As Burma Tourism Rises, So Do Hopes in Inwa

Zarni Mann The Irrawaddy

MANDALAY — As Burma prepares to welcome more than 1 million tourists this year, business hopes are rising among souvenir sellers and tour operators in Inwa, an ancient royal capital in Mandalay Division.

“Year by year, more tourists come to Inwa, but our business remains stable,” said Ma Win, a souvenir seller with a small shop near a 27-meter-tall watchtower, a tourist attraction and the sole remains of a 19th century palace in the city. “We can’t say we earn a lot, but we are hoping to earn more this year because we heard there will be more tourists coming to our country.”

Inwa, known to Westerners as Ava, was a powerful ancient capital of Burmese kings from the 14th century to the early 19th century, located just 21 km south of Mandalay and across the Myitnge River. Like other tourist destinations in Burma, the city is filled with souvenir shops, while souvenir hawkers and children also sell postcards and small mementos on the streets.

“I believe I can earn more this year because I was told more tourists would come this season,” said 13-year-old Ko Thu (not his real name), who stopped attending school after fourth grade.

Like him, many children in Inwa are eager to make pocket money not only by selling sets of postcards, but by explaining the history of the city and its ancient monuments.

“We used to explain only to Burmese pilgrims. Usually we get 1,000 to 1,500 kyats [US$1 to $1.50] a day,” Ko Thu said. “Selling only postcards to visitors is not good business because nobody wants to buy them—only some foreigners are interested. On a lucky day, a set or two will be sold, and a set of 10 cards is only 1,500 [kyats]. That’s why we are hoping this year will give us better business.”

But the job has risks, he added.

“We have to be afraid of the police as well,” he said. “If they know us or see our photo on the Internet, they can come and scold us and force us not to come here or work.”

Although Inwa can be reached by car via an hour’s drive on the road from Mandalay International Airport, most tourists prefer to take a three- to five-minute boat ride across the river. Once there, they can admire the remains of the ancient city walls, the palace site and the watchtower, as well as areas of unspoiled nature.

At a small jetty designated as an “archeology survey zone,” horse carts line up to welcome visitors and show off the city with a ride on its dusty, bumpy roads.

“Our earnings were pretty good last year, and we hope we will earn more,” said Than Tun, a horse cart driver. “We’ve redecorated our carts and given special care to the horses as well, because they are our only and best business partners.”

For a daylong horse cart ride, drivers earn 5,000 kyats to 6,000 kyats with an occasional tip.

Burma’s peak tourist season is approaching, but Inwa is still waiting for its bumpy roads to be repaired.

“The roads on the way to watchtower and some parts of the road to Bargayar monastery are too bouncy, so we must drive carefully to ensure our horses don’t suffer and the cart isn’t damaged,” Than Tun said.

Tour guides in Mandalay also say Inwa needs smoother roads for the convenience of visitors.

“Some parts of the road in Inwa are in terrible condition, so sometimes the horses trip and give minor injuries to travelers,” a local tour guide said. “Since the city is just miles away from Mandalay, I think it deserves to have good roads. I hope the roads will be repaired this season.”

Still, adventure-loving travelers are not making a major fuss about conditions.

“We have not heard serious complaints from tourists so far. But some of our guides suggest that the roads are so bumpy that it is not suitable for the elderly to visit Inwa with the horse carts,” said a tour operator in Rangoon.

On request, tour operators prepare cars rather than horse carts for tourists who are allergic to the animals. In such cases, traveling on the bumpy roads becomes a major safety concern.

“Since we believe tourist visits to our country this year will be their highest yet, we think the roads in Inwa should be repaired in time,” the Rangoon-based tour operator said.

After a serious earthquake in 1839, King Tharyarwaddy, then the ruling king of Inwa, moved the capital to Amarapura, and Inwa become an abandoned city.

According to data compiled by Burma’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, the number of tourists entering Burma rose from more than 800,000 in 2011 to more than 1 million last year. The ministry hopes to draw even more travelers to Burma this year, as the country prepares to host the Southeast Asian Games, a major regional sporting event, in December.

In 2015, the ministry aims to attract more than 3 million tourists to a country, according to a recently published master plan for tourism development.