November 23, 2017 10:00 am JST

Yangon's new water bus lets commuters sail around gridlock

City hopes to ease traffic, but so far most passengers are tourists

YUICHI NITTA, Nikkei staff writer

Water bus rides cost the equivalent of 22 cents.

YANGON -- Residents of Yangon who are fed up with increasingly heavy road traffic can now take to the city's iconic river for a more comfortable commute. A recently launched water bus system is expected to reduce the city's congestion, though tourists appear to be the main beneficiaries so far.

Since ancient times, the Yangon River has been a key transport artery. Today, the Yangon Water Bus connects the city's downtown Botahtaung district near the river mouth to the Insein residential area, some 20km to the north. There are several more stops between the points. The service's boats and piers are all painted yellow.

Soon after departing from Botahtaung, passengers see old red-brick warehouses lined up along the river, followed by the colonial-era Myanmar Port Authority building. Ferries and other boats can be seen crisscrossing the river.

A single ride costs 300 kyat (22 cents) per person, regardless of where the passenger starts and ends their journey. The boat is open to everybody, and no special fares have been set for international visitors.

There are two types of boats: Large, high-speed Australian-made craft that cruise the entire route in a little over an hour, and smaller boats that take nearly two hours.

The Yangon Region's Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein, at the opening ceremony on Oct. 6, said the new water route, as an alternative to buses and taxis, will help reduce the city's road traffic. The Yangon municipality has been working to improve its chaotic public transport. In January, the city began reforming its bus network, including by reducing lines to a more efficient number.

Tint Tint Lwin, chairwoman of the water bus's operating company, Tint Tint Myanmar, said Myanmar is in the midst of a transition, and the private sector, including her company, has come to the point where it has to change itself, too. The tourism company, whose chairwoman is one of the best-known female entrepreneurs in the country, won the contract to commercialize the water bus business some time ago. The route was supposed to open in June but was delayed.

The boats boast the latest technologies, including GPS navigation and surveillance cameras. A plan is also underway to grow crops on the riverbanks for use in biodiesel fuel.

Fun over convenience

Despite the high expectations, some are skeptical about whether the water route's capacity will be sufficient to effectively reduce the city's traffic. A month or so since the launch, most of the passengers are tourists rather than commuters. People stand in long queues on the weekends for a chance to enjoy the river cruise.

Passengers take in a different side of Myanmar's commercial capital.

But some workers have taken notice. "It's much more comfortable than standing all the way to work in a crowded bus," said a man taking the ride.

The water bus operator is looking to increase the number of boats in stages. The next phase is to open routes in the northeastern side of the city. The company is now screening potential locations to install jetties.

Plans for the third phase include extending the existing route to the area of the Star City residential development project, near the Thilawa industrial park, home to a number of domestic and foreign businesses. It may be a while before the real value of the service becomes clear.

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