| Roberto Schmidt |
YANGON (AFP) – Surrounded by a trove of tools and spare parts, trishaw maker Aye Zaw works on his latest model of the pedal-powered three-wheeler, readying it for the clogged roads of Myanmar’s biggest city.
Undeterred by the rapid transformation of Yangon’s streets from sedate thoroughfares to car-choked arteries in just a few years, the 46-year-old revels in defying the changing times with his traditional form of transport.
“I love the work very much,” the craftsman tells AFP from a workshop bursting with wheel rims, springs, piping and tools.
“I am always finding ways to make trishaws better and better.”
He joined the family business aged 16, learning the trade from his father, and now works with his younger brother, Htay Zaw, to make around seven trishaws every month.
The cheapest model costs 430,000 kyats ($315) but customers who pay a little more can opt for a flashier version with steel trimmings.
The brothers’ reputation has even spread outside of Myanmar, with one creation snapped up by an American tourist and another by an Israeli embassy official leaving the country.
But Yangon’s streets are unrecognisable from a few years ago. Myanmar has seen an explosion in vehicle numbers since a military-backed government launched reforms in 2011 that opened the country to the outside world after decades of isolation.
Car import rules were relaxed and traffic now moves infuriatingly slowly. Myanmar has tried to improve the congestion by overhauling the bus system, building flyovers, upgrading a circular railway line, and most recently, introducing water taxis.
But the streets remain jammed.
Sixty-year-old Aung Ba is one of the city’s 25,000 licensed trishaw drivers and has been pedalling Yangon’s streets for 30 years, earning about 10,000 kyat ($7.5) each day.
The busier roads are more dangerous, but Aung Ba says there is still a place for the three-wheelers.
“It wouldn’t be good to drive a car. But riding a trishaw, I can find my way through as I want,” he says sitting beside his vehicle in the city’s northern Mayangon Township.
Aye Zaw is also confident the iconic vehicle will not disappear from Yangon’s streets just yet and would be happy for his son to take over the business.
“I don’t want to force my son into making or not making trishaws,” he says. “But if he loves the trade then of course he should do it.”