Myanmar Eats: 1 – 2.11.2013

Our share taxi arrived on time this morning – and by on time, I mean on Myanmar time – just half an hour or so later than organised. Nice! Earlier than we’d been expecting!

I’d been trying to work out exactly what a “share taxi” would involve – it always seems to differ in every Asian country and after seeing so many different types of rust-buckets and packed full of people transportation zipping about on the roads, I was apprehensive. Jacob was betting on a mini-van, I was betting on a more pick-up truck style vehicle. Turns out, a share taxi is just a normal rusty shell of a car packed full of parcels to be delivered along the way to the final destination – which in our case, is Pyin Oo Lwin.

Our driver packed both Jacob and I, our backpacks, a heap of golf clubs, a few large boxes, two Burmese women and their belongings and a few more parcels into the tiny hatchback before lead-footing it for an entire two hours up massive hills, around hair-pin bend and tight curves and over taking anyone and every vehicle within sight.

We stopped twice (besides the several times the driver parked, leaving the car running, to deliver a parcel): once when the engine got too hot and our driver had to hose it down and again to get petrol. The petrol station was very oddly more like a small party – about twenty or thirty staff in blue tee-shirts and bare feet stood around just chatting and waiting for a car to re-fuel, music pumping in the background to keep them entertained. When we arrived, they all went wild for these two whities jammed into the back of the car, faces almost smeared against the window glass. Whilst our car was re-fuelled, five or ten people stood outside our car door smiling the BIGGEST smiles at us and laughing uncontrollably whenever one of them tried to speak English with us. All we could do was laugh and smile back. Momentarily one of the smiling women left, returning with about fifteen cups of raspberry cordial for us to drink. We took two. We told them we were going to Pyin Oo Lwin and they started hand gesturing a “shivering” motion, explaining to us it would be very cold. I wondered what the Burmese considered to be “very cold…”
Once our car was filled with fuel and ready to roar again, we waved goodbye to several massive smiles and sipped on our cordial as our driver put his lead foot back down.

The drive was wonderful though, beautiful scenery and pretty quick – just a couple of hours and we were absolutely a world away from hectic Mandalay. On arrival, we dumped our bags at our very fancy guest house and headed out to explore the town…

Pyin Oo Lwin was colonised by the British way back in the day and the old weathered buildings and Purcel Clock Tower (the wanna-be Big Ben of Myanmar) had a distinctly British look and feel – a charm that certainly seems to exist throughout this cute, welcoming, dusty town.
We admired the surroundings as we strolled up the main street looking for a place to get some local food for lunch. We discovered what we thought was a local place and had some average noodles there – later we realised what a touristic eatery this actually was. Jacob spied a local curd shop – he’s got a nose for this sort of thing now – and we ended up there sipping thick yoghurt through curly straws, watching the locals around us and the interesting street scenes continually unfolding. Horse drawn carts with wooden Cindarella-style coaches (although not as glamourous – think weathered wooden boxes, filthier, tackier and with sick looking horses) trotted past and locals roasted peanuts by the side of the road. Men huddled around betel nut stands, buying leaves and spitting massive glugs of burgundy goo onto the road and pavement. Women could be seen in their shop fronts, knitting hats and jumpers whilst waiting for their next customer. Children were playing, tea shops were busy, the air was fresh(ish) and it felt really nice to be here.

We took a stroll through the big Central Market area – it was filled with all sorts of goods and bits and pieces. There was cooking items, house hold items, clothing, shoes, underwear, food items and lots of knit wear that was oddly enough, exactly the same at every shop – besides one lady we found who was crocheting gorgeous little beanies. Moving away from this area of the market, we found ourselves out in the open-air produce market where all sorts of fresh foods were being sold. Deep fried insects, scary meats, unidentifiable items and lots of beautifully coloured fruits and vegetables dotted the ground and small tables. Women were fanning fresh fish that were displayed in metal bowls under the heat of the sun, right next to whole dead chickens, fried birds and little quail eggs. I think I’ve said it before, but I adore these types of wet Asian markets, and I never tire of looking through them; there is always something new to find that we didn’t see the last time we looked..

