TRANSPORTATION, INFRASTRUCTURE AND MAN-MADE DISASTER IN MYANMAR

INFRASTRUCTURE IN MYANMAR

The infrastructure in Myanmar is in such sorry shape that hundreds of thousands of ordinary people are forced by the government to dredge canals and pave roads by hand without pay when the same work can be with minimal fuss and pain with machines. Despite the efforts of all these laborers, roads pot holed and passing is difficult. It can take six or seven hours to travel 100 miles on one of the country's major highways.

Myanmar's infrastructure has been run into the ground by decades of mismanagement by the military, which has ruled since 1962. Reporting from Yangon, Jill Drew wrote in the Washington Post, “Rangoon feels like a forgotten city. Although some of its Buddhist pagodas gleam with golden spires, many of its once-grand colonial-era buildings are crawling with mold and their facades are crumbling. Sidewalks in the busiest parts of town are impassable jumbles of broken concrete. The streets are pocked with holes. Decrepit buses and 30-year-old cars, their engines wheezing, weave across roadways in search of a smooth path. Electricity flickers on and off quite frequently. "Fixing the roads is not on this government's list," said one man who studied botany in college but now works as a tour guide. "Buying guns is on their list." [Source: Jill Drew, Washington Post, October 24, 2007]

Myanmar desperately needs foreign investment to improve its roads, schools, irrigation systems and hospitals. Infrastructure improvement projects are often funded by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank, which were kept of Myanmar for a long time by sanctions against Myanmar.

Dawei Port Project in Myanmar

In July 2012, AFP reported: “Thailand and Myanmar pledged to press ahead with a multi-billion-dollar deep sea port project and to open new border crossings during summit talks focused on strengthening economic ties. The Dawei development on Myanmar's southern Andaman coast is a key part of the impoverished country's plans to transform its economy, giving neighbours such as Thailand an outlet to the Indian Ocean and markets to the West. But the project—led by Thai industrial giant Ital-Thai—has faced resistance from local villagers and there have been signs of funding troubles. [Source: AFP, July 23, 2012]

The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on the development of a special economic zone for Dawei, with Thailand agreeing to provide assistance in areas including security, infrastructure and logistics.Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra told reporters after talks with visiting President Thein Sein on a twice-postponed trip to Bangkok that the two nations would set up ministerial-level contacts to address related issues. "In our talks, I reaffirmed the commitment of the Thai government to push forward with this cooperation with Myanmar in regard to the development of the Dawei deep sea port to have concrete progress," Yingluck said.

The Laem Chabang deep-sea port on Thailand's Gulf Coast, which is to be connected by road to Dawei, shortening the current sea route around the Malay Peninsula. The Dawei project would include a 250-square-kilometre industrial area with a steel mill, petrochemical plant and oil refinery. The Thai developer insists all is going to plan. It is among a number of ambitious foreign-funded projects which started before the long-ruling junta handed over power in 2011 to a new quasi-civilian government whose ranks are filled with former generals. But doubts about the port development grew after Myanmar's government earlier this year blocked a 4,000-megawatt coal-fired plant that was to be built at Dawei.

Water and Sanitation in Myanmar

Sanitation facility access: improved: urban: 83 percent of population; rural: 73 percent of population; total: 76 percent of population; unimproved: urban: 17 percent of population; rural: 27 percent of population; total: 24 percent of population (2010 est.). [Source: CIA World Factbook ><]

Drinking water source: improved: urban: 93 percent of population; rural: 78 percent of population; total: 83 percent of population; unimproved: urban: 7 percent of population rural: 22 percent of population; total: 17 percent of population (2010 est.). ><

Total renewable water resources: 1,168 cu kilometers (2011); Freshwater withdrawal (domestic/industrial/agricultural): total: 33.23 cu km/yr (10 percent/1 percent/89 percent) per capita: 728.6 cu m/yr (2005). ><

Gokteik Viaduct

The train from Mandalay to Lashio passes through beautiful scenery and traverses the 980-foot-high Goehteik Viaduct (read Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar for a good description of this bridge). The Gokteik Viaduct was built in 1899 by the Pennsylvania Steel company for the British Raj . A magnificent steel trestle bridge, it was one of the last links to be built on a network of railroads that connected Europe with the far east. The bridge is off limits. Ghet trains that go there from Maymo are outfit with iron rail cars with gun emplacements. Theroux described the viaduct as "a monster of silver geometry in all the ragged rock and jungle, its presence was bizarre".

