Postcards from Yangon

I didn’t get to spend as much time in Yangon as I would have liked. (A snafu with an internal flight — not at all uncommon in Burma — cut our time in the former capital short.) But I loved what I saw of this once great city that still conjures up nostalgic notions of a bygone colonial era, and which is simultaneously decaying and thriving again. The city center is a mix of British colonial and Burmese architecture. Power and phone lines criss cross narrow streets laid out in a perfect grid radiating from Sule Paya, a 2,500-year-old pagoda perched in the middle of the city’s busiest traffic circle (it’s a rather jarring paradox). Of course the undisputed highlight of the city is Schwedagon Paya… more on that another day!

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Early morning over Yangon

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Dusk at Shwedagon Paya

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Looking south toward the Yangon River

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Central Yangon approaching Sule Paya

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Colonial architecture

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The decay

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A typical street in central Yangon

Burma

Burma hit that sweet spot.

To appreciate why, it’s important to understand what led me there in the first place. The decision was about as spontaneous as any I’ve ever had — borne out of my two prior trips to the region (Thailand in 2008 and Vietnam a year ago). I had come away mesmerized by the way of life in southeast Asia and by its beautiful people. Yet as eye-opening as those trips were, I couldn’t quite shake the notion that I was a little late to the party.

Southeast Asia had always evoked in me romantic notions of a simpler pastoral era. But Vietnam and Thailand are modernizing rapidly, and while villages and rice paddies still dot the countryside, they aren’t the quintessential Indochinese experiences they were just 20 years ago. I still wanted to see a nation untouched, unspoiled, as close as possible to the state in which it had existed for decades and maybe even centuries. 

Burma offered me that opportunity. Considered until very recently the second most closed society in the world, the military junta that ruled this nation with an iron first had only dissolved itself in March of 2011. Visitors that year numbered a scant 800,000. (By comparison, nearly 20 million people visited neighboring Thailand that year. Another six million traveled to Vietnam.)

I felt that if I waited even a few years, Burma would be just another Asian nation I got to too late. So I packed my bags and hopped a plane to Yangon.

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From the moment you set foot in Burma, you are stepping back in time. Sadly, the country has made scarce strides in the past half century. Yangon is a colonial city thriving, yet simultaneously in a state of physical decay. Up north in Shan State, ox-driven carts rule the road, and the motor vehicles reminded me of the jalopies from a Steinbeck novel. Everything is still done by hand, from field work to road work and everything in between. (When we came across new road construction, what we saw were upwards of 50 people — men and women alike — crushing stone and laying pavement. Machinery was virtually nonexistent.)

What made Burma even more special was its people. It’s not simply that they were amongst the kindest and friendliest I’d ever encountered, though that alone would have likely been enough. It’s that they went out of their way to welcome us. These are people who, with few exceptions, hadn’t encountered foreigners during their lifetimes. We felt like ambassadors… and so did they. They were incredibly proud of their nation and were pleased to see it finally reopening itself to the world. Our job, it oftentimes felt, was to embrace them and let them know the world hadn’t forgotten them. “Welcome back, Burma.” “Glad to be back, world.”

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There were sad moments, too. Nothing broke my heart more than stopping at a roadside tea house and being served by the owner’s 8-year-old daughter. Everywhere we went, we saw too many kids who should have been in school but weren’t. (Unfortunately primary education isn’t free and, in a country with an average wage of just a dollar a day, is out of reach for many poor people.) There were the riverside slums in Mandalay, about which I wrote last month. There was corruption and vast cronyism, which is keeping most of the country’s wealth in the hands of a few elites and stifling the entrepreneurial spirit needed for real, sustained growth.

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Of course I haven’t even mentioned the intense beauty of Burma. The pagodas, from the shimmering, golden Shwedagon Paya in Yangon to the thousands of temples that dot the dusty plain of Bagan. Inle Lake and its floating villages. Mount Popa and U Bein Bridge.

