Myanmar represents one of the newest frontier markets, and is one I’ve been anxious to learn more about. Long isolated with a military regime, Myanmar has been undergoing a transition over the past few years. After five decades of military dictatorship, it is now under civilian rule. Thousands of political prisoners were released, economic and legal reforms were initiated and some societal restrictions were eased. The lifting of Western sanctions also helped drive stronger gross domestic product growth and foreign investment.
On my most recent visit to Myanmar this summer, I decided to start in the more remote city of Mandalay, which was the seat of the ancient kingdom. Mandalay has an incredible history, and I wanted to get a feel for how people outside the more major city of Yangon lived.
A poem English writer Rudyard Kipling published in 1890 put Mandalay on the map so to speak. The poem expressed the thoughts of a British soldier’s nostalgia for the place. Compared with the cold climates and social restrictions of the United Kingdom at the time, Southeast Asia was considered to be “exotic.”
Mandalay was the capital city of what was then called Burma, a British protectorate from 1885 to 1948. Kipling portrayed Burma as a place of beauty—not only the country but also its people. Kipling’s words have since reappeared a number of times in popular culture, including in the song, “On the Road to Mandalay,” which Frank Sinatra sung.
Kipling wasn’t the only Westerner enamored with the country. The beauty of Burma and its people also impressed George Orwell, who many know as the author of the novel “1984.” He also wrote a book called “Burmese Days,” first published in 1934.
Other places around the world have acquired the name “Mandalay” (including a casino in the United States) to suggest something exotic and beautiful.
Today Mandalay has a population of more than a million people, but still has a bustling small-town charm. An enormous walled and moated palace dominates the center of the city, evidence of its position as the last royal capital. Situated on the Irrawaddy River smack in the middle of Myanmar and about 700 kilometers from Yangon, Mandalay has been called the center of Burmese culture.