Hello! 

Thanks for visiting my website. I'm focusing on the blog now, while Allison and I gear up for our trip to Asia later this year. My published writing is also archived here, as well as travel photography from previous trips I've taken. 

"I just need to look at a proper fucking map!"

"I just need to look at a proper fucking map!"

The manager at our accommodation in Mandalay—the new Nylon Hotel, just around the corner from the old one—was a friendly middle-aged Burmese man with glasses that sat low on his nose and a neat, slick part in his thick black hair. It was Christmas Day (well, evening now), and Allison and I had spent the last 13 hours on a ferry from Bagan, winding slowly up the Ayeyarwaddy River on a cavernous three-story boat with a handful of other Western tourists and a staff of Burmese boatmen that outnumbered the passengers. Perhaps that sounds relaxing, and for the most part it was, but we’d been out in the sun for hours and had drunk a whole bottle of palm toddy from a local village, and I was feeling completely zonked. (Further confirmation of my theory that you’re not properly “relaxing” unless you’re completely exhausted afterward.)

I wanted to like the new Nylon Hotel, but the lobby reeked of sulfur and some other mysterious and extremely pungent sour smell that wafted all the way up to our room on the fifth floor. The room itself was spacious, a triple with an extra bed, even though we had only booked a double (the manager was quick to tell us what a good deal we were getting), and it looked nice enough, with its ornate red pillows and matching bed runners. But it was a façade. The mattresses seemed to be made of stiff cardboard wrapped in plastic—they both crinkled slightly when you laid on them, but not much, since they were so firm they hardly even moved. And the bathroom had a leaky pipe that extended from the ceiling three-quarters of the way down the wall into a water bottle that had been cut in half and wedged underneath. The dripping was intermittent, but when it was going strong the bottle had to be emptied at least every hour or so. We put a towel underneath to absorb the overflow when we weren’t there (or awake) to tend to it.

I asked Allison if she wanted to switch rooms tomorrow, and she shrugged and said, “They probably all have the same jury-rigged situation in every bathroom.” I could not conceive of hotel being constructed in such a way that all of the bathrooms had pipes in the ceiling that led to a plastic water bottle that needed to be emptied by the guests multiple times a night, but then again, until a few weeks ago I’d never seen curry being cooked on hot coals under a bathroom sink or a dog eating rubble either.

Myanmar is still sorting a few things out.

Mandalay, in particular, does not have a good reputation among travelers. It is one of the Big Four on the main Myanmar tourist route (the others being Yangon, Bagan, and Inle Lake), and it’s the one people most often recommend skipping altogether. And if you really must go there, they say, the city “can be done” in a day. Unfortunately, Allison and I hadn’t known this when we'd booked our hotel from the relative comfort of Thailand, and now we had four whole days to fill in Mandalay. We’d heard so many people disparaging the city in the two weeks we’d been in Myanmar that now we felt determined to prove them all wrong.

“We can figure this city out!” Allison declared as we tucked into some delicious chapati and Indian curry at a street-side food stall round the corner from our hotel. Our server was the brashest 12-year-old boy waiter we’d encountered yet, in a country full of brash 12-year-old boy waiters. He was directing traffic aggressively, cramming people together at tables, Burmese and foreigners alike, so that there was not an empty stool in the whole place. The few phrases of English he spoke—“Hello! You sit here! Chapati, yes! Mutton curry, no! Chicken curry, yes!—were delivered with such confidence we thought he might be fluent. But anything outside of his script (I asked him how early we had to come next time to get the mutton curry) was met with a laugh and a shrug, and then he was off to grab a few more plates of chapati.

“How many Red Bulls has this kid had tonight?” I joked. I looked around at the bustle on every side of us—motorbikes whizzing by, some without headlights; flea-bitten dogs nosing around the outskirts of the tables; men in longyis spitting betel juice in the dusty road; boy waiters on all sides of us shouting, shouting, shouting… “Actually, this whole city kind of seems like it’s high on amphetamines or something.”

“I like it! Makes me miss my Adderall prescription.” (Allison had had to leave her medication at home, as it is highly illegal in Thailand, and perhaps in Myanmar too.)

The next morning, as we surveyed the area outside our hotel with fresh eyes and saw that the city was more chaotic at 9 a.m. than it had been the night before, our confidence began dwindling. The taxies on our corner all insisted on 5,000 kyat for a ride to the base Mandalay Hill, though it was only a 10- to 15-minute drive away. I seemed to remember reading in our Southeast Asia on a Shoestring Lonely Planet book that “short jaunts” should be about 1,500 kyat, but maybe that was only for motorbike taxies (we wanted to take a car, dammit!), and in any case, all of the Myanmar information in the book was a couple of years old. A lot has changed in the four years Myanmar has been open to tourists—perhaps the price of a cab really has more than tripled in the last two years. I was able to haggle the guy down to 4,000 kyat, and when it became clear that he absolutely would not budge from there, we grudgingly agreed.

