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).
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.
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.
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.
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 we hear, were shipped in from Japan and Korea and bought up by private operators, who just yell the general direction they’re going when they pick people up. Helpful.
Our main sight highlight was the Shwedagon Pagoda (which Rob still hasn’t learned how to pronounce – schweaty dragon? Shweee diggony?), a gleaming golden temple that’s hard to look at in the direct sunlight (seriously, I think you could probably go blind).
I liked the sassy haloed deities and the birthday corners, where I think you’re supposed to wash some stuff to bring yourself luck. I’m sorry that this is the most technical explanation I can provide of a key religious site. Anyway, the day of the week on which you’re born is very important in Myanmar — our friends Paul and Lanier said their Burmese teachers were horrified when one of them didn’t know their day. I was born on a Tuesday and so was, fun fact, Aung San Suu Kyi. So my birthday corner has a video camera so that the nation can watch her do her ritual thingies when she visits.
Also: Rob wore his turtle burger shirt to this key religious monument, and learned how to tie a longyi, which is basically a long skirt that everyone hangs out in. He wore it for the rest of the trip, and the Myanmar people we encountered thought that was pretty rad.
Paul gave us a tour of some of the old streets, which are lined with colorful colonial apartment buildings, and walked us by the old Secretariat building, which is this grand structure that once housed the colonial government. It was the center of official business in Myanmar, too, but then Aung San (father of the current leader and a key figure in Myanmar politics) was assassinated there, so it’s been empty and closed for years. Tragic.
Other than that, we mostly had fun hanging out with Paul, Lanier, Diana (another Lucer who joined us on this trip), and Sandy, one of my old friends from Claremont. Sandy now has arguably the most interesting job of everyone we went to school with, which is to introduce the people of Myanmar to Coca-Cola, which wasn’t there until about three years ago. Now you can buy even a Coke Zero, which Rob fiends after in China, in the most remote corners of the country. I find this incredible. They took us to a really happening party at the French Alliance, where we all stood around in a courtyard drinking beer while a DJ tried to make us dance. This is like everywhere we go in Brooklyn.
Oh, also, we ate. Did I mention the food is incredible? Oh, yes? Okay. Night one, we hit a Kachin restaurant called Jinghpaw Myay. Kachin is the northernmost part of Myanmar, and it’s a part of the country still embroiled in fighting. The people there are from a different ethnic group, and they’re mostly Christian. Highlights included a pounded beef with some ginger and chilies, rice with chicken (apparently, this is called shat jam, a name that makes me giggle like a ten-year-old boy), and mashed potatoes. THOSE POTATOES, THOUGH. I don’t know exactly what the kitchen was putting IN the mashed potatoes, but I do know there were crispy shallots on top, and that they tasted like happiness and food comas. We ordered five platters for like eight people. I was gunning for a sixth, but someone else, thankfully, took the wheel away from me. The server at this restaurant also taught us an incredibly valuable life lesson, which is that beer bottles have a handy little lip on the mouth, and if you place that lip on the rim of the glass and pour slowly, you get a perfect, head-less pour of beer. I mean, a decade in the restaurant industry, and I feel like my world was turned upside down with that knowledge drop.
A little gun shy about the most popular Burmese restaurant in town (the Rangoon Teahouse), Lanier took us to a bomb-ass alternative, a Burmese joint called Khaing Khaing Kyaw, where you walked around what looked to me like basically a buffet and ordered the highlight tour of dishes. Which is to say, tea leaf salad, bean salad, about a half dozen other seriously excellent salads, rich beef curry, fish curry, griddled prawns, sautéed veggies, a impulse-purchase bowl of mohinga (more on mohinga in a second), and then some sugary treats.
And finally, on our last day in town, Paul took us to get some street samosas and then a bowl of mohinga, which is like a fish noodle soup that everyone eats for breakfast. I’m a strong buy on the morning time noodle soups, so I thought mohinga was genius. My favorite line about it, though, comes from another Lucer, Lauren, who apparently took one bite and then said, “I’m sorry, but I really hate this.” A polarizing food stuff, to be sure, but the restaurant selling it was a gem: the whole neighborhood was sitting around, watching each other’s kids run around, yelling for more mohinga and tea, and reading the papers.
And we ate Mexican food, hoping it would be hilarious, but it was actually good. Good Mexican food is everywhere, you guys, everywhere. Place was called Tin Tin, if you need a fix when you’re in Yangon, and they make some decent margaritas and nachos. Think we missed the boat, though, on not going to a place called Sai’s, which apparently does Mexican and Shan (another Myanmar cuisine) FUSION. Reason to go back to Myanmar, I say.
Okay, over and out on this missive. I’ll get to Bagan, Inle, and Hpa-An soon!