Something is awry driving along the wide streets of Yangon, lined with immaculate gardens and large electronic billboards hanging from the decrepit facades of beautiful colonial era buildings. Every country has its peculiar road rules and idiosyncrasies but on my first visit to Burma’s old capital of Rangoon I feel like declaring in a posh English accent- ‘Well this is all rather civilised isn’t it?’
Right Hand drive vehicles on the wrong side of the road
It did seem a little strange when my taxi stopped at a set of lights and my driver-who is driving a left hand drive vehicle- leans out the window and starts chatting to the guy in the car next to him who is driving a right hand drive vehicle.
I look around and most of the cars are right hand drive.
But we are driving on the right hand side of the road as has been the case in Myanmar since 1970 when, 22 years after the end of British rule, the country decided they didn’t like driving on the left and changed it to the right. But most cars that come into Myanmar are imported from Japan (who drive on the left) and are never converted which can make for some rather hairy overtaking manoeuvres.
But there was something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on that made this journey just a little too orderly for a capital city of millions in a South East Asian nation. Of course the driver was changing lanes randomly without indicating and everyone was generally oblivious to the usual road rules, so that was nothing out of the ordinary. And it’s a lot easier to drive quickly in this fashion when there are no motorbikes or rickshaws either, which have been banned from the Yangon city limits (except for certain government officials) since 2003.
Silence in the city
It was only later as I sat in the humid night air sipping a cold bottle of Beer Myanmar, quietly observing the cacophony of food stalls and street vendors, that I realised that despite the usual chaos, there was something missing –The Horn. You see since 2004 there has been a citywide ban on the use of the car horn to prevent noise pollution which makes for a remarkable exception on a continent where the constant beeping and honking is the typical soundtrack where a throng of commuters are all trying to let each other know where they are in relation to each other.
In the west the car horn is employed in an entirely different fashion. It’s used almost exclusively as a warning toward imminent danger or as an outlet for anger and frustration at someone else or the traffic in general. Quite the under utilised resource the Asians might argue.
Creative uses of the horn
Especially the driver that I happened get when we hired a taxi to take us to Mt. Popa, a village 45mins from Bagan. On an outcrop of extinct volcano is the impressive Taungkalat monastery whose monkey poo infested steps you can brave for phenomenal views. Outside of the big city ban this guy was free to use his horn at will and some of the uses (but not all) go like this-
I’m driving up behind you – beep beep beep
I’m overtaking you – bebeep beep
I just overtook you – beep
I’m driving into a blind corner or over a hill –beep beep beep beep beep.
Out of the way (dog or pig or cow) – beeeeep.
There is my friend or I know that guy – bebeep bebe beep
I’m slowing down near you – beeeep beep
The Aussie tourist in the passenger seat just said something about using the horn. I better just make sure it works. – Toot Toot