The Goteik viaduct, also known as Gohteik viaduct, is a railway trestle in Nawnghkio, western Shan State, Myanmar. The bridge is between the two towns of Pyin U Lwin, the summer capital of the former British colonial administrators of Burma, and Lashio, the principal town of northern Shan State. It is the highest bridge in Myanmar and when it was completed, the largest railway trestle in the world. The bridge is located approximately 100 kilometers northeast of Mandalay. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The bridge was constructed in 1899 and completed in 1900 by Pennsylvania and Maryland Bridge Construction. The components were made by the Pennsylvania Steel Company, and the parts were shipped from the United States. The rail line was constructed as a way for the British Empire to expand their influence in the region. +

The viaduct stretches 689 metres (2,260 feet) from end to end with 15 towers which span 12 metres (39 feet) along with a double tower 24 metres (79 feet) long. The 15 towers support 10 deck truss spans of 37 metres (121 feet) along with six plate girder spans 18 metres (59 feet) long and an approach span of 12 metres (39 feet). Many sources have put the height of the bridge at 250 metres (820 feet). This is supposedly a measurement to the river level as it flows underground through a tunnel at the point it passes underneath the trestle. The true height of the bridge as measured from the rail deck to the ground on the downstream side of the tallest tower is 102 metres (335 feet). The cost of the bridge construction was 111,200 £(Pound sterling). Due to its technical and natural condition it was considered as a masterpiece of the world standard. +

Myanmar Opens Strategic River-Crossing Rail Bridge

In February 2005, Kyodo reported: “Myanmar opened its longest and strategically most important bridge linking the country's isolated southern rail line with the national rail network, the official newspaper New Light of Myanmar reported. Sr. Gen. Than Shwe, chairman of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, attended the opening ceremony to inaugurate the 3,223-meter-long Thanlwin River Bridge, the paper said. The bridge, which took nearly four and a half years to complete, is located between Mottama and Mawlamyine, two towns in southern Mon state, about 160 kilometers southeast of the capital Yangon. [Source: Kyodo, February 6, 2005 <>]

“With this bridge, cargo trains from central and upper Myanmar will have access to the southern town of Dawei, where a deep-sea port is being built under the Economic Cooperation Strategy between Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. After its completion, shipments to and from Southeast Asia are also expected to arrive at Dawei port through a highway linking Dawei to the Thai town of Kanchanaburi, 125 kilometers west of Bangkok. The highway is still under construction under the ECS program. <>

Transportation in Myanmar

River travel has traditionally been very important with goods moving through Rangoon and other cities on the rivers. Trains—many built by the British—connected main cities. Many part of Myanmar—especially in the Irrawaddy Delta—are unreachable by vehicle during the wet season.

Goods travel primarily across the Thai border (where most illegal drugs are exported) and along the Irrawaddy River. Railroads are old and rudimentary, with few repairs since their construction in the late nineteenth century. Highways are normally unpaved, except in the major cities.

Two wheeled ox carts with rubber wagon wheels are still used to carry goods and people. Rubber shortages have forced ox carts to use old-fashion wooden wheels. Crank up trucks and cars are still seen in Myanmar. In a few places the primary mode of transportation is elephant.

Traveling long distances in Myanmar is a dodgy proposition. The domestic airlines is unreliable and expensive; the trains are slow; the buses are uncomfortable too and they often break down; and the roads are in terrible condition. Trains and river boats geared for foreign tourists are usually the best way to go but not all destinations are serviced by them.

A paved two-lane highway connects Yangon with Mandalay and there some roads around these cities. Otherwise, few Burmese roads are paved and the ones that are usually only have one lane (vehicles coming at each other from opposite direction are forced to drift off the road into rutted shoulders when passing). Roads between China and Myanmar are currently being improved to facilitate trade between the two countries. Forced labor is often used in the construction and improvement of roads.

Give yourself plenty of time and don’t expect the comfort and safety levels to be high. Many machines and vehicles date back to the World War II era. Vehicles left behind by the Allies in 1945 are still on the road. There are even some vintage 1930s trucks, jeeps and buses held together with home made spare parts. I even saw a few wind up vehicles.

Most long distance traveling is done by plane, bus, river boat or hired vehicle. Buses and trains generally only serve the main cities. To get to a lot of places, travelers rent taxis or minivans, which can be rented can be hired for trips ranging from a few hours to a few days at a rate of around $30 to $60 a day. Arrangements are usually made through hotels or travel agencies. Because they are so poor, local people, don’t travel much. When they do they often go by foot or in an ox cart because even bicycles are out of reach. Gasoline is rationed and in short supply there, are very few motorized vehicles.

Myanmar Tourism warns: “It is recommended to take necessary precautions when travelling by motor vehicles or boats which may cause danger to life. Only specified license can motor vehicles be driven. To take precaution against any car accidents due to certain predation of the traffic rules in Myanmar it is recommended to refrain from self driving.

