I’d never met a Burmese rapper before, so of course I didn’t know what to do. Shake hands? Fist bump? Get jiggy with it?
What? People don’t say that anymore? You mean they never did? Are you sure? How about letting the dogs out—does that fit here?
Anyway, I only had a few milliseconds to ponder hip-hop protocol before the Asian rapper I’d never heard of and whose name I couldn’t remember anyway reached into his pocket, pulled out a tiny point-and-shoot, and politely asked for a picture with me.
Sure. Why not? So he sauntered his skinny frame over to the chubby guy in sunglasses and a dinner coat, handed him the camera, and slid back over to my side. The picture? He chucks a gang sign and snarls; I grin sheepishly and lose my hands in my pockets. In the background, a sunset burns rampant oranges over the distant silhouette of Yangon, and a half dozen other possible celebrities mill across the deck of the river cruise.
My first night in Myanmar—where else would I spend it but among the rap-and-tattoo sub-culture on a river-gliding joyride that I’m pretty sure I can’t afford in the heart of the all-too-recent pariah state of Southeast Asia?
Yes, this is Yangon: capitol of the storied Burmese colony of those insatiable Brits, seat of so much Victorian ado amid the incomprehensible peoples of the Orient, and site of rampant wars over land and wealth and power. The name drips pictures of porticoed houses with white-washed pillars and local servants and unknown wildlife lurking in the evenings, of spices and gems and unholy rites of the natives chanted to the humid clouds blanketing out even the goddess moon. The ancient river that freighted timber and gems and gold for an empire greater than Rome’s was slipping under my feet even in that moment.
And there, in that burning orange sunset of river commiserate with all that is the Orient, the only thing I could think of was how to greet to hip hop master I’d never heard of. Welcome to Yangon.
The gangly rapper’s chubby buddy slid over and laughed a belly laugh worthy of Buddha, pounded a hearty slap on his buddy’s back, and proclaimed for all the night to hear, “I never hear this guy speak so much English in my life!” And he snapped the picture and we fell to chatting.
Yes, it was my first day in Myanmar.
Yes, I was enjoying myself.
Yes, I was indeed from America.
But no, I was sadly unfamiliar with Tupak.
Yes, we were guests of Seinn, the cousin of the man of the hour, the guy celebrating his sixth anniversary, the fellow artist who looked like a cross between Snoop Dog and Jet Li. Yeah, the one on stage right now gripping the mic as if wielding a hand grenade, spilling poetic and heartfelt thanks to all that came to help him celebrate.
Applause from our riverboat deluxe as it slid past a forest of cranes and hectares of shipping containers. Sharing the river with us were ferries filled to the brim—hundreds of locals stacked in so tight they couldn’t even fidget, the threadbare ferry riding so low in the golden tide that passengers’ ankles groaned mere centimeters over the lip of the water.
They stood and stared straight ahead. No one moved. “All well-conditioned to a life of following orders on the verge of catastrophe,” I whispered to Andy. “Look, they all just jump in and stare ahead. The boat borders on disaster and no one complains. no one moves an inch. No one—” But she was too busy being radiant in her cocktail dress and mingling with the world: nonstop giggles with our good friend, our local host, and our indefatigable guide to all things of Myanmar, Seinn.
If ever there was a symbol of modern Myanmar, you could wrap it up in the energetic little spitfire who once upon a time came to study in Missouri, befriended a couple sympathetic to the wanderings of international students, and eventually lured us in for a visit not long after our trans-ocean move to Jakarta. Yes, it was good to be in Seinn’s capable hands.
Who else could book us a cruise hobnobbing with hip-hoppers and turning to commiserate with the plight of the ferry-riders? Who else could set us up in a room more like a mansion than any digs we were used to crashing at? Who else could navigate the crazy maze of a tourist bubble like Burma, and keep us smiling the whole time?
