The surprisingly merciless Myanmar driving test

Myanmar’s road rules test is renowned for being almost impossible to pass on the first attempt. 


I COULD see the exact moment when my groupmate failed his driving test. While trying to park, he cut the wheel when he should have straightened it, and his whole driving exam crashed and burned.

“He gets to try again, right?” I asked Noe (not her real name), an English speaker who had helped me through the process of applying for a Myanmar driving licence.

Another try seemed reasonable. After all, our group of three hopefuls had already spent hours in the sun at an East Dagon lot drilling the single manoeuvre – backing into a 45-degree parking space – that makes the test notoriously brutal.

The rest of the practical test – driving in a circle and using the turn signals – is almost unbelievably easy. But at the end you are given 90 seconds to slot into a parking space barely wider than the car itself, and allowed to shift from reverse to drive only once. Touch the lines even a little bit, and it’s game over.

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After hours with the instructor Noe had hired, I had only managed to nail the complex, multi-step technique once or twice.

“No, he has to come back another day,” Noe answered, as another victim failed in front of our eyes.

This driver had already crossed the lines but pressed on anyway, hopelessly struggling with the wheel as the bored-looking, clipboard-wielding instructor looked on.

Come back? I had a vision of more BS excuses to get off work, more waiting in queues, more bored-looking testers with clipboards, week after week. In the end, my gravestone would read: Died doing what he was best at: parking, badly

“You seem pretty calm,” I said.

“Well, yes,” she answered. Apparently she had paid our instructor K65,000 to grease the wheels at the office and ensure a pass no matter how she did on the test.

Soon Noe herself failed (she was close; her wheel was a mere inch on the line). I was the only one in our group left, and I had a choice to make. Of course, I didn’t want to bribe anyone.

For my integrity, I’m prepared to give up money, powerful friends and even my job, if it comes to that. But spend another day at the Road Transportation Administration Department? That’s asking a lot.

In the end I didn’t pay (more due to indecision than real probity), and I was so nervous I almost blew the section of the test that involved casually avoiding a roadwork sign. But in the end I passed, knuckles white and tyres a hair’s breadth from the lines of doom.

When I found Noe, she was livid. Not because I was successful, but because her bribe hadn’t worked. The agent told her to come back and take the test again. Apparently one is only guaranteed a pass on the second or third attempt.  

“What is this country coming to?” I asked Noe, after she had given the man a few choice words in Myanmar language.

“I don’t know,” she said.

I was profoundly proud; my list of accomplishments in this country isn’t long. My Myanmar resume mainly includes clickbait articles, being awkward around the office and getting tonsil infections.

But I did manage to pass the practical driving test on the first try, and apparently nobody does that.

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