According to Brigette and Robert on Tour blog: It’s definitely not simple to get around in this country. Some small distance bus rides take forever. We remember one unique bus ride from Pagan to Mandalay – it took us 8 hours of driving on bumpy sand and dirt roads in order to cover a distance of about 150 kilometers. In some places you only have a boat or bus leaving once or twice a week. If we wouldn’t have planned carefully, we would have easily got stucked in a place for too long. We even had to give our passport details when we jumped on a 1US$ / 15 minute ferry ride from Yangon to Dalah. There was one entrance for locals, another one for foreigners. We had to sit down with one official, show him our passport, answer some questions and after a 5 – 10 minute form filling procedure we finally received the ticket. [Source: Brigette and Robert on Tour, Blog]

Boat Travel and Waterways in Myanmar See Separate Article

Urban Transportation in Myanmar

Traffic is not a problem in Myanmar because there aren't many motor vehicles. But that is changing quick. Most of the traffic is in the form of pedestrians, bicycles, motorscooters, three-wheeled mini-cabs and pedicabs. The number of cars and trucks, however, is increasing everyday. There is no subway system.

There are lots of cheap taxis in Yangon and Mandalay, but not so many in the smaller cities and towns. Taxis rarely have meters and even if they do they are rarely used. Fares therefore must be agreed upon before setting off and they generally run about 50 U.S. cents a mile. Once you hire a taxi, you tell the place you want to go and you ask how much the trip will cost. Taxis in various shapes and sizes can be hailed from the streets, caught at a station or taxi stand, or arranged for you by your hotel (there is often a charge for this). Fares go up at night, generally around 11:00pm. There is usually an additional charge for luggage.

Most drivers don't speak English and addresses in Myanmar are somewhat different from those in the West. Therefore make sure you have an address and the name of a nearby landmark near where you are going written in Burmese. It also helps to point out on an English-Burmese map where you are going. Tipping is not usually practiced but often expected from foreigners (10 percent is usual). Drivers in Myanmar seems less likely to cheat you than their counterpart in Thailand.

Beat-up, jury-rigged buses, some of which are converted World War II trucks, ply the streets of Mandalay and Yangon. They are cheap and regular but often so crowded that people have sit on the roof or hang out the windows. The bus routes are complicated and difficult to decipher. Because taxis are so cheap, buses are best avoided.

Tuk Tuks are small three-wheel motorized vehicles that look more something you'd expect to see in an amusement park than on a busy city street. Similar to motorized rickshaws in India and tuk tuks in Thailand, they have a driver in front and can squeeze two passengers in the back. The generally don't have a meter and cost roughly half the price of taxi. Agree on a price before setting off. They are found primarily in Yangon and the fares are about half of what a taxi charges.

Trishaws are pedaled three-wheeled vehicles with driver in the front and a unusual sidecar for passengers with a single passenger facing forward and two passengers sitting back to back instead of side by side. They are used in Mandalay and the smaller Myanmar cities—not so much so much in Yangon—and often pedaled by an old men. They are slow and cheap. Make sure to negotiate the price before setting off.

Taxi Trucks are becoming more and more common in Myanmar's cities. Some of these passenger-carrying Japanese- or Chinese-made pick up trucks operate like taxis, taking passengers wherever they want to go. Most run regular routes like buses or shared taxis.

Motorcycle Taxis are found in some places. They are quick but dangerous. They cost about the same as a samlor and maneuver quickly through traffic. Again agree on price before you set out. Most don't have helmets for passengers.

Pony Carts, or horse carts, called tongas, can be hired in Mandalay. Commuter Trains, which are often crowded, link Yangon with some of its suburbs. River Boats: The town of Syriam and Yangon are linked by triple-decker catamarans and double-decker motor launches.

Bicycles can be rented for one or two dollars a day in many places. Many are old-style Chinese and Indian bicycles are heavy and have only one speed, but are fairly strong. Mountain bikes can be rented in some places but sometimes they are less strong than traditional bicycles. Make sure the seat is high enough and the bike is in good working order before setting off. If you get a flat tire or have trouble with the bike there are numerous roadside repair shops that will fix the problem for a small fee.

Railroads in Myanmar

Railways: total: 5,031 kilometers, country comparison to the world: 36 narrow gauge: 5,031 kilometers 1,000-m gauge (2008) [Source: CIA World Factbook] In the "The Great Railway Bazaar," Paul Theroux wrote of timetables written on a blackboard, with trains always leaving in the morning at seven. In the outlying states he described bandits using homemade guns and robbing the first few cars of the train because the army in the back cars couldn’t get to them until they had already robbed a couple cars.

In December 1994, the brakes on train traveling between Mandalay and Myitkyina failed on a slope 135 miles from Mandalay and several cars derailed and fell in a ravine, killing 102 and injuring 53. In November 2012, a tanker train derailed about 128 kilometers (80 miles) north of Shwebo, and at least 25 people were killed when overturned carriages burst into flames as they were trying to skim fuel from them.

Myanma Railways operate 40 train-routes throughout the country. Tickets are available at Yangon Central Railway Station. Regular Express trains run daily between Yangon and Mandalay. The journey takes about 12 hours. Visitors to Pagan and Inle Lake have to get off at Thazi station and take a bus. Traveling time by bus from Thazi to Pagan is about four hours and from Thazi to Shwe Nyuang (Inle Lake) is about five hours.

