“Lands Without” is a blog by Jasmine Chia on travels in Asia.
It’s 8:40AM in Yangon. The sun has already bleached the sky bright blue, and you’re enveloped in the city’s greatest spectacle.
The land of golden pagodas is ripe for Orientalism, and it is such a surprise that it’s beautiful traffic hasn’t gotten quite the same coverage. In a sight that rivals the Shwedagon, a sea of small white cars with dust-covered tires hums in standstill under the blazing sun. “It’s a magical place – so exotic!” Tourists shout to one another, amidst a symphony of car horns. Myanmar is the Extreme Orient, the repository of traditional culture for the Far East. And in this Backpacker’s Paradise, the untamed roads – like those of Jakarta or Bangkok – can be shocking to the civilized tourist’s eye.
Externalist historians typically attribute Southeast Asian cultural development to outside civilizing forces. Obviously it is too difficult to imagine that such a culture could have been developed from indigenous natives. Through those lenses, the pervasiveness of traffic in Southeast Asia is another beautiful, imperfect, indigenous attempt to adapt to the civilizing influence of the Western world. It could also just be poor urban planning. But the latter is probably too straightforward of an explanation: it is often difficult to interpret the exotic cultures of the Far East.
As an outsider, but a participant in this traditional procession, I can speak definitively on its most important characteristics. It is certainly the kind of memorable procession that can leave one in tears. Cars inch forward, as if that one meter of free space will get drivers closer to their destinations. It’s like a game of Tetris, but a very bad one where you’re about to lose and can no longer maneuver. Cars signal left to squeeze into a lane that appears to have hints of movement, aggressively forcing themselves into it, only to find that the lane they were originally in now moves 1/1000th of a minute faster. An anthropologist tells me that Buddhism is an important lens through which Myanmar people view the world. As the car signals right to move back to its original lane, my reading of Buddhism tells me this would be called “karma”.
Of course, the experience is understood differently by the Oriental. Another anthropologist writes that in Southeast Asian society, the Western concept of “time” is divided into “social time’’ and “institutional time”. Alongside the 24 hours experienced by civilized, secular man is the “cultural time-handling system enriched by reference to Buddhist cosmological definitions of time and space.” Southeast Asians actually value this social time when sitting in traffic, in a manner curious and foreign to Westerners. This is why social media platforms like Facebook have sky-high usage in Myanmar: there is so much traffic, leaving all the more social time.
There are numerous stress levels in Yangon traffic, depending on how far you have stretched this concept of social time. It is common to see taxi drivers, enriched by their cultural time-handling system, look completely relaxed in traffic. They take out newspapers and begin reading them once they hit an intersection. If you are only ten minutes late – in social time minutes, 10 minutes early – you might, like your taxi driver, take out a newspaper to read. Once you hit thirty minutes, you may begin peering out of the window of the car, as if the lights might change if you stare hard enough. If you’re close to one hour late, you may consider walking. Of course, the moment you get out to walk, the light will change. Anything can happen in the land of the golden pagodas.
Shrouded in the mystique of the Far East, a country just emerging from isolation, Myanmar is the tourist’s dream. In the search for ‘authenticity’ in a homogenizing, Westernizing world, there is no experience more authentic and exotic than watching the setting sun glitter off car roofs, as you try to reach Shwedagon during rush hour. Yangon is a chaotic, impenetrable place, where the traffic is equally impenetrable. It is unfortunate that it is developing: one day, these remnants of authentic culture may disappear, and all that will remain is a generic well-managed traffic system. Fortunately, the experience lives on through our foreign eyes. Penny Van Esterik, Materializing Thailand (Oxford: Berg, 2000), 232: note, Esterik does explicitly say that she does not advocate cultural relativism, but that this is a common view held by anthropologists.