100 Awesome Things in Beijing: Fat Sister’s Spicy Chongqing Noodles

This beef noodle soup will light your face on fire.
This beef noodle soup will light your face on fire.
Number 96: Fat Sister’s Chongqing Noodles

Okay, you guys, it turns out I do feel a little guilty for writing about a burger before writing about Chinese food, because the Chinese food here is a) damn good and b) totally different from what you can find in the States. You know why Calvin Trillin’s poem about running out of Chinese provinces from which to eat was so terrible? (In addition to being hideously offensive to Chinese people, I mean.) Because the US hasn’t even scratched the SURFACE on regional Chinese cuisine. When is the last time you had Yunnan pineapple rice or potatoes? Xinjiang naan and lamb? Guizhou noodles? That’s what I thought. SIT DOWN.

Anyway, the first few months here, I basically just went to restaurants and marveled at how little I actually knew about Chinese food, despite the fact that Chinese food was possibly my second most consumed cuisine in New York City. (The first was Mexican. The first is always Mexican.) Once that shock had subsided, and sometime after I learned that you never eat rice and noodles in the same meal, I began to wonder why, oh why, certain Chinese dishes haven’t gone super viral in my trend-obsessed home country. One of these dishes (or, rather, group of dishes) is Chongqing noodles. These noodles obliterate ramen in terms of deliciousness and therefore are ripe to command a similar cultish following that propels a boom of Chongqing noodle restaurants, from basic to fancy, in every city across America, preferably before I return to the States. (HINT HINT, capable chefs.)

Get in my belly, wanza mian.
Get in mah belly, wanza mian.
Chongqing noodles follow the pattern of a lot of Chinese noodles, which is to say they’re wheat noodles in sauce and/or soup, possibly gussied up with some meat or vegetables (I mean, I guess you could say this about literally any wheat noodle in the world, so this is entirely unhelpful). Most regions of China have their own take on niuroumian (beef noodle soup), and Chongqing is no exception — the version here is flooded with chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns, which give it a distinctive tingly heat that basically lights your face on fire. Rob is so addicted to the Chongqing niuroumian that he has been steadily eating his way across all of the Chongqing noodle joints in the land in an effort to try every bowl. I’m partial to a different Chongqing specialty, wanza mian, which combines starchy yellow peas with ground pork in oil that’s more ma (tingly) than la (spicy). Most Chongqing noodle joints add broth to this combo, but our favorite place, Pang Mei (which actually translates to Fat Sister, although I think someone has changed the English name to Decent Sister), gives you the option to eat these without soup, which is definitely the way to go. I’m a soup person, but the broth just dilutes the pepper hit.

Taking a REAL risk by deviating from my regular order.
Taking a REAL risk by deviating from my regular order with this shuang jiao ban mian.
Ah, Pang Mei. Every time we go there, which is at least twice per week, Rob says, “I’m not kidding, I think this is the best restaurant in the world” as if he is observing this for the first time. Sometimes he follows it up with, “I’m not kidding, these are the best dumplings I’ve ever had,” referring to the chao shou, or pork-stuffed wontons in spicy soup, that we occasionally order alongside our noodles when we’re feeling extra fat and sassy. Other than that, we don’t really deviate, or at least we didn’t until the other day, when I got up the nerve (okay, Rob forced me) to forgo the wanza and try the shuang jiao ban mian, which is a tangy and spicy dry noodle with green and red peppers. Also quite strong.

When we first came to Beijing, Pang Mei was a closet-sized cubby off of Xiang’er hutong — the kitchen was actually in a glorified closet. Unlike most restaurants here, there was no picture menu, so it took a lot of trial and error (and finally help from a Chinese-speaking friend) to nail down the things we like. (In this period, we also learned that lung is just a casual thing on the menu at most corner restaurants here.) And then it took even longer to realize that the kitchen was giving us foreigner-level spice (which is not very much spice) and learn the vocabulary to insist upon a very spicy bowl of noodles.

