Myanmar: Myth, lore and... wine?
I always wanted to visit Myanmar. I was a ferocious reader of travel non-fiction in my early adolescence; an affliction passed on to me by my father. World travel for regular people in communist Poland was unattainable for both political and economic reasons, so that was my way of satisfying my curiosity of the big, wide world. Myanmar—or Burma, as it was called until 1989—stuck out as a place of mystery, exotic culture and ethnic diversities.
The recent history of Myanmar has been a tumultuously complicated one. It is a place where the struggle for democratic ideals has intermingled with military interference in governmental institutions and social life, leaving its political status vague. For the majority of the second half of the 20th century, Burma was in a political, economic and cultural lock-down; nearly nothing was allowed in or out. Tourism was practically banned. The army was in full control of all aspects of life, and complete isolationism was one of its tactics. Civil rights were violated on a daily basis. Domestic unrests—mainly of ethnic nature—were common occurrences, often leading to bloody cleansings. On the international stage, Myanmar was a hot potato, and despite other countries’ vocal objections and sanctions, nothing seemed to be changing. While most of the world was moving toward technological uniformity and economic globalization, Burma was kept in the dark; literally and figuratively. The 21st century appears to be kinder to Myanmar. In the last couple of decades, the army’s grip has loosened, and progressive tendencies have been on the upswing. Finally, in 2015, in the first truly democratic elections in 50 years, a non-military president was sworn in. The borders have been opened and international exchange on multiple levels is allowed. I recently traveled to Myanmar and spent two and a half weeks there. I visited three distinctly different parts of the country. Yangon, the largest city of Myanmar, was my first stop. At first look, with a population of over 7 million people, the city matches other South East Asian metropolises. It is busy and in your face! Seemingly lawless and uncontrollable vehicular and human traffic can give any visitor an anxiety attack. Intense contrasts of wealth and poverty make one question any sense of ethics they hold. Yet, Yangon feels gentler somehow. I never felt endangered while walking through some of the most unbeaten paths of the city and its suburbs. As a lone tourist with an expensive shoulder pack, I stood out like a sore thumb. People in Myanmar are generous, welcoming, considerate and engaging. There is a magnetic sincerity to them without superficiality and ulterior motivation. During purchase transactions at free-for-all local markets, there is a sense of decency and fairness to the vendors. I visited a flea market near Yangon where I easily, and without any discomfort, managed to walk away from an initiated transaction- something rather unheard of in other big cities in South East Asia. Twice I got stuck on the outskirts of Yangon; parts where tourists do not venture. While asking for directions, I was even offered bus money; not much even by their standards but definitely a heart-warming gesture. Buddhism is the dominant religion in Myanmar, with 80 percent of all people of faith in the country practicing the religion. Its presence is visible and felt everywhere. As a staunch opponent of institutional religions but a man of strong faith, I find Buddhism to be one of the most spiritually quenching, appeasing and noninvasive doctrines. It is not based on a threat or a false promise, but offers an interpretive vision of what life could be, rather than must be. That attitude is reflected in the people of Myanmar. The economy is going through a rapid and chaotic growth spree where infrastructure has a hard time keeping up with the population’s demands and their acquisitions; both the conditions and capacities of the roads in large cities are far from adequate for the volume of the traffic. The electronic communication providers are having difficulties keeping up with the service needs of their customers. Internet and Wi-Fi connections can be spotty and unreliable. The flood of pop culture in the country is brutally evident, yet it seems to stand against the fairly conservative social values stemming out from the cultural and religious modesty. Decency in attire is still considered a fundamental virtue. Bagan, is a 450-mile, 10-hour trip from Yangon to Mandalay province, an adventure but not for the faint of heart. The only option currently