Tuesday 6 October 2015

Myanmar (Burma) - Autumn 2015

The Myanmanese 
Tuesday, 29 September

Soon after booking our flights I very quickly realised how little I knew about Myanmar.  What do you call somebody who is from Myanmar?!  What do they even look like?  My ignorance upset me and so I did a little research.  Man Myanmar has had a difficult time.  Ruled by the Brits for 75 years before world war 2, then taken by Japan and after finally gaining independence was ruled under a horrible military dictatorship up until 2011.  Since then, the grip of dictatorship has been loosening and slowly the people of Myanmar have been given greater control over their country.  The end of 2013 is seen as when "the guns will go silent..." signifying the end of the worlds longest ever civil war.  Just 2 years after that, I find myself standing on dictator free Myanmar soil.  And what a pleasure it is to do so.

The Burmese people are beautiful, beautiful people.  Smiley, chatty and super friendly.  I have been conditioned through life to be dismissive of strangers that come and talk to me for no reason; because it is never for no reason.  In Myanmar, my dismissiveness is just a little rude.  People actually do just want to chat; see where you are going or recommend a place for you to visit.  "Go here for real Burma food" or "take taxi here it's cheaper" whilst poking at our map.

Colonial scars run deep.  Most signs are in English; Colonial buildings stand tall against old school local designs and the shades of Burmese skin run from a milk tea beige to dark chocolate brown.  This was all clear in our first jaunt around our hostel (Backpackers Myanmar - perfect stay for singles!).  With hostel map in hand we soaked up the sounds and culture of a very unique part of the world.  Within minutes we found ourselves, having read every website warning not to eat street food, sat at a Mohinger breakfast stall.  It was full of people on their way to work who have taken 5 minutes out to slurp up the National Dish of Myanmar.  Mohinger is a rice noodle bowl covered with fish soup, sprinkled with crunchy delights like deep fried sweet corn, and garlic and served with a wedge of lime.  Very light and sits warmly in a morning stomach.  This was also our first experience of Myanmar prices as a bowl of National Dish with two hot teas cost 300 kwat - the equivalent to 15p.  Fifteen pence!?  And there goes the record for the cheapest National Dish I have ever eaten.  Our morning stroll found us eating two more breakfasts, again off the side of the street, and again for ridiculously cheap.  Walking by so many busy street vendors temptation was just too much!  A bag of samosas, onion bhajis and other battered goodies were 25p and were fried fresh in front of you. And then only a few meters down from there the preparation of fresh naan breads grabbed onto our olfactory nerves and pulled us in for breakfast number 3.  With two small cups of super sweet chai, thickened with condensed milk, it was hard to say no.  And so the grand total for three breakfasts for two people including drinks cost us £1.30...  Myanmar is my kind of place!

With breakfast(s) out of the way we began our site seeing of Yangon.  We saw the dilapidated secretariat building (the first picture) during our breakfast tour and so our next stop was the immense Shwedagon Pagoda.  We took a 15 minute taxi there for £1, stored our socks and shoes for 5p and started walking up the steps, barefoot, towards the great Pagoda.  Shoulders and knees had to be covered and my long shorts were just about passable.  It was £3 (6000 kwat) to enter which, for only a second, sounded extortionate considering the morning we just had.  The Shwedagon Pagoda is seriously impressive and was packed with Burmese.  We had no idea about anything in there; the history, meanings of different statues, why people were doing what they were doing, and so we paid £5 for Lily - our personal tour guide.  Totally worth it as we learnt so much about what was going on.  We learnt that we were both Friday children (along with Barak Obama!) and got to pour water over the animal that symbolised friday.  Out of all the cool animals available like Tigers, Lions, Elephants and Dragons... I am a Guinea Pig; my pet when I was 6 and a delicacy in Peru.  I'm happy with that.  We pretty much planned the rest of our day using Lily's brain.  A visit to the enormous Reclining Buddha followed by an accidental visit to the zoo.  Lily told us of a park that had a great view of the pagoda.  Next door to that park is an old school Zoo that does not have such a brilliant view.