There are also express trains which ply the 24-hour route between Mandalay and Myitkyina and the 12-hour route between Mandalay and Lashio. The Lashio train is popular because it climbs into the mountains, crosses a famous viaduct and stops in the hill station of Madayar. Paul Theroux devoted a chapter to the journey in the Great Railway Bazaar . The Myitkinya train is scenic but long and once you arrive in Myitkinya there isn't much to do or many places to go. There are local trains to other destinations but they are slow and crowded and foreigners are not supposed to be able to take them.

For the express trains, tourists are required purchase special tourist tickets which cost about 20 times more than the train tickets purchased by Burmese. These tickets have to be paid be paid for in dollars. It is theoretically possible for Burmese to buy the ticket for you but don't try it unless you look Burmese and speak Burmese.

There are basically two kinds of tickets: "upper class" (relatively comfortable reclining seats, there are no sleepers on the night trains) and "ordinary class" (uncomfortable wooden benches, often very crowded with people sleeping on the floor). I took an ordinary class between Mandalay and Myitkinya. Yes, it was crowded but the people were really friendly. I had a good time but I took upper class back to Mandalay. The “upper class” trains sometimes feature distorted Burmese movies.

The upper class fares are as follows: Yangon and Mandalay ($40), Yangon and Thazi ($30), Mandalay and Myitkinya ($45) and Mandalay and Lashio ($30). Train tickets can be purchased at Yangon, Mandalay, Thazi, Lashio and Myitkinya stations. The Yangon-Mandalay train has a dinning car. Most Burmese buy their food from hawkers who sell food and drinks from the platforms and pass it through the windows of the trains to passengers.

Yangon-Mandalay is the main rail link with four express trains running daily between Yangon and Mandalay. Furnished coaches (Cherry and Padauk) for a group of 4 or 8 persons are available. From Thazi on the Yangon-Mandalay line a branch line runs to Shwenyaung (the nearest station to Inlay Lake) and to Taunggyi. From Mandalay. there is rail service to Pyin Oo Lwin, Lashio and Monywa. There is also a rail service from Yangon to Pagan which operate on alternate days.

There are plans to build a railroad from the mountain town of Lashio to Kunming in Yunnan China, where it would connect with the Chinese rail system. The railway would cost $5 billion. There is also discussion of building a 450-kilometer link between Thailand and Burma, following the infamous Death Railway, which the film Bridge Over the River Kwai immortalized.

Roads in Myanmar

Roadways: total: 34,377 kilometers, includes 358 kilometers of expressways, (2010), country comparison to the world: 94 [Source: CIA World Factbook]

Roads between the major cities are paved, but those in mountains, forests and rural areas are primarily dirt and gravel. There are no multiple lane American-style highways. Less than 10 percent of the roads in Myanmar are paved. About 40 percent are graded and sometimes have gravel. The remainder are mostly dirt tracks. The monsoons often wash out roads.

Some of mountain and rural roads are in poor condition, especially in the rainy season when they may become impassable. Distances in Myanmar are deceptive. Even on paved roads traffic is often slowed by potholes and slow trucks. A journey of a 100 miles through the mountains sometimes takes four or five hours. Mountain roads are often as narrow and passing areas are set up at curves to allow cars going in opposite directions to pass one another.

Some roads have pavement sections that run only a few miles and then deteriorate unto pothole, washboard ripples, dirt and rocks. Maps are often unreliable. Sometimes well-defined roads on maps disappear into dried creek beds. Most of the paves roads are in the cities and main towns.

It is not uncommon for trucks to overturn and block hundreds of trucks in either direction or trucks to slide of cliffs with their drivers leaping out at the last minute. When the road is blocked truck drivers often are forced to hack a bypass through the jungle. Many drivers call the Burma Road the "Highway Where You Never Know What Time You'll Arrive." [Source: Joel Swerdlow, National Geographic, July 1995]

Burma Road

What is called the Burma Road was actually two roads: 1) the roughly 600-mile-long Burma Road, built in 1937 and 1938 between Lashio, Burma and Kunming, China under Chiang kai-shek to bring supplies through a backdoor of China after the Japanese invaded China; 2) and the roughly 500-mile-long Ledo Road (See Below). The roadS cost 1,133 American lives, roughly a man a mile.[Source: Donovan Webster, National Geographic, November 2003]

The straight line distance from Ledo to Kunming is about 460 miles. The Burma and Ledo Roads, built through some of the world’s most difficult terrain in India, Burma and China, covered more than twice that distance and hooked southward to avoid the Himalayas. The idea was ultimately to use the roads for an invasion of China and from China an invasion of Japan. Churchill called the entire project “an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished, until the need for it had passed.” The project was not completed until just six months before the war ended.

The Burma Road was the major overland supply route to China after the Japanese took over much of coastal China in 1937 and 1938 and blockaded its seaports. It was built at a break-neck pace, often by Chinese laborers forced to work for the Nationalists for two years without pay. When it was finished it was little more than a supply track that could only be used by trucks in the dry season.

