Burmese wine and a final dinner

I spent my last afternoon in Inlé Lake visiting one of the two vineyards in Myanmar, a short drive east of Nyaung Shwe. I was surprised at first that grapes can be grown here, but actually the climate in the dry season (October to March) is similar to parts of France, with warm days, cool nights, little rain and not too much humidity.

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Red Mountain Winery is owned by a wealthy Burmese businessman and was first planted in 2003 under the direction of a French expert winemaker called Francois. As this was very much uncharted territory, they spent a few years working out which varieties suit the environment best, and commercial production began in 2007. They currently produce around 200,000 bottles a year, catering almost exclusively to foreign tourists in the local area – their costs are too high to compete on an international or even national level, and Burmese people by and large can’t afford to buy it. The processing and bottling is fully automated, with machinery bought in Italy. Corks come from Portugal, barrels from Hungary, and bottles from China, so it’s no wonder their costs are high.

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My knowledge about wine is more or less limited to ‘that one’s white’, so unfortunately I can’t really provide a proper review on the wine itself. But the better ones (in my opinion) were the sweeter whites and lighter reds, and they had a good selection of late seasons which were very nice. We watched the sun set over the lake from our table and I could have been in France – they even had one of those old carts with a barrel on it for decoration.

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That evening we had our farewell dinner with our guide Kyaw and the tour group in a tiny, outdoor, traditional restaurant which served us a selection of curries, salads and stir-fries that I’d been enjoying throughout the whole trip. After the meal Kyaw gave us each a little Burmese gift – I got a little umbrella from the workshop we’d been to, which is completely gorgeous. Kyaw was a very knowledgeable and friendly guide, who was always keen to inform us about culture, politics, education and everyday life in Myanmar. After learning English, he became a licensed tour guide in 1998, a decade or more before most foreign tourists were able to visit the country. It just goes to show his dedication and passion for sharing his country with visitors, and I am very grateful.

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Arts and crafts of Myanmar

One of the unexpected themes of my trip around Myanmar was the craft workshops we visited. As a business plan it makes a good deal of sense in the context of a poor country with largely hand-made economy and a tourism industry in the early stages of development; the workshops are all there already, all that’s needed to get the visitors in is a few words in English, a showroom and a few local guides to point people in the right direction. And I’m very glad for it; I’m fascinated to watch skilled people making beautiful things, and I was treated to a range of processes and end products.

In Bagan we visited a laquerware workshop, where bamboo and horsehair moulds are covered with layers of the black tar-like sap of the laquer tree (melanorrhoea usitata). After twelve layers of painting, smoothing and polishing with each layer needing one week to dry out, the resulting bowls, tea sets, trays and statues are shiny, lightweight and malleable. Intricate patterns are painstakingly etched freehand and inlaid with gold leaf or natural dyes.

The gold leaf workshop in Mandalay was impressive mostly for the use of brute strength. Small pieces of gold are placed between 5 inch squares of rice paper and covered in leather to make a little book. These are then hammered with long, heavy mallets for half an hour, the gold pieces are split into four and the process is repeated. The final time the gold is hammered for five hours until it’s thinner than paper thin. It was a bit hypnotic watching the hammerers hammer, and it was interesting to notice that they all fell into rhythm with each other, even when the number of men hammering changed, similar in principle I suppose to sailors singing sea shanties.

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Hammering gold leaf

Also in Mandalay I walked down a whole street of stone masons workshops, primarily making life-size or bigger Buddha statues for local monasteries and temples out of huge blocks of marble. The craftsmen worked completely freehand with electric tools and the white marble dust was everywhere, covering shops, trees, hair and roads. No one was wearing any kind of protective clothing and I hate to think what all that dust was doing to their lungs.

Our final craft stop in Mandalay was a wood carving and embroidery workshop, where men sat with old but well-kept chisels carving statues and intricate lattice-patterned pieces, and women embroidered tapestries, cushions and bags with beads and sparkly threads.