If I haven’t convinced you yet, take one glance at sunrise over Bagan… and pack your bags.

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Water World

Last year, as the Reunification Express slowly chugged past the endless rice paddies that dot Vietnam’s central coast, I recall contemplating about the importance of water to that country. This, of course, barely registered as a noteworthy revelation — water is essential to developing and wealthy nations alike (or so my friends in California insist). Then I got to Burma, a nation that lacks so many modern conveniences that running water is still a luxury outside the major cities.

As we rode through Burma, we saw people washing, well, everything. In rivers and streams, lakes and ponds. Their food, their clothes, themselves — even their scooters!

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Share the road… Burmese style

“Traffic” in Burma was unlike anything I’d previously experienced, a seemingly endless stream of ox-driven carts, jalopies, tractors, and a sort of motorcycle/bus hybrid usually teeming with people. The pictures here speak for themselves. I hope the smiles and waves from the beautiful Burmese people warm your heart as much as they do mine!

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Oodles of Noodles

We didn’t just eat noodles in Burma. But it sure seemed that way when it came time for lunch.

Our options were pretty standard. Fried noodles or fried rice? With chicken, pork, or veggies? Simple. Tasty. With plenty of regional variations. Somewhere west of Mandalay, on our way to Mount Popa, we stopped at a typical roadside restaurant. As soon as we arrived, fresh veggies went into a hot wok bubbling with four generous ladles of oil. Then came the noodles (oodles of them!). A little fish sauce. Once off the embers, the mixture was combined with some cooked chicken, and topped with the ubiquitous fried egg. It was just what we needed to give our tired cycling legs the fuel to get us to the top of Mount Popa on another hot Burmese afternoon.

IMG_9702 IMG_9716IMG_9728Of course noodles weren’t the only thing on the menu.

Whereas Burmese food lacks the imagination and sophistication of some of its regional neighbors, the country’s position — it shares a border with India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand — results in a cuisine that is oftentimes a fusion (God I hate that word!) between what we traditionally associate with southeast Asia and the heavier and oilier curries from India.

Additionally, Indian and Chinese restaurants can be found just about anywhere in Burma. Stop at a roadside teahouse and you’ll be greeted with samosas and fried flatbreads with chickpeas. Christmas dinner, which we celebrated in Shan State near the Chinese border, was a feast to make any American Jew jealous!

My first meal in Burma wasn’t even Burmese. It was lunch at Nilar Biryani & Cold Drink. As the name suggests, this Indian restaurant just a block from Sule Paya (the 2,500-year-old pagoda that is Yangon’s geographic center) does just one thing (well… two) but boy does it do it well! Large caldrons facing the busy street cook a wide range of biryanis for hours upon hours. The result is chicken that falls off the bone and extraordinarily aromatic rice. The cold drink? An out of this world banana lassi.

IMG_9094No discussion of Burma is complete without a mention of mohinga, the national dish that’s eaten for breakfast. It’s a fish broth filled with noodles (they they are again!), chunks of fish, and various condiments ranging from hard-boiled egg to cilantro. It’s not the prettiest dish, but it made for a delicious and filling breakfast — especially when 80 kilometers of cycling lay ahead.

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Mandalay

Burma is a poor country.

That was evident everywhere we went. A half century of totalitarian rule by a military junta had left the Burmese economy lagging far behind its regional neighbors. And while the country is embracing democracy and opening its borders, its economy remains stifled by a network of cronies who control most of the nation’s wealth. It’s hard to grow your way to prosperity when you exclude most of your countrymen.