Motivation to learn to read.
Motivation to learn to read.
About the time we finally conquered our orders, Pang Mei closed its doors to “remodel,” which we learned when we tried to go one night and found ourselves gaping at a demolition zone behind a tarp. “It’s gone FOREVER!” we wept, because that is usually what “remodel” means in America, and frequently in China, too. Luckily, this is a happy story. It turns out Pang Mei was just expanding — it usurped the space next door and built a real kitchen, which caught on fire shortly after the restaurant reopened, and forced it to close again for a week (this was also upsetting).

Anyway, around the same time the place reopened, it must have done a TV show, because now Pang Mei is packed every time we go there, even if we go there at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday like jobless hobos. It also has photos of its eight most popular dishes hanging on the wall, which is a sure sign that it’s moving up its attempts to cater to foreigners (although, people still snap surreptitious cell phone photos of us every time we go, so apparently not a lot of foreigners have caught on).

Unfortunately, I think this onslaught of business has foiled our plan to hang out in the kitchen and learn how to make these noodles, so my new life goal is to make enough money to bankroll an outlet (or chain of outlets) of Fat Sister in America. Want to invest? Email me. I’m poor.

I’m counting down our 100 favorite things in Beijing. See what else we like here.

100 Awesome Things in Beijing: Great Leap Brewing and Its Cheeseburger

The very essence of America...in China.
The very essence of America…in China.
Number 98: The Great Leap Brewing cheeseburger

Why yes, it DOES feel a little wrong to write about a cheeseburger before writing about Chinese food in this countdown, now that you mention it. Be cool and roll with it. There is plenty of Chinese food to come. And I told you in the last post that the order here is arbitrary.

We didn’t even try to imagine how China would feel before we came to Beijing, but we would never have guessed that had we wanted to, we could have basically just lived our American lives here, but with more Chinese food. In fact, people who visit us keep asking us what we miss from home (presumably so they can bring us that thing as a gift), and other than reasonably priced Champagne and better coffee, I can’t think of a damn thing. And Beijing even has one American thing that’s better than that thing in America: the Great Leap cheeseburger.

Whoa, I realize those are Fighting Words, because how could China do a cheeseburger, the very essence of America, better than America? Well, gauntlet thrown, I guess: I was worried we had China goggles (i.e., this burger seems better because the competition is scrappy), but every time Rob is in the States, he says he thinks about this cheeseburger. (Also, true fact, I’ve eaten this burger twice this week.) (Also also, I think the owner of this place is from the US, so that helps.) Crucially, Great Leap is not trying to do a fancy burger — which is good, because I’m a sell on the hideously fancy burgers that have proliferated on American menus over the last decade — so no prime cuts of beef, expensive cheeses, caramelized onions, or whack-job ingredients go into the making of this thing. Rather, this is the platonic ideal of the classic (and I am a strong buy on the classic): Two thin, griddled patties, crisp-edged and juicy, are paved with gooey American cheese, stacked with crunchy dill pickles that cover the circumference of the burger, drizzled with a tangy special sauce, and served between toasted halves of a sesame seed bun. A friend insists that the power move here is to add bacon, but I fear modifications, because what if it isn’t as good?! I would be DEVASTATED. Because the effect of the original combo is so good, I always eat the thing as if I’m a snake — basically, I just shove it all in my mouth at once and swallow, and then it chills like a lump in my esophagus until I can wash it down with enough Cinnamon Rock Ale. (So graphic! If I still had an editor, they would tell me not to tell you that! But I write this blog and can do what I want!)

Another view. Right before I shoved the whole thing in my face.
Another view. Right before I shoved the whole thing in my face.
Number 97: Great Leap Brewing

Great Leap Brewing gets a separate entry on this list for a trio of reasons: the first is because that cheeseburger is only available at the Xingfu San Cun location (Great Leap #12), and if we’re just going for beers, we like the original hutong location (Great Leap #6), because that place feels like a light-strung backyard, an ideal place for sitting around and philosophizing wildly over too many brewskis. (The burger Great Leap, and the third sibling — pizza Great Leap #45 — feel more like typical American brewpubs, which is to say they’re decorated with exposed cement/brick walls, shiny tap fixtures, and a lot of dark wood.) (Also, I just learned, in the course of writing this blog post and having Rob edit it, why the Great Leaps are numbered so weirdly — it has to do with their street address! Of course! Numbering them according to some bizarre expansion plan obviously makes no sense!) (Just adding another parenthetical here for good measure.)

