Arriving in Myanmar via Mandalay

A photo essay of my first impressions of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma – a rapidly developing country full of beautiful temples, great food, friendly people and motorcycles.

Mandalay Palace Walls

We arrived in Myanmar just after noon on an Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Mandalay. As we descended for landing, we were struck by the dry and barren landscape. We didn’t see many buildings, just some low scrubby trees and the odd flash of gold that we thought might be one of the temples in the old capital cities. Little did we know that golden stupas and temples can be found almost everywhere in Myanmar.Mandalay airport The MDL airport is tiny but modern which made for an easy arrival to a new country. After quickly clearing customs, I noticed a few men wearing longyis, the traditional cylindrical piece of fabric wrapped tightly around the waist. I thought that they might be dressed to greet tourists, but in fact they were just regular people coming to meet family members. We needed local currency (kyat, pronounced chet) and quickly found the four or five ATMs all clustered together on one wall of the airport. We had to try two machines before we found one that would work with our bank card. It charged a standard K5,000 per transaction.

Taxis are very easy to find at the Mandalay airport with a flat fare of K15,000 which can be booked from a kiosk, but I had already arranged with our hotel to pick us up for K5,000 more. When I saw how small and organized the airport is, I realized that was unnecessary.Mandalay carThe drive into the city was fascinating. First off, most of the cars are right hand drive, like in the UK and Australia, but cars drive on the right, like in Europe and North America, so the driver has to honk and then pull out far into oncoming traffic to pass another vehicle before they can see if anyone is coming. And they like to pass a lot! We were surrounded by motorbikes with many passengers or trucks loaded high with cargo and usually several more passengers on top.Mandalay Motorcycles

I was impressed by the women riding side saddle on the back of motorbikes, carrying all sorts of cargo, from a basket of produce or maybe a sleeping child. Some were wearing helmets. Most were wearing beautiful longyis. It was very rural, with the occasional cow grazing on small patches of grass just off the road, herded by people wearing large brimmed hats. And everybody was wearing plastic flip flop sandals for shoes. We passed a few refreshment stands on the side of the road, possibly restaurants. One had a huge mountain of fresh watermelons.

79th Street, Mandalay
79th Street in Mandalay. The train tracks run parallel to 79th, just behind the trees.

Turns out that we arrived on a holiday and traffic was lighter than usual. The driver explained that Mandalay traffic is usually terrible and it would normally take twice as long to reach the city. We arrived in an urban area with low rise buildings. Many roads were dusty, not paved. Our driver slowed and honked at each intersection, as did other drivers, because there are no stop signs and very few traffic lights to control the traffic. They somehow manage to proceed without hitting each other but all the honking explains why everyone describes Mandalay as noisy and dirty. After a few turns the car made an abrupt stop. I thought that we were still on the edge of the city but we were already at our hotel, just across the street from the main train station and a short walk to the Palace. 79th street was far less vibrant than I had expected.

Mandalay Hill, palace, railway tracks
Looking north up 79th street towards Mandalay Palace and Mandalay Hill. The train tracks on the far right lead east towards Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw.

As soon as I opened the car door, we were surrounded by young men trying to take our bags from us. I didn’t see them coming. Turns out that these enthusiastic, smiling young men all worked for the hotel, while yet another man held the doors open for us to enter the lobby. Behind the desk, three or four smartly dressed and very smiley young women welcomed us to Mandalay. I am not accustomed to seeing this much staff at a budget hotel, especially happy and enthusiastic people who were thrilled to tell us that we had been upgraded to a family room for our first night. Awesome! Our driver was now also behind the desk giving instructions to all the staff because he was either the manager or owner of the hotel. Our spacious 2nd floor room had a sitting area with couches and a table plus a view over the street to the train station. We went to the roof for our first glimpse of the Mandalay Palace, which essentially looked like a forested park, with Mandalay Hill in the distance.

I had just finished reading The Glass Palace, a novel that starts out at Mandalay Palace, and I was keen to see the real thing, even if it is mostly a reconstruction.

Hungry, we set off on foot to find some famous Shan cooking. I was relieved that it was much less hot and not at all humid as it had been in Bangkok, so walking was comfortable. We went to the hotel recommended Shan Ma Ma and we were not disappointed.

Shan Mama Restaurant

All this food for only K3,500 at Shan Ma Ma in Mandalay.

It was still crowded with locals at 3 pm. Excellent food, friendly service and cheap! After ordering they served us several small dishes of mystery food. Our meal of tea soup, tea salad, Shan noodle soup, sweet and sour chicken, rice and a bottle of water was only K3,500. Our main dishes were fresh, flavourful and delicious.

Happily full, we walked up the street to see the Mandalay Palace, stopping to take photos of the labourers on break from paving the road or a streetside bike repair. Like in many other southeast asian countries, life happens on the streets. There is lots to observe. Stray dogs sleep on the street, moving only if a car comes. I was surprised how almost none of the dogs in Myanmar barked.

