Anyone who visits Mandalay will surely notice the customised Jeeps driving everywhere – one of the most colourful and quirky things about this place.
Mandalay, in the centre of Myanmar, is a large urban and economic centre in the country, with a sprawling royal palace and stunning gold-plated Buddhas on display.
Seeing Jeep fan culture here seems so out of place. So why are they here?
The city of Mandalay
Mandalay is a smoggy, congested place. The city was thoroughly bombed during WW2, and as a result, it’s a relatively new city, rebuilt from the ground up.
There are some wonderful sights; the Mandalay Palace with its gigantic moat, Mahamuni Paya, and stunning gold-leafed buddha statues, a bustling and colourful jade market.
But for the most part, Mandalay is a city of broken up asphalt streets, choked highways, food vendors hawking bowls of rice on the side of the road, construction sites, weaving motorbikes and honking cars.
The Jeeps are locally built, not American military surplus
The Jeeps are locally built, and are not actually the American brand of Jeep (it’s just easier to call them a Jeep!). Nor are they, as I initially suspected, a relic from the second world war or some ex-military sell-off.
They were, however, inspired by those rough-and-tumble vehicles that proved so robust during the war years.
The car manufacturer that produced in Mandalay them closed shop in 2011, after a mere 12 years in business. The reason for going out of business? A brand new Myanmar Jeep could coast K15 million, whilst an overseas Jeep cost K10 million. They were expensive, and nobody imported them.
Thingyan water festival
Why have open-topped Jeeps survived? Let’s look at the Thingyan water festival.
The Thingyan water festival is a Buddhist festival celebrated in April, over 4 to 5 days, with the final day culminating in New Year.
The main feature of the festival is water throwing. When the signal is given on day 2, a cannon is fired, and the water throwing begins. There are usually ceremonial sprinklings of water.
For most people, a giant water fight erupts; people use water pistols to soak friends, family, even monks. And powerful water pipes are aimed at drenching people in jeeps and trucks.
And so, the open-topped Mandalay jeep is perfect for enjoying the water games on a hot day!
But, why are they in Mandalay specifically?
The Burmese company that made the jeeps closed quickly in 2011, after 12 years of business, when the country began to allow imports of foreign cars. The Burmese jeeps became too expensive, and they died out.
What it means is the ones left behind are becoming collector’s items. They come in all different colours, each one splattered with stickers and decals, making each one a unique find. A funny little facet of an already curious place.
In June/July 2012, Cindy and I had the privilege to explore Myanmar, a country whose doors to tourism were just beginning to creak open, allowing visitors to take a peek at some of the treasures inside. Myanmar blew me away as one of the most special countries i’d ever visited – I wrote about the country’s culture and spirit here.