Musing on Myanmar in Mandalay

I’ve always had an interest in coming to Myanmar. It started off as a tourist itch to visit Bagan, but my interest was truly piqued after watching the first episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show entitled Parts Unknown. However, over the last two years I’ve become more concerned with investing my time in places rather than just walking through them. If I wanted to go to Myanmar, I needed to take my time to explore, work, and live there. Through a series of fortunate events, I have that opportunity now…

Myanmar has been a country shrouded in mystery and secret thanks to the military dictatorship that had ruled since the coup d’état in 1962. In that year, the military overthrew the democratic government, implanted a government council led by General Ne Win, introduced the doctrine of the Burmese Way to Socialism, and began to nationalize all industries and claim the rights to all land-property within the borders of Myanmar. They also renamed the country the ‘Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma.’ Foreigners were only allowed to stay in the country for 24 hours at a time while private firms and companies had to hand over their enterprises to the state. Ten years later, rice production was failing to meet population growth rates and exports of rice, the main cash crop in Myanmar, plunged.

In 1988, poverty, censorship, and ineffective management of the country led to an organized uprising on August 8th. One month later, the military cracked down on the people and abolished government administrations that had been in formation since 1962. The State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took control of the country. One year later, the council renamed the country the ‘Union of Myanmar.’ In 1990, the country held a free election but the SLORC refused to cede power to the opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), who won the election. The SLORC ruled the country until 1997 when the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) was formed to promote new generals and to consolidate power in Yangon, the state capital at that time. Up until 2011, the SPDC ruled the country as a military dictatorship. Now, the country is striving to reform its governmental policy and has been officially named the ‘Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

Here are a couple of thoughts and experiences I’ve had so far in Mandalay:

1.) The country is officially called the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar.” If you are familiar with the checkered history of Myanmar and the Western world’s stance toward the country, what you should call the country can get a bit confusing . Everyone in Myanmar (Burma) has their own opinion about what it should be called and why. I’ve had many discussions with local Mandalays about the name and there is no definitive answer. I refer to it as Myanmar for the following reasons:

– the controversy over the name only exists in the English language, not in the Myanma (Burmese) language

– a government of a country has the sovereignty to name itself, even if that government is seen as illegitimate by outside nations. Moreover, the government-in-exile, the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB) which was formed in the U.S.A. after the failed transition of the 1990 free election, was dissolved in 2012 to help aid in the current reform process. Therefore, they have conceded that the current government is the legitimate government

– both names have ethnic and religious connotations that exclude minority groups in the outlying regions of Myanmar who constitute a large majority of the population

– the United Nations recognized the change of the name in the English language

– Burma is the name that the British gave to the colony when they controlled it during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It was derived from various European spellings since the 16th century and there is no consensus on whether the origin is from the colloquial word for the ethnic majority, Bama, or the Indian word, Brahma

Mranma was the name given to the country by the Pagan (Bagan) dynasty. The oldest preserved record is from the 13th century

– in order to push the reformation process forward, most political parties within Myanmar (Burma) have adopted the name as a conciliatory gesture for the future of the nation

– my business visa states, “The Republic of the Union of Myanmar”

The mayor’s office in Mandalay.



2.) Everyday I’ve had to take a freezing cold shower (except for the one time when the water was really hot and burned me) because the amount of heated water for our hotel is limited. Hot showers are a luxury here. The water is always tinged with dirt and turns especially dark when there are torrential downpours. However, I’m extremely grateful because every time I look out of my window, there is a man, woman, or child bathing in the sewer ditch across the street.

The view outside our hotel window. In the middle-right of the picture is the ditch where most people go to bathe each day. If you look closely, you can see two bikes parked on the side of the road.



3.) During the wet season (May-October), there are torrential downpours. I’ve experienced my fair share of Texas thunderstorms, Shanghai typhoons, and wet weather, but I’ve never lived in a place where the rain comes down so heavily it sounds like a train is right outside your door. I envision, not a rain cloud with individual drops of precipitation, but someone pouring a huge bucket of water onto the city for two hours at a time.




