Friday, February 19, 2016

First Views of Myanmar. Mandalay!

In Mandalya, walking on the main road near our hotel.

You would think that after all these years of travel, nothing makes me nervous but you would be wrong. For me, the worst day is travel day, especially when I'm going international.  Today was no exception.  The big unknown was how long it would take to go from our hotel,  located near Don Muang Airport to Suvarnabhumi Airport.  Last night, the receptionist gave us an estimate of 1 - 2 hours depending on traffic.

For our noon time flight to Mandalay, I figured we had to be in the taxi by no later than 9a.  Thankfully, everyone was up bright and early this morning.  We had a leisurely breakfast and were ready to hit the road by 8:15a.   We had asked the receptionist to call a taxi for us and I expected her pick up the phone and call a service.  Instead, she got one of her fellow worker bees to go out to the street to flag down a taxi.  I decided to join him.  Car after car after car  passed us by.  Not a single taxi in sight and when there was one, there were already passengers inside.  For a few minutes, I debated whether or not we should go to the main road and catch a taxi from there.  I was getting antsy though in reality, we had time.

Luckily, a taxi did arrive!   We were finally on our way and I was able to relax.....a wee bit.   Instead of taking the main road, our driver took the back streets.   We were in the middle of a residential neighborhood - nice houses here.  I was wondering if he was deliberately doing the back streets to avoid traffic.


Occasionally, we would get stuck in a bit of traffic but overall, we moved along at a good speed.


The last stretch was on the highway.  At this point, we were in reverse traffic - it was bumper to bumper in the other direction.  When I saw the traffic signs pointing to Suvarnabhumi Airport, I looked at the time on my cellphone.  We were well ahead of schedule!  Finally, I relaxed as I knew we wouldn't miss our flight.

At the airport, we checked in and began walking to the departure gate.  We had so much time that we even were able to do a bit of *window* shopping.  They have nice shops at this airport and the layout of the place is such that you have to walk by all the shops before you reach the departure gates.  Imagine a straight line with the departure gates located at each end of the line with the stores in between.  As you exit the security check, you are standing in the middle of the line so either way you, you have to walk by a lot of shops.  Of course, this was intentional and of course, I am sure passengers buy things before they board the plane.  Sneaky design.

Our plane was a few minutes late taking off but we landed in Mandalay without issue.  Flash forward and we exit the arrival terminal to meet up with our guide, Zaw.  First thing he had to do with us with help us get Myanmar kyat, the local currency.  We did this at the currency exchange inside the arrival terminal.  I had read that $100 new/unused USD bills are preferred so that's what we came armed with.  For two weeks, Zaw recommended that we convert $150 USD each to cover for our lunches and dinners.  Hard to believe that $10 USD is enough for both lunch and dinner.  Worse case, if we run out of money, there are ATMs in the places that we're going to that we can withdraw money from.

With plenty of kyat in hand, we were finally ready to kick off our two week visit to Mandalay!!


The moment we exited the terminal, the intense heat and humidity hit me.  Oh no.  Wilted Lily will not be happy under these conditions.  It was around 2p and no doubt, this is the hottest time of day but damn, it's hot.....and humid!

It would be about a 40 minute drive from the airport to our hotel.  Along the way, we caught glimpses of Mandalay, the country's second largest city.  My first impression was just how poor this place is.  Buildings are old and ramshackle - some were just plywood huts with corrugated tin roofs.  There was trash strewn about here and there.  Though the road were were on was good, the side roads were often unpaved.  All visible signs of how this country has suffered under military rule; it has not progressed much in decades....at least not compared to its Asian cousins.

I was expecting the landscape to look like Malaysia and Thailand - rain forest, jungle but instead, it's quite a flat, arid landscape here.


On the outskirts of town, we also caught glimpses of fertile farmland.  We're in dry season at the moment so not much is growing.  It'll be interesting to visit a market and see what types of veggies and fruits they eat here. 


In town, traffic often slowed down to a crawl.  That gave me chance to see more of the street life here.  Cars share the road with motorcycles.  Apparently, motorcycles are the vehicle of choice here and indeed they are everywhere.  Public transportation comes mainly in the form of small vans crammed full of people - a sight that is common in many a developing country I've been to.  We would pass the occasional zebu drawn cart.  People were out and about everywhere.

I continued to be struck by just how poor this place is.

According to Zaw, the street layout of Mandalay was designed by the British and in the old part of the city, where we were staying, the streets are laid out in a grid.  The naming convention of the streets is something like 1st to 50th Street run north south and 51st - 100th Street run east west.   I don't know how much walking we'll be doing but hopefully, we'll be able to get our hands on a good map as I have no data service here to use Google Maps.

