Search This Blog

Saturday, January 05, 2008

DECEMBER IN YANGON, PART II-- AND HAPPY 60th ANNIVERSARY, MYANMAR!


Roland finds 2 monks the junta didn't murder

One thing I found all 3 countries-- India, Thailand and Myanmar-- that I've been visiting this winter have in common is that each is a society with starkly different and parallel worlds coexisting in tandem-- each seemingly occupying the same physical space but not much else. Each has a noticeably growing middle class-- rapidly growing and growingly confident in India and Thailand-- living alongside masses so deplorably impoverished and in such primitive circumstances that they hardly seem to be living in the same epoch. At Down With Tyranny a couple weeks ago, I mentioned that 700 million people in India-- 700 million-- have no sanitary facilities. But the rich are getting richer... much richer-- and more and more people are walking around with cell phones.

Myanmar, potentially just as developable as India and Thailand, is in a world of its own-- and a world of hurt. There is definitely a Burmese middle class in places like Yangon and Mandalay, even if every aspect of the society is held back and hampered by a severely dysfunctional and oppressive tyranny. The junta holds back development as a product of ideology and as a tactic in maintaining its own dominance through brutal authoritarianism. After the recent violent crackdown on peaceful human rights demonstrators-- a crackdown which included the military slaughtering hundreds of peaceful monks-- the regime suddenly increased the cost of satellite TV access to make it inaccessible to the middle class. I mentioned a few days ago that the junta had already banned the BBC and other western news sources, leaving people with nothing but the always inoffensive and tepid CNN-- cookie recipe shows and breathless news reports on Britney Spears latest foibles threaten no one-- on which to depend for outside news. But now, even that will be out of reach for the Burmese middle class.

In Thailand people eat out. I was looking at condos for sale while I was here and noticed all the kitchens had two-burner stoves. When I asked an agent why hat was he said that most Thais rarely prepare meals at home. Food is cheap, varied and incredibly abundant. You see mountains of food everywhere you look in Thailand and you see Thais eating... everywhere. Their cuisine is one of the best-developed in the world, extremely sophisticated... sublime. Myanmar, next door, is a slightly different story. Food, though hardly scarce, isn't nearly as plentiful or as varied. And the cuisine, though good, isn't n the same level as Thailand's. Nor are there the plethora of restaurants in Yangon that you find in Bangkok.

Burmese food, naturally enough, is greatly influenced by Chinese and Indian cooking. It's far milder-- some might even say blander-- than Thai food. We tend to avoid Italian food, French food, Chinese food, and especially "American food" when we're traveling. Eating the native food is a crucial art of the travel experience for me, as it is for Roland-- although he goes to extremes, eating insects and dogs and snakes and God knows what. (I'm happy as a clam when I discover a new fruit, like pomelo or lamut.) In Yangon we stuck to the Burmese restaurants. And we avoided dinners, concentrating on lunches-- something I always do when traveling but which is even more important in a place like Burma where preparation takes a long time and it's fresh at lunch and, basically, left over at dinner.

The best restaurant we found in Yangon is Sandy's right on the shore of Lake Kandawgy (in the Kandawgy Palace Hotel, a hotel as shabby as its restaurant is spectacular). The setting is serene and gorgeous, basically an immense veranda right on the shore overlooking a superb park. The menu is overwhelming and just goes on and on and on. You'd have to spend months there before getting a fair sampling. And the very reasonable prices are in dollars. Their salads are amazing. I went crazy for the tea leaf salad and the pomelo salad. But everything we tried was very good. A close runner-up was the Green Elephant, which is pretty far from downtown-- about a dollar taxi ride. The food was also very good but eating there was basically the only time we were in Myanmar when we were aware that there were other tourists in Yangon besides us. We only saw one other westerner at the Swedegon Pagoda, the most famous site in the country, but the Green Elephant was filled with westerners. There were far less westerners at the bountiful, and relatively cheap, buffet offered at Traders (Shangri-La) Hotel downtown, a place you can get decent Burmese food and a whole hodge-podge of international cuisine.

And the Happy 60th Anniversary referred to in the title? Burma gained its freedom from the British on January 4, 1948-- after a hard-fought struggle led by that country's George Washington, Bogyoke Aung San, father of the currently imprisoned legitimate elected head of state and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Hi Howei, nice post about Yangon. Would you like to put your traveling experience into a travel guide? do take a loot at www.a4trip.com and www.a4friends.com
Hope to hear from you..