When I left nearly four years ago to travel, I wasn’t sure what pieces of the travel experience would most pique my interest . . . would it be the varied landscapes, the new foods and flavors, or perhaps new friends? In the intervening years, I learned that I am most engaged in my travel experience when I look for stories from friendly people willing to share a meal. In some places, however, the fascination truly lies deep within the history—often the living history—of a place.
The living legacy left in Bagan, Myanmar (formerly Burma) was visible for miles when I entered the Bagan Archeological Zone, a region of the country with more than 2,200 temples and stupas remaining; the earliest of these structures date back to beginning of the 11th century. As Ana and I traveled through Myanmar, luck was with us that our visit aligned with our friends’ family travels in Myanmar as well. The mother is Burmese-American and has family still living in the country; when our visits coincided, she and her family offered us the chance to travel with them on their pilgrimage to Bagan’s holy temples.
We spent a whirlwind two days from sunup to sundown visiting the holiest temples, and learning about why these temples are still today used in modern worship.Though renting bicycles is the most popular way for tourists to see navigate the dusty roads and fields of temples, we all drove around in the cushioned bed of a truck so that we could visit many of the temples spread over the 40-square miles of land within the ancient city.
The thing I found fascinating about the temples in Bagan, in contrast to other temple complexes in Southeast Asia (namely Angkor Wat, which I took Ana to see two months after Bagan), is the fact that many of the temples were reconstructed for modern use. There were plenty of crumbling, pumpkin-colored stupas contrasting the fields of dull grass burnt dry from the strong sun, but a great many of the holiest temples were modern places of worship with re-gilded exteriors, Buddha statues, and Nats.
Below I’d like to share a photo journey and the story of our days visiting the monasteries and stupas of ancient Bagan that form the country’s living history. Bagan is incredibly photogenic, so I’ve shared the highlights (21 photos and mini-stories!) from two full days below (sunrise to sunset), but there are more Bagan travel photos if you’re keen.
Bagan was such a special stop on our travels through Myanmar and an real highlight of our time traveling the region. The temples are incredible, and though they are not yet registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site (politics), this counts as a unique place in our cultural heritage.
Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia
A download of everything I learned from years backpacking Southeast Asia, and a beginners guide of sorts for anyone traveling through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia!
Ana and I planned out much of our travels in Burma around the ability to meet up with friends in the country and based on timing issues, we had four extra days and needed to stick close to Yangon, Burma’s capital city. Based on the recommendation of fellow travelers, Ana and I pointed our noses toward Hpa-an, a small and sleepy town about seven hours southwest of Yangon (Rangoon for those who prefer the alternate spelling).
Hpa-An hit on each of my anticipations: small, rural, markets, people and countryside hikes. I wish I could write this post with a sentiment that shouts out “wow, look at this place, it’s amazing, it’s wonderful, awe-inspiring you’ll be jealous I’m here!” That would sell people on the town and probably convince a few people to steer their backpacks and wheelie suitcases in that direction.
Well, I can’t sell you on it as an adventure junkie location, and this petite town may never find its way into a travel brochure. Instead, the town is sweet and light; it’s a place with friendly faces and days spent chatting with Ana on long hikes through rice paddies and painted caves.
Small towns are windows into a country’s soul; this is the case in every country I’ve ever visited, my own included. People are more accessible in small towns, it’s easy to walk through the tiny neighborhoods, the cadence of life slows down and locals have the time and inclination for a friendly wave, even a spot of conversation if they speak English.
Mornings are my personal time when I travel with my niece Ana. I spend time reflecting, writing, and planning, usually over a quiet coffee. In Hpa-An, with no internet in the hotel (sometimes that is a real blessing), and a hankering for fresh coffee (as opposed to the instant variety offered freely in the hotel), I headed out at sunrise to visit the busy morning market visible out the window of my guesthouse.
Morning air is fresher than any other time in the day. The nighttime breezes clear out the scents and sounds. Sunrise wipes the slate clean and shoppers and vendors at the dawn market in Hpa-An buzzed with delighted chatter. Locals truck, bicycle, and walk in fresh vegetables from the countryside and by dawn the veggies and fruits are stacked and ready for purchase. Women wield their cleavers and freshly dice up the day’s meat supply for the town.
And being the lone tourist around, a grin split my face while juicy fresh watermelon dripped from my hand as I watched the locals in Hpa-An greet the morning with smiles, enthusiasm, and the rhythms of long-established routine that plays out like an exquisitely timed ballet.
Hours later, one of the helpful owners of the Soe Brothers Guesthouse dropped Ana and me off at a wooden hut plopped near a field deep in the countryside with a grinning old woman selling bits and bots of soda and snacks to anyone making a pilgrimage to the cave shrines. He gave us clear instructions on getting back to town, a good call on his part because for the rest of the day, the only clear English we spoke was to each other! With a jaunty wave and a “see ya later,” Ana and I were left with a hand-drawn map in our hands showing a path through rice paddies to various caves and temples awash with paintings and Buddha statues, and a nearby swimming hole popular with the locals.
I handed the reins over to Ana; at 11 she’s quite old enough to lead us around our map to the various spots and it’s more fun for her if she has some control, particularly on a day of exploring paths, caves, temples, nooks, and crannies.
We found the Kawkathaung and Ruby caves filled to overflowing with Buddhas. Paintings and signs carved into the rock. Small statues filled naturally formed rock crevices.
We found a small artificial pool of clear water diverted from the surrounding rice paddies, and floating restaurants popular with local teens who arrived three to a motor-bike and they flowed into the inlet with the giggling enthusiasm, jostling and joking common to just about any gathering of 16 to 20 year-olds the world over. We opted to dip our feet instead of swimming because we would have had to swim fully clothed… and not because I forgot to pack swimsuits, but rather because jumping around in a western-style bathing suit would have prompted jaws dropping, uncomfortable stares and basically would have been a great big taboo in modest Myanmar. Local women swim in their longyi skirts and maintain a lot of skin coverage!
And by sitting on the edge with some of the teens, they were able to pepper us with questions spoken in an enthusiastic version of English, augmented with charades, and the ensuing antics as we attempted to communicate left us all in giggles.
Beautiful expanses of bridges panned the flooded rice paddies, and huge grins split the faces of locals when as we got ourselves lost in the small dirt streets weaving through villages.
