Monday, May 24, 2010


YANGON (Burma)

(December 2008)

     The first sign that something’s different here is the time—Myanmar (still called Burma by many) is 30 minutes behind its neighbor Thailand. But the airport and the drive into town were surprisingly unsurprising. The road was good. We passed large homes, office buildings, and schools, painted white with plants in front. A few billboards showed happy consumers using soap or shampoo like anywhere else.
     When we reached downtown Yangon my first reaction was a mixture of horror and fascination, like seeing an accident on the highway—you don’t know whether to look or turn away. The pavement is broken into so many little pieces that walking down the street is like crossing a stream, hopping from rock to rock. Once-lovely colonial buildings are abandoned, grimy and crumbling. Sidewalks are clogged with vendors of cheap merchandise from China, bits of hardware, or fried crickets. Food stalls with smoking charcoal stoves appear at every corner, as though someone’s kitchen had just fallen onto the street. Garbage is swept into corners and tossed into airshafts of office buildings. Most electricity comes from private generators noisily whining on the sidewalk, and at night, dark side streets look ominous. Central Yangon suggests the aftermath of a war. It’s filled with reminders of former glory, but the present speaks of struggle and drudgery.
     So why do I keep thinking of this place and dreaming about when I can return?
    Travel to painful places follows Buddhism’s oldest parable. The young Buddha leaves his father’s luxurious palace and sets out to witness poverty, disease, old age, and death, the first step toward his Enlightenment. By that standard, Burma is the perfect travel destination.
     In many ways Burma doesn’t seem to have entered the modern world. Monks in burgundy robes and glimpses of gilded shrines affirm the calming, 2500-year old presence of Buddha. But that calm is offset by a certain third-world hysteria. At times it’s like being inside a pinball machine, lights flashing and bells ringing. It’s very much alive.
     Once past the ominous visuals of the place, the open warmth of the people alleviates any apprehension. Having read about the repressive military dictatorship, I expected armed soldiers at every corner, but saw none. Myanmar is considered the safest country in all of southeast Asia, an extremely friendly and comfortable country to visit.   
     The mix of people here recalls the exotic bar scene from ‘Star Wars’. I saw men in ankle-length longyis, women with towels wrapped around their heads, faces daubed with yellow thanaka paste, stern looking Muslim men in long white robes and knit caps, beards dyed Lucille Ball red, blue-black Sri Lankans with baseball caps, monks with shaved heads in autumn-toned robes, women balancing baskets of watermelon wedges on their heads, a man chopping slabs of raw beef on the street, his teeth stained red from chewing betel nuts, people wearing Chinese coolie hats selling dragon fruit, a pair of teenage nuns in baby-pink robes, a Dutch tourist in khaki shorts with a backpack and a Lonely Planet guide—it would be hard not to fit in here.
     Although Myanmar lacks many freedoms we take for granted, complete religious tolerance is a notable feature of life in Yangon. The golden Sule Pagoda dominates the center of downtown, but soon you’re passing mosques, Hindu temples, and Anglican churches. On our first night we came across a full moon ceremony at a Hindu temple, a densely sculpted structure painted in gaudy enamels. We were invited to watch as several men scaled the temple gate, crawling over the sculpted facade, relaying an oil lamp to its peak.

     Numerous Buddhist temples, covered in acres of gold leaf, provide oases of luxury and religious calm amidst the hubbub and squalor. In spite of the apparent poverty, a report in a local newspaper (published in English by the government) told of a neighborhood in Yangon which raised $15,000 to buy gold leaf for their local temple.