FullSizeRender (2)Second, Great Leap was the first craft brewery in Beijing, and it ushered in a brewery boom, the fruits of which we have been enjoying all year. Actually, we basically only drink at craft breweries at this point, which, to my earlier point about the not-foreign life that is possible here, is a lot like what we used to do in Colorado. I’m a lazy journalist these days, so I’m not going to write all about the history of Great Leap, but if you’re at all interested, I highly recommend this podcast with Great Leap owner Carl Setzer — it’s also an interesting look into doing business in China, which sounds hard.

And finally (and perhaps most obviously), Great Leap makes really good beer. We’re suckers for the aforementioned Cinnamon Rock, the Honey Ma Gold, the Dan Cong Dark, and the Liu the Brave Chai Stout, but we’ll also order whatever’s on the Sunday or Tuesday special, when pints are just 25 RMB.

The bar at Great Leap #12.
The bar at Great Leap #12.

I’m counting down our 100 favorite things in Beijing. See what else we like here.

100 Awesome Things in Beijing: Fabric Market and Tailor Edition

Some sweet finds at the fabric market.
Some sweet finds at the fabric market.
Over the weekend, one of our best friends here said, “For a blog about China you sure haven’t written much about China.” OKAY I KNOW. The truth is, I have been paralyzed with indecision about how to start, because we’ve lived here kind of a long time now, and a lot of things have happened, and it just seems sort of overwhelming to write 2,000 word blog posts about every single one of those things, you know? Thanks for being my therapist. I feel better.

In order to overcome my psychological issues, I’m gonna employ an old lifestyle journalism trick I like to call the countdown series. That is, I’m gonna write about my 100 favorite things in Beijing, counting down from 100 to 1. (These are actually in arbitrary order, listed as I think of them, as are all countdowns in lifestyle journalism. DO NOT tell anyone I let you in on that secret.)

Anyway. Number 100: The Muxiyuan fabric market
and Number 99: Fei Fei Tailor
Our friend Ami (who deserves her very own entry in this countdown because she has been integral in my enjoyment of life here) first took us to Muxiyuan last summer when she was looking to have a pair of shorts copied. As happens to me at all wholesale markets, I felt immediately overwhelmed to the point of despair: basically, Muxiyuan refers to at least a couple of disparate markets, each of which has rows and rows of stalls where people hawk all kinds of fabric, from boring old men’s shirt patterns to pettably soft jersey to brain vomit-y silks. I cannot discern a logic to where things are located in the market — it’s sort of just all mixed together — which means if you don’t buy a fabric when you first seize upon it, good luck ever finding it again. I have horrible commitment-phobia when it comes to picking out a bolt of material for a dress I will then have to conceptualize and describe to a tailor, so shopping like this sort of made me want to take an entire bottle of Xanax and then maybe lie down on the dusty, dusty cement for awhile. Luckily, Ami is an old pro who has a can-do attitude and a slate of favorite vendors, and she was nice enough to show us a jersey shop for tee-shirting needs, the best silk outlet, and a couple of places for wild prints (at one of those, we bought three meters of fabric that is covered in turtles that have burgers for shells). Then we walked through rows of buttons that were so sparkling I wanted to eat them (I don’t know), and petted all of the furs, which were hanging menacingly from racks, swinging in the wind.

Rob wearing his festive turtle burger shirt.
Rob wearing his festive turtle burger shirt.
A few months later (yes, months, I am that slow), I actually took some of my fabric to Fei Fei Tailor and had some bespoke dresses made. Fei Fei has been around for like three decades, and you can tell she is good because she is surrounded by a bunch of other shops that are also called Fei Fei and trying to profit off of her name. How does that old saying go? Blatant plagiarism is the highest form of flattery? (Actually, it’s entirely possible that she owns all of the shops, but I like to believe that I am going to the OG Fei Fei, who is superior to her imitators.) The important thing here is that she can turn out a brand new wardrobe for you, with some seriously nice stitching, in a matter of days.

