From itchy feet to a happy stomach – Myanmar – Part I: A Taste of Heaven

The first time I visited Myanmar was a year ago when I stayed in Yangon and traveled to Kyaikhteeyoe, the place with the landmark rock pagoda. I don’t know why and how but I just fell in love with the atmosphere and the warmth of the people there. Yangon, more like a town than a city, carries with it a peaceful vibe with people strolling around in longyis (it seems odd to me at first and then I realized that it is a perfect thing to wear on a summer day). Occasionally you will see girls holding flowers walking in groups on the way to pagodas to pay respect and young monks playing and laughing so happily on the street.

This time round, my destinations were Bagan – a place famous for its thousands of pagodas – and Taungyi – the capital city of Shan state known for its rich cultural heritage and food diversity. It was an amazing trip with endless breathtaking scenery along the road, interesting new friends and friendly warm random strangers.

And of course, I do travel for the food.

Having lived with a Chinese-Burmese family for 2 years, I am fortunate enough to try both traditional Burmese and Chinese-Burmese dishes, which in general have bold and strong flavors from the use of different spices as well as preserved vegetables and fruits. As familiar as I was with the taste, savoring the cuisine at its origin was definitely something exciting that promised a lot of delights on the way.

Delight no. 1: Milk tea! Why has nobody told me about the milk tea?

It blew my mind the first time I tried and this second time coming back all I wanted to do was drink more wishing I could store it on my taste bud and retrieve it whenever I want to.

I'm telling ya, it's a taste of heaven.
I’m telling ya, it’s a taste of heaven.

As someone who likes coffee and tea a little rich and milky, the Burmese milk tea (laphat yay) is just right for me. It does not have an aroma like teh tarik or vibrant color like Thai milk tea, but in just one sip you can feel both the mild bitterness of tea and the richness of evaporated milk. Laphat yay comes in 3 variations: bitter (kya saint), normal (pon mhan) and sweet (pot saint) (I myself prefer the most bitter of all for its aftertaste). I love to scoop a spoonful of tea and let it run down back to the cup, feeling the rich texture with my eye and then take a sip (wine connoisseurs have their way of appreciating wine, and so do I of savoring tea). Nothing fancy, just tea, sugar and evaporated milk, but what differentiates one shop from another is the ‘secret’ ratio of tea to milk. And in a country where there is a tea shop almost at every corner of the street, differentiation does matter.

Trust me, these makeshift shops sell the best milk tea.
Trust me, milk tea is better in these makeshift shops than in restaurants.

Coffee to Vietnam is tea to Myanmar: you haven’t truly visited Myanmar if you haven’t found yourself sipping tea at a street corner either alone watching people and cars passing by or in a group chitchatting with your friends. A Vietnamese will liken it to sitting at Hàn Thuyên street enjoying their cup of coffee and all sorts of street foods. Nothing spectacular about the sight, just pedestrians, lots of motorbikes and occasionally you will inhale smoke from old vans moving past, but it has somehow become a part of the city life. The humble tea and coffee has become a binding agent in those lively conversations with friends as well as a stimulant for one’s brain when they just need to be quiet and dwell on their own thoughts.

Here we are enjoying our tea between 2 vans in Bogyoke Market
Here we are enjoying our tea between 2 vans in Bogyoke Market

Anyway, I digress.

Speaking of friends, I was lucky enough to be accompanied by two eager locals who live nearby Chinatown and together they claim that the area offers the best street food one can find in Yangon. We moved from one shop to another, from satay, dumpling, glutinous rice, porridge to fruit juice and desserts, finally ended the night with yoghurt. Did I have diarrhea? Surprisingly for a foreigner, I didn’t. Did I enjoy the experience? Absolutely yes. And that led me to…

Delight no. 2: Street food!

I could go on and on here, but I know you will need time to savor laphat yay in your mind and check your calendar for the next holiday to Myanmar. I’d better pause.

Until next time…

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