     In the morning light, the gold of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda is blinding. The most sacred shrine in all of Myanmar is located a few miles north of downtown, isolated from the urban matrix by trees and parks, and illuminated at night like a golden space ship. It’s a mix of religious theme park and Buddhist Fort Knox, with a history that goes back 2500 years. Having survived years of earthquakes, fires and war, it remains one of mankind’s most powerful monuments to the soul. Dominating a vast raised terrace is a golden bell-shaped dome, 300 feet tall, said to contain strands of the Buddha’s hair. This central zedi is surrounded by dozens of smaller shrines, many completely covered in gold leaf, where people are seen praying, lighting candles and incense, offering flowers, talking and eating. All Burmese hope to get here at least once in their lifetime, and it’s one of the few places where civilians, soldiers, monks and tourists of all economic levels meet.
     Beyond the Shwedagon Pagoda, outside the dense grid of old downtown, new Yangon spreads out for miles to the north, where politicians and rich Chinese businessmen live. Shopping malls, fancy hotels, the university, even a gated golf-course community are found here, but it’s hard to see without a car.
     The transition from city to village happens abruptly in Yangon, and you’ll find yourself shifting from one to the other at the turn of a corner. Shortly after leaving the Shwedagon Pagoda we found ourselves on a dirt path lined with bamboo huts and little gardens with banana and palm trees. Across from the railroad station we saw goats grazing.
     We took a slow commuter train on a 3-hour ride that circles greater Yangon. Thirty minutes after leaving the station the tin roofs of city housing start disappearing. Palm leaf-covered bamboo huts dot the landscape, small rice paddies and village markets seem far away from the urban tangle of downtown.
     As the only non-Burmese people on the train we were put behind a rope near the conductor. We got a few stares, a few ‘mingalabas’(‘good day’) and one “Merry Christmas!” from a young man with red teeth who looked very stoned.
     As food adventure travellers, we ended up visiting just about every market in Yangon. At dusk, vendors fill the streets along Anawratha Road with baskets of meats, fish, fruits and vegetables, selling into the night for as long as their candles burn.
     The big, scrappy Thirimingala  Zei market, a few miles north of downtown, is a multi-storied warehouse bustling with everything edible. You’ll see mountains of fresh ginger root being unloaded from trucks, tens of thousands of bananas still hanging on their stems, artfully arranged baskets of tiny eggplants and wing-beans. We passed what appeared to be an auction of boxes of oranges, lots of yelling and pointing. But the real oddity in this mammoth warehouse is upstairs. A huge amusement park, with rides and games covers the entire fourth floor. It was eerily vacant on the Sunday we went, but I couldn’t resist the ‘Tunnel of Horrors’ train ride full of kitschy paper maché monsters and skeletons.
     The British ruled Burma for over 100 years, leaving behind a decaying architectural legacy and lots of English words. All over Asia you can sense the eagerness to have a command of English, the language of computers and business and money. Signs for hotels, railroad and police stations, and the supermarket are in English. Billboards and product labels mix Anglo words like ‘Digital Video Editing Center’, ‘Happy Cow condensed milk’, ‘VIP room’, ‘weather report’, and ‘anti-dandruff shampoo’ with cursive Burmese-style script.
     The internet has increased the use of English, but finding a place to read our email was not so easy.  We were directed to a place called ‘The Spider Web’, a non-air conditioned space hidden down a labyrinth of hallways in an office building, where young Burmese were busily at work at 40 computer stations. Google, Yahoo and Hotmail are not legally accessible in Burma, but here a young assistant typed in a few numbers, and voilá! –we were in touch with the rest of the planet. In the one fancy hotel we stayed at, they could not do this, confirming our suspicions that it was a clandestine activity at ‘The Spider Web’.
     Burma has no ATM’s, and credit cards are accepted only at a few high-end hotels, which charge up to 30% commission. Even airline tickets must be paid for in cash, which led to a few problems by the end of our trip. We’d booked our last night in Yangon on-line at the luxurious Kandawgyi Lake Hotel. On arrival, we learned that the internet reservation we’d made a week earlier had not arrived. Our credit card didn’t work. We managed to scrape together enough US dollars, along with a few Thai baht and some Hong Kong dollars to pay for the room and one last meal. So, here’s the advice: bring enough US dollars for your whole trip. Bills must be clean, no tears, no marks of any kind.
     After walking 8 to 10 hours a day, the lure of night life didn’t go far beyond the mattress. We were tempted by the numerous cinemas, wildly popular in a country without much television (one night the local channels offered us a choice of a military parade, a long musical number about a hydroelectric plant, or ‘The World’s Richest People’ dubbed in Bamar).
     Lots of Indian films were playing, mixed with Burmese movies that looked like silly sit-coms (funny wigs, big glasses), as well as the new James Bond thriller. Most of the large, gaudy billboards were roughly painted by hand, sporting massive images of starry-eyed lovers in jeweled tiaras.