People were smiling at us, babies were being taught to wave and blow kisses and smiled when they saw us, the women kept telling me I was beautiful and pointing to my skin… People here were friendly and no one was touting or trying to sell us anything. It felt like a place where we would be really able to experience the local life style in an honest, non-touristic manner.

Evening time and we were hungry for some street food. We heard there was a night market here that sold “Myanmar snacks” but what we found was an entire street filled with tents and plastic chairs, metal tables and wonderful smells. Smoke and steam was rising from the hundreds of hot pots, woks, stove tops, barbeques, grill plates, coal fires and steel pots at every different street stall. Men and women and children were all busy – either cooking or eating – everyone seemed to be there. There was so much to choose from, so many different foods being cooked and prepared, boiled, chopped, fried and stirred. The organs and pig heads being cut into bite size pieces with house-hold scissors may have been immediately scrapped from our list of choices, but the vegetarian options were in abundance and there was certainly no threat of going hungry. We strolled by each stall looking and choosing what we might want to try. We ended up at a little noodle tent, slurping Shan Noodles and enjoying being amongst it all. Moving on, we found a place that was jam packed with people and with a queue forming for take away. The staff were under the pump and we decided this was the place to be. We enjoyed a clay pot of steamed vegetables, tofu and various noodles mixed with chilli and other spices and sauces. $1.50 bought us an incredible dinner; one of the highlight meals of this entire trip to date, and we were definitely coming back tomorrow night.

Taking advantage of the fast internet back at our hotel, our evening was spent watching one of my favourite movies of all time and drinking hot 3-in-1 milo. A tiny bit of normality for us; it felt a bit like home.

I really like this place, it’s quiet and calm and slower paced – I’m not missing the overwhelming honking and pollution that we found in Mandalay and Yangon. However, we’ve found this ‘quieter’ pace to be the case since arriving in Myanmar and it’s been olldy enough a little difficult for us to adjust to.
Maybe we were expecting something completely different? Although, I don’t actually know what we were expecting – or if we had any specific expectations at all.
It’s certainly a country I want to know more about, but at the same time, I wonder if it’s possible for tourists to get a real insight into what’s been happening and what is currently happening. We feel very much like outsiders – very much tourists – with no way of getting closer to the locals.
Furthermore, our budget is quite limiting – due to such high accommodation costs we can afford little more than accommodation, some transport and food/drink each day for about $50 – 55 (a lot more than the $35 we’d planned on spending). I guess Mandalay, for example, could’ve been completely different for us had we been able to afford more.

I’m hoping that as we move away from the big cities – now in Pyin Oo Lwin and into Hsipaw and Inle Lake – we’ll be more mesmerised and captivated by this country. We feel it has a lot of noticeable similarities to other countries we’ve visited – we keep being reminded of Laos and Thailand – and we hope Myanmar offers us something wildly different and makes us fall in love with her. No doubt there is immense beauty and a fascinating culture and history to be discovered here if we take the time to find them.
I think maybe I had this picture of what Myanmar would be and besides the temples of Bagan, I haven’t quite found it yet…

Our second day in Pyin Oo Lwin turned out to be pretty awesome and left us feeling way more motivated and back in “travel mode” than the previous day (and this morning).

We ended up organising a tuk tuk to take us out to the starting point of the Ani Sakan Waterfall hike early this morning; whilst we knew it would be spectactular and feeling as though “we should absolutely go,”  for some reason we were feeling unmotivated. I guess, as I’ve learned during this trip, “the scariest moment is just before it starts” – aka, “the hardest part is getting out the door.”  As soon as we jumped into the back of the rust bucket open-air tuk tuk and began hurtling down the bumpy, dusty roads, we were loving it. The cool breeze was beautiful against our faces and we enjoyed watching life whizz past us – often in the form of men hanging out of or clinging onto the side of pick up trucks whilst they waved and called out to us.

Arriving at the start of the short trek, we grabbed a couple of chewy lychee drinks and set off downhill. Instantly a group of very young Burmese girls began following us without saying a word and expected payment to walk with us down to the falls and back. I wished they were at school instead. We declined their service and continued down the path that almost instantly became steep and windy and continued that way for the next 40 minutes or so as we made our way down, down, down. The path was steep and often muddy or covered in loose stones and rocks. Images of my ass getting covered in mud from a potential (hilarious) slip often crossed my mind…
The scenery was breath taking and we often paused to marvel at the sheer cliff faces, forest, waterfalls and mountainous backdrop before us.

