Dec 13 2011

Chiang Mai and Mandalay

Published by at 3:23 am under Burma


With Burma much in the news of late thanks to the Burmese government at least appearing to be making some tentative steps toward “normalisation”, and tourism there looking set to increase dramatically we thought it would be a good time to take a look at the contrasting twin northern capitals of Burma and Thailand: Chiang Mai and Mandalay. Though there’s only some 450 kilometres separating these two northern outposts of Southeast Asia which, roughly speaking, lie on two different sides of the Shan Plateau, they’re worlds apart.

The Irrawaddy, Mandalay Hill and Shan Plateau on the horizon

The Irrawaddy, Mandalay Hill and Shan Plateau on the horizon.

Mandalay is situated in the narrow plain between the Irrawaddy and the western edge of the plateau and has at various times in its history been dominated by its upland Shan neighbours. The mountains to the north of Chiang Mai province and westwards across Mae Hong Son abut the southern edge of the plateau, and indeed themselves have a large Shan population — see for example our post on the Shan town of Mae Sariang. (The Shan State capital, Taunggyi, lies approximately a third of the way along a near straight line between the two cities.)

Shan farmer near Pindaya, Shan Plateau

Shan farmer near Pindaya, Shan Plateau.

Today Mandalay has an extensive Shan district and Chiang Mai a large Shan population — many in the latter refugees from Burma — and you’ll hear the Shan dialect of the Tai linguistic family spoken widely in both cities.

Shan fare in the Shan district of Mandalay

Shan fare in the Shan district of Mandalay.

Both cities play de facto roles as unofficial northern capitals of their respective countries and both display similar geographical layouts: long, narrow coastal regions to the south and wide mountainous upper reaches with the capitals situated at the juncture of the two parts. (We’re referring to Rangoon since the new official capital of Naypyidaw is merely the location of the government.) Rangoon to Mandalay is 715 kilometres and Bangkok to Chiang Mai 695, so in today’s terms a one-hour flight apart, though historically remote cities with independent pasts: Mandalay was the last independent capital of Burma before the British conquest and Chiang Mai was the seat of the Lanna royal family and independent from Bangkok until relatively recently.

Many Mandalay residents still bath and do their laundry in the Irrawaddy

Many Mandalay residents still bath and do their laundry in the Irrawaddy.

Despite the similarities, Thailand’s headlong drive to modernisation and relatively wealthy status, and Burma’s long isolation and comparative poverty, mean that on the surface the two cities are, as we said, worlds apart. In Mandalay cellphones are still rare; internet connections bad, streets and street lighting in poor condition, you’ll see horse-drawn carts in the city centre and you’ll flag down a rickshaw rather than tuk tuk if you want a ride. To sharpen the focus of the often heard cliche of Burma being Thailand 50 years ago: Mandalay is Chiang Mai 50 years ago. True in many respects!

Mandalay - see local taxis and road conditions!

Mandalay: local taxis and road conditions.

Indeed Mandalay city taxis — see below — are exactly that: around 50 years old.

This passes for high-tech in Mandalay

High-tech in Mandalay.

This, to many visitors, is part of the country’s and city’s charm, though we’re not so sure the long-suffering locals would agree? Things are undoubtedly set to change — and rapidly too — and Chiang Mai should perhaps watch out since we can see a very bright tourism future for its twin.

The much photographed U Bein Bridge

The much photographed U Bein Bridge.

Though it may lack the charm of the windy lanes of old Chiang Mai, tourist-oriented restaurants, coffee shops, bars and Thai-style guesthouses will no doubt spring up soon. Mandalay certainly possesses a good selection of tourist sites such as the ancient cities, the iconic U Bein Bridge and the Mingun temples and overall, as a regional tourism centre, it compares very positively with its more ‘sophisticated’ neighbour.

Chiang Mai's modern skyline

Chiang Mai's modern skyline ...

...and 'downtown' Mandalay - leafy and low-rise

... and "downtown" Mandalay, leafy and low-rise.

Flight connections are excellent with several daily flights to Heho (for Lake Inle), Bagan, Rangoon and other points, rail services are improving, a brand new highway links the city to Rangoon and an excellent boat service on the Irrawaddy provides a scenic route to Bagan.

Ferry...down the Irrawaddy

Ferry... down the Irrawaddy

The tourist centre of Lake Inle is also within driving distance as are several of the Shan Plateau hill-stations such as Pyin U Lwin and Kalaw and historical sites such as the spectacular Pindaya. Indeed Kalaw already possesses a budding backpacker and trekking scene, situated as it is among the hills and hill-tribe villages, (such as Danu, Pa-O, Paluang) of the Shan Plateau. The potential for a Burmese Pai is obvious — though we hope that development is more restrained and better considered than in that case.

Palaung woman near Kalaw

Palaung woman near Kalaw.

Sadly however, despite their geographical proximity, it is currently very difficult to travel between Mandalay and Chiang Mai. A tentative attempt at direct flights was dropped in 2008 and overland travel via Tachilek and Kentung is an on-off, erratic affair that may or may not work depending upon ever the changing political situation and perhaps even the whim of the Burmese border officials. (As of writing it was off.) At present you are obliged to complete an absurd detour via Bangkok and Rangoon — we expect the situation to change and direct flights to recommence in the future, and hopefully even the overland route to open up.

Thai/Burmese border between Mae Sai and Tachilek

Thai/Burmese border between Mae Sai and Tachilek.

Mandalay and Chiang Mai would certainly make for a fascinating, contrasting yet complementary trip and… while we’re at it, why not throw Laos’ northern capital of Luang Prabang into your itinerary at the same time?  Surely a mouthwatering holiday programme?

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