I admit that we had high hopes for Burmese food before we actually got there. Myanmar is bordered by China, Thailand, and India, after all, so we assumed that the cuisine would be an amazing amalgam of exotic flavors, like the food in Malaysia. We had also eaten quite a bit of Burmese food in San Francisco, where Jim and I had grown up, so we felt prepared to dive head first into the Burmese food experience.
You know what they say about assumptions. . . .
Overall, I thought the food in Yangon was good, and though it’s not my husband’s beloved Thai food, it was still quite tasty. Lots of seafood and a variety of meats, and an abundance of leafy greens, various curries, dumplings, noodles, and soups with lemongrass and bits of this and that. What’s not to like? Well, fasten your seatbelts, Bagan was a whole different – and extremely bumpy – ride. I will first remind you, November through February is high season. After March the temperature can climb to a blistering 110 degrees. (By the way, skip June to October unless you enjoy monsoons.) So you have to envision little roadside noodle shops with a variety of meats and fish sitting out in the hot sun, while flies buzz about. Okay, you say, I’ve been to Asia, been there, done that – nope, not like this, you haven’t! I take full responsibility for goading my husband, even with the “stomach issue” he suffered with all the way from Mandalay, on the 11-hour boat trip, to get out there and take the “bull by the horns,” or in this case, “the chicken from the bowl.” (More about that in a minute!) Though I do like things clean, tidy, and my way, when I travel I want to see the real deal and not the sanitized version. Well I shouldn’t have worried.
After a lovely poolside breakfast, I put my foot down and insisted we were going to try Sarabah II, a little local eatery under a large spreading gingko tree in the square near the market. We didn’t see any tourists, which is usually a good sign, and it looked like we could all get something to our liking. First of all, there were no menus, which I suppose was fine since we can’t read Burmese. Secondly, the napkin situation was a roll of toilet paper sitting on the table. And thirdly, there were a couple of nasty looking stray dogs sniffing about the place. Never mind, I insisted, let’s order!
Well, bowls and plates of mystery meats and mystery meat curries arrived, yet I somehow managed to communicate that I am vegetarian. (I actually eat fish, but there was no way I was going to be able to communicate that.) The waitress’ solution was to add additional vegetables to my vegetable soup – voila, vegetable curry! Yao Yao sat quietly picking at her mystery dish until we finally told her not to worry about eating, she could raid the snack drawer back at the hotel.
This is where it gets sad: Jim, being a trooper, dove in and ate many a mystery item and then finally started on the old, tired, rather sinewy fried chicken. He ate a single piece, made a face that said, “I can’t even . . . “, and we decided to call it an afternoon. The waiter came over and counted what we took out of each bowl, and we paid about $3.50 for lunch. (Seriously, there were probably 14 different dishes.) When we were about to leave, the waiter came back over, took the tiny bowl of the remaining chicken (which Jim had pawed over looking for just the right piece), and moved it to the next table, adding a piece or two just to round it out a bit. How many other tables had our chicken visited previous to landing on our own? That’s the question that plagued Jim, and continues to plague him to this day.
But it especially plagued him that afternoon, back at the hotel. An hour or so later, poor Yao Yao and Jim were staggering their visits to the bathroom. I think I didn’t get sick because I just ate the vegetables. Luckily, Yao Yao recovered quickly, or we would have had to medivac her to Singapore. We spent the day at the pool, and that evening we had wonderful Thai prawns. At the hotel.
Unlike the food in China, Thailand, or France, where I wake up thinking about how I might be able to fit an extra meal in, Bagan food was good, but not amazing. Though we had a few really good meals, typically one of us had something that just missed the mark. We ate at some of the most heralded local restaurants, and some others we found along the way, and some dishes were very good and many unremarkable. As you will read, when I post about Ngapali, the food there was wonderful. Ah, seafood!
Most come to Bagan for a day or two, see a few key stupas, and move on. Though the sheer number and variety of stupas and pagodas can be overwhelming, there is so much more to Bagan than visiting a few sights. Having said that there are a few key stupas you must see, or you will go home with your head hung low!
There are basically two kinds of structures, pagodas and temples. A pagoda is a solid structure, whereas a temple is hollow and typically has Buddha’s image inside the structure. If you have small children or knee issues, note that many of the structures have no railings or other protective elements. The stair risers can also be challenging for little ones.
There are numerous books that are incredibly helpful, and I will list a few below. The temples are great places to climb and watch the sunset, though you are not allowed to climb on most of them. There is a limited list where it is still acceptable.
One is the Shwesandaw Pagoda (also known as the Ganesh Pagoda), believed to house a few strands of the Gautama Buddha’s hair. There are multiple terraces and a long, low enclosed staircase that’s so dark that kids make a decent living shining flashlights for the tourists. Yao Yao loved this pagoda and had great fun seeing Jim and me struggle to get to the top of the stairs. The sunset was amazing, and we all sat there for almost an hour. Don’t miss this one. I am not doing justice to the history so get a good book and a good guide. You’ll be the better for it.
Here’s how Yao Yao remembers it:
“The Shwesandaw Pagoda is where we had to climb really narrow, steep, closed in, and tight staircase. I thought it was really fun while my mom and dad didn’t love it, and almost bumped their heads, it was so claustrophobic (for them). We got to climb up more stairs to get to the top of the stupa and watch the beautiful sunset. There were kids with flashlights that shined on the stairs so we didn’t fall or trip. Some people climbed to the very top, which didn’t have stairs. I would’ve done it but mom obviously said no.”
The Htilominlo Temple is two stories and constructed out of brick. It’s worth climbing up the stairs for the view and the location of the temple makes the trip worthwhile. There are four Buddha statues in the interior but they have been repaired or modified and they now seem oddly out of place.