The best workshop, however, had to be on the drive from Kalaw to Inlé Lake, where we visited an umbrella workshop. First we saw paper being made from tree bark, which is boiled, mashed with water and spread over a wooden frame over a water bath. Leaves and petals are added for decoration and it dries out to make a strong, almost untearable sheet. This paper or cotton is used for the fabric of the umbrellas, and the paper is also used to make lampshades and writing paper. The intricate sliding mechanism for the umbrella and the catch in the handle are made from wood and are made and fitted to the bamboo handle with incredible speed and accuracy. I’d barely ever thought about how an umbrella even works, let alone how you make one by hand, and it was a pleasure to watch.

Beautiful though their crafts are, it’s important not to romanticise the lives of the workshops’ employees. As well as risk of injury and medical problems, conditions are hard and the work is repetetive and low paid; since August 2015 the national minimum wage is 3600 kyatts (just under £2) per day. I wonder as well what the effect of increasing tourism and a (hopefully) growing economy will be. Will visitors’ demand for laquerware and bamboo umbrellas be met (as has already begun in some parts) by cheap factory knock-offs, keeping artisan wages low as the economy grows around them? Will the skills be wiped out completely in the quest for progress and greater living and working conditions? Will the currently authentic workshops become disneyfied tourist traps, bearing little resemblance to real Burmese life? I’m not an economist and even if I was, I’m sure I wouldn’t know exactly what to hope for. I just hope, as I’ve hoped before, that the influence of tourism is a positive one and that the wealth it brings benefits everyone.

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The Bamboo Princess

On the morning of the final full day of the tour, myself and two other members of the group met Lesly, our host for the day who would be teaching us how to cook a selection of Shan and Burmese dishes along with his wife Sue, the Bamboo Princess. The first task of the day was to buy our ingredients at the local market, so Lesly showed us around the different stalls, explaining things and asking us and the other seven students what we wanted to make. He explained that Burmese tofu is usually made from chickpeas rather than soya beans, and he pointed our the skinned and boned rats at the meat stall. Thankfully our class didn’t involve those.

Once we all had our hands full of ingredients we got a tuk-tuk back to the Bamboo Delight cooking classroom, an open sided room built in the front garden of Lesly and Sue’s home. We had walked there two days earlier to meet them and to book our place, and I had been struck then how quickly all the tourist trappings disappeared completely as you entered the residential area. The roads here were dusty and most of the houses were plain and ramshackle, apart from Sue’s house and classroom which was brightly painted and very clean. She had given us some green tea and explained about her cooking classes and charity project, and she and Lesly had been so incredibly warm and welcoming, all three of us had signed up on the spot.

On our second visit she and her assistants took all of our purchases and started preparing them, as we sat at the dining table drinking green tea and were asked which two our of nine possible dishes we each wanted to make. All of the options were tempting, like tea leaf salad, butter fish curry and chicken in lemongrass, but I went for banana flower parcels and steamed tilapia, and when we’d all chosen we got to work. Banana flower is literally that, the flower of the banana plant, picked as a bud about half the size of a rugby ball. To make the parcels I sliced up a flower, then squeezed out all the sticky moisture and mixed in oil and spices. I then wrapped up spoonfuls in banana leaves, secured them with a toothpick and left them to steam for half an hour.

The fish was pretty straightforward as well; I stuffed its mouth, gills and sides with lemongrass, ginger and other herbs and spices, added some liquid and left it to steam, and made a hot tamarind dipping sauce for it. Everyone was making different things, so there was always lots to watch and learn, and when everything was ready we shared it all for lunch. As well as our two dishes each, we also got two Shan specialities; deep-fried yellow (chickpea) tofu and Shan noodle soup. The deep-fried tofu was delicious and so simple; as it’s made of chickpea, the inside goes gooey and the outside crisps up so you don’t need any batter. Shan noodle soup is a light broth served with rice noodles and a concoction of additions including groundnuts, herbs, chilli flakes, and lots of other bits and pieces.