As the day ended, Ana spied a staircase near the wooden hut that began our adventures. Like modern-day explorers, she set off with enthusiasm and a breakneck pace up the winding stone staircase.
At the top, we looked out from a crumbling temple.
We sat and chatted about our day, our plans, and life as we watched late afternoon sunlight spill over the hills and valleys around Hpa-An. For Ana, I thought maybe she would be disappointed by the slow pace and small adventures. She surprised me though, because she felt the day was a win all around because she was able to 1) sleep in, 2) help plan/navigate throughout the day, 3) see some things without time pressures and rushing, and 4) she was back to the hotel early enough to read her book (she was reading the first Hunger Games book and, understandably, addicted). Some days, we’d wake up early, have a full day of sightseeing, other days of marathon 12 hour bus rides. So, I get it. She wanted a casual day, with some sightseeing but framed by downtime and sleep, and Hpa-An was the perfect spot for all of these things.
So, without a lot of fanfare we walked back down those well-worn stone steps, followed the dirt path back to the main road, and hailed a passing truck willing to drop us in town.
It’s not the most remarkable of days. But it stands out in my memory for its simplicity. The company couldn’t have been better, and it’s one of those days I really only discovered once I slowed down and savored cadence of life in each new town.
Quick Travel Tips for Hpa-An
Where to stay: Hpa-An is about five hours south of Yangon, and budget travelers can’t go wrong with the Soe Brothers Guesthouse (it’s one of the few guesthouses in town, so it was easy to get dropped directly here!). If you’re looking for something budget but a bit nicer, opt for Thanlwin Pyar Guest House.
How to get to Hpa-An: Buses run to Hpa-An from Yangon (perhaps seven hours on a good day), to get to Kyaiktiyo, the Golden Rock, you ride in the back of a truck for a very optimistic five to seven hours. I’ve heard lovely things about the boat to and from Mawlamyine.
What to do: Book your tours through the Soe Brothers Guesthouse. They speak great English and can organize tours to Mount Zwegabin, any of the surrounding caves, and everything there is to do in town. Even if you stay at the mid-range hotel 10k outside of town, book your activities through Soe Brothers. The morning market is great and a great place to grab a street-food breakfast if you eat meat (vegetarians are better off at the restaurant/shop just near the Soe Brothers).
What to read: I used the Lonely Planet Myanmar throughout our month in the country and it was, at times, the only way I could figure out English language information on logistics. If you plan to explore off-the-path, having a guidebook is invaluable when figuring out whether a train, bus, or pickup truck is your best transport option. You should also bring one of the fascinating books about Myanmar to read as you travel there—it will lend you insight into the culture and people. I recommend The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma and Finding George Orwell in Burma—each on offers a different but needed perspective on such a contradictory country.
A tiny bell tinkled in the light whisper of wind outside the inner temple, the faint music audible inside the small prayer room despite the crush of bodies kneeling prostrate in front of the gilt Buddha. After paying my respects to Buddha, Buddhism, and Burma inside the room, I continued circling the tall zedi, the Burmese word for stupa. My friend’s young daughter, M, instructed my niece Ana on Buddhist history and prayer rituals. They bowed their heads together, the sounds of their low murmurs contained to their tiny circle of instruction.
I peered at the carved creatures adorning the outside of the temple, and it struck me I how much Buddhism and spirituality is a consistent and daily part of Burmese life. In fact, in terms of ceremonies, merit-making activities, and donations, Burma ranks as the most religious Buddhist country in the world according to scholars who research these things. Myths, animism, and spirituality form the religious core of Myanmar and none of my pre-traveling research prepared me for the deeply spiritual side of daily life in Burma and their faithful fastidiousness.
More than 90 percent of the Burmese practice Theravada Buddhism, a fact common in this region of the world since Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka report similarly high percentages of Buddhism. Burmese society differs a bit though because they embrace the merit-making tenant of Buddhism. Meaning the religious engage in good deeds, offerings, and charity work to build merit on their path toward enlightenment…a task is not undertaken lightly.
Religion devotion suffuses the country and is the most obvious layer of spirituality in Burma. But when I looked closer at the temples and shrines, Buddha is but one part to their spirituality. Spirit worship and beliefs that pre-date Buddhism are still alive and fully integrated into modern Buddhist worship, as evidenced by the mythical figures and twisted faces of part-animal creatures standing guard on every temple, in street-side shrines, and throughout the countryside.
Ana and I wandered the temples in Bagan and Mandalay, examining the odd additions to seemingly Buddhist temples. Why are there twisted images of strange creatures? Who are those upright people guarding the temple high at the top of Mt. Popa?
For me it came down to why? Why are these images here? I have long noticed but never researched the many Spirit Houses outside businesses, shops, and houses in Thailand.
Well, it comes from the same, basic and ancient animist beliefs. Animism predates Buddhism, Christianity, and the majority of the world religions. And it’s funny, I have spent nearly a year in Thailand over the past two years, and yet, until Ana and I traveled through Burma and saw the fervent devotion, it hadn’t occurred to me to look more closely.
In Burma, these statues, and animals on the temple are Nat, which are at their simplest form spirits. The Burmese believe in 37 different primary Nat, while Lower Nat are regionally influence, and often, only a small community worships that one spirit. The stories behind each Nat are fascinating and remind me of the Catholic Saints I learned about in youth. And, that’s likely a bit controversial for any strong Catholics, but the Nat all have a human story behind them—a person who lived and died (often violently) but is ultimately appeased for protection through worship and honor.
There is a King of the Nat, Thagyamin, who is based on of Indra, a Hindu deity. Then, the Nat descend from there with spirits to protect the mountains, forests, trees. The Nat cover every aspect of human life: hearth, animals, crops, safety. The animist beliefs integrate into daily worship for many rural Burmese, as well as the various ethnic groups.
Then you take those basic but seemingly separate Nat concepts, and mix in the Nāga serpent spirits and you have the twined and headed snakes and dragons guarding the entrances to temples complexes throughout Southeast Asia, including the ancient temples of Siem Reap.
And to complete the picture, the animist beliefs spawned a rich culture full of myth and folklore that hasn’t made it outside Burma much in the last century because of the country’s rocky politics. Stories passed to children in Burma explain why crows are black (Ana and I read this one to get a sense for their myth culture), and Burmese folklore founded the country’s creative comic characters rivaling the marvel superheroes with their powers and lessons in humanity.
