Going Around in Circles in Yangon, Myanmar

When we decided to go on this trip, I put Myanmar, which used to be called Burma, up at the top of the list. I had a feeling that it would be the Cuba of Southeast Asia, for good or ill, unsullied by outside forces. And for good or ill, it is.

We were joined at the Bangkok airport by our dear friends Chris and Marianne for the trip to Yangon (which used to be called Rangoon). We stayed at a guest house called Bamboo Place Yangon, which is run by a woman named Nwezin, who may be the face of the Burmese revival. She was extremely hard-working, infinitely friendly, and she’s making a go of her new venture. It can’t be easy. For one thing, her family lives on the premises, which is a lovely colonial-era building, but it appears that most of the rooms are set aside for the guests. One evening I wandered through the front room (where the guests hang out during the day) and found her young daughters spread out on the floor under a mosquito net, hunkered down for the night. Other relatives appeared to be bivoaking in the hallway. Can you imagine waiting for a bunch of foreigners to get out of your sleeping area before being able to go to sleep? Me neither.

In the face of these challenges, the service was gracious and amazingly accommodating. One night we didn’t feel like going out, so Nwezin prepared a traditional Burmese dinner for us, which included a deeply satisfying chicken curry, some fried noodles, watercress salad, sautéed green beans, and a lovely clear soup of some kind. The meal came to ten dollars for the four of us. For breakfast, which was included, you could have eggs and toast or a traditional breakfast of spicy noodles from the Shan region. In my twilight years, when what’s left of my mind turns to paste, I will still remember these noodles. I attempted to extract the recipe from our hostess, but the best she could offer was that I should fry some chicken in onion, and add spices, noodles, and soy sauce. Oh, well. This is what the internet is for.

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An absolutely delicious home-cooked Burmese dinner.

Yangon is a fascinating place. Myanmar was a longtime British colony, with Yangon as one of its major cities. As often happens, the colonizers built buildings that reminded them of home, whether or not those they’re particularly suited to the climate. Many of these buildings are still standing, if only barely. Some look like they’re being held together by mold and mildew. Others are starting to be rehabilitated and are being turned into, among other things, art galleries and hipster bars. One night, Chris, Marianne, Janine and I did a four-part Yangon happy hour pub crawl, where the evening’s bar tab for four people might have topped out at about sixty bucks. Take THAT, Brooklyn.

I love tourist attractions for the catastrophically lazy traveler. This is why I love the hop on hop off buses that wend their way through most major cities. For twenty bucks or so, you get on some relatively nice open top double decker bus and you drive past most of the sights worth seeing. It’s not cheap, but it’s remarkably efficient. You get a lay of the land and you can pretend that you saw a city. Oh, and you don’t have to move a muscle. It’s like the choo choo train that circles Disneyland. It’s fun and it’s efficient and I refuse to apologize for my sloth.

The hop on, hop off bus has not made it to Yangon yet, thank goodness. (Neither, for that matter, has McDonald’s or Starbuck’s, but that won’t hold.) For one thing, it would never get anywhere. In the three or so years since Burma opened up to the west, one of the major changes has been the influx of cheap used cars from Japan. This has made driving in Yangon a challenge for three important reasons – 1) the city roads were not constructed with a lot of traffic in mind; 2) there are still very few traffic lights and other means to control how traffic moves; and 3) since very few people owned cars until now, nobody really knows how to drive. Can you imagine setting many thousands of student drivers out on the roads with no traffic lights? That’s what it’s like to drive in Yangon. We regularly came to an impasse at an unregulated intersection in which the cabdriver and some other driver would struggle to determine how to proceed. It was entertaining, if a little unnerving.

Thus, one of the great ways to take in the city is the Yangon Circular Railway.

