Wednesday 26 October 2016

A Burmese Adventure

Recently I spent a couple of weeks in Burma - now Myanmar - and was enchanted. Despite what they have endured, the people are warm, welcoming and courageous and now so full of hope. 

The countryside is dotted with pagodas, stupas and monasteries. Buddhist monks and nuns in flowing wine and pink robes are everywhere, an estimated 20,000 in Burma. At dawn, they walk through the streets with their alms bowls, collecting rice and offerings, a moving sight...

The women decorate their faces with a white paste made from the bark of the thanaka tree and many men wear the longhi, a long, skirt-like garment. 

Our adventure began in in the former capital, Yangon originally Rangoon. It’s now a bustling city of crazy contrasts as Myanmar takes its first tentative steps towards democracy.

Burmese food is an intriguing but unique melange of influences from neighbouring China, India and Thailand and some dishes that date back to British rule.

In my experience street food is where one gets the authentic taste of a country. And Yangon is ‘street food paradise’. The Burmese seem to snack all day long. Little street stalls offer a mesmerizing selection of kebabs, dumplings, pakoras, samosas, noodle and tofu dishes and beautifully prepared tropical fruits, ready to eat. 

Traditional Burmese teashops are very much part of the scene and provide more than a caffeinated kick, a variety of snacks as well as strong, sweet and sometimes spicy Burmese tea usually made with condensed milk. I particularly loved mohinga, a thick fish and shallot based soup with round rice noodles often eaten for breakfast and Shan noodles in a spicy tomato based stew. 

The Burmese salads are sensational, tomato, aubergine, green mango, bean, tamarind leaf, even fish cakes and samosas are chopped into salads, and a there's a fermented tea leaf salad with crunchy beans called laphet often served at the end of a meal, totally irresistible.  I ate them at every opportunity and everyone's version seemed to be different but delicious. 

People and there are millions of them, sit on tiny bright plastic stools, about a foot high, around equally tiny low tables, on the pavement, tucking into little snacks. Several stalls, we saw had a shallow bowl of broth in the centre surrounded by little bamboo skewers of pig offal, ear, snout, liver, tail, trotters... five or six customers sat around helping themselves to whatever choice pieces they fancied and were billed according to the number of empty skewers. 

In the late afternoon, we took a ‘sunset cruise’ on the Rangoon River, we were on quite a posh boat but there were lots of little timber skiffs drawing in their nets or ferrying people across to the other side. You could buy baskets of chickpea fritters to feed the seagulls somersaulting in the air to catch the treats.

Yangon’s most sacred and awe inspiring site is the incredible gold Shwedagon Temple that dominates the city skyline and attracts pilgrims from all over the world. Numerous Buddhas in different manifestations, many now with neon lights emanating from their heads – a rather disconcerting sight which the Burmese apparently love; nonetheless a visit in the early morning or late afternoon is a must...

Chinatown and 19th Street at night are another unforgettable experience. Millions of people eating all kinds of unmentionable and unrecognizable things in restaurants and on street stalls. 

Steaming bowls of dumplings and exotic Chinese delicacies including toasted grasshoppers. Durian are in season, a fruit that looks a bit like a dinosaur, smells utterly putrid but tastes sublime. There were also jackfruit and tons of water and honeydew melons, dragon fruit, cherimoya, mangosteen, rambutans, huge avocados and a fruit from Thailand I've never seen before with a scaly skin called snake fruit.

Our visit to Heho, coincided with the five day market so called because the market alternates between different towns every five days. The roads were crammed with covered wagons with frisky ponies, ancient tractors, homemade lorries with no cabs, motorbikes, tricycles and tuc tucs delivering both customers and produce. 

Lots of unfamiliar foods, vats of fermented fish gave a distinctly pungent smell, opium cakes, red rice and bean cakes and piles of tropical vegetables and fruit. I tasted several delicious little snacks, flakey pakoras and pennyworth tempura with a tamarind dip, and a couple of sticky rice confections. All this plus lots of complimentary green tea for a couple of kyats (the Myanmar currency).