Myth, history, and religion intertwine in modern Myanmar in an odd fusion I’ve only seen echoed perhaps in the spiritual Hindu-Balinese culture in Bali, Indonesia.
Mount Popa, near Bagan in Burma, is a pilgrimage site for the Burmese, and my friends and their extended family opened up their days and took Ana and me along on their journey through Bagan’s crumbling ruins, golden stupas, and mountain-side temples. After passing nearly an hour at the mountain top temple, our group reconvened near a bright golden zedi. We discussed Buddhism, spirituality, and life. Then, when we each murmured our last prayers, the thin plumes of offered incense delicately dancing into the air, I grabbed Ana’s hand for the long descent back to ground level.
I took one last look at the faded green mountains and crafty monkeys cagily watching us walk; how easy it once was for me to believe the story of the world murmured to me in my cradle, but through traveling, I have listened to so many tales. So many gods, goddesses, and deities. Cultures full o f myths, storytellers, and history. The combination and commonalities across all the cultures — Burmese, American, Balinese — it continually changes shape the more I learn and see of this beautiful world.
I grew up on crossover foods in the US; that means the American version of only the most famous dishes from each region. That’s well and fine for a sample and an “exotic” dinner when my taste-buds are bored back home, but the real thing is so very, very different once I ventured out on my travels. I have found this is the case with Thai food, as well as the Middle Eastern vegetarian foods I sampled throughout Jordan. The problem with this food pattern though, is that I was left completely unfamiliar with cuisines that never made the leap across the many oceans and seas. It wasn’t until I lived in Chiang Mai for about nine months out of the past year, that I happened upon Burmese food.
Once discovered, dishes and flavors from Burma have become a passion and my Burmese friends ensured I spent my time sampling delicious dishes, salads, and flavor combinations my palate had never considered. These same friends prepped me with advice on ordering vegetarian food, what to eat, and how to find safe street eats for my travels earlier this year in Burma.
Actually eating vegetarian in Burma, though, was a bit trickier than sampling it in nearby Thailand because of language differences, sanitation standards, and regional variances.
My first three questions are always:
Are there inherently vegetarian dishes in the national cuisine?
Can I eat the fresh fruits and veggies without risking contamination from the water used to clean the food?
Is vegetarianism understood and accepted?
We’ll cover the answer to each of these, as well as a thorough guide to vegetarian dishes, below.
Vegetarian Survival Guide to Burma (Myanmar)
Can I emphasize again how wonderful it was to sample the street food stalls throughout the country? The Burmese were friendly and fun throughout every meal, and Ana and I felt immersed in the culture packed into tiny stools, crouching and eating among the locals. This is where the conversations happened, we watched what other people ordered, flocked to the crowded places, and enjoyed the accidental orders when what we got didn’t measure up to what we expected (in fact, there are still at least three or four meals I ate for which I have no name, nor any idea how to re-order it!). Ana ate veg for a lot of our travels (by choice), but meat options abound. If you’re traveling Burma with a meat-eating friend, check out these three food guides: here, here and here.
In this guide, we’ll cover all the major areas of Burmese cuisine I managed to hunt down and find while I traveled in the country. As well as how to say vegetarian and some quick tips to familiarize with the food culture in Burma.
For the food lists, you can quickly jump to any of the sections:
Or, for another phonetic writing of it: thouq thouq lo. And some say this is closer “theq theq lo.”
The guidebook used another long-winded expression for vegetarian (something for “I cannot eat meat), but “thut thut luh” translates as “lifeless,” and when used with food it is immediately understood with absolute clarity and applies to all meat. It’s easy to say, but hard to put the sounds into the Roman alphabet, so have your first guesthouse teach you once you arrive. Note that I never got served meat when I said it, and even in this list of dishes, always order the dish, then specify “thut thut luh” to make sure that they do not add in fish sauce, shrimp paste, etc. This is not a guarantee on the shrimp paste/fish sauce, it really can depend on how well the cook understands Western vegetarianism. I will say this, I never tasted it in the dish, so if it was there it was very light…my philosophy is to do the best I can, but not to ruin my travel experience by refusing to eat foods that could have traces of fish products since it is SO prevalent in Asia.
The Simple Rules
Before we get to the photo breakdown and descriptions of delicious vegetarian Burmese eats, here are some things you should know before you go for any travelers in Burma, not just vegetarians!
Breakfast and lunch are the bigger meals of the day; follow the local custom and eat food earlier in the day, when it’s freshest.
Hot, fresh street food is safest (even better if it has a long queue!).
Tap water is not safe, but the large jugs of water in front of many businesses are a unique Burmese kindness and are safe, free, and encouraged if you need a glass; they place the water curbside to help people stay hydrated in the often extreme heat!
State your case upfront about being vegetarian, they will smile, laugh and easily acquiesce once they understand.
Rice is the base of most/many meals. Except for in the case of soups, you’ll be served rice with almost every meal.
Venture out for breakfast. Nearly every guesthouse serves a boring egg and white bread breakfast, the locals are eating a lot better than that if you venture to the street stalls!
The tea on your table is free. It’s usually a fairly bland/weak Chinese tea and it’s a safe way to hydrate since it’s served hot and sealed inside the tea canisters (be sure your cup is dry though when you start pour it though).
We’re ready to get started with the food! As a disclaimer, I’m not Burmese, so these descriptions and dishes are given to the best of my ability! Once you’re there you can sample and discover many I no-doubt missed on my trip. And, if I got it wrong, or you have an amendment to what I said, let me know so I can fix it!
And now I feel it behooves me to warn you: when you finish reading this photo food guide, you’ll be hungry!
It’s Always Soup-O’Clock
Soup is a wonderful and usually very safe meal throughout Asia because they boil ingredients just before serving the soup piping hot. If your soup is luke-warm, particularly if you are eating at an off time of the day, consider a pass (but pay for it if it’s at your table) and find a boiling-hot soup option.
Shan Tofu Soup (Tohu nuway)
I listed this dish first for a reason, I have a full-on obsession with shan tofu soup. The name is a bit misleading, because although it is made with tofu from the Shan region of Burma, the tofu is actually the thick, yellow ingredient in this dish. Ground yellow peas (or chickpeas) are ground and kept liquidy and warm throughout the day. When ordered, they flash boil thin noodles, add the liquid tohu and top with the cooks favorite toppings, including: smashed nuts, sesame seeds, parsley, cabbage, and a huge dose of ground, crunchy chili paste (unless you ask for it not spicy, then it will still come with chili, just not as much :) I love this dish so much I took several visiting travelers to taste it at the Friday morning market in Chiang Mai (I’m looking at you Christine!)
