2000s Archive

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Two cooks were at work when I arrived, washing greens and chopping garlic. The day was hot and humid, and I was perspiring so profusely that, to my embarrassment, a servant lugged in a huge electric fan and trained it on me. But Ruby, directing preparations from the kitchen doorway, was a model of cool serenity in her pretty longyi (the local version of a sarong, worn by both sexes). "Women like Ruby don't cook, they supervise," Ma Thanegi said. Ruby laughed. "My husband says I cook with an air stove, because I only use my mouth to tell the cooks what to do."

My offer to pitch in was politely refused, but I couldn't help pestering the cooks with questions about ingredients and measurements. Their answers&*8212;"as much as the size of a betel nut" or "about a joint of a finger"—didn't translate easily. Ruby gently steered me outside.

Soon, Ruby's dining room table was covered with platters: soup made with a catfish stock and roselle (a sour green leaf); chicken curry; wing bean salad; and coconut rice. Serving the curry, Ruby apologized for the chicken. "It's tasty, but scrawny, because our farmers don't like hormones—they hate the smell," she said, piling food on my plate. "I usually tell my foreign guests that it's sparrow."

Just when I was so full that I could hardly stand, Ruby brought out a beautiful sectioned lacquer box, its center filled with laphet. Fermented tea leaves kneaded with peanut oil, laphet is, hands-down, Myanmar's weirdest and most wonderful contribution to world cuisine-served everywhere, at any time of the day, but especially when guests stop by. Following Ruby and Ma Thanegi's example, I scooped up some laphet with my fingers, quickly dipped it in the surrounding condiments, which included dried shrimp, fried slivers of garlic, toasted sesame seeds, and fried peas, then popped it into my mouth—where the flavors exploded. Forget potato chips and nachos, laphet redefines finger food: oily, salty, and savory; slick and crunchy; and with a caffeine kick. It is the ultimate addictive snack. And I was hooked.

Feeding guests may be a good way of gaining merit, but if you can afford it, building Buddhist monuments is worth jackpot points. Back in the 11th century, King Anawrahta began a building spree in Pagan that lasted more than two centuries and resulted in thousands of pagodas punctuating the vast, scorched plain between the Ayeyarwady River (also known as the Irrawaddy) and a shadowy mountain range. Though time and a major earthquake have taken their toll, it is still an astonishing sight, the pagodas, built of local earthen bricks, seeming to rise right out of the same-hued soil. At sunset, seen from the upper terrace of one of the pagodas, the landscape is otherworldly and unsettlingly beautiful. As the earth releases the day's heat, the pagodas shimmer like hallucinations, burst with intense color, then, as the sun sinks into the river, disappear.

Pagan, about an hour's flight north of Yangon, is one of the world's great sights. But for me it had another, greater, charm: I found it the easiest place in Myanmar to meet local people. Though it may one day turn into another Chiang Mai or Kathmandu, for now Pagan is a place where the sun is blazing hot, the tourists few, and the exchange of dollars for souvenirs or services really just an excuse to sit down in the shade and have a long chat. I rented a bicycle and pedaled miles, visiting pagodas and talking to everyone. In the marketplace at Nyaung Oo, a short bike ride from Pagan, I met a young painter who calls himself Mr. Brushie and who said proudly of his abstract creations, "They are modern, so you must have a high mind to understand them." I spent half the morning discussing art with him.

Pedaling back to Pagan with one of Mr. Brushie's paintings rolled up in my day pack, I stopped at a roadside tea shop where the water was delivered—as I watched in horror—in old oil drums on a donkey cart. Unnerved, I ordered bottled water—which arrived with two straws and a reassuring label that read: "Warranty: Absence of E. Coli and Pathogenic Organisms."

Tea shops are the Starbucks of Myanmar; there's one on almost every corner, in every village and city. Though the term suggests a colonial gentility, they are, even in Yangon, as informal and basic as can be: usually open-air, with some umbrellas or an awning for shade and utilitarian tables and chairs. And the routine is the same everywhere. First, you're served a glass of Indian tea sweetened with condensed milk. When you've drained that, a tin pot of Chinese tea arrives with porcelain cups. (The locals wash out their cups with hot tea before drinking.) Plates of snacks—Indian samosas, Chinese buns, packaged Dumbo brand cakes—are brought to the table; you help yourself and are charged only for what you have eaten.

The Ayeyarwady is the lifeline of Myanmar, flowing from the Himalayas down into the rich delta area below Yangon and into the Andaman Sea. The Scottish Irrawaddy Flotilla Company once operated the world's largest private fleet of ships on the river—until World War II, when the company scuttled them all to keep them out of the hands of the invading Japanese.

A few years ago, the recently reborn company took a 1947 paddle steamer, removed the paddle, and refitted it as a passenger vessel with 16 staterooms of polished teak and brass. I booked passage on the Pandaw from Pagan to Mandalay, an unhurried three-day journey with occasional stops for sightseeing along the way. My fellow passengers were a jovial French tour group who moved about the ship as a single 28-legged creature, spewing cigarette smoke. Aung Aung, the Shan bartender, whose body is covered with mysterious tattoos (carved into him by his grandfather with a bamboo needle, he told me), mixed a mean Martini. The voyage could not have been more peaceful or pleasurable—until, on the second afternoon, we docked at the prosperous market town of Pakokku.

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