Butchers selling every imaginable (and unimaginable) cut of meat and intestines, super fresh chicken and I mean super fresh, you choose your live chicken, they chop the head off there and then, pluck it, eviscerate and chop it up, hey presto, you choose what bits you want or take it all, no wonder it's so tough in most restaurants... 

We drove down the mountain through stunning countryside to Nyaungshwe and hopped onto a long tail boat to explore Lake Inle where the ethnic Intha people live in a totally sustainable way. They fish from flat bottomed skiffs with traditional conical nets and propel the boats with their leg wrapped around the oar in the distinctive leg rowing stance of the Intha people.

 In the 18th century, their ancestors fled from persecution in Thailand but the local Shan chief refused to grant them land rights so they built their houses on stilts on the edge of the lake and created ingenious floating gardens anchored to the lake bed with bamboo poles where they grow tons of tomatoes, gourds, cucumbers, squash, beans... The impressive fertility is maintained by composting and adding weed from the lake.

An excellent cooking class and lunch at the Heritage Restaurant on an island on the edge of Inle Lake, the food much of which came directly from their organic gardens was really good, I tasted the red tree ants, a local delicacy, very nutritious and delicious with a distinct lemony flavor.


The local Mingalar market in Nyaungshwe and others around the country give a glimpse that no guide book can, into local life. Apart from the artistically arranged produce there were lots of tiny hardware stalls with vernacular pots and pans and implements made from recycled tin, bamboo baskets and beautifully crafted handmade knives and tools from one of the Intha villages.

Here too, I found many unfamiliar foods, chickpea greens, squash tendrils, Burmese pennyworth, pigeon peas and  best of all, barbecued rice paddi rats which our guide told us are delicious with a beer or a glass of rice toddy...

Next, we were on the road to Mandalay, not quite as romantic and exotic a city as Rudyard Kipling’s poem conjured up but nonetheless, an exotic history. 

We took a boat up the river and from there we were brought to the site on ramshackle pony and carts, along a horrendously potholed road but it was worth it to see the extraordinary Bagaya Kyaung, a pagoda made of 1,000 teak trees and the 60 ft leaning Nan Myin Tower part of Bagyidaw’s now vanished palace complex.

Driving through the countryside is endlessly fascinating, oxen and here and there, a small tractor ploughing the fields.  Women with little conical bamboo hats winnowing or planting rice in the paddies, pigs and chickens snuffling for food by the roadside, ponds full of lilies and lotus flowers, water buffalos, stalls selling sugar cane juice, brightly coloured snacks, freshly picked vegetables, pan wrapped in betel leaves and lotto tickets. Watermelons piled high on the side of the road, lush tropical vegetation,  bamboo weaving workshops...

One of the highlights of our trip to Burma was a cruise on the Irrawaddy River. We boarded the beautiful teak Paukan boat from Sagaing.  

Exquisitely relaxing, just cruising along by the riverbank at a nice gentle pace, watching local farmers, tending their crops of peanuts, sesame and corn, the odd bullock cart laden with grass, fisherman in tiny timber boats fishing as their ancestors must have done in that area for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. 

Lots of little villages tucked in between the palm trees along the riverbank. Here too, the timber and bamboo houses are on stilts, the river floods every year covering the bank with rich silt that enhances the fertility of the soil so they can grow a variety of catch crops. We moored and clambered up the muddy bank to visit a little village where virtually everyone was involved in making clay water pots. 

Finally the temple town of Bagan, one of Burma’s most wondrous sites. Over 2,000 temples, shrines and stupas scattered over a 42 square km area. If you choose one special treat during your trip, take a balloon ride at dawn over the archeological site. It is totally magical and I don’t use that word lightly. Even for well-seasoned travellers, floating over the 11th and 12th century pagodas in the misty morning light is an unforgettable experience.  

There’s so much more to see in Burma now Myanmar. Go soon, some change is inevitable, I'm totally smitten and long to return.