Women cart drivers take over traditional men’s job in Inwa
TWENTY kilometres from Mandalay city is the ancient imperial city of Inwa, which was the capital of the Myanmar kingdom three different times between the 14th and 16th centuries.
Inwa still has vestiges of its past grandeur and lots of ancient culture and traditions.
There are villages and many large shady trees along the road leading to the ancient city.
There are no big businesses in Inwa, except for makers of alms bowls, but Inwa’s handmade metal bowl business is facing serious competition from Thailand. People are just trying to keep their businesses going to ensure that the tradition survives.
A growing number of men in Inwa are moving to Mandalay city to work as masons and carpenters in construction companies.
A few people sell souvenirs to tourists and some work as tour guides, but their earnings are barely enough to sustain families.
There is one job lucrative enough for local residents to keep a family together: driving horse carts for tourists visiting Inwa.
It was only three years ago that the Inwa community allowed women to drive the carts. Before that, only men were allowed to drive the carts, which is the only mode of transportation allowed in the ancient city.
One of the women drivers, Daw Htay Htay, has been driving carts in Inwa for the past 20 years despite the taboo.
“I didn’t know what to do when I was widowed. I relied on my husband’s earnings. I thought to become a farm worker, but most of the farms in Inwa are owned by Chinese,” she said.
Desperate to find a job to sustain her three young children, Daw Htay Htay took a deep breath and started driving horse carts, to the consternation of family and friends.
“I didn’t dare say anything when travellers were told not to ride in horse carts driven by women. The first women to drive horse carts in Inwa were Daw Nu and me,” she said.
In the face of constant heckling and criticism, she continued to drive so she could make ends meet.
“We have to be very careful not to make any mistakes,” she said. We have to choose tame and smart horses that do not kick or bite.”
Some tour guides on boats carrying tourists across the Myit Nge River would shout before the boats dock that no female cart drivers are allowed.
When that happens, Daw Htay Htay just swallows her pride and holds her peace to avoid trouble. Nonetheless, she said, some guests chose her over male drivers and give her a tip, Daw Htay Htay said.
About four years ago, a local television station interviewed Daw Htay Htay about her unusual job and she became an instant celebrity. Tourists going to Inwa look for her and her horse cart. Even tour guides choose her to take their clients around.
“Jobs are rare here, so I urge the young, the old, and widows to take up the job of horse cart driver,” she said. “You’re working to earn a living, so there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
The city committee has allowed women to get licences to drive horse carts, and there are now 38 women drivers at Inwa Ohtoketan.
“I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity and think that women drivers are just as good as men,” said Daw Htay Htay.
Daw Thidar, 40, another woman driver said, “On each cart carrying two passengers, I earn K10,000 (US$6.30). Feeding the horse costs K4000 daily and there is also the matter of horseshoes.
“We women drivers have had no accidents.”
The horse carts have to queue for customers. The tourist high season is only four months long, so although they get two turns per day during the season, they have to fall back on their savings to survive the rest of the year, said Daw Htay Htay.
Despite these challenges, Daw Thidar’s daughter recently graduated from college and her son passed the matriculation exam last year. Among Daw Htay Htay’s three daughters, one has graduated from college and the other is in the 9th grade.
She said she will continue to ply her trade for as long as she can.
“I love horses and tourists. We drive away the trishaws that come around. There are around 200 horse carts, and we won’t accept any threewheeled bikes. This is the only viable business here,” she said.
Driver Daw Htay Htay takes a break at the Inwa Ohtoketan horse cart rank. Daw Thida prepares to drive her horse cart.