“It’s good for me to be back,” she told us as the sun dropped out of the sight and the stars came to watch over the chilly breezes. “For the family business for one thing, and to finally stop worrying about keeping us with visas in the US.” She took a sip and went on, “I actually think there’s good opportunity here. Things are changing,” and she glanced back at our boat—a gorgeous spread of buffet being arranged on the white-satin tablecloth, a slew of the moneyed youth and coolness of the capital digging in.
She sighed. “But I miss my friends from the States, you know. Here you just… you can’t do things the same. You can’t say things the same. People watch. People talk. In the US, it’s just so… so free. You do what you want. Did you know I always thought Saddam Hussein was a hero? That’s what they taught us here in school.”
That flaming sun had burned its hole in the horizon and was already creeping out for her friends’ sunrise in the US.
And this is Myanmar—youth who speak English and make money in LA music styles, riverboats catering to upscale events, international mingling as the shipping crates of the shore finally give way to a skyline of golden-spired temples and blocky, pragmatic architecture of the autocrats.
Myanmar’s door is swinging open, and in a year, or two, or five, this riverboat scene might never be radically morphed into an all-out money-grab of Bali proportions. Well, at least something along that idea. They may want to replace the cargo crates with palms and boardwalks, though.
After all, this place has got the luxe treatment at prices cheaper than even Thailand.
Spa treatment for the girls? About the price of Burger King back home. Teakwood banisters and a room large enough to house two Jakarta apartments? Line that baby up. A dinner cruise on a riverboat? Well, our new-found rapper friend, the cousin of Seinn, picked up the tab.
A jaunt through the town reveals streets accustomed to dust and grit, but beneath the façade of crumbling brick or miniature café tables lurks a mani-pedi joint fit to glisten up the nails of a dozen princesses. Streetside eateries serve up organic dishes not because they’re hip, but because that’s the food they get and grow in these parts. And wind through the city a bit and find yourself face-to-face with a centuries-old behemoth of a pontoon-boat palace, replete in all its gold and Oriental tourist excesses and exoticisms. You quickly see that Myanmar ain’t the backward little regime in the heart of a jungle and a bunch of book-burning pirates at the helm.
Well, sort of.
As Seinn pulled the Range Rover up to her family’s swanky digs in the Yangon suburbs, she thought to add, “By the way, I hope you put a hotel’s address on your tourist visa application.” She lifted a hand around the street. There’s a lot of government officials living in this area. If they’d see, you know, Americans staying at this address… Well, there would be some glances. Some questions. You know.”
We gulped. We didn’t know. But we could guess.
Servant girls young and tiny enough to pass for Beleibers were already hauling up our bags before we could stop them, and we were whisked away on the grand tour—floor after floor of regal teak furniture, a gold-trimmed Buddha worship pavilion on top, and a marbled balcony spacious enough to host a cricket match or an evening tea for Parliament.
“Investors are coming,” Seinn confides at a meal of salads so fresh you’d think they were still growing, and spiced fish so rich you taste buds feel embarrassed and inadequate. “I’m here with the shipping company. Dad’s in Mandalay with a couple businesses there, and Mom’s at the coast managing our hotel and restaurant. It’s high season.”
“The beach? Can we go?” Andy and I nearly fall out of our thick, wooden chairs.
“We’ll see. It’s pretty booked now. Kind of high season.”
“Where do they come from—the guests? Germany? Russia?”
Seinn shot us a crazy eyebrow. “No. Yangon. Mandalay. They’re all locals.”
I don’t know what I was imagining—a land chaining each man and his family to a rice-patch and mango tree? A grimy metropolis of corrugated metal and cardboard? A wrinkly-face anthropology trip across indigenous old folks’ villages where currency still has feathers or shells or roots? No, Myanmar’s got the goods, even if they’re a bit hidden. And the Burmese apparently dig the beach as much as the next guest.
Even so, it’s painfully clear Yangon ain’t no Santa Barbara. City buses cough and chug their smog, heaving tight-packed masses of sweating shirts throughout the high-rise-less urban sprawl. Fingernails are ringed in black grit, and currency in small denominations is clutched for preciousness.
And you’ve already seen the guys taking the ferry.
There are no ATMs to speak of, internet access is glacial on a good day, cataclysmic on most.
