Yangon’s Pedal Power

By Virginia Hendersonn 18 June 2014

YANGON — Want a lift? In other countries, they’re called trishaws, cycle rickshaws, cyclos, pedicabs, or even bike taxis, but here in Myanmar, they go by just one name: side cars.

In a city where traffic seems to grow more congested by the day, the continued presence of so many side cars (or “sai kaa,” as it is pronounced in Myanmar) is a reminder that not so long ago, Yangon moved at a very different pace.

These days, side cars cling tenaciously to a niche market that is not well-served by other forms of transportation—namely, market vendors and others who need to move small but heavy loads over short distances, moms and kids on the way to and from school, and grandmothers running out of puff.

Side cars have been a part of life in cities and towns since at least the 1930s. These days, it costs around 7,000 kyats (US$7) for an annual permit to run a side-car. Some drivers own their vehicles, while others rent them.

U Maung Chit Oo, 40, has covered a lot of ground during his 20 years “in the seat.” He makes most of his money transporting bags of rice, vegetables and other goods to the Pazundaung Zay and Bogalay Zay markets and taking children to school.

“Once, two foreigners asked me to take them to Kandawgyi Lake [from Strand Road] and I did it for 3,000 kyats. That was the longest trip I’ve done,” says the former civil-servant who started out driving side cars part-time.

“I like this work because I get paid every day. Other work, the money comes month by month, and that’s too hard to manage. It’s not a regular income, but I can usually get between 5,000 and 7,000 kyats a day,” he says.

Though he’s proud of the fact that he has been able to support his family this way, U Maung Chit Oo says he doesn’t see much of a future in his chosen line of work.

“I wouldn’t want my son to do this for a living,” he says, before adding: “Anyway, he’s in his third year at university now, studying to be an engineer.”

Modest though it may seem to the untrained eye, the side car industry provides not just a highly valued service, but also much-needed employment. Besides a small army of drivers, there are also many mechanics who help to keep the city’s aging fleet creaking along.

Seated cross-legged under the shade of one of the few remaining big trees on Strand Road, Zimbo is an expert in side car maintenance.

Surrounded by plastic jars containing valves, washers, nuts, bolts, pumps and rubber inner tubes, he has been running his open-air repair shop at this location for seven years. Previously, he worked at another spot on 44th Street for the same number of years, and before that, he spent 15 years on 45th Street. Each move has been a push, a result of being squeezed out of his rent-free space.

As a small-business operator, he’ll take on any job, great or small. He works from 9 am to 9 pm, servicing around 15 bicycles and side cars and earning about 10,000 kyats a day.

“This is okay money for the family. But I’m very tired and my legs are not great these days, from long periods of sitting,” says the 50-year-old Mawlamyine native, who has been fixing bikes and side cars since 1980.

For drivers, side car driving is becoming much less appealing as Yangon is not as navigable as it was when cars were relatively few and far between.

“Nowadays there are more cars, and sometimes we have to wait ages at the traffic lights,” says U Maung Chit Oo, adding that knowing short cuts and which roads to take is crucial to a successful career as a side car driver.

And you have to be tough. As driver Aung Naing humps huge slabs of concrete from the new pavement outside the High Court onto his trishaw, his rough hands tell a story of a life of hard physical labor.

Independent business owner though he is, it’s a challenge to manage the hand-to-mouth existence. After loading three of the chunks of cement onto his rickety trishaw, Aung Naing slumps down to rest before heading off.

Grabbing for his leaf-pack of betel he explains, “This life is okay, just okay.” The alternative is construction work, but he prefers to work in his own time and be his own man.

Whatever changes may come to Yangon, however, it seems likely that side cars will remain a part of life here for some time to come. Perhaps it’s worth noting that trishaws are now a feature of tourism in places like New York and London. Tourists like the charm of this environmentally-friendly, slow-paced mode for short sightseeing trips.

Perhaps trishaw heritage tours will be next in Yangon?

This article first appeared in the June 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.