Fish soup (Mohinga) (Flavorful but only for pescetarians, which I am not, but I tasted it anyway!)
I consider myself a flexitarian, so I sampled this soup several times throughout Burma from my niece’s dish. Though it’s a common breakfast food, we also ate it all throughout the day at bus stop food stalls. It’s not much to look at, but it is full of flavor and spices. It’s also a great warming dish if you’re traveling up in the cooler north!
Noodles, basic tomato paste, some crunchy fried beans fritters, and hot broth made this Ana’s favorite breakfast. We ate this daily in Hpa-an. At its most basic, it’s tomato sauce and pork, so make sure you order it “thut thut luh” to get a vegetarian version! It’s often a bit drier when ordered elsewhere in Burma, and tastes different once again when ordered in Shan State, but the beaming vendor next door to the Soe Brother’s Guesthouse in Hpa-an sold us on this delicious dish for breakfast; I think his conversation and tips went just as far as the soup in starting our day out on the right foot! Where: Small restaurant with chairs on the street-side counter that is just next door to the Soe Brothers’ Guesthouse in Hpa-An (which is where you should stay if you visit!).
Vegetable Hotpot (Myae Oh Myi Shae)
Hotpot food stalls lined the streets of Yangon in particular, so when we were hungry we would simply walk up to these, point at the delicious veggies and spices, say “thut thut luh,” then they served a tasty steaming hot bowl of tofu, noodles, and fresh vegetables. Expat Kyle noted that: “Myae Oh” is the clay pot and “Myi Shae” is the name of the curry/sauce. And a Burmese reader emailed in to tell me that this is a popular Chinese-inspired street food dish. Where: All over the streets of Yangon we found long tables with a family working the small fires with bubbling bowls of hot soup and vegetable.
You’ve Never Tasted Salads Like This Before
This is the part of Burmese cuisine that delights me the most. The flavors in Burmese salads are quite unlike the lettuce/leafy salads common in the west. Instead, these salads blend a range of veggies, nuts, and flavors. Combine unique textures. And then hold it all together with oils, tamarind juice, lime, fried garlic, and nutty dressings. Food handling standards are still questionable at times, so this is where it gets trickier to eat safely (since locals may wash fresh veggies in local tap water, or mix the dish with bare hands on the streets). I paid attention to where locals ate, mostly chose salads when at restaurants, and generally lucked out with no one in our group getting massively ill even once). Note that the Burmese word for salad is something along the lines of: thote, thoke, or thouq when written in the Roman alphabet.
Tea Leaf Salad (Lephet Thote)
This is a top five favorite for me and for good reason–it’s spectacular. The base of the dish is fermented tea leaves, which are a very, very strong and unfamiliar flavor at first. But local cooks mild the flavors in the with the addition of nuts, cabbage, tomato, oils, and various other bits and bots (mung beans, ginger, sesame, bean sprouts, and green tomatoes, among other things, have been known to make an appearance in various iterations of this dish. If there is a cross-over item that you may have sampled from Burmese cuisine, it’s probably this one! Of note is the fact that tea leaves are very high in caffeine, so choose wisely the time of day you consume it! Also, if you want to try it at home, I found a great recipe online. Where: All over the country, try it at restaurants and if it’s not on the menu, simply ask because there’s a good chance that it’s on the Burmese version of the menu. :-)
Pennywort Salad (Myin Kwa Yuet Thote)
A delicious pennywort salad; this is the best shot I managed since I was usually too busy inhaling it to grab a proper photo! Ingredients vary but include onions, pennywort, nuts, and oily dressing.
Tart and delicious, my palate delighted at the new combination of flavors in Pennyworth salad. The dish combines the bright green pennywort plant, lime, toasted sesame, turmeric oil, garlic, tomato…the list goes on, once again, according to local flavor preference. This is a favorite of mine–please seek it out and give it a taste. If you haven’t tried pennywort before (and I certainly hadn’t thought it any more than a weed in my garden) then you owe yourself a taste! Check out this recipe to try and make one at home.
Shan Tofu Salad (Tohu Thote)
Think of this as an inverted tohu nway Shan soup. It’s the same yellow tofu, but instead of liquid and soupy, the tofu sets firm, and is then sliced and garnished with cabbage, spicy chili paste, pickled veggies, and nuts/seeds/parsley. Really anything the local cook prefers is an accent flavor.
A Burmese reader emailed into give this context to the dish: “In Shan state, shan khao swe and tofu nway are usually eaten in the morning as breakfast. Tofu thote is eaten around noon, but only as snack, not as lunch. Even though I grew up in Shan state, I’m still amazed by how Shan people prepare their meals. They use some unknown leaves from big trees.”
Where: Inle Lake is the Shan region of Burma so this is where you can most easily find the dish. Ana and I also hunted down several Shan restaurants near the ET Hotel in Mandalay.
Ginger Salad (Gyin Thote)
A tasty treat, but not one for which I have a photo. Imagine it much like the rest of the salads in Burma, it’s shredded ginger and the ingredients added to it depend on the region and your cook’s taste-buds! If you’re keen to try this one at home, here’s a tasty sounding Burmese ginger salad recipe.
Tomato Salad (Karyanchintheet Thote)
I have a love affair with tomatoes, it goes back about a decade (before that we were fierce enemies) and now we’ll never part ways. For that reason, I adore this Burmese salad. It usually consists of tomatoes, onions, crunchy peanuts, sesame, and oily dressing of some sort. And that’s it. It’s so good with a bowl full of rice and worked well as a compliment to many of the warm foods I tried.
Seaweed Salad (Japwint Thote)
This was, admittedly, not my favorite. Though I was on the fence when I first tried it, by the end of my time in Burma I appreciated the tart, tangy salad as a compliment to the rest of my food. Give it a try, since it’s a favorite of my friend. I’m told it’s trickier to find, but we sampled this throughout central Burma, in Bagan and Inle Lake.
Fermented Bean Paste (Pone Yay Gyi)
Pone Yay Gyi is a bit regional. You can definitely find this dish in the Bagan area. It’s a thick, salty dish made from fermented soy beans usually. It’s a delicious condiment to sample with other dishes, or mix into your rice for an extra jolt of flavor.