The OG Fei Fei Tailor, on Xinyuan Jie.
The OG Fei Fei Tailor, on Xinyuan Jie.
I’d never had bespoke clothing made before, and so I cannot explain what happened in my brain when I slipped on my perfectly fitted royal blue silk shift, but it was a terrifying and electrifying sense of power and self-worth that I am somewhat ashamed and horrified to admit came from an article of clothing. But that’s what happened, and this year is all about soul-searching and self-discovery, and I have discovered that my soul is actually that simple.

Feeling powerful in a bespoke shift, that I immediately made my own when I shoved it in a backpack and wrinkled it horrifically.
Feeling powerful in a bespoke shift, that I immediately made my own when I shoved it in a backpack and wrinkled it horrifically.
Anyway, the fabric market-tailor one-two punch has become a full-blown addiction, despite the fact that the market is located about 100 years from the nearest subway. I no longer feel anything but true excitement about the idea of wandering the Muxiyuan labyrinth and looking for hot deals, which is a really surprising turnaround in attitude that I think underscores my personal growth here. Also, the vendors are great: They climb all over stuff and rip the fabric away from the bolts and occasionally ask you for extremely granular details about your height that turn out to have nothing to do with your purchase. One measured out shirt fabric for Rob and then turned to me and said, “This isn’t enough. He’s too tall and too fat.” Rob didn’t think that was very funny.

This woman climbed atop a pile of bolts to tear me off a sweet armadillo print.
This woman climbed atop a pile of bolts to tear me off a sweet armadillo print.
Pro tip for actual Beijingers or tourists that might want to give this place a shot but, like me, feel sort of overwhelmed: I have discovered that the best way to shop here is to think about a specific thing you might want to have made (I’m no designer, so usually I find a photo of a thing I like, or pattern something off of an article of clothing I already own) and then wander the rows looking for the right fabric for that thing. Buy when you see it, because unless you’re a diligent note taker, you’re possibly never going to see it again. Also, the turtle burger fabric shop is in the western market, along the western wall.

Why You Should Go to Bagan, Myanmar

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About a week ago, I told you about our trip to Yangon. In absolute record timing for an update on www.christenhunks.com, I’m now ready to tell you about Bagan. A day after landing in Myanmar, Rob, fellow Lucer Diana, and I went back to the airport to board our plane for Bagan. The domestic side of the Myanmar airport is significantly more…lax…than the international side. For example, this is what our ticket looked like:


And we did not have to show ID of any form to retrieve it. We just gave a lady our name, and she gave us a sticker and checked us off on a list, as if we were attending a neighborhood luncheon. Security was like old-school security — the kind where you leave your shoes on and your laptop secured in its bag, and you just walk through the possibly-not-on metal detector. Boarding the plane entailed some random dude shouting into the plastic seat-lined waiting room that anyone on Golden Myanmar that was going to Bagan should saddle up and ride (okay, he did not say saddle up and ride, but you get the idea). I am 78 percent sure that a couple of dudes snuck on our plane by loitering around the runway and waiting to see if there were any empty seats. There were empty seats, so they went to Bagan, because no one stopped them. (Excuse me, sir! Let me see your official sticker!)

All that aside, I recommend Golden Myanmar if you are flying around this country — the planes were brand new and felt like corporate jets, which allayed my fears of perishing in a fiery crash in a country that clearly does not take flight safety quite as seriously as I’m used to. Because everyone knows you can’t die in a corporate jet.