The whole meal was completely delicious and after we’d eaten as much of it as we could, Sue came and gave us each a little goody bag and talked to us for a while about the place of food in Burmese culture. She said that in Burmese, the word for ‘medicine’ and ‘food’ are the same, and there is a lot of importance placed on the natural healing properties of different foods and food combinations. Foods are often used as medicine, for instance turmeric is a natural antiseptic and for that reason, after giving birth women are covered in a turmeric ointment and drink a turmeric solution.

She also told us about her charity project and gave us a little booklet explaining how she came to own and run the business. She devotes 15% of the revenue of her cooking classes to sponsor eleven local orphaned and destitute children to go to school, and to buy uniforms and school supplies for a further thirty children. She calls it the Helping Hands Foundation and has pictures of all the children on display in the classroom. The next part of Sue’s plan is to set up a summer school for local children in the three month school holiday between March and May, focussing particularly on teaching English. There is no free secondary-level education in Myanmar and the majority of local children will have no career options at all besides fishing, farming and labouring jobs, all of which are very low-paid. With good English skills, they could be employed in the growing tourism sector, or even perhaps go to University. She has built a guest suite on her land, where she already has a small library, and hopes to attract native English speaking volunteers to help out, and in the future to run a year-round homestay for visitors.

As she spoke she stressed her personal priority of sharing the success that she has built, both with the local community and with any visitors she meets. She invited us all to stay in her home if we are ever in the area, and the walls were covered in photos of Western people who had returned again and again, not as paying punters but as guests. Her generosity is quite staggering considering her own story; after struggling for years to educate herself and find work in the tourism industry, she was sacked from her job, abandoned by her husband with two very young children, and left destitute and without family and almost homeless. From that situation about twelve years ago, she has managed to build a beautiful and welcoming home, a thriving business, and now provides not just for her own family but for many other people in her community as well. I honestly found it completely inspiring and I strongly recommend anyone to visit her if you’re heading that way or have a look at her blog site here

Don’t fall Inlé Lake

Inlé Lake is one of Myanmar’s top tourist destinations and, according to the guidebooks at least, the main town Nyaung Shwe has the closest thing to a backpacker scene of anywhere in the country. Well, that might be true, but you’d be disappointed if you were expecting busy hostels and cheap bars – Nyaung Shwe is just as quiet and relaxed as the rest of Myanmar, but it does have a higher density of gift shops, restaurants and massage shops. There are plenty of places advertising cocktails, but everywhere shuts up shop by about 10pm.

The real attraction though is Inlé Lake, a 45 square mile marshland lake which dozens of villages, built mostly on stilts, around its edges. The most popular way to see it is to hire a longtail boat to take you through the village waterways and across the flat expansive waters. It’s a relaxed way to travel, and although there are lots of visitors, there never seem to be too many boats in one place. There’s plenty to see from the boat and on land; we stopped at the ‘five day market’, which moves to a different lakeside village every day, and Phaung Daw Oo pagoda in the village of Tha Ley, which houses five gold Buddha statues that have had so much gold leaf added to them by worshippers that they are now five blobby nuggets.

The whole lake and surrounding marshes are a protected wildlife area, and the villages are quiet and rural with very few restaurants or hotels. A few years ago, as Myanmar’s tourism industry began to grow, the government banned any new hotels (besides the thirty or so already in existence) from opening on or around the lake. Instead, a section of the lower part of the mountains, about half an hour’s drive from the lake, have been designated as a new ‘hotel zone’. Building work there is in its early stages, and the vast yellow shapes of deforested land are visible from the northern half of the lake. I think it’s admirable that the powers that be have been so forward thinking in managing this site of real cultural and natural importance, although it’ll be interesting to see how well the hotel zone attempts to blend into the horizon.

