Tag Archives: Myanmar food

Big City Changes

Revisiting a travelogue featuring the place we’ve just visited is a ritual in our household and any episode of an Anthony Bourdain show takes top priority. Ironically, they shot the premier episode of his highly successful CNN series “Parts Unknown” in Myanmar only three short years ago. Comfortably back in the confines of what now appears to us as our highly developed home territory of Malaysia, we grabbed some tortilla chips and sat down on the couch to see how much we’d recognize. Unlike most other nations, almost every topic mentioned is almost totally obsolete since the original air date. Focusing mainly on the authoritative regime that’s kept the people of Myanmar fearful of speaking with foreigners, the show injects way too many shots of government atrocities, riots in the streets and historic photos of the old Burmese colony under British rule.

Children become new best friends quickly in Myanmar

Children become new best friends quickly in Myanmar

Catching only a few glances of anything recognizable, it seems Yangon singlehandedly transformed itself from a place where locals went from cautiously optimistic to overly enthusiastic. Currently very different from the not so busy looking streets they showed, it’s like they sugar-coated the episode for fear of political repercussion and the vibrancy exhibited today reflects one of the world’s fastest transformations from a repressed fearful society to an open-minded and quickly developing nation. Possibly the strangest sound bite was his testament to the nation’s lack of modern communications:

“Internet? Forget it. Downloading something? Nope. 3G? Not happening.”

The busiest line in the postal building is the telecom company

The busiest line in the postal building is the telecom company

In only three short years, not only did they wire the nation top to bottom but they successfully transformed the citizens into one the world’s highest users of smartphones per capita. With 80 million people, this is no small feat and proves how eager people are to quickly embrace change that represents progress. Seeing monks spend more time texting than meditating is commonplace in many Buddhist nations and the days of wine making are as far removed as the stately colonial buildings now mostly relegated to dilapidated eyesores. Having razed six square blocks of downtown to make way for an enormous office and shopping complex now under construction furthers the argument to visit soon before the great transition wipes away all signs of the past 60 years. Although we didn’t frequent the many tea shops, Bourdain spent time with some journalists reminiscing about jail sentences and harped on the tea shop being the focal point of society where people exchanged ideas and read any available newspapers. Far fetched for a new internet generation, only those older than us read print media and Google maps makes it easy to explore the heart of Yangon.

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Shedding the “Burmese” Legacy

Let’s set the record straight. The people of Myanmar are not “Burmese”. Despite what the current issue of Air Asia’s inflight magazine tells you, the world’s newest democracy goes by the name “The Republic of the Union of Myanmar”. Standing out larger than anything, the wonderful people will likely be your fondest memory of your trip. Diane and I discovered the younger generation’s keen sense of nationalism and pride while trekking through the hills of Shan State (Suffering would actually be a better word but we’ll post more about that later). Rather disappointed with our guide’s poor English-speaking skills, we trudged through the mountain terrain passing only the occasional water buffalo and some funny looking humped cows, Searching for some conversation about the environment, local people or anything to make us forget how poorly the company communicated a need for appropriate footwear, we asked a question about Burmese food.

The local well in the village we stayed at on our trek

The local well in the village we stayed at on our trek

Coming to life as if we’d committed the ultimate tourism faux pas, he immediately corrected us in broken English and launched into a tirade about how the term “Burmese” represents colonialism and western colonization. Correcting us quickly but unable to explain why the world still mostly refers to their food and people as “Burmese”, his interpretation clearly illustrates a new nationalism and heartfelt sense of pride that shouts “Myanmar people” although he wasn’t sure how to coin a new phrase for the food (We suggested “Myanmarish” or ‘Myanmarian“). Traveling around the country gave us a renewed appreciation of how privileged most of us are. Taking for granted things like paved roads, blackout free electricity and modernized waste disposal systems, Myanmar is a “developing nation” in the truest sense of the expression and makes Malaysia’s infrastructure look like Utopia. But unlike sub Saharan Africa’s corrupt governments or South America’s never ending citizen uprisings, Myanmar functions beautifully and already jumped the development scale tenfold in the last few years, making it the greatest Southeast Asian destination for those seeking safety, a slightly rugged environment and enough hospitality to make anyone feel welcome.

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