The Sulamuni Temple, built in 1174, has some lovely murals and the way the sun illuminates the archways is reason enough to visit this temple. There is also a large Buddha in a seated position that is worth a view. If nothing else, the interior of this temple will provide you with some temporary relief from the relentless sun. The Thatbinnyu Temple is the tallest in Bagan, built of white stucco. You’ll see amazing views at sunset. This is a popular spot, so you’ll likely be there with hordes of other camera-wielding travelers.
Nat Taung Monastery is a much smaller, quieter destination, a well-preserved, 200-year-old wooden monastery – the only one of its kind remaining in Bagan.
There are numerous other worthwhile stupas, temples, and monasteries to see. I think part of the magic of Bagan is the meandering on the plains and seeing the smaller little stupas, obviously cared for by local families. The history is amazing, and I strongly suggest familiarizing yourself with it before coming, so you have a better idea of what you want to see. Bagan is a place I would return to – its history goes back a thousand years, but I don’t think it will exist in the same way 50 years from now. The desire to grow tourism, the rapidly growing infrastructure, and the military government perspective on preservation do not give you much faith in the future of this magical place. Think Siem Riep, and you’ll understand the importance of the decisions that need to be made in the coming decades.
Burmese Festival I had read about the festivals in Myanmar and really wanted to see one. When we found out there was a carnival and a local band in a field nearby, we asked our Bagan guide, Aung, about it. He not only got us the information, but he told us he would come with us, even though it was his night off. What a show. The festival grounds were full of local families, couples, and groups of teenage kids out for a carefree evening. There were food stands and neon lights everywhere, and music was so loud that we had to shout to hear each other.
Aung immediately asked if he could treat Yao Yao to a fried local doughnut, of sorts. Since her stomach was still queasy, I took one for the team. Let’s just say, there’s nothing wrong with the taste of fried dough in Myanmar. My only issue was the 12 people who touched each piece prior to Aung fingering them all before selecting just the right one for us.
We headed over to the Ferris wheel where three young men were encouraging kids and young couples to take a ride. They started teasing us, trying to get us to climb aboard. Now, there was no way I would ever let Yao Yao go on a carnival ride that looked like a relic from the 1920s and has 14-year-old boys running it.
But then it got interesting: I noticed there were no seat belts to hold the riders in the little seats. We stood back and watched as they started the ride. Two boys climbed up to the top and started rocking their bodies back and forth. As the wheel began to move, the boys would hang off the bottom of one of the seats, using their weight to get the wheel spinning. There was no motor – only people power! It was an amazing thing to see, and we spent a better part of an hour watching the process over and over again. Aung thought it was very funny that we found it so interesting. It’s the only kind of Ferris wheel he’d ever seen.
Photo taken by Balloons Over Bagan
The ride on hot-air balloon had us gliding over stupas, monasteries, and dramatic countryside. It was an incredible sight. I was hesitant about what I thought would be a touristy, Disney-like adventure and I was wrong. Balloons over Bagan, the company we signed up with, was incredible. They were patient, generous, and didn’t make us feel like, “here we go again, another group of tourists.” It was worth every penny. They seemed to be very interested and concerned about the preservation of Bagan, and they made a point of employing locals. It was nice to see a foreign company actually be respectful to the people and the environment they work in. (easternsafaris.com)
I love marketplaces. I don’t know what it is, the colors, local fruits and vegetables, unusual meats, dried fish, huge bamboo shoots, turtles, slugs and more… Then there’s the little lacquer bowls, housewares and dishes. And of course, there’s the street food which I cannot seem to resist. OK, I did resist it here. It was a bit more than funky and though I later had quite a bit of street food in Inle Lake, I passed on the little tofu pillows and vegetarina dumplings. Yao Yao thought the smell of dung was making her ill so I didn’t linger as long as I typically would.
Here’s how Yao Yao remembers it:
“One I didn’t like was the marketplace, it was partially because I had a bad stomach. There was a really strong smell of horse dung, and it made me want to throw up. Dad and I decided to stay outside the market. (Eventually I did throw up, and it was not pleasant.)”
An evening puppet show spices up the pan-Asian menu in the garden at Sarabah I.
The Beach Bagan Restaurant and Bar sits on the river and has lovely views – but it’s also a mecca for large tour groups. We were served way too much food, though it was fresh and only had one set of hands on it – ours.
The Green Elephant is a better version of The Beach Bagan Restaurant, but the service was odd: too much fawning attention, and then crickets. But the three-course menu, including delicious fried river seaweed chips, was delicious.
Everyone raves about Black Bamboo, a French- and Burmese-owned restaurant serving local fare, including a delicious tea salad. Good food in a lovely garden setting.
Yao Yao and I ate at Yar Pyi Vegetarian Restaurant Be Kind to Animals when Jim was still too weak to go out to dinner. I had great tofu curry and some tasty appetizers. Maybe I was just so overjoyed that Yao Yao was feeling better.
Hotel @ Tharabar Gate is an 84-room garden oasis adjacent to the Ananda temple. I fully expect the Four Seasons or Viceroy to show up in the next few years but in the meantime, this was a lovely oasis from the heat and dust. They have a little spa and a decent restaurant and the staff was really helpful. It’s considered a luxury hotel, with “international cuisine,” a spa, and so on. Yao Yao said it reminded her of Bali, and she loved it. Hotel @ Tharbar Gate
Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps
Aung San Suu Kyi, Letters from Burma
George Orwell, Burmese Days
Caroline Courtauld, Myanmar Burma in Style