Dinner Delights and an International Influence
Burma is blessed with a huge range of cultural influences based on its history and location. The Chinese influence is strong in the northern border regions, and many dishes and customs flowed into the rest of Burma. This is the case with Indian food and culture as well. Yangon is a haven for Indian food lovers, Mandalay as well, and small restaurants and influences can even be found in small towns all over the country. Then, beyond these influences from other countries, Burma is home to a range of ethnic minority groups with their own customs, language, and foods. In short, this list of foods is so long because the country is rich with flavors and international cuisine influences.
Stir-fried Chinese Noodles
Pretty standard fare in the tourist spots, we ordered this as a good filler that was tasty, filled with veggies, and pleasing to both the kiddos (Ana and I traveled with a Burmese friend of mine and her daughter while we were in Bagan and Inle Lake).
Noodles, Made to Order with Wide Range of Ingredients
Noodles are a staple in the Myanmar diet, right under rice as the main source of food. The Burmese severed us boiled noodles, fried noodles, noodles in salads, noodles with crunchy toppings. In short, noodles abound and the toppings and varieties about. This one is particularly tasty with fried garlic, sesame, and other seasonings.
Street-Side Chapati and Dhal
I converted Ana to what I hope will be a lifetime affair with Indian food after our travels in Burma. Mandalay was the best spot for a our street-side chapati stands. For about 20 cents we were able to get one piping hot chapati and one small dish of Indian food; on offer were: curries, dhal, vegetable, and a potato dish. We’d pick out six and go to town enjoying the flavors and fresh chapati bread. Where: No doubt the best stand we tasted was almost directly across from the ET Hotel (29A 83rd, Between 23-24) in Mandalay.
Indian Thali, Dosa, and Biryani
Indian restaurants and options abound throughout Burma and they have the wide range of typical fare. There were dozens of restaurants in Yangon and an unlimited vegetarian thali ran about US $2 most places, with veg biryani, restaurants, dosas, and just about anything you love available on the menu. We found the best Indian food in Yangon and Mandalay, which is really no surprise since these are the two major cities. And it works out since some of the major other tourists spots you’ll likely hit have other regional vegetarian delights. Where: New Delhi Restaurant (262, Anawrahta St) in Yangon. Thinking we would outsmart the guidebook, we asked a lot of locals for the best Indian restaurant, and they all pointed to this touristy (but so cheap) hot-spot. Down about 10 doors is a fantastic biryani restaurant as well with vegetarian biryani (though they run out by mid-afternoon!).
Snacks, Fried Foods, and In-Between Meals
The Burmese like to snack from what I could tell! There was a huge range of deep-fried, pan-fried, and street-side snacks available all throughout the day. From the simple sweet or savory pancakes on the streets of Yangon, to the more complex flavors in samosas, we never lacked for food options.
Deep Fried Veggies and Beans
These deep-fried snacks were offered with nearly every meal and were frying on the side of the road throughout the evening. The bean ones were my favorites actually, and look out for deep-fried yellow tofu at the same stalls, it abounds throughout Burma!
Fried Dough Sweet or Savory (Paleada/Palata/Parata)
Stands serving these have a range of options and pointing can work well. This is an Indian-inspired dish that resembles the roti stands evidenced throughout other places in Southeast Asia, but has more options. Ana and her friend M campaigned for one of these sweet treats each night, and though not the healthiest dessert on the planet, we loaded our dessert with bananas and everyone in the group enjoyed a few slices. The savory one, “Beq palata” stuffed with beans and fried up was a tasty dinner and makes a good option for any picky eaters (which we weren’t but Ana wanted a change-up from the soups and salads one night!). Note that you can also order “jet oo palata” (eggs with palata) and “[name of any ingredient] parata” according to Expat Kyle! :) Where: The night market in Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake) had a wonderful stand, fast service and all the Shan soup stands are just next door! These are also served at most tea shops if you ask!
Beans and Red Rice (Kauk Nyin Paung)
I doubt I ever would have found this simple breakfast dish if A wasn’t with me. She was served Kauk Nyin Paung for breakfast one day, while Ana and I were served yet another helping of eggs. Her’s looked a lot tastier, so from that point on, when possible, we opted for this dish! And as a bonus, A spotted a vendor from our early morning bus too; once we knew the dish was out there, we were able to pay closer attention and find it on our own!
A Burmese reader emailed in to tell me: “Beans and black Rice (Kauk Nyin Paung) is eaten as breakfast in Shan state. People in Mandalay also eats this in morning. It is usually steamed with a special cooker in Shan state, while the Bamar people seem to cook it just like the normal rice. Steamed glutinous black rice has firmer texture, while the cooked one is soft. Shan people would consider the soft one not good, me too. Kauk Nyin Paung can be prepared with white glutinous rice too.”
Tea Leaf Salad (Lephet Thote)
Not to be confused with the actual salad that comes out mixed together, this one has just three ingredients and is served as a snack/dessert, not a full part of the meal. The fermented tea leaves are very tart and strong, so mix to taste with the other ingredients when it’s served to you this way!
These very, very sour plums bake out in the sun and heat, so opt for them early in the day if you’re keen to sample. The flavor is a bit more potent than I can handle, but they’re quite popular with the locals!
Fried Other Things
Indian samosas abound in Yangon. Deep fried donut-sticks were particularly easy to hunt down in Mandalay, and basically, when the craving for deep-fried struck, there were no shortage of offerings on the streets in the big cities.
Sweet and Tasty Treats
My wicked sweet tooth was beyond happy with the quick sweet options. I love portion control and that was easy in Burma since they opt for a small bite of jaggery candy, or a bowl of sweet jelly rather than a huge piece of pie/cake/ice cream like we would in the west! And when all else fails, find the fruit!
Sugarcane and Jaggery Candies Chunks Where can you find these treats? Look for roadside stands and little jars on your table with light brown solid chunks. Then sample away, like the Chinese tea, they’re free if they’re on the table! Also, I found a home compound making the sweet sugarcane treats outside of Inle Lake, so keep your eyes on the lookout!
Sugarcane Juice with Lime
Sugarcane juice is available all over the streets of Burma. The vendor feeds sugarcane stalks through the juicing contraption, and Burma’s version of the juice comes with a generous squeeze of lime! Be warned though, this is a street treat, so avoid the ice and choose a vendor with a generally clean machine and stall!