Mandalay Hill itself, which we had read was one of the biggest attractions in the city, seemed almost entirely deserted. The summit is 760 feet from the base, and our Lonely Planet book said that “the barefooted walk up covered stairways on the hill’s southern slope is a major part of the experience, passing through and around a colorful succession of prayer and shopping opportunities.” Instead, we trudged alone up flight after flight of dirty stone steps, flanked on either side by empty stone benches. There were almost no other tourists or Burmese people making the pilgrimage to the top. A few stalls sold very cheap-looking (and old) T-shirts and faded postcards, and there were a few empty restaurants and the occasional woman cooking a lonely pot of curry. Stray dogs outnumbered people, and I watched a cat take a brazen shit on a stone floor about halfway up the hill. Whatever color had once existed here was gone, replaced by dust, dirt and neglect. Again I was struck by how much had changed since the Lonely Planet had issued its last guidebook. It would have been better, I thought, if the place were entirely abandoned—the few impoverished families who were still here trying to eke out a living selling their meager wares made the whole scene even more depressing.

No one in sight.

No one in sight.

Then we got to the parking lot.

We had read that it was possible to drive most of the way up, and these days it seems that’s what almost everyone opts to do. As soon as we reached the area where you can park, which is near the summit, the place was suddenly teeming with people—mostly Burmese who had come specifically to visit the Sutaungpyei Pagoda at the summit. There, the filthy stone floors were replaced by smooth, shiny tile, the gold pagoda and glass-mosaic walls gleamed in the light, and groups of young Burmese people asked Allison and me if they could take their picture with us (we decided Allison’s blue eyes and blonde curls were the main draw).

We are both very vain, so of course we obliged—and got a few of our own.

Allison posed with the girls...

Allison posed with the girls...

And I posed with the guys. 

And I posed with the guys. 

As if driving nearly to the top wasn't easy enough, we noticed that there were also escalators and an elevator, so now it was possible to reach the summit without walking at all. Not much of a “pilgrimage” in that case. Allison and I, on the other hand, walked barefoot back down the entire 760 feet amidst the dirt and cat shit. We had to—our sandals were at the bottom! On the way down, we bought two wet wipes for 200 kyat each to clean our filthy feet, and I wondered how far the woman who sold them to us would have to stretch that 40 cents—and how many she sold per day before the escalators and elevator were installed.

Taxi drivers in Mandalay, on the other hand, were making a killing. The next one we talked to wanted 6,000 kyat to take us an even shorter distance than the guy who brought us there. We wanted to go to V Cafe, which the Lonely Planet said had burgers and draft beer—and hopefully Wi-Fi. (We knew the information in Lonely Planet was outdated and that we shouldn’t be relying on it, but the Wi-Fi at our hotel was so slow that it was basically unusable—a theme at all but the most expensive hotels in Myanmar.)

I was already annoyed at the high fee the first taxi driver wanted, and upon hearing “6,000” from the second one I stormed away immediately, making Allison uncomfortable. But it worked. The cabbie chased after us, down the dusty road, and agreed to 4,000. I still thought that in principle this was too high (even though it’s less that $3), but it was afternoon already and the sun was beating down mercilessly, so I relented and we piled into the back of his pickup truck. I kept grumbling to Allison that for 4,000 kyat we ought to at least get a proper seat (and was this guy even a real cabbie? No, he was just some guy with a truck!). I was kind of kidding now; I didn’t actually expect anything in Mandalay to be comfortable, and anyway, isn’t that why we were in Myanmar to begin with—because Thailand was too comfortable?

When we arrived at V Cafe, it was closed. Looked like it had been for a while.

“Never!” we both said, “Never will we trust the Lonely Planet’s info on Myanmar again!”

As we walked back to our hotel, taxi hawkers shouted at us on every corner, demanding to know where we were going. Near our hotel, a man we had also seen this morning emerged from a doorway somewhere and offered to rent us a motorbike for our own use. This is what we would already have done in Thailand, but in Mandalay that kind of thing seemed much more challenging. Even the bloggers at Travelfish, who I assumed were up for anything, cautioned “although we are personally experienced Southeast Asian scooter riders, we’d think twice about taking on some of the town’s busier streets … and bear in mind Mandalay's limited medical facilities.” At 15,000 kyat per day for an automatic (10,000 for a manual, which neither us knew how to operate … yet), we decided against it.

It was still early afternoon, but we plopped down in the air-conditioned lobby of our hotel feeling exhausted. The Wi-Fi remained virtually nonexistent. As Allison looked again at the shoddy over-Xeroxed map our hotel had provided us, which didn’t indicate any streets except the most major ones, tears began to well up in her eyes.

