Days 208 – 210 – Mandalay

Myanmar, we’re here! 

A few hours after our arrival, here were our first observations:

  • Men wear an ankle-length skirt called paso. Women wear it too, but tie it to their hip instead of on the front; theirs is called a longyi. 
  • Men all have red stained teeth. This is due to a tobacco leaf and betel nut bundle they chew which releases a red juice. The juice is spat out explaining many red stains on the ground.
  • Women have large white brush marks decorating their faces. It’s a kind of makeup called thanaka which also serves as sun protector. 
  • Vehicles here are right hand driving (like in UK) but drive on the right hand side of the road (like in Italy).
  • They love neon. For advertising, for decoration, for illumination – it’s everywhere, even inside pagodas. 
  • The Burmese writing and script is beautiful. 
  • It’s dusty!

As soon as we stepped out of Mandalay’s airport we could straightaway tell that Myanmar’s vibrant culture and traditional values will make for a very special journey through a country which is still quite virgin to the world of tourism. We noticed this as soon as we got on the bus at the airport, when a local lady asked to take a selfie with us. The nation’s borders have only recently been fully opened to the outside world so most locals and therefore quite intrigued by tourists and are, in turn, welcoming and warm. We often get approached by people who just want to say hello or ask where we come from. For example, on our second day we walked up Mandalay Hill – a large, odd complex of pagodas – to soak in the sunset. It was here we got approached by Soe Thu Lwin, a young man who had been studying English and, keen to practice, asked if he could sit with us to chat. We spent a lovely hour sharing insights into our cultures and learning about Myanmar’s history. 

For over 50 years the country has been afflicted by a rampant military dictatorship which still today sinks its teeth into the fabric of its nation. A gradual liberalisation process is now underway, starting in 2012 when the military junta was ‘dissolved’ (although their presence was and is still felt thanks to their ‘constitutional right’ to have 25% of parliamentary seats) and in 2015 when the democratic party won the elections. Sadly however Burma’s reality is still two faced: on one side we see a long and suffered civil war which still involves and affects a myriad ethnic groups, and on the other side is a slow cultural, economical and political development. Over the past couple of years, as explained by our local friend, the country has been on an upward trajectory and a renewed sense of freedom seems instilled in its people. Myanmar has seen the release of hundreds of political prisoners, press censorship has been relaxed, new labour laws are now in place allowing unions and strikes, and both inward and outward tourism has been opened up, all paving the way towards a true democracy. 

Its troubled past is probably the reason why the country isn’t yet on backpackers’ radars, which means it refreshingly lacks tourists. On our first day we walked to a street market and didn’t see any other white person. The market felt incredibly authentic and as we were the only westerners there we felt gifted to be involved in such a local happening. We saw an incredible variety of food and veg (much of which was new to us) including an infinite amount of stalls selling shallots and garlic. Very interesting indeed.

We tasted a good selection of vegetables during our first Mandalay lunch at a vegetarian restaurant called Marie Min. We had potato and lentil curry, an aubergine dish, and a delicious local speciality called Lapetthoke: a tea leaf salad with tomatoes and peanuts. Amazing all round. 

On our last morning we hired a moto-taxi driver to take us to see a few pagodas and the famous U Bein bridge. No big surprise to discover it’s a bridge, but it crosses a spectacular spot over the river offering 360° views of the city and surrounding waters. We got there for sunrise, had a local breakfast of deep fried tofu and Mandalay tea (tea with milk and condensed milk), and then walked along the 1.2km teak bridge with our guide. We saw a few locals on their morning jog, a number of monks, a couple of homeless dogs looking for attention, and peacefully enjoyed the spectacle of a gloriously red Burmese sunrise. 

Our time in Mandalay was short but sweet and a gentle introduction to a complex country which I’m sure will teach us lots. Our next destination is Hsipaw for some nature and trekking. 

Ciao for now xx

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