musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘cycling’

Crosstown Traffic


When cycling around Myanmar, sometimes I felt the only thing missing was a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you need to get yourself to Electric Ladyland immediately! And don’t take the A Train!



Even if what you see in Myanmar doesn’t qualify as cross town traffic, you can call it around town traffic, dirt lane traffic, or even country road traffic. Sometimes the traffic is insanely congested, as so often happens in the heart of Mandalay, but at other times it might feel like you’re the only one on the road, as you’ll occasionally find in parts of Shan State. But no matter what the traffic conditions, you are guaranteed to see a wild variety of transport choices in Myanmar. In addition to cars, buses and motorcycles, you will encounter mobile carts, bicycles, trishaws, and even a few other non-automotive varieties.





I never did take a proper shot of the real traffic chaos that I often encountered in Mandalay. Frankly, I didn’t have the courage. The non-stop buzz of vehicles darting through intersections (most of which have neither traffic lights nor stop signs) and zooming towards me on the wrong way of the road made such a task a bit daunting, if not flat-out dangerous. Just try to imagine a color transport stew of bikes, carts, motorcycles, buses, trucks, cars, and trishaws coming at you from every angle … and then get out of the way!








Cycling Awareness


I’m in Mandalay this week, cycling around town as usual, visiting friends, bumping into others whom I haven’t seen in years, or meeting new locals. But riding a bicycle — or any type of vehicle — in this town requires vigilance and awareness. You have to be very, very careful on these chaotic streets. Because there are very few traffic lights, and nothing in the way of stop signs, traffic flows constantly, and when you are approaching an intersection, it’s necessary to slow down, look both ways, and look again. Chaos may even be an understatement when describing the streets of Mandalay.

Besides interesting new sights and the friendly locals, I tend to get philosophical when I’m riding around town and seeing all the humanity and development — or lack of it — around me. Despite the boom in construction, there is still a lot of poverty, as well as people who are not benefiting from the upsurge in tourism. Prices for food and other daily staples aren’t getting any cheaper and renting a building, or even a small one-room apartment or house is also getting more expensive. But these people are nothing if not resilient and their attitude remains relatively cheerful and upbeat. Passing one poor neighborhood this morning I noticed a trio of children doing somersaults on some old carpet scraps that had been dumped by the side of the road. Yes, even when they have nothing, kids like this find a way to enjoy themselves.

I keep thinking about the things that we as human beings — especially anyone who has the financial means to do something — can do to alleviate poverty and lessen the gap between the dirt poor and the filthy rich. And it frustrates me and angers me because I don’t have any good answers for that, and I don’t see enough people making an effort to do anything about social and economic problems like these.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep peddling around this wild and wonderful city, and keep ruminating and hoping for enlightenment of some sort.


Tours & Transport

Paul Heaton, the singer best known for being “the voice” of two great bands, the Housemartins and the Beautiful South, is planning a new tour of the UK this spring — by bicycle. Dubbed the “Pedals and Pumps” tour, Heaton will include 15 pub gigs, and he plans to cycle to all of them. “I’m looking forward to pedaling around the country to promote cycling and the British pub,” Heaton was quoted in NME about the tour. “Both are very close to my heart. I’ve been cycling all my life, and the British pub has provided most of my favorite stop-off points. It saddens me to hear about so many British pubs closing on a weekly basis, so I want to do all I can to get people back to their local.”

Last year Heaton put his money where his mouth is, buying a pub in the town of Salford. Heaton said that he decided to snap up the Kings’ Arms pub after growing concerned about the “fractured” local community. Convenience appeared to be a factor in his decision; he already was using the upstairs room in the pub as a rehearsal space. Although he admitted to not having a complete business plan yet, Heaton said that he was already pondering which types of snacks he wants to sell behind the bar, as well as a more important matter: the songs that will be played on the pub’s jukebox. For a hint of what may be on that jukebox, look no further than Under the Influence, an album of “favorite” songs that Heaton compiled in 2004. Included on the CD are songs from Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Al Green, Lee Dorsey, Manu Chao, Bobbi Gentry, Tower of Power, Hues Corporation, Lavern Baker, Randy Travis, and more. Diverse to say the least!

