Burmese street food
South East Asia is undisputedly a backpacker’s paradise; world-class sites, fabulous food and an established tourist industry make travelling easy, safe and cheap. However military-ruled Burma was, until eighteen months ago, shunned by tourists who worried that visiting the country would fund the oppressive regime. The concept of a country filled with gleaming pagodas and untainted by tourism is a traveller’s holy grail and when Aung San Suu Kyi reversed her calls for a tourism boycott I started planning my trip hoping to get there before the tourist buses.
With its location between China, India and Thailand I was expecting a fusion of the three countries in terms of cuisine, culture and sights but, as Kipling said, ‘this is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.’ He was writing about the Shwedagon Paya, the breathtaking golden pagoda that dominates the Yangon skyline and this was my first stop. It is a huge complex with hundreds of visitors praying, burning incense, eating snacks and socialising but it still maintained a calm meditative air and I sat people watching until my stomach started demanding sustenance.
I headed to 19th street which is pedestrianised every evening and the restaurants that line it expand onto the road to create a festival atmosphere. Each stall offers a different selection of meat, fish, seafood and vegetables; you simply choose what you would like to eat and then it is cooked and served with cold draught beer. There was an abundance of spice and a generous dollop of fish sauce but curiously no chilli. As interesting as the meaty tidbits were, it was the wonderful vegetables that really stood out; skewers of okra, garlic, asparagus, broccoli and mushrooms all coated in a garlicky spice mix and then chargrilled.
The government has banned motorcycles and bicycles in Yangon and the result is a relatively unpolluted city without the traffic chaos usually associated with the region. As a result I was was totally unprepared for the anarchy on the roads of Mandalay. My decision to rent a bike provided an intense adrenalin rush and was the quickest way of navigating the huge city, but required keen concentration given the sporadic open ditches and unlit streets. I kept both my hydration and blood glucose levels high with regular stops for sugar cane juice and street food including mont linmayar, which translates as husband and wife. These are mini rice flour pancakes cooked with a variety of optional fillings such as quail egg, yellow peas, tomatoes and spring onions. Just before serving, two of the mini pancakes are placed together to become one just like a loving couple. They were served in bags of 10 pairs with a shovel full of sesame powder for $1 and created a fabulous gooey taste explosion as I bit into the crisp shells.
On the outskirts of Mandalay are a series of impressive record breaking attractions; the world’s longest teak bridge, largest working bell and what would have been the biggest stupa had it been completed. It was here that the oppressive heat took its toll and I took shelter in a little wooden stall full of Burmese trinket sellers eating their lunch. I wasn’t hungry, but needing to place an order to justify my presence I pointed at someone else’s bowl and signalled that I wanted the same. I didn’t know it at the time but this was lahpet thoke; a salad of pickled green tea leaves served with roasted peanuts, sesame seeds, garlic, chopped green chillies, tomatoes and a lime and fish sauce dressing. The combination of intense, sour flavours and the caffeine hit make this a popular student dish but, not expecting the caffeine element, resulted in an unexpected night of lost sleep for me.
Internal flights are the easiest way to travel within Burma and keen to get away from the chewable pollution of Mandalay I fled to Bagan. Here I was promised a spectacular plain covered in thousands of pagodas dating back to the 11th century. Unfortunately there were also coach loads of Chinese tourists wearing matching orange baseball caps. Still, it was possible to avoid the masses by waking early or visiting the less well known pagodas by bike or horse and cart. The view of the plain at sunset was breathtaking but Buddhists hoping to gain merit for their next life have restored many of the pagodas often with a view of “enhancement” rather than preservation. It is this that has prevented the site from receiving Unesco world heritage status.
Inle Lake is possibly the most popular tourist destination in Burma. With its early morning mists, floating gardens and stilt villages it is easy to see why. As a result life on the lake has become a somewhat Disneyfield version of itself with even monasteries becoming little more than glorified tourist trinket shops. Burma is indeed unlike any land I know but change is happening quickly and last year visitor numbers had increased by twenty per cent. If you want to visit Burma before it becomes as commercialised as the rest of South East Asia I recommend you go soon. That said, if you can live with the higher levels of tourism then Burma’s neighbours – Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos – all offer tastier food, more interesting sights and easier travelling for significantly fewer dollars per day than Burma.