Jellied Sweets and Coconut Milk I’m a big fan of dessert but I steer well clear of all jellied desserts for some reason. They’re quite popular all over Southeast Asia, often served chopped, shredded, or cubed and with ice, coconut milk, tapioca, or a variety of other sweet concoctions. You don’t lack on options if you like this type of dessert!
Like most of Southeast Asia, Burma has a huge supply of fresh fruit on every corner and it’s the healthiest way to end a meal. Ana and I stocked up on bananas and clementines before a bus ride and snacked on yellow watermelon for a fun spin on a familiar treat! Fresh avocado is also fantastic in the Inle Lake region.
An Ending Note on Burma’s Vegetarian and Food Tips
To use a trite expression, I could wax poetic all day about the delicious food I ate in Burma. Thank you to the my Burmese friend A for her tips, advice, and guidance. She proved invaluable at helping me better understand Burmese food culture before, and on the ground throughout my trip to Burma with my niece. Without her translating and introducing me to some of these dishes, I would have blindly passed through regions of Burma oblivious to some of the local flavors, foods, and customs.
Being vegetarian means that I am sometimes much more conservative on my food choices than meat eaters, out of fear mostly. But that’s silly to some extent. Yes, there is sometimes a huge language gap in Myanmar. That gap is sometimes scary, but once I was armed with my term “thut thut luh” I felt pretty confident to tackle the menu with a bit more gusto than I might usually. And it paid off.
Enjoy the dishes, and let me know what I missed so I can keep a running tally of the foods I still need to try! (And so others can try them too). If I got something wrong, please let me know and I’ll make the corrections.
Now it’s your turn, that was a pretty exhaustive list, which one looks most interesting/tasty/unique to your visual taste-buds?
Recipes & Ideas to Enjoy Vegetarian Burmese Food at Home!
There is no denying I am a big fan of Burmese food. It’s also surprisingly easy to bring home some of the best flavors. These cookbooks best capture the flavors of Burma; and the cultural reading in the books helps better understand the relationship between Burma’s food, history, and politics.
Vegetarian Mohinga recipe: Traditional mohinga contains fish, but this vegetarian version is absolutely delightful. A family recipe shared by Cho Chaw, who is also the author of hsa*ba Burmese cookbook.
Burma: Rivers of Flavor: A beautiful cookbook that not only explores the delicious foods of Burma, but the culture as well. I met Naomi, a James Beard award-winning author, on my travels in the region. She has a wonderful perspective on how food and culture meet and used that to infuse recipes, stories, food, and culture into one gorgeous book.
Growing up I didn’t much care about the word “ecosystem.” I took many classes on Florida history (they made us study state history extensively–at least twice before graduation!), and the Florida Everglades was one of those places I took for granted until I reached adulthood, started to care more about the environment and realized “holy cow, there are some intricate and interesting ecosystems!”
This epiphany carried over to the present, and into my days navigating the marshy waters, thin canals and open expanse of rippling waters on Inle Lake in Burma last month. The most iconic photos of Inle Lake picture the fishermen, their conical nets resting on long wooden boats as the men paddle with one leg wrapped like a vine around the wooden oar digging into the placid lake waters. It’s a beautiful, practical custom that, in all its “foreignness” to the Western eye, pulled my focus as I marveled at the old-school nets in place of a modern fishing pole, the lazy motion of leg-led rowing and not a boat motor. The male fishermen stand on the bow of the boat so they can see down to the lake floor, and their legs are a powerful way to more easily row through the marshy weeds that grow nearly to the surface since Inle Lake averages just seven feet deep.
But that’s just one tiny, indelible piece of life on Inle Lake.
The super productive ecosystem around this shallow 44.9 square mile lake created a separate lake culture, different from the Bamar majority in Burma, and even different from the Shan minority group, even though Inle Lake is within Burma’s Shan State. Instead, an Intha culture and language grew, specific to Inle, where the lake and its ecosystem have allowed the culture to thrive.
The villages embraced their creativity over the years in order to make this lake environment their home. Myths even surround the founding of the culture–some believe a former king banished part of the Royal Army from Burmese land, and to keep their word they created moved onto water! Floating land created from dried and hardened weeds and floating hyacinth secure the floating huts and bamboo villages to one fixed spot.
No joke, floating land.
And once the Intha mastered the floating land, then agriculture became a cinch—after all, they have an endless supply of water. So, as our driver navigated the canal waters, I watched farmers slosh around their cultivated square farms of land, marveling that oxen and humans both easily traipsed around the water farms.
Some farms are kept on much thinner land, and miles of fragrant tomato plants tumbled over each other on the lakes surface, beautiful birds dipping into the canals near the gardens when they spotted fish from above. So, now you’re wondering, okay, they have stilt houses, floating land for farming, and gardens, but why doesn’t it all just float away?
I puzzled over this mystery, I even spent time musing out loud about hundreds of 10 foot tall bamboo sticks poking out from the lake in every direction. Ah, the sea of khaki colored bamboo affix a garden to the lake surface. Then, the gardens are tended, sold, and moved if need be in the future.
The entire lake sustains a purpose-built community around the ecosystem.
And the seagulls.
Feeding the seagulls was a highlight of the trip. Over the past five months I watched Ana guffaw with laughter at random moments, and smile with patience and curiosity as locals explained the inner workings of something to her, and even frown with concern at the treatment of street animals.
And the seagulls on Inle Lake brought sheer joy. She abandoned all thought of being a serious preteen and she and her friend M (from GotPassport.org) threw chunks of deep-fried dough with childish abandon. The birds swooped down to pluck chunks out of their hands and noisily fought over bits flung into the air. And as the sun set over Inle Lake, we cozied into our warm blankets and all enjoyed the bite of cool in the air and the squawk of birds tailing our speeding longboat.
Far from subtle, behind us a maze of saffron and pumpkin exploded into the sky nearest the setting sun, while a quiet rose tint settled on the surrounding mountains and we jetted back into the small town center for fresh dinner and a warm bed.
The thudding of a large motor caught our attention as we carefully navigated our bicycles down the pothole-strewn road. A glance to the right showed the slanting sun reflecting off an expansive sea of dry, off-white husks coating the yard of a house. I cocked my head to the side perplexed…the day before, Ana and I had noticed these houses with husk-like debris where grass should grow, and now, as then, I was unable to explain their curious presence in yards all over this region of Burma.