The Burma Road was built by 160,000 Chinese laborers with virtually no machinery. One worker, who worked on the road between Ruili in Burma and Kunming in China told National Geographic, “It was not easy. I was a boy. In 1937 the engineers came through with stakes, marking where they wanted the roadway. We worked seven days a week, from sunrise to sunset.”

For a long time about half the length of the Burma and Ledo Roads was off limits to foreigners. The governments of China and Myanmar are discussing building a new road between China and the most northern point in which the Irrawaddy River is navigable for deep sea ships.

See World War II

Book: The Burma Road by Donovan Webster (Macmillan, 2004)

Ledo Road

The Ledo Road was built between 1942 and 1945 between Ledo in India and the Burma Road. U.S. Gen. Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, the abrasive commander of Allied troops in the region, insisted the project would work.. Gen. Lewis Pick was the chief engineer of the Ledo Road. Known to some as “Pick’s Pike,” he told his engineers in 1943: “The road is going to be built---mud, rain, and malaria be damned!” It is sometimes called the Stilwell Road.[Source: Los Angeles Times, December 30, 2008]

The U.S. spent almost $149 million to build the Ledo Road at the request of Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. It took a little over two years to build. It was roughly 500 miles long and opened up a new supply route, as well as an oil pipeline, from India to China. Military strategist felt the road was necessary to supply China in the war. More than 28,000 Americans and 35,000 Asian workers participated in the project. Not long after the thankless job was done, two atomic blasts finished the war with Japan, and a hard-won passage that soldiers called "the Big Snake" was abandoned to the rain forest.

Construction of the Ledo Road began in 1942. The first true bridge was built over the Khtang Nall in northeastern India In October 1943, American-trained Chinese divisions entered Burma from Assam, India and drove down the Japanese road from the Hukawag Valley in northern Burma. In February 1945, Gen. Pick led a convoy into Kunming.

In 15 months construction battalions moved 13.5 million cubic yards of earth to cut the roadbed. the New York Times correspondent Tillman Durbin said there was enough dirt to build a 10-foot-high, three-foot-think wall between New York City and San Francisco.

An engineer and shovel operator who worked the project told National Geographic, “It was crazy, and it was miserable. Every day was the same. Up at dawn, sweat and work until dark. It was so hot sometimes, where we’d lay concrete, it would be dry in an hour. We’d cut a stretch of road over some jungle mountain, and the monsoon would wash it out. But we kept going. We had no choice.”

Obstacles included landslides, man-eating tigers, swarms of bugs, leeches and mosquitos, vertical jungles and 150 inches (380 centimeters) of rain in the three month rainy season. Crews worked at night under light provided by diesel fuel burning in sawed off oil barrels. The Ledo Road was nicknamed the “man a mile road” for the frequency in which workers died. Hundreds were killed by disease, accidents and Japanese attacks, mainly from snipers and mortars. More were killed from disease and starvation than from fighting.

Automobiles and Driving in Myanmar

Driving in Myanmar is on the right side of the road (same as the United States), which is unusual considering that Myanmar is a former British colony. In the cities cars drive on the right. In the countryside they drive down the middle and pass to the right when another vehicle is coming. Generally there isn't much vehicle traffic because there aren't may vehicles. Busy Burmese roads are filled with pedestrians, pigs, water buffalo, bicycles, motor scooters, motorcycles, automobiles, trucks and buses—all traveling at different speeds. As a rule the slower traffic is on the side of the roads and the faster vehicles barrel down the middle.

Least cars per capita (people per car in the 1980s): 1) Bangladesh (2,950); 2) Burma (1,460); 3) Uganda (1,425); 4) Ethiopia (1,200); 5) Somalia (960).

Some machines and vehicles that date back to the World War II era are still in use. Vehicles left behind by the Allies in 1945 are still on the road. There are even some vintage 1930s trucks, jeeps and buses held together with home made spare parts. I saw some wind up vehicles on the road between Mandalay and Inle Lake in the 1990s.

When you first walk along on the streets of Yangon and watch the cars pass by, something doesn't look quite right. Even though people drive on the right side of the road like the U.S., many of the cars are built to be to driven British style, on the left side of the road.

Today there are lots of Japanese- and Korean-made cars on the road in Myanmar. According to the Washington Post the junta sharply restricts car imports, which means that a 1988 Toyota Camry can sell for upwards of $20,000. Some of the buses are so crowded that people often sit on the roof.

