Any fashion-savvy person will tell you that accessories are not limited to clothes and jewelry. In Los Angeles, pets are often toted around for style while in China luxury handbags are the ultimate status symbol. But in Mandalay an entirely different type of accessory is growing in popularity: custom motorbikes.
The concept of customizing motorbikes dates back to the early 1900s when Harold ‘Oily’ Karslake built a bike from scratch. The process became more popular as motorbike racing developed, with riders kitting out their bikes with better engines and more ergonomic bodies. These days the term custom can range from adding small accessories or special paint colors to completely redesigning a bike from scratch. In Mandalay, the most common styles are Café Racer, with low handlebars and long fuel tanks, and Easy Riders, chopper-style bikes.
Phoe Lone has been customizing bikes for nearly 15 years. His workshop, located down a dusty laneway in Mandalay’s eastern edges, is filled with parts, engines and tools. In one corner lies a skeleton frame with a scattering of pieces around it and in another corner sit three beautiful Café Racer-style bikes. It is hard to imagine the transformation, but he says that once he has the parts, it only takes a week or two of work.
“There are probably only five or six workshops around town specializing in building custom bikes. I am getting more customers, especially men in their 30s and 40s who want to have a bike that is both fun to ride and shows their style,” Phoe Lone said. Business is certainly good—he just sold a bike for over 30 lakh (US$2,200).
One of his customers is Kyaw Swar, a young Mandalay resident with a real passion for motorbikes. He regularly drives down to Myawaddy, purchases Japanese motorbikes and brings them back to Mandalay to customize with Kyaw Swar. “Once I have the body, I find sample designs online and explain the style I wish to create to the mechanics. Each time I try a different model and style, drive it around town for a while and then someone offers to buy it. So I sell it and start the process again,” he said with a smile. “I have found a way for my hobby to pay for itself.”
Another custom motorbike fan, Ko Win Naing, has also found a way to turn his hobby into a business. In 2012 he opened Kuso, a shop selling motorbike parts and accessories. “I was working in Taiwan and fell in love with the custom motorbikes there. I started reading more about the custom community and studying how they are made. When I moved back to Mandalay, I took the risk to open the city’s first custom parts store,” he explained. Business is good, with customers buying items for themselves as well as mechanics from other cities who come to purchase hard-to-find parts.
With the growing interest in custom bikes in Mandalay, the number of motorbike-related events has also increased. For the last three years, Kuso and other businesses have sponsored a custom motorbike show. Although awards are presented, the weekend is designed more as a gathering to show off bikes and meet other enthusiasts. There are also an increasing number of other motorbike events in Mandalay including the country’s first enduro competition—a long-distance off-road time trial—in November, the first ever Mandalay Bike Week in December and an international stunt show at the start of the year.
One Mandalay resident said, “Mandalay people want others to know that our city is a bike city. Customizing bikes reflects the pride we feel for our hometown.” If that feeling holds true with other Mandalay residents, it is safe to say that the custom bike industry is here to stay.