It's been two months since we departed Rangoon's airport, the sticky and humid air of Burma's previous capital - but it's the warmth of the people and memories of never-before-eaten dishes that have stuck around. In fact, I'm still glowing. Throughout our three month Southeast Asian adventure we spent a lot of time with other travelers spitting back and forth the following questions: "Where are you from?" "How long have been you traveling for?" "What's your itinerary been and where are you headed?" Swapping stories of the do's and don'ts of travel, insider secrets; that Pai is the new Chiang Mai, that Cambodia's beaches are a taste of what Thailand was like 20 years ago, and that Burma (Myanmar) is the must go-see-do travel destination of this year (decade?).
It's true, all the hype, it's a really special place, and there's a part of me that fears going back won't reproduce my first impressions, or perhaps the next time around it will be so different that I won't recognize it - luxury hotels, legitimate tourist buses and McDonalds. Frankly I couldn't spot Burma on a map before this trip, I knew nothing of their culinary history and I could vaguely rouse a recollection to Kipling's stories or my father pointing out Burmese puppets in Washington DC's Natural History Museum. Perhaps this ignorance aided in the creation of my internal responses, that I could be easily swooned one way or another; the slate was clean. But now looking back on those wonderful memories of Myanmar, I couldn't have imagined this trip without our two weeks there, which in hindsight was too little.
Burmese history more or less seems to have been confined to various history books, select writers, and the likes - not much reached outside its borders - but suddenly there is a flood gate opening, hope for the future in sight, a changing of the guard - the ruling military junta replaced by a president and the Union Government. While many things seem slow to change; political unrest still continues in the Kachin and Rakhine States, national telephone calls are rather expensive and few have cell phones, lack of Internet presence or outside media, etc., there is still much to be absorbed. Indian, Thai, Nepalese, Chinese influences and facial characteristics make up the assorted Burmese background. To this day, a meticulously preserved culture within each province all lends to a very different perception to the outsider - if they are allowed in - the people remain strong in diversity, even if the majority are wearing longyi of the Bamar.
Much like the multifarious facets of the Burmese people, its cuisine consists of a plethora of flavors (a river of flavors as author Naomi Duguid describes) with profiles such as: salty, bitter, sour, astringent, sweet and spicy (although not nearly as spicy as their Thai neighbors).
I'm in 100% agreement with Anthony Bourdain, when he said in a recent Reddit AMA chat that Burma has one of the most underrated cuisines of the world.
Buddhism, a way of life in Burma.
Shwedagon Temple by night. The most important religious structure in Burma.
Yangon River as dusk. Rangoon, Burma (Myanmar).
Decaying colony buildings, hot and humid temps, young people heading to university at Sule Pagoda.
All aboard! Agriculture is an enormous part of Burmese culture, tradition and lifestyle. More than 2/3 of the country's population is dedicated to this practice - therefore, you can bet that you'll always eat fresh, local, seasonally and dare I say organic food all the time!
Street market in Rangoon, Myanmar.
Freshly squeezed, sugar cane juice. Really, really fresh, maybe too much so, choose your vendor carefully - if they're are many customers that's a good sign, but also watch the ice that they are using, and if they are using gloves or sanitary means to extract the pulp from the cane, in theory the machine (which makes a lovely jingling sound as you walk through the streets of Yangon) should be able to pull the juice on its own.
Shan Htamin Chin. Yellow rice cakes with tomato sauce from 999 Shan Noodle House.
Dry rice noodles with peanuts, spring onions and sauteed pork. Street food stall in front of the Bogyoke Aung San Market, Yangon, Myanmar.
*Naomi Duguid recommends the coconut noodles at Osaka Noodle Shop (ask a taxi driver to take you there, be sure to arrange the price first).
Temple-yourself out in Bagan!
Much of what you'll find inside is well worth the trek and bike ride. Bagan, Myanmar.
Artichoke and gourd looking temples. Bagan, Burma.
Inside one temple, looking at another. Loved the detail of the windows.
And a closer look. Temples in Old Bagan, Myanmar.
Considering the small size of Nyaung U, smack between the Irrawaddy River and Old Bagan, there were a surprisingly large quantity of restaurants; ranging from tea houses, Irish pubs, a burger shack, pizza shops and traditional Burmese food. I was sensately interested in trying all things Burmese - their cuisine intrigued me so.
We lucked out with a few places and led a surprisingly easy to follow vegetarian diet during our 4 days in Nyaung U: a noontime rice meal with all you can eat 'toppings' options (sweet corn, fermented black bean, pennywort, curried vegetables, etc.), lunch at Moe Pyae San, and lots of tea stops.
Tofu curry stir-fry with rice. Bagan, Burma.
Fermented tea leaf salad (lahpet thoke) a Shan recipe at our favorite restaurant Moe Pyae San in Nyaung U, Bagan, Myanmar.
Special eggplant (aubergine) salad. Amazing! The Burmese really know how to balance textures and flavors. Smoky, roasted tastes of the eggplant, crunch of the cabbage and nuttiness of the peanuts and sesame.
I'll admit, the 'fried potato with chili' dish came from a desire to get something resembling patatas bravas. And while it certainly wasn't Spain, it did give that homey potato feeling.
Not straying so far from our Spanish roots, we opted for afternoon meriendas of tea, or started the day with a fried bread and tea breakfast. Tea house can be found throughout the dusty town of Nyaung U.
Tea time became a sacred ritual for us in Myanmar and a great way to immerse ourselves into local culture.
Google Maps isn't quite developed yet in Burma, however I recommend you rent a bike and cruise through the Nyaung U main road to find food spots that interest you. Don't miss the market environment, or the activity at the jetty (which isn't all that pretty, but gives an authentic look into many locals' lives).
Vegetarian Meals at Moe Pyae San
Recommended: Lime juice, all of their salads! (fried bean, pickled tea leaf, and aubergine were good picks), and tofu curry. The fried rice, fried noodle portions were extremely large, but not as tasty IMHO.
Look for the small "shack" with art work hanging inside near the May Kha Lar guesthouse; outside benches and inside seating available.
Warning: All meals will generally take between 15-25 to be served - which was no problem for us as we enjoyed the break from biking and temples - but goes to show the handmade nature and attention to detail. Family run business with limited English skills - point with precision (we had a of couple menu surprises...no biggie!).
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Market day and pagoda activities. Inle Lake, Myanmar.
Intha fisherman on Inle Lake, Myanmar.
Stupas of Inle Lake. Taung Tho Kyaung Pagoda. Burma.
Perched atop the estate.
Yes, there is wine in Myanmar - we couldn't believe it either, but there it was, Red Mountain Estates Vineyards.
A gorgeous trip through the countryside and well worthy views from the top. Red Mountain Estates Winery, Inle Lake, Burma.
Lemon salad (front) and tea leaf salad (back) served with pickled spicy veggies and fresh garlic and chilies; from the night stall that we visited every evening of our trip. We couldn't resist the deliciousness of the food, the amazing service and family dynamic (English speaking daughter took orders and charmed, the mother cooked, and the father was responsible for cleaning up).
Bulk dry foods, lentils, beans, tamarind and garlic (an very essential ingredient in Burmese cuisine and locally grown). Front right are to hpu gyauk, sun dried yellow tofu crackers for frying and snacking.
Shan tofu salad at a stall in the Nyaungshwe Central Market (Mingalar Zay), Nyaungshwe, Burma
*Also when in Myanmar, order 'mohinga' basically the national dish of Burma; thick rice noodles (or varying sizes), a fish stock with a dense consistency, boiled vegetables and fun crunchy toppings.
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