Planning an evening walk through Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, the problems started even before I left my hotel. When I typed the address of a nearby restaurant into my phone, my map app would show me only the routes by car. The idea that I would walk there did not seem to register electronically. Yet still I set off.
At first it seemed relatively easy: my hotel, one of the larger ones in town, was encircled by a well-made pavement. But this came to an abrupt end at the hotel boundary. I then faced a choice: step gingerly into the mad rush of the evening traffic or take an overpass, which turned out to be liberally sprinkled with urine. I chose the overpass, which deposited me at a crossroads. After weaving my way through the honking taxis and buses, I went down a sidewalk of loose paving stones, most of which was taken up by street vendors selling fruit, fried food and pirated films. I side-stepped a woman cleaning dishes in a plastic tub, then headed down a stretch of unlit road, where I nearly tripped over a stray dog before stumbling into a hole in the ground.
Thirty minutes later, I arrived at the end of this urban assault course, dusty, sweaty and somehow triumphant. My dining companion looked rather startled at my flushed face and frizzy hair. The journey would have taken eight minutes by car.
As a Londoner, who has spent most of her life in Europe, I am used to the primacy of pedestrians. London’s pavements may be pockmarked by chewing-gum and the city’s drivers full of road-rage, but walking is often the best way to get around. Side streets let you peel off a main strip to avoid crowds; alleys invite explorers to wind their way around the city’s byways. At rush hour, when the underground is heaving, traffic is chock-a-block and cycling seems too dangerous to contemplate, there is sometimes no alternative. But since moving to South-East Asia last year I have realised that although pavements are occasionally populated by people, they are not meant for pedestrians.
One reason why they are neglected is the weather: in much of South-East Asia, for much of the year, walking is unpleasant. At certain times of day, strolling from my flat to my bus stop in Singapore can leave me feeling as if I have gone outside to take a hot shower in my own sweat. In older parts of town, where the pavements, though erratic, are the best in the region, most sidewalks are shaded to keep the sun off.
It's not that South-East Asia’s pavements go unused. Quite the opposite. In Hanoi sidewalks are occupied by small plastic chairs as restaurants spill over into the street, by people mending bicycles or cooking corn on the cob. A decision in the 1950s to banish street vendors to “hawker centres” put a stop to most of this activity in Singapore, but even in the posher parts of Bangkok pedestrians have to dance between diners and street-sellers and animals.
The boom in car use, particularly in places such as Yangon, has added to the problem, as has poor urban planning. Suharto, Indonesia’s military dictator from 1967 to 1998, idolised American cities such as Los Angeles, where the car had been elevated at the pedestrian’s expense. He created heaving motorways and ignored the pavements, which developed gaping pot holes. Manila’s underpasses make walking easier but unpleasant. Even in orderly Singapore, you sometimes find yourself strolling along a motorway to get to the city centre.
Attempts to improve pavements have tended to flounder. In January Doan Ngoc Hai, known as “Saigon’s Captain Sidewalk”, resigned after he failed to clean up the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. A few brave souls have tried to change opinions in places like Jakarta, by walking wherever possible instead of using cars or motorbikes. In Yangon, a heritage society is trying to convince the local government to pedestrianise more of the city – even after the previous local government narrowed the sidewalks three years ago. Thant Myint-U, an author and member of the heritage group, has radical ideas: he wants to create a walkway between pagodas and to introduce parking fees, something seemingly unthinkable in the city. Yet one big problem remains. “People who make the decisions are all in cars,” he says.