Thursday, July 27, 2017

A trickle of foreigners follow the road to Mandalay

If the flow of Western expatriates filling Yangon’s bars, bakeries and beer stations can be described as a flood, then Mandalay is seeing just a trickle of the same.

A group of Westerners take part in water festival celebrations in Mandalay earlier this year. Photo: Phyo Wai KyawA group of Westerners take part in water festival celebrations in Mandalay earlier this year. Photo: Phyo Wai Kyaw

Long a magnet for Chinese businesspeople, the city is home to just a few dozen Western expatriates – barely a fraction of the thousands of Western teachers, businesspeople and NGO workers clustered in Myanmar’s largest city.

Mandalay’s Western community has a decidedly different flavour than Yangon’s. And since the advent of direct flights to Mandalay, many expats here say they have never bothered to visit Yangon.

The small expatriate community is spread throughout the city, with foreigners often living near the schools at which they teach. They keep in touch through a Facebook group, on which events and meetings at several Western-style bars that have sprung up in the last year are posted.

Natashia Curtis, a Canadian teacher who arrived in Mandalay in early 2012, said the city is a comfortable place to live despite lacking some modern conveniences and having few entertainment options.

With few foreigners in town, the community tends to be quite close-knit, she said. “It’s an easy place to live in, even though it’s a bit off the beaten track, a bit rustic,” she said.

“It’s easy to fall into life here.”

Ms Curtis and fellow teacher Vila Thach are the administrators of the “In the MandaLoop” Facebook page, which simplifies organising meet-ups and assists expats with answering questions and making local connections.

The group started with barely a dozen members last year as a way to keep in touch, as many foreigners taught at different schools and communication was difficult without mobile phones.

MandaLoop has since grown to 70 members, though far below similar expat groups such as the 1130 members for Yangon Connection Facebook group, and 2549 for the Yangon Expat Connection Google group.

It was difficult coordinating expat meet-ups before the Facebook group started and several recent expatriate-oriented restaurants opened their doors, Ms Curtis said. Until recently it had been “entirely possible” to live in Mandalay as an expat without meeting any other foreigners, particularly if not working at a school, she said. While the use of motorbikes means expats in Mandalay are relatively mobile, this also leads to them being spread throughout the city.

Lieutenant Colonel Thaung Zaw, director of Mandalay Region’s immigration and registration department, said the majority of Western expats in the city are employed as teachers.

Some 500 foreigners on business visas are registered with the city’s immigration department and allowed to work locally. Most are Chinese citizens.

As of last month, 25 Americans were registered, along with eight from the United Kingdom, and a handful of Australians, Europeans and Canadians, Lt Col Thaung Zaw said.

“The number is now growing as a result of the government’s reform strategy. More foreigners want to come to invest or work in a business,” he said.

Manager Thomas Linton pours a drink at Hunter’s Cafe and Bar on Mandalay’s 27th Street during a Halloween night in October. (Jeremy Mullins/The Myanmar Times)Manager Thomas Linton pours a drink at Hunter’s Cafe and Bar on Mandalay’s 27th Street during a Halloween night in October. (Jeremy Mullins/The Myanmar Times)

Mr Thach said that about six Mandalay schools presently hire Westerners as teachers, though many are located far from the traditional tourist haunts. This has meant expatriate life was just as likely to take place in the restaurants and beer stations of 35th Street as the tourist enclaves near the palace and the Indian quarter.

However, this is beginning to change, particularly as several Western-style establishments have opened their doors in recent months and become havens for thirsty foreigners.

Thomas Linton, manager at Hunter’s Cafe and Bar on 27th Street, said his establishment initially aimed to cater to the expat and tourist markets.

“I don’t want to deter people from having a Myanmar experience. Go and sit in the tea shops and the beer stations. But I’m here for when you need a break and [to] have your beef burger and glass of red wine,” he said.

Mr Linton has been living on and off in Myanmar since 1997 and the laid-back Mandalay lifestyle clearly appeals to him.

“I had a high-stress job and lifestyle in Darwin [Australia], earning a lot more money. But here you can chill out a little more, don’t have to worry about things so much,” he said. “Expats in Mandalay realise [they’re living in] one of the final frontiers.”

While Mr Linton initially figured business would come primarily from Westerners, he said he has been surprised the majority of his customers are Myanmar eager for a Western experience.

At Central Park restaurant, further down 27th Street, Wilbur Hong, a Myanmar national who has spent much of his life abroad, said he had not expected to draw so many expat customers when he opened his restaurant earlier this year.

However, a menu heavy on Western fare, a network of expat friends and listing on TripAdvisor all drive foreign business to his restaurant, he said. He estimates about 20 to 30 percent of his customers are foreigners, and almost two-thirds of these are Mandalay-based teachers.

Although attracted to the city’s slow pace and lack of traffic jams, Mr Hong conceded that Mandalay might not suit everyone.

“If expats are looking for a city lifestyle, than Mandalay might not be the right place for them. But if the expat is looking to enjoy local Burmese culture, Mandalay is the priority place,” he said.

The immigration department’s Lt Col Thaung Zaw said the city is keen to receive economic benefits from abroad, with the number of Western businesspeople slowly increasing.

“Westerners [who live in Mandalay] spend so much money,” he said.

The major headache for the department has come from foreigners who do not abide by visa regulations. A common example is attempting to work on a tourist visa. Unintentionally breaking this rule results in a polite request to cease working but a deliberate violation can result in deportation and the individual being placed on a blacklist and refused entry to Myanmar, he said.

Lt Col Thaung Zaw said that foreigners are sometimes heavy drinkers and misunderstandings do occasionally arise between Westerners and locals but the expat community generally receives a warm welcome from Mandalay residents. The city has introduced “Foreigner Care Teams” at the township and ward levels to assist in addressing issues.

While Lt Col Thaung Zaw said he believed the growth in expats the city has seen in recent years is likely to continue, there are questions over whether this is positive for Mandalay.

Some say that the city stands to benefit from the influx of expatriates, and the expertise and investment dollars they bring, while others say Mandalay could risk losing a bit of what makes it special.

“If everywhere looked the same, if Mandalay and Yangon looked the same, it’d be like everyone wearing the same t-shirt on a street,” said Mr Hong. “How would you feel?”