Thursday, 29 October 2015

myanmar: enjoying kalaw and inle lake

Amazing rays of light - early morning in Kalaw.

After the intense heat elsewhere in Myanmar, the cool air in the lovely hill town of Kalaw was a welcome respite. We took it easy here.

Monks doing their alms rounds.

We ate frequently at the local Shan noodle shack, Pyae Pyae, relishing assorted tasty dishes at affordable prices.

A noodle dish from Pyae Pyae.

Though this cheap and cheerful restaurant had an English menu, it wasn't tremendously descriptive, so we often had very little idea of what to expect, but I suppose that's half the fun!

Another noodle dish from Pyae Pyae.

I convinced Simon that it would be a great idea to wake up early one morning to climb up to Tein Taung (Cloud Hill) in time for dawn. We took a torch with us and clambered out of our guesthouse in the darkness to venture up the "Stairway to Heaven". Though we had to get out of bed at an ungodly hour, I think the magical view was definitely worth it!

The view from the top of Cloud Hill in Kalaw.

But that's not all - when we went back into town, we discovered that it was market day, and subsequently spent an hour or two wandering around. There was so much to see.

A scene from the Kalaw market.

On our way back to our guesthouse, we bought some breakfast food from this lady, who was selling a starchy concoction of purple glutinous rice and other bits and pieces.

Street food in Kalaw.

This is how it looks like up close:

Burmese breakfast?

There wasn't a lot to do at night, but we did pop into the tiny Hi bar for a rum sour. This cosy little place is listed in the Lonely Planet, but to our surprise, we were the only foreigners there that night, though gauging from a dedicated wall full of messages, they do have travellers coming by reasonably often. I also noticed that there were only men in there on this occasion, and I was the odd woman out! Everyone was really nice and made room for us, despite the place being pretty tight already.

Drinks, snacks and music at the cosy Hi Bar in Kalaw.

After a few days in Kalaw, we took a bus to Nyaung Shwe, a gateway town to the popular tourist attraction that is Inle Lake.

Inle Lake is fantastic! I love how it is truly a society built on top of water. Houses stand on stilts, and people get around and visit each other on boats. They even have fruit and vegetable gardens, and these, too, are taken care of by farmers on boats.

And I really, really love watching the leg-rowing fishermen on Inle Lake. It's just such a cool technique. With incredible finesse, the fisherman balances on his boat, navigating his way gracefully through the tangle of weeds just beneath the water's surface.

A leg-rowing fisherman on Inle Lake.

On one of our boat trips, we stopped by a market.

Getting ashore for the rotating market.

We had breakfast here, starting with a simple but satisfying noodle dish.

Slightly spicy noodles with a sprinkling of peanuts.

We also had these unidentified things, which appear to be tightly compressed noodles strewn with finely chopped herbs and vegetables.

What are these savoury noodle-cakes? If you know what they are called, please let me know!

After a nice stroll around the market, back onto the boat we went.

Fishermen at Inle Lake.

For lunch, we stopped at one of the restaurants on the lake, where we sampled the local fish.

Fish for lunch at Inle Lake.

We also had the opportunity to check out how the people of Myanmar make that delicious Shan tofu I raved about in this earlier post about Burmese food.

Making Burmese yellow tofu, the old-school way.

This family business is pretty productive, as you can see. Just looking at all that scrumptious yellow tofu makes me hungry.

Delicious, delicious Shan tofu.

We also had a pleasant day cycling around Nyaung Shwe. Or, rather, Simon cycled, while I sat at the back. It was a rather rickety bicycle, so it wasn't easy for the poor guy, but eventually we got to this cute little restaurant in a village, which had a dragonfruit farm as well as lovely mountain views.

Bamboo Hut restaurant in War Daw village.

To wrap up this Myanmar series, I have to say - I find that many of the popular cafes and restaurants catering to tourists in this country have fabulous fruit smoothies. We had smoothies almost every day, and they were a wonderful antidote to the hot weather. Definitely something to check out, along with all the other things that I've written about.

A refreshing mango smoothie at Thanakha Garden restaurant in Nyaung Shwe.

In conclusion, if you've ever thought about visiting Myanmar - do it! We thoroughly enjoyed our time here. As I've mentioned in the previous post, this country is changing fast, and the guidebooks can barely keep up. But hopefully, it will continue to treasure its glorious traditions while also embracing modernity.

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Sunday, 18 October 2015

myanmar: exploring yangon, mandalay and bagan

Abandoned railway in Yangon city.

Prior to our visit to Myanmar, I expected it to be very quaint and rustic in almost every way - after all, the country only had its first ATM installed in late 2012 - but Yangon surprised me with a fascinating blend of old and new elements. Yes, the sidewalks are full of precarious holes, but the main roads are wide and clean. Cash is still king, but it is now possible to book and pay for accommodation online.

