Tanned to a deep espresso, shaded by a bamboo hat strapped under his chin, Linn Naing mounts his black Hero bicycle like a cowboy saddling up on his steed. He props up the red cushions in his sidecar, and his flip-flopped feet churn the pedals, heaving man and machine forward in search of an honest day’s wage.
Linn Naing, dressed in a blue skirt-like wrap called a longyi, a cellphone in the breast pocket, sails past crumbling colonial-era edifices, their paint faded to pale yellow and light sienna. He breezes by billboards advertising Laser toothpaste and Mercedes-Benzes, and an Internet cafe called Google.
Down the road, the sparkling white Shangri-La Serviced Apartment towers rise toward the sky, monuments to the modernity quickly transforming this city of 7.4 million. Fleets of small, new white taxis swarm around lumbering old buses, a sign of increasingly prosperous times.
And yet, in 2015, these roads still have room for bicycle sidecar men like Linn Naing.
“The buses are cheap, but hot. Taxis are cool, but expensive,” says the 36-year-old, who wears a crisp white shirt along with his longyi. “I’ve been at this job eight years, and business is actually still OK. In fact, with the traffic jams nowadays, it’s often faster to take a sidecar, so people prefer it.”
In many Southeast Asian cities, bicycle rickshaws and sidecars have been driven to extinction by cheap Chinese and Japanese motorcycles and scooters that whiz and beep noisily along congested boulevards.
But the secretive and mercurial military dictators who long ruled Myanmar outlawed motorbikes of all kinds in central Yangon more than a decade ago; legend has it the ban was imposed after a motorcycle gang known as the Scorpions interfered with the motorcade of a senior general. Though military rule has now been replaced with a nominally civilian government, authorities have signalled no intention to lift the restrictions.
For Linn Naing and the more than 26,000 other licensed sidecar drivers in this city, Myanmar’s commercial capital, that’s fortuitous. With fares ranging from 20 cents to 50 cents, sidecars remain a budget alternative to taxis for short-distance trips. Linn Naing makes about $10 a day ferrying women home from the market, children to school and tourists to temples, a decent wage in a country where the per capita income is about $1,000 a year.
Still, getting into the business is not cheap. A bicycle and sidecar can cost about $200; a license is $300. Unlike many drivers, Linn Naing owns his sidecar, which means he doesn’t have to pay a $2 to $3 daily fee to rent his ride.
The technology, such as it is, dates back about 85 years and is commonly attributed to a mechanic, Mg Nyeit, who sought to devise a cheaper mode of transport to compete with trains. Myanmar bicycle sidecars are hand-fashioned out of wood and feature two seats, one facing forward and one the rear, so passengers sit back-to-back alongside the driver.
A heavy metal bracket, often painted red, affixes the sidecar to the frame of the driver’s bicycle. A bulbous light and a shiny bell typically adorn the handlebars, and a small metal license plate flies like a flag above the front fender.
Zaw Zaw Co, a Yangon artist, finds sidecars both practical and poignant. “They are useful when you’re carrying something home from the store, or going somewhere like a small street that a bus can’t reach,” he says. “They will survive, because there will always be a group of people who need them.”
In 2011, Zaw Zaw Co began featuring sidecars on his canvases. The bicycles and their passengers float above historical maps of various parts of Myanmar: Mandalay, the Delta region, Rakhine state.
“I wanted to paint something that portrayed the working class, struggling with life. Most of these drivers do this because they’re uneducated, and they don’t have many choices,” Zaw Zaw Co says.
To date, he’s finished nearly 100 paintings in the series. To get in the right frame of mind to create his works, he hops aboard sidecars and rides aimlessly, drifting through the city streets, a breeze on his face, the bumps in the pavement jolting him now and then, the sounds and smells of the city washing over him.
“I just relax my mind and try to take in the experience,” he says. “Part of me worries about the driver — is he hot? Is he tired? But then I just get carried away with the feeling.”