuters leave their vehicles to set off on foot.
The majority of e-bikes Faizal sells are second-hand, his team of mechanics completely strip and renovate the bikes before sale and most of them come with a lengthy guarantee for the frame and battery.
After numerous wobbly test drives I ask, “Where do these bikes come from?”
“Japan, of course!”
A version of this article was published in My Yangon Magazine – November 2014