4.) In Myanmar, women always wear clothing that covers their shoulders and legs, down to their ankles. To show your calves or shoulders is apparently a sign of promiscuity or immodesty. Lastly, everyone wears sandals, and I do mean everyone. It is rare to see anyone wearing sneakers, dress (smart) shoes, or socks. There is a large variety sandals for fashion or function. There are rubber, leather, cloth, bejeweled, thong, high-heel, and slip-on sandals (these are rare though and some of my local colleagues have commented that I need to get a nice pair of thong sandals).




5.) While living in Shanghai, Danielle and I became accustomed to the stares of people as we traveled on the metro or walked down the street. The Chinese stare is blank (or sometimes menacing), and even if you make eye-contact with the person, they don’t stop. It is worse if the person is a domestic tourist from areas outside the major cities. They will gawk at you. Over time, I developed counter-actions to these stares: blowing kisses, winking, or mimicking their body movements. However, in Mandalay, foreigners are so rare that people are always shocked to see you. If you smile at a group while you pass, they giggle once you are out of their field of vision. If they have the confidence to say, “Hello,” and you respond back, they are excited and laugh. If you walk into a local shop or restaurant, everyone stops what they are doing to look at you. These stares aren’t a product of invasiveness or judgement, but of genuine curiosity.




6.) While I have always been a minimalist in the way I use materials or products, spartan and frugal in the way I spend my money or live my life, I have entered upon a whole new level of economizing since I came to Myanmar. I am terrified of wasting food or water since so many of the people I see here lack basic necessities, or a dependable and livable income.

Basic infrastructure is a big problem in Myanmar, even in major cities like Mandalay and Yangon. The process of re-paving roads is done by taking gigantic rocks and splitting them into small chunks, then laying out these chunks and pouring a mixture of concrete and tar over that. It seems quite arduous work.



7.) Danielle and I do a lot of walking. I like to walk for two main reasons: it saves money and it’s free exercise. I had never been criticized for it until I came to Myanmar. While walking down the street, taxi drivers will pull over, get out of their cars, and confront you. Below is a generalization of different comments I have heard since I have been here.

“Why do all of you tourists want to walk everywhere? All you want to do is go to these tourist spots and give money to the government when we need it. It isn’t helping anyone. It is only making the military richer.”

There are lots of antiquated vehicles in Mandalay, as well as one-stroke engines. It gives the sense that Mandalay is a preserved microcosm of the past.



8.) There are a lot of insanely rich Chinese people that live in Mandalay. Myanmar is bordered by Yunnan to the northeast. Many Chinese who are looking to build tourism, gem, teak, or oil industries are drawn into Myanmar. The socio-economic disparity between the Chinese and local communities is prevalent and disconcerting.

Two Chinese McMansions.


These two houses were next to each other on the street.



9.) The Myanma script is some of the most unique I have ever seen. See for yourself!!




10.) Despite military rule, previous censorship, and curfews (the most recent being lifted just before we arrived in Mandalay), there is quite a lot of graffiti throughout the city. Most of it is in English and seems to be of a political nature. A lot of artists and taggers are quite ubiquitous across the city and keep to a certain style.

IMG_1976 IMG_2055IMG_2057IMG_2061



11.) Before international movies can be aired on television, they must be censored by a specific committee in Myanmar and must be issued a certificate. Some censored material is consistently blurred such as exposed cleavage or a cigarette in someone’s mouth (although when they are holding it, there is no blurred image). There are also warnings that say, “Smoking/tobacco kills.” However, other content seems arbitrarily chosen such as cutting out the ‘a@!’ word but not the ‘f%$#’ word.




12.) I work in a schoolhouse in 38 degree Celsius weather without A/C, so by the time I finish three hours of teaching, my clothes are soaked in sweat. The hotel where we live charges a lot of money to launder clothes so I’ve resorted to hand-washing them myself. In Shanghai, I released the shackle of a dryer and learned how to air-dry my clothes. Here in Mandalay, I’ve released the shackle of a washing-machine and learned how to suds up and rinse them.



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