Mobile cafes are a rare sight in Yangon despite some coffee trucks found beside the busy roads of Myanmar’s biggest city. But a cafe on a motorbike? Visit the streets of Botahtaung perched downtown by the river and you might see a first.
E-bike Chill Cafe is a little cafe on two wheels that can be spotted in the Yaw Min Gyi area, on Bo Aung Kyaw Road or in front of the Secretariat building – locations are usually announced a day in advance.
Kettle, glasses, supplies and ingredients are all packed into a crate that unfolds on the back of a scooter to serve customers. On a recent visit, the cafe had been running 10am to 1pm for seven days and was not only serving coffees from MMK2,000 to 3,000 (about US$2) but also dishes including pad thai noodles, mango sticky rice, vegan curry and barbecued pork, all for about MMK 5,000 (under US$4). Some days there’s even kombucha.
Working its pedals is 34-year-old Thazin Wah, aka Bo. She says sales have been good, bringing in about MMK60,000 a day.
“The customers are very happy about the cafe and they want more mobile cafes like this in Yangon,” Bo said.
It was a long route that brought Bo from the Bilu Islands of Mawlamyine in Myanmar’s Mon State, where she was born, to scooter-mounted cafe operator. She first moved to Bangkok as a young teen, where she learned to cook the Thai cuisine served at the cafe. Fast-forward to 2012 when Bo visited Yangon for the first time, just as the economy was opening up, and she decided to do something for her homeland.
When she turned 27, she moved back to Yangon and opened the Green Gallery restaurant. This was not easy as she only had MMK2,000 at the time. She went back to her hometown and borrowed 15 lakhs, or MMK1.5 million (US$1,140) from her mom to invest in the restaurant.
During the pandemic period, she was stuck at home and decided to renovate her place using the carpentry skills she has also picked up. She had some leftover wood that gave her the idea for her soon-to-be-born bike cafe.
“So I asked myself, ‘Why not?’ I’d been trying to find a way to do something safe and harmless for about two months, and it crossed my mind since I figured I had all the stuff I needed,” she said.
While her award-winning restaurants have closed due to the outbreak, drying up her income, there are no laws against operating a mobile street stall.
“Not only does it make me some money, but it’s also safe out here when you wear a mask all the time,” she added.
She said it’s also a way not to abandon those counting on her.
“I had 20 employees before COVID-19, and now I only have five. It’s not easy to support them all despite having some savings from the business,” she said.
Besides, Bo wants to inspire young people out there to dream and not be stuck at home.
Three years ago, she opened another cafe in Bahan called Bodhi Nava, now also closed since the pandemic hit Yangon in August. She opened up about the anxiety felt by the city’s restaurateurs such as herself, particularly when it comes to rent relief – or lack thereof – at this time.
“The expenses are too high and there’s no negotiation between landlords and restaurant owners for the COVID-19 period. It would be great if there was some law about it in Myanmar. For now, it’s better to stay closed,” she said.
While her mobile cafe is legal, the vehicle is a problem. All motorcycles are banned from Yangon’s roads, and Bo’s been busted a few times by traffic cops.
“It’d really be more convenient for us to get permission to ride our e-bike in Yangon, since its speed is controllable and there’s no risk of air pollution at all,” she said.
Nonetheless, Bo said she plans to keep it going until her restaurants are allowed to reopen.
The cafe sets up two or three days per week. Get more information at E-Bike Chill Cafe on where and when.