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.

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.

Let’s meet some Turks

I have heard endless stories about Turkish hospitality, and I can’t say if these are Turkish traits or not, but in a very short time we have met people who feel like they represent an archetype – the Turquetype, if you will – albeit in vastly different ways.

Let’s meet a few.

Friends as family

When we lived in DC, we became friends with Janine’s co-worker Judy and Judy’s husband Haluk, who was born and raised in the old neighborhood in Istanbul called Sultanahmet. When Haluk found out we were coming to Istanbul, he insisted on picking us up at the airport. He commutes between DC and Istanbul, and he was planning to leave the day after we arrived so he put us in the care of his childhood friend Oktay and Oktay’s brother Adam. They own a restaurant and a handful of other businesses, and they check in on us daily and make sure that we’re well taken care of. When we are in the neighborhood, we make sure to stop by one of the shops, where we hang out and visit. Sometimes Oktay and I head down to the teahouse in the evening and play backgammon. Oktay says that since we’re Haluk’s friends and Haluk is like family, then we are by extension family, and he seems quite sincere about it. It’s like a Turkish syllogism.

Oktay beating me at backgammon

Oktay beating me at backgammon

We were at the restaurant the other night and Adam reported that the guy who plays the reed flute for the whirling Dervishes at the restaurant brought a pile of fish he caught off the banks of the Bosphorous into the restaurant. Would we like some? (A brief aside about the whirling Dervishes. I had grown up thinking that a whirling Dervish was a person with uncontrollable restless energy. Far from it. The Dervishes are practicing a form of Sufi religion in which they arrive at a meditative state that allows them to close their eyes and turn around hundreds and hundreds of times without tossing their lunch all over the front row. If it’s a party trick, it’s a great one. I confess I now have an obsession with these guys.)

Seriously, do NOT try this at home

Seriously, do NOT try this at home

Of course we want Dervish flautist fish. You don’t get that every day. It’s nice to be family.

Other Turquetypes

The crossroads guy during challenging times

Turkey is the bridge between Europe and Asia. In fact, you can cross a bridge in Istanbul and go from Europe to Asia. The other part of this position as crossroads of the world is that Turkey is in the middle of a mess of problems. The country shares long, tense borders with Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Since the Syrian civil war got going, more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees have poured into the country. We met one the other night at dinner. Over the course of our dinner, Muhammad told us that he fled Syria for Kurdish Iraq two years ago, and slipped across the border into Turkey earlier this year. His family left Aleppo, and he can’t imagine the day when he’ll be able to return, or if he does, what will be left. Muhammad was gracious, kind, and he was obviously very sad. I wish him well, but worry for him and his family. Turkey may find itself hosting Muhammed and his countrymen and women for many many years to come. They can’t go home, so they’ll have to stay.

The tout

If you walk ten feet in Istanbul, some guy will try to get you to come into his restaurant, his carpet store, his souvenir stand, or for all I know, his proctology clinic. At Muhammed’s restaurant, where you can get a very nice grilled fish, a friendly, short, stocky fellow in a leather jacket spends his evenings trying to reel in customers. Turns out fishing is in his blood. “In the morning, I fish for fish,” he told me. “In the night, I fish for people!” and pantomimed tossing out his rod and reeling in a couple that was making its way up the hill. He’s not bad at, either. He caught us, after all, and the fish was excellent.

Another fisher of people tried to strike up a conversation, which is simply a pretense to reel you into his business. A young kid named Mehmet wasn’t nearly as skilled as our fisherman friend, but he did his best, even though he didn’t quite have the vocabulary for an extensive conversation. He asked me where I was from, I asked him where he was from, he asked if I wanted to have dinner, I told him I had already eaten. Then I asked his name and he said “Mehmet” and took my hand, shook it, and air kissed me in the direction of both cheeks like he was in the Hamptons, or, it turns out, Istanbul.

The trailblazer

Fatima runs our favorite restaurant in Turkey so far, called Shirahne Cave Restaurant, in Goreme, which is in the central Turkey region called Capadoccia. Goreme is one of those cave towns in Capadoccia in which people have hollowed out the volcanic cliffs and outcroppings and turned them into dwellings. In the past several decades, locals have converted their homes into hotels and restaurants. On this night we ate in a cave and we slept in a cave.

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Be it ever so cave-like, there’s no place like home.

The town is almost comically charming. We wandered up one hill and perched ourselves in a bar overlooking the floodlit town, which brings to mind something out of an animated Disney film.

Goreme at night

Goreme at night

Goreme is a jumping off point for hot air balloon rides and tours of the cave churches and underground cities that dot the region and they’ve done a good job of making the place quite hospitable.

From 1,500 feet up

From 1,500 feet up

After our sundowner, we were getting peckish and we glanced at the menu in front of Shirahne and were thrilled to finally find a place that didn’t have kebabs, hamburgers, or pizza on the menu.

The first night (we went back again the next evening) we had chicken with chickpeas and a handmade pasta that was a lot like spaetzle all served together in a tomato broth. It was the Turkish red pozole, and just as homey and loving. We also had eggplant stuffed with spiced ground beef and a dandy Capadoccian white wine.

The next night we had tiny handmade pasta squares (which reminded me of the Goodman’s squares that my grandmother used to put in her chicken soup) tossed in homemade yogurt and topped with a tangy tomato sauce. It’s as simple as it sounds, but I can’t wait to make it when we get back home. I’d add a bit of dill and serve it as a side dish to a lamb tagine. sounds good, huh? We also had a local black zucchini (Fatima said that were the last of the season) served in clay pot with tomatoes, beef, onions, and peppers. It was a deep, soulful relief to eat real Turkish food after a week of very simple fare. (Although the simple stuff isn’t all bad – one popular street food is a crazy stuffed baked potato called a kumpir that has everything except camel sashimi in it. Janine tucked into one like she’d never eaten before.)

Don't try this at home either

Don’t try this at home either

The real highlight, though, was chatting with Fatima. She feels the pressure of attempting to do real food in a tourist town. Likewise, she is a very modern woman in a place that, by her reckoning, is ambivalent about the role of women these days. She wears jeans and doesn’t cover her head, which in central Turkey has different implications than it may have in Istanbul or on the more European west coast. She told us that she agreed to marry her husband on the condition that he didn’t smoke or drink. The World Health Organization says that 41 percent of Turkish males smoke, but given the astonishing amount of smoking we’ve seen, I find that figure hard to believe. In any case, it’s an audacious requirement here, but Fatima issued it nevertheless. She mostly employs women in the restaurant because they are more reliable and she wants to give them an opportunity to develop marketable skills. She is raising her daughters to be independent, and she has encouraged her first child to delay getting married until she has finished college.

Can you really claim to know something about a person after a brief encounter in a restaurant, or even a week sitting in their shop drinking their tea? Probably not. I’m no more an expert on Turkish people than I am on Turkish taffy. But it’s valuable to try to look just a little bit deeper. The open top bus is fun, but you also have to get off an walk around every once in a while.