We booked a hotel in New Bagan called Thumbula, which is not notable in any way except as context for a story I’ll tell you in a little bit. Basically, the three of us crammed into a fluorescent-lit and linoleum-floored room that resembled a college dorm — Rob and me on the full-size, Diana on a little cot near the door. I heard a crash and a scream when I was in the bathroom, and I was legitimately worried that Rob had fallen off the tiny and probably-not-to-code balcony that was outside of our window. Turns out Diana’s bed had just collapsed.160208 09-14 - DSC_0010
That hotel did help us procure ebikes for the next day, which were to be our noble steeds for seeing the magnificent pagodas. For that is why you go to Bagan — to see pagodas.160208 09-46 - DSC_0021 160208 08-35 - DSC_1005-HDR 160208 19-53 - DSC_0161


Circa the 11th century, back in one of Myanmar’s many heydays, Bagan was a magnificent and massive city of wood structures that housed like a million people. Those people erected a bunch of pagodas from brick, which were basically neighborhood churches, probably jazzed up with a white or golden paint job. The wooden houses are long gone, but those pagodas still exist and are now just the faded color of earthenware. (Ah, yes, the classic earthenware comparison.)

But because there were so many pagodas, and because the topography of Bagan is fairly flat, you can look across the scrub brush-dotted plains and see dozens and dozens of little conical temple ruins. The quantity and scale is mind-boggling. So is the fact that you can interact with these thousands-of-years-old architectural wonders by climbing all over them. (Side note: that is changing. Rob says Myanmar closed a bunch of them to foot traffic like the week after we left.)160208 08-46 - DSC_1008-HDR

If you are fairly wealthy, or into blowing a lot of money on one morning, or possibly are about to propose to your significant other, I think the highlight of your trip is seeing this landscape from a hot air balloon, which lifts off at sunrise and gives you a stunning (I am guessing, because we did not go) and comprehensive aerial view of things. If you are kind of poor, or sort of frugal, then you are still doing something wrong if you do not go catch the sunrise, but you take it in from one of the larger temples instead.

After Diana and I went to bed, Rob apparently stayed up for a lot of hours and did a lot of research on which temple to go to for the best sunrise viewing, but I did not know this, so the next morning, when sunrise time was bearing down on us like a relentless herd of angry buffaloes, I panicked and asked the front desk woman for her recommendation, and then insisted to Rob that we should just go there.

“I mean, I did hours of research on this, and that one’s going to be packed with tourists, but that’s fine,” he said cheerfully. But it was late, and we needed to get somewhere quickly, so that became the plan, and the three of us rode there in silent rage, which distracted me from the fact that my ebike had no headlight and I was not wearing a helmet (“Sorry,” the renter had offered halfheartedly, while handing over my keys).160208 09-06 - DSC_0005

The temple was packed, but not so packed that we couldn’t find a peaceful spot and enjoy it. We camped out, took some photos of the luminescent landscape, oohed and ahhed about the hot air balloons bobbing serenely over the scene, and generally marveled about how awesome our lives are.  And then Rob pulled me in for a kiss and whispered softly into my ear, “I should’ve come alone.”

"I should have come alone." -Rob
“I should have come alone.” -Rob

And then Rob laughed and laughed.

We spent the rest of the morning cruising around to different temples on our bikes before having a lazy breakfast at our hotel and then a lazy lunch at a really great restaurant called Star Beam. It was here that I first discovered the simple Burmese salad that combines tomatoes, peanuts, and shredded chicken beneath cilantro, lime, and maybe a little sesame oil, but I hope to eat this combination many more times in my life.160208 10-11 - DSC_0027-HDR 160208 10-12 - DSC_0030

You can't tell from this angle, but the small child on the right had a very real looking pellet gun that he kept aiming at us. Charming.
You can’t tell from this angle, but the small child on the left had a very real looking pellet gun that he kept aiming at us. Namaste.
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Most of the rest of the day was about waiting around for sunset, so in between wandering around the ruins, we had a couple of beers overlooking the banks of the Irrawaddy River.  160208 17-35 - DSC_0072

Because Rob is constantly vigilant about skin health, we picked up some thanaka, which is what everyone in Myanmar (well, all the women and children), from Yangon to the most rural areas, wears as sunscreen and bug repellent. It’s made from a tree and you’re supposed to dampen it and then apply it like cream, forming two thick clown-like patches on your cheeks into which you can etch designs. (This is also how I apply blush. Am I doing it right?) A nice lady put some on us at one of the temples, and then because I’m a sucker, I forced Rob to buy it. We have a tub of it, untouched, if anyone wants a souvenir.    160208 16-56 - DSC_0059160208 16-56 - DSC_0058160208 17-13 - DSC_0067

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A fully restored major temple.

