FEATURE-Bye bye "bikepoo": New era of transport dawns on Myanmar

By Damir Sagolj and Aung Hla Tun

YANGON, Oct 11 (Reuters) - Holy water is sprinkled over anew Honda sub-compact festooned with flowers and red ribbons.

For more than a century, owners of ox-drawn carts, World WarTwo-era trucks and decrepit buses have descended on the ShweNyaung Pin Nat Shrine under a banyan tree in Myanmar's biggestcity to bless one of the world's oldest vehicle fleets,dominated by Japanese rust-buckets from the 1980s or older.

Today, as the country emerges from 49 years of isolation,the shrine has new visitors: freshly minted cars. The Honda'sowner, Nyein Chang Aung, hopes the blessing will protect himfrom accidents in a country with some of the world's mosttreacherous roads.

"My elders were coming to this tree and I'm doing the same,"he said. "They never had any accidents."

As Myanmar opens up, its antiquated transportation system isundergoing dramatic change. New cars are plying roads dominatedby rattletrap buses -- known as "bikepoo", or "big belly", inthe Myanmar language -- and wheezing taxis.

The decades-old buses as well as trains are being retired.Airlines are updating fleets of mostly ageing Fokker planes fromthe 1970s.

Yet, despite the changes, travelling in Myanmar remains acolourful, surreal and daunting experience -- a legacy of rulesdrawn up by paranoid generals who governed since a 1962 coupuntil last year, ruling by fear and superstition.

Most vehicles, for instance, are right-hand drive, athrowback to British colonialism. Yet the roads are right-handtraffic, similar to the American system, reducing visibility andkeeping drivers on perpetual alert. As more vehicles areimported, such quirks worsen the strains of already-congestedroads.

And few people know why such rules exist anyway.

Late dictator Ne Win switched from left-hand drive after heseized power in 1962. Some locals put the change down tosuperstition, while others say it was an anti-colonial,political gesture.

"Most people believe his trusted astrologer told Ne Win thatchanging from left to right hand side would bring him good luckin fighting against the leftist underground Burma CommunistParty and its sympathisers," said Kyaw Nyunt, a 75-year-oldformer drug store manager.


Car showrooms have mushroomed across the country, offeringeverything from Chinese-made micro cars to Japanese SUVs andexpensive BMWs, all of which have begun jockeying for space onroads shared with tractors and occasional ox-carts.

Conspicuously absent in Yangon are motorbikes and bicycles,possibly a casualty of the former junta's paranoia. They werebanned in Yangon about 20 years ago. Explanations vary. Some saya motorbike driver once pointed his pistol-like finger at a carcarrying a powerful general in the former military junta. Otherssay it was to prevent students cycling from campus to campusduring protests.

In August, Japan Car Co Ltd, a member of ICE Group of Japan,and Myanmar's state-owned Ministry of Rail Transport, signed a$451 million deal to improve bus services in Yangon.

Such deals mark the end for World War Two-era "bikepoo"buses.

"This is the last month I'm driving a bikepoo", said AungWin, its 48-year-old driver, as he surveyed passengers --students, Buddhist monks and farmers -- sitting on woodenbenches bolted into the vehicle's wooden floor.

"I've been driving it for 20 years and I'm sorry mybikepoo is going to the scrap," he said of the 1940s modifiedChevrolet C15, among the world's oldest buses in operation.

"The bikepoo era is over," he added.

His manager will use its licence to import a new bus. Thatalso marks a change. From 1997 until last year when asemi-civilian government took office, military-owned companiesmonopolised the distribution of vehicle import licences. Onlythe rich and the powerful could afford them.

But a new policy went into effect in September last year.Since then, import permits have been issued for more than 58,000cars, Ministry of Commerce data shows. For travellers inYangon's stifling tropical heat, that offers some relief: a fewtaxis now have air conditioning.

Car prices have plunged but remain high compared to othercountries, inflated by taxes. A typical 2001-model Toyota sedannow costs about 20 million kyat ($23,000), compared to more than120 million kyat ($140,000) in August last year.

A 1987 Nissan sedan now sells for about 7 million kyat($8,200), compared to 20 million kyat ($23,000) previously.

Trains are also getting refurbished, mainly with new carsimported from India and China. With Japanese assistance, a600-km (370-mile) rail link between Yangon and Mandalay in thenorth will be upgraded, shortening the journey to eight hoursfrom 14, Deputy Minister of Rail Transport Thaung Lwin toldReuters.

A train line that loops around Yangon on ageing narrow-gaugerails is also being upgraded, he added, potentially transforminga colourful three-hour journey around the city of five millionpeople. As rickety carriages jolt and sway between stations,passengers hang off the side. Banana-sellers and lottery-vendorshawk their goods inside.

At a station in the suburb of Danyingone, women sell food onthe tracks and naked children jump between platforms, theircheeks painted in swirls of yellow paste made from thanaka bark,a type of sun protection dating back centuries.

Airlines are changing, too. State-owned Myanma Airways andfive local private airlines recently bought second-hand aircraftwhile one more private airline will emerge in two or threemonths, according to government officials.

General Electric Co reached a deal in September to lease twoEmbraer SA-made jets to Myanmar Airlines, the latest in a seriesof deals since the United States reopened commercial dealingswith the long-isolated Asian nation. Myanma Airways still useFokker F28s, a short-range jet that began flying in the 1960s.

Many airlines operate on what is known locally as an "airbus system". Usually there are not enough passengers for directflights to all destinations in Myanmar, a vast country as big asFrance and England combined. To be profitable, airlines oftenfly to one city, pick up passengers, and then fly to severalmore cities before a final stop, a bit like a bus route.

At the holy tree in Yangon, business has rarely been better.

"Business these days is good, very good," says Sein Pain,67, after blessing the Honda. Sein's family owns the tree andmanages the business. Car owners pay anything from $3 tohundreds of dollars for different levels of blessings.

"Since the government allowed new cars last year, numbersdoubled. Now we have up to 60 cars on a busy day."

(Writing and additional reporting by Jason Szep; Editing byJeremy Laurence)

((Email: jason.szep@thomsonreuters.com)(+66)(0)(2648-9720)(Reuters Messaging:jason.szep.reuters.com@reuters.net))