I landed in Mandalay at a small airport in the middle of nowhere. The transfer to the terminal building was by way of an old Tokyo commuter bus which still had its original signs in Japanese, requesting passengers to keep their feet off the seats and to not spit out of the windows.
I had expected a welcoming committee of heavily-armed soldiers, cigar-smoking generals and unfriendly customs officials once inside the terminal building and braced myself for a shaky and frustrating start to a difficult tour in this mysterious and unpredictable part of the world.
Instead, I found an orderly, fast-moving immigration queue. A sweet old lady, wearing an orange jacket with some very ornate jewellery on the lapel, stamped my passport and beamed at me in friendly welcome. She had a large pimple on her chin, a thermos of tea on the counter and there was a “No Waiting” sign on the floor behind the immigration booths, where people lingered waiting for their travelling companions.
Once through the gate, I had to dodge a pack of eager taxi drivers who just couldn’t believe that I wanted to use a free bus shuttle service into town. There were also a few money exchange booths, one of which I used to change some of my freshly-minted US dollars into the local Kyat. Everyone smiled and there was also a little giggling, probably because I was still wearing a silly cowboy hat from my days wandering around on the beaches of Thailand.
As I stepped out into the open in front of the airport building, I noticed all the men wore long skirts. These comfortable-looking garments no doubt provided a cooling gust of ventilation to one’s genitalia to combat the blistering heat of the midday sun and I resolved to buy one as soon as possible. I imagined it to be like strolling about wearing a long bath towel, which in all honesty, is how I spend a lot of my time at home.
Everyone smiled and a relaxed atmosphere pervaded, a rare state of being at an airport. There was none of the usual hectic atmosphere found in western airports.
I was now in a country whose national dress was as casual as wearing a bathrobe, and I liked it already.
I boarded the shuttle bus to Mandalay and had some time prior to departure to survey my surroundings. There wasn’t much to see, except a large carpark, dotted on one side with ancient vehicles that hadn’t seen a car wash since the Second World War. On the other side, stood a gleaming row of brand new hire cars, ready to be driven by the tourists that swarmed from the tiny airport.
It was my first real impression of Myanmar: The mechanics of newly-acquired commercialism, grafted onto an old, minimalist way of life, necessitated by the scarcity of resources of a country forcibly closed to the rest of the world by politics. Freshly unwrapped Volkswagens in a car park of ancient, rusting vehicles and dusty, pot-holed tarmac.
There were also a couple of large billboards featuring the latest imported products advertised by models wearing very little. I had heard that Myanmar was a highly conservative place but no one seemed to have told the armies of invading advertising executives. I wondered if the big cafes, fast food chains and clothing brands had arrived in the city yet, but it was not so. Not yet, anyway. I had heard about the recent deliveries of the first truckloads of America’s favourite fizzy drink, an occurrence which usually signalled a country’s integration into the world economy and heralded a new era of homogenized consumer spending, but that was about the extent of it.
When I was in Shanghai a few years ago, I was struck by the similarity of the city’s interior to those of the west. Soulless skyscrapers swarming with uniformed office workers loomed over shopping districts that sold the same cheaply-manufactured goods to the multitude of consumers. Made in China, no less. The citizens of Shanghai wore the same easily-recognisable labels and they ate the same hamburgers as those in London or New York. Globalisation at its worse – China had become its own market and the whole world was beginning to look the same. Everybody wanted in.
Was this to be Myanmar’s fate as well? An empty canvas, ready to be billboarded with the uniformity of western commercialism? I sincerely hoped not, and looking out of the window as we drove into Mandalay, I could see there was a long way to go before I wouldn’t be able to tell that I was in a different country to my own.
The bus pulled into a crowded and dilapidated side street which the bus conductor announced as a “bus station”, but which clearly wasn’t one.
After about ten minutes of navigating Mandalay’s broken sidewalks, open drains and general traffic confusion, I found my hotel and checked in. A few looks, stares and giggles along the way, and a lot of smiles as well. Might have been the cowboy hat and manic grin on my face. I was very happy to be here, even if the place was as rough and loud as a Chinese supermarket. A long row of nuns walked past, all carrying umbrellas against the stifling heat.