I saw the sign for our hotel, The Home Hotel, but I couldn't spot the hotel.  Our driver stopped the car by the sign.  Zaw got out and opened up the door to the van.  We had arrived.  Before we knew it, some young men had approached our van and were carrying our suitcases off with them.  I followed.  Turned out there is some construction going on to the street entrance to our hotel so we had to go down an alleyway and access the entrance from another way.

That's my green suitcase he's carrying.

Zaw got us checked in but before he left, we had to settle up on the bill for our tour which was organized by One Stop Travels and Tours, a local Myanmar tour agency.  We each owed $1427 USD and we had to pay in cash.  We had not paid a deposit so this was the total cost of the tour for each of us.   I have to say, $1427 USD for an economy two week tour is a bargain!  After turning over the money, I was relieved to no longer have to carry around that large sum of money.

Also before he left, Zaw gave us a rundown of how our two days in Mandalay would unfold. Each day, we would begin at 9a and do about 2-3 hours of sightseeing.  That would be followed by lunch and a rest break that basically had us avoiding going out during the hottest time of the day.  We would then resume sightseeing around 4p each day, ending just around dinner time.  The Wilted Lily was all on board with that plan!

There was no sightseeing planned for today so we headed up to our room and relaxed.  Actually, it was time for a quick nap.

View out to the main road where were had stepped out of the van. 

By early evening, it was time to venture out for dinner.  We had asked both Zaw and the hotel receptionist for some recommendations.  Zaw had suggested a place that serves barbecue.  Based on our desire to have local food for dinner, the receptionist marked down a restaurant on a map. 

Old houses located on the alley, right next door to our hotel.

We had several blocks to walk to get to our destination.  Old cities typically have some old charm to them.  Not Mandalay.  There was nothing charming or endearing about this place.  The buildings were nothing much to look at - more functional and practical than attractive.  I don't think there has been any new construction here in many, many years.


Sidewalks started and stopped for no reason....at least that I could make out.  Many of them could do with some repair.


There were shops but nothing of interest.  Motorcycles ruled the roads and there were barely any traffic signals.  I think I counted one on our route.  Crossing the street was a bit of a challenge but in no time, we were darting from one side of the road to the other.  A few street vendors were selling food but it wasn't as many as I would have expected.  In some ways, this part of town was a bit dead.


Making what looked like roti canai.  I was tempted to buy some to try but we didn't have any small change on us :-(

We eventually arrived at our destination but not without a friendly local pointing us the way.   In fact, we didn't even have to ask him.  He saw us tourists and immediately knew where we were going!


Inside, the restaurant was filled with a mix of locals and tourists.  Before we were even done reading the menu, dishes of food were placed down on the table.  We glanced at each one and with the exception of one or two, we had absolutely no idea what they were!   We each also got a bowl of soup with a leafy vegetable floating in it. I took a sip and the soup was very light in flavor.  It reminded of the soups we had in Madagascar....less a soup for drinking and liquid for mixing in with the rice.

Zaw had also told us about this restaurant and his instructions to us were to just order the meat.  Okay.   With that in mind and the recommendation of the waiter, we each ordered a meat dish. 



The waiter also deposited a plate of fresh veggies - some leafy greens, small round radishes, slices of cucumber, carrot and what looked like a green squash of some sort.  There was also a small bunch of herbs.  We had no clue what to do with the veggies so we just started to munch on them.  There were some saucy things in the bowls so I used them as a dipping sauce.

Before our meat dishes arrived, the waiter came by with a large bowl of rice.  He began scooping out portions.  They were HUGE portions!  I started with about a quarter of a portion and was certain that was more than enough for me.


We began eating the rice with the veggie dishes, savoring Burmese cuisine for the first time.  Okay, we've had Burmese food before but I don't know how authentic the stuff that we get in the US is.  Here, we were dining on real, traditional Burmese food.  Some of it was delicious, some not quite our taste.  One thing for sure, the chili is super hot here!  Tongue searingly hot!!

Bro and I had each ordered the goat curry.  Usually, I'm not one for goat meat but here, it was very well prepared and I happily downed every bite!


Dinner ended with a covered lacquer ware bowl being brought to our table.  We took the lid off and inside, the bowl was divided into three sections.  One section held some small green chilies with several heads of raw garlic.  Another held a veggie thing of some sort. I think this is fermented tea.  The last section was a mixture of peanuts, sesame seeds and fried broad beans.  That was the only section of ingredients I recognized.  We all stayed away from the chilies and garlic - how do you eat these raw??

