Buddhism is more than a religion, it is a way of life, and it was, undoubtedly, this way of life that makes the Burmese culture such an amazing one. The very recent realities of Burmese culture may have severely threatened this but thankfully, it is was the presence of the thousands of monks in Myanmar – rather than any other force – and warm welcoming smiles that I will remember Myanmar by.
Before sunrise, you can wander the empty, dusty streets of rural Burma heralded by cockerels. Delicious wood smoke fills the already misty air as each new day starts. Dedicated locals emerge from their homes and calmly set up ‘stations’ along the main thoroughfares, with large pots of steaming rice and other Burmese dishes. At the same time each day, long, straight lines of monks, dressed in dark red, silently emerge – barefoot – out of the darkness. Large lacquer bowls in hand, they calmly file past the rice stations and collect their ‘alms.’ Not a sound is uttered. This is their first meal since midday the day before, and the (quite substantial) contents of their bowls is taken back to the temple, blessed and devoured as a sacred but none-the-less ‘mess’ of foodie donations.
As happy travellers, 3 of us created a routine around this and – I am ashamed to say -were busted by fellow hotel guests as we chased the monks down the road, keen to get the best photo possible. What they didn’t realise was that our reward for our efforts was not just our 100 photos (well almost) but a true Burmese breakfast.
We had shunned the hotel breakfasts on day 2 – a vague attempt at Western delights, the processed white bread packed full of sugar and the orange juice made from tartrazine-tastic concentrate were not cutting the mustard. We decided to ‘go local’ and pottered down to the local tea room, sat on stools which were – no joke – 25cm of the ground and ordered ‘Burmese tea.’
Tea houses are the main morning eating option in Burma and run from morning until mid afternoon, when beer stations then take over. They offer tea, horrible powdered coffee, noodles and doughnuts.. freshly made in front of you, in a large wok. They are delivered, steaming, to your tiny kiddies table on (dirty) plastic plates by very young tea boys who were working in return for lodging. They are nectar. I can’t think how long it is since I have eaten a doughnut, but WOW these were good. Some were plain, some filled with coconut and some more like samosas (there us an unsurprisingly large Indian community here.) We washed the doughnuts down with an equally healthy, little grubby glass of strong tea with condensed milk. If only my detox yogis could have seen me..
The whole ritual was made even better by the people watching. Monks walking in one direction with their alms, people heading to work in the longhis (sarongs) with tiffin boxes in the other. We were part of the gentle bustle which was early morning Myanmar. We watched as betel leaf parcels were rolled (in betel leaves,) carefully placed into the sides of locals’ mouths, chewed until the red stain covered their already black teeth, and spat out, ceremoniously, onto the pavement, leaving a large, red ‘bird splat.’ Nice.
Having got quite used to our 300 chet (30p) routine, we were slightly bemused to be tapped on the shoulder by our female Burmese guide and invited to join her for breakfast at her noodle stall. What about our daily doughnuts? However, I was intrigued and sat down with the locals and let her order. It was only then that it occurred to me that this was what the Burmese women do for breakfast – only the men go for the heathy doughnut / sugar laced tea option. (How had we not noticed that before..?) So there I was, communicating in smiles and greed once again, while I observed this new culinary ritual. My bowl of ‘Shan’ (northern region) noodle soup was totally delicious – a clear broth with chewy noodles in it (made from glutinous rice flour) sesame seeds, mustard leaves, a spicy peanut dressing and lots of herbs. I restrained from adding pork scratchings to the top although the locals do this to add flavour and texture. I needn’t have bothered with my attempt at health conciousness as I was seduced into a little cheeky doughnut by the others on the way back to the hotel…
Time for some serious hiking in the Burmese hills…