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Myanmar has become hot on the tourist radar after Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy won the election of 2015. Every year, more and more travel restrictions are being lifted and tourists are flocking to the country. This influx of tourist would surely lead to a rapid change, and the idea is to visit Myanmar NOW, before it becomes essentially spoiled by tourism – that is exactly what I did.
With great anticipation, I headed off to Don Muang (Bangkok International Airport) for my flight to Mandalay. Most people entering Myanmar do so through Yangon. Yangon is still the primary airport of choice, but Mandalay is a great alternative to avoid tourist crowds. Be warned though, because I am pretty sure that sooner or later, Mandalay will start to experience higher traffic as travelers are increasingly entering through one airport, making their way across the country, and departing from a second location. Like the Yangon-Mandalay route and vice-versa.
When I arrived at the airport, the check-in for my flight had already begun. I immediately presented my e-ticket and tried to get a window seat. I still get excited seeing changes in geography, the colorful landscapes, mountains rising from vast plain, dazzling city skylines, even clouds can be exciting. I mean common on, where else do you get an opportunity to see the world from that vantage point and see the beauty of the earth from the sky? I may never be able to visit all the places I see out the airplane window, but just seeing them as I pass over is far better than seeing them on screen, it adds to the over all travel experience.
Everything at the airport was very efficient and relatively painless but they were very thorough in checking, scrutinizing every entry and exit stamps. Well, Bangkok immigration is well-known for this so, do not cut corners if you don’t want to be offloaded.
When boarding time came, the frequent flyer members and the business class were called first. I looked at my boarding pass with a stamped “zone three” which mean my seat number will be called last. Apparently, they were doing this “zone” method, where passengers fill the plane back to front, one large group at a time. This procedure may be slow, but it minimizes pushing and shoving relative to the “everybody crowd around the door”. If you don’t want to wait in line, you have to pay the price! Oh well, I can wait.
Glistening golden stupas standing tall and temples of different sizes scattered intermittently in the green mesh. What a view!
I arrived at Mandalay airport after an hour and fifteen minutes of flight. My adrenaline pumped and excitement filled my veins as I breezed through the immigration. The line went very quickly, there were four agents staffing each line – one to take the arrival card, another to check it before reaching the counter and two military looking guys to check the passport and travel visa. They gave me the release cues by saying Mingalabar and with no questions asked, my passport was inked with a brand new Myanmar stamp!
I exited the terminal to find a taxi…or rather they found me. “Taxi Ma’am? “ “hello taxi! “ “Ma’am taxi!” A friendly young man who was obviously a middle man greeted me and led me to the prepaid taxi area. Unfortunately Mandalay Airport is about 35 kilometers away from the city center which is translated to an hour drive depending on the traffic. One way taxi fares from the airport are fixed: 4,000 Kyat for shared taxi, 12,000 Kyat for private taxi, and 15,000 Kyat for private taxi with air-conditioning. I handed the guy 4,000 Kyats and within minutes I found myself in a shared taxi with one lady heading into the center of Mandalay to my hotel.
The first thing that I’ve noticed was that the taxi I am in has a steering wheel on the right side even though we were also driving on the right side of the road. Interestingly crazy! I asked one local guide about this and he said that this is due to the belief that their “power” is coming from their right hand so they have to be on the right side always. But according to some, this is an apparent legacy of a sudden switch from driving on the left to driving on the right, made by a previous government leader. This driving configuration may seem odd, but it was fascinating that I never seen any road accident nor heard about it.
Also, worth mentioning here is the lack of English directions. Places that I’ve gone to over time have some English signs even in remote areas. However, such signs are nonexistent here. Good thing Mandalay’s streets are very easy to navigate since the whole city is laid out in a nice neat grid and all the streets are numbered in both directions (north to south 1st to 49th and east to west 50th to 90th). Locals can also say and understand numbers in English which makes navigation and communication easy. So, if you are feeling lost, just look for the numbers, LOL!
The road trip gave me a great glimpse into the lives of the local people – I spotted children playing on the streets, buffaloes pulling wooden carts and farmers wearing straw hats in the fields. While at it, the car suddenly slow down as one portion of the road was under repair, a number of workers were busy doing the construction, and surprisingly they were all women! Not believing my eyes, I asked the driver if this is something normally happening in the country. The answer was yes and all I managed to mutter was “WOW!” before my camera started clicking and our car started to regain speed. Apparently, majority of them come from a very poor backgrounds and working like this offers an opportunity to earn money, have shelter and purchase food for themselves and their families. My heart melt seeing them endure this societal dilemma. I just hope that the change in the government will give them a better chance in life.
