The Big Bike Lovers of Mandalay

By Zarni Mann 6 January 2016

MANDALAY — The area near Mandalay’s old moat bustles in the twilight, with visitors soaking in enchanting views of the ancient royal palace and Mandalay Hill.

Sprawled across a corner of the scene are about 20 large motorcycles, representing brands from Ducati to Harley Davidson. Beside the bikes are chattering men, adorned in the seemingly requisite uniform of leather boots, jeans, and Harley jackets.

They hail from Burmese Python, one of Mandalay’s clubs for big bike lovers, and they have caught the crowd’s eyes, especially those of other motorcycle enthusiasts.

Mandalay was once a bicycle city, but since Burma’s 2010 general election, the number of motorcycles in the historic capital of the last independent Burmese kingdom has grown dramatically, effectively turning it into a city distinguished by the presence of big bikes.

“In 1982, we only had Harleys, and they were so expensive that only a few people had them,” said Soe Lay, a Harley Davidson buff. “They’re still expensive today, of course, but the country’s economy has opened up and gotten better since then, so more people can buy them now.”

A Harley Davidson bike in Burma can carry a price tag of anywhere from 10-70 million kyats (US$7,650-53,500).

“I’ve been in love with big bikes since childhood, especially the Harley Davidson ones that used to come into my grandpa’s motorbike shop. It took me years to save enough money, but in 2010 my dream came true and I finally bought one,” Soe Lay said, showing off his 12 million kyat ($9,100) hog.

These days Soe Lay rides his Harley with his friends around Mandalay, and he has also taken over his family’s motorbike shop, mostly to sate his love for big bikes.

Despite the increasing number of big bike owners in the city, however, maintaining one remains a steep hurdle, given that Burma does not yet have a service center.

“If a bike breaks, we have to order spare parts from Thailand, which is costly. Sometimes we even have to send them to Thailand for repair. So in some more minor cases, we build the spare parts locally, using old parts from cars or other bikes,” said Soe Lay.

Harley Davidson Electra Glide, Super Glide and sport are Burma riders’ favorite styles, though Ducati and BMW brands can also be found among bike collections.

According to enthusiasts, there were only 47 Harley Davidson bikes in Mandalay in 2008. Today that number hovers around 100.

There has been a similar growth in the number of riding clubs. Burmese Python and Mandalay Knights are just a few of the dozens of these sorts of groups. In December riding clubs came together to hold a social gathering in Mandalay to christen the opening of yet another club, Perfect Riders. Throngs of riders from Mandalay, Monywa, Tachilek and Rangoon could be spotted with their bikes, swapping information about their rides.

Most of Mandalay’s big bike lovers are young, and this demographic pattern, they say, brands them as outlaws in the eyes of some older residents.

“Due to cultural differences, people sometimes see us as rebels, moving around the city in groups with our noisy bikes,” said Thet Oo, 25, of the Burmese Python club.

Yet these young riders contend that they are more than their bikes. Thet Oo said that his club collects funds to aid disaster victims and that members regularly help out at charities.

“We love riding around with friends, and we love helping people in need. We have strict [club] rules to follow traffic laws and not to disturb the public. Most Mandalay residents love us and welcome us whenever they see us,” Thet Oo said.

Despite the hefty price attached to motorcycles, riders hope that the gradual opening of Burma’s economy to the international market will bring in showrooms and service centers.

Aung Aung, manager of Mandalay Free Rider (MFR), an amateur association of bicycle and motorcycle riders in Mandalay, echoed criticisms of Burma’s current motorbike situation, adding, “If we could buy bikes from showrooms in our own country [rather than import them, mostly from Thailand], it would be easier for big bike lovers. I also suspect that the [Burma] government would reduce some taxes to a reasonable rate.”

Biking aficionados such as Aung Aung mostly ride around the city, sometimes making it as far as Bagan or even Tachilek in Shan State. But he said that as Burma continues on its slow path to change, hopes are high that the country’s motorcycle riders will soon be able to cross borders as their foreign counterparts already do.

“One of the dreams of every rider is to get easier access to visas—that way, we can travel abroad with our beloved big bikes.”