In the absence of restaurants and gift shops, many of the lakeside stilt villages attract visitors with craft workshops. We had seen several of these already, that I haven’t mentioned yet because I’m intending to do a separate post about them, but I have really enjoyed seeing master craftspeople working in a whole range of mediums. At Inlé Lake we saw silversmiths producing silver from silver ore and making intricate patterns with it by hand, a cigar workshop where ladies rolled cheroots in a matter of seconds with an rather hypnotic repetitious method, a boat-builder and wood carver who makes longtail boats from scratch and by hand from teak logs, and finally a weaving workshop. The first room was used for spinning and dying and the second was full of ladies sitting at huge hand looms weaving beautiful patterned cloth from cotton, silk and lotus. Lotus thread is made by splitting sections of lotus stem and rolling together the fine, transluscent fibres to make a strong linen-like thread. It’s agonisingly slow work.

Our lunch at the Golden Kite, a freestanding stilt restaurant, was a rather different example of how people here are getting involved in the growing tourism industry. The Golden Kite is a chain of two restaurants, one on the lake and one in Nyaung Shwe, specialising in pizza and pasta. The owner, Nyo, was on site and proudly gave us a tour of the kitchen, explaining how they make their bread and pasta from scratch. He said an Italian woman from Rome gave him the seeds for the basil and oregano plants that supply the kitchen, and he proudly explained that many of the ingredients are imported from Europe; bacon from Denmark, cheese and salami from Italy and olive oil from Spain. Admittedly it would be difficult to source some of those products more locally, but the thought of the food miles made me wince. He also served fresh strawberry juice made from local wild strawberries, which was delicious.

On our way back to Nyaung Shwe we visited one of many floating vegetable gardens on the lake, where local farmers grow tomatoes, gourd, chilli and watercress in the water, supported by bamboo. We also got a good look at the fisherman on the lake.

That evening we went to a Shan restaurant serving local speciality dishes like deep fried tofu and Shan noodle soup, to get me in the mood for the cooking class I had booked for the next morning.

Thanaka, betel and more

Burmese Culture

One of the nicest things about visiting Myanmar is how much of its tradition and culture are still present in everyday life, in a very natural and unselfconscious way. It’s refreshing to see people embracing the things that are unique to their own culture, not in an effort to save it or counteract some kind of cultural threat, but just because that’s what people do and they don’t feel any need to change it.

The longyi is the dress of choice for most people, particularly the over 30s in the cities and almost everyone in rural areas. For women the longyi is basically a long wrap-around skirt secured tightly without any kind of fastening, which is incidentally much easier to achieve properly on a slender Asian figure than a curvy European one. For men, the fabric is sewn together to form a continuous band, which is arranged using some kind of witchcraft in a kind of culotte/trouser shape with a big knot at the front. The fabric comes in all kinds of patterns and colours, usually dark-coloured check or subtle patterns for men, and colourful often floral patterns for women.

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Male longyi

Women and children also often wear thanaka, a beige paste made of tree bark, on their cheeks. It is part cosmetic, part sunscreen and women often draw patterns, often leaves and flowers, into the paste for extra decoration.

A less visually appealing cultural feature is that almost everyone seems to be chewing betel a kind of aniseed flavour chewing tobacco wrapped up in a leaf. Chewing betel produces a gory red colour which makes many people look like they’ve got bleeding gums.

Food in Myanmar is also quite different to anywhere else. Before my trip I did a bit of research which suggested the food would be bland, oily and generally not particularly appealing to foreigners. This thankfully turned out to be very far from the truth. Less spicy than Indian food, and less rich than Thai, Burmese food is usually served to be shared between a group of people, with lots of rice, mild but aromatic curries, stir fried veg, beans, dried fish, hot chilli sauces to be eaten eat with salad, and lots of soup. I found it varied and delicious, and the only time my food was greasy was when I ordered a Chinese-style dish. I kept forgetting to take pictures of the food until after I finished eating so all I can show you to give you the idea is this;

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The food in the Shan region, where I took a cooking class, was something else entirely but I’ll save the details of that for my post on Inlé Lake…

