Tasty, Myanmar: Getting Acquainted with Burmese Cuisine

When people think of Asian cuisine, Burmese cuisine would rarely be top-of-mind.

Myanmar (formerly Burma) has been closed off from the rest of the world for decades. And while it has opened its doors in recent years, it’s still not getting as much tourists as its neighboring countries. It’s probably one of the reasons why Burmese cuisine is still not that popular.

When you do decide to visit, you’ll be treated to a variety of dishes influenced by Indian, Chinese, Laotian, and Thai cuisines. Myanmar owes this to its geographical location.

Burmese cuisine
My order (expectation)
Burmese cuisine
A Burmese feast! (reality)

In the first few hours of arriving in the country, my friends and I sat down at a restaurant. We thought the menu was pretty straightforward. You just have to choose a curry set (choice of chicken, pork, beef, fish, mutton, or venison meat), and that’s it.

But when our orders arrived, it came with bowls of soup, a plethora of side dishes, and a huge plate of fresh vegetables with dipping sauce. Needless to say, we were overwhelmed.

And did I mention they served unlimited rice and even free dessert? Now, that’s bang for your buck.

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5 Itineraries to Help Kickstart Your Southeast Asian Adventure

Ever since I got back from my month-long Southeast Asian trip last August 2014, some friends have expressed their interest of doing the same, but don’t know exactly where to start.  

The thing is, when people ask me for my itinerary, I’m a bit hesitant to just give them what I used because it is customized according to MY traveling style. 
I found that it has changed over the years. I no longer feel the need to pack as many attractions as I can in day, and would prefer to pay more for convenience rather than sacrifice comfort for the sake of sticking to my budget. 

I also traveled solo, so my expenses were inevitably bigger than usual. And the only tickets I had pre-booked on sale were my Manila to Bangkok, Bangkok to Chiang Mai, and Bali to Manila flights. The rest of the flights, I booked when I was already on the road.

I actually traveled for 32 days

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The Monasteries of Mandalay Part 1

Our first day in Mandalay began with a brief visit to Mahamuni Paya followed by a trip to Sagaing Hill.
Seven-tiered Pyatthat-style roof housing the Mahamuni Buddha (the most revered Buddha statue in the country)
 
On our way to Sagaing Hill, the driver pulled over before reaching the bridge so we can take pictures of the numerous white and gold pagodas dotting the hill.
Snapped from the van
Shortly after crossing the bridge, we drove through uphill winding road until we reached the parking lot of U Min Thonze Cave.
Unlike Mt. Popa, it’ll only take about 5 minutes (you can probably make it in just 2 minutes if you’re really fit) to get to the top.
U Min Thonze or ’30 caves pagoda’ has 45 gilded Buddha images housed in a crescent-shaped colonnade on the side of Sagaing Hill
Just before we reached the colonnade, I came eye to eye with a guy sporting a smirk and thought he looked awfully familiar. Why was the guy smirking?
Well, 8 hours earlier, a group of taxi drivers immediately approached us upon our arrival at the bus terminal. One of them asked where we were staying and gave a price. One of us tried to haggle, but maybe he thought we didn’t have enough money and so he offered to take us to an ATM or foreign exchange. You see, when you approach a group of Filipinos and you drop words like ‘ATM’ and ‘ForEx’ when all they want is a taxi, this raises a red flag. Some of us misinterpreted his intention and thought he was trying to scam us. We went ballistic and left the poor guy wondering what he had done wrong.

Of course we just realized we might have overreacted after we managed to compose ourselves. LOL

Just like a miniature Shwedagon Pagoda
Meanwhile, on another hilltop lies Sone Oo Pone Nya Shin Pagoda.
With massive Buddha statues, a golden stupa, mirror-inlaid pillars, beautiful hallways and colorful tiles, shutterbugs will go crazy here. There’s just a small ‘camera fee’ that you have to pay at the entrance, though.

Inwa Ancient Village

After lunch, our guide dropped us off near a riverbank where we took a short ferry ride across the Myitnge River to get to Inwa Ancient Village. Upon arrival, visitors can choose from the plethora of horse carts waiting to take them around.

Inwa is my favorite among all the places we visited in Mandalay because of its laid-back vibe.

Big trees line both sides of the road; their branches almost touching each other creating what seemed like a tree tunnel. Naturally, we enjoyed the cooler temperature thanks to the lush vegetation. It was a really pleasant ride.