Not to sound calloused about the plight of men and women stretching tiny sums of cash for each month’s budget, but Yangon is still Asia. It still wears the deeply-etched lines of hardship and scarcity in the countenances—resources stretch too thin over swollen populations. Yangon still stares at gringo tourists climbing in and out of the Toyota SUV, and leaps to mental arithmetic of the contents of their wallets.
Yes, reforms have come, are coming—but prosperity ain’t a tap to open and close. It takes time to change infrastructure and mentalities. You come to Yangon, and you’re going to see the grit.
You’re also going to see their smiles—red-gummed from Betel and gap-toothed from lack of dentist visits and altogether genuine, you see they’re excited to welcome such obvious outsiders with pride. Heck, even rappers wanted a picture with the third-whitest guy from the Midwest. You see, when you’re in Myanmar, you’re not just a holiday wallet come to spend on the tourist sites. No, you’re a symbol. You are the manifestation of a Myanmar creaking its door ajar for the outsiders to step cautiously though. You are the face of their progress, and you embody the future of a nation shucking command economy in favor of a free speech and open internet access (where available).
So step out of the Highlander, shake hands with the grandma running the café, squat on a plastic stool no taller than half a knee-cap, and order yourself some catfish soup. Smile and soak in the local life.
The Goldenest Place on Earth
“Obama came here,” Seinn smiles to us. “And Clinton too—Hilary I mean.”
I made a mental note, but I didn’t need too–no less than fifteen people would remind me of those facts in the next hour. Apparently a placed graced by a US President is worth anyone’s time. Or maybe it’s the fact that those guys bothered to come at all—again, the locals love to see themselves as part of the globe. After decades playing the pariah, after being insulated within the twisting borders and thick jungles of the frontier, an outside dignitary that celebrates your fledgling democratic elections has got to be monumental news, has got to be something to make a big deal over, has got to—
“Is my face supposed to feel like this?” Andy asks from behind the yellow Thanaka smeared across her cheeks. “It’s… tight.”
Seinn laughed from behind her own Thanaka mask as we climbed up a few dozen more steps. “Yeah, I guess so. It’s been awhile since I’ve worn this.”
The women in the souvenir shops smiled at the girls, Thanaka ubiquitous across all their faces, and sometimes even the guys’ too. It’s hailed as everything from a heat-buster to a sunblock to a natural hydration treatment to a fun pastime when you’ve got a chunk of Thanaka wood and a hefty block of abrasive granite lying around. Grind the wood into powder, drop a few drips of agua in, mix, and smear generously all over the face. Congratulations: you’ve halfway to being Burmese.
Tell a tourist that Obama once stepped among the pagodas of Shwedagon, and you’re practically a native. Make it to the top of the endless column of stairs, and you’re a legend: you have attained the goldenest place on earth.
Ring the gong. Bow. And step reverently to Shwedagon.
Here you are welcomed to a strange Nirvana of pagodas steeped in gold film and gold paint and gold mounds and bulbs and pinnacles bubbling heavenward. A tall, thin palm sprites itself up in the middle of the wide walkway, the pavement tickles and scorches your bare feet, and a dozen signs point you to money-changers ready to get your currency into a form acceptable to schmooze an entry-ticket from the Saint Peters of the tourism brigade. Locals enter free.
Here, amid the acres upon acres of gold and pagodas, Yangon never ceased to amaze me. On one hand were Buddhas wrought in jade and gold, copper and silver, lead and iron, and all sorts of other pricey items, housed within the intricate frets and flutes of teakwood carved to a lustrous perfection. It is a monument to human ingenuity and dedication—year after year, century after century of labor to drag the materials from the depths of the earth and the hearts of the forest, lug them over land and sea to this exact hill, work them into the flowing lines and worshipful grace for a god, and then set them up in a dizzying maze of precious stones and centuries-scorning woodwork. What else would you expect–32 kings spent over 2000 years making Shwedagon a reality.
Here, often as not, you’re likely to find people praying.
