Morning in Myanmar
Yes, the emerging political news is exciting, but so were the chili laced noodle soups that were part of every breakfast during my 2011 visit there.
The current news coverage is stirring up wonderful memories of what a fascinating, sometimes bizarre, place this is.
Formerly known as Burma, it is a genuine third world country, incongruously dotted with pure gold pagodas, some topped with priceless jewels.
The food is not why you go to Myanmar, but it is delicious, a cross between Thai and Indian flavors. Unlike peripatetic gourmet chefs who eat everything in sight, this normally intrepid eater was very careful to limit her menu to hot foods, avoiding anything room temperature other than in the hotels.
I loved the eggplant dishes and ubiquitous curries, especially the ones made with butterfish, a large smooth river fish which tastes a little like swordfish. Much to my surprise, I came across wines made in Myanmar, drinkable and an inexpensive alternative to the few pedestrian and pricy imports available.
One supposedly tasty treat I declined to sample was fermented tea leaves, a room temperature snack which looked and smelled about as appetizing as it sounds, particularly having seen buckets of it in the market swarming with flies.
Arriving in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) is a study in contrasts. On landing the first time, the third worldliness smacks you in the face. But returning there from an excursion north, to much more rural Bagan, felt like being back in civilization.
Internet and email usage are severely restricted (if you can get on at all), and I know some of my friends worried when I went email silent for several days while there. Credit cards are not accepted (most hotels have signs to that effect) and ATMs do not exist; you trade crisp $US for local currency, the newer the bill, the higher the exchange rate, and old bills aren’t accepted at all.
The culture shock is compounded by the strange traffic pattern of driving on the right in cars with the steering wheel on the right. This was explained by my tour guide: “When we got rid of the Brits, we changed the driving pattern immediately, but the cars, all used, still come from Japan” where they drive on the left.
On a totally non-culinary note, I was fascinated by cheroots, cigars made of tobacco and wood chips wrapped in corn husks, traditionally popular in Myanmar, although I only saw older people using them. It is rumored that the aroma permeates one’s skin, and this deters mosquitoes, but this may just be a dubious excuse for a questionable habit.
On another cultural note, I am surprised at the near absence of thanaka in the recent news photos (other than the April 4 page 4 photo in the New York Times) and as I was viewing the trailer for the The Lady, the new film about Aung San Suu Kyi. This astringent paste made of tree bark is ubiquitous in Myanmar, worn primarily by women as makeup, applied either in smears (as one might put on blusher) or in elaborate designs. There is even a thanaka museum where you can sample it. Any takers?
Bottom line, visiting Myanmar was a fabulous experience, but I would not recommend it without a good guide, given cultural, language, and logistical challenges. Absolute Travel (whom I used) http://www.absolutetravel.com/ is a great place to start.