“I just need to look at a proper fucking map! If we can’t get online, there has to be somewhere were we can buy one.”

The girls behind the hotel desk told us there were a few bookstores in town and pointed us in the direction of one of Mandalay’s busiest market streets. They seemed a bit mystified, however, as to why we would want a different map than the terrible one we already had.

After wading through the stifling Mandalay heat and traffic for a half hour that felt like eternity, seeking refuge on shady patches of broken cement “sidewalk” whenever possible, at last we reached the bookstore. It was surprisingly large, and crowded, and seemed to be selling mostly Burmese textbooks of various kinds. I was feeling delirious and couldn’t really focus my eyes, but Allison was becoming increasingly tenacious in her quest.

“Map? Map! Map!” she kept pleading, pointing at our crumpled Xeroxed one, seemingly to no avail. At last someone understood her and brought out a large atlas-style book that seemed to be a topographical survey of the entire region.

“No … no … ah … Mandalay,” Allison was at a loss for words.

“Street map?” I offered.

This was met with an amused smile and a surprisingly resolute “no.”

“Other store … might have map?” Allison stammered. She was talking in stilted, broken English with an accent that mimicked the Burmese one, as if perhaps she would be better understood this way. Through a series of hand gestures we were made to understand that there were more bookstores on the next road.

None of them had a street map of Mandalay either.

“I’m starting to hate this city.” Allison, usually so positive, was getting fed up. “What kind of city doesn’t sell maps? I don’t feel welcome here.”

“I don’t think they really want people traveling around on their own,” I said. “They want you to hire a taxi for the day and do one of the tours—like the Ancient Cities Tour the hotel manager tried to sell us on the first night we were here.”

“I don’t know if I want to do that though. I like having our own motorbike and doing things at our own pace. Plus, it’s cheaper.” (This is always a big consideration for Allison.)

“I agree, I just don’t think Mandalay is set up for that.”

“I could figure it out on my own if I could get on the Internet,” Allison said stubbornly.

We agreed to walk over to a “Kiwi-run expat bar” named Hunter’s that we’d seen in the guidebook. It was only another half-hour away in the scorching sun.

As we turned the corner, I had a terrible thought:

“I bet you anything this place isn’t there anymore.”

I was kind of kidding when I said it, but after walking the length of the entire street (addresses in Mandalay don’t have numbers; they just say “between X and Y”), I knew it was true. I asked a Burmese guy on the corner, just to be sure.

“Hunter bar?” he said. “No. This place closed, maybe one year and a half ago.”

We trudged away, miserable in the mid-afternoon heat. On the way back to our leaky, smelly hotel, we spotted a fancier place—Unity Hotel—and took refuge in its air-conditioned restaurant. We ordered cold beers, a Caesar salad and a club sandwich with French fries, and—most importantly—logged onto the actually functioning Wi-Fi network. After each falling into an Instagram hole for a solid 20 minutes or so, we grudgingly admitted we had to make a plan for tomorrow.

Allison began her normal routine of poring over TripAdvisor and Travelfish and loading up Google Maps, but I could tell neither of our hearts were in it.

“You know what,” I said, “let’s just hire the taxi driver from the hotel. It’s not really that expensive. I’ll pay in dollars. It’s only 35 bucks. It’s the way you have to do it here. It’ll be fun. We’ll act like real tourists for a day.”

Back at the hotel, the manager seemed very pleased indeed that we were taking him up on his Ancient Cities taxi tour. He took off his glasses and smiled.

“My son, Min Min, will be your driver.” He was beaming.

I smiled too. When you travel in Asia, you are expected to play a role. If you're a white person from America or Europe, that role involves opening up your wallet and agreeing to a certain amount of THE THINGS TOURISTS DO. If you're a cab driver, you try relentlessly to rip these people off, charging double or triple what you would a local, then acting aggrieved if a foreigner balks at it. And if you're a hotel owner, you're somewhere in the middle—building trust with the wide-eyed, fat-pocketed guests and alerting them to the most noxious and predatory scams in town, while still getting them to buy things (tours, drinks, food, whatever) from your hotel, at a markup that's modest enough to be profitable without causing offense.

I bristle in a lot of situations, mainly when the rules or stakes aren't clear; but when the parameters are well defined and the version of the role life has cast me in (white, bearded male from America) appeals to me, I don't mind playing along with it. Having to spend thousands of kyat on a local cab ride that isn't worth nearly that much turns me into some kind of crazy, borderline-racist cheapskate, but after a few reassuring words from a fatherly hotel manager I'm soothed tremendously and begin imagining how fun it will be throw a few American dollars around and be pampered for a day...

"I HATE Trump!"

"I HATE Trump!"

"You want to go sunrise?"

"You want to go sunrise?"