 Bagaya Monastery
For centuries, Inwa (also known as Ava) was the most important royal capital in Myanmar but abandoned after it was destroyed by a series of major earthquakes. Today, only a handful of structures remain.
The first one we visited was Bagaya Monastery which is made entirely of teak wood.
It used to be where the royals were educated. Now, some parts are used as classrooms for the village children.
Weathered teak wood with exquisite carvings
On our way to Yadana Hsimi Pagodas
Yadana Hsimi Pagodas – a group of small stupa ruins
 
With dark clouds looming over our next destination, our horse cart driver hurriedly passed through muddy roads – giving us a roller coaster ride-like experience – to get to the watchtower. 
Nan Mint Watchtower – the only remaining part of the Bagyidaw Palace.
 
Nothing really much to see here, and even if visitors were allowed to go up, I don’t think I’d climb that rickety staircase.
The last attraction we visited in Inwa was the Maha Aung Mye Bon Zan Monastery.
Guarded by humongous Chinthes (Burmese mythological lions) at the entrance, the mighty ocher-colored monastery made of bricks and decorated with stucco stand proud.

Maha Aung Mye Bon Zan Monastery

It was already late in the afternoon and soon started drizzling, so we left Inwa and went on our way to the last stop for the day: sunset viewing at U Bein Bridge.

K

Of Makeup, Monkeys and Mt. Popa

Two words: wet wipes.
 
I’ll come back to that later.
On our second day in Bagan, our guide brought us to Taung Kalat – a monastery perched atop the volcanic plug caused by the extinct volcano, Mt. Popa. One needs to climb 777 steps to get to the summit which is home to nats or spirits represented by statues. 

Taung Kalat Monastery – often confused to be the actual Mt. Popa
 
On our way to Taung Kalat, we made a stopover at a roadside tea shed that also makes palm sugar candy and palm liquor among others.
 


They showed us the old school way of extracting the palm sugar syrup using a bull-powered grinding wheel. Next, a guy climbed a palm tree like nobody’s business. The sap was then distilled to make palm liquor. 

A nice Burmese lass also showed us how to prepare thanaka. It is a form of makeup produced by grinding a tree bark with a small amount of water on a circular stone slab to create a paste. She even painted our faces with a leaf design. 🙂
Claire and I sporting our leaf design thanaka
Aside from cosmetic purposes, thanaka provides protection from sunburn and gives a cooling sensation.
Photo credit: Ann Umaña

Next, we were treated to some tea and snacks – an assortment of pickled tea leaves, fried lentils, sesame seeds etc.
 
The side trip seemed a bit touristy, all right, but we didn’t feel pressured to shell out some kyats. But because they were so kind – and since tipping is not customary in Myanmar – we bought some palm sugar and plum candies as pasalubong.
Taung Kalat was still an hour’s drive from the tea shed. We traveled through uphill and winding roads before we reached the foot of the monastery lined with vendors and shops.
 
There is no entrance fee, but really, it should just be imposed for the monastery’s upkeep.
 
As usual, footwear and even socks must be removed. There are racks where you can leave your footwear.
 
A humongous nat a few steps from the entrance
The culprit
Photo credit: Jyse Salubre

The climb was okay, but because we are so physically fit, we stopped every now and then.
Once, we stopped to buy soda from one of the vendors when a monkey snatched my friend’s drink, which startled another friend and caused her to drop her iPad. It’s still in one piece, thankfully, though its camera had been somewhat damaged. 
Be very wary of these mischievous monkeys because there are lots of them in Taung Kalat. And oh, expect that you’ll inevitably be stepping on their piss and/or poo, too, so bring lots of wet wipes and alcohol.
Although there are ‘caretakers’ who are stationed to mop the steps every now and then, it seemed to me that they only actually start mopping when they see tourists approaching so they could ask for donations. Again, probably better to have a fixed entrance fee, no?

We weren’t even halfway through the climb and we were already panting. If it weren’t for the senior citizens — some even with a foot cast — that passed us by, we would have probably given up and just waited for the rest of the group to descend.

 Life-like nats that have human characteristics, wants and needs

After we finally managed to drag ourselves to the summit, we weren’t exactly bowled over with what we saw. Aside from the nats and a number of Buddha statues, there’s really not much to see. So unless you have more than 2 days in Bagan, I wouldn’t recommend getting a Mt. Popa tour.

Taung Kalat as seen from Mt. Popa Resort

Our driver then brought us to Mt. Popa Resort which has amazing views! Had we known how filthy Taung Kalat was, we would have skipped the climb and headed straight to this resort.
 

Bewitching Bagan Temples

With a plethora of temples to see in Bagan, it’s easy to be overwhelmed. In reality, you only need to visit about 4 dozen. Still a lot, eh?

Well, the number of temples you’ll see and which ones are going to be entirely up to you (or your guide), the length of your stay and the weather. Take note that some of my friends visited more temples than the ones listed below because they biked around Bagan on our second day.