is the bus, whose accommodations were surprisingly comfortable. The seats were spacious, offering a generous recline and the air conditioning worked almost too well, so the complimentary blanket came in handy, and we even had a bus attendant who must have seen the movie “View from the Top” with Gwyneth Paltrow. She took her job seriously. She walked through the bus in a neatly tailored uniform with the air of formal professionalism, distributing hand wipes, offering sodas and checking on passengers’ comfort. The condition of the roads was another matter. It was a bumpy ride as they say. So, sleep didn’t come easily. Bagan charmed me. In the first centuries of the second millennium, roughly between the year 1000 and 1250 nearly 10,000 stupas or Buddhist pagodas were erected by a number of kings of Bagan as a tribute to their newly adopted faith. They range from a few feet to hundreds of feet tall. Each is home to at least one statue of Buddha. Over 2,000 of these structures remain scattered over the vast area near the banks of Irrawaddy river. Architecturally, historically, and spiritually, it is a sight to remember. The locals practically live among these dramatic monuments. I rented a small, zippy electric scooter and buzzed between Old and New Bagan, stopping at local shops, slurping on noodles and off-roading to remote pagodas in search of an epiphany that never came. I stayed in Bagan for five days, and these were some of the carefree moments of my adulthood. Next came Inle Lake in Shan province. It took another overnight bus ride to go from Bagan to Inle Lake. I got there early in the morning after another fairly comfortable trip. My hotel turned out to be almost an hour boat ride away from the bus stop. So, I hopped on and cruised through the early morning waters of the serene lake, watching the local fishermen casting their nets and scooping big gobs of freshwater seaweed while grebes dove and white cranes glided by. And yet again, it felt good to be on the move. While traveling, you’re often tempted by stagnation, by the deceiving comfort of routines. Mobility has always proven to be a good friend of mine. I spent four days in the area cruising through the narrow channels, stopping at local markets, restaurants and craft shops. A lotus flower silk shop was my favorite. Here, local women extract stems from the flowers. They weave their fibers into one of the most expensive fabrics in the world. It takes about 20,000 lotus stems and 40 days of skilled crafting to produce a square meter of the fabric. I also loved boat strolling through water gardens where the shallow waters of the lake are utilized to grow vine vegetables; predominately tomatoes. Are there wineries in Myanmar? That possibility never even occurred to me (presumption is the enemy of knowledge) until a friend of a friend who was showing me around Yangon took me to a supermarket. I spotted a wine section and felt that it was my sommelier’s duty to give it a quick look. The selection was decent, considering the society’s minimal interest and demand for wine. The usual suspects filled the shelves; some generic Bordeaux, a few offerings from Aussies and Kiwis, the ubiquitous Italians. One label looked completely unfamiliar, so I gave it a closer glance. “It’s ours. From Myanmar”, my guide announced. “What?” my surprise was genuine. “It comes from Shan province near Inle Lake,” he said. It was a red blend; Syrah, Tempranillo, Dornfelder. Later in the trip, I drank that red on a terrace of a hotel overlooking Inle Lake with a gorgeous Venice lawyer, Elisabeth, whose perfect features, mesmerized the locals. The wine was good in a simple, unpretentious way. It had a charming rusticity about it. An honest rough around the edges structure with spicy flavors of brambly mountain fruit. There are only two wineries mentioned in any “wines of Myanmar” Internet research. Aythaya Vineyard and Red Mountain Estate Vineyards and Winery. Both properties located near Inle Lake. In climates like Myanmar’s, where heat can burn the grapes, and humidity promotes fungus, wine grape farming becomes an almost impossible undertaking. High elevation is the saving factor. Here at the altitude of 4,000 feet, the temperatures are more moderate, the air is drier, and the nights bring a cooling effect. Both wineries produce all three colors of dry wines. Red Mountain throws also a late harvest dessert wine based on Sauvignon Blanc. Myanmar is a perfect example of wine production’s global expansion. Due to climate changes and our constantly improving understanding of viticulture, vines are grown, and wines