As we cycled through the countryside, we saw rudimentary homes (huts, really) with few of the modern conveniences that are becoming commonplace in other parts of southeast Asia. Setting foot in much of Burma is like stepping back in time: many people still live largely as the generations before them once did. Yet whereas rural poverty carries with it certain romantic notions of a simpler pastoral era, there is no beauty in urban poverty. And so we rode into Mandalay…

On my first morning in Burma’s second largest city and former capital, I left our comfortable riverside hotel early in the morning and decided to walk down the banks of the fabled Irrawaddy River. What I saw shocked the senses. The narrow patch of dirt separating the river from the road was teeming with people living in rudimentary shacks, with no electricity or running water, and no sign of a toilet. (I watched two kids defecate under a truck.) Tiny rooms housed large families, occasionally with pigs living underneath. And everywhere there were children, always smiling, completely oblivious to their surroundings.

If there was any consolation to what we saw — an ironic silver lining — it’s that Mother Nature will see to it that these living conditions are only temporary. When the rainy season comes, the rising Irrawaddy will flood the ghetto and wash everything away, scattering the people and leaving no sign anyone had ever lived there. Of course next year the dry season will arrive, bringing with it new people, new problems, and the cycle will repeat.

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I loved Inle Lake. You should hate it.

Nearly a week since returning from Burma, I’m still sifting through the trip — the photos and memories of the people we met, the places we saw. We’ll get to the overall trip another time — today I want to tell you about my favorite place in Burma… one I hope I can convince you to never visit.

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Inle Lake is a freshwater lake nestled in the mountains of Shan State east of Mandalay. Despite its size, at first glance, it’s easy to miss. So much of it is covered — by homes, people, farmland — the only way to see much of it is by being on it. And so we set out on our long boats…

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There are nearly 100,000 people living in approximately 50 villages not just surrounding the lake, but on it as well. The result is a kind of Burmese Venice. Waterways make streets, with intersections and even speed bumps in the form of bamboo rods laid across the water (the rods force boats to lift their propellers out of the water — clever!).

Cruising the lake is pure pleasure and I could easily have devoted another day or two to seeking out its remote pockets. Like so much else about this country, Inle Lake offered a glimpse into a way of life largely unaltered over generations. Thatch huts stood on stilts, villagers transported goods via canoes, and farmers tended to crops growing on floating islands of soil. Women weaved lotus and silk, while men pounded silver and other metals.

And then there was the lake’s most iconic imagine — that of the loan fisherman balancing himself on the back of a canoe, a single oar held by a foot, rowing with a graceful, twisting motion.

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Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long to realize life on Inle is rapidly changing as the country modernizes and the lake becomes one of Burma’s premier tourist attractions. Tourism, while still relatively light, is nevertheless growing, with new hotels cropping up along the shoreline and even on the lake itself. As you leave a pagoda, a canoe pulls up alongside you and a villager tries to sell you a necklace or a postcard. Can you blame them? Why spend a grueling day farming and fishing when you can earn more selling trinkets?

The lake is also suffering from a myriad of environmental woes, only some of which can be attributed to tourism. The challenges are well described in this article that points the finger at just about everyone: logging, pesticide, coal mining, tourism, you name it. The result is a shrinking lake and changes to life as its floating inhabitants know it.

Go see Inle Lake before it disappears. Or maybe don’t.

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NYC… or how I ate the Lower East Side

This weekend, I dined at Del Posto, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s Michelin-rated Italian restaurant in Chelsea. This is not about that luxurious feast.

This is about my head first dive into the Lower East Side — starting with a donut run (natch!).

Doughnut Plant on Grand Street is taking these little deep-fried delights to new heights with flavors like these that we sampled: panettone (a holiday concoction studded with candied orange), the seasonal cranberry glazed, and the ever popular creme brûlée, which somehow perfectly captures the flavors and textures of that dessert.

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The BLACKOUT — a chocolate cake doughnut… filled with chocolate pudding… dipped in chocolate glaze… and sprinkled with chocolate cake crumbs.

