I am deep in jet lag and ache in most places, but my spirits are light after 9 days on the road. I went back to Asia just 10 days after I returned from Borneo (I know, I would have stayed in between but I just didn’t have the time). It was a short intense trip as I zipped around Myanmar (aka Burma) via Singapore, to experience the food culture there.
Myanmar, Burma? Well why the two names anyway, right? Which is correct? There are two theories for the Burma name, one that the British couldn’t pronounce Myanmar when they arrived in 1824 and so renamed it to Burma, the second that Burma relates closely to the name of the predominant Bamar tribe. There are 135 ethnic groups in Burma, Bamar form 68% followed by Shan at 9% so they are significant to the culture at large. Myanmar was the original name and it is the official name now so I will stick with that.
Side note – and I blame the jet lag – did you know that Ireland is actually called Eire (Ay-reh) in the Irish language? We have a similar reason for our name Ireland!
Tourism has only really taken off in Myanmar in recent years since democratic reform in 2011/12 after years of rule under a military government. What this means in terms of Myanmar as a travel destination is that after years of relatively closed borders, Myanmar is a country that is almost untouched by Western culture. Traditional dress is still common (men wear longyi and women wear htamein, similar long skirts that are tied differently).
The food is unique, influenced by neighbours China, India and a little of Thailand (I am sure this is more evident closer to the Thai borders, where I didn’t venture this time). Particulars? Salads are very special, my favourites were the ubiquitous Lahpet Thoke (a pickled tea leaf salad with nuts, beans, chilli and garlic) and Gin Thoke a powerhouse of a salad based predominantly on finely chopped young ginger. I was partial to their tomato salad too, often with tiny dried prawns. Tamarind leaf salad, seasonal while I was there, was a wonder, as were the luscious mangoes which were served at most meals as they too were in season. Curries are popular, although not so hot, as is Ngapi, burmese fish paste often found in dips for vegetables and as an ingredient in other dishes. There are soups (sour is popular) and noodles, and there are noodles in soups. Fresh fruit juices abound.
90% of the people of Myanmar are Theravada Buddhist, and it is expected that all males spend at least a week at one point in their lives as a monk. For this reason, you see many monks everywhere in Myanmar, from tiny initiates in pink dress, to novices in white, to monks of all ages in orange or burgundy robes. There are some nuns too, always in pink and orange.
Here is a brief look to start, lots more soon, with detail.
I started in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), just a day and night, but I had a half day before I flew out too. Enough time to fit in plenty of sightseeing and some good eating. It is rainy season right now, the plus side to that is there aren’t so many tourists at all. Bonus.
Next stop was Bagan, said to have 3122 temples and pagodas, many dating from over 1000 years ago. Flying in, the landscape is dimpled with them. From the ground, it is mesmerising. There isn’t much rain in Bagan, it was hot (very, very hot). Local farmers still farm the land with oxen and ploughs, winding between the temples. Cows graze nearby and goats somehow have enough energy to bound about.
Mandalay followed, a city but a small one, with several smaller cities around. U Bein Bridge, the worlds longest wooden bridge (made of teak) is just outside in Amarapura, right next to Mahagandayon Monastery, a large one with over a thousand monks who line up for lunch every day in lines, a lunch that it is possible to partake in as a visitor, in a different hall. Mandalay is famous for their silk longyis, often used for weddings. A trip to a weaver is an essential part of the trip. As is a trip to see local silversmiths and gold leaf being made, all by hand, or rather hammer. All of Myanmar is steeped in craft and skill, and traditional methods are prized and maintained.
Lake Inle was my final stop. We travelled by boat stopping off at monasteries and temples, Padaung tribe women with rings around their necks weaving fabrics and scarves. Dotted on the lake are fishermen who still fish the old way standing on the tip of their boat with their leg wrapped around the oar which they use to steer the boat through the reeds. They splash the lake surface to frighten the fish into either traditional bamboo cones or now more commonly nets.
More on Myanmar soon!