That was strange to me, having visited many shrines to Buddha more dominated by the tourist than the devout. But in Yangon, the locals enter free—not from any sense of tourism advantage, but because in the shade of these shrines, massed throngs gather to prostrate themselves before a carved Buddha, to kneel, to press a forehead to the pavement, and to beg for some sort of favor from the statue. Sometimes the Buddha in question features tacky LED starbursts and rainbows spewing out in radiant glows from a plastic lightboard mounted behind his tranquil smirk.
The stately paths wind round a central pagoda topped by nearly a full ton of pure gold topped and the richest weathervane known to man–I’m talking 942 pounds of gold and an orb encrusted with more than 4,000 diamonds. Side paths weave in and out of minor shrines, where each person seems to strike up an amiable relationship with a particular Buddha worth bowing down to, and, in another surprise to a Westerner raised on a steady diet of venerating Buddhism as an exercise in meditation with no real god and the founder merely another mortal who taught the way toward glory, I saw women drawing water, approaching the statues, bathing the unblinking face in the cold wash, and lifting cups of the clear water to his unspeaking, unthirsting lips.
Others lounged in their Thanaka to watch; others chewed Betel leaf and watched. A young mother taught her two-year-old son to bow to a particular Buddha. Seinn and Andy found a hotspot not far from the giant Jade Buddha to grab some rare wi-fi and update their statuses. I helped take pictures for their posts.
Around us, prayer gongs continued to ring, offerings were still left out before the shrines, and incense shrouded the golden hilltop in fine white smoke.
Shwedagon, even though Obama was here, even if the Secreatary of State made a visit, is still not quite a tourist spot—it’s still a prayer spot. While camera-toters definitely drop in, the reason there’s no local entrance fee is quickly apparent: this is still a place of worship. Shoeless men and women bow before the radiating electric lines of a Buddha, and they pour water across his lips. They meditate in shady alcoves. They saunter round the central stupa, thoughts lost in prayers to a man who fills half of Asia with a golden likeness millions bow to daily.
Shwedagon: one of the goldenest hilltops on the planet, one little knoll decked out with more Buddhas in more styles than any hillbilly could shake a stick at. It’s intricate and it’s enormous; it’s authentic and a tourist checkmark; it’s something unique and wonderful and fascinating for all its crazy reasons.
Somehow, the rapacious colonizers left its gold intact. Somehow, amid all the prayers and pious meditations, there’s still plenty of signage pointing you to the house of the moneychanger on the premises.
By now the girls had finished updating their status and uploading their pictures at the Jade Buddha pavilion. We sighed, completed our rambling circuit, and slowly descended the stairs to the waiting dust and streets of Yangon.
Back home in my sprawling little corner of Missouri, there aren’t exactly a lot of Myanmar-authentic restaurants. Heck, there aren’t even many Myanmarese. So aside from a handful of meals with Seinn during her stint as a student there, and a couple of curries at the hands of other friends, we weren’t really sure what to expect of the local kitchen.
Wait, wait—there is a little sushi joint on Cape Girardeau’s Kingshighway offering up a bowl of Asian-flavored noodles ingeniously dubbed “Burmese noodles.” But mostly, we were tiny fishes nibbling at the deep sea of Myanmar’s hidden cuisine.
“Try the Mohinga,” a TV host commanded us months ago, even before we knew Burma would be possible. He sat next to a woman plastered in Thanaka, and they started making broth. Andy duly noted it in her I-phone, “Just in case,” she smiled slyly, “we ever get to go.”
We waited for more hints. Nothing. We kept watching his show. Not much Myanmar.
So when hunger struck in Myanmar’s capital, and Seinn turned aside from the steering wheel to ask, “What do you want to eat?” we practically shouted in unison, “Mohinga!”
She grew serious. She rubbed her chin with her free hand. “I’ll see what I can do.”
At seven the next morning, Seinn came knocking on our door. “Mohinga’s ready.”
“Huh?” We were squinting and scratching our eyes, barely out of bed.
“Yeah. It’s ready now. Hurry, ‘cause my aunt who made it has