We also checked out a little lacquerware, fondling bowls admiringly while pretending like we knew what we were looking for in lacquerware.

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Diana buying a nice longyi at the base of a pagoda.

Too soon, it was time to cruise to our sunset viewing location, which was as far away from New Bagan as we could go. This was inconvenient because post-sunset, we planned to have dinner with a couple from San Francisco who we’d met in an airport lounge, and we’d given ourselves just 45 minutes from dusk to get home, shower, and link up with them. It became especially inconvenient, though, when Rob’s ecycle battery died in the sandy back trails of our last temple.

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Goat herd on the way to sunset.

We parked the bikes, saw the sunset with a giant French tourist group that was real possessive of the view, and then got to the task of solving the problem. After some panicked threats of poor decision-making — “Okay, we’ll just split up, and leave Rob here in this dark shady lot to wait for the new battery, while the others try to find their way home without navigational tools or a headlight” — we decided to just be late to dinner, which our new friends George and Marsha were extremely gracious about. In fact, they invited us to come to their hotel for drinks and dinner instead of bothering with trying to venue-hop in town.

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Plan shored up, a very nice Burmese man helped us negotiate a new battery from our rental shop, and once that was replaced, 45 minutes later, we just had to make the treacherous journey home, made more difficult by blind rage associated with not being able to see the road (oh, that was just me — did I mention my broken headlight?).

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Last Temple. It’s so pretty at night when you’re waiting for a new battery.

All’s well that ends well, though, and things ended well. From our dorm room, we hitched a “cab” (read: ride in the back of a pick-up truck) to George and Marsha’s hotel, which we knew was going to be a little different from our hotel the moment we turned down a quiet lane lined with street lights. (There were no other street lights in Bagan that I can remember.) After a few minutes, security checked us out suspiciously, possibly because of our mode of transportation, and then the road opened up into a massive compound filled with resort-y bungalows AND PRIVATE PAGODAS AND A TOWER. So basically the same as our hotel.

Aureum Pool looking over the private lit pagodas. I’d drink a manhattan here.

George and Marsha were having Manhattans poolside, because what else could you possibly do when your resort has private pagodas, and so we all had Manhattans poolside, and admired the private pagodas. (I know. I sound like a simple idiot. I really could not get over the private pagodas.) And then because they are the nicest people in the world, George and Marsha bought us dinner, including the round of Manhattans I tried to pay for, and gave us a tour of the tower, which probably had a better view than the hot air balloons, frankly, although I think it was sort of a controversial construction project because it is so not part of the historical feel of the rest of the landscape. Then they tucked us into a private car home. Which I tried to haggle over, because I’d had a couple of Manhattans and I was LIVID that the private car was going to charge us TWICE what the flatbed truck had (approximately $11, if you must know).

I guess if I want you to take anything away from this rambling story it’s that despite the emotional tumult of our day, Bagan is a stone-cold stunner (actually, it’s quite hot there — this is probably a poor descriptor), and you should go there immediately. But stay where George and Marsha stayed, which is called the Aureum. Or try to befriend your own George and Marsha in an airport lounge on the way to Myanmar. And save up for those hot air balloons. I’ll bet they’re worth it.

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Bagan is dirty. All those dusty paths.

In our next episode: Inle Lake.

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160208 16-55 - DSC_0055BONUS! A quick little pronunciation lesson, because basically the whole time we were in Myanmar, I felt like we were shamefully butchering words and mildly offending our hosts.

When I wrote about Yangon (the emPHAsis goes on the second syLABble, which is sort of in between a hard o and a not hard o — I think? I don’t know, I just watched a 15 second ad and then a six second clip on YouTube, and I’m still confused), I told you that Rob never really figured out how to say Schwedagon Pagoda, which everyone found entertaining enough to basically never help a brother out.

Here’s how you pronounce it: SHWEH-deh-gahn

The rest of the trip took us to Bagan, Inle Lake, Hpa-An, and Malawmyine. I know. Gazundheit.

