Mandalay was our first stop in Myanmar. Before I start on Mandalay specifically, I’ll provide a little background on Myanmar.
For starters, Myanmar is different than the rest of Southeast Asia. Much of this is due to the fact that it is the ‘new’ tourist destination. By that I mean the country was ruled by an isolationist military government for decades during which time tourists were not allowed into the country. This restriction has slowly been loosened as the country transitions to a democratically elected government. According to Wikipedia, there were only 762,000 international tourists in Myanmar in 2009 with that number growing to 4.7 million in 2015. If you remember back to our Chiang Mai post, Thailand had 29 million international tourists in 2015. So yeah, that’s a big difference.
As a result, people have been talking about Myanmar over the last five years the same way they talk about Cuba now – “Go now! Before it gets ruined!” Side note – sometimes this ‘holier than thou’ tourist mindset annoys me. By that I mean the idea that the ‘true’, ‘authentic’, ‘genuine’ version of a country is only available to those who get in before the country is ‘ruined’ by outside influences. I’m all for visiting these countries (what better way to help than by spending money in the country), but the idea that economic progress ruins a country is a bit too far. I mean, c’mon. If I were living in Myanmar without access to the outside world you can bet as soon as the restrictions were loosened, I would want to be a part of the global economy (all of the Taylor Swift albums plz). Now that that is off my chest, let’s continue shall we?
So Myanmar is different. Despite the borders being open for a good 6 years, tourism still feels new (although we heard it has already changed a lot.. see: no ATMs in 2013). Don’t get me wrong, there are relentless touts at the major tourist destinations, but throughout the city, most locals are still curious when they see tourists walking around. They have not reached the “welp, just another lost backpacker” stage quite yet. Buildings are older. Sidewalks are non-existent (see ‘Fitness’ below). There are very few (none) recognizable restaurants or international brands. It is hard to describe, exactly, but there were many times when I was walking down the street, and I did not know what to expect. I think that is the biggest thing – after five months in Asia, most of the tourist areas had a certain feel. You could expect convenience stores, restaurants, coffee shops, vendors… basically a bunch of businesses catering to tourists. In Myanmar, these sectors haven’t fully developed yet.
One other important thing to know about Myanmar – the country is made up of a bunch of different ethnic groups. We’ll discuss this in more detail in a later post, but this has been a big influence on the politics and general development of the country.
Now to Mandalay. Mandalay was the northernmost stop in our Myanmar itinerary. It is the second largest city in Myanmar, but definitely does not feel like it. There is not a ton to do in town, so we only spent a couple of days here. Slower paced, easy (for Myanmar) to get around, good food. Overall, I thought it was a pleasant visit.
High level. We flew.
Detailed. Bangkok Airways from Chiang Mai to Mandalay. BTW – Bangkok Airways is amazing! It felt like they were rolling out star treatment to all customers to get their name out there. Upon check-in, we received access to the ‘VIP Lounge’ which had free WiFi, coffee, tea, and food. Then they served a delicious meal on the 70 minute flight. It reminded me of our experience flying Turkish Airlines back in 2010. Luxury by US airline standards.
A1 Hotel. Good location. Nice staff. Decent breakfast.
Side note: Lodging in Myanmar is limited and expensive relative to the rest of SE Asia. My guess is that this a supply/demand issue as in supply has not yet caught up to demand. Throughout the rest of SE Asia, the number of lodging options is typically overwhelming. In Myanmar, that’s just not the case. There are a few options in each city and all are about the same price ($20-30 USD/room).
Indian Restaurant. There is an Indian restaurant less than a block away from A1 Hotel. No idea what its name is (if it had a name), but I do know the food was amazing.
Shan Buffet. Shan State is one of the more influential states in Myanmar. I don’t know why exactly (size? political power? something else?) but for whatever reason, most of the great food we had in Myanmar was Shan food. I’m sure this is somewhat like coming to the United States and only eating Southern BBQ, but regardless, that’s what we did. Either way, we tried a Shan Buffet in Mandalay (Shan Ma Ma Restaurant), and it was fantastic. It was one of those pick-three-things-from-a-table-of-twelve-bowls places. One of the critiques of Myanmar food is that it is oily.. but this never really bothered us.
Bike’n. A1 had a few bikes its guests could use. We were fortunate enough to be able to use them both days we were in town (off season FTW!). Other than the fact that my bike couldn’t shift, we had a wonderful time exploring the city via bike.