Heaton’s bike tour caused me to think about the possibilities of a Thai musician doing a similar series of shows. But lacking in “traditional” British style pubs, perhaps a tour of Pleng Puea Cheewit (“Songs for Life”, a genre of Thai folk music) venues might be more appropriate. As for cycling here in the wild environs of Bangkok, I don’t think I’m brave enough for that challenge yet. When I am travelling around Myanmar, I cycle constantly in places like Mandalay, Bagan, and Nyaunghswe. But attempting a similar cycling routine in Bangkok would be another story altogether. The biggest obstacle to cycling in Bangkok — besides the steamy temperatures and poor air quality — is the perpetually thick traffic. The main streets and side sois are almost always congested; bumper-to-bumper traffic jams at all hours of the day that can test the patience of even the most experienced motorists. Motorcycles dart and weave around the immobilized four-wheelers, making the idea of cycling amongst this disorganized throng a formidable task. I’m convinced that if I rode a bike around the city that I would take a spill the first hour.


I was a car owner and driver for many years when I lived in Florida, but since I moved to Bangkok 16 years ago I have yet to get behind the wheel again. And you know what? I don’t miss it a bit. I don’t miss the driving, I don’t miss owning a car, I don’t miss the parking hassles, and I don’t miss the insurance payments. Frankly, it feels liberating not having to worry about any of that crap. And I feel better that I’m not contributing to the polluted air. If I need to go somewhere, I let my feet do the walking more often than not. And when I have longer distances to traverse, I can take a water taxi, a motorcycle taxi, a regular taxi, the Skytrain, the Subway, or even a bus.

With so many transport options, it amazes me — no, it completely baffles me — why so many locals feel the need to own and drive their own vehicle around Bangkok. Even some foreign residents succumb to vehicle addition and drive in the city. I suppose if you have a big family and need to shuttle the kids to school — or pole dancing lessons — then owning a vehicle makes some degree of sense. But otherwise, why bother? Why would a single resident have the slightest need to own and operate a car in this traffic plagued metropolis? I truly think that many people ARE addicted to having their very own vehicle, considering it a convenience if not a necessity, and wouldn’t think of giving it up. But when I see these people sitting behind the wheel of their SUV or Mercedes Benz, stuck in traffic again — sometimes not moving more than a few feet in the span of twenty minutes — all I can do is laugh.


Trails Less Traveled

As I mentioned in a recent post, Myanmar was absolutely crawling with foreign tourists when I visited in late October and earlier this month. I had not intended to visit Bagan this time around, but due to my earlier-than-planned departure from Bangkok — fearing the incipient threat of floods — I had extra days at my disposal once I arrived in Myanmar. I pondered a short visit to Mawlamyine, a city I still haven’t seen, but after being assured by my travel agent in Yangon that there were still some available seats on a flight to Bagan, I took that option instead.


 I’ve been to Bagan well over a dozen times and I thought I had pretty much seen most every pagoda worth seeing at this point. Oh, how wrong I was. Instead of using my friend Gaw Soe and his horse cart to tour the ruins, I decided to use only a bicycle this time, renting a dependable set of wheels from U Aung Koont at the Silver House Restaurant in New Bagan. I ended up taking some paths and trails that I had never explored before, and discovering some pretty cool pagoda ruins I had never seen before. None of them were towering monstrosities or among the more popular ones in the area, but they were no less interesting or charming. And the best part: at each and every site, I had the place to myself, never running into any other tourists.


The only downside to my “off the road” explorations was the two flat tires I got one day. But that was my fault for taking a shortcut through the woods and thinking those thorny branches on the ground wouldn’t do the bike any harm. Next time, I’ll leave the bike on sturdier ground and hike the rest of the way to any ruins on the horizon. One other negative to cycling this time around in Bagan: on many of the paved roads in the area there were huge patches of sand, making it tricky if not impossible to ride. I had to hop off the bike several times and push it through the sandy bits. I’m used to doing that on trails in the area, but not on main roads! I asked locals why there was so much sand on the roads, and they all told me it was due to heavy rains in recent months. Okay, I can accept that explanation, but why has no one bothered to clean up the mess? In Yangon and Mandalay I see crews sweeping the streets every morning. Doesn’t Bagan have people with similar clean-up skills? They really need to do something about this problem quickly. Even locals driving motorcycles tell me that they find the sandy roads a headache. I can just picture a foreign tourist wiping out on a sandy stretch of road and breaking an arm or leg.


Burmese Water Break

Whether walking or cycling around villages and towns in Myanmar, you can’t help but notice that there is always a place to stop for a refreshing drink of water. And no, we aren’t talking about an abundance of 7-Eleven stores like you see all over Thailand.

Throughout Myanmar, little roadside stands are everywhere; in the heart of the city and out in the sticks, in front of schools and monasteries, outside homes and businesses, and even inside caves! Thirsty? No need to ask, just help yourself!


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