We cycled past the compound, the motor’s grinding peaked at the edge of the fence, then faded quickly as our bicycles whisked forward. Like yesterday, we were about to simply let the confusion sit in complacency and continue on our merry way, our legs pumping hard on the creaky, dual-gear bicycle that was clearly not built for sand and gravel roads.
Another moment passed and I was mentally kicking myself. Two days in a row we just drove right by…we’re in Burma, what’s the worst that could happen if we stop and ask to look around? This country has only been friendly. I felt like a poor teacher to my niece at that point, after all, the whole point is to teach her curiosity for the world and how to seek answers. So, was it fear of walking into a stranger’s house, or laziness preventing me from stopping and asking questions?
Maybe it was both.
I called out to the group to stop for a pow-wow. Ana and I were bicycling back from the Khaung Daing Hot Springs, a mere 45 minute bike ride into the countryside around Inle Lake, with two other travelers we met that morning over breakfast at our guest house.
A quick look at the other adults, and I could see the men had been curious too. Without another word, Mike, a sweet British man traveling solo for the first time in his life, announced: “Alright then, let’s check it out!”
Moments later, the tentative smiles from two young children met us at the gates of their housing compound.
The kids hesitated before scattering toward the clanking contraption nearby, motioning for us to follow.
It looked like an open tractor engine sprawling across the packed dirt floor. Two men manned the front of the machine and with a flash of understanding I realized my feet were resting on a soft bed of dry sugar cane husks. The churning motor and huge metal gears spun the wheel and generated enough pressure to squeeze out every drop of sweet moisture from the sugarcane stalks.
We had chanced upon a candy factory!
And though it was a far cry different from stumbling into Willy Wonka’s world of wonders, the efficient teamwork and huge boiling vats of scented juice ignited our collective curiosity.
The men processing the stalks paid us no mind—and not out of unfriendliness, but rather out of affection for their limbs; the huge gurgling machine would not easily forgive a slip of the fingers.
Just as I noticed the children had disappeared, they burst out of the house nearby, with their mother walking at a clipped pace with a tray of tea and sweets toward our rag-tag group of five. She shyly motioned us over to the low, woven bamboo table and gently proffered cups of pale Chinese tea. As we stood and sipped, she took a moment to break up the thin, flat block of sugar candy. Spying Ana’s curious gaze on her every move, the mom (in an understanding all mom’s must have) handed over the first piece of sugarcane candy to Ana, carefully watching for Ana’s reaction as she bit into the hunk of pure sugar.
A grin split Ana’s face. Jaggery, or rather, sugar candies, are popular sweets all over Burma, and Ana relished the opportunity to once again have free reign over a bowl of pure sugar.
I nabbed a square myself (I’ll openly admit to my wicked sweet-tooth). With the hospitality now covered, the mother smiled and gestured to production line, letting us know it was okay to go investigate what they were doing.
With our gazes once again focused on the workers, the men spurred into action, and even though there wasn’t a lick of English spoken, each man patiently demonstrated the candy-making process at his station in the room.
Raw sugarcane stalks process through the pressing machine, and the once juicy stalks are left as dry husks while the liquid drains into a bucket.
A tube runs from the bucket, over the ground, and into nearby open vats where the murky green sugarcane juices collects for even more processing.
The greenish hued sugarcane juice is a popular snack all over Burma (and South Asia for that matter!) and the mom passed around a glass of warm, fresh juice for sampling. Traditionally, if you order sugarcane juice on Burma’s city streets, it’s served cold with lime and it’s a popular mid-morning snack. We sipped our juice warm and fresh from the press just to get a taste of the flavor just before it goes into processing (Ana’s verdict on the juice was not favorable, but hey, she’s just a kid, what does she know!).
After squeezing, the juice enters a long boiling process, where it is slowly transferred down the line, vat to vat, until it’s in the vat nearest to the hand-stoked fire and boiling rigorously. The entire process seems to take hours for one single batch, but we were lucky to catch the juice in its final stage, when it became a thick, brown syrup ready to be poured, spread, and dried.
The final candy is very hard and difficult to break into small chunks, so before it’s packaged for sale in town they slice it into manageable cubes. Sugar candies are one of the more humble and popular Burmese desserts; we found small candy jars on most restaurant tables. The type of sugar candy on offer though, varies from region to region. Most often we found jaggery, a treat much like maple syrup candies in North America, but they are instead made from Toddy Palm sap. The Toddy Palm plant shaped rural life in Burma throughout history, and the jaggery treats are just one use for Toddy Palm. The palm is still today used for shade, medicines, cooking, and utensils…and because of the plant’s multiple uses, it’s a wise use of land as Burma expands into more agriculture and farming.
Rural areas favor these grainy, sugar-based sweets because they are made locally and thus are often flavored with other nearby fruits and flavors. And though our fresh sugarcane candies were delicious, Ana and I both fell in love with the sour plum candies in the Bagan region of Burma–the tart plum is a needed counter to the jaw-clenching sweetness of pure sugar and toddy palm juice!
As we nibbled the last of our sugar candy, it was about time to leave the family to their work, but I felt guilty that I had no real way to communicate our sincere thanks for such open hospitality.
Just as I slurped my last sip of Chinese tea, a young teenager came barreling into the yard. He cheerfully yelled out an English “hello” and announced he was a cousin to the family who was called to the candy compound from across town so he could answer our questions.
I was both baffled and overwhelmed. Tea and sweets were not enough, seeing us English speakers so curious about their work, the family sent for a relative who could communicate with us.
As the cousin started his line of questioning, so familiar to me at this point, every single person in the workshop gathered around for the translation.
“Where are you from?”
Grins broke out on their faces when they learned our group was from France, England, and America.
“How long in Myanmar?”
Just three weeks, but it’s been beautiful.
Then it was our turn to ask questions and the cousin explained the family structure. Mother and father to the two children nodded as the cousin pointed. That’s the uncle. A brother. Another cousin.
It was a family affair in the candy workshop and as the cousin’s English petered out, and the men drifted back to stoking the fire and stirring the vats, we gave profuse and generous thanks for the more than an hour we had spent in their hospitality.
The children watched with curious owl-eyes as we hopped back onto our bicycles and sang out one last cheery thank you, “chezu tinbade!”
