Autumn 2017 allowed us the luxury of spending 9 weeks in SE Asia. Having missed out on the gap year culture, we are now in a position, 20 yrs on, where Px can leave his businesses running themselves and I, having closed my business a few months ago, am currently leading a charmed life of travel and low level gluttony! The first series of posts will be entirely about our travels across 7 countries of Asia, and will include lots of foodie boxes ticked and all the classic sites visited and some surprises on the way.
Our trip began in Burma, Mayanmar in mid October 2017, where we were to travel from Yangon, to Bagan, to Mandalay over 6 days.
Written on the overnight bus from Yangon to Bagan, The Road to Mandalay. A 10hr coach trip.
Arriving in Yangon I was expecting a culture shock, but why? I come from one of the largest metropoles in the world; a complex feisty beast of a place that requires relentless flattery, tummy ticking and coaxing to get it to roll over, expose its finest assets and to make it work for you. London IS culture with the shock built in!
Cities work in the same way all over the world, regardless of climate or wealth. They are all bursting with an overwhelming torrent of human survival in whatever form that takes. Working your way around a foreign city doesn’t take long to suss out if you are already a city dweller. The rules are the same, the pieces of the puzzle have the same logic, the resulting picture looks slightly different, smells very different, but ultimately feels familiar.
It’s the countryside you have to watch out for, there are no rules out there in the rural.
Our needs are echoed in cities all over the world, from London to Yangon.
One is just much warmer than the other.
What strikes me instantly as we take a cab on the slow, traffic heavy journey from the airport to our hotel, is the light, the artificial lighting. Dusk is falling and as darkness descends the street lighting confirms that “we’re not in Kansas anymore”.
Pools of white tungsten battery powered lights, poorly supply tiny road side stalls. Working in virtual darkness these sellers are serving almost impossible to decipher street snacks. The amber of halogen street light clashes with the red and green plastic children’s size furniture, precariously positioned by the road side for customers to sit and drink tea. This is the hub route into the city, the outskirts where local workers stop to socialise.
It’s a life lived outside.
An hour later, through a barrage of car horns, and three lane traffic, our driver pulls up at Backpacker’s B&B ☑ and we are happily shown our top floor, air conditioned room. Simple but perfect.
That night an ocean of rain fell from the sky. The advantage of being on the top floor, away from the noise of the street was soon outweighed by the unbelievable noise of torrential rain on the tin clad roof. Rainy season in Myanmar.
*Cut to bus journey. We’ve just pulled over for a pit stop on the road to Mandalay. Bought crisps from the road side sellers who rock up at “bus stop time” on scooters with street food stalls attached like side cars. Literally zooming along on a bike with pan of chicken frying on the stall next to him. As the buses head out to continue our journey, the street food side cars also scatter, off to their next location. The most mobile catering we’ve ever seen.*
Our first night in Yangon was all about food. Px had typically done his food research (from Wagamama in Gatwick airport to our last eatery in Bangkok in 9 weeks time, the boy is thorough when it comes to food) and knew that there was a street food night Market just round the corner from the hotel, We dumped our bags and headed straight out.
Wedged on the long hard shoulder between two massive roads, was the inconveniently positioned Yangon Night Market.☑ We followed this narrow strip, along the Strand Rd, as it wound its way along the river bank highway. Obviously reminiscent of our own street food culture back in London, the familiar gazebos, make shift signage and seating, and the inevitable street food “joy de vie”. Smiling faces welcoming us to try their offering.
With our food experience, our eye for spotting the stall least likely to give us problems later on was pretty keen. With a lack of refrigeration, and high humidity, it could be a risky business!
However we chose wisely. From a lovely family run stall who were serving up Shan noodles and crispy pork, and more importantly, beer. We sat on our plastic chairs, drank our almost cold beer and welcomed ourselves to Yangon.
*It’s 1am on the bus to Bagan. To think we would actually sleep on this overnight trip is frankly hilarious. It’s basically like being on an aeroplane with constant turbulence. Although on a plane you don’t get to listen to the pilot singing loudly along to his radio and drumming on the dashboard, presumably to keep himself awake. Divided from his passengers only by a curtain, he is under the illusion that he is alone…
But it is romantic. We are propped up side by side on our reclining seats with our neck supports that have been sprayed heavily with air freshener to dispel any evidence of a previous wearer, blankets over knees and sharing headphones to listen to the only music we have with us; Px’s terrible mix tape of early 90’s soft rock.*
Back in Yangon.
With only 48hrs the city, our focus was food, booze and Buddha .
We didn’t have one disappointing meal. From the street food on the first night, where we also took home duck empanadas that came with a little bag of sweet chili sauce that we scoffed on our hotel balcony before bed, and some little fried quails egg pancakes which were so delightful; to the chilli and lemongrass steamed clams and grilled king prawns from Lashio Gyi Yunan BBQ ☑ on the very lively 19th st. I know this is only the beginning of our food odyssey, but it’s got off to a great start.
The only thing to say about the booze element is : 65p for a Marguerita from the Ko San Double Happiness Bar☑. I’ll have ten please sir,
That leaves Buddha. Buddhism being the primarily faith in Mayanmar, although there are a few Hindu temples and I think we saw one Mosque, the big B is king here. And big he is. When it comes to Buddha, big is best. We visited the two largest and oldest Pagodas the most famous being Shwedagon ☑ and Botataung Pagoda ☑, beautiful golden bell shaped pinnacles that dot the landscape. The most stunning sight was actually off the beaten track and less visited by tourists, the largest laying down Buddha in the country at Chauk Htat Gyi ☑. It is huge. Over 200ft long, clad in gold painted robes with mirrored trim and long eyelashes, totally stunning.
The city itself is dirty, smelly and warm, in all meanings of the word, as every city should be. We never felt uncomfortable even when we got ourselves a bit off route one night. It begs to be photographed, colour texture and life is oozing from its pores. Fantastic old colonial buildings, moss and mold marked mausoleums from the British empire, look like they’ve been hauled up from the sea. Yet to be refurbished they lie empty and rotting.
The poverty is visceral, it has nowhere to hide. But it doesn’t threaten or intimidate, it weaves itself in with the rest of the city and so it provides.
Food Boxes Ticked
Touristy Boxes Ticked