Next up was one of my favorite spots in the city, Cafe Habana in NoLita. Despite the name, and the presence of a mighty fine Cubano sandwich, this little diner is best known for serving the best Mexican street corn north of the Rio Grande. (It’s nearly impossible to visit without ordering a side of it.) This weekend, it was time to try another Mexican classic: huevos rancheros. There’s something iconic about breaking the silky egg yolk into the runny red salsa — no?

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Huevos rancheros and cafe con leche

With first and second breakfast out of the way, it was time to move onto first and second lunch. Xi’an Famous Foods is a tiny noodle shop with several locations in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn. I found one on St. Mark’s Place and promptly ordered the spicy cumin lamb noodles. The cuisine in Xi’an, which I visited briefly in 2003, blends central Asian and Middle East influences thanks to the city’s historic location as the starting point of the Silk Road. The noodles were heavy on chili oil, which had turned crimson thanks to copious amounts of cumin.

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Spicy cumin lamb noodles with chrysanthemum tea

A block away is arguably the best hot dog in New York City (though I admit to also being partial to the simplicity of Gray’s Papaya). My “go to” at Crif Dogs — which I can say with a straight face because it was my second visit — is the Jon Jon Deragon. It’s topped with a schmear of cream cheese, scallions, and all the seeds from an everything bagel. Pure genius. Oh yeah, and when the gal behind the counter asks if you want bacon and hot sauce on it, you man up and say “duh.”

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That’s a dog with cream cheese, scallions, everything bagel seeds, bacon, and hot sauce. The Dale’s was a perfect pairing.

Ok, so it was quite a day, and I concluded it by drinking herbal tea and eating dried cherries as I dreaded the workout I’d have to do the next day (and the next day after that).

But before I wrap up, there’s one more LES stop that bears mentioning: a superb Friday night dinner at Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton’s teeny tiny restaurant in the East Village (seriously, I counted 22 seats, though my math skills may have been off after a couple of bottles of Bordeaux). Chef Hamilton loves to feature off cuts, and few do it better. The sweetbreads with bacon and capers were divine, the roasted bone marrow was rich yet subtle, but the dish that stood out for me was the monkfish liver (which Peter ordered with a simple “yeah, I’m gonna need that”). Lots of great eats this weekend — but none better than Prune.

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Snacking on radishes with fresh butter and sea salt at the Prune bar, drinking an Italian greyhound.

Turkey and… caviar?

Thanksgiving began as a celebration of our nation’s first immigrants, and there’s no more fitting tribute to this than the unique traditions that waves of subsequent arrivals have added to this all-American holiday. My Italian-American friends, for instance, have a pasta course before they carve the turkey. We Russians were not about to be outdone.

And nothing is more quintessentially Russian than “zakuski,” the cold appetizer course that awaits guests when they sit down to a special dinner. Zakuski vary from region to region, but usually consist of cured meats and cheeses, smoked fish, “salads” (loosely defined as any food bound with mayonnaise), pickled vegetables — and yes, caviar. (Newcomers to our dinner table have made the mistake of thinking that zakuski are the dinner, so lavish is the spread.)

In our family, no dinner is complete without one iconic dish: “Babushka’s” (or grandma’s) salad. I must confess our babushka didn’t invent it. It’s her take on the classic Russian salad, or Salad Olivier, named after the 19th Century chef who popularized it at his Moscow restaurant. The salad is typically made with boiled potatoes, mixed with cucumbers and pickles, peas, and some fish or meat. It can be found in other European countries, the Middle East, and even South America.

Recipes vary from one family to another, but here is our dear babushka’s.

Bubushka’s Salad

3 medium potatoes
1 sour pickle
1 medium cucumber
1 small sweet onion
1 (16 ounce) can of sweet peas
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1 tsp salt
1 can of tuna (or salmon or crab)

1. Boil the potatoes and, once they’ve cooled down, remove the skins.
2. Dice the potatoes, pickle, cucumber and onion into small cubes.
3. Mix the vegetables with the peas, tuna, mayonnaise, and salt.

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