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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Monday, December 24, 2012

Mandalay, Myanmar

Travel Dates 16th-20th November 2012.
Click on any picture to see a larger version. 

The old terminal at Yangon, beside the very new International Terminal, is now the Domestic Terminal. It seems they are waiting for it to decay before eventually replacing it. Despite that it was nice to step back in time to when security was a simple x-ray of my bags and nobody cared what size liquids I had or told me to take my belt or shoes off.

On the other hand, I have become used to arriving at airports two or even three hours prior to departure to allow for those checks and long check-in queues. That was a waste of time in Yangon Domestic, where you will find no-one manning check-in until 90 minutes before the flight. I'm glad I took a book to read.

I was first at check-in and quickly received my boarding pass and a little sticker on my shirt to show airport staff which flight I belonged to. As no announcements were in intelligible English that sticker saved me boarding the wrong flight. The Air Bagan flight to Heho departed at our advertised time but the Mandalay flight was delayed arriving, so we left about 45 minutes later. A pleasant stewardess stopped me boarding the bus to the Heho plane when she noticed the sticker.  

The flight in the Air Bagan high-wing ATR72 was safe and uneventful, with great views. The views would have been even better if the outside windows had had their annual cleaning. Despite the short fight a complimentary light snack was served.

The new Mandalay airport is a very long way out of town.

I chose the wrong 4000 kyats share-cab service. The stand in the airport looked good but the springless vintage van the driver led us to when all others had gone was long past its use-by date. I later found that the best service with air-con new cars is Sein Myanmar, which I used for my “3 cities” tour. 

I found Mandalay fascinating but frustrating. Both for the same reason: it is relatively unspoiled by tourism. Thus it is fascinating because what you see is what you get; almost nothing has been changed in the way people live their lives to cultivate the tourist dollar. For example, I wandered for a long time through the Zegyo market without a single trader calling 'hello' or attempting to sell something to me. That is very unusual for a foreigner in an Asian market. On the other hand, unlike Yangon, that means that there is almost no taxi service in the form that most tourists are used to and there are very, very few restaurants catering for Western standards of hygiene. Most of those few are associated with hotels.

The few cars used as taxis work with travel agencies or hotels and charge by the hour. No matter how short the distance or time the fare is a minimum 6000 kyats for the first hour. That is only a fraction over $7 so it isn't a big problem; the real problem is finding one when you are not at your hotel or near a travel agency. The usual form of motorised 'taxi' is pillion seat on a motorbike; fine for the younger generation but I'm getting a little long in the tooth for that, especially in Mandalay traffic. The next level is a type of side-car on a bicycle; although I've lost a lot of weight I reckon asking a 50kg Burmese to pedal me through the streets would be rather unfair. So I walked a lot in Mandalay. Which was good for me anyway :)

Then again, there were always the "pick ups"; the problem was that I had no idea where they went or what route they followed:

They were everywhere and always overcrowded. When the back was full and the back step had four on it they packed the roof.

For goods cartage these Chinese-manufactured trucks were very popular and also very noisy with their simple but loud bang-bang-bang diesel engines that apparently were not worth covering. Not all could afford trucks. I saw incredible loads hauled by some individuals. 

I found one restaurant within three blocks of the Zegyo Hotel (the only hotel I could find with a vacancy in Mandalay) that looked clean enough to eat at.

The Golden Pearl served Myanmar and Chinese food. The food was very good. I ate there for several meals.


I included the picture of the menu to show the circular script of the Burmese language. I managed to learn most of the numbers while I was there, but the letters escaped me completely. Menus in the restaurants for the locals rarely included prices. 

I tried a meal at the Zegyo Hotel restaurant; this little fellow outside the window was thoroughly enjoying his dinner:

The food was OK but I dislike being the only diner (what do those who stayed away know that I don't?). I also ate at the Unity Hotel Restaurant which had good meals with a little more variety. All the restaurants were inexpensive, with mains ranging from 2000 kyats to 6000. I did not try any street food; the snacks that were not high-carb looked like offal nibbles on tiny skewers; I wasn’t brave enough to try them.

I won't say much about the Zegyo, my Tripadvisor review is pending. Suffice to say if you can find another hotel in Mandalay, do so. To be fair, the town was booked out so I was pleased to find a place to stay at the time.