Kalaw

The bus ride to Kalaw began with a stretch along a new Chinese-built highway, which was smooth, straight and completely deserted, presumably because it’s a toll road. After an hour or so we were back on ordinary single-lane roads and a few hours after that, as we started climbing and zigzagging towards Kalaw, I remembered how much I’d missed being in the mountains. Kalaw sits at an altitude of 1300m and despite being on a latitude closer to the Sudan than Switzerland, it did feel quite alpine. Lots of pine trees grow in the area, and although it follows the wet/dry season pattern like the rest of Myanmar, it did feel noticeably cooler. For this reason it was a popular destination for the British as a holiday retreat when Yangon was at its hottest and wettest, and it remains a popular holiday home spot for the Myanmar elite. The British architectural influence is noticeable here, but in a different way from Yangon; Yangon is full of imposing, imperialist official buildings – banks, hotels, government offices – while Kalaw reflects early 20th century domestic architecture – family homes with steep roofs and mock Tudor rendering. The climate and the surroundings felt oddly familiar in a way I wasn’t expecting at all, but it’s a pleasant town, quietly prospering as a popular hiking destination.

We experienced what the region had to offer the next day on our full day ‘trek’ (although what makes it a trek and not a walk or hike I have no idea) around the area to the west of the town. Our guide for the day was incredibly knowledgeable about all kinds of things, telling us first about the pine forest at the edge of the town, a protected ‘community forest’, which is being cleared regardless for house building as Kalaw grows. We stopped by a house belonging to an elderly couple, and were told how, as there is no pension system in Myanmar (apart from government employees), ‘retired’ people who do not have sufficient savings must either rely on their children, or make some kind of living for themselves. Many of these people in rural areas are able to grow crops in their gardens, like the couple we met who grow Chinese celery, which is used as a remedy for high blood pressure and is in high demand from city dwellers.

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Kalaw

As we walked uphill and away from the outskirts of Kalaw, we found ourselves walking through steep farmland and could see the area’s main crops. International trade has been allowed in Myanmar since 2010, which has seen an explosion in demand for ginger and an increase in price from around 200 kyatts per kilo (about 12p/kilo) to 1200 kyatts (about 70p/kilo). It’s a reliable crop, with two harvests per year, and grow happily on the steep slopes of this area. Tea is another popular crop, specifically the Chinese variety, which is used to make green tea. In the rainy season, the leaves are picked, roasted, dried and packaged on site, all by hand, and sell for about 5000 kyatts per kilo (£2.80/kilo). Prior to 1975, when the government cracked down on opium production, opium was frequently grown in the area, and smuggled in tea shipments. The tainted tea leaves used in the smuggling were then sold as opium tea.

We didn’t see many animals in the area, and were told that most of the large mammals in the area have mostly been driven away. Tigers, for example, used to be seen often in the area, but they have now moved on to more remote places as humans have settled in the area and the habitat has shrunk. More direct means were used to remove monkeys from the forests, as they were eating the farmers’ crops. The solution the local monks came up with was pretty ingenious – they told farmers to catch as many monkeys as they could, dress them up in human clothes and makeup, and release them back into the wild. When the captured monkey found its group, the other monkeys wouldn’t recognise it and they would run away, and eventually the captured monkey would rid itself of the clothes and be reaccepted. It sounds like something from a children’s book, but apparently after repeating this as often as they could for several months, the monkeys left the area completely.

We walked through a village on our way, which was home to about 180 people of the Palaung tribe. Most of the men here work in a jade mine a little way from the village, so are away from home when they’re working but usually return in the rainy season. For this reason most of the farming is done by the women, with help from any children old enough to be useful.

It’s as tough a life as you’d expect being several hours horse and cart ride from healthcare or any other infrastructure. Many births are not registered, which makes it impossible to travel or vote, and there have been problems with army press-ganging in the past. But our guide was optimistic about the future, as there have been efforts in recent years to increase birth registration numbers, with officials visiting remote communities conducting censuses and infrastructure reviews. He was also optimistic, as everyone seems to be, that the Myanmar economy will grow under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership, and that this will lead to an increase in living standards for everyone.