Mandalay wasn’t a pretty city, but the dusty streets, the loud traffic or the splatters of blood red Betel nut spit in every corner were not enough to dampen my enthusiasm. I was finally here, and so far so good.
Whilst walking around in search of my first meal, I was instantly struck by some very familiar sensations. The chaos of the traffic and the broken, rubbish strewn sidewalks could have been anywhere in South East Asia, but the smell was India, the noise was China, and the smiles were Thailand. Not at all surprising since Myanmar is wedged exactly between these countries, so there was bound to be a lot of neighbourly crosstalk.
One further foreign influence struck the senses, my own presence as a tourist. It was the same grafting of brand-spanking new onto rusty, broken old. Here and there, shiny airline and travel agent offices with equally shiny people inside them had begun to appear, as had gleaming shops full of mobile phones and other electrical appliances. The country had opened up to tourism and so, it seemed, a lot of other things had opened as well, and I was soon accosted by several touts trying to sell me package tours and other travel conveniences. Four maroon-clad monks on a single motorbike passed me as I walked, a fully-laden ox cart u-turned on the main road.
Continuing on my own terms, I found a delicious meal from a street stall and then returned to the lodgings. The problems with a country fresh to the oncoming surge of international tourism were all epitomised in the hotel I was staying in. The rooms were extremely shabby and completely overpriced. To add insult to injury, I had to pay in the crispest, newest banknotes I had been able to get my hands on for fear of outright rejection by the hotel owner. New US notes coming into a country where the local paper money sometimes resembled old cleaning rags. I was aware of this duality of the country, and made an effort to ignore this bit and just get on with feeling happy about being in Myanmar.
The hotel staff sat in the lobby, transfixed by the television that hung close to the ceiling, showing the local soap opera. The television was new, and so it seemed was the luxury of watching junk television. The hotel owner beamed at me in delight at seeing my nice US money when i paid for the room and I smiled back, so that helped.
In fact, I had been smiling a lot ever since I had arrived and my jaw as beginning to hurt a little. Perhaps the smiles were a coping mechanism to deal with all the things that were supposedly wrong in the country, but I certainly preferred it to the bitterness of normal western city life that I was used to at home. Here, life was a series of potential problems and difficulties to be overcome, at home it was a series of minor grievances about irrelevances, usually directed at others to put ourselves in the clear. Perhaps the people in the west should wear more skirts.
The people walking around in Mandalay smiled, and that was good. A truck laden with bricks was being unloaded by half a dozen women carrying the brinks in large baskets on their heads. They smiled.
After I had settled in, it was time to organise some local cash, and I could either use a cash machine or change money on the black market. I had been assured by many reputable sources that there was no such thing as a cash machine in Myanmar and that the black market exchange guys were all rather shifty.
Walking about a hundred metres from my hotel, I found an ATM in front of a gleaming new bank building, but it was still wrapped in plastic waiting to be wired up and filled with Kyats. A few hundred metres further, I found a cash machine that was actually in use and there was no hassle whatsoever in getting a large wad of the local currency.
The next day I hired a taxi driver for the day and looked at half a dozen top attractions in the city, and at the end of it my feet were sore from walking through temples and looking at Buddha statues, climbing hills to see more temples and Buddha statues and then some. I had been compelled to see some of the things that I had seen during the day, because that’s what people who go sight-seeing in Mandalay do for the day, but I was also glad when it was all over and I could go about doing something that didn’t involve either temples or Buddha statues.
OK, so Myanmar had turned out to be a little different to what I had expected. Some of the things reputed to be fiendishly difficult to manage were laughably simple now that several months had passed since the last guidebooks on the country had all but expired. Other things remained as mysterious as life on another planet, and I was just getting the swing of things. I knew that the next three weeks of my life weren’t going to be boring. I had already seen enough stuff on my first day to fill a casual evening of dinner conversation when I got back home, and there was plenty more to come.