Mandalay construction crew on break
Road construction workers paving a road take a break. The two mini vans are actually transit vehicles; small covered pickup trucks with bench seats on both sides.

As we walked along the length of the Palace moat, I realized that the Palace covers a HUGE area. We couldn’t even get a glimpse of the palace in the distance. There was no way we would have time to visit it today before it closed.Mandalay Palace

A taxi driver approached and started a conversation in excellent English, offering to take us to Mandalay Hill. We agreed on a price and jumped in. He showed us the sights on the drove and stopped for us to visit the Kuthodaw Paya (Monastery). Our guide book explained that it was built by King Mindon at the same time he was constructing the Royal Palace next door and that it contained the ‘world’s biggest book’.

Kuthodaw Pagoda, Mandalay
The impressive golden central Stupa at Kuthodaw Pagoda is modeled on the Shwezigon Paya at Nyaung U near Bagan.
Kuthodaw Pagoda shrines
Local youth walking among the 729 pitaka pagodas or shrines.
Kuthodaw Pagoda shrines
The sun starting to set over the 729 shrines surround the Kuthodaw Pagoda.

The Tripitaka canon, Theravada Buddhism’s sacred texts, are inscribed in Pali script (Sanskrit) on 729 slabs, placed behind grated entrances in the 729 small stupas. Impressive and peaceful, but we couldn’t stay long. I wanted to make sure that we had plenty of time to get to the top of Mandalay Hill, knowing that the sun sets early and quickly when you’re this close to the equator (especially compared to Canada). It was too late to walk to the top as I had hoped. The driver dropped us at the escalators where we had to pay for a plastic bag for our shoes. Barefoot, we rode the series of escalators to the top, paid the entry fee for foreigners and then took in the 360 degree view of Mandalay and the Irrawaddy River. Lots of monks, local people and some tourists were staking out prime west facing locations despite the haze in the sky that made the sunset very uneventful, but still pleasant.

Mandalay sunset
Sunset over the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay Hill.


Cultural exchange on Mandalay Hill at sunset.

Walking around, I saw a few 20-something bohemian looking European travelers, each surrounded by awestruck young Burmese, literally hanging off their every word. It seemed to be a mostly one-way conversation about life in the west as far as I could tell, or possibly about human rights issues. I’m not sure. I had expected to see more of this during my two weeks in Myanmar, but I didn’t.

Reunited with our shoes at the bottom of the escalator, and then with our taxi driver, we enjoyed our first dusk in this new country as we were driven around the Palace again and back to the hotel.

Driving away from Mandalay Hill.

Mandalay traffic.

It is not a big, bright city, so the few lights have far more impact. We went back to the 79 Living rooftop bar to enjoy the view and a complimentary happy hour cocktail of Mandalay rum with orange juice. We also bought our first large bottle of Myanmar beer for K3,000.

Mandalay Hill from our hotel rooftop.

We then set off on foot to find one of the night markets. We had to cross the railway tracks which we did via the dark and empty train station. Walking in Mandalay is an adventure, with low illumination, few sidewalks, lots of honking cars, few traffic lights, many potholes (some big enough to swallow up a person) and some missing sewer covers. The city was quiet. We seemed to be on our own, just wandering around. The shops and restaurants on the west side of the tracks were larger with bright lights that lit up the area just outside the shop. We saw a few bakeries and lots of single product businesses, like a bicycle shop or one selling rolls of razor wire (they were unloading a shipment as passed by).

Mandalay shop delivery.
Shop specializing in razor wire in Mandalay.
Vendors at Chinese Night market, Mandalay.
Freshly roasted peanuts illuminated with a car battery at the night market in Mandalay.

The night market was just west of an area full of well lit gold jewelry shops and felt very dark in comparison. It was very moody with smoke rising up from street vendors’ food stalls and only a few bare bulbs to light up the stalls.

This was an authentic market for locals, not one that is popular with tourists, like the ones we saw in Thailand. We didn’t see any other foreigners that night but maybe we just couldn’t see them due to the lack of light.

night market in Mandalay
Fruit vendors with Thanaka cheeks at Chinese night market in Mandalay.

Buying fruit was challenging. They wanted us to buy huge quantities which isn’t practical when you’re on the move and the prices seemed high to me especially compared to the price of our lunch. I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to barter with them. I tried but it didn’t go over very well. I ended up with 4 oranges and one huge Asian pear for K3,000. I really wanted to try some of the hot food being cooked up at the various restaurant stands but I couldn’t figure out what was on offer.

food vendors
Food vendors at the Chinese night market in Mandalay.

So we stumbled off in the dark, returning the way we came since there isn’t much choice on routes over the railway tracks and we knew where to avoid the big potholes. Time to get some rest and prepare for our big day exploring Mandalay’s three cities next.