Mandalay Hill. Mandalay Hill was a good introduction to Myanmar. It is a vast complex of temples and pagodas built on the largest hill in the city. There are several entry points into the complex with most beginning at the bottom of the hill.. We stopped at one and started to walk up. Here is where things were a little strange.
Most religious structures in SE Asia require you to remove your shoes upon entry, so when we saw the ‘Remove your shoes’ sign at the entrance we were all like, ‘Yup. Makes sense.’ So we removed our shoes, stuck them in a bin, walked in, and within 5 minutes we regretted our decision. Why? Well, mostly do to the copious amounts of animal urine and feces lining the myriad staircases and hallways as you made your way up the hill.
Dogs and Buddhist temples go together like cupcakes and sprinkles. If a stray dog ends up at a Buddhist temple, it usually stays since that is the safest place for animals to be what with the Buddhist aversion to killing other beings. So yeah, many dogs call Mandalay Hill home. Dogs, however, are not exactly the most pleasant house guests. I.E. They poo where they want to. The main temples along the way were nice and clean, but the connecting hallways and minor pagodas were downright disgusting. The view from the top of Mandalay Hill was worth it though. Gorgeous!
Night Market. Another country, another night market. The Mandalay night market was definitely less of a tourist destination than in other countries. By that I mean it is not geared toward tourists which was a nice change of pace.
Two Runs. There is a giant palace surrounded by a moat just north of town center. It is like the Chiang Mai walled/moated city on steroids. This made for a great place to run by Myanmar standards. The notable issues were the same issues that plagued the rest of Myanmar…sidewalk integrity. Sometimes there were huge holes in the sidewalk, or sections where the top layer had been removed, or sections where enormous piles of dirt were placed in the middle of the path requiring you to go into the road to go around, or maybe a giant pile of bricks, or branches of trees hanging so low that I had crouch to get through. Sidewalks. You don’t miss ‘em until they’re gone.
Running around the walled/moated city. Despite the sidewalk being absolutely terrible, I thought this was a fun way to see the city.
Dog poo on Mandalay Hill (while walking barefoot). Just no.
LED Buddha. Buddha statues with blinking LED halos. This is a thing in Myanmar.
Have you seen my stop sign? Mandalay is laid out in a giant grid system which was a WONDERFUL change of pace from the rest of SE Asia. You are on 32nd and need to get to 29th? Why, that’s just 3 blocks away, my friend! I cannot stress how happy this made me.
BUT….BUT…stop signs. So with a grid system, every corner has a 4-way intersection. Typically these intersections are managed by a stop light or stop sign. Not in Mandalay! With the exception of two stop lights at the major intersections in town, the rest of the intersections are free-for-alls. Mind you, the traffic is not nearly as hectic as Vietnam, but it still feels like you are in a huge game of frogger.
ATMs. There is an interesting Planet Money about ATMs in Myanmar HERE. This podcast was initially aired in 2013 right at the time the first ATM was being installed in the country. Put another way, in 2013 there were ZERO ATMs in the entire country. No ATMs! Three years later and I can say for a fact, ATMs are everywhere. The times they are a changing.
This is my monk. At the top of Mandalay Hill, a young Burmese man started speaking to us in fantastic English. All the while a short, young monk was standing behind him with a grin on his face. We thought nothing of the monk until our conversation wrapped up, and the young Burmese man ended by saying, “This is my monk. Would you take a picture with him?” I had two immediate thoughts:
1. How does one get a monk?
2. YES I WANT TO TAKE A PICTURE WITH YOUR MONK.
By the way, this really wasn’t an overly bizarre occurrence. Locals often came up to us and started conversations out of curiosity or to practice their English.. I feel like this happened even more so in Myanmar (and we were less wary about it being a scam). And people also loved to take pictures with us white folk.
Actuaries love Myanmar. Our flight from Chiang Mai to Mandalay was small – probably 20 people (max) on the plane. In those situations, all of the tourists tend to group together. Survival instincts. We ended up grabbing a cab with another guy for the short drive into town. After a few minutes of talking in the cab, he asked us, “so what do you all do in the States?” Discussion as follows:
Us: “Well, we are unemployed now but we used to work in business.”
Him: “What kind of business?”
Us: “Healthcare consulting.”
Him: “What kind of healthcare consulting?”
Us: “Well, our profession is kind of specialized. Mostly math.”
Him: “Try me.”
Us: “Have you heard of an actuary?”
Him: “YES! I’M AN ACTUARY!”
Cue actuary love-fest.