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End of an era: Myanmar's 'big belly' Chevy buses from WWII face scrap

This once-isolated country is replacing its fleet of buses cobbled together from the shells of World War II-era Chevy trucks.  NBC News' Ian Williams reports on this antique roadshow on wheels that is being swept away by rapid change.

YANGON, Myanmar -- U Ming Kyi affectionately tapped the hood of his dilapidated bus. “Of course I’ll be sad to see it go. They are really reliable. The brakes are great,” he said.

But on this particular morning, bus No. 61 from North Dagon to San Pya market was not cooperating. The engine screeched and smoked as U Ming sat behind the wheel, turning the key and willing it to life.

He gave up and glanced back at the passengers. As if on cue -- and clearly well practiced -- several jumped from the bus and began pushing until it spluttered, gasped, then finally roared to life.

Bus no 61 was on its way across the north of Yangon, as it has been for decades.

U Ming smiled gingerly. He has been driving these buses for 35 years, and keeping on the road what are possibly the oldest buses in the world still operating needs constant improvisation.

Ian Williams/NBC News

Driver U Ming Kyi at the wheel of bus number 61. He's been driving the Big Belly Chevy for 35 years.

In Myanmar they are called “big belly” buses and the chassis of no 61 was registered in 1939. Back then it was a military truck -- a Canada-built Chevy C-15. These were used by the United States, Britain and western allies during the "Burma Campaign" -- the southeast Asia theater of World War II.

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After the conflict, Myanmar’s military regime converted them into buses. The makeshift vehicles quickly became the mainstay of a transport system that resembled until recently an antiques show on wheels.

But in a sign of the rapid wider changes sweeping this country, they have been banned from the increasingly traffic-clogged center of Yangon, Myanmar’s main city, and are being phased out to be replaced by shiny new Japanese models.

Ian Williams/NBC News

Passengers packed on board bus number 61. Big Belly Bus.

The price of an old “big belly” has suddenly gone through the roof -- not because of the vehicle, which is off to the junk yard, but because of the valuable operating license that goes with it.

If he had the money, U Ming would buy one himself. “The new ones just won’t be the same,” he said. He can read every crunch, bang and hiss -- of which there are many on a bumpy, shaky ride across the city.

Like most vehicles here, the “big belly” is right-hand drive, a legacy of British rule when traffic drove on the left. Yet the traffic in Myanmar now drives on the right, as in the United States, which means drivers like U Ming spend a good deal of their time straining to see what is coming at them.

Former dictator Ne Win made the switch after seizing power in 1962. Some say it was an anti-colonial gesture. Others put it down to his notorious superstition: Britain’s Daily Telegraph said he took the decision after consulting a wizard.

Ian Williams/NBC News

The interior of a Big Belly Bus.

That these buses operated for so long, patched together with whatever parts were available during years of isolation and sanctions, is testament to the ingenuity of men like U Ming.

All is not lost, though. Long-time Italian resident Alberto Peyre has bought three and given them a luxurious face lift to serve the country's tourism boom.

“They are a piece of history, a piece of history,” he said, as immaculately dressed attendants handed us cold towels as we sat in expensively upholstered seats for a mini-tour of the city.

“I love these buses. I just love them,” he said.

Peyre’s company, Elephant Coach, is marketing tours as “the ultimate luxury in overland travel.” It’s a long way from the U Ming’s no 61, but it will ensure that these remarkable old machines will not entirely disappear from the streets of Myanmar.

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