By the time we reached the bottom we could hear the massive falls so close and see the mist rising through the forest. The track turned to watery mud and we inched our way closer, trying even harder not to slip. When we made it up a small muddy incline the falls came into view: roaring and massive, they fell from a huge height and the mist almost instantly covered us in a fine layer of water. So refreshing.

Climbing down from the falls we passed smiling monks who greeted us with “mingalaba” and laughed as we all slid around in the mud and slush beneath our feet. The only difference was we were kitted out in hiking boots and they were barefoot. I think we were at more risk of slipping.

Downhill had been “easy” in comparison to going uphill and it took us just over 50 minutes to climb the steep incline and arrive back at our starting point; puffed out, we were happy to get back into the tuk tuk and ride through the cool breeze. I love sitting in these open air tuk tuks watching the scenery and the life going by. Firstly, the scenery is beautiful and secondly, there is always someone hanging out of their car/truck/van/tuk-tuk/pick up/motorbike/bicycle waving and smiling and laughing at us foreigners. At one point a man on a motorbike drove past carrying hundreds of dead chickens all hanging off the back. Oh Asia…

Back in Pyin Oo Lwin, we took another stroll through the streets and found ourselves back at the “night market” which, at 3pm…wasn’t so night-y. It was never the less full of street food stalls with smoking woks and boiling pots, cooking smells wafting and people everywhere eating and cooking and sitting at metal tables on TINY plastic chairs under tents. People were hard at work – and then there were those hard at eating. Last night it had been a bit dark and overwhelming when we came here and we’d chosen the sorts of meals we knew were ‘safe’. Today that was not happening – we wanted to try everything these little Myanmar food stalls had to offer. Most snacks and meals cost us between 100 – 300 kyat, (10 – 30 cents) which meant that we could hop from vendor to vendor, try every new delicious food, end up extremely full and with only the equivalent of .80c less in our wallet.
We had noodle soups, deep fried tofu, grilled fruits, rice paper pancakes, takoyaki-type rice balls, coconutty things, vegetable bits, salads, some sort of nut thing…

We returned late that night to the night market for another snack (or five) and the best cup of Burmese milk tea we’ve had. It amazed me that this night market was absolutely tourist-free, the three times we have visited this central place in the past two days we’ve not seen one other tourist – and there are a lot of tourists here. The Chinese restaurant down the road, however, seemed to be brimming with them. I wonder how much longer this market will remain a local-only type of place, souvenir and tout-free.

Back at our room we followed our standard ‘the night before we leave this place’ routine: we acknowledged we needed to pack our cases, we procrastinated for a good hour (or three) and then finally – way too late at night to have the energy or motivation to do so – we got our things together and packed our packs.

After today’s little trekking adventure and the joyous experience of trying new things and eating with all the locals, I feel my excitement about travel and being here in Myanmar start to heighten a lot more; I feel so much more motivated and excited to be here than I was feeling when we were in the big cities.
Tomorrow we’re taking the scenic train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw. I think the distance is something like 200km and takes around… oh, you know, between 4 and 11 hours by train! It’s been described as one of the 50 “must-do” train travel routes in the world, but also, as being “painfully slow.” I’m a little apprehensive about what a train trip involves in Myanmar, but at the same time I of course want to experience it. If it’s anything like some of the scenery we’ve seen else where in Asia, no doubt it will be stunningly beautiful… if it’s anything like the crowded, jam packed trains we’ve seen else where in Asia, 4 – 11 hours may end up feeling a lot longer. We shall see.

From what I have read, Hsipaw is a pretty magnificent place and I am looking forward to getting there and seeing what’s on offer. It sounds like a place you can really start to ‘feel’ and take your time in – I love those sorts of places. I much prefer to travel and just get a feel for a place rather than hop from tourist attraction to tourist attraction, so Hsipaw sounds like it will  be perfect…

For now, Pyin Oo Lwin – you’ve been pretty great.

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