(A brief digression. The train was recommended to us by our friends Robert and Ana, who have lived abroad for many years, and in Yangon for the past year. Our kids were friends in pre-school in DC, and we haven’t seen them since they left the States in 2003. On our first night in town, they invited us over for dinner, and it was just fabulous to see them again. It reminded me that travel can be a great way to meet new people but that it’s also a great way to re-connect with people who no longer live nearby. While I’m at it, we hadn’t seen Chris and Marianne for five years because they’ve been living, of all places, in Yemen, the Republic of Georgia, Thailand, and now Pakistan. Thankfully, they were available to join us in Yangon, which has been such fun. Reconnecting with them has been a real highlight of our journey.)

Anyway, back to the railway. By contrast to the hop on, hop off bus, the circular railway has real passengers who are living their lives like normal people. (Tourists, on the other hand, live their lives like abnormal people. They walk around in circles, get in people’s way, and they dress funny.) The railway was built by the British more than a half a century ago, and it’s the lifeline for the city’s regular folk. I have a sneaking suspicion that with the exception of advertisements for cell phones and the like on the walls of the trains, a time traveler would not notice much difference over the years. The train putts along at about thirty miles per hour and circumnavigates the city in three hours or so. It passes though the center of town and then works its way out to the northern suburbs, although you won’t spot any soccer moms or minivans out there.

I was eager to give it a go. We found the funky old station, bought our tickets, and climbed aboard for our journey on a rolling metal time machine. We chugged through the city, which is gritty, dirty, and desperately lacking in modern infrastructure. After about a half hour, the train became a cargo vessel and filled with goods from the market, headed, one would assume, for the city. Soon after we were in the countryside, where farmers hip deep in flooded fields harvested watercress, which is a staple in the Burmese diet. There were rice fields, tea fields, and thatched roof shacks.

Passengers on the Yangon Circular Railway loaded down with goods from the vegetable market.

Passengers on the Yangon Circular Railway loaded down with goods from the vegetable market.

It was a hot, sweaty, stinky ride, but endlessly fascinating, and you couldn’t beat the price – a ticket on the circular railway will run you a grand total of two hundred Burmese kyat, or nineteen American cents, or 6.33 cents per hour. I read that there are plans afoot to modernize the railway, which I’m sure will make it more efficient but a lot less charming. I hope they find a way to keep it affordable for the people who rely on it to move their goods from place to place. Without this creaky, pokey, rolling wheelbarrow, life for lot of people would be even harder than it is.

One thing that is decidedly not poor is the Shwedagon Pagoda. This temple, which dates back in one form or another to about 600 BCE, is said to hold relics of the four Buddhas that attained enlightenment, and is an important Buddhist pilgrimage site. It is also just a bewildering collection of priceless religious art and architecture. The pagoda is covered in gold – not just gold leaf, but actual plates of gold. The top of the pagoda, known as the umbrella, consists of half a ton of gold alone. I was just as interested in the pilgrims themselves. There are monks of all ages, including children who look five or six years old. There was a little boy in elaborate dress who was being carried by one man and shaded from the sun by another. It was The Last Emperor, Myanmar edition. Then there were people who may have turned up for some peace and quiet – I saw more than a few people curled up in a cool, quiet corner of a prayer hall, snoozing away.

I must say, the little feller looks rather unexcited about being carried around and shaded.

I must say, the little feller looks rather unexcited about being carried around and shaded.

This is a fascinating city. It’s more or less as I imagined it – it evokes every bit of the faded glory I had expected, although it’s always worth remembering that a certain amount of that so-called “glory” was colonial. I was also reminded that, while we are always eager to wander among the stalls in the marketplace and take the decidedly un-spiffy circular railroad, we also don’t turn up our noses at a good ‘ol pub crawl in refurbished hipster havens surrounded by scrums of expats. We want screamy fast wifi to go with our ancient culture. Can a country upgrade itself enough to attract tourists and foreign investment without selling its soul? I certainly hope so.

Yangon has a long way to go. The infrastructure needs to be built almost from scratch. Most businesses have diesel generators to deal with the regular blackouts. Untreated sewage runs in trenches next to the sidewalk. There was no trash collection to speak of that I could find. And through it all people are busting their bippies to make a living and a life, and doing it with remarkably good humor. I wish them very well.

