Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Taste of Yangon

Upon arriving in Myanmar, knowing little of what to expect, Jimmy and I loaded up on cash at the airport ATMs, as we had heard that they were few and far between in the country.  That was the first misconception that was proven incorrect very quickly.  With Myanmar only recently relaxing from full-on military dictatorship to civilian rule in 2011, with foreign investment being such a recent concept, we found that much of the information out there about traveling in Myanmar is not necessarily false, but rapidly changing.

We were picked up from the airport, getting a quick tour of the city as we made our way to the hotel.  After checking in, we set out to nearby Sule Pagoda, passing colonial British buildings left to rot, six-story apartment buildings with satellite dishes perched on every corner, and dozens of street food stalls.  We entered the pagoda, a beautiful gold structure surrounded by smaller pagodas, images of the Buddha, and four pavilions with images of the Buddha with LED halos.  

Leaving the temple, we noticed some sort of protest going on in the adjacent park where the Independence Monument is located.  Mostly women, the protestors wore red shirts and chanted in the direction of a large white building across from the park which I can only assume is related to the government.   The park itself had blockages of wood wrapped in barbed wire haphazardly strewn around, not actually keeping anything in or out, but appeared to be some remnant of government force. 

We wandered down a major road perpendicular to the one we had come up as it grew dark, sitting down at a corner food stall for a bowl of soup typical of the local cuisine (and usually served for breakfast) - a fish brother with noodles and pieces of friend bread, costing us about 40 cents each.  We finished up the night by wandering to a pedestrian overpass, getting a great view of the lit up pagoda.

The following morning, we decided to ride the Yangon Circular Rail Line, which makes a 3 hour circuit around the city.  It was an interesting cultural experience as the train slowly ambled around town, locals hopping on and off on their way to and from home, work, and the market.  We spotted a number of teahouses around each of the stops, and various vendors selling snacks, especially unripened green mango dusted with a smokey chili powder.  We also passed by many more rural areas - fields with bamboo huts scattered about, some with little bridges to their doors over streams winding around and through the small communities.  We realized later that we had been seated in a tourist car (these having nicer seats and fans, instead of long benches stretching across either wall of the train car) that was segregated from the rest of the train, so we were a bit disappointed not to see all of the massive bundles of market goods people were hauling on and off the train! 

I was absolutely starving when we left the train, so we beelined to a small bakery near the station, getting our first taste of "chicken floss" - dried, shredded chicken, which topped a sweet, sauce-filled pastry.  They were bizarrely tasty!

That evening we ventured over to China Town, around 19th street, where masses of people moved between various street food stalls and sellers of fresh produce, fruits, and various types of seafood.  We walked down a long alleyway past a number of restaurants until we reached on towards the end with an impressive array of items available to be grilled, including some large prawns with massive front claws, and some tasty looking fish.  We settled on a pair of prawns, one fish, some rice, and beer, and we were seated at an outdoor table across from a local couple, who gave us smiles despite the language barrier.  The entire area was packed with locals, and runners and waiters dashed between tables and restaurants, as patrons made loud kissing noises to get their attention.  Older children usually took orders, while the younger ones wandered underfoot.  The entire street was a mass of organized chaos.  

While the prawns were a bit overdone, the fish couldn't have been prepared more perfectly.  Well-seasoned, crispy skin, and moist, tender, and flakey on the inside.  It tasted absolutely amazing, despite us being massively overcharged for it!  As we wandered back to the main road, we took our time checking out the vendors' wares and sampling some of the fresh fruit.  There I had my first taste of mangosteen (absolutely amazing) and durian (which tasted as bad as it smells, which is like warm garbage). 

The next day, we visited the absolutely stunning Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most revered Buddhist sites in Myanmar, just before sundown, catching the low afternoon light and a nice, cool breeze.  The structure itself was absolutely incredible.  We took an elevator up to the 'ground floor', where we could easily spy the massive 326 foot central golden pagoda, nestled amongst dozens of smaller pagodas, some of which were fairly large in their own right.  

