2000s Archive

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The French went off en masse to visit the market. I took a trishaw to the local monastery, where I was given a tour and tea by a garrulous monk. I was on my way back when the sky suddenly turned as black as midnight and opened up with a late monsoon. My trishaw driver unloaded me at a leaky wooden shelter already crowded with villagers, then disappeared into the rain. Shivering from the wet and cold, I was stranded. Nobody spoke a word of English, but I instantly understood the terror in their voices when they shouted and pointed to a dark, ominous shape slithering toward us through the mud. A deadly viper. After running out into the storm, I eventually managed to flag down a horse cart. Safely back aboard the Pandaw, I changed into dry clothes and headed to the bar, where I told my viper tale to Aung Aung. "What would have happened if I'd been bitten?" I asked. He smiled reassuringly and poured my Martini. "We would take you to the hospital, sir. But when we get there, you are already dead."

Grateful to be alive, I flew from Mandalay to Inle Lake, where villages are built over the water and crops are grown in floating gardens. From there I returned to the capital and checked into The Strand, smack in the center of downtown. Once considered the finest hotel in Asia, the century-old Strand was restored in the early 1990s. Today, it conjures its colonial grandeur without any attendant stuffiness—thanks mostly to Sally Baughen, the hotel's manager, an energetic, blond New Zealander who has a passion for street food and, when off duty, zips around Yangon in black clamdiggers and sneakers.

Sally took me to the morning market on Bogalay Zay Street, a narrow residential lane a few blocks from The Strand. Though Yangon's main produce market offers a far greater variety (the banana section is mind-boggling), Bogalay Zay is more fun. Here, the vendors, mostly women, display their wares in woven baskets or on plastic ground cloths: chickens and river fish, both fresh and dried; tofu, fresh and fried; tiny hillocks of spices and fermented pastes; bundles of leafy greens and herbs. Halfway down the lane, Sally had found a tiny tea shop with two rickety tables and shin-high stools. We ordered rice-flour pancakes from the Indian cook just across the lane. We watched her fry them up in sizzling oil, then deftly transfer them to old newspaper and sprinkle them with sugar. Squeezing limes over the still-hot pancakes, we ate them greedily, then ordered more.

Other than the food at tea shops, the other great dishes I tried were the traditional salads at The Strand, whose bar is the gathering place for local expatriates and visiting foreigners. One night, I stopped in for a Strand Sour (lime juice and Mandalay rum). Ma Thanegi appeared, and The Strand's chef, Jordan Theodoros, offered to whip up some dinner for us and bring it to the bar. Ma Thanegi whispered about the chef's own recent, and brief, marriage—again to foil a fortune-teller's prediction: "Had to marry a Barbie doll," she said softly. "I sewed the wedding dress."

By this point in my stay, that news seemed ordinary. I ordered another Strand Sour and sank back into my rattan chair. Jazz floated through the air. The ceiling fans whirled. A laphet salad appeared with my drink. I dug in. Ma Thanegi, who is not much of a drinker, grew tipsy and reminisced about a childhood visit to The Strand. "My parents brought me to a piano recital here, a German pianist. The hotel was so run-down back then. While he played, the German ambassador kept stomping on cockroaches." I happily licked the laphet oil from my fingers as she smiled at the memory. "There were mice and rats running across the stage. It was great fun."

Though I am not a Buddhist, I thought it prudent, before leaving Myanmar, to perform a merit-gaining act of my own. Feeding monks is a popular point getter, so on my last morning, I donated a meal at the family temple of The Strand's florist, Min Maung, affectionately known as George. I expected a solemn, ceremonial occasion, rows of monks with their bowls extended and heads bowed, perhaps. To my surprise, there were only four monks. The lunch—a banquet by local standards—was prepared, and shared, by a gaggle of chattering, jovial ladies who were, I gathered, sort of the local Buddhist Hadassah. We watched while the monks ate first, and the very moment they put down their spoons, we dug in. It was better than any restaurant food in Myanmar, particularly the myin kwa ywet, a tangy salad of horseshoe leaf tossed with fried peanuts and red onion—which is, one well-fed lady kindly informed me, "very good for your urine."

During dessert, a rich semolina cake made with coconut milk, George turned to me with a look of grave concern. Had I committed some karmic faux pas? I wondered. "According to yesterday's Myanmar Times, Miss Liza Minelli is not well," he said and, before I could muster an appropriate reply, burst into a heartfelt "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

That evening, I paid a reluctant farewell visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, where I once again ran into my English-speaking monk. While we strolled together through the grounds, past the smiling Buddhas and the gold-domed stupa, I told him how I'd fallen in love with both his country and his people, and how glad I was that I'd made the decision to come. "I hope you'll return some day," he said.

But it was time for me to leave. I looked one last time at the stupa and smiling Buddhas of Shwedagon—the repository not only of sacred relics but of Myanmar's faith, history, and hopes for the future. As the lights of Yangon blinked on below us, we shook hands. "It was a rapture to meet you," my new friend said. "Yes," I repeated. "But the rapture was all mine."

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