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We passed through a monastery before climbing up to our lunch spot with a view, and had probably the best meal so far. We then descended into the cool and shady rain forest and emerged at Kalaw’s reservoir before passing through more farmland. This time the farms were on flatter ground, so the main crop here was rice, with a few strawberries and other fruit and veg.

After a shower and dinner at a popular local Nepali restaurant, some of the group went for a drink at a tiny bar near the hotel. It was one room, about 10×30 feet, with a long bar in the centre of the room, and it was packed with about 25 people. A few people sat in the corner playing guitars and singing. After a little while the landlord got everyone’s attention to tell us about his charity project. He told us a story of how on Christmas Eve 12 years earlier, an Irishman got talking to the musicians and the landlord and they ended up organising a charity collection for education supplies for local children. The landlord has continued this every night since, and they now raise hundreds of thousands of kyatts each year from tourists, local people, and Burmese visitors from the big cities. I have noticed this kind of small scale charity project throughout the trip, and in some ways it is not surprising; the Buddhist culture puts a great emphasis on donations and offerings, and in the absence of a welfare state it is the monasteries that the destitute and desperate turn to. Put this together with the fact that only 5% of the country’s GDP is spent on education and it’s no wonder people feel the need to do something to help their local community. It will be fascinating to see what will happen under the new government later this year.

Mandalay and associated sunrises

The city of Mandalay was developed in 1957 and was Myanmar’s capital city from 1861 until the British took control in 1885. It is less developed than Yangon and clearly attracts much less foreign investment, although the hope is that this will change in the future given its useful position in terms of trade, sitting mid-way between India, Southern China and Thailand.

Travelling up the Ayeyarwady (or Irrawaddy) river by ferry is a popular way to get to the city and, although you don’t get to say you’ve taken the Road to Mandalay, it’s definitely a pleasant trip. We left our Bagan hotel early in the morning in order to see the sun rise from the river and spent the day watching ferries, cargo boats and fishermen go by, rural life going on at the shore, and glinting temples inland.

 

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Sunrise from the Irrawaddy, near Bagan

Mandalay itself feels smaller than Yangon, but noisier too as motorbikes and horn honking are permitted, and chaotic tuk-tuks rather than sedate taxis seem to be the norm for getting around. It certainly has its fair share of history and sights though, like the (reconstructed) former royal palace; now a military base but still open to visitors; and Mandalay Hill, the top of which you can reach by foot, escalator or lift to find a dazzling temple and a lovely view over the city. Kuthodaw Paya is home to the ‘world’s largest book’, not really a book at all but a temple surrounded by 729 marble tablets depicting the Tripitaka, the Buddhist sacred text, each one housed in its own little white stone building.

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Mandalay Hill

On the other side of the river is Mingun, home to a gigantic temple started in 1790 which, if finished, would have been the largest in the world. Earthquakes in 1838 and 2012 left the half built pagoda in ruins, but its still an imposing structure and the bodies of two gigantic sitting lions are visible flanking the entrance to the temple from the river. The site also houses the world’s largest un-cracked and intact bell (16ft3 diameter), which you can ring, creep inside – there’s room for at least 20 people to stand under it – and apparently write on without anyone minding.

Also in Mandalay is U-Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge at 1188m long, crossing over Taung Tha Man Lake to the former capital of Amarapura. It was built by the town’s mayor from the wood of the disused palace after the King decided to relocate the capital to central Mandalay 7 miles to the north. At the time it was thought to be bad luck to used the sanctified wood of a palace to build a bridge that peasants would walk on, but now it’s a popular sport for early morning exercisers, groups of teenagers and Buddhist monks. We stopped there before sunrise on our way out of Mandalay to Kalaw, and at this point I had seen three sunrises already in Myanmar and was starting to get a little bit tired of the early starts. But this sunrise was phenomenal, particularly as the light colour and quality changed constantly. For this reason it would be impossible to sum it up with just one photo.

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