Myanmar is quickly gaining popularity as a tourist destination. This is because it has been closed off for so long and now that it’s opened, many tourists want to be the first to see it, while many backpackers want to be among the first to create a beaten path. But there is no denying how beautiful the country is – from the mysterious Bagan to the beautiful Inle Lake. But above all, it’s the simplicity, friendliness and beauty of the people who charm the visitors.
High on most travelers’ list of places to visit is the incomparable Bagan. My travel companion and me took the overnight bus from Yangon and arrived at Nyaung Oo (besides New Bagan, Nyaung Oo is another place where you can find budget accommodations) in the ungodly hour of 3am! We didn’t have accommodations booked because we didn’t know that we were in the midst of the first wave of mass tourism Myanmar was experiencing and all the budget hotels were fully booked.
When we got off the bus, we were approached by a couple of horse cart drivers. We told them that we were just going to walk around knocking on doors of the guesthouses, but then we realised how ridiculous that sound (who was going to answer the door at 3am?!). By then only 1 horse cart driver was left, the rest had been taken by other passengers. He took us around and we managed to find a room in a guesthouse closer to the temples. But we had to wait until 8am before we could check in. So taking advantage of the free time, I decided to have a chat with our horse cart driver.
Q: What’s your name and how old are you?
A: My name is Aung Aung and I’m 24 years old.
Q: Where do you live?
A: I lived with my family in a village about 3km southeast from Nyaung Oo.
Q: How big is your family?
A: I used to have 10 brothers and sisters, but 1 passed away few years ago. My father also passed away when I was young. Now, it’s only my mother and 4 other brothers and sisters living at home. 5 of my brothers and sisters are married and they live in other places.
Q: You speak really good English, did you study it in school?
A: Yes, a little. I started schooling when I was 5 years old and I studied until grade 8. Then when I started working as horse cart driving, I improve my English by reading books, watching American movies and speaking to tourists.
Q: When did you start working as a horse cart driver?
A: When I finished school. At first I worked for someone because I couldn’t afford my own horse. At that time, I was paid 1000 kyats per day (USD 1) even though I was making about 3000 kyats (USD 3). Then I was very lucky and won a lottery. With the money I bought my first horse. But it wasn’t enough to buy the cart so I still had to pay rent for the cart. At least, with my own horse, I got to earn more. Then after some time I earned enough to buy my own cart.
Q: So is this the first horse cart (pointing to the horse and cart he had taken us in) you own?
A: No. My first horse died after about 2 years from sickness. So I had to sell my cart and used the money to buy another horse. So I went back to renting cart for some time.
Q: Is it hard to find a good horse?
A: Yes. You have to know horses well and choose carefully. Some horses are temperamental and those are not good. But since I’ve been working with horses since I was young, I know about horses and I could choose a good horse for my cart.
Q: Does your horse have a name?
A: Yes. It’s called Boni. Bo means good and Ni means red. It is a good horse and has red mane that’s why I named it Boni.
Q: Is it expensive to feed your horse?
A: Not very expensive. I spent about 2000 kyats (USD 2) a day to feed Boni.
Q: What is your typical day like?
A: My day starts at 2am at the bus station. (Strangely most buses arrive in Bagan from Yangon at the wee hours.) I try to look for customers who need my service. And if I do find customers then I have work for the rest of the day bringing them around. Most people want to see the sunset so my day only ends after I send my customers back to their guesthouse. And by the time I reach home it’s 9pm. I sleep for 4-5 hours then I wake up and go to the bus station again.
Q: Wow! You work really hard.
A: I have to, because if I don’t work I don’t have income. If I take one day off that means I don’t make any money for that day. But I am used to it. Moreover I can usually take a quick nap while waiting for my customers at each temple.
Q: Do you work with any guesthouses?
A: No, I work independently. I bring people to whichever guesthouse they want to go. And if they don’t have any room booked, I will bring them to guesthouses that suit their budget.
Q: How much do you charge?
A: I charge 1000 kyats (USD 1) to bring people from the bus station to look for guesthouses. And I charge 15,000 kyats (USD 15) for a whole day tour around the temples of Bagan.
Q: Do you save the money you earn?
A: I give most of my earnings to my family. Since I am still single, it is my duty to provide for the family. But I am also slowly saving for the future.
Q: What is your plan for the future?
A: I hope to save enough money to open my own guesthouse one day.
Q: Do you enjoy working a horse cart driver?
A: Yes, it’s a very good job. I get to meet different kind of people from all over the world. I learn a lot from them. I also get on well with other drivers and we always help each other. We are sort of like a family.
We had wanted to use bicycle to see the temples of Bagan. But after getting to know Aung Aung we decided to use his service for our first day. I must say that he is a really honest and friendly guy. He is a knowledgeable local guide with a ready smile, stained red by the betel nut chewing. I highly recommend him if you are visiting Bagan and need a horse cart driver. Unfortunately he doesn’t have a phone. So you will have to look for him at the bus station in Nyaung Oo. You can also ask other drivers as they most know each other quite well.