Mandalay – Streets

Middle of the night, all is mostly quiet.  A few nights ago I was awakened around 1 am by the distant, persistent sounds of festival music.  Last night it was dogs barking, street dogs for there is virtually no other kind here.  Though people will give food to the dogs that live outside their houses, the dogs know no human touch.  Even if attached to a certain place, they are still wild.  They are their own creatures.

Burmese Dog

Burmese street dog

Though I have occasionally heard them other times at night, this was far more long lasting.  Probably this meant that some person was intruding on their night territory.  During the day they mostly sleep, lying on sidewalks and in the street just out of reach of the traffic.  At dusk their behavior changes.  I was told that if you show fear and run, they will chase you and likely will bite.  You must stand your ground and shout at them to leave you, and then you must leave their territory.

Apart from the occasional festival, the streets are largely empty by around ten pm.  And quiet.  Then sometime early, you will hear a loudspeaker on the street below, a call to prayer.  This morning it was just a lone call at 5:30am, a Mandalay alarm clock.

My first full morning here it was much more than that – the sounds from two speaker mounted trucks, moving about through the city.  One was a voice, the other a chanting song.  Eventually the voice drew close enough for me to hear the loud repeated calls.  It began with ‘min gala ba’ which is used for ‘hello’.  Literally it means ‘It is a blessing’. It went something like this, on an on, with some minor variations:

for mingalaba, sit sit sit, an de lei, an de lei
and a lot more I cannot remember then
si si pa
si si pa

Later on this Thursday morning, when I went to the large central market found in every city and called zeigyo (zaycho), I found that it was closed for the day.  Thursday is the day that the market is shut so that all can spend the day at the pagodas in prayer.  Thus was explained the roving speaker trucks of my first morning wake up in Mandalay.

The streets begin to awaken.  Riding in a little blue taxi from bus station to hotel at 5 am on my first morning here, there were people about, mostly on bicycles, bundled against the morning cold.  The bicycle riders need to start the earliest to get to their destinations.  There were also many small pickup trucks, full of early morning commuters.

The pickups are the main bus transport here, though there are large buses as well on certain major routes.  The pickup beds are covered over with strong metal canopies and they are lined with a U of wooden benches. When those benches have filled, there will be a few small metal stools pulled out so more people can sit in the middle. Standing on a small platform in the back and hanging off the rails will be three to six more people, always men.  The canopies must by strong because they will be loaded with boxes or baskets or any of a baffling array of items.  Often, if not completely full of parcels and cartons, there will be more people sitting up top, usually young men or boys.

By 6:30 in the morning, as dawn arrives, the sounds of the city are steadily growing.  It will build to the full cacaphony of the day very soon now, my last morning in Mandalay.  Tomorrow I will go by small blue taxi to the jetty at 4:30 am to catch the twice weekly 5:30 am slow boat, down the Ayeyarwady River to Bagan.

Saigaing at Dawn

The full daytime streets of Mandalay are busy, a rather fun kind of craziness.  Riding a bicycle here allows one the full experience.  One learns how to navigate the stratified traffic, streams of bikes, motorbikes, tiny taxis, jeeps, pickups, larger trucks and occasionally full sized buses.  Some intersections have signals.  At the ones which do it is relatively simple, except for the turning lanes.

Traffic flows on the right, as in the states, an abrupt reversal after independence from Britain and its left hand side driving.  The many vehicles which predate this change are steered from the wrong side – this is one quick way to estimate a vehicle’s age.  Pre and post 1970.  The right hand lane is a free turn lane which means that the traffic never stops – often a factor for pedestrians.  Bicycles going straight must position themselves farther into the road, not at the far right side or they will get caught up by the turning traffic.  The center section of the road will be stratified by speed and size, first bicycles, then motorbikes (s’ain keh), then all the large vehicles.  At farthest left will be another stratified “lane” of left turning vehicles.  Thus the vulnerable bicycle will have to move into a position roughly between two columns of trucks.  If I don’t anticipate my positioning early enough, I will sometimes make my left turn by first making a right, then waiting with the column of traffic for the light to change again.

It’s all quite a dance, of anticipation and confidence.

Intersections without lights are another matter completely.  On minor side roads, usually the traffic interlaces fairly easily.  As the streets get busier, crossing from a more minor street becomes a huge and sometimes daunting challenge.

Gordian Knot intersection with light traffic

The zenith of this was the Gordian Knot I witnessed near the Zeigyo Market a few days ago.  So many vehicles had forced their way in from every direction that the entire thing had become impossibly tangled.  Horns were sounding everywhere, but no one could move, not forward nor backward.  Eventually some passengers jumped out and were having vehicles move inch by inch, first one backed a tiny bit, another moved forward a bit, then another backed, and so on until finally there was enough room for a motorbike or two to get out of the tangle, then perhaps a trishaw, then maybe one small taxi, and so on until finally the bigger vehicles could move on and the road was again usable.  Meanwhile, I had got off my bicycle and walked it through some small openings near the edges.

There are some advantages to slower transportation.

Bicycling around Mandalay:
–coming soon–
tale from Mandalay
dead dog lying by the side of the road

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9 Responses to Mandalay – Streets

  1. John Pebis says:

    You have a lot of nerve bicycling in Mandalay!

