A brief stop in Bangkok

The Myawaddy-Mae Sot border point is one of a handful of border crossings between Thailand and Myanamr that were opened to Westerners in 2013. In this part of the country a natural frontier is formed by the Moei or Thaunggin (in Thai and Burmese respectively) river, and travellers cross the cutesily named Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge.

After a mildly terrifying motorbike taxi ride from the Myawaddy bus station to the border, I found my self at the Myanmar immigration point. An official ushered me past the queues to the ‘Foreigner Departure Office’, where I met the only two other Westerners I would encounter here. I filled out a form, got my stamps and had my picture taken, and was sent on my way to cross the bridge to the Thai immigration point on the other side. Again I was ushered past the queues to the Foreigners’ desk, filled out a couple of forms, got a stamp and strode through. The whole process took about 20 minutes, even including the time it took to help an illiterate Burmese man write out his passport information, and everyone was incredibly helpful and friendly.

After another hair-raising motorbike taxi ride to Mae Sot bus station, I got on my bus an hour later (more gold stars for me) and began the second leg of my journey to Bangkok. Although the landscape was similar, the difference between the two countries was immediately noticeable, from the wide, well-maintained roads, to the warehouse shops and Tesco Lotuses. I dozed through the rest of the journey and arrived in Bangkok at 7:30pm, got ripped off for a taxi and arrived at the Udee Hostel exhausted and ready for bed. It was clean and slightly clinical with a relaxed, quiet crowd, which was perfect for my walking zombie state at that point, and I had a great night’s sleep. There was plenty of information, the staff were very helpful, and although it was a half-hour drive from the city centre, it was very well placed for the Mo Chit bus station and the Chatuchak Weekend Market, which I visited the next morning.

One of the biggest markets in the world, you really can get pretty much anything you can think of, from teenage fashion, antiques and artificial flowers, to street food, foot massages and silks, to pet squirrels, modern art and gigantic bronze statues. And an entire shop devoted to outfits for your dog. I think my favourite stalls were the trendy young fashion vendors with bizarre English names like ‘Because Dog’ and ‘BackHorseMarking’, but all of the stalls were different and fascinating. It was great for people-watching too, and for my first Thai food experience, the street food was fantastic. After a few hours wandering around I decided to get a foot massage, partly to kill some time, partly because my feet really did hurt, and partly because I’d never had one. I’m not generally a big fan of people touching my feet, or of massages in general, but I thought I might as well do it in a place where I wouldn’t understand the local language for ‘dear God this woman’s feet are disgusting’. Like the manicures and other physical treatments I’ve had before, I found it simultaneously relaxing and uncomfortable, tickly and painful, therapeutic and excruciating. She used her steel fingers, her elbows and a wooden poking device that looked like a big chopstick and felt like an instrument of torture, but my feet and legs did feel a hell of a lot better afterwards.

After the market I wandered around around Chatuchak Park before heading back to the hostel to pick up my bag and get a taxi to the train station. After getting a taxi all by myself (yet another gold star) I got my first and only brief look at the centre of Bangkok. Modern as Yangon may be compared to the rest of Myanmar, it’s still a backwater compared to Bangkok. It was hectic and gridlocked, but also clean and orderly in its own way, and I would’ve liked to have had more time there to explore. But I was also keen to get to the beach.

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Hua Lumphong Station

 

Hua Lumphong Railway Station was a dream to navigate with a cheap and cheerful food court and platform information in English. I boarded my train to Surat Thani and found my seat in the second class sleeper carriage, which was arranged in pairs of facing seats either side of the aisle. I had a nice if rather odd dinner (whoever thought of putting grapes in a curry was not onto something), and chatted to my neighbours, who were Italian and British and heading to Ko Tao off the east coast. After dinner the train attendants came round and made up the bunks and I had the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had on a train. I didn’t think I was going to die of hyperthermia (like in Myanmar) or from the train itself falling apart (like in Russia) and I had a real horizontal bed (unlike in Canada). Total luxury.

By the time I had woken up, the scenery had changed to lush, tropical green, with rubber plantations and dense forests. When I got off the train at Surat Thani I was prepared to work out how to get the bus, clutching my travel voucher, but there was no need – I was firmly on the tourist trail now, and the platform was full of stewards from the various bus companies, directing passengers in perfect English. Surat Thani is the transfer point for rail travellers coming from Bangkok to get to Phuket, Krabi and the Andaman Coast, and the journey is much more popular than I’d appreciated. Not that I minded – it’s great that other people share my enthusiasm for rail travel, and an easy, straightforward transfer at 7:30am is never something to be sniffed at.