In 2009, the Washington Post reported: “ As the generals and their allies raked in higher profits from exports of oil and natural gas, they rationed fuel supplies for everyone else. Under strict government quotas, private vehicles are allowed 2 gallons a day in the country's principal city, Yangon, while those in Mandalay, the second-largest city, receive half that amount. Drivers who can afford to are turning to the black market. There they can buy as much as they need, at just over $2 a gallon, 75 percent above the government-set price. [Source: Washington Post, August 24, 2009 ||||]

Paul Theroux wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar”: AN Indian merchant in Rangoon recently gained considerable local fame by paying (so one version of the story goes) 210,000 kyats for a five year-old Alfa Romeo which the Revolutionary Government of Burma was auctioning off. "And the funny thing is," my informant, an Asian diplomat, said with only the faintest trace of a smile, "the engine block cracked after two weeks." I was so intrigued by the high price (at the official rate of exchange it's about $46,000) that I asked several other people if they had heard of the Indian and the Alfa. Everyone I spoke to had heard, and other, lower prices were quoted, but the difference was only a few thousand dollars. Even if the Indian had bought his kyats from a pouch-wearing Tamil money changer on a Singapore pavement, at three or four times the official rate, that is still a lot of money to pay for a used car with a defective engine block. [Source: Paul Theroux, The Atlantic, November 1, 1971]

Automobile and Bus Accidents in Myanmar

Road traffic accidents are common in Myanmar, whose transport network is in poor condition owing to decades of underinvestment by the junta which ruled the country for almost half a century until early 2011.

In March 2007, at least 18 people were killed in two bus accidents in Myanmar, an official newspaper reported. Ten passengers were killed and 25 injured when a bus collided head on with a truck near Bago, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Yangon on Tuesday, the Myanma Ahlin Daily said. On the same day, eight people were killed and 37 injured when a bus plunged into a ravine after its brakes failed near Taunggyi in the Shan state hills 725 kilometers (450 miles) north of Yangon, it said. The tolls were expected to rise as some survivors were in critical condition. [Source: March 29, 2007]

In January 2013, AFP reported: “Fourteen people were killed and 33 injured when a passenger bus plunged off the side of a mountain in western Myanmar, police said. The vehicle was travelling from Yangon to Thandwe in Rakhine state when it crashed, the Myanmar Police Force said on its Facebook page. It said brake failure was the suspected cause. There were no reports of any foreigners on board. [Source: AFP, January 23, 2013]

Air Travel in Myanmar

Airports: 74 (2012), country comparison to the world: 73. Airports - with paved runways: total: 36; over 3,047 meters: 12; 2,438 to 3,047 meters: 11; 1,524 to 2,437 meters: 12 under 914 meters: 1 (2012); Airports - with unpaved runways: total: 38; over 3,047 meters: 1 1,524 to 2,437 meters: 4; 914 to 1,523 meters: 10; under 914 meters: 23 (2012). Heliports: 9 (2012) [Source: CIA World Factbook]

There are four major domestic airlines in Myanmar: Myanma Airways, Air Pagan, Yangon Airways and Air Mandalay. Each airline operates different flight schedules depending on different seasons. These airlines operate flights of major tourist sites including Mandalay, Pagan, Heho, Thandwe, Myitkyina, Tachileik and Kawthaung. Try to make whatever airline reservations you need before you arrive or soon after you arrive in Myanmar.

Air Mandalay is based in Yangon . It operates flights to all major tourist destinations within Myanmar including Pagan, Mandalay , Heho and Ngapali Beach. Air Mandalay also has scheduled flights from Yangon to Chiang Mai. Air Mandalay offers easy online reservations. The first regional joint venture airline in Myanmar, it was formed in 1994. The shareholders are the national carrier Myanma Airways, Air Mandalay Holdings Pte Ltd of Singapore and Premier Airlines Pte Ltd of Malaysia. Air Mandalay flies from Yangon and Mandalay to Pagan and Heho and between Yangon and Thandwe.

Myanma Airways is the national airline of Myanmar. Based in Yangon and operating out of Yangon International Airport, it operates scheduled services to all major domestic destinations. The airline was founded by the government after independence in 1948 as Union of Burma Airways. It initially operated domestic services. International services were added in 1950. The name was changed to Burma Airways in December 1972, and to Myanma Airways in 1989 following the renaming of the country from Burma to Myanmar. International services were transferred to Myanmar Airways International, set up in 1993.

Myanma Airways has a terrible reputation. Flights are often delayed and sometimes they don't go at all. The airlines also has an awful safety record. An investment banker who took a flight from Yangon to Pagan in 1995 told TIME, the "ancient propeller plane" he was on was flown by a pilot who "must have been 75 or 80." He said was because Myanmar had not trained any flight crews for 40 years and when "the new domestic airline was started, the authorities had to find World War II-era local pilots."

There safety record is improving though. One woman told me that she flew on Myanma Airlines plane with stuffing was coming out of the seats, trays that didn't fold up and wallpaper that pealing off the inside of the cabin but was told by American pilot sitting next to her not worry because the engines sounded good.

Myanma Airways has scheduled flights between Yangon and the main tourist destinations such as Mandalay, Pagan, Heho (near Taunggyi and Lake Inlay), Thandwe (near the beach resort of Ngagpali), Tachilek (near the Thai border), Loikaw (the long-necked women town), Myitkyina (Kachin State), and Putao (near the Himalayas). There are daily flights to Mandalay, Pagan and Heho. Other destinations are serviced by flights that go several times a week.

