Yangon highlights

It’s time to catch up and move on to posting about Thailand , but I still have many more little things to share about Yangon.  Here are some thoughts and highlights:

In a confusingly anachronistic, Vegasy way, the Buddhas at each of the compass points in Sule pagoda had bright chasing lights radiating out from their heads like some odd cross between halos and Christmas and pinball machines all mixed together. Very eye-catching, but it sort of detracted from the traditional and reverent feeling I associate with ancient places of worship.

Another aspect of the day that stood out was watching the worshippers toss cups of water or hand-bathe a different set of smaller idols  throughout the paya. I later saw a photo of Hillary Clinton doing the honors, as well. The statue you wash/worship is connected with your day of birth. I like that the day has importance in this religion.

The only meaning I have for my day of birth is the old British rhyme, “Monday’s child is fair of face…”

Less happy was encountering the women selling birds outside the pagoda. Tiny little finch-like birds were packed into a basket, which the women would roughly plunge their hands into to grab a bird and thrust it at you to purchase. Essentially, you got to buy the bird’s freedom as a good deed. They broke my heart, so I bought one and let it go immediately. I’ve read about people buying every bird in the basket and setting them all free, but the catch is that you’re just rewarding the evil bird lady, who will pocket the cash and immediately procure more birds to sell the next morning. Or possibly only 10 minutes later, which is what we realized when we walked a block away, and passed a frantically cheeping crate filled with these poor little things packed much more densely than in the basket.

But, for some perspective, now that I’ve seen where they live, maybe people here don’t have the means or the will to coddle their birds like I would.

We took a local train trip and made it into a tourist attraction for ourselves. There’s a 3 hour circular route around the city- the journey just takes you in a wide loop, and comes right back to the central station.

Three hours is a long time to sit on a hard wooden bench, but the exposure to greater Myanmar is priceless. Even though it’s technically a “city” train, it’s not long before you feel like you’re out in the country and seeing little villages on the outskirts of the tracks’ range. Those views are quite different from the center of Yangon, and make you realize anew that the city is not really representative of the country as a whole. The train itself is pretty interesting, too. It felt really rustic and sort of like I’d imagine a cattle car might be.

The interior of the train car was filthy, and people kept bringing on things like large cartons of eggs and crates of vegetables, so the flies were a bit of a challenge for a while. But mainly, we were really struck by the daily life of those around us, and the living conditions visible from the train tracks.  When you show up in a city, you can be fooled into thinking a place is more modern/urban than it really is.

Remember my post on the sidewalks in Ubud, Indonesia? Well, Yangon’s not much different.  And when it rains, you suddenly discover the reasoning behind all the little bits of brick and concrete that are laid out like stepping stones in front of each high curb. They are the only thing that will get you dryly over the moat that forms during the storms. I love how the dog is watching Kim traverse the lake in the second photo…

 

…now stay tuned for reports of our Thailand adventures!

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Karaweik Hall

We attended an amazing night of never-ending food and a lovely three hour cultural dance show at the Karaweik Hall floating barge restaurant. It’s located in a park with perfect views of the Shwedagon pagoda across the Kandawgyi Royal Lake. So, if you don’t already have reservations at the restaurant, you have to pay an entrance fee just to get in the park.

It seemed like a beautiful place, and if we’d known about it in advance, we probably would have arrived a little earlier to take advantage of the serenely landscaped greenery. Not to mention the impressive views of the barge itself.

The show began at the entrance where we were greeted by people in traditional and ornate costume, demonstrating Myanmar traditions.

The cultural dance show was made up of many short and colorful scenes of traditional Myanmar dance. It reminded me of the Balinese dance show I saw, but it was less stylized.  The end dance was a showcase representation of all 8 ethnicities in the country, and their traditional clothes and work.

The international buffet was terrific, if light on Burmese dishes. We got to sample things like:  green fish ball curry, coconut rice, Singapore style chicken curry, spicy papaya salad, Century old egg salad, yankee potato salad, glass noodle wood ear mushroom broth, a seafood terrine, various breads, roast chicken, Congee, Thai noodles, Taiwanese tofu and mustard greens, Traditional Myanmar tasting plates (coconut rice, butter beans, roasted chilies, cucumber salad,), nasi goreng, garlic butter prawns, sauteed fish, fried hokkein noodles (big round deliciousness), pumpkin soup, mutton with apple gravy, and others I can’t even remember.