I had booked a ticket for the four-hour bus journey south-west to Phuket Town bus station, where I would buy a ticket for the two-hour journey up the coast to Khao Lak, not realising that it’s possible and much quicker to get a bus from Surat Thani straight to Khao Lak. But I was in no rush and it allowed me to have a brief look at Phuket before my stay there a few weeks later. Before my trip I had been vaguely aware that Phuket was an island, and thought of it in a non-specific way as a small place – busy and developed with several beaches, but basically a town, which would be easy to get in and out of. Not true. It’s a massive island covering 220 square miles, half as big again as the Isle of Wight, and once we were on the island it took a good hour of inland driving to get to Phuket Town bus station, which I then repeated on the second bus to go back out again. But still, no rush. The second hour of my journey to Khao Lak was very scenic, however, and much quieter, with a few glimpses of the sea, and I arrived at my hostel in the early afternoon, ready for a shower and a relaxing beach break.

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Byebye Burma

The morning of Thursday 14th January saw the beginning of my two-day journey to Bangkok, beginning with the last part of the tour, a flight back to Yangon. The flight took about 90 minutes and although if I had planned the trip myself I probably wouldn’t have chosen to fly, it turned out to be good fun.

Heho Airport is a small domestic airport near Inlé Lake which serves eleven destinations around Myanmar. It was originally an airbase in the Second World War, and it doesn’t look like that much has changed since. We arrived in the car park, which looked more like it belonged to a National Trust property than an airport, and went into the terminal. The check-in desk was well, a desk, and a guy with a trolley took our bags rather than any of that fancy conveyor belt nonsense. We breezed through security because a) there was noone else there and b) there were no security restrictions or procedures to follow, and we sat for a while in the departure lounge. As everyone who was due to travel arrived early, about half an hour before we were due to board we were directed through a door right onto the runway and walked to our plane. It was about a third full and we left a full thirty minutes early. Stress free flying at it’s best!

Back in Yangon we collected our bags from the corner of the arrivals hall with an A4 printed sign saying ‘Collection Baggage’, and said our goodbyes at the official end of the tour. I headed back into downtown Yangon for a few hours for a final look around, before getting a taxi to Aung Mingala Bus Station. I was glad I had collected my ticket in advance because it would’ve been rather overwhelming trying to buy a bus ticket there; there was no central office, just rows and rows of individual bus company offices facing onto their bus terminals. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of companies covering an area the size of a small town, with no explanation of how they were organised or which cities the different companies went to. Thankfully I already had my ticket and by showing it to my taxi driver and after a few conversations with traffic directors I was dropped off the GI Group office.

After explaining several times to my fellow travellers in Myanmar that I was taking a 24-hour bus ride to Bangkok rather than flying, and after seeing their bemused reactions, I had been starting to wonder exactly why I had chosen to travel this way. It was only marginally cheaper than flying, more confusing and much, much slower. But on the other hand, apart from avoiding the disconnected feeling of being picked up in once place and plonked down in another that you get from flying, I got to have a bit of an adventure. One of my favourite things about travelling independently in a place where I don’t speak the language is the completely disproportionate sense of achievement I get from getting the tiniest things right. I got to the right part of the bus station on time! I found a toilet and food! And I got on the right bus even though there was another bus going in the opposite direction leaving at exactly the same time! Gold stars for me.

While I waited I chatted to a Burmese IELTS teacher (the international English language qualification needed to, among other things, study at UK Universities), who was returning to Mandalay with his sister who, judging by her expression, thought I was doing something either fascinating and wonderful or unnecessary and bonkers. Later on I met a Danish girl taking a semester out from her degree course to live in Yangon and work as a freelance hostel consultant, which sounded like an excellent and pretty ingenious way of travelling around and getting paid for it.

By the time the bus left at 9pm I was ready to sleep and was hampered only slightly by the Burmese pop music videos blaring out on the coach. The bus was comfortable and they provided bottled water and blankets, and got a fair bit of sleep before we stopped at midnight and everyone had to get off while the bus refuelled. The service station was an open-sided cafe, a few snack stalls, and some plastic chairs, but it was cold and I was keen to get back on the bus. I had wondered why a journey that took seven hours according to Google Maps was scheduled to take twelve hours, and I got my answer at around 3am when the bus stopped again so that everyone, including the driver, could get a proper sleep. It was a bit toasty without the air con, but after some decent sleep and a breakfast stop (mini toothbrush set and wet wipes included) I felt quite refreshed.

The last part of the journey was the most I’d seen of rural, non-touristy Myanmar as we drove past people starting their day in bamboo hut villages and makeshift tents in farmland. Between the investment-fuelled building of Yangon and the developing tourist towns of Bagan and Inlé Lake, it’s easy to forget that Myanmar is still a country of extreme inequality and desperate poverty. I was glad to be reminded of this as I left, but mostly I found Myanmar to be a country of gentle, friendly, inquisitive people, great geographical diversity, and a rich and active cultural heritage.

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.

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…