No Horsing Around for Beach Boys along Mon State Coast

By Lawi Weng & May Sitt Paing 29 May 2013

A group of boys leading small horses mill about the beach in Mon State’s Setse, enlisting their steeds in service of beachgoers looking for a ride along the sand.

Even if they’re not paying to saddle up, most visitors to the beach are at least inclined to stop and admire the young entrepreneurs’ skills on horseback. At Setse, in Thanbyuzayat Township, fast riding and occasional leaps that harken to the age of the cowboy-ridden Wild West are crowd pleasers. More than a dozen boys regularly ply this beach trade.

Among the thousands that thronged Setse during the Thingyan water festival last month, the boys were doubtless the busiest, foregoing Buddhist New Year leisure in favor of the money that was to be made.

It was hot, wet and messy along the beach over the course of those four days as crowds strolled the coast, but the boys and their horses seemed tireless, as holiday-goers took turns taking the reins. The energy spent was, after all, in exchange for money—and far more than is typical.

On normal days, the beach is sparsely populated, and a day’s pay for the boys is commensurately small.

The beach runs about 60 miles from Moulmein, the state capital, to Thanbyuzayat. It is popular among the ethnic Mon and Karen in the region. While it spans 60 miles, Setse suffers from poor infrastructure, both in terms of access to its sands and accommodation for tourists. There are few decent hotels.

Nonetheless, ample trees provide shade from the tropical sun, and small beachside restaurants offer visitors food and beer.

The beach boys, in their pre- and early teens, are of an age that should put them in classrooms instead of on the beach, but instead they roam the coast, some earning less than $3 a day. Every new visitor to the beach is greeted by one of the young cowboys with horse in tow, the youngsters offering rides at by-the-minute rates.

On a typical day, about 40 horses will trot the beach, all of which are miniature versions of the average riding horse.

The boys’ skillful handling of the horses draws in visitors, proving especially popular with children whose faces betray their delight.

“This horse is for visitors who come here to ride. We charge 1,000 kyat [US$1.05] for 10 minutes,” said one of the horse masters, a 12-year-old.

He said that the horses belonged to the owners of some of the restaurants along the beach, adding that he was paid 2,500 kyat a day.

The horses’ owners only hire children, according to a man involved in the practice.

“They use children as they do not have to pay as much as to older people,” he said. “They can pay as much as they want to children, it does not matter, even if it is a little money.”

One boy, an orphan from the Irrawaddy delta, explained what had brought him to work on the beach.

“I do not have parents,” he said. “I stay with my older brother and sister. We do not have jobs for children here. This is the only job for children. There is no choice, even though it is small pay.

“Many children here who are like me do not have people whom they can rely on for a living. If we didn’t have this job, we could not eat regularly.”

And not unlike the Wild West of yore, he described a rough-and-tumble business. If one of the young equestrians falls ill, the solution for horse owners is simple: “They give their horses to another person.”