We would occasionally escape into air-conditioned cafes to enjoy a refreshing drink, but we also took our chances with gritty street stalls. I look upon this photo with amusement, as I recall that we ordered a fruit juice from this vendor, and to my horror, the woman scooped it out from that dirty-looking styrofoam container. In case you were wondering, we drank it anyway, and amazingly, we didn't get sick.

Fruit juice stall in Yangon.

The iconic attraction in Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda. We aren't really that big on temples or history, so we decided not to pay the entry fee for an in-depth look, but we did wander around and admire the architecture around the temple grounds.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.

After a few days in Yangon, we took an overnight bus (we chose the most luxurious option offered to us, which was well worth the few extra dollars - it even had little individual entertainment screens like on an airplane!) to Mandalay. Here, we climbed up the seemingly never-ending steps of Mandalay Hill. So many times we thought we had reached the top, only to find that we were mistaken. Fortunately, there were plenty of adorable cats along the way to keep us entertained.

Climbing up the stairs at Mandalay Hill.

Due to distractions along the way (patting cats and bumping into a fellow traveller who stayed at the same guesthouse that we did in Yangon), we arrived at the top of Mandalay Hill fairly late in the day, but still before the light completely disappeared.

The view from the top of Mandalay Hill at twilight.

I don't know if it had a name, but the night market we visited at Mandalay was pretty cool. The highlight, for us, was this man-powered ferris wheel. Several dudes would build up momentum by walking along the wheel, pushing and pulling, and even hanging off the spokes, then drop off as the wheel started to move rapidly. So dangerous. So amazing.

Man-powered ferris wheel at a night market in Mandalay.

While we were in Mandalay, we also hired a driver to take us around to see the sights away from the city for one day. We made an early start, and got to U Bein Bridge in time for a stunning sunrise. I definitely recommend walking across the bridge and visiting the village on the other end. We had a leisurely stroll and enjoyed breakfast there, then took a boat on the way back.

U-Bein bridge in Amarapura.

At Inwa, we took a horse-drawn carriage ride and stopped at various locations. The ruins of Yadana Hsemee Pagoda were pretty interesting.

Outdoor buddha statue at Yadana Hsemee Pagoda in Inwa.

Here's a fun fact. At one point during the afternoon, our driver stopped somewhere and instructed us to climb up some stairs to a temple (or maybe it was a monastery) for some fantastic views... it was the middle of the day, sweltering, and we were already starting to get a little tired... so instead of making the effort, we found a bench somewhere and took a nap before casually sauntering back to the car, haha! Yeah, we're bad travellers. In our defense, our trip was in September and Myanmar is HOT during this time.

But anyway, here's a picture of a cute family at a place where we stopped for lunch.

A random capture at a place where we stopped for lunch.

When we've had our fill of Mandalay, we caught a bus - this time during the day - to Bagan. I cannot even express how magical this place is. As I've mentioned, we're not huge on temples and history. It didn't matter. Bagan is amazing. We hired an electric bike - Simon drove, I sat at the back - and we had the most fantastic time cruising around Bagan. The sheer number of temples in Bagan is just incredible and awe-inspiring - there were temples everywhere we looked, and at certain times it seemed like we were zooming past one every second.

A view of the temples in Bagan.

There are also ox carts galore in Bagan. Look at the pretty decorations!

Beautifully decorated oxen in Bagan.

As I wrap up this post, I'll leave you with another shot of Bagan. We climbed up a secluded temple at sunrise and we were rewarded with sublime tranquility - and this view.

Sunrise at Bagan.

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Tuesday, 6 October 2015

a trip to myanmar: an exploration of burmese food

Dining out the Burmese way in Yangon, Myanmar.

To be honest, I didn't do a whole lot of research on Burmese cuisine before I went to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). While I'm a huge fan of eating, for some reason, when I travel, I don't feel the need to plan my food itinerary too meticulously. I'll have a few things that I absolutely want to try, but I'm happy to go with the flow the rest of the time.

As it happened, one of the first Burmese dishes I fell in love with was nan gyi thoke - thick round rice noodles tossed in a curry gravy, slightly tangy with lemon and slightly nutty with chickpea flour. Our cute and friendly guesthouse in Yangon served it for breakfast one morning, and that was it. Love at first bite. From that day onward, I was always on the lookout for nan gyi thoke. In places where there were no English menus, I would often shyly query "nan gyi thoke?" and if they had it, this endearing noodle salad would be my meal.

Nangyi thoke - curried noodle salad.

The Burmese tea leaf salad, lahpet thoke, was a dish that I had heard about before prior to my trip to Myanmar, so I made sure that I didn't miss out. Featuring pickled tea leaves, vegetables, sesame seeds, peanuts and deep-fried legumes, this salad is a delightful melange of soft and crunchy textures. If caffeine affects you easily, though, avoid this salad for dinner, lest you feel frustrated later at your inability to fall asleep. Ask me how I know.

Lahpet thoke - Burmese tea leaf salad.

During our trip, we enjoyed meals from both street stalls and upmarket restaurants. The food here tends to be very affordable, even more so if you eat where the locals eat. It seems that the less English is spoken, the cheaper the food gets. Not surprisingly, really - this is how it works in most countries!