Bagan: Buh-GAHN (as opposed to Bilbo Baggins or Pagan witches; the second is confusing because sometimes you see Bagan spelled Pagan)

Inle Lake: IN-lay (I still say this IN-luh all the time and feel mildly embarrassed, like when I realize I’ve had food in my teeth for four hours and no one has said anything because you’re all terrible people)

Hpa-An: Pah-AHN. You can sort of breathe that silent H at the beginning, or make the p a little softer.

Malawmyine: Mah-LAH-mee-eye-n (I just learned that one second ago — I avoided saying it for the entirety of our trip because I didn’t want to embarrass myself).

Myanmar: Life Travel Highlight, Yangon Edition

Monk on the street in downtown Yangon
Monk on the street in downtown Yangon

Alright, people. Here’s a recommendation for you: go to Myanmar. Like, for your next trip. Scrap whatever you were planning to do and book your tickets. It might be significantly more complicated than hopping over to a Mexican beach, but holy [emphatic expletive], it is worth the long flights, the logistical difficulty, and the potential gastrointestinal discomfort (we actually had very little of the latter, because thank you Pepto, but we hear ours is an uncommon experience).

Colonial Buidlings
Colonial Buidlings

Myanmar was highest on our list of places we wanted to visit this year (along with Mongolia, which, hopefully, we’ll still have opportunity to cross off, once it’s not, uh, frozen tundra), and it’s the only place we’ve been so far where I’ve had real, true, actual placement envy. I’m still pretty into China (someday, perhaps, you’ll hear all about why), but I experienced some fleeting but real jealousy toward the scholars who are spending their year in Yangon. Generally, this is because Myanmar is in the midst of a pretty fascinating historical moment — after decades of reclusive, autocratic rule, Myanmar is opening up to outside investment and influence. Like, there’s a super trendy Mexican restaurant there now. And also one of our cab drivers treated us to a windows-down ride while bumping some early 90s hip hop.Yangon Monk on the Street

More monumentally than those developments, the opposition under Aung San Suu Kyi (who won a Nobel Peace Prize and endured house arrest for a long ass time) gained control of government via elections last year, and the civil war that has been more or less raging since the fifties (or sixties? or earlier if you count all the warring under the Brits?) is abating, and a lot of the political exiles are finally getting the chance to return. The Luce scholars there have gotten to witness the resulting changes firsthand, and they say it’s been nuts — the city of Yangon, they say, has changed significantly, even in the few months they’ve been living there.

Government building where Gen. Aung San was killed. Closed as a silent monument since.
Government building where Gen. Aung San was killed. Closed as a silent monument since.

Aside from all that key moment junk, the country also has a fascinating history that’s developed over a couple of thousand years, and a wide diversity of climates and cultures that feel totally distinct from one another (this is also the crux of a lot of the internal strife). On a much more personal level, Burmese food is THE BEST. Fragrant curries, tart and bitter salads, beautifully crisped fish — we ate well, and on a cuisine that’s pretty unfamiliar in the States.

A week really isn’t enough to see Myanmar, even if you’re only doing the typical tourist circuit of Yangon – Bagan – Inle Lake. Our pace was even more psychotic because we did those things and then also glommed on to our friends’ excursion to Hpa-An at the end of the week. I could probably write 20,000 words about what we saw. Ain’t nobody got time for that. I’m gonna attempt to break this up into smaller posts, because I just really loved that trip so much, so right now, I’m just gonna cover Yangon.

Colonial Balconies.
Colonial Balconies.

Man, I wasn’t expecting Yangon to be such a CITY. I thought it would feel more like Phnom Penh — i.e., basically an overgrown village. NOPE. It has skyscrapers, decrepit colonial architecture, shiny new malls, a couple of lakes where the rich people live and do leisure activities (they’re pretty nice — the lakes, I mean, though I’m sure the people are alright, too), and the particular brand of ferocious traffic that is particular to southeast Asia. Public transportation, though, is mostly limited to the slow but charming (if you’re not running late to something, Rob) circular train where women sell pineapples to passengers, and some dilapidated buses that, from what