1st stop: Mandalay
To begin I’m going to address what to call this country. It has been the subject of domestic as well as international controversy for the last few decades. Most countries recognize its name as Myanmar, short for “The Republic of the Union of Myanmar” which the government adopted in 1989. Many English speaking countries (including the US) refused to adopt the name change as a protest against the undemocratic policies of the government. Despite that, most American media outlets currently opt to use the name Myanmar. In Myanmar’s defence, the name Burma is non-inclusive, which only refers to the largest ethnic group in the country (the Burmans), despite there being many ethnic minorities. Playing devil’s advocate you can say that most minority groups have grown accustomed to the name Burma, and the name change is representative of the domination of the ruling Burman class. No one seems to ever agree on this issue. But when I was in the country everyone called it Myanmar, so that’s what feels right to refer to it as. Although I still have no idea what the plural of Myanmar is, so I ‘m gonna say Burmese for the plural. Confusing? Very. Anyways…
I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect when I decided to go to Myanmar. It’s a country that most people don’t know much about, myself included. I think your average person might know something about its military junta, which is currently the longest running military regime in existence. It has had bad track record of human rights violations and its isolationist polices have set the country back decades in terms of development, although it has tried to open itself up more in the past few years. It was also the setting of the last Rambo movie where rebel armies rape and kill everything that moves and then make the survivors run across landmine laden rice paddies for the day’s entertainment. So public perception of the country is probably not the best. While the Rambo movie is obviously, well… a movie, it is true that some rebel armies are still active up in the northern foothills and the Burmese government certainly has not been a pinnacle of virtue. Seem like a good place to visit right?!
When you’re traveling you hear lots of stories about different places, some of which might contradict your preconceived notions of said place (which always seem to be wrong). The people who I talked to that had been to Myanmar always had great things to say about the country, so after hearing enough positive things I decided I had to check it out for myself. After Indonesia and Singapore I headed to Bangkok to get my visa for Myanmar, which is very simple these days.
I flew into Mandalay, the second largest city and former ancient capital. I arrived sometime in the afternoon and made my way to my hotel, which I had actually pre-booked. Normally I almost never book anything in advance unless I’m getting in at 3am or something, and I have yet to encounter any serious difficulty finding a room. BUT I had read on the Lonely Planet Forums that last year there was a major shortage of rooms (this is when they made getting a visa much easier and the demand for rooms quickly surpassed the supply) and that people were having to book ahead everywhere they went to avoid sleeping in the hotel lobby or in a monastery. I wasn’t exactly sure what the hotel climate would be like, so I made sure I had my first two nights booked.
When first arriving its hard to describe what a feast for the eyes the place is! Driving in from the airport I could see pagoda tops off in the hazy distance and men riding behind big white oxen plowing the fields. Once we got near the city center cars shared the road with rumbling buses, motorbikes, trishaws, and bicycles. All the men walking down the street wore skirt-like plaid longyis rather than pants while the women had their faces painted with a strange yellow paint. In many major cities you arrive and everything looks pretty western, and well kind of boring. Not the case with Myanmar! It’s certainly not a beautiful city by any means, in fact its downright ugly and dirty, but it’s got flair.
I was dropped off somewhere near the city center and paid a trishaw (3 wheeled bike) driver $1 to take me to my hotel. Upon checking in, the small girls at the hotel wouldn’t let me touch my bags and hauled them up the three floors to my room. After a brief nap it was time to see what was around. The hotel was right down the street from a pagoda, so I set my sights there. Within seconds of walking through the gates some man was yelling “soos!” “soos!” and frantically pointing at me. I put my hands up in the air, very confused, and he came over and pointed at my shoes… aha… I was supposed to take off my shoes. Rookie mistake.
I headed in barefoot and immediately enjoyed the atmosphere around the pagoda itself. There were some old people sitting around, a few dogs playing, the occasional monk walking by, some young kids playing soccer while the older ones played leg/head volleyball (I have no clue what to call this sport). The soccer field was highlighted with brilliant beams of light, dispersed by the tree branches and illuminated by all the dust being kicked up, which as a photographer I found particularly enticing. Yes, I realize this kind of stuff is not exactly what most people get excited by.
I ended up playing badminton with some kids for a bit, and after a man came up to talk and wasn’t try to sell me anything! He just wanted to chat and have tea! His English was actually really difficult for me to understand, so I declined, but still I was really enjoying the feel of the place just a few hours in.
The next morning I woke up ridiculously early (4:30) because I wanted to take some sunset photos on Mandalay Hill, but when I walked down the street I was shocked at how busy it was. The market had already began and the women had all set up their baskets on the roadside, lighting their goods with candles or bright LED bulbs. I ditched the Mandalay Hill plans and just wandered around the market for a few hours. Everything about it seemed so fascinating to me. The clothing, the yellow thanaka bark on the womens faces, the strange vegetables, the monks receiving alms, the old bicycles and wooden pushcarts, and the energy at this time of morning. The motorbikes and LED lights were the only things betraying the fact that this was almost 2014.
During the day I found a motorbike driver to take me to some of the sights around town. ie: Pagodas! This is at the point where seeing new pagodas was still fresh and exciting to me (it wears out fast) so I really enjoyed walking around and seeing all the monks (OMG MONKS! MUST TAKE PHOTOS!) and people praying. At sunset we went to Ubein Bridge, a famous teakwood bridge, that has a very interesting confluence of tourists, locals, and monks walking across it. Later I found some people to hit the Myanmar drinking establishments with, and the next day it was off to the ancient temples of Bagan!