Air Pagan services domestic routes in Myanmar. Its current fleet consists of two Fokker 100 , two ATR 72, two ATR 42 turbo-prop aircraft and two Airbus A 310.

Companies from Singapore have invested in hotels, breweries and Myanma Airways International, the country's international airlines.

Air Pagan Crash Landing Kills Two

On Christmas day, 2012 a Pagan Air jet crash landed near Inle Lake. Two died and 11 were injured, including four foreigners. Associated Press reported: “Survivors of a Christmas Day crash-landing told terrifying tales of escape as carrier Air Pagan apologized for what it called the worst accident since it started flying in 2004. Details of the crash remain unclear but airline officials told a news conference that they found the plane's two black boxes and were investigating what went wrong. So far, officials have blamed heavy fog for the aircraft's crash into a rice paddy field where it burst into flames. [Source: Yadana Htun, Associated Press, December 26, 2012]

The Fokker 100 jet was 21 years old but passed inspections at annual renewals of its air worthiness certificate, the officials said. It was carrying 71 people, including 48 foreigners, from the city of Yangon via Mandalay to Heho airport, which is the gateway to the popular tourist destination Inle Lake. "We felt the first bump, then a few big bumps and then (started) sliding very fast," said 31-year-old Australian advertising executive Anna Bartsch. Her boyfriend, Stuart Benson, described the landing like "a roller coaster" ride.

The plane came to a stop and they felt relief — then panic. "In my window I saw the flames, and it was hot and we knew straight away we didn't have much time to get out," Bartsch said during an interview at a Yangon hotel where the airline lodged passengers after evacuating them from the scene. Passengers rushed up the aisle to the front door, which was initially stuck shut, she said. "We didn't know then that the wings had come off," Bartsch said. The door was quickly forced open and passengers raced from the plane, some in shock and some suffering smoke inhalation, she said. Once on safe ground, Bartsch said she saw the pilot and co-pilot with bloodied faces and other people with serious burns. "It's amazing that the injuries were not more serious," she said. "It could have been much worse."

A flight attendant told reporters that the crew realized something was wrong only when the plane hit the ground. "We shouted, 'This is an emergency'," said flight attendant Khaing Su Naing, adding that despite one of the two doors initially getting stuck the crew evacuated the plane 90 seconds after it stopped moving.

The accident has raised concerns about the safety standards of Myanmar's overburdened airlines as foreign visitors have flocked to the Southeast Asian country which is emerging from a half-century of military rule. After one plane was destroyed in the crash Air Pagan’s fleet was reduced to five planes, including four ATR turboprops and another Fokker 100, which is no longer made.

"We deeply apologize to all our passengers and to their family members," the airline's managing director Htoo Thet Htwe told the news conference. All passengers were paid $2,300, he said. "This is the most serious accident Air Pagan has ever had," he said. In 2008, one of its planes overshot a provincial airport's runway, spun out of control and crashed, causing the wings and tail to snap off. Many passengers were injured but none died.

Air Pagan has said "the plane hit electrical cables about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from Heho airport as it descended and landed in rice fields." The Information Ministry said the pilot mistook a road near the airport for the runway before stopping in a nearby rice paddy. It was unclear if the plane made its crash landing on the road or the rice field. All fatalities were Myanmar citizens, including a man riding a motorcycle where the plane came down and a tour guide aboard the plane. There were earlier reports of an 11-year-old child also among the dead.

Chinese-Made Planes used in Myanmar: Two Bad Landings in Same Day

In June 2013, Associated Press reported: “A domestic Myanma Airways flight swerved off the runway during landing on the same day that an Indonesian flight involving the same Chinese-made aircraft made a hard landing. Neither accident caused any deaths. Monday's accident in Myanmar was the third there since late December. [Source: Associated Press, June 11, 2013]

Myanmar state television showed the scene of the bad landing in Kawthaung in southeastern Myanmar. National police said on Facebook that the aircraft, a Chinese-made Xian MA60, was carrying four crew members and 60 passengers on flight that originated in Yangon, the country's biggest city. The report said the state-owned airline's plane swerved off the runway and came to a stop in bushes about 200 feet (yards) to the west of the runway, with smoke coming from the left side propeller housing. It said the propellers on both wings were damaged. It said there were no injuries. Civil Aviation Department Assistant Director Nwe Ni Win Kyaw confirmed the accident but said she could not yet provide further details.

In Indonesia, aviation authorities said an MA60 operated by state-run Merpati Nusantara Airlines landed hard at the airport in the East Nusa Tenggara provincial capital of Kupang, slamming both engines into the runway. Airport authority head Imam Pramono said there were several people injured but no fatalities on the domestic flight carrying 50 people.

On May 16, another Myanma Airways MA60 shot past the end of the runway at Monghsat in northern Shan state when its brakes reportedly failed. A wing and a wheel were damaged, and two passengers suffered broken arms. In December, a Fokker aircraft belonging to privately-owned Air Bagan crash-landed in a rice field in Myanmar's Shan state, killing two and injuring 11.