Then we disappeared down the dirt road, the thudding motor fading quickly as we pedaled into the late afternoon.
I rode back to town in wonder of the warm and open hospitality that functioned as a rule throughout Burma, rather than the exception. What started as the simplest of bike rides ended up showing me a spirit of kindness and inherent friendliness that is not put on for the sake of tourism, or a mask for show. The government’s forced isolation means that tourists are still a novelty, an occasional accent to a local’s life when a foreigner rides a bit off the path. In Burma, the reward for journeying down the harder road (and let me assure you an hour down a questionably paved road is tough!) was always met with smiles and stories.
The boyish voice of a Myanmar rapper crooned from the car radio. My taxi had reached its peak before I was born, and the aging metal jumped and jangled down the road; the car’s groaning audible over the blaring music. The taxi’s modern control panel for the radio flashed a psychedelic rhythmic pattern of colors on the ring around the dial, the flashing lights alternated in rapid fire. In sensory overload, I debated with myself if the near constant bumps and thumps were potholes on the road or the base pumping out of the speakers near my head.
I glanced at the young driver manning our jalopy. I watched as his thumbs tapped the steering wheel in time to the music, never missing a beat even as he stuck his head out the window to give a good-natured yell to the trishaw bicycle blocking our path in the middle of the intersection.
As the rapper reached a fever-pitch of excitement, my taxi driver settled back into his seat he glanced over at me, a wide grin splitting his face before he pointed at the radio and shouted over the music.
“YOU LIKE, YES?!”
I figure, I had three options at this point:
Shout back my assent and try for a conversation in hopes he’d lower the volume.
Nod in agreement and give a silent thumbs-up of approval.
Bust a move to the beat…
My closest friends, those few who are privileged enough to have seen me dance to hip-hop music, are reading this and thinking: “Oh god, she didn’t. Please tell me she didn’t start pulsing her arms air in her spasmodic “rap” dance that can only be described as something akin to the Elaine dance from Seinfeld.”
And my driver rewarded me with a huge, instantaneous and bubbling guffaw. He laughed so hard he had to slow the car to catch his breath. He lowered the music (let’s not lie, probably in the hopes I wouldn’t “feel the moment” again) and began the normal line of questioning:
Where are you from?
How long in Myanmar?
Then his English ran out and we lapsed into a comfortable silence, the music still vibrating in the background as we rounded the corner into probably the prettiest roundabout in the world, Sule Paya.
My niece Ana and I had visited Sule Paya, a pretty pagoda in downtown Yangon, earlier in the day. Then, the harsh daylight lit the golden stupa and highlighted the rushing rusty cars, the dirty, sun-faded colonial buildings, and the claustrophobic crush of people.
But at night, well, it’s an altogether different experience at night. This taxi ride shuttled me around the city on a late-night solo errand to find a new guesthouse and I for most of the ride I was stressed and worried about Ana, back at the hotel by herself.
As we headed back toward Ana, though, with the hotel now sorted and my concentration centered on the taxi ride back, riding through the Sule Paya roundabout in Yangon wholly captivated my attention. My world slowed, time hiccuped, and the rush of preoccupation swarming my head slowly faded away into the buzz of nighttime in Yangon.
A wash of smells enveloped our car, which had suddenly slowed to a crawl as a carnival of sorts occupied a quarter of the roundabout. The tangy scent of incense tingled in my nose. Warm heat washed over my face from the deep-fried donuts just below my car window. The rich, pungent aroma of grilling meat, human sweat, and fragrant soup broth combined into one army of smells marching toward my open car window.
I was hit with a freeze-framed moment of wonder and awe.
For the first time in years I was wholly caught in the moment. Sule Paya glinted gold against the distant black sky. The deep rumble of chanting echoed from the pagoda’s loud speakers, combining with the excited screech of children reaching the apex of the nearby Ferris wheel—pure joy. The dull roar of Myanmar rap in my ear now in harmony with the waves of sound coming from the crushing crowds slowing my taxi.
The world swirled around me faster than my senses could take in and a trickle of laughter bubbled up inside me. Content, I rested my head and hands on my rusty car window and watched the pulse of life fade away as our car jerked free onto the open road beyond. In a snap, fresh, cool night air filled my car.
And I couldn’t help but think: “this. this is why I travel.”
Because some days, the moments just take my breath away.
A quick update today, in just a few short hours Ana and I hop on a super short plane ride into Burma. Which is also called Myanmar nearly interchangeably, so you can call it either…though if you want to be all official, the country’s government refers to itself as: Republic of the Union of Myanmar.
When it’s working, I’m told the government throttles the internet, which means I’m anticipating dial-up speed internet in the handful of towns where internet is even accessible. With that in mind, I have a few posts queued up with stories and photos from Laos, but I will be unable to respond to comments until I return the second week of February. Although I won’t actively blog from Burma, I will update the A Little Adrift Facebook page occasionally to not only share snippets of our adventures, but my parents are (understandably) cautious about the three weeks Ana and I are spending in the country, so I promised to check in once a week! :)
Can I let out a confession here?
I’m glad I won’t have internet access.
Besides the ten days I spent in Vipassana mediation in 2009 (and that was not for funsies by any stretch of the imagination), I truly have never taken a digital detox and stayed off the internet. Throughout the past three and a half years of travel, I was online almost daily, and at least three times a week.
I feel like my creativity has been slowly sapped over the past few years of constant connectedness to everything. There are blog posts to write. Work. Facebook. Photo editing. More work. Twitter-Facebook-Google-Plus…
Distractedness abounds and I haven’t done well blocking out the noise, nor with self-control (confession number two, I have to use the Stay Focused extension for Chrome to block myself from Facebook!).
So, I’m going on a forced digital-diet and I’m happy for that!
And I get to focus three weeks on hanging out with Ana, and that’s pretty neat within itself. Although we have been together nearly every minute of every day for the past three months, we spent a lot of that time doing her schoolwork, or online doing my SEO work. Not much was spent hanging out and really having the time to talk about our travel experiences as they occur, without the worry of checking Facebook (creatively crafting a FB update that fits each and every moment) or posting a blog.
That being said, I’m sure I’ll go through withdrawal pangs for the first week! Have you done a digital break, and how did it go for you?
I’ll report back in a month with stories and photos from Burma, as well as my views on how the recent political changes are affecting the country on a local level. :)