Did I or didn’t I cook with Poo?

I’ve heard that there are things to do in Thailand other than eating or sitting on a beach, and it was our fervent hope that we might possibly do some of them.

High on our list was something of cultural significance. The Grand Palace seemed to fit the bill. It’s a huge complex of ornate, beautiful buildings that used to be the chief residence of the king of Thailand. I could just picture Yul Brynner padding about, although then I began to feel resentful that I never got to be in The King and I on Broadway, but then the hard feelings subsided and I decided that the Grand Palace would make a very nice historic and cultural excursion. Although I think that Trip Advisor ranks up there with bathroom walls as places to receive useful sightseeing information, the purveyor of green balls nevertheless ranks the Grand Palace near the top of things to do in Bangkok.(By the way, according to Trip Advisor, the top rated restaurant in New York is a sandwich shop in the West Village called Faicco’s Pork Store – it may be a perfectly lovely pork store, but New York’s best restaurant it ain’t.) Anyhoo, It was worth a shot.

With this winning endorsement in our back pockets, we set out for the Grand Palace. Getting around Bangkok isn’t too bad, but taking a cab requires a bit of technology, a bit of skill in mime and charades, and a bit of luck. Google Maps really is the revelation of the modern age, but even that has its imperfections. Anyway, I realized that the words “Grand Palace,” which the average Thai cab driver may or may not understand in English, is right next to a temple called Wat Pho, which I had a feeling would be easier for the cabbie to understand. Wat Pho is Wat Pho no matter how you slice it. And besides, who doesn’t love a Thai temple? So I told the nice man to please take us to Wat Pho and he nodded knowingly, and we were off.

Well, ladies and gentleman, Wat Pho is a fabulous place. I know this because as soon as we arrived, we saw prominently displayed photos of President Obama and Hillary Clinton shuffling around this very temple IN THEIR SOCKS. When you enter a Buddhist temple you have to take off your shoes, and apparently they don’t make exceptions, even for the Leader of the Free World. I would think that a place would have to be pretty nice for the President of the United States and the Secretary of State to walk around in their stocking feet. I wonder if the advance team prepared a memo for POTUS (and SOSOTUS) reminding him to be sure not to wear socks with holes in them when visiting Wat Pho. Can you imagine? Actually, what I imagine is some poor schmo site advance kid having to take off his nice socks and give them to the president. So seeing photos of President Obama and Secretary Clinton sealed the deal. We were in the right place.

Wat Pho is famous for its statue of the reclining Buddha – a really extraordinary piece of religious art –although if you ask me he’s not actually reclining, he’s kind of lying on his side. Anyway, he’s huge – he’s got to be more than fifty or sixty feet long, with massive toes that dominate one side of the room. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the toes. The complex is also full of other, lesser temples that are nevertheless quite impressive in their own right. In all, it was a very good, happy accident. We had experienced Thai culture, and we were feeling good about ourselves.

The reclining buddha at Wat Pho temple.

The reclining buddha at Wat Pho temple.

Having gotten a nice cultural appetizer, we set out to take on the Grand Palace, only to realize that it was now closed. And so it goes. Things don’t always go according to plan. (A postscript. Upon further review, I learned that Wat Pho is the #1 attraction in Bangkok on Trip Advisor – take THAT Grand Palace!)

In addition to at least one attraction of cultural significance, I had promised myself that I would take a cooking class in Thailand. I had once thought that taking a cooking class in each country would be a smashing idea, but it never quite happened. For one thing, the cuisines of Argentina, South Africa, Egypt, New Zealand, and Australia (no offense, really), weren’t exactly the stuff you’d go to a cooking class to learn, although Sicily and Japan would have been interesting. I’ve attempted Thai food in the past and it has always been really, really mediocre. I yearned to learn the essential technique that I could use to amaze my friends. One cooking class caught my eye. It was called “Cooking with Poo.” Turns out that some woman named Chonpoo runs a cooking school in Bangkok and she has a sense of humor.