     One night we went to a club on the roof of a former department store, a massive old building from the days of British rule that seems now like a perfect location for a movie set in a post-nuclear future. A small shaky elevator took us up to ‘Zero Zone’, a pleasant plant-filled terrace with views of the city. We enjoyed the cheap beer and good Chinese/Malaysian food, and then the show started. Asians have an affinity for karaoke that I don’t understand. A heavy-set, middle aged man in a brown longyi and a baseball cap, sort of a Burmese Burl Ives, massacred a few Beatles songs, then was joined by a thin young girl, who sang like a cat in heat, for a duet of the country and western favorite, ‘ The Green Green Grass of Home’.  “It sounds like the cast album for ‘Night of the Living Dead—The Musical’, Nick quipped as we ordered more beer. Then there was the fashion show, apparently a standard feature in Burmese night-club entertainment. Seven girls in Pucci-print dresses moved forward, then moved backward, then disappeared. So did we.  
     Burma offers lots of culinary adventure. “Very interesting,”or “weird” were words we used frequently to described the Burmese food we ate, but “delicious” was not far behind, and, only once or twice did a  “yuk!” pass our lips. 
     For breakfast we ate mohinga, served at street stalls everywhere. For about fifty cents, you get your choice of brothy noodles, (wide, skinny, rice, wheat) perked up with bits of herbs, nuts, spices, chicken or fish. Every one was different, and every one was delicious.
     For lunch and dinner, things got more complicated. It’s hard to find ‘nice’ Burmese restaurants (the fancy ones are Chinese or European), so we ended up eating at simple hole-in-the-wall places, or sitting on tiny plastic stools on the sidewalk (for the record, my only digestive problem occurred after the 15-hour return flight from Hong Kong to New York).
     The national cuisine, which mixes influences from India, Thailand, and China among others, has a color problem. Meats, fish or vegetables are often cooked in thick sauces or curries, with a layer of oil floating on top (for flavor as well as protection against bacteria in the heat). Ox-blood reds, sludgy browns, grayish-greens, and murky yellows predominate in these concoctions, which are usually spread out buffet-style, so you can point and choose easily. Meals come with mountains of white rice, a plate of raw mixed greens (often lettuce, cabbage, string beans, okra, mint and other herbs unknown to us), stewed lentils (like Indian dal), a clear soup, often flavored with black pepper, and several dishes of chili pastes and other dips made with fermented fish sauce (these were the most pallate-challenging parts of the meal). Sometimes there were as many as 16 plates on our table. As the influences suggest, the tastes were often Indian-like, Thai-like, or Chinese-like, but the part that is un-like anything dominates—Burmese food is in a class of its own. Highly spiced (but not hot—that’s added with the side dishes of chili paste), fragrant, and occasionally sweet, the flavors were something new. And food in Myanmar is cheap--our meals rarely cost more than two dollars. 
     The night market on 19th Street in the so-called ‘Chinatown’ of Yangon proved to be the culinary highlight. It’s a lively scene with lots of young people out for some fun and good, inexpensive food. Tables with the ubiquitous plastic stools are set up near barbeque grills all along 19th street near Mahabandoola Road. You pick from a wide variety of meat, fish, vegetables and tofu on skewers and hand them to the cook, who bathes them with a thick dark sauce and sticks them on the grill. You can also choose from lots of vegetables for a delicious stir fry, or get a whole fish  stuffed with green herbs and rubbed with a black spicy mixture—Burmese meets Cajun—that was one of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in my life.
    There’s a tempting variety of street food snacks in Yangon, too. We sampled Muslim noodle dishes, sweet sticky-rice cakes, deep-fried vegetable samosas, Indian milk and coconut candies, fresh squeezed sugar cane juice, and  refreshing jackfruit. We skipped the frightening apples from China (millions of them all over town, each one suspiciously perfect in size and color). But one taste experience remains with me, calling me back to Yangon--a drink is called shwe-yin-aye (which means ‘to cool down the golden chest’), which I found on the busy corner of Mahabandoola and Pagoda Roads. Even my hair felt hot that day in the relentless mid-day sun, when I spied relief: a pretty young girl scooping a handful of crushed ice into a glass mug. A ladle-full of baby doll pink liquid, heavy with tiny green and white dots of tapioca, was poured over the ice and handed to a smiling customer. It looked like a liquid Christmas present. I squatted down on the kindergarten-size plastic stool and pointed. “One of those please.”  When the cool, delicious strawberry and coconut milk concoction reached my palate, something happened. At that moment, I learned a simple Buddhist trick of coping with the chaos, the dirt, the fumes, the noise, the rats, the traffic, the vendors, the beggars, the decay, the spitting of red betel-juice laden saliva on the broken pavement of downtown Yangon. I focused on the now. I stared into the rosy mug, hunched my shoulders slightly to create a personal cave, closed my eyes, and felt perfectly alive and happy.
    I come from a family of six children, which might explain why I’m compelled to understand how people manage to live together in tight spaces and end up happy.  Living most of my life in New York City and Mexico City, I’ve had time to observe different urban life styles. Burma is a wounded civilization, and Yangon, its biggest city, has some of the biggest scars. But while the cruel politics of Burma might define the country, is does not define its people. Yangon is like a motherless child, sad and aching, but also attracting tenderness and love, and admiration for its survival.


