I previously wrote about if Myanmar (Burma) is safe to visit, but in this post I want to cover one specific city within Myanmar - Mandalay. Following the civil unrest brought about by the military regime in 2021 as well as the Rohingya genocide in the Rakhine state, it has gotten difficult to determine where exactly in Myanmar is safe. A bustling city, Mandalay is the second largest in all of Myanmar. But is Mandalay safe? After reading this post, you can decide if it is the right spot for your next adventure!
What is Happening in Myanmar?
Alright, let's start with the elephant in the room – the political situation. Myanmar, situated in Southeast Asia, has undergone some extreme changes in recent years. After decades of isolation due to military rule, the country opened up to tourism in 2012. Following this opening up, foreign tourists started flooding in and Myanmar expressed a goal of having 7.5 million new arrivals by 2020.
In 2016, there was a military crackdown targeting the Rohingya ethnic minority who are largely Muslim. This violent crisis forced many Rohingya to flee Myanmar and the affected areas (largely the Rakhine state) still sees violent crime targeting Muslims.
Fast forward to February of 2021 and Myanmar has yet again found itself embroiled in civil conflict. The Myanmar military decided that the results of the 2020 election were invalid and staged a coup. Even at the time of writing (January 2024), Myanmar remains under military rule and civilian armed groups continue to fight the military junta in various areas of the country.
That being said, Mandalay is one of the safest places to be in Myanmar.* I visited it myself in February 2023 and if you're wondering is Mandalay worth visiting, the answer is a resounding yes.
*The political situation changes daily and with short notice in Myanmar, so it's best to reach out to locals (you can find local guides in travel facebook groups or search the Myanmar hashtag on instagram to find people who have been there recently and who can connect you to locals) to get the most updated information.
Being in the loop about the current situation is wise, so stay informed through reliable sources.
Safety in the Heart of Mandalay
As of now, Mandalay remains untouched by armed conflict, so you don't have to worry about this affecting your safety. The locals are extremely friendly and will make your experience a warm one. Overall, they are always super excited to see foreigners and will often engage in conversation - you can find out a lot about Mandalay from speaking to the locals.
While walking around the streets of Mandalay, I generally felt pretty safe. However, the reception at my hotel warned me to be wary of petty theft and not to walk around with anything valuable out in the open. I took his words to heart and kept my money and phone hidden at all times, so I can't speak to how things would be different if I hadn't done this.
I was told by locals to avoid staying out past sunset, since it gets quite dark out. The street lights don't go on at night and there are sometimes packs of stray dogs roaming the street at night so it's best to be indoors. I accidentally stayed out past sunset on my first day and the streets were pitch black. This was the only time I felt scared in Mandalay because I couldn't see anything and it's just a very unnerving feeling not knowing what is hiding in your surroundings.
As with any travel, common sense is your best ally. Petty crime can happen, but by being street-smart and using common sense, you'll be able to navigate Mandalay's enchanting streets seamlessly.
Following Local Laws and Customs
Now, let's talk about the dos and don'ts, the unwritten guide to any destination. Mandalay, deeply rooted in a strict Buddhist culture, has its own set of local laws and customs. Make sure you dress modestly when exploring religious sites, are mindful of photography restrictions, and always take off your shoes when entering homes or sacred places. At most of the popular religious sites, you will see military enforcing the rules and you don't want to get on their bad side. Not to mention, it's just respectful to follow the customs and you should be doing this anywhere you go.
As you make your way to the popular tourist destinations, you will notice that there are many military check points along the route. From what I've heard, these can get pretty intimidating if you're on your own. I traveled with a local guide and highly recommend doing the same on your visit to Mandalay because they handle all of the talking at the military check points so you don't have to deal with it.
Navigating Transportation in Mandalay
Let's shift gears to transportation. Navigating Mandalay is a breeze. The most common ways of getting around are tuk tuks, motorbike, and hiring private taxi drivers. I explored both by motorbike and private taxi and felt completely safe despite knowing that I was traveling in a country experiencing civil unrest. I haven't taken tuk tuks in Mandalay, but I would imagine they are a similar level of safety, especially if you're in sticking to the tourist areas.
Regardless of your choice of transportation, the best way to keep yourself safe is to listen to your driver's recommendations. They know where all the safest areas are, so if they tell you that the safety situation of the route you have planned isn't great and you'll need a detour - listen to them!
Health and Safety Considerations
Now, let's address the health side of the equation. Tap water in Mandalay (really all of Myanmar) is not safe for drinking, so don't forget this while you're here or else you'll wind up with a stomach bug. Bottled water will be your best friend in Mandalay. Alternatively, a better option is to bring a reusable bottle with a good filter.