It is here that I must make a shameful confession. I didn’t care whether this was a good cooking school or not. I just wanted to have an excuse to call this post “Cooking with Poo.” Thus, I was deeply disturbed to learn that I wouldn’t be able to cook with Poo after all. Poo was sold out. As you can see, I have shamefully exploited Poo without actually taking her class. I don’t care. If you’re reading this, you clicked on the title. If you don’t feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth, I will happily issue a refund.

Having been prevented from cooking with Poo, I was forced to settle for the more prosaically named Silom Cooking School, which was a perfectly excellent trip into Thai cuisine. The thing I learned about Thai cooking, which should surprise almost nobody, is that if you assemble real Thai ingredients and throw them together in a pot or a pan, it’s going to taste good. Case in point – the first thing we made was Tom Yum Goong – spicy sour shrimp coconut soup. Basically, you prep a small pile of ingredients, including the Thai trinity – galangal (Thai ginger), kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass – then you add birdseye chiles, which will sear your soul if used properly, and a few other things like fish sauce, shrimp, and some other stuff (I have already sent home the very helpful recipe book that they gave us so I’m working from memory), and you add a few shrimp, some water, and a bit of coconut milk and you throw it into a wok and cook it for four minutes. That’s it, kids! And let me tell you, this was the best damn Tom Yum Goong I’ve ever had. It was tangy, spicy, and it had all those great Thai flavors that you almost never get at Siam Palace, or King of Bangkok, or King of Palace of Siam, or whatever your serviceable non-Thai-owned neighborhood Thai restaurant is called.

Other mysteries were revealed. We made our own coconut milk and coconut cream, which was like finding out the trick of sawing a lady in half. Here’s how you do it – take a coconut, shred it, add warm water, and squeeze it into a fine mesh colander (the Thais use woven baskets, but who’s got one of those?). The product of this is coconut cream. Then you take the just-squeezed coconut shreds and add more warm water and squeeze it out again. That’s the coconut milk. Crazy, huh? The technique trick I learned about coconut curry is that you combine the coconut cream and the curry paste and reduce that for a while, then you add your protein and the coconut milk (and the obligatory mise en place of spices and condiments) and reduce that for a while, and you’re done. It’s not insipid and watery, like I always make. The whole thing takes ten minutes. We also made our own curry paste. This was really easy, even though we used an old fashioned mortar and pestle. Just throw thai basil, thai cilantro (there are several kinds of both), some big not-so-spicy chiles, some little really spicy chiles, and some other stuff in a bowl (or food processor), and you’re done. Who knew?

I wasn't cooking with Poo, but it was still fun.

I wasn’t cooking with Poo, but it was still fun.

I will say that our instructor (who used to live, of all places, in Waco, Texas) may or may not have been the Rachel Ray of Thai cooking. He seemed perfectly fine with using canned coconut milk and prepared curry pastes. I’m sure he was right, but when I get home, I’m going full monty with all the homemade stuff.

We also made penang curry, pad thai, and sticky rice with mango. They were all shmabulously good, especially the sticky rice, which is now my favorite dessert. That one is ridiculously easy – steam (don’t boil) some glutinous rice, soak it in sugar and coconut milk, and top it with some sesame seeds. Your guests will think you’re god, and you’ll giggle and titter at how easy to please everyone is.

Thai cooking is a little like Thailand itself. It seems mysterious, but it’s actually really accessible. Bangkok is like that, too. It’s crazy and chaotic, but not so bad once you get the hang of it. People are friendly, the cabs take you where you want to go for about three bucks, and you can live quite well on a budget. There are higher end joints where you can spend a little bit extra, but in most cases, it will still work out to be a huge bargain when compared to the fancy shmancy joints in other big cities.