    • Christine says:

      Sometimes more nerve than sense. :)

      I strongly debated riding across town one night to see the traditional dance show, but sense prevailed and I organized a moto instead. In retrospect, I can’t believe I even considered it. If the streets are tough for a bicycle in the daytime, they are triply so after dark.

  2. Doreen Tayler says:

    I enjoyed your comments on Burma, and have decided to stay at the Three Seasons Hotel in Yangon (unfortunately I cannot find an email to book, so I will write). Thank you. Any suggestions re guest houses in Mandalay and the hill station at Maymyo? I hope to continue in Orson Well’s footsteps, but I won’t bother you re. all the remoter places like Twante, Katha etc.

    • Christine says:

      Doreen, lucky you headed for Burma!

      I have two email addresses for Three Seasons. This one is published (somewhere), but I think often does not work (Myanmar internet = inconsistent and unreliable): This second one was given to me in person and worked well a year ago, but at some point the account was hacked so it may or may not still be active:

      For Mandalay, the very least expensive decent option is Royal Guesthouse. Peacock Lodge is a special place, according to two different sources, but is a bit more out of the way. Mandalay View Inn was a very good option if you want something a little more upscale without breaking the bank. They are co-owned by the gorgeous top-end Hotel by the Red Canal so you get free access to HbtRC’s wifi. A year ago, that seemed to be the only game in town for wifi. I stayed at ET which was perfectly adequate by local standards.

      I did not get to Maymyo on this first trip to Burma but am quite keen to return and do as you are – following in OW’s footsteps.

      If you will be traveling soon – eg high season – I strongly recommend that you have your current accommodation call ahead for you to book a room at your next stop. The increase in tourism means that (govt approved) accommodation space can be tight, though it was rarely necessary to book more than a day or two ahead. People who arrived in Mandalay without accommodation booked had major difficulties, less so if they arrived on the mornings the slow boat had left (Wednesday and Sunday).

  3. Doreen Tayler says:

    Sorry, if this has come through twice. (It just appeared again). As I can’t email Three Seasons at Yangon (thank you for your recommendation), I am writing to book a room in January. Any suggestions re. guest houses in Mandalay, and other venues please? Also re. Bangkok (I was last there 20 years ago and stayed at TT Guest house). I’m a 65 year-old single lady travelling alone. Thank you. I so enjoyed your comments. I too rode a bike when I lived in Vietnam. Well done.

    • Christine says:

      Hi again Doreen. Too bad I am not going to be back in SEA this Jan – I bet we could have a blast comparing notes and possibly exploring some of the more remote areas of Burma.

      My home away from home in Bangkok is Tavee Guesthouse. You can read a bit about the neighborhood here: Bangkok Neighborhood. You will find reviews online, but no online res or email contact information. Reservations by email:

  4. Doreen Tayler says:

    Thank you Christine. I’m looking forward to Burma (I went to India the last two Januarys). However, I read through the Tevee comments and one said the walls were like paper. I must admit to being a light sleeper, but usually a fan drowns out most noises in my experience. I was thinking of staying at the Atlanta Hotel which has a swimming pool and is just 500 baht (cold shower though). However, that place sounds more suited to couples and there is a restaurant but no t.v. lounge or anything. Both sound fine, so I thought I’d mention it to you for your opinion. Thank you again re. the information about the hotel in Rangon (I have written and sent it off a few hours ago), and the hotel in Mandalay. I will certainly try and stay at both. So very helpful I am most grateful. Yes, George Orwell covered a lot of space, so I will do my best. Best wishes Doreen

    • Christine says:

      I don’t personally like multistory hotels, and seek out small guesthouses, preferably with gardens. Tavee is a little oasis. In five stays there, I have never experienced noise problems, but I always get an ensuite aircon room. The cheaper fan rooms are noisier. There are less costly options of course, but I love the neighborhood.

      I am thinking about India for 2013. Off to Guatemala for New Years, 2012.

  5. Doreen Tayler says:

    It’s me again Christine. Guatamala is my favourite country. It has everything. I suggest you make straight for Antingua and take Spanish lessons (3 or 4 hours a day no more) that’s if you don’t already speak it. You will be met off the bus by urchins wanting to take you to one. That’s fine. I stayed with a family but changed to a divorced woman for my final week (I stayed three in total), as she had more time to chat and I didn’t feel such a ‘guest’ or in the way. Then I went to Lake Atitlan (sp?). San Pedro. Just amazing. Of course the huge market at Chi Chi tenago (sp) – sorry, is just brilliant. Very interesting and beautiful country – it has the lot, ethnics with your own language etc.
    Anyway, re. India I followed in Kim’s footsteps, Rugyard Kipling’s famous character.
    Okay, Tavee guest house, is waiting for my email response re. booking a room. What do you suggest. A single room with a fan and separate (downstairs) bathroom is just 350 bahts, and double with aircon/fan and ensuite 700 as you said. Is it worth the extra money for five nights, and are the rooms more noise proof? Sorry to be a bore. I will contact them after I receive your response. Also, how do I get there from the airport. I arrive around 18.00. I have also contacted/written to the guest house in Burma (Three Seasons) on your suggestion to book three nights in Rangon, so I hope they reply. I have also noted your suggestion in Mandalay so I will ring when in Rangon. Did you travel that bit by boat or train? Forgive all my questions. Thanks.

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