There are a lot of mosquitos around and even if you're like me and rarely get bitten by mosquitos, they will eat you alive out here! To prevent bites and mitigate the risk of contracting diseases carried by mosquitos, an easy fix is to rub fresh mint on you. A local taught me about this natural mosquito repellent and the mosquitos completely left me alone!
Mandalay's medical facilities might not always match Western standards, but they are sufficient for common ailments. It is also a good idea to pack a basic first aid kit, just in case because you never know. Even though it is mandatory to purchase the government medical insurance to enter the country, I also highly recommend having a travel health insurance on top of it as the government insurance doesn't really cover a lot. SafetyWing is my recommendation for travel health insurance as they cover a wide range of situations and even extend coverage to "risky" countries like Myanmar.
Eating Local Food in Mandalay
No exploration is complete without savoring the local cuisine and Mandalay's street food scene is a feast for the senses. However, if you aren't used to eating street food or maybe this is your first time in an Asian country and your body isn't used to food from the region, you might want to be a bit wary. At the very least, I'd recommend walking around with a bottle of Tums or some other form of calcium carbonate at the ready, just so you're prepared. And this isn't unique to Mandalay or Myanmar - a lot of westerners are plagued with stomach troubles when trying out street food in Asian countries for the first time. It just takes a bit of adjustment if you have a weaker stomach.
In Mandalay, you can dive into traditional Burmese dishes – from Mohinga (noodle soup) to Shan-style rice and noodles. Venture into the side streets, where local vendors dish out culinary delights that tantalize the taste buds. The food here is absolutely delicious and not something you want to miss out on!
Best Time to Visit Mandalay
Timing is everything, and the best time to visit Mandalay depends on your preferences. The monsoon season (late July to September) might bring rain, but it also gifts lush landscapes. Note that some tourist attractions like the U Bein bridge change appearance and may not even be accessible during rainy season. It is also important to acknowledge that there is a higher rate of dengue fever during the rainy season. To avoid mosquito bites, try not to expose your skin, especially in the grass, and wear a thin long-sleeved shirt for outdoor activities. Also use the mint tip from above to deter the mosquitos!
The cooler months provide a dry and comfortable experience. From October to January, the weather isn't very hot and the humidity is manageable. During this time of year it's popular to take a boat cruise along the Irrawaddy river.
March and April are typically Mandalay's hottest months. This time is marked by searing heat and minimal rain. This might sound miserable to most people, but personally I love hot weather and hate rain, so this would be my pick for a visit.
Staying Connected in Mandalay
In this digital age, staying connected is essential. Mandalay, like many parts of Myanmar, has made strides in improving internet connections. While you may not have the seamless connectivity of major cities, you'll find sufficient access for staying in touch with loved ones and sharing your Mandalay adventures on social media.
There are often scheduled power outages (courtesy of the military government) so you might find yourself unexpectedly cut off from the internet if you aren't prepared. Keep track of the scheduled outages by asking your hotel reception for the times. The schedule might vary from time to time but from what I experienced for the most part it stays the same.
Locals predominantly use WhatsApp to keep in touch, so make sure you have this app available if you are planning on utilizing a local guide to get around!
1. The official currency is the Burmese Kyat (MMK), and while credit cards are accepted in some establishments, it's wise to carry cash for smaller transactions. This should be common sense, but don't walk around with your money or wallet visible and only take your money out when in a shop and ready to pay.
2. Alert your friends and family of your Myanmar travel plans. Make sure that someone always knows where you are and is kept up to date with the current safety situation.
3. Take the necessary precautions with your safety and sign up for the STEP program with the U.S. Department of State (if you are American) or whatever your country's equivalent is. STEP is a free service that allows citizens to register their travel plans with the local U.S. embassy. This should really be done with any travel plans, not just when talking about Myanmar. If there is any urgent news that you should be made aware of, they will email you with it and, in case of emergency, will even contact you with info for an emergency evacuation if needed.
4. When it comes to dealing with military check points, let your local guide do the talking. If you're in a situation where you're traveling Mandalay alone without a guide, just do what the military officials ask and do not give any attitude. Make sure you are following local customs and not being disrespectful.
Mandalay is not merely a city; it's a destination full of history, culture, and genuine hospitality. From its iconic landmarks to hidden treasures, Mandalay invites you to unravel its stories, one experience at a time. Whether you're exploring the historic sites, savoring local flavors, or immersing yourself in the everyday life of Mandalay, every moment adds a layer to your travel narrative.
If you still find yourself questioning is Mandalay safe, reach out to locals and those who have been there recently to get the real inside scoop. It is definitely important to stay informed by reading and watching the news, however the key to deciding whether Mandalay is currently a safe place lies in firsthand accounts.
Do your due diligence and stay on the look out for insights into Mandalay's security situation, health considerations, and the best times to explore this captivating city!