The fermented tea leaves are definitely an acquired taste.  Nothing bad but not something I would eat, plain, at the end of meal - probably enjoyed along with a bit of rice.  We ended up munching on the nuts, beans and seeds.



By the time we finished dinner, the sun had long set.  The streets here are not all that well lit so it was a bit of a challenge finding our way back.  The good thing was that all the rush hour traffic we faced earlier was long gone and while there were still motorcycles roaring up and down the streets, crossing the road was a far less risky venture.

Earlier, we had passed by a stall, manned by several people, selling something in boxes.  We were curious but too intent on making our way to the restaurant to stop. On our way back to the hotel, we decided to check out the stand.  We asked what was in the boxes and the reply back was something that sounded like tah-mah-nay.  Tah mah what?  tah.....mah....nay.  Okay.  I got the name but what the heck is it.  Food.  Okay.


We were narrowing down our questions to try and figure out what was inside the boxes but before we had to take it much further, I got handed a sample.  In the middle of a banana leaf was a scoop of some brownish looking substance topped with shavings of roasted coconut, peanuts and sesame seeds.  As it sat on the palm of my hand, I could feel the warmth of the brownish stuff through the banana leaf.  I pinched of a piece.  Immediately, my brain went into decipher mode.  What was I tasting?  Sticky rice and ginger were the two dominant tastes.  For some reason, I was expected a sweet treat but I thought my taste buds detected a wee bit of salt.

When we got back to the hotel, we showed the receptionist what we had and asked her what it was.  Tah-mah-nay.  I later Googled to get  more information.

Htamanè (pronounced as we had been told, the *h* is silent) is a savory snack made with glutinous rice.  It is traditionally prepared around and on the full moon day of Tabodwe, the 11th lunar month in the traditional Burmese calendar (roughly in February), just as the cool season ends.  Full moon will occur in 3 days time so we are here at just the right time to be tasting this seasonal delicacy.  How cool!

It was so nice of the friendly locals to give us a sample of the htamanè.  We offered to pay them for it but they told us it was a *present*.  We thanked them, grateful for their kind gesture!


Htamanè is traditionally made in monasteries but also by shops specializing in making it as well as in communities.  Just as I was sampling the htamanè, a couple of the young me waved us to follow them.  I thought we were just going to walk behind the sales counter but instead they led us to a small courtyard.  There, dozens, literally dozens of people were hard at work making the htamanè.

Unfortunately, the lit was a bit too dim for me to take good photos.  I could have done better had I just concentrated but I was too captivated by what was taking place before me to care.  This is one of those unexpected travel moments that you treasure because it's just so unexpected and interested.  It's also one of those instances where I wish I had a guide with me to explain the process.  


In the center of the courtyard, there were a lot of large woks, each with bamboo cover, sitting atop a charcoal fired burner.


Occasionally, the lid would be removed and either one man or two would stir the contents which appeared to be the glutinous rice.  I'm guessing that in the early stages of cooking, one man could do the stirring but as the grains of rice broke down in to a starchy blob, it would take the strength of two men to stir the mixture.


As I watched two men stirring up the blob of glutinous rice, a third man came along and threw in handfuls of what looked to be sesame seeds and peanuts.  I don't know how long they have to cook this concoction but it definitely takes some muscle to make it all come together!


At first, I didn't know if it would be okay for me to walk around or not.  I didn't want to be any one's way.  I took a few steps and it was quickly apparent to me that no one minded that I was there.  So, I took full opportunity to check out what everyone was doing.

It was like an assembly line process; everyone had a specific job to do.   In a separate area of the courtyard, women were washing the rice.


Containers of washed rice, ready for cooking.

In a tented space, in a corner of the courtyard, women and girls were tearing up banana leaves that would be the serving *dish* for the


I am quickly finding out that Burmese are a bit reserved but very friendly.

On my way past the women who were washing the rice, I was trying to avoid stepping into a very large puddle of water but my balance gave way and both feet ended up ankle deep in water.  For some reason, that got me giggling and well, giggling is infectious.  Next thing I know, the women around me were enjoying a good laugh as well!  Laughter is a universal language.


With my feet soaking wet, I left the courtyard.  Bro and Ayşe were already waiting for me. I thanked everyone one last time and waved goodbye.  That was a fun and very memorable travel moment.

Tomorrow begins are first full day of sightseeing in Myanmar.  I can't wait!!

Goodnight from Mandalay!