A Future for Horse Carts in Bagan? Signs Point to Neigh

By Nobel Zaw 31 December 2014

RANGOON — The horse-drawn carts that have long been a trademark accessory to scenes of Bagan’s pagoda-studded plain could soon go the way of the manual typewriter and rotary phone, facing increasing competition from a fellow two-wheeled rival: electric bicycles.

Since electronic bicycles started arriving to the famed tourist attraction about two years ago, owners of horse-drawn carts say business has begun to dry up, even as Bagan sees record numbers of tourist arrivals.

Where once queued lines of the carts—their drivers patiently waiting for passengers to return from temple exploration—now can be seen dozens of the so-called “e-bikes.”

Zaw Zaw, the owner of a horse-drawn wagon, told The Irrawaddy that “most of the tourists ride e-bikes and in the previous years during this [high] season we were full of customers, but now we are only hired at the time of sunset viewing.”

He added that some owners had sold their wagons and bought e-bikes. Still, the horse carts’ market value has fallen from US$2,500 pre-electric bicycles, to about $1,500 today, Zaw Zaw said. That compares with about $300 for an e-bike.

Pricewise, the competing modes of transport are comparable: A full-day trip by horse-drawn wagon averages $25 and can transport three people, while an e-bike runs tourists $8 per bike per day.

Another wagon owner, Than Hlaing, confirmed that his industry had fallen on hard times.

“The business of horse wagons is not as good as previous years. I am only able to be hired by customers once a week,” he said.

He added that there were about 240 horse-drawn wagons plying the trade in Bagan, but owners wanting to sell their carts are increasingly finding an unenthusiastic market for the obsolescing asset.

With thousands of red- and brown-bricked pagodas scattered across Bagan, the wagons have proved a logical way for tourists to traverse the at times uneven terrain.

E-bikes are equally adept at tackling the narrow paths and sandy topography, and have an added advantage, according to South Korean tourist Youngeun Jeong.

“I choose e-bikes because it is cheap to travel and isn’t dependent on others and can travel freely,” he told The Irrawaddy earlier this month.

The e-bikes are a modification of their low-tech pedal-powered predecessor, with a fully charged e-bike’s battery able to power riders for an entire day on one charge.

In the town centers of Naung-U, Old Bagan and New Bagan, e-bike rental shops have proliferated. Some locals estimate that there are now more than 50 e-bike rental shops, with each shop averaging 20 to 30 e-bikes. Hotels are also happy to arrange e-bike hires.

Tin Soe, owner of Golden Bagan vehicle rental shop, told Irrawaddy that he was one of Bagan’s pioneering purveyors of e-bikes.

“In Bagan, the law does not allow foreigners to ride motorcycles, but they want to ride. … I tried out hiring e-bikes in 2013 and now it is very popular among visitors.”

Most of the tourists who ride e-bikes are individual tourists, with package tourists only infrequent users. Zaw Win Cho, president of the local tour guide association, told The Irrawaddy that 60 percent of Bagan’s tourists are independent travelers, with the other 40 percent of foreigners arriving on package tours.

By mid-December, Bagan had seen some 240,000 foreign visitors in 2014, compared to fewer than 200,000 for the whole of last year, according to Zaw Win Cho.

While tourists have long been drawn to Bagan’s Kodak-worthy, pastoral ancient charm, it looks like they may soon be resigned to cropping the modernity-imposing and increasingly ubiquitous e-bike from their vacation photos.