At this particular spot, we basically pointed at what we wanted, then sat down and waited. Suddenly, an incredible amount of food came out, and what's more, they kept refilling the pickles and the vegetable sides. We later figured out this was customary. You get a limited amount of fried fish, meat curry or whatever, but everything else gets topped up, apparently at no additional charge. When we finished our meal, more gesturing occurred as we established how much we owed, and it turned out to be just under $1 per person. Awesome!

Incredibly cheap and filling meal if you eat where the locals eat!

And in case you were wondering what Burmese curry is like, it definitely varies depending on where you get it from, but when it's good, it's very, very good.

A delicious Burmese curry. I think this one was a lamb curry.

Surprisingly, though, one of our more expensive meals (only in relative terms, I use the word "expensive" loosely here) also came from a place popular with the locals. This was from an open-air restaurant that does grilled foods of all sorts. You pick what you want at a counter; they grill it and bring it to your table. Most people keep it affordable by having the grilled meats and vegetables with rice. We went without rice, so we ended up paying about $10 each - still very affordable!

Here I introduce you to basil fish balls, which tasted pretty great - the herbaceous touch definitely added something a little different. Other highlights include the enoki mushrooms and the broccoli. Oh my goodness, the broccoli! I have always enjoyed broccoli anyway, but this grilling business really takes it to another level - the smoky flavour is just incredible. Yes, I took a picture of that revelatory broccoli, but I won't bother posting it here because it just looks like broccoli. And we gobbled it up so fast that my picture was of literally just one piece of broccoli.

Basil fish balls. Plus other stuff.

Moving on. We have to talk about mohinga, because it's the national dish of Myanmar, and it is indeed special and scrumptious. Rice vermicelli noodles waft languidly in a warmly spiced fish broth thickened with chickpea flour, while interesting ingredients such as sliced banana tree stems (somewhat similar to celery) infuse it with delightful crunch. I like my mohinga with lots of lime or lemon, as that helps cut through the richness of the soup. We purchased this bowl of mohinga from a street stall, and it cost only about 30 cents.

Mohinga - Burmese fish noodle soup.

I must also tell you about the Shan tofu in Myanmar. Because it is absolutely fabulous. If you find regular Chinese tofu to be on the boring side (personally, I like it - I like almost everything!), give Burmese tofu a go. Instead of soy beans, this yellow tofu is made from yellow split peas and chickpeas - ingredients that impart a lovely flavour to the final product. When this yellow tofu is deep fried, the exterior crisps up, while the interior remains wonderfully creamy. This stuff can get addictive.

Shan-style yellow tofu. So good.

Speaking of which, Shan noodles are super popular in Myanmar. I think there are many varieties, but I don't really know the specifics. I just eat whatever gets placed in front of me. They typically come with pickles. The pickles provide a nice punch, so add them to your noodles to give it some sass.

Shan noodle soup.

If you don't feel like a soup version, dry versions are also available.

Shan noodle salad.

A friend recommended that I try ohn no khao swe, which she describes as being similar to curry laksa. I eventually found a place that served this chicken and coconut curry noodle dish. I never saw this dish on any English menus, so I asked about it wherever I went, just like I did with the nan gyi thoke. Using this nifty method, I finally found a place that served it, and the manager-owner was very impressed that I knew about ohn no khao swe. In turn, I was very impressed with the deliciousness of ohn no khao swe. It does taste somewhat like curry laksa, but with a charm of its own. Again, this dish has a touch of chickpea flour, an ingredient that seems to be the magical foundation for many Burmese dishes.

Ohn no khao swe - noodles in a coconut chicken curry soup.

Last but not least, let's talk dessert. This is a Burmese semolina cake called sanwin makin. Made with semolina, coconut cream, eggs, sugar and butter, spiced with cardamom and sprinkled with poppy seeds (or in some cases, sesame seeds), this cake is sweet, tender, and inviting. It goes very nicely with a cup of tea.

Sanwin makin - Burmese semolina cake.

Another after-meal treat that you might encounter in Myanmar are these rustic candies. I believe that this is jaggery or toddy palm candy, made by boiling down toddy palm juice into a thick and sticky consistency, then letting it cool and cutting it into pieces. The texture is firm yet chewable, and it showcases the complexity and lovely caramel taste of unrefined sugar in all its glory. Some call it "Burmese chocolate".

Palm sugar or jaggery candy.

In my next post I will talk about the sights and experiences we enjoyed in Myanmar, so get ready for a mini virtual tour through Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Kalaw and Inle Lake - it will mostly be scenic photos, though I might still sneak in a few random captures and food pictures!

By the way, I've recently started an Instagram account and a Facebook page to showcase more photos from our travels, as well as cats and other things in our life (most photos are from Simon, while all the commentary is from me) - it's called Purring Around the World, and the content is quite different to what you see here at The Indolent Cook (for which I have a Facebook page and Twitter account too) - do check them out, and if you like what you see, go on and follow us! :)

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