Dhammayangyi & Thatbyinnyu in the distance

We decided to avail of Mya Thida’s tour for convenience. Their van comfortably fit our group plus one of the owners also served as our driver/guide.

Now, I won’t bore you to death with the historical facts for each temple. You can always Google that, right?

Our tour started with the smaller temples and the ones closest to the ‘hotel’.
 

Manuha Phaya

Reclining Buddha

Inset: Largest of the three sitting Buddhas

This temple houses 4 Buddhas: a 46 feet high central Buddha and two on its sides each measuring 33 feet, and a 90-feet long reclining Buddha with its head facing north on the verge of Nirvana at the side of the temple.

They said the cramped state of the Buddhas is a reflection of King Manuha’s melancholic state for being under house arrest.

Nanpaya Temple
 
Three-faced Brahma seated amidst lotus stems, roots and flowers
 
Also within the same compound is Nanpaya Temple. This temple is made of bricks and sandstone with perforated stone windows. It also has impressive artworks decorating the four pillars of its interior chamber.
 
Gubyauk Gyi
 
 
This temple may be small, but it is one of my favorites because it houses impressive frescoes – mostly depicting the 16 dreams of King Kosala and Jatakasor previous birth stories of Buddha. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed to preserve the paintings.
Dhammayangyi Temple
 
Next up is the massive Dhammayangyi Temple.
 
 
Before entering the temple, our driver/guide shared that Dhammayangyi survived several earthquakes because of the excellent brick-laying method used. The bricks were laid so close that not even a needle could be inserted between the seams.
 
The four devotional halls: each at one of the four cardinal points
 
Ananda Temple

Our last stop before lunch was the Ananda Temple – one of the finest and most venerated temple in Bagan.

Just like Dhammayangyi, Ananda Temple houses four Buddhas each facing the cardinal directions.
Gold leaf-adorned Gautama Buddha facing west
Ananda Temple’s expansive courtyard where…guess what? WiFi is available!
Had to run back inside the temple after taking this shot. Not a very good idea wandering here at midday…barefoot – something you have to get used to when visiting temples in Myanmar.

And because it was extremely hot, imagine our delight when we saw a sorbet vendor outside Ananda Paya.

We were on our way to the van, parked a few steps from where the vendor was, and I was happily slurping on my sorbet when one of my friends asked the other “Oh my god! Nakita mo ba yung kuko ni kuya?!” (“Did you see his fingernails?!”) Uhh thanks, guys! So they hurriedly searched for a plastic bag to discreetly dispose of the sorbets haha Fortunately, I didn’t suffer from food poisoning or diarrhea after that.
Thambula Paya
Photo credit: Tantan Trinidad

L-R: Claire, Me, Lecky, Tantan, Jyse, Ann and this trip’s mastermind, Chito 😀

Just a little trivia: While this trip took a year in the making, most of us only met each other for the first time on our ‘PDOS’ (pre-departure orientation seminars) LOL a couple of months before the trip.
 
Anyway, we resumed temple-hopping around 4:00 pm starting at Thambula Paya.
 
 Thambula Paya

 

Thambula Paya is probably one of the few temples, if not the only one, built by a queen.

Just like Gubyauk Gyi, it houses frescoes, therefore, photography is not allowed.

A few meters from Thambula Paya is Paya Thonzu which literally means three temples
Lone monk
Tayoke-Pyay
We were on our way to Tayoke-Pyay when we met the lady below.
The lady who asked for a ‘photo blessing’

 

We saw an old lady herding her goats and we asked if we could take her photo. She agreed and so we clicked away. We thanked her, but then she asked for a ‘photo blessing’. At first we didn’t understand what she meant so she cupped her hands. Apparently, she was asking for a donation. The smallest bill we had at the time was MMK1,000 (about a dollar), so we handed it to her and went on our way.

Then she tried to get us to take a picture of her friend, too (so we’d give her a ‘photo blessing’ as well). That didn’t sit well with us so we tried to ignore her, but she kept on calling us – more like yelling at us.

When we reached Tayoke-Pyay, Lecky and I felt she was driving her herd towards us. Good thing our van arrived to pick us up.

Thit Sar Waddy temple according to one of Mya Thida’s owner

Finally, our guide brought us to his ‘special place’, his sanctuary, if you will. He says he goes here whenever he wants some alone time.

Save for a few painting vendors who popped out of nowhere — probably because they heard our raucous laughter — we had the temple all to ourselves.

We weren’t rewarded with a spectacular sunset because the sun hid behind the clouds.

Dhamma Yazika at dusk

In a matter of minutes, darkness swiftly enveloped Bagan, and just like that, we were given the same view we had when we arrived at this ancient city 16 hours earlier.  

 
K