Yangon. Golden temples, busy streets and a giant reclining buddha (the Chauk Htat Gyi Buddha which is 66 metres long). The capital of Myanmar rushes and bustles like most others, but it has a laid back charm.
When I visited last year it felt like a trip back in time even though it has already changed very much compared to 10 years ago. The first KFC opened just after I left but there is no real imprint of the west otherwise, which is so very rare. So much is done by hand, from making gold leaf to coat the buddha by hammer and with sheer strength and endurance, to silversmithing ornate detailed bowls.
The clack of the weavers loom is a familiar sound through open windows as they weave the longyi and htamein, traditional Burmese clothing, essentially skirts formed when a woven sheet approximately two metres long is wrapped around the lower body, the first for men and the second for women. Both are still commonly worn all across Myanmar. It is also common to make the cotton from the cotton balls which they grow themselves and then spin using spinning wheels.
The food of Myanmar is unique and very interesting. Influenced by the countries around it, chiefly China, Thailand and India, Myanmar absolutely has a flavour of its own, and lots of variations between regional cooking. Myanmar is very large and has a very long coastline but also a large interior. Parts are incredibly hot (hello Bagan with your beautiful but burning hot temples). The food adapts accordingly. There are lots of noodles, many mild curries, and rice features heavily, as rice, flour and noodles, in savoury food and desserts. The most favoured is the Shan cuisine (from Shan state). Shan noodles are a gorgeous rice noodle dish with chicken and peanuts, but Mohinga, a rice noodle and fish soup claims the title of national dish.
As with much of Asia, don’t neglect the food on the streets. Grab a small plastic stool at a tea stall and have a cup of Myanmar tea and lahpet thoke, a gorgeous pickled tea leaf salad with garlic, chilli, nuts and other bits like fried dried broad beans. It is sensational and so revivingly fresh in the muggy heat. There are many other salads which you should try including the vibrant gin thoke, a bright fresh salad of young shaved ginger. Tamarind leaf was in season when I visited, and the salad made with it was one of my favourite things to eat. Tiny winding tendrils, cheerful, fresh, bright and plentiful, wrapping themselves around the other ingredients greedily. There is also kaffir lime, tomato, noodle and potato salads. Try them all and report back to me, please!
The recent changes in leadership and government will see Myanmar open further and at speed, I am sure. This is a good thing. The people of Myanmar have little and work incredibly hard just to make ends meet. I hope it becomes easier for them. Myanmar has many resources which up until now, haven’t filtered down to the people. Education is limited and quality of life for many is poor. They deserve a lot better. So do tip generously, every little bit can do a lot. My visit to Myanmar really showed me how lucky we are, we have so much, and we have a responsibility to contribute as much as we can when we visit. It also showed me that we have become lost in our materialistic way of life, they have little but what they have they give back and they look after one another so very well.
I can’t wait to return, I hope that it can be soon. More posts to come on Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake. You can also look back at the Postcard from Myanmar that I published just after I visited. There is more info and lots more photos in there.
Shwedagon Pagoda and the Chauk Htat Gyi Buddha
The people in Myanmar were wonderful. So friendly and helpful. Very laid back.
The food, with the wonderful pickled tea leaf salad, lahpet thoke, in the bottom left corner
Bogyoke Aung San Market, with lots of laquerware (I couldn’t resist the tiffins), puppets, fabric, dressmakers, jewellery and food. It is a little touristy but it is still worth a visit.
Breakfast at the Sedona Hotel, a 5 star hotel in central Yangon where I stayed for the 2 nights of my visit. The breakfast buffet is large and varied, offering some local dishes with other pan Asian items (e.g. Sri Lankan beef curry, roti, miso soup, dim sum). There are western items too but I love an Asian breakfast, and so that is what I chose each time.