Sunday, April 1, 2018

First Night in Yangon

“Once a year, go some place you've never been before” – whoever said that got to be a very wise person. At the turn of this new year, I took advantage of having a break in between jobs to travel a little bit around, particularly to places that I have never been. So far in January I was in Kyushu then in Taichung, and it didn’t stop there. One night I casually mentioned to my friends that I would love to go to Myanmar if Cathay Pacific offered discount tickets for the direct flight to Yangon, the country's gateway city and former capital. Then a couple of days later, I had the air ticket booked through Cathay’s Fanfare promotion to travel there at the end of February.

Travelling to a new country got me excited, but at the same time I was slightly anxious because I knew little about the region. Whenever you hear Myanmar on the news, it’s almost always for the wrong reasons – first the hard-line military rule that went on for decades (only loosened up in 2011) and the well-documented struggle of the dissident icon figure of Aug Sang Suu Kyi who led the fight against military dictatorship, then in recent times it’s the humanitarian crisis and unrest in the western state of Rakhine where there’s reports of genocide against minority Muslims population or refugees, depending on who you were speaking to. So, that didn’t sound like a heavenly tourist destination at all, but still, I am curious to see this country before it became swamped with tourists (like Vietnam over the past decade or so) as they have only recently opened up to the outside world in the last few years and to learn more about its history and culture by being on the ground, observing and experiencing first hand.

The airport showed the first glimpse of how the country has changed over the past few years - the terminals, rebuilt in 2016, were modern and well-equipped with duty free shops filled with high-end liquors and designer labels, and excellent, comfortable airport lounges that can rival any neighboring Southeast Asian cities. A billboard near the arrival gate mentioned they have just received their first-millionth visitor of this year in early February was just as startling, for the country which had less than 5000 annual visitors in the 1990s with the number soaring to 3.5 million in 2017 and will only keep rising as the country began to open up to the world with more re-discovered the beauty of this place filled with colorful history and charming landscape (barring any further political turmoil that threatens to buck the trend of growth)

But something has not quite kept up just yet - I was glad I managed to get through the super inefficient immigration at Yangon airport in somewhat reasonable speed (it took them almost 5 minutes to process one visitor, and for crying out loud, their computers are running Windows 95!). And after a long (but cheap) taxi ride through the evening commuter traffic (the highway system is non-existent), I settled in my hotel room in downtown right during dinner hour. With only limited choices of international hotel chains doing business at Myanmar right now (though that’s about to change really soon), hotel rooms were either super expensive or basic and ghetto-like, but I was glad to check into the Best Western hotel near Chinatown for 2 nights, which was priced in the middle range and conveniently located, clean and well-equipped and managed.

Best part of the hotel is its location – it’s right in the busiest part of the city, full of actions day and night with the food markets right nearby. The sun was completely set by the time I settled down in my hotel room, so I managed to have a little stroll of the city with the night view of Sule Pagoda right in the middle of downtown Yangon and avoided the unbearable mid-day heat.

My first order of business is to find myself a longyi, the common piece of clothing worn by local Burmese, both men and women. I wasn’t so much as trying to blend in with the locals but for the convenience and comfort than wearing a pair of long pants, as shorts were generally not allowed in Buddhist temples or pagodas which I spent considerable time visiting during my stay. It didn’t take long for me to get used to and appreciate the versatility of longyi, essentially a piece of cotton or silk cloth sewed both ends to form a cylinder, worn across the waist and tied and tucked in just below the waistband. There were so many styles, patterns and materials to choose from and I went with a simple one from a small shop not far away from the Sule Pagoda. And as you can see, I also have the red shoes to match with my red checkered longyi.

Now I needed to get on with my dinner, and my first meal in Myanmar was in the famous 19th Street in the heart of Chinatown just a couple of blocks away from my hotel. On the 300m stretch between Anawratha and Maha Bandula roads, 19th Street was filled with dozens of bars and restaurants opening til late with many more mobile street food carts in between, frequented by locals and tourists alike with all food ranging from Chinese, western, local Burmese and particularly, barbecue cuisines. I stopped by at Kaung Myat Restaurant, one of the more popular barbecue joint on the block housed in an old Chinese community house with a green-colored façade and a big wooden plague at the door.

Near the entrance was the big refrigerated display unit with different kinds of raw food in skewers, so one just grabbed a plastic basket, picked out whatever you like from the unit and passed them to the waiter to order. They also had more cooked dishes plus drinks available in the menu written in Burmese and English. I found a table on the curbside outside the shop, picked my food and just seated, waited and watched people walking by this ever-busy street with a glass of Myanmar lager in hand. Food arrived in less than 15 minutes, well-grilled and served together in a plate.

I only picked out a few vegetables, seafood and meat in random and all of them were delicious – think of it as Japanese yakitori place, only in more ghetto-style. My favorite dish was the pork belly, sliced thin, char-grilled and served with bell peppers on a skewer. It’s slightly sweet from the marinate, tender and fat and filled with smoky flavor.

I also had a few chicken skewers – told ya this is exactly like a yakitori place – with chicken skin, liver, thigh and one rolled with chives. Both chicken skin and liver were great – the former generously brushed with teriyaki sauce and the latter just mildly seasoned with a tad bit of salt and with excellent texture. I also enjoyed the grilled squid, beef and okra, all served on skewers – and they went well with the ice-cold beer under such heat.

Already impressed by the vibe and energy of this city and couldn’t wait to see more of it the next day.

And oh, just a side note, there’s always the confusion between Burma vs Myanmar, or Rangoon vs Yangon with the name changes for the country and its biggest city (and former capital) dictated during the military regime. For convenience and consistency’s sake, I am going to stick with the new names which are used officially right now.

When? February 26 2018
Where? Kaung Myat Restaurant, 110 19th Street, Latha Township, Yangon, Myanmar
Menu Highlights? Barbecue Skewers

More pictures from my Myanmar journey:

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