Category Archives: Myanmar (Burma)

Mesmerising Myanmar

Glorious morning on U Bein’s Bridge

Amarapura’s U Bein’s Bridge was named after the engineer who designed it in the 19th century and is supported by sturdy teak posts. Straddling the Taungthaman Lake, U Bein’s Bridge is today, still an important commuting channel for pedestrians (technically, cycling on the bridge is prohibited)  between the western and eastern shores of the Lake. We woke up at 5am to travel from Mandalay to Amarapura to catch sunrise.

The early morning mist dreamily lingered above the placid lake as the scraggly tamarind trees stood proudly on lake shore in the cool morning air. The warmth of the rising sun gradually radiated, dying the sky in gorgeous hues of purple and pink, and U Bein’s Bridge comes to life with commuting villagers, monks and morning-exercising senior citizens. Not far away, a farmer herds a flock of quacking ducks that waddled noisily along the shore, fishermen set about their morning catch as their boats glided on the lake and ladies headed off into the fields as they begin the day’s work.

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Let’s eat! In Myanmar

The long tail boat docked firmly against the mud-caked bank of Inle Lake. We climbed out of the boat and scrambled along the mud bank to Taung Tho where the tribal market is already right in the thick of things. Bullock carts and resting bulls linger on a spacious patch, while the owners busily tend to their stalls of vegetables, spices and other wares. A lady sits in between two stalls selling gorgeous home made Shan tofu. Immediately, last night’s meal comprising a simple yet delicious Shan tofu salad comes to mind. We sat down at a stall and tucked into a bowl of warm noodles – meeshay – splashed with chilli oil, vinegar-based sauce mix, coriander and a generous pinch of salt. After that meal, I had to learn how to say “salt, a little” in Burmese. But still, we wiped our mouths happily with a smile.

In Myanmar, mohinga seems to be a common breakfast food. It’s a soup-based vermicelli dish eaten with chickpea fritters. The dish is a combination of earthy fish broth, tangy lemongrass, mild spices, ginger and lime added to one’s taste.

Sitting on the border of India – and once ruled as part of the Indian empire during British colonial days – Myanmar’s population consists of quite a number of people of mixed or Indian descent. Chappati, thosai/dosa, parata and briyani also feature quite a fair bit amongst Burmese street eats. Absolutely delicious. In the rising temperatures of early March, we slurp on copious amounts of banana lassi, avocado shake and fruit juice. Burmese cuisine is also very influenced by Chinese and Thai cuisine.

Another typical Myanmar meal is curry-based mains with rice and side dishes which usually come for free. The curries are generally milder. Another common thing found on restaurant tables is the pickled tea leaves ( lahpet) and fried beans combo which is apparently a national favourite. It can be eaten as an appetizer or as a complement to the main meal.

And fruit lovers will get plenty of chances to gorge on the abundance of mangosteens, avocados, watermelons, grapes, mangoes (although not quite in season when we went). In Yangon, the sight of heaps of giant avocados spilling on to the streets sent me into a trance.

One of the greatest joys of travelling is the opportunity to enjoy food. Adventures of the palate rival thrilling rides across spectacular landscapes. More than that, feasting is a far more sensory and raw experience. Two strangers who eat and enjoy the same cuisine share an inexplicable bond of the palate that transcends class, status, origins and language barriers. What do you think?

Postcards from Bagan, land of many stupas

After 10 days, 4 flights, boat, truck, horse cart, bike, trishaw and rickety CNG-propelled-taxi rides, I finally compiled some semblance of a travel journal on facebook. So there will be less words on this blog since I already done one round of it on facebook. Still trying to figure out what’s the best tool of combining photo-uploading with travel narrative (so far I still find WordPress, for all its fantastic functions, a tad unwieldy in this respect). But I will still be posting a few photo essays on Myanmar. Here’s the first set on Bagan.

Above: View from Shwesandaw Paya. Although not the best of sunsets we have seen, I still quite like this photo. 

Below: taken at Ananda Pahto.

Above: Waylaid by a herd of goats.
Above: Sulamani Pahto. Its interior contains a lot of interesting details, stuccos and large frescoes. One of my favourite sites in Bagan.

Below: Sittana Paya

Above and below: some of the many beautiful acacia trees around Bagan. The sprawling branches dramatically complement the arid landscape.
Above: sunset by the Ayeryarwady River which courses through the veins of Myanmar.

Don’t reject Benjamin Franklin please! Money quirks in Myanmar

Although the kyats (pronounced somewhat like “chaats” or “chets”) is the official currency, in some instances the USD is readily accepted. For instance, when purchasing flight tickets or paying for accommodation. That is, if – and a big IF – your USD bill is in pristine condition.

Big head good, small head bad

Pristine means unmarked and in mint condition. And no little “wrinkles” on the forehead of Benjamin Franklin (portrait featured on the USD100 bill, whose forehead is coincidentally right at the centrefold of the note – how not to avoid “wrinkles”?). Some vendors don’t even accept notes issued before 2006. Don’t even think about bringing small-headed versions of Benjamin Franklin; only the big-headed version will pass the quirky test. Although I managed to dispose some of my older notes, more often than not, what little greenbacks I have are subjected to much fussed scrutiny. One of my notes got rejected by 5 different vendors, no less.

Ditto when changing USD into kyats at money changers.

Not all notes are equal

The face value of the currency matters too. Combinations of USD 10, 20 or 50 bill would get you less kyats than what a USD100 bill would at a money changer, even if the sum total is worth the equivalent. So in that instance, some USD bills actually lose their “face” value. Keep the smaller notes for purchasing rather than changing into kyats.

The irony is, after trading in your pristine crisp flawless smooth-skinned Benjamin Franklin, more of often than not, you will be given a big bunch of dirty grubby looking kyats in plastic bags. In this case, money “laundering” takes on an entirely new and literal meaning.

Having travelled to several developing countries where the greenback is generally accepted, Myanmar is one of the few that has such stringent notions on the money’s worth. Quite the opposite from say, Ecuador, where the USD is actually the official currency: you’d be hard-pressed to find a way to dispose of your USD 100 bill (more of Ecuadorean money quirks another day).

So what to do while travelling in Myanmar? Credit cards are not feasible at all. You either bring more USD bills as back up (just in case some get rejected) or bring Euros or SGD in mint condition which are also readily exchanged for kyats at money changers. Otherwise, you look for travellers who are willing to change money with you.

25.02.2012 – Inle Lake, Myanmar

From Heho airport to Naungshwe, the taxi rolled through tumbling hills, amidst the arid dust. Our betel nut chewing driver broke into wide red-smeared grins and stopped to let us visit some places of interest without us even asking so.

From Naungshwe, we hopped on to a long tail boat on a shimmering placid water and cruised under the relentless scorching sun, passing by several fishermen, flocks of cormorants gliding above the clear water, while the endless plateau of highlands accompanied our journey from across the bank.

At the resort Golden Island Cottage 2, private wooden chalets stand on stilts in the serene mirror like water. A little wetland inwards is the perfect resting spots for cranes and squawking cormorants. A short walk onto shore over wobbly bridges is a little village and paddy fields, where friendly villagers greets with ‘Mingdulabah‘, and water buffaloes trot past swishing their tails and leaving giant piles of dung.

As the sun sets in glorious hues of persimmon and pink, the seemingly endless waters stand still except for the silhouette of an occasional boat.

When night falls, the best way to while away time is to sit on the verandah in the cool night’s air and gaze out into the peaceful darkness under a blanket of stars.

Myanmar still continues to surprise me.

(Photos to follow later)