Desserts included a delicious sago pudding with coconut sauce, an assortment of fancy little cakes, a coconut pancake crepe to go with ice cream, watermelon and other fruits, and little glutinous rice desserts with a sweet maple sauce.

I also ordered a “spy wine”, which turned out to be a Thai wine cooler. Who knew?

I loved that we got to taste a little of everything, and then head back up again over the course of 3 hours to get seconds of our favorite dishes.

 

We shoveled in as much as we could, but ultimately were defeated by the awesome power of the buffet.  Perhaps even more filling was the realization that at 20,000 kyat, ($24 – ten times the cost of our meal the first night in Yangon) this was a night that most Myanmar people could not indulge in. I really felt like one of the “haves” that night (especially after a very enlightening train trip we had taken earlier in the day). This wasn’t as high-class as, say, the opera, but it was a big event nonetheless.  We were treated like important people of means, instead of backpackers, and all because of our Western levels of disposable income.

I think I got a flavor for what it used to be like for foreign journalists on expense accounts in SE Asia in the old days. It just didn’t feel like real life to be taking part in such a relatively elite event. On the other hand, we were seated next to an enormous group who were celebrating a 1-year-old child’s birthday party, which included little boys running around and jumping on the side of the stage.

And at one point, I spotted a 6-year-old girl taking photos of the show with a DSLR with a fancy zoom lens that I certainly couldn’t afford. I thought at first that her parents were very trusting to let her hold a camera that valuable… until I looked back and saw her father walking up to her with an even pricier camera and realized that the one she was holding must be hers. Wow.  Everything is relative, right?

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Eating Yangon

Deciding that we really wanted to sample true Burmese food, we consulted several sources to find the most authentic restaurants to visit on our trip. The first night, we put ourselves in the hands of the locals and ended up at a little neighborhood place down the street from our hotel, at the hotelier’s recommendation.  Thanks, Ocean Pearl!

We had an excellent introduction to the country through our fried noodles with chicken and vegetables- only about 2,000 kyat (“chat”). The exchange rate is $1 = 840 kyat.  And there was no menu- the host/owner just walked up and politely told us in English that we could get fried noodles with chicken, or chicken noodle soup, or vegetables.

Someone brought us a free little table starter of (wet or oily?) peanuts with a separate dish of salt. Tasty. And the table very much enjoyed their Myanmar beers. They went well with the chewy savoury noodles.

The people who worked at the restaurant were really friendly and helpful. I got the impression that they don’t see a lot of Westerners, though they were certainly able to handle us, and thankfully spoke far more English than we spoke Burmese.

 

 

The next night, we hunted around the city for the restaurant that Kim ably researched- a highly recommended local place- Danubyu Daw Saw Yee. It was a plain, cafeteria-like place on 29th street, where we also had no menu, but a helpful waiter walked us in and showed us over to the pans of delectable food sitting out at the edge of the kitchen.

He explained what each dish was, and tried to answer our questions about the level of spice in each option.

 

We ended up choosing a very tasty chicken curry which tasted 100% differently from the other curry we ordered- a langoustine-looking “lobster” curry. It was easily one of the top 15 things I’ve every tasted.  The meal came with bowls of a spicy soup (that tasted like collard greens to me), plates of rice, and a shared plate of assorted veggies, including something leafy, some cucumber, some variety of mango, and some things I couldn’t possibly identify.

What a unique meal!

 

My lemon juice was a little on the savoury side, but very refreshing.  We were the only Westerners in the place when we arrived, but word must have gotten out to others, because two girls showed up (one from Florida, and one from Columbia) later into our dining experience, and they got to enjoy the feast, as well. But they live in Bangkok, so I’d almost consider them insiders.

The next dinner was equally wonderful, and the atmosphere was even better.

 

Kim found a place called “Feel Myanmar Food” which was on a random road (Pyidaunysu Yeikth street) with nothing else around it but about six other restaurants (including Mexican!) that were all lined up together on the same side of the street, with seating spilling over between them like a gigantic outdoor food court.