While in deep thoughts, we passed by a group of women wearing what at first appears to be a face paint, but after a closer look I’ve learned that it’s actually a form of customary make-up called thanaka. This whitish-yellowish cream can be in circles, in streaks, in smudges, in a million styles, some of them apply it with intricate patterns to give it a stylish flair, much how we sometimes wear makeup in Manila. Applying thanaka has been a part of the Burmese culture for thousands of years and is worn by most women and both girls and boys. It serves to both improve appearance as well as block the sun and soften the skin. Cool that this local tradition is preserved.
The local wear longyi (or lungi) – traditional long skirts that are wrapped differently depending on the gender and marital status.
An hour later, I arrived at the hotel. I was offered freshly squeezed pineapple juice and a wet towel to freshen up. Check in protocol was the usual handing in the passport to be photocopied, and signing a form. A young lad escorted me to my room and I was left to relax. The hotel was unexpectedly modern, perfectly clean and comfortable. The staff was very friendly and helpful with information, taxis, and anything they could help you with.
I spent the afternoon exploring the area around my hotel to sightsee. The streets were very dusty and most of the shops were tiny little enterprises selling usually just one type of item. There was also no demarcation of say industrial areas or food areas. Everything was just jumbled in together and bike repair shops can be found next door to mobile phone shops that were next door to tailors.
For a good couple of hours walking around, it felt like I’ve walked into a wormhole and have emerged a couple of decades back in time. Many buildings were weathered and run down with the well-kept buildings only being the government houses as well as the Buddhist monasteries and Wats. Buildings that once represented British occupation of the area were fenced off with barbed wire and left exposed to have mother nature do its course.
The shock-smiles I get as I walk down the street was something that I could never get enough of. The people smiling with red-stained teeth – caused by chewing betel nut rolled together with limestone paste, spices and the green leaf. This habit is their way to pass the time. In addition, nibbling on betel nut has a mild narcotic effect and is highly addictive.
I made a move to look for the restaurant recommended by the hotel’s receptionist. I walked down the narrow 30th Street looking for the restaurant and after a couple of hundred meters I had all but given up but just over the next junction I saw a restaurant, not the one I am looking for though. I gathered that no one spoke English in this restaurant and they had no menus in English either. So, I just left.
I ask a man where I can find the restaurant I am searching for, and guess what he doesn’t just point me in the right direction, he walks me right up to its door. This is something that I like about the people here. they are just so kind, generous and completely lovely. It is possibly the first developing country I have been to where I feel like I am being given more than I am being asked for. It amazes me how people with so very little, and the poverty is very clear to see, can be so generous.
The place I arrived at was a gastro bar located on the far end of the night market – more like a westerner type of place. There were a few tourists inside… but didn’t find any local. I decided to sit outside to have a better view of the street. The sun has started to set and the street lights were lite up one by one. I looked at the menu with great interest, they sell a delightful range of drinks and food for a very reasonable price. Just to be safe, I ordered grilled pork chop with peppercorn sauce, served with fries, veggies and a garlic bread on the side. Had watermelon shake and a cup of coffee. You already know that I’m quite adventurous with my food but for some reason (at first), I was a little apprehensive and resistant to the street food here.
The service and the food was absolutely good, definitely worth a stop if you’re in the area.
When I was done eating they served me with a sliced assorted fresh fruits for free! I paid 19,000 kyats (19 USD) for everything including the 5% tax. You can pay either in USD or local Kyats. But be sure to check your USD yourself, noting for folds, blotches and smear marks. They only accept pristine notes and they are very strict about this. I have seen tourists were turned down — one because it had a slight bend (not like it had been folded or anything, it just didn’t lie flat on the desk), and the other because there was a small grey smudge on it.
I opted to walk my way back to the hotel. Needed all the rest I can get and be ready for my early morning trip to Bagan. An evening walk in Mandalay is relatively safe, just be mindful of the, dogs, holes on the sidewalks and when crossing the streets.