After the June mishap Myanma Airways said it would stop flying its Chinese-made MA60. Myanma Airways administration manager Hla Htay Aung said the airline will ground its three Xian MA60s for the time being. He said the three planes, which the airline purchased in 2010, will be inspected and it would be up to government aviation authorities whether they will be allowed to fly again. Hla Htay Aung said the airline will serve its more than 20 destinations using the seven other aircraft in its fleet: three twin-engine turboprops made by French-Italian aircraft manufacturer ATR, two twin-engine U.S.-made Beechcraft turboprops and two Brazilian Embraer passenger jets. Myanma Airways recently retired several aging Fokker F-28 jets from its fleet.

Ancient Myanmar Temple Building Collapses, Killing 2

In May 2009, Associated Press reported: “A 2,300-year-old Myanmar temple building collapsed while workers were attempting to repair it, killing at least two people and injuring scores more, security officials said. Earlier, witnesses at the pagoda said at least six people had died, and 30 people were injured. Some people were still trapped beneath bricks, bamboo scaffolding and other debris a day after the collapse Saturday, said Tin Shwe, who runs a small shop near the temple. The tall, bell-shaped structure, called a stupa, collapsed because of age and deterioration, said a temple official, Tin Tin Win. Damage to the Danok temple was detected in 2006. [Source: AP, May 31, 2009]

Tin Shwe said most of the victims were navy personnel doing reconstruction work on the temple, located in the southern part of Yangon. Military personnel often work on public projects in Myanmar. Villagers from nearby communities were also assisting in the effort. The accident was not reported in the country's state-run media, but security officials supervising the cleanup said at least two people died at the site.

On May 7, the wife and family members of Myanmar's junta leader, Than Shwe, attended a religious ceremony at the temple during which a diamond orb was placed atop the structure. The orb fell to the ground during the collapse. "Authorities are looking for the diamond bud, relics and other precious ornaments" kept inside the stupa, said Tin Win Win, a member of a committee to collect donations for the shrine.

Myanmar state TV: Blast in area of Yangon kills 20

In December 2011, CNN reported: “An explosion rocked a neighborhood in the city of Yangon killing 20 people and injuring more than 95, Myanmar's state-run television MR TV reported. The blast occurred in Mingalar Taung Nyunt, a mainly residential area about a 15 minute-drive from central Yangon. It struck a compound of warehouses that the government rents out to private businesses. "I can't tell what is the exact cause of the incident but it is unlikely from man-made bombs," said a police official. [Source: CNN, December 29, 2011 <<]

“A fire official said the series of explosions may have come from large quantities of sulfur, ammonia and sulfur trioxide, which becomes sulfurous acid when mixed with water, stored at the compound. Win Tun, who lives near the warehouses, said she heard a "very big, loud noise of explosion," which prompted startled residents to try to flee. "Some people ran in the wrong way. I didn't know where to run to," she said, adding that the initial blast was followed by a string of other explosions. The dead include four firefighters, MR TV reported. The strength of the explosion shattered the windows of nearby houses. <<

Aung Hla Tun of Reuters wrote: “At least 17 people died and 80 were injured after an early morning explosion at a warehouse storing gunpowder, likely for use at mine blast sites, in Myanmar's biggest city of Yangon, police and fire officials said. The explosion caused a massive blaze and spewed smoke that was only brought under control by late morning, officials said. A police officer, said 12 men and five women had been confirmed dead and further deaths were expected. "A fire first broke out at a warehouse where gunpowder was stored," a Yangon fire department official said. "It then caused the explosion and then the fire spread. I don't think it's anything to do with sabotage." [Source: Aung Hla Tun, Reuters December 29, 2011 ++]

The blast occurred at around 2 a.m. Ko Tin Than, 33, a taxi driver who happened to be driving near the warehouse at the time of the blast, said the whole area was covered with ash afterwards.

"It was just like a volcanic eruption like you see in the movies," he said. "Two or three people more than 100 feet away from the warehouse were killed by flying debris." Some witnesses said the fire had triggered several smaller blasts. Police said three firemen were among the dead. "As far as I know, these warehouses belong to the government and some of them were hired to the Myanma Economic Holding Limited under the Ministry of Defense," said a retired civil servant. "I think the gunpowder stored there was meant for mining purposes, not for manufacturing weapons." ++

“Fire engines from all parts of Yangon were at the scene, witnesses said. Television pictures showed rescue teams carrying casualties on stretchers in the darkness around what appeared to be badly damaged buildings. Witnesses said houses and factories were damaged. The shock from the explosion was felt by many people in eastern and central Yangon. Than Soe, a resident in Yuzana Mingalar Housing Areas about a mile away from the site, said buildings shook, windows were shattered and pictures fell from walls. "It was such a loud noise that at first we thought it was something like an asteroid falling to earth," he said. ++

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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