Text by Will Meyrick
Burma: Myanmar, the country has such a mystique to it, spreading over five geographically diverse areas it has the most incredible culture and history, for years hidden behind a veil of secrecy. When the opportunity came to visit I was really prepared for everything, and yet nothing at all. From all reports the food was nothing special, but I was convinced things would be different, after all did those people really know where to look for good food? Given my experience of countries that had been run by the British I knew I had to look to the streets, and the first streets I was to discover were those in the capital of Yangon, formerly Rangoon.
The entire city is in a state of beautiful decay. Crumbling colonial buildings from the early 1900s, faded patinas, layers of grit and grime. The wires that criss-cross the street at lighting level look like the nests of hyperactive crows, and the buses that ferry the populace around lurch along the mud-streaked roads are awash with faces covered in turmeric powder that makes everyone look like an extra in a Japanese horror film. The main market – always the heartbeat of any Asian city – is a sea of green. Here you see faded wooden shutters, shadowed walls the colour of moss and mould, green-painted buildings, some six storeys high, and in between the buildings run dark alleyways flickering in shadows and light.
Yangon throws up a rich, bubbling melting pot of colours, cultures, races and ethnicities, faces from Malaysia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, China, Thailand, India ply trades associated with their ethnicity from gold, jewels and fabrics. The merchants of Southeast Asia have gathered with their different skin hues, sarong patterns, spices, flavours, nuances. Yangon is fascinatingly layered.
And in defiance of the suggestion that the food is not remarkable here in the market are the usual suspects of Southeast Asian cuisine. Piled high on plastic-covered tables are pungent dried river fish and shrimp, myriad chillies, bunches of bright green leaves tied together with rubber bands, betel leaves, sharp herbs, lots of dahl, fresh sambals, slabs of meat and the ubiquitous animal heads.
I am intrigued: this isolated country has forged its own culinary traditions that seem less about the neighbouring Thai cuisine and more about the Laotian flavours, and the hill tribe Hmongs, the Karen and the Shan that medleys with, rather than mixes with, a strongly Indian influenced selection of produce like okra, dahl, garam masala, pickled mango relishes, turmeric, cinnamon and, influenced by the northern border with China, there are subtle nods to the spices of star anise and Sichuan peppers. A lot of native leaves and regionally unique fresh herbs are used – the different varieties of water spinaches, the aquatic pennyworth, the local bamboos, a lot of the flavours are quite earthy, and subtle, and you can really taste the origins of either the water or the land.
It is easy to dive in; there are a huge variety of places to eat in Yangon. Burma has a social eating culture and teashops are hugely popular, but they are not just about tea. Early morning is the best place to see this big part of Myanmar life; they are a place to check in with the world, spend time with the family and they serve simple foods, noodles in the Myanmar ones, samosas in the Indian ones. One of the things that I did notice is the food is quite salty, this is about preservation more than taste, and another was a lot of vegetarian options. Burmese food is not heavily spiced, the way I anticipated, the essence of the cuisine is relatively simple. Many of the sauces are made with the same base, only switching the actual meats. I am not squeamish about eating meat while travelling, so as I was leaving, I swung by a food stall I’d been recommended by one of the locals I’d met a few days earlier – this is always when you get the best tips. It was tiny, serving up fare in a way similar to the Indonesian ‘padang’ style, with all the dishes pre-prepared and laid out, so you can pick and choose whatever you like the look of. It was packed with local office workers, gritty and busy. I selected the Bagan short rib beef curry – meltingly good chunks of meat falling of the bone in a rich, aromatic broth. This food stall summed up my impressions of Burma: rustic, but perfect in its simplicity although I knew I’d only just scratched one of its surfaces.
The whole set up is probably one of the most unique ‘from paddock to plate’ moments I’ve ever experienced.
Another entirely different surface to scratch is at the other end of the scale: The Strand Hotel. Aviet and Tigran Sarkie built the place in 1901, and it is an incredible, indelible landmark, distinctively colonial and smack bang on the riverfront. It certainly retains its allure; the opulence a complete contrast to the riotous chaos of the streets outside and the aura, allusions to its past residents, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham, certainly can be felt. There’s a very rare atmosphere here in the famed Strand Bar and you get the feeling you are sitting in a place where some really big adventures got started or perhaps ended with a long cool gin and tonic. The restaurant, Monsoon, doesn’t have the history but it has successfully created a high-end interpretation of Burmese cuisine in a cool atmosphere of colonial décor, high ceilings, rattan chairs and white cloth napkins that again makes the leap from the street more than a physical one.
Nightlife is pretty fluid in Yangon, it seems there is a new place on the up each week, and the trend is towards hotel nightlife. For women, drinking alcohol is not considered acceptable, so it really depends on who you are with if you want to check out those heaving street bars, known locally as ‘beer stations’. You get the picture!
From the chaotic heaving capital of Yangon, I traveled to Inle Lake to the mid-northwest on the edges of the Shan tribal lands. Inle Lake was another destination that I came to unprepared, and I believe to the benefit of my experience, sometimes you really do just have to wing it, all I really had was a camera and some vague notions so the lake was a revelation.
I started my day there, as the locals do at sunrise, which is about 4am. You do get the feel of somewhere in a completely different way if you see it before the busyness of the day begins. Wooden stilt-houses perch over the water, golden-spired temples cast shadows along the edges of the lake. Fishermen fill their buckets with flip flopping catches, their one-footed boating technique that loops one foot over the rudder making them look one legged at the prow of their boats with the cone-shaped net they use to haul fish from the lake taking up most of the space. Families were getting kids ready to head off to school by boat – how my kids would love this – and as the morning mist lifted I started to get a feel for the pulse of Burma.
Inle Lake is a floating, thriving, freshwater garden community and heaving market, all rolled into one rich ride. The hyacinth reeds that grow like wildfire in the water are collected by the local Intha people to create floating, artificial garden beds known as ‘kyun-hmaw’. These beds are anchored to the bottom of the lake with bamboo poles, not that hard when you realize it’s only about four metres deep, while the patchwork plots are all separated by maze-like canals for the boats to slide past. With everything from tomatoes, beans, cauliflower and fruit to flowers being grown on top of the water, it’s an ingenious, agricultural powerhouse. With the markets along the shore, they’ve got the growing, cooking, eating cycle down pat. The whole set up is probably one of the most unique ‘from paddock to plate’ moments I’ve ever experienced.
By sun-up the lake is getting busy with traffic as locals return with goods from the daily market that is hosted in different spots each day, while the chilly looking trekkers descending from Kalawstep shivering onto boats to visit cigar makers, weavers and paper makers, craftspeople who are tapping into this new tourist market, and in contrast you see the barely-clothed saffron-robed monks ferry placidly from monastery to monastery for daily prayers. It was these scenes of extraordinary ordinariness that were exactly what I was hoping for. The real deal.
Burma turned out to be so much more than I expected. The purity of the Burmese spirit is what comes through the strongest. Living from hand to mouth, day to day, having to drop the luxury of ego and being only about dealing with the necessities.
It made me think about my life in Bali, a place already becoming like a city—racing from one thing to the next, and with the new freedoms these things are starting to infiltrate Burma – the inevitable tourist commerce of the lake, pollution from nitrogen-based fertilisers to speed things up, instead of allowing time and space for things to grow naturally and other important things are getting left behind. The recipes. The stories. The rituals. I am reminded of my own journey … it’s why I first started travelling through Asia, it’s what brought me to Burma and by turn Burma brought me back to that place and reminded me of it.