“The Road to Mandalay”, the song that helped romanticise Burma’s one-time imperial capital, glosses over the fact the that the road in question – less poetically known as Highway Number 1 – has always been dangerously narrow, wickedly pot-holed and miserable to drive on. At least that’s how things used to be. Now, the Road to Mandalay has been rebuilt – to modern specifications.
Burma has so many problems that to emphasise one area of dire developmental failure, like infrastructure, seems glib. Yet the problem is colossal: the country’s trains trundle about, happy to forget about timetables if it means staying on the tracks; the electricity in many towns flickers and dies not long after sundown; and the main highways – to Mandalay and everywhere else – are hair-raising, single-carriage B roads clogged up by vintage farm machinery and shambling water buffalo.
This is why the new motorway, a flawless stretch of 21st-century road linking the new capital city, Naypyidaw, with Rangoon in the south and Mandalay in the north, is such a revelation. It’s a rare and welcome sign that Burma’s progress-averse rulers can actually build modern infrastructure with the potential to act as a driver for wider economic growth.
Yet the year-old motorway – popularly known as ‘The Big Road’ – is completely empty. Naypyidaw is a new, quiet city – Burma’s generals like their privacy – and so the lack of traffic there is unsurprising. But what’s strange is that the traffic fails to build as Naypyidaw recedes into the distance. Twenty miles, 50, 100: there are still no motors on this road, besides the occasional construction vehicle and the odd Mandalay-bound coach or SUV.
The lack of cars is baffling. Various theories come from fellow passengers. “Old vehicles aren’t allowed on this road, only new ones,” says one (most cars here are hand-me-downs that their previous Japanese owners retired in the 1970s). “The tolls are too high for most people,” offers another. A third suggestion is that ordinary people are simply so used to the old highway that they are nervous about using, or are even oblivious to, the Big Road and its 10mph-plus experience.
Whatever the reason for the failure of Burma’s long-suffering motorists to discover the new road, its depressing nature now becomes apparent. It marks the inauguration of a two-tier road network: beautiful, smooth, empty roads for the generals and a few other privileged Burmese to zip around on, and dangerous, gruellingly slow back-roads for everyone else.
Only in such a mismanaged place as this could a mark of progress like the country’s first modern highway be turned into a socially retrograde step. It seems that Burma is still on the road to nowhere.