I read an article online today that listed the results from Conde Nast Traveler’s annual Reader’s Choice Awards. One of the categories ranked the Top 20 Most Friendly cities in the world, along with a list of the 20 Most Unfriendly cities. To my delight, Mandalay was ranked number eight on the Friendliest list. Congratulations Mandalayians! Or should that be Mandalayites?
I tried to get more information about these awards, but unfortunately Conde Nast Traveler has a VERY annoying website that makes surfing their pages exasperating and trying to cull information a most trying task. I assume there are separate lists for “Best” cities, and perhaps “Most Interesting” or “Most Exciting City,” maybe even “Wildest Nightlife” and on and on. But this particular list was ranking the cities on a friendly scale, so whatever the criteria was, Mandalay must have impressed the magazine’s readers enough to place as high as it did.
Although delighted by Mandalay’s ranking, I was nevertheless surprised that the city would be recognized so favorably. For example, if you polled the tourists visiting Myanmar (and those numbers, while climbing, are still not nearly as high as the number of tourists visiting Thailand or even Cambodia or Vietnam) I doubt Mandalay would be the favorite destination of many travelers, at least not in terms of the having the most exciting places to see, or the most scenic landscapes, or the best of anything. To be honest, most of Mandalay is fairly nondescript if not just plain ugly. It’s crowded and dusty and the traffic is just ridiculous. On the surface, you certainly wouldn’t call it lovely or charming.
But venture off the chaotic main roads, away from the noisy downtown markets and generic tourist quarters and you’ll find shady, tree-lined lanes, quaint old Colonial-era buildings, quiet monasteries of all sizes, red-robed monks making rounds around fascinating little neighborhoods, and plenty of friendly inquisitive local who will stop and chat with you. Yes, there’s no doubt it was these lovely people that earned Mandalay its high ranking.
When I first visited Myanmar about eight years ago, Mandalay didn’t make much of an impression on me. Like most tourists, I tried to cram in too many activities in a short span of time and ended up not seeing enough of the city or absorbing the atmosphere properly. The famous “Road to Mandalay” was not as scenic as hyped. It was only after I slowed down, spending more time riding my bike around the edges of town, dropping into teashops, visiting monasteries and meeting monks, and talking to locals, that the “Mandalay Magic” finally rubbed off on me. And now I’m hooked.
And I’m very excited that I’m going back to Myanmar at end of this month, where I’ll be spending most of my time once again in Mandalay. I don’t have ambitious plans to see any particular sights, but instead look forward to hooking with friends like Mr. Htoo and Ko Soe Moe, cycling down to U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street and checking in with Ko Maw Hsi, Zin Ko and rest of the kids, and meeting Khin Nwe Lwin for dinner one night. And of course I’ll eat most of my meals at Aye Myit Tar, drop by the Minthiha teashop a few times for morning noodle binges, have a vegetarian meal and see Tun Zaw Win at Marie Min’s, stop by the MBOA orphanage and say “mingalaba” to Ko Ko Oo and his staff, maybe pay my respects at Par Par Lay’s house, and who knows what else? That’s the beauty of riding my bike around Mandalay, venturing down back roads and taking wrong turns; there is always something new to see and people to meet. I can’t wait!