are made now in parts of the world where it was unthinkable in the past. The last leg of my visit to Myanmar was a two-day trek from Inle to Kalaw over the Shan Highlands. It humbled me. I went unprepared, without the proper shoes. My feet blistered on the first day during an intense 10-hour hike. Overnight I stayed at a house in Pa’O tribe village; sleeping on the floor. I didn’t get much rest, and the next day was even more painful. Despite the pain, I felt happy. I hiked through buffalo villages, rich mountain farmlands, and rice fields. The locals examined me with curiosity and amusement. Children waved and giggled. Traveling tests one’s capacity for vulnerability, a human feature that requires the most courage. Almost daily, you find yourself in an unfamiliar environment where you are left with no choice but to trust strangers with unforeseeable intentions. I call it a karmic litmus test; the energy you give, you’ll receive in return. Burmese food is marvelously diverse. Naturally, coastal areas (and Myanmar has 1,200 miles of coastline along Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal) offers a lighter, seafood-based affair whereas inland provinces use poultry, pork, beef and mutton as their main source of protein. Watch out for mutton. In most of Asia, mutton is actually goat, so it is in Myanmar. Vegetables and spices abound. Myanmar has 135 different ethnic groups recognized by its government. Imagine the cultural richness it results in, food included. Myanmar’s cuisine is a true definition of fusion. The strongest influences come from their immediate neighbors: China, Thailand, India and Bangladesh. And then you have variations on variations, though there are dishes which are intrinsically Burmese and here are a few of my favorites. Mohinga. It is a noodle fish soup traditionally served for breakfast. Talk about a picker-upper! It’s delicious! Main ingredients include fish (usually catfish), noodles, fish paste, ginger, lemon grass, garlic and a boiled egg. Tea leaf salad or Laphet Thoke. I’m obsessed! I had at least one each day of my stay in Myanmar. It’s all a person needs, and it is damn good for you. Ingredients include fermented tea leaves, romaine lettuce, garlic, ginger, lentils, lemon juice, and seeds and nuts. Lots of them: peanuts, sunflower seeds, sesame, split peas. I like it spicy with small, green chilly peppers. Boom! Interpretations of this dish vary quite dramatically, making it even more enticing. Shan-style rice (nga htamin). Rice cooked with turmeric shaped into a disc and served with flakes of freshwater fish and garlic oil. The dish usually comes with sides of leek root and deep-fried pork rinds. Nan Gyi Thoke. One of the most famous dishes. Rice noodle salad with chicken curry, boiled egg, and onions. Sounds simple? Yes, but often magic lies in simplicity. It’s absolutely delicious. Buthi Kyaw. Burmese cuisine offers an abundance of deep-fried dishes. This deep-fried gourd is simple and fulfilling. Crispy on the outside and sumptuously soft inside; a textural dish as I call it. Served with sweet and sour sauce. And finally, last but not the least, goat testicles. Oh yes! It is what it’s called. Usually served in curry sauce with some side dishes and ubiquitous rice, it’s like the Uni of Myanmar; either you like it or hate it. Guess what? I like Uni. Almost every meal I washed down with a local beer appropriately called Myanmar. Crisp, cold, and noncommittal; just the way I like them. To say that Myanmar is in the clear and on its way to a prosperous and peaceful future would be greatly misleading. The country has great potential, but its political and economic stability is tested daily. Signs of progress and democratic tendencies are encouraging, but they are far from ensuring long term stability. The army’s presence and influence are still strongly evident and ethnic conflicts far from over. There are also tensions on the borders—mainly with China. But if there is any country and its people I’ve visited in my travels that deserve peace and economic stability, in my book, it’s Myanmar. Closing thought- we are intellectually and emotionally regressing by relinquishing our spiritual needs and dumbing down our cerebral challenges. Tear-jerking, provincial sentimentalities have become our epiphanies, ignorance powered by arrogance replaced subtleties of in-depth erudition. Glittery glamour and one-dimensional sensationalism is taking place of the immensely complex, mystically inspired human creativity. And the worst of it is that we don’t seem to mind it. On the contrary; we seem to encourage it.