I decided on Myanmar on a bit of a whim with a few days to spare in between two trips. I was guilty again of not having fully done my homework when I landed in Yangon Airport (don’t be me, plan a Myanmar tour!) But never was I expecting a country that encompassed all that South East Asia evoked in me prior to visiting it as perfectly as Myanmar did. Far more than all the other South East Asian countries I had already visited. Myanmar was simply magical and, to this day, I am still oscillating between spilling the beans or keeping them all to myself.
ARRIVING IN YANGON
Planning a Myanmar trip is easy. Flying with Air Asia from Bangkok was super cheap – around $40 Canadian one way. The flight takes about an hour and we had a free pick up arranged with the Motherland II hotel which turned to be a perfectly adequate base for exploring the city. We exchanged a few crispy new US dollar bills for a gigantic wad of Burmese Kyats (pronounced tchats) upon the recommendation of various sources stating there is apparently no ATM in Myanmar – however this is no longer true, as we saw plenty of ATMs in the big cities. It doesn’t hurt to get some cash from the airport to be on the safe side, however.
I really liked Yangon. The scooter ban meant the air quality and noise levels were much better than any other large South East Asian city and there were few tourists about. We spent a few days roaming the history rich streets, wrapped in the feeling that we had stepped back in time – the crumbling colonial architecture, glistening pagodas, roadside “pay phones” (old 90s phone set on a table with a cashier), longyi-clad locals, trains belonging more to a history museum than on tracks and endless betel nut-colored smiles all adding to the feeling.
The Free Yangon Walking Tours to get your bearings on and discover the history behind some of the city’s architectural jewels, and a ride around the circular train to see modern and rural Yangon life go by. You’ll be rewarded by a million red toothless smiles.
I read in a few blog posts that “tatalo” was the magical keyword to obtaining anything vegan in Myanmar, however I am sorry to report that this is not the case. Tatalo (which means lifeless) would be the rough equivalent to the Thai’s mangsawirat – meaning no meat or fish chunks, but fishy or meaty broths, dried shrimps, shrimp paste and fish sauce or particles are all fair games. Myanmar was definitely a challenging one.
999 SHAN NOODLES
Everything here can be made vegan and the waiters have a good grasp of westerners’ needs. We loved the deep fried Shan tofu (a crispy fried paste made of chickpea flour, an absolute must try), all of the Shan noodle dishes, fermented tea leaf salad (lephet thoke, a Burmese staple) and the yellow rice with tomato. Better for lunch as they sell out of some stuff at night and food isn’t as fresh. Everything is rather oily.
Very touristy restaurant located behind the even more touristy Bogyoke Aung San Market. There are a few veggie options at the back of the menu: we ordered the Shan noodles and tomato salad. The tomato salad was especially great, a soupy mix of shaved tomatoes, onion, garlic, cilantro, peanut, sesame and chili that was absolutely delicious. The noodle bowl was huge and filled with crispy Shan tofu bits and lots of garlic. Served with a side of raw sliced garlic in soy sauce. Those Shans sure know where it’s at when it comes to garlic!
ROADSIDE SAMOSA SALAD
You’ll see those all over town sold by Muslim men who speak great English. Give them a try! Not many road side treats in Burma are vegan, but this one is. Delicious and extremely cheap!
TO MANDALAY BY TRAIN
Based on Anthony Bourdain’s experience and despite several dreadful reviews, we decided to take a sleeper train on ye olde British-built colonial railway between Yangon and Mandalay.
Watching the sun set whilst being shaken in every possible direction in the food car, accompanied by a bunch of Burmese men drinking whisky and shooting the shit, was quite the experience, and so was the night: I must have caught a foot or two of air while trying to get some sleep on several occasions, no joke. I actually heard of a German dude who broke some ribs falling off the top bunk because of the excessive turbulence. The food on the train was surprisingly good (we had morning glory with garlic and chili). Don’t plan on having to use the lavatory too much on the train would be my only recommendation, if you catch my drift.
In hindsight, I think I would have given Mandalay a miss and visit Inle Lake instead, given the short time we had. As much as the name Mandalay evoked South East Asian exoticism and colonial richness in my mind prior to visiting, it unfortunately revealed itself as a sprawling concrete town with little to no interest. One highlight was the night out at the Moustache Brothers, the comedians made famous for being imprisoned several times for their irreverent sense of humor overtly criticizing the military regime. They are now only allowed to perform in English for the tourists in their own home. Don’t miss this.
Our stay at the Dreamland Guesthouse was great, mostly for the lovely family who runs it. The free breakfast across the road was seemingly great but wasn’t so vegan friendly in the end. The Shan noodles had chicken chunks despite me asking for “tatalo” and a few other items tasted fishy. Everything is served with a side of chicken soup. It is, though,a fantastic place to sip on a coffee and watch the local life go past.
TO BAGAN BY MINIBUS
Bagan was phenomenal, possibly the highlight of 14 months backpacking around South East Asia. The tourist bus that took us there was surprisingly modern and dropped us off right at the door of our hotel in Nyaung U. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Saw Nyein San Hotel and especially appreciated the motherly care of the owner She Zin, who spoon fed me some horrid tasting family medicine and nursed my upset stomach back to health. The rooms are advertised between $40 and $45 but we managed to snag of one of the ground floor rooms for $30, so ask on check in.
The magic in Bagan is most definitely at sunrise. Although sunset is also beautiful, trust me when I say you absolutely have to get up before the sun. Besides, the hot hours of the afternoon are perfect for napping, so we quickly got into a routine of getting up before sunrise to visit a few temples, come back to the hotel for late breakfast and a nap and head back out later for more temple sighting, food and location scouting for the next day. There are enough temples out there to be able to find one where you will be alone or at least shared with very few others.
Even though Bagan is small and discoverable by bicycle, I recommend you do like most people and rent an eBike (tourists were not allowed to drive scooters here when I visited, although it might have changed by now), which will make your life a million times easier. Saw Nyein San’s staff was great at coming to the rescue on the few occasions our battery ran flat and when we got a flat tire.
BE KIND TO ANIMALS THE MOON VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT
Lovely garden, great friendly service and reasonable prices. It’s a rather western place that is very popular, and understandably. Perhaps not the most authentic Burmese dining, but it was one of the only time we were served 100% vegan food without a question. The lentil soup with ginger and the tomato salad were great. The complimentary sweets were a nice touch. Excellent americano and ginger lime tea.
MOE PYAE SAN
This place has all of the Burmese salads you could dream of. We loved the ginger, the lemon and the tomato ones. Burmese salads are not your usual salad: they are kind of like coleslaw in texture, made with lots of chopped up veggies and herbs, onion, garlic, lots of crunchy bits like peanuts, fried broad beans, friend garlic, etc. Probably not super healthy due to the fat content, but this is something we came to accept while we were in Myanmar. The food here feels quite authentic and you can see that by the fact that most of the clientele is made up of locals. Salads are $1 a pop. We got a few to go before catching the excellent night bus back to Yangon!