Stop before crossing the border

Our roadship took a long time to pull out of the gravitational attraction of Chandigarh. After a couple of hours dodging the motorbikes and tractors in its accretion zone, we were poised to take off into the hills. But then Soni ran out of fuel. “You have to eat before you leave Punjab,” he told us, “There’s no food after this.” We coasted to a halt outside a dhaba which looked like it came out of the sets of Jab We Met. An ensemble from rural Punjab was captured in the middle of a bhangra right in front of the dhaba.

We stretched our legs and The Young Niece strolled in to check for a fix of her sugary aerated drink. The rest of us got our caffeine with less added calories. I paused at the gate to take a photo. There was a pair of strangely understated lions welcoming you into the establishment. It seemed that The Family had convinced The Young Niece to try out the lassi instead of the usual bottled drink. Since 10% of Punjab has diabetes, I’m not sure that the calorie content was lower, but at least this drink had some protein in it.

I strolled around the courtyard looking for the toilets. The dhaba seemed to be a franchise, with several different shops set up within it. At one I found this wonderful statue of a well-educated specimen of the genus Pan. I wasn’t sure whether a smile on the face of a chimp was supposed to be reassuring or threatening. It wasn’t showing its teeth, but I thought it wise to retreat after taking a quick photo.

A second gate was flanked by horses ready to set out on a wedding procession. It seemed to be taking some time saying goodbye to a strawberry man. Is that a better argument, or a sweeter one, than a straw man? A sugar high from a sweet and milky tea can set you thinking of strange things.

The Family wanted to take a look at the food shops around the entrance. Before I could enter, I found a sign which caught me. Kitsch is not just visual. The idea of a chocolate paan is as kitschy as that of the chimpanzee reading a book. Soni had finished his breakfast. He complained that the parathas were not as good as they were the last time he stopped here. We belted up. Nothing stood between us and the hills now.

Marketplace in Mandalay

Fruits in a market in Mandalay

I love walking through markets when I’m in a different country. It gives you a good feel for what you might get to eat. Our exposure to Myanmar is so small, that I was happy when we got some time to walk through a market in Mandalay. I would find out what the Burmese grow and eat. There were fruit shops at the mouth of the market. Almost all the fruits were exactly what you might see in India. No surprises there except for a pile of dragon fruit. Perhaps we had not travelled far enough to the east to begin seeing the really exotic.

Bananas in a market in Mandalay

One of the things that I learnt on a recent visit to Chennai is that fruits and bananas are different things. So I was not surprised to see a banana stall near the stall of fruits. The variety was amazing: Myanmar has quite as many kinds of bananas as one could expect in southern India. We got to eat some of these varieties later on. There was a sweet and buttery tasting variety with mottled yellow skin which was nice and quite different from anything I’d eaten before. I guess one can find some of these varieties in north-eastern India if one looks hard.

White fungus being sold in a market in Mandalay

The next few shops sold vegetables. I recognized most of them, although I would think of some as mildly exotic. There was eggplant of a slightly different shape than I’ve seen in Mumbai. The chinese cabbage looked large and crisp. Lotus stem and various beans were placed next to the usual staples of potatoes and onions. The only exotica was this white fungus. I recognized it as the main component of a tasty salad I’d had the previous night. I wonder whether it is farmed or collected.

Paan leaves in a market in Mandalay

The impression that the food was not very different continued when I passed a stall full of fish. The featured photo shows some of the fish, but really showcases the plates which they are put on. I’ve never seen such beautiful plates for fish in any Indian market. Nearby was this man sorting through a stack of paan. Nothing exotic here for us except for the longyi which the man is seen in. I’m not a fan of paan, but strangely even The Family skipped it. We’ll have to go back to find whether there is a large difference in flavour between the Indian and Burmese variety.


If you think that placing this photo so prominently in the blog is exoticising Myanmar, then you are right. You would also do it if you walked through a market where almost everything was boringly normal, and then suddenly chance on a vendor selling insects. In a thought-provoking article in Science the agricultural scientist M. Premalatha and her colleagues write “The supreme irony is that all over the world monies worth billions of rupees are spent every year to save crops by killing a food source [insects] that may contain up to 75% of high quality animal protein.” I find that I can eat and enjoy almost everything that other humans can eat. I did not share a language with the vendor so I could not ask how to prepare these animals for the table. Nor could I figure out what they are called. So, as a tourist without access to a kitchen, I lost this opportunity to taste something really different. Another time.

Meats being sold at a market in Mandalay
Sausages in Mandalay's market

This lady was very amused by me stopping to take a photo of everything I saw. She was selling meat, and called me to take a photo. Her style of dress was different from that of the others, and she had a short head covering. From this I guessed that she could be Muslim. If so then could it be that Muslims specialize in butchering and selling meat in Myanmar just as they do in India? In India this started and is perpetuated by a remnant reluctance among Hindus to kill land animals. There could not have been such a taboo in Myanmar. Perhaps this is an inconsequential coincidence, and perhaps she is not Muslim after all. Preserved meat also plays a significant role in Burma’s food, if the market is anything to go by. There were several different kinds of sausages and dried fish. I later tasted dried fish in congee one morning at breakfast, but I never got to taste the local sausages. The list of reasons to go back to Myanmar is quite large, as you can see.

Sweets and pickles in the market in Mandalay

The last shops I came across before leaving the market had sweets and pickles. The sweets in the front are mostly candied fruits and vegetables, similar to some traditional sweets in eastern India. The pickles were quite different. We got to taste some pickled tea at this shop. Later I searched for and found pickled tea in salads a couple of times for lunch. Unfortunately one could only get the tea in little plastic bags which didn’t seem very leak proof, otherwise it would have been nice to bring some back to add variety to our daily salad.

As always, I’m left with a nice warm and fuzzy feeling after a walk through a market, even if I do not buy any food. We went out and had Burmese style tea with large amounts of condensed milk, and sweets called monbao.

Two faces of Myanmar

I’m blogging my first impressions of Myanmar. Before arriving I’d looked through many blogs trying to piece together an impression of the country as I might find it. The reality is at once recognizable and yet totally different. It is the reason why one must travel and not just read travelogues.

faceyoungThis young face that I saw on my first evening in Myanmar is something I had expected. There is a mixture of various fruits and leaves, called thanaka, which is applied on faces of youngsters and women of all ages. I remembered reading that it was turmeric, but the colour was too dull. I asked my local guide, Mi Mi Lat. She said that the main ingredient is a local citrus fruit! The photo here is not unusual, I’ve seen similar photos, and similar patterns, in many blogs.

Later I saw an older woman making herself what I would call a paan in India: betel leaf with calcium lime and areca nuts. Her face was made up with the same paste and the paan (kwun ya in Myanmar) had stained her lips red. I found it a very interesting face (see the featured photo), and something I’d never come across in my couple of months’ reading of blogs. What a wonderful cultural continuity there is between the two faces.

And what a lovely metaphor for this country on the threshold of change.