However, there is always an upside. The Zegyo is in the heart of the market of the same name. In fact, the ground floor is a wholesale market; the hotel entrance is on the third floor via an elevator which the staff turn off when they don't want to be disturbed.

The nearby district is always busy and bustling.

The outdoor market is one block away. Anyone for chilis?

The noise in town can be incredible. The two white elephants were to draw the crowds to a religious show, with a monk shouting non-stop into a PA system that could be heard three streets away. In Myanmar there are only two positions on the volume control: off and maximum distortion.

The outdoor covered markets are used by the locals as their main shopping centre. From sun-up to sundown it never stops. Most, but not all, of the indoor market stalls appear to be wholesalers. There is constant activity as bales of fabrics and cartons of other items arrive, are unpacked, displayed or stored. Enormous quantities of goods spill over into the paths between stalls but oddly I rarely saw any actual sales or money changing hands. But next morning more  arrive delivering goods, so someone was buying it.

Some went on the night markets. At 5 o'clock just before sundown, the day traders locked up and went home. Temporary stalls would start to appear in the middle of busy 84th street between the hotel building and the other market buildings. By 5:30, the street was lined both sides by stalls with another row down the centre, with just enough space between the rows for pedestrians to share with motorbikes, motor-scooters, bicycles and occasional cars. There appeared to be no street lighting so the stalls provide their own.

Trucks appear to be banned at night. The stalls were still there late at night but by morning they were gone and trucks were back on the road.

I was in Mandalay for four nights surrounding three days. On the first day I mainly walked around my district, watching, listening, eating a leisurely meal or drinking a beer and watching the locals; just getting a feel for the place. On the second day I hired a car with a driver to see the “3 cities” which I will describe in the next post. On the final day, after some housekeeping (investigating a boat to go down the river to Bagan and booking it; exchanging some $ for kyats; collecting the laundry etc) I spent the afternoon with a driver and car seeing Mandalay Hill and the Golden Palace.

Mandalay Hill is yet another pagoda set on a high point which provides sweeping views of Mandalay. As I wandered Myanmar I noticed that the highest point in any locality was usually topped by a pagoda or monastery. If you are young and fit there is a long, steep path and stairs to reach the Mandalay Hill Pagoda via various other pagodas from ground level. I'm older and lazy, so I hired a car and driver. Even then, after the car-park there are about five flights of stairs but thankfully also a set of three long escalators to travel to the top. For some odd reason there are no down escalators, so I still had to descend the five flights eventually, very carefully on bare feet on some fairly uneven steps.

That is a point worth emphasising. If you visit this country be sure to bring some sandals or similar footwear easy to slip on and off. Bare feet are mandatory in all temples, pagodas and monasteries and it can get pretty tedious constantly removing and putting on socks and shoes. I learned from the day before on my '3 cities' visit, where I eventually just stayed barefoot. Since then I have worn sandals on bare feet more often than shoes on his trip.

Asian steps are a puzzle. When places like Angkor Wat, Jaipur's Amber Fort and the many pagodas of Burma were built the average height of the population was about 5' or 1.5m or less. You would think that the steps would suit that stature, but instead they are often very high, between eight and twelve inches (20-30cm) and quite steep. In old pagodas they can also vary a lot in height; I found I needed to be very careful going down to minimise the danger of falling.

The view from the Mandalay Hill was impressive. Two places stood out dramatically on the landscape; so much so that I am surprised that the authorities allow the hill to be a tourist spot. There is a very large army or police barracks:

Not far away is the notorious Mandalay prison; it is the semicircular set of buildings in the distance:

After Mandalay Hill I went the the Royal Palace. In some ways it is similar in structure to Beijing's Forbidden City, with a series of anterooms and special rooms for specific functions or protocols, but it is not as grand.

Unfortunately it was severely damaged in WWII so most of what I saw was rebuilt. They tried to stay close to the original but many of the precious gems and most of the gilding has gone. According to a guide I overheard in passing they are rather bitter about that and are asking the British to return some items displayed in their museums.

The vast Palace grounds are now a military base; the Tatmadaw is the Burmese Military. This pronouncement is on the outer wall, one of several I noticed in Myanmar. Orwell would have understood its meaning very well.

Cheers, Alan

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