They say that traveling to Myanmar is to take a step back in time. A stark contrast to neighboring Thailand, a mildly unexplored frontier where you won't find (at least not yet) the conveniences of 7-Eleven or piled high Styrofoam to-go containers at street-side vendors. Instead, ceramic bowls and glasses, sprinted sit down meals of "mohinga" fish soup atop stout plastic stools or elongated chats uninterrupted by refilled table-side tea kettles remain the Myanmar norm.
In Rangoon, our shoes -- and ankles -- met the jagged and often dangerous concrete pavement slabs that protruded from the ground as if the city had been hit with numerous earthquakes and never recovered. From the hotel terrace it was evident that nearby colonial buildings have suffered great decomposition and were often ignored maintenance. Once in the countryside, we felt a similar sentiment of decay, as we struggled to meet face to face, or rather mouth to mouth, with the guidebook's expectation that the majority of Burmese spoke English (however their charm and cordial character still shone through). One thing is clear, regardless of the Myanmar state being a former British colony (following three Anglo-Burmese wars 1824-1885 and colonial rule until 1948), there is little left of this occupation; everything "British" is quite steadily in decline or has already passed on.
The one custom that we saw as a living and breathing reference to this country's turbulent past, was tea time. While it saddened us to think that this daily act may have been introduced by reluctant ruling colonists, it has since become a very Burmese act and expression of cultural identity -- not to say that tea wasn't already a part of Burmese culture, in fact the Burmese have a storied past of tea consumption in various forms, but that the colonials heavily increased production and also exportation figures. Today, throughout all corners of the country, a wandering soul can easily satisfy his thirst and hunger at a tea house, or "lapae yeah zein." Typically we witnessed groups of men, of varying ages, engaged in conversation, enthralled by Indian soap operas or soccer games, or those concluding business deals sealed with a payment of hundreds of bills delivered in clear plastic bags. It may be trite, but these little moments including hot sips of black tea with condensed milk (Burmese lah phet yay), while people watching and pondering the day's affairs, made our trip.
A cup of "lapea yea or laphet yay" Burmese tea. Sweets brought to the table and drinks for two about 3,000 kyats ($3.45 in December 2013).
A standard, no nonsense - and in my opinion charming - Burmese tea shop set-up. In this case, Golden Tea, specializing in certain Muslim recipes and run by a local family in Yangon's city center.
Golden Tea, located minutes from the Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon, Myanmar. We browsed and tasted some of their samplings: samosas, tea, curries, and pastries made from semolina flour.
Bo Soon Pat Street
A bit of a taller glass, Burmese / Myanmar tea made fresh and served table-side will cost roughly 300 kyats ($.50 in December 2013).
Important pieces to the Burmese tea shop experience; canned cream and condensed milk, large tea pots and a hot stove. As well as a seasoned professional pouring the goods - there appears to be some sort of ranking involved with who creates, pours and serves, cleans-up.
Inle Lake, Myanmar
If you find yourself in the little town of Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake, you'll be sure to spot a number of tea houses. In my personal opinion, avoid the Lonely Planet suggestions and use your gut to decipher which is the atmosphere that you're seeking out.
We frequented this cozy little joint, everyday of our 5 nights in Inle Lake - sometimes for lunch and other times for a snack.
1) The more of the kitchen and cooking process you can see the better.
2) Along with your tea, the servers will bring along many plates of appetizers (e.g. samosas, pastries, steamed buns). You are not obliged to eat them all, and will only be charged for the plates you eat from. If there is something you don't want, simply push the plate to the side of the table, they'll come and pick it up, or wait until you leave.
3) Help yourself to the collection of small tea cups and the Thermos-like tea pot on the table. It's also tea, just a very watered down Chinese green tea, and free. In any case, it's been boiled and safe to drink. Just wipe out the cup first to dry any water that might remain for the previous washing.
4) Breakfast (6:30am-9am) is a great time to see the local atmosphere of a tea house, and a cheap alternative to your hotel's offering. If your diet allows, start your day with a freshly poured cup of tea and Burmese fried snacks, similar to churros or donuts. Afternoon snack-time is also a good time for movement, but take note that most tea shops close around 4pm.
4) Thank you is "jee su beh".
Easy to Prepare Burmese Tea Recipe:
- Ceylon or Assam black tea; an English Breakfast blend will do just fine as well
- Condensed milk
- Fresh or canned evaporated milk (given the tropic temperatures, refrigeration, and available produce / wet markets most tea in Myanmar if served with milk uses canned varieties)
Bring a pot of water to almost boiling (195 degrees - 205 degrees) and steep tea 3-5 minutes until desired strength. Use roughly 3 teaspoons of tea leaves for each 16oz of water -- however, if you prefer stronger or less intense, increase or decrease the amount of tea, as opposed to dialing up the brew time.
Once your black tea is steeped and ready, blend in desired sweetness and creaminess via condensed milk (a 4oz cup is recommended 1/2 tablespoon) and evaporated milk or fresh cream (heated; 1/2 teaspoon per 4oz cup). For the true tea adventurer, combine all ingredients and pour into another receptacle, and back to the original pitcher or pot, in the same way a chai expert would blend the tea for consistency and uniformity of the flavors and sweetness.
Serve immediately and enjoy!
Other Myanmar Tea Links:
On Our Own Path: How to Get Tea Like A Local In Myanmar
Austin Bush Photography: Burmese Teashops
New York to Nomad: Not your cup of tea? Try again, the wonders of Burmese Tea Shops
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