IF YOU GO:  Buy the Lonely Planet Guide. It’s one of their best.
There are no direct flights to Myanmar from the U.S.
Air Asia (  and Yangon Air ( ) both fly
from Bangkok for around $150 R/T
HOTELS: We wanted to be in the thick of things downtown. There are lots of cheap and simple guest houses. We tried one (the Okinawa) but left because the A/C didn’t work.
The Thamada Hotel is clean and attractive (teak floors) and costs about $30/night.  The Central Hotel is about the same price, with a slightly better location, but had musty carpeting.
The Kandawgyi Palace Hotel is lovely and luxurious,with a nice pool and gardens, but you must take taxis to get anywhere.
We poked into the fabled Strand Hotel to use the facilities. The place was spookily empty, which didn’t help, but it was dull, the lobby decor uninspired, lacking in luxury that the $300-a-night price tag had led me to imagine. And no pool, the one real luxury you’ll want here.
Use or for booking hotels in Asia.
Excellent travel information is available through, a Yangon-based travel agency. He can plan your whole trip.
Sandy’s Myanmar Cuisine is the only ‘nice’ Burmese restaurant we found. It’s right next door to the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel. We had our first and our last meal there.
We loved our first meal, but by the end it struck us both as ‘dumbed down’ for foreign palates--but worth a try for sure.  The only other place we ate in that was fancy enough to have a business card was Danuphyu Daw Saw Yee Restaurant, No 15 Mahabawga Street, tel. 500159 (a taxi ride from downtown). Everything else we ate was street or market food, which we chose just by seeing what looked good, or seeing which stands had crowds. You’ll find simple Indian restaurants around when you get tired of Burmese food.
EXCHANGING MONEY: Most likely your taxi driver from the airport can supply you with anything—hotel, airline tickets, money.  He took us to the main market to exchange dollars.  It seemed creepy at first, but we went back several times and it’s just fine, and seemingly legal. Don’t change money on the street. I repeat this advice:
bring enough clean, unmarked U.S.dollars for your entire trip.

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