About three different people had recommended China town for our evening activity and dinner but it just didn't appeal.  I live in Beijing, the worlds largest China town!  We fancied the atmosphere so walked to it anyway and stopped at various street vendors for fuel.  Raw mango slices with chilli powder is an absolute revelation! Sweet, sour and hot your taste buds don't quite know what's going on on your first bite.  Deep fried sweet corn fritters with sweet chilli sauce is excellent too.  Our favourite was probably the Burmese take on a dosa; a thin rice flour pancake filled with vegetables and squirted with a spicy vinegar.  There was also a sweet version with sugar and coconut and so of course we had to order one of each.  We ended up taking a recommendation from another friendly stranger on the street who took us to find some proper Burmese curry.  Curry here is taaaasty!  Quite different to an Indian curry and it is difficult to put your finger on why.  For a start, it is certainly a lot oilier; Seriously flavoursome oil, but oily none the less.  Secondly, all the onions in the world can be found in one delicious bowl.  Blended, sliced and fried it makes up the bulk of the thick sweet sauce.  Finally and most importantly; they all have a slight but beautiful fish aroma.  This is from "Ngapi" paste, a fermented fish/shrimp paste which is a signature of Myanmar signed into most of their dishes.  If you haven't guessed, I'm a fan.  We popped our heads into a few restaurants but it was the chef that invited me into his kitchen that sold it to me.  He was in the middle of making a vat of glossy, deep brown prawn curry.  In a typical restaurant here it seems that curries aren't made to order, you eat what the chef has prepared.  Prawn curry, duck curry and rice it was then!  Two bowls of dhal (Lentil curry) and a shrimp chilli paste came free on the side.  Oh curry how I have missed you! 
We had a quick Myanmar beer at an all male "pub" where we noticed that though Burmese people are very smiley people, it's not a very pretty smile.  Everyone was chewing away on a local favourite "drug" which means the majority of Burmese men have ridiculously bad teeth.  It is the result of a favoured pass time in chewing "betel quid"; a lot like the Indian Pan in which the betel nut gives the chewer a small high not much different to a cup of coffee.  Except chewing betel nut causes oral cancer and rots your teeth whilst staining them a horrible dark red.  It also means, much like China, everybody on the street is spitting making everywhere look like a potential murder scene with the pavements splattered all over with red stains.  The slightly uglier side of a beautiful country.  The lovely Lily, our guide from earlier, insisted we reused our Shwedagon Pagoda tickets to go back at night time.  It didn't even cross my mind to go back but it was probably the best thing we did in Yangon!  Other than eat curry of course...  The pagoda looks awesome in the day but it is like a completely different attraction at night.  Still buzzing with people but at a much more chilled hum.  Turns out that when everything is covered in gold; shining a load of lights on it at night time makes it look amazing!  Over an hour of total relaxation in the worlds most beautiful pagoda concluded one heck of a day in Yangon.  Much needed as tomorrow morning we get on a 7 hour bus to the coast to experience a different side of Burma. 

Eating and drinking tea
Sunday, 4 October 

A beach to yourself is getting harder and harder to come by but this time of year on Ngwe Saung beach there are few distractions.  This can be a good or bad thing depending on what kind of holiday you are after.  I usually like to keep busy whilst travelling, seeing and doing everything the destination has to offer but sometimes life calls for some relaxation.  Or I got to have it my way in Yangon and so Becky gets to have it her way now!  The 7 hour journey over here gave a glimpse into Myanmar rural life; full of green landscapes and cheerful people.  Our stop off for lunch was at a typical Burmese road side cafe where you choose a few dishes to eat with a mound of rice and the traditional Burmese side salad.  Most restaurants we have visited have had this salad selection with a bowl of spicy sauce sitting on every table.  I presume it stays there all day and topped up and picked at throughout.  My chicken liver curry was thick and brimming with umami; again very oily but seriously tasty.

We are staying at Emerald Sea Resort in Ngwe Saung, set on a beautiful palm tree lined white sandy beach.  You are forced to relax as there is really not much else you can do!  Spa treatments cost £12 at its most expensive and the restaurant was decent with traditional and Western dishes.  Their Mohinger was only slightly in-superior to the street version and their curries were equally drowning in oil.  The fish curry in particular was delicious.  The only dish left on my list was Lahpet Thohk which disappointingly was not on the restaurants menu.  Considering we are here until we leave Myanmar this was a bit of a concern!  Until I asked the waiter where I could find such a dish and he got the chef to make it for me anyway.  Brilliant!  Lahpet is a pickled green tea salad which is one of the few dishes in the world to incorporate actual tea leaves to be eaten.  The pickled tea is mixed with fried peas, peanuts, crisp fried garlic, toasted sesame seeds and ground dried shrimp.  A good glug of sesame oil (it can't be Burmese without adding oil!), fish sauce and a squeeze of lime finishes it off.   Lahpet Thohk is the most popular version which adds in green chillies, tomatoes and shredded white cabbage.  It certainly isn't a healthy salad but I can see why it was second in line for the countries National Dish.  It is totally unique and both me and Becky love the taste.  We've ordered it three times already!

A short bike ride from our resort is a small village which makes for a nice change of scenery with little restaurants and shops along side street vendors, smiley people and playful children returning home from school.  Probably my favourite Burmese street food is deep fried battered goods.  We bought a selection of which the majority we could not work out what was encased in the crunch.  We didn't care because it was all delicious dipped in the spicy sweet and sour sauce.  The best were tiny brown shrimp that were mixed in the batter, poured onto a saucer and then slipped into the hot oil to make crunchy discs of shrimpy goodness.  Our days at Ngwe Saung pretty much played out as breakfast, beach, spa treatment, village, restaurant/bar, repeat.  I think my favourite part was the village!  We ate our final meal there at a seafood restaurant recommended by a man I got chatting to in the sea (things like this just happen in Myanmar!).  We ordered Burmese crab curry, prawn curry and barbecued squid; a seafood feast with drinks that cost less than £10 in all.  Not quite a Goan crab curry but delicious nonetheless!

Mohinger is a strong National Dish and people slurping away at a bowl can be found on every street in the morning; however, I believe there is a better contender in Lahpet Thoke.  You can get similar dishes to Mohinger in other countries but I have never tasted or seen anything like Lahpet Thoke.  They're both great put them both on there!  There's no rule against having two; the UK has ten!
5 days obviously does not really do Myanmar justice.  Especially when 3 of those days are spent on the beach!  But we got a snapshot of Burmese life and sampled the taster menu of their cuisine.  Not once did we fall sick and we ate off the street regularly.  I would happily come back for a longer, busier stint and really experience Burmese culture but for now it is goodbye to Myanmar.  We missed the North out completely and I hear great things about Inle Lake and Bagan putting Myanmar on the list of the very few countries that I will happily return to in the near future.  Even if it's just for the curry.  :o)

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