Tourists Duped by ‘Waw’ Chair Service

Porters carry a tourist up to the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda. (Photo: Steve Tickner / The Irrawaddy)

While the Golden Rock of Kyaiktiyo remains a tourist attraction to rival Rangoon’s illustrious Shwedagon Pagoda, this Buddhist pilgrimage site in Mon State has become a source of immense frustration for foreign tourists who complain of being ripped off and forced into an ethnically dubious practice.

Just four hours drive south of the former capital, the eight-meter pagoda is perched upon a gold leaf-adorned granite boulder that has been visited by devout Burmese for centuries.

According to local legend, the precariously placed rock is held in position by a single strand of the Buddha’s hair, and devotees view this miraculous balancing act as inspirational enough to bolster their Buddhist beliefs.

Yet there is one aspect associated with visiting the prestigious pagoda that has been riling international tourists and threatens to jeopardise Burma’s burgeoning tourist industry that has been revitalized by this year’s program of political and social reform.

The process of reaching the pagoda begins at the small village of Kinpun, a short distance past the township of Kyaikto, where both pilgrims and tourists are loaded, more than 40 at a time, onto small trucks fitted with impossibly narrow benches.

However, the foreigners—predominately a mix of Western and Southeast Asian tourists—are subtly segregated into different trucks before setting off on the winding mountain road. This system involves some 140 vehicles and is ostensibly used due to the narrow nature of the track and the lack of parking at the Yathaytaung “base camp” by the village of Kamon Chaung.

At this point trucks with Burmese nationals continue up the steep hill to the pagoda, while foreign tourists are ordered off and forced to engage the help of “Waw” carriers. This involves four porters transporting visitors in a chair strapped between bamboo poles at a cost of around 20,000 kyat (US $25) per person.

“On arrival at the base camp I was ordered off the truck which was about to continue the journey to the pagoda,” said one irate Australian visitor. “I refused and was then told that this was necessary as the road trip was ‘too dangerous’ for foreigners.

“I replied that if it was safe enough for the Burmese then it was certainly safe enough for me. It was soon made clear that the truck would be going nowhere until I was no longer on it.”

Interviews with more than a dozen Western tourists conducted by The Irrawaddy at Kyaiktiyo revealed a deep level of unease regarding being carried in a fashion which conjured mental images of subservient Asians being forced to dote on their colonial “masters.”

“The carrier providers are confident that good business can be had from the tourists who are for the most part older people in retirement or in less than perfect physical health, and also presumably affluent enough to pay,” added the Australian tourist.

Observers fear that Burma’s nascent but growing tourism industry could suffer unless steps are taken to ensure the ethical and responsible treatment of all visitors regardless of nationality.

6 Responses to Tourists Duped by ‘Waw’ Chair Service

  1. Why don’t they build sky-train to reach this pagoda? It is so unpleasant seeing this kind of picture. Worse is ripping off visitors. This happens in religious area. If this kind of business happens in religious area, visitors from abroad may see Burma as land of dishonest people. This kind of image is so bad for the long run for our country. Friendly and compassionate environment is what we need to build.

    •  Belligerent foreign visitors should take a little time to look into local customs before sounding off. Two quick points: The Myanmar government is essentially following the Buddhist precept to keep visitors from afar out of possible harm’ s way as far as possible. The top part of the road is dangerous. Secondly: any connection between the chair carriers (who do not force people to use them) and colonial-coolie guilt feelings is laughable. These are working people voluntarily making a living. As for the cost, anybody who can afford to fly into Myanmar can make their own decision as to being ripped off. If complaints from “irate” visitors are to be made, they should aim at the rip-off jacking up of guest house and hotel prices, and perhaps the imposition of the $5 fee for every visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda.


      • There’s nothing dangerous about the upper road. It’s a pleasant walk up the mountain. I had my only really bad experience on trying to take the early morning truck to the base camp. They tried to charge me and my Malay friend $20 dollars whereas it should at that time have been 150 kyat. They got very nasty and threatening, so we decided to get off the truck. They wouldn’t let us get onto any others, so we had to wait for 3 hours. I was very ashamed as I’d told my Malaysian friend that there were no gangsters in Myanmar. It was a very unpleasant experience and the aftermath of it lasted for the rest of the holidays. We felt very threatened when we got back when those gangsters started to follow us.

      • I should add, just to take John Winward up on his points that during my 12 years living in Malaysia, I visited Myanmar 32 times- a month or longer each time, and never had any unpleasant experiences apart from this. It’s the only place where gangsters are allowed to prey on foreign tourists anywhere in the country.

        When after that epic 3 hours spent trying to get onto a truck and being prevented, we reached the base camp, we had to be very insistent about refusing those sedan chairs. It’s the worst throwback to colonialism to be transported by bearers in that way. One sees the pictures of colonialists lording it over “coolies” and being carried like medieval kings and it’s a poignant reminder of how things used to be.

        There are other jobs which can give those bearers a good living: if the mafia who run that base camp were to allow it, decent food units and cafes can be built for tourists. That base camp was the only place in the country where we were unable to buy decent food, and I’m not talking about fancy western food, either.

  2. When we visited Kyaitiyo only residents of the villages above Yathetaung were allowed to travel by vehicle past Yathetaung. Burmese from elsewhere also had to walk the last stage. 

  3. They should have clarified what kind of services are included in the transportation fee and the truck will carry passengers up to that certain point.
    I remember hiking up the last section with another U.S tourist after being asked to go off board.
    And the flat-bed truck went on driving uphill with some passengers.
    We were offered quite a few times ( almost forcefully) to ride that chair-carrying service but we declined.

    Burma is known of a tourist destination as expensive with many unexplainable rules.
    Ripping off tourists, poverty, cleanliness problems…. are not unheard of if you travel internationally.
    Personally, I think Burma need to work on transportation, price to visit attractions,  hospitality and accommodation to compete with other South East Asia destinations.

    A Burmese-American friend told me a few years ago, 
    “he was asked to pay problem-solving fee at Mandalay airport by a police because he was carrying a few thousands U.S dollar”. He explained to the police  “although I speak Burmese, I live and work in U.S. I am visiting here as a tourist and I can prove my valid Burmese visa and US passport”.
    But the police kept insisting to pay 10 dollar to see-to-it.  But another police intervened and let my friend go…..

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