When you fly over Myanmar you see very clearly how the land is used. The towns have started spreading, but have not yet gobbled up the countryside. Most of the country remains a patchwork of agriculture. From the air you can see that farming remains traditional: all the fields are small. This is something that is easily verified when driving through the country-side. People are out selling produce from their own farms. Large scale mechanization and industrialized farms are not here yet.
Myanmar is a small country. Most flights take less than an hour. We did most of our flying in turbo-props which stay close enough to the ground that one gets a feel for the land and the way it is used. We flew over the muddy Irrawaddy river (photo above). Fluffy clouds receded into the distance, throwing a patchwork of shadows on the little fields below. Living in Myanmar seems to be hard, but the people we met are upbeat now. In the centre of the country, around the Irrawaddy heartland, the land seems peaceful.
Khow Suey and various other exotica pass as representative Myanmarese food in restaurants in India. The truth is that these are uncommon as the main meal even in Myanmar. This selective treatment in Indian restaurants is deliberate, because normal food and high cuisine in Myanmar is not so different from eastern Indian food. Without this selective focus it would be very hard for a restaurant in India to sell itself as exotic Burmese. In normal Burmese meals rice is a staple. Beans and vegetables are standard accompaniments, made relatively less spicy than their Indian versions, but otherwise very similar. Meat and fish appear on the plate, again cooked in ways that would pass without comment in India. Myanmar sees widespread use of salads; this is not traditional in India. The pickles are different, but then India has so many kinds of pickles, you would not notice that this is foreign. This is what you see on the plate in the photo here. You can also see that beer is a common aperitif. The papads and the remains of the peanuts which are served with it are not so different from the normal Indian practice. There is a wide choice of drinks available. Many of the sweets are also fairly similar to eastern Indian sweets: candied fruits, and coconut and rawa based sweets similar to the Bengali pitha. In the photo you see a local sweet which turned out to be not so different from an Indian chikki. These similarities are very apparent when you walk through a market.
Since a significant part of our visit to Myanmar was spent along the Irrawaddy river and other water bodies, we ate a lot of fresh water fish. There is a huge variety, just like India used to have before the rise of modern mono-pisciculture. Frying is common, but also many of the preparations steam fish with various ground herbs. Thin curries similar to eastern Indian ways of preparing fish are also widespread. I kept seeing the batter fried prawns which you see in the featured photo all along the Irrawaddy river.
I’ve written earlier about my first impressions of the street food of Myanmar. The striking similarities with India became more apparent as days went by. There is a lot of raw fruit available. Like in India, unripe fruits like mangos and guavas are eaten with salt and spices. You see a vendor in the photo on the left in the panel above. Street vendors sell a variety of sweets as you can see in the middle panel. A lot of this was completely unfamiliar to me. They range from fried pockets to baked and steamed things with the consistency of custard. The photo on the right shows boiled eggs. In most parts of India now the only eggs you see are chicken eggs from battery farms, although I remember much more variety from my childhood. As you can see in the photo above, this variety is still visible in Myanmar: there are boiled duck’s eggs in the lot. The lady also sells Burma cheroots! The flask she is drinking from had green tea.
A particularly Burmese snack was the monbao you see being made in the photo above. The batter which the girl is ladling into a little container is sweetened rice flour. This is then covered with an earthenware pot and baked on the stove in front of her. This stall was extremely popular. Although I wanted to taste this new food, the queue ahead of me was too long. I had the impression that the word monbao is used for a range of tea time sweets.
The pounded mushrooms which you see in the photo above were also new to me. The lady was selling a single variety of mushrooms: the white ones in the bowl near her left hand. She would pound each into the flat brown sheets she has stacked up in front of her. You sprinkle some of the chutney and chopped onions on them and they are ready to eat.
It was interesting that some kinds of Indian food are strong favourites in Myanmar. Many people recommended their favourite place for “palatha” (paratha) and “puti” (puri). I gathered from this that these fried bready stuff do not exist in the local kitchen, but have become hot favourites. The image of Indian food this gives to the locals is less distorted than the Indian image of Khow Suey as standard Burmese food. During my couple of days in the Shan state I asked for Khow Suey once and only got fried noodles with pork. I found that khaw swe is just the Burmese word for noodles.
I saw this scooter parked outside the Manuha temple in Bagan. The sliced guavas hanging from the basket at the back, and the plastic bag full of spices reminded me of my childhood when I would spend my little money on buying treats exactly like this.
I’d read that Buddhist monks are held with great reverence in Myanmar. Their moral power was enhanced when they involved themselves in protests against the military government. I’d also read that since then some of them have remained embroiled in politics. Unfortunately their politics has, reportedly, become communal; a small number of monks have lent their weight to campaigns against religious minorities in the country. My first sight of a monk in Myanmar was of this gentleman negotiating the crowds at U Bein’s teak bridge. He had the harried air of a middle-level bureaucrat trying to get home after a long and tiresome day in office. I quickly got out of the way of his somewhat aggressive umbrella. He did notice me taking the photo, and didn’t seem to like it any more than he seemed to like the crowd around him.
The very next monk I met was altogether more serene. He stood on the bridge over the Irrawaddy river and seemed to enjoy the sunset and the cool breeze. He stood there long enough for me to get his photo with the temple behind him. I told myself that monks are also people, they have different personalities. This man was happy and unmindful of the crowd around him. The great schism in Buddhism is between Theravada (practised in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and other countries of South East Asia) and Mahayana (largely confined to the Himalayas). Theravada belief is more austere.
In the Bagaya monastery I saw monks at different stages of their training and life. Monasteries come with their chores. I met a group of novice monks, children, who had converted their job of collecting trash into a game. I learnt later that many children spend a few years in a monastery, learning to read and write, and only a few of them go on to a monk’s life. Among the many others I saw, I was intrigued by one who sat in his upstairs room reading a book (featured image) even as his contemporaries spent time outdoors, chatting in groups or walking alone. Older monks looked at us as we walked around with our cameras, and occasionally asked us where we came from.
There’s quite a lot of discussion about the colour of the robes that monks wear. When I saw robes drying in the Bagaya monastery (photo above) I realized that there is quite a lot of variety in the colours. Since I’d seen senior monks as well as novices wearing the same maroon robes, it seemed that there is no rule about colours. The drying robes range from maroon to orange, the latter is probably the industrial equivalent of saffron.
Having settled this question one evening, it was quite unsettling the next afternoon when we came across a group of bhikshu in pink and saffron. We realized later that nuns always wear pink and saffron. This group of nuns walked through the garden in a single file. When the leader stopped to take a photo, the whole file behind her came to a halt. It was funny in a way.
It is customary for monks in Myanmar to walk amongst people twice a day and beg for food. In Sanskrit begging and alms are called bhiksha, and the monks who seek alms are called bhikshu. Late in the afternoon we saw a long line of very young girls out seeking alms. The photo above is of part of this file of children. It is considered highly meritorious to give alms of this kind. Although we did not see alms being given, everyone we asked assured us that no child nun would go hungry.
While walking through a market in Mandalay, I saw a nun hurrying through the narrow lanes. As I tried to take a photo, she noticed me, and gracefully stopped for a moment to give me this wonderful shot. There was no communication needed except for that graceful smile. We travel through the world, looking for differences and novelty and meet a common humanity everywhere.