We had not even made a full circumference when a young monk in his twenties ushered me over for a chat.  Jimmy joined us as he told us about his life as a monk, which he had begun at the age of 5, including the five tenants he had to maintain and his family's decision to not send his two young nephews to the monastery to fulfill the typical one year of service.  After it had grown dark, he led us to a corner of the pavilion where we could stand in various spots to see different colors shining off of a large diamond set into the very top of the pagoda.  Then he bid us farewell, with an invitation to visit him at his monastery if we ever wished to do so.  

We continued exploring the pavilion on our own - the darkness had made the gold of the pagoda even more brilliant as it was lit up by various spotlights, but the flashing multicolor LED halos around the heads of the Buddha images surrounding the pagoda were a bit much!  Various points around the pavilion corresponded to specific days (and even times of the day), where people would leave offerings based on the day of the week and the time of day in which they were born.  I was stopped in my wanderings by a much older monk, teeth stained a deep red from betel juice, who spoke excellent English and was eager to share his frustrations about the government, being very cynical about the recent progress that had been made.  He had actually been a banker most of his life, only becoming a monk six years prior because he "was old and had no family".  He was concerned about the widening education gap, as well as the governments alignment with China.  His story was fascinating to hear, even if it was a bit pessimistic, and I had to wonder exactly how much he had seen and been through in his lifetime in this country.  His one bit of optimism was, "now, the world is watching", and one can only hope that progress continues to be made.

On our final full day in the city, we decided to explore a local central park - Kan Daw Gyi Nature Park - during the day.  Our taxi dropped us near a bizarre six story building that looked like a large fake rock without windows (and a large light-up sign at the top that said, "Utopia").  As odd as it was, we were able to take an elevator to the roof and (for a small fee) get an excellent view of the park, including the lake and a massive concrete replica of a royal barge (which currently houses a buffet restaurant), with huge golden dragon-like creatures alongside either side.  We returned to wander around the lake, passing dozens of local couples sitting on park benches, snuggling under umbrellas, flowering trees of yellow and orange, and a pool of what looked like lilypads, but containing gorgeous lotus flowers.

After we had had enough of the park, we took a quick taxi ride to Bogyoke Market, where we had a quick bite to eat and perused the handicrafts and jade options before getting an iced coffee and walking back to the hotel for a siesta.

Our final activity in Yangon was a food tour that Jimmy had found online.  We were picked up from our hotel promptly at 6 that evening by our guide Leo.  Our first stop was King Tea House, where we tasted Shan noodles (rich, almost buttery) with chicken, from the northern region of Myanmar, as well as a bowl of chicken broth and a couple of meat buns - one pork and one chicken.  Also bizarre about this particular restaurant - all the waitresses were TINY!! - most of them were my height when I was sitting down!  

Our next stop was for "curries and rice" - here we were given a fish soup, a plate of green mango, cucumbers, and a pickled green vegetable to dip in a spicy fish sauce, a plate of rice, and three accompanying dishes - a pork curry, a dried beef dish (like shredded jerky), and a pennywort salad with garlic, onion, and spices.  The pennywort salad in particular was phenomenal, and we were told that this food was typical of the Bagan region.  

At our third stop, the food was unfortunately a bit too spicy for my palate (Jimmy, on the other hand, was in heaven). We were served a soup with noodles and chicken, a spicy papaya salad, and an odd looking dish of grayish, pours sliced egg (it tasted just like hard boiled egg) with a spicy tamarind sauce.

The fourth stop took us to a restaurant with plenty of air conditioning and some great plates of food that weren't too spicy (to Jimmy's dismay).  We were served an omelet with mushrooms and fresh herbs, followed by shredded beef with raw garlic and fresh cilantro, then a mashed potato dish with a gummy texture.  We finished off the night with a visit to a street corner juice stand, chatting with Leo as we sipped fresh, cold beverages.  

The following day we would start our "side trip" over to Kinpun, in search of the Golden Rock...  

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