We sat inside in the cozy, lodge-feeling wooden interior and enjoyed another visual tour by a helpful waiter who pointed out and explained each pre-made dish sitting out in pans on warmers.

 

We chose the chicken curry, a lamb curry, a sweet corn dish- almost a pudding, and when a girl walked past carrying a tray of toasted golden buns, we quickly asked what they contained and ordered them. They turned out to not be buns at all, but a sort of smooth mashed potato casing surrounding yummy chicken, with a sweet, slightly tomato-ish sauce on the side. And, again, we had a spicy soup, plenty of rice, and a plate of greens. And free tea.

 

The cucumbers were a nice counterpoint to and relief from the curry, while the colorful green almost-lettuce was very herbal in flavor. Kim said the mango-looking thing tasted like soap, and there were other vegetable-like things which baffled me, yet again.

Still, excellent food all around, and so much variety! It’s so nice to get to try so many authentic Myanmar dishes, (like Yangon tapas) though I couldn’t tell you the real names of any of them, since we only ordered by pointing.

Which left us with only 1 known dish for our food goal in Myanmar- the elusive ohn no khao swe.

Thanaka face paint

Earlier I gave you a little teaser about the creamy yellow paint that many people (mostly women and children, but also some men) wear on their cheeks and to a lesser extent, noses, in Yangon. It’s called thanaka, and seems to be used mainly for sun protection but apparently can also be used against acne.

We quickly got used to seeing it on the faces around us and hadn’t thought much more about it until we stopped by the vast marketplace and found a young girl grinding the paste from small (3-5 inch) logs and selling the logs. She demonstrated it for us, adding water and grinding the wood against the stone plate (apparently called kyauk pyin) to make a watery paste.

She wanted to sell us some logs, but while we thanked her, we told her we would not be allowed to bring a piece of a tree back into our home country. That just won’t fly with customs.

Well, she offered to apply the paste she had just made for us to our faces so we could wear it for the day anyway! How sweet. I think she got as much of a kick out of it as we did.

And it was interesting to see how people reacted to us when we were wearing it.

Before, women would barely make eye contact (except that if we smiled sincerely at girls and women first, they would usually break into a huge smile in return), but once this thanaka was on my face, I got many spontaneous smiles and a few women even pointed us out to their friends.

With my skin color, it doesn’t seem to show up very well in photos, but people definitely noticed it and responded well to us in the street, becoming even more kind than they had been before. It made us feel really welcome.

It’s good to do as the Romans do.

We hung out with Monks!!!

We were minding our own business, spending the day at Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon. We’d been walking around this amazing golden stupa for a while, and it’s like the Grand Canyon- you have to look away for a bit before you look back again to appreciate it anew- it’s such an incredible sight. So, we decided to take a little break and sit off to the side, but within sight of the paya’s eye-catching golden top.

Within minutes, two monks walked over and asked if they could join us. Kim started talking to the older, teacher monk, while I got to hang out with the young “novice” monk.

My favorite moment of that day was listening to music on my iPod with the monk. I swear I didn’t corrupt him- he had told me that he’s “crazy for music” and mentioned Bon Jovi, Shakira, and Westlife were his favorites. I knew I had one Shakira song on my iPod, so I grabbed it from my bag, handed him the earpiece, and we set to listening together.  I played him some Stone Roses, too.

Mid-way through our conversation, the heavens broke open and unleashed a torrent of cooling summer rain, so the monks quickly guided us to a nearby prayer hall to stay dry. We sat with a bunch of other people in the shrine, discussing monky things and Buddhism until they had to leave for the novice’s daily lessons. It was an unexpected and magical 2 hours!

The thing is, monks have very clear rules about interacting with women. I’ve read that women can’t touch monks, and can’t even hand anything to them. You have to either put things down on the floor or hand them to a man who then gives them to the monk. When you sit, you shouldn’t sit above a monk or let your feet point towards a monk (or statues of Buddha). Few monks even made eye contact with me. So, I didn’t think we should have even been able to sit next to them, let alone talk with them. The whole experience was a happy surprise.

We gave them a donation which my monk said would go toward the “children without parents”, and in return, the teacher monk blessed both Kim and I. We each remarked later that we instantly felt a little lighter after the blessing, which included words about being free from worry. Alas, that feeling didn’t last long, but it was nice to feel for a time. And then to alert the spirits that we had done a good thing through giving our donation, we got to ring two enormous bells by hitting them with wooden staffs.

We also got to make a few new female friends, as well. As has occasionally happened to me in other Asian countries, we were watched by a small group of young women and then approached for a photo. I always like to turn the tables and get a photo of my own, so we got to pose about 6 times for shots on everyone’s cameras. I thought it was really sweet that they walked over and immediately put their arms through ours to pose. It’s always nice to meet new people and to be appreciated.   🙂

Paya

The pagodas here are called paya, and they are gorgeous. Myanmar Buddhists really know how to worship in style.

This country is heavily influenced by many of its neighbors, and I found that at the Shwedagon pagoda in particular, there were a few viewpoints that made me think of India, China, and Thailand.

This is such a large complex that you can spend hours wandering around and looking at all the small buildings, different views, and smallest details. You can really make a day of it. So, I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising to see that many people brought food to eat while at the pagoda, and that some people were even stretched out on the floors, sleeping.

We learned that people will often come to the temple and stay for the whole day, so they take time to eat and relax- even in the middle of a worship area.

The two main paya that we visited in Yangon were both set up as a series of worship spaces around a central dome. So, you can walk (clockwise) all around the paya, with beautiful views of an improbably gold and shining central dome and spire reaching far up into the sky, with prayer spaces at the 4 compass points and in between. And you get to see a lot of monks!

Apparently, some of the buildings have such a preponderance of Buddhas because so many have been donated over the years. It almost looks like they’re running out of places to put them.

Foreigners pay a special fee to get in, but we guessed that the locals come to worship for free, as it should be… plus, they give a lot in donations (and Buddhas) while there.

It was interesting to see so many different types of buildings/architecture in one place. Some structures were of wood, some were mirrored, some were golden, and some were white and stone-like- maybe marble?

If reports are true, Shwedagon is over 2,600 years old, which may make it the oldest pagoda in the world. With all that gold, it looks pretty new. It’s obviously well-cared for and carefully maintained.

Many of the buildings had fierce creatures outside them.  But this guy just made me think: “we’ve got a pepper baaaaar”.  The resemblance is uncanny… and creepy.  🙂

A nice cup of tea and a sit down

You might think that in such a far-flung foreign outpost as Myanmar that you might be without some of the comforts in life. That may be true, but you certainly don’t have to live without your tea.

We found an authentic (all locals) teashop near the market the other day, and decided this would be the perfect thing for the afternoon.

We didn’t know the proper procedure, so we simply walked up and directed a hopeful and questioning: “tea?” to the male server outside (these places all seem to be run by teenage boys).

He brought us in and seated us at a table with several little plates of goodies already on it. He then brought over another plate, with yet another variety of tasty treat, and served us up some strong, milky orange tea. I suspiciously asked the prices of everything on the plates. Most of the plates held more than one item.

 

It turns out that you pick out and eat whatever you want and at the end, you just pay for what you ate.  The tea was only 300 kyat, and each treat was 200-300.  ($1 will get you 840 kyat.)

This would never work in the US, because the food may just sit on the table through a series of diners (but you have to let that stuff go when you’re traveling).  We tried an almond cookie that looked like it might be chewy, but turned out to be similar in flavor and consistency to biscotti, though it looked like a real cookie (I’m going through cookie-withdrawal here).

And we tried this interesting pastry that was orange on top, and had a nice almond-ish paste in the middle. This would be my favorite. There was a mix of both sweet and savory treats on the plates, but we stuck with the sweets for that day.

(Photo: View from inside the tea shop)

As with many Asian sweets, the delicacy was only mildly sweet. I’ve noticed a tendency to use an otherwise savory or neutral base (beans, rice, nuts, bread, cream) to make the sweets.

 

So you rarely end up with that mouth-coating, pain-in-your-fillings rush of sugar like you do with many of my favorite US and UK desserts.

 

But, never fear- US treats are still available. Myanmar can be added to the list of places where you can find Oreos.  Seriously- I’ve yet to visit a country without them.

 

We may not be able to force democracy on all the countries of the world, but we’ve successfully gotten them all to accept Oreos.  🙂