We had hoped to stare down at it all from atop the Skybar, the chic downtown cocktail lounge, but in the one moment of inhospitality, we were turned away because our friend John was wearing, gasp, sandals. That’s okay, we didn’t see the Grand Palace either.

A bucolic Thai beach, full of unsmiling, tattooed, European bodybuilders.

After several joyful days in Bangkok, we decamped for the beach. The water was lovely, the hotel was charming, and the guests were, how shall I put it? Weird.

We spent four days at this charming little beach resort on Koh Samui, a perfectly good island off the east coast of Thailand in the South China Sea, but I am left scratching my head about why so many strange people are attracted to this place. For starters, there seemed to be a disproportionate number of Eastern European body builders. There was one couple, covered head to toe with tattoos, who kept their kickboxing apparatus on the bench in front of their room. We never actually saw them beat each other up, but that seems to be their hobby. They’re both ripped up like, well, Herr and Frau Universe. And they never seemed to speak. Herr Universe would wade out into the water and put his head down and stand there for twenty or thirty minutes at a time, just pacing back and forth in the water. Then he’d hop onto a small floating pier and pace back and forth some more. Either he was thinking very deep thoughts or he was searching in vain for a contact lens.

On the plane on the way back to Bangkok there was another fellow who was bigger and broader than Herr Universe, with even more tattoos, if that’s possible. (Speaking of tattoos, on the beach the other day, we saw an older gentleman with a massive tattoo on his back of an extremely well-endowed naked man. I tell you, this place is just plain weird.)

Another woman who might have been Turkish or Russian walked around the property photographing or taking video of herself with her selfie stick almost constantly. Then there was the other unsmiling bearded gentleman with the prohibition-era haircut (y’know, shaved on the sides but the top flops downs over it) who sat in the restaurant staring ahead (or occasionally at his ipad), his leg in constant motion, as if he were stomping on imaginary cockroaches. Every so often his female companion would sit down next to him, but he seldom seemed to notice. There were a few European-looking gentlemen of a certain age accompanied by what appeared to be non-European women not of a certain age. There was another guy with a big Smith Brothers beard and a man bun who looked like he should be pouring cocktails in Bushwick. He never smiled either, or made any obvious expression. And then there were our roommates. Well, they might as well have been our roommates because the walls provided shockingly little noise reduction. The fellow never spoke. His significant other had a Midwestern accent out of the movie Fargo, which we were easily able to identify as she carried on an extended Skype call late one night. The next morning she was rather less articulate, but no less noisy. Happily, they were quick about it.

The sunbathing rituals of the resort’s inmates were impressive. Each morning, round about 8ish, the guests would scope out their chaises, put a towel or some other item that marked the property as theirs, and then have a quick breakfast before returning to their claimed territory, where they would proceed to crispify themselves for the rest of the day. Many of them turned purple before our very eyes. If I had some extra money I’d invest it in German skin cancer clinics.

A perfectly nice beach resort in Thailand.

A perfectly nice beach resort in Thailand.

And as bizarre as this sullen, territorial, tonsorially unusual assembly of Teutonic sun worshipers was, the staff was warm, welcoming and gracious. I would not be surprised to learn that they hire zen masters to work at Koh Samui resorts, just because normal human beings would surely go stark raving mad.

Despite the cultural gulfs between us and our fellow guests, Janine, our friend John (who joined us at the beach) and I had an embarrassingly good time. We kept ourselves quite busy by moving with alacrity from the restaurant to the beach to the pool, never pausing long enough to seem lazy. And we were quite responsible in our appetites as well, almost never drinking beer before noon. One day we even ventured into what passes for town. Why, you may ask, would we waste the opportunity to take advantage of the myriad cultural opportunities that Thailand has to offer in favor of a prosaic trip to the beach with a menagerie of semi-disgruntled European melanomics? Well, John was cold after a cruel East Coast winter, and after seven months of busy, culturally thoughtful travel, we had hit the sweet spot between tired and lazy that cried out for a restorative trip to the beach. I’m happy to report that it appears to have worked.