Monday, July 24, 2017

Moving with the times: Bagan’s horse carts face a new threat

For years the horse cart was the only option for visitors to Bagan but tourists are increasingly exploring temples on electronic bikes.

Tourists take a horse cart through a gate in the walls of the old city of Bagan. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)Tourists take a horse cart through a gate in the walls of the old city of Bagan. (Kaung Htet/The Myanmar Times)

Ko Ye has ferried tourists around the temples of Bagan in his horse cart for 11 years. Visitor numbers have boomed in the intervening years – Myanmar welcomed 554,531 visitors through Yangon in 2012, up from 212,468 a decade earlier – but business has never been worse.

He is unequivocal when asked why: the arrival, in 2012, of electric bicycles, which are not covered by a municipal ban on tourists using motorcycles in the Nyaung Oo area.

“They [tourists] are allowed to take the electric bike because it has pedals,” Ko Ye told The Myanmar Times as he waited for customers at the gates of Ananda Pagoda. “That harms our income.”

The downturn in business has left Ko Ye – and the 240 other horse cart drivers he estimates operate in Nyaung Oo – wondering whether the horse cart’s days are numbered.

He used to make about K25,000 a day before electric bicycles – better known as e-bikes – became popular in the middle of this year. Now, he said, a day can go by without one single passenger.

He charges K10,000 for a half-day and K15,000 a day for locals, and K12,000 and K20,000 respectively for foreigners.

“When I earn K10,000 or more, I give K7000 [to the owner] for a day. If I don’t get any passengers the whole day I tell the owner and I don’t need to pay money. But then I haven’t got anything for my family, either,” he said. “If I don’t do this job I don’t know what else I can do in Bagan.”

It costs about K2 million (US$2000) to buy a horse cart, he said. Like Ko Ye, about half of the drivers rent from other people. The owners have to pay K15,000 in tax each year to the municipal authorities. Ko Ye says no tax is being collected on electric bikes.

“The development committee said they plan to charge a tax of about K80,000 [a year] for electric bikes. But now they have been running for about five months without being taxed … So more tourists are coming than last year but we are still sitting beside the road.”

But not everyone is unhappy about the arrival of the new technology. U Than Soe, who rents out e-bikes and bicycles from a shop in front of Areind-mar Hotel in New Bagan, agreed that e-bikes are a faster route to tourists’ wallets compared to horse carts.

“The horse carts are not hired as much now that e-bikes are popular,” he said.

He started offering e-bikes in March 2013 after tourists began to ask for them after seeing them elsewhere in Bagan. But he’s quick to emphasise that business isn’t always a smooth ride.

“E-bikes also have difficulties,” said U Than Soe. “We have to charge the battery all night so it can go the whole day. Sometimes an e-bike breaks a wheel and can’t be used. Guests leave it somewhere and call me to pick it up. That is trouble for me.”

U Than Soe now oversees a fleet of 17 bicycles and five e-bikes. A day’s rental of an e-bike brings in K8000 compared to K3000 for a regular bicycle, but electric bikes are a much bigger investment, costing nearly K400,000 to purchase. And despite the fact that they bring in more income, U Than Soe said they can be more costly to maintain than horse carts.

“E-bikes are very heavy to carry when their batteries run out. If that happens they are more trouble than horse carts. They need four batteries. Each costs K25,000, which is more than horse feed,” he added.

U Khin Maung Htwe, secretary of the Myanmar Restaurant Association’s Bagan branch, said e-bikes are suited to the Bagan terrain. They don’t emit exhaust like motorcycles, he said, and yet they’re small enough that they won’t cause traffic jams on the area’s narrow roads the way cars and buses do.

While he said authorities should encourage e-bikes as they blaze a new trail in the local economy, he also added that it’s important that the new technology doesn’t rein in other local money-making opportunities.

“What we want to make sure is that all are doing business,” said U Khin Maung Htwe. “[The city] may need to issue licence plates for bikes to be systematic.”

He added that, e-bikes or no e-bikes, he’s not worried about the more traditional source of horsepower riding off into one of Bagan’s famous sunsets any time soon.

“Tourists arriving in Bagan might take a horse cart one day and then an e-bike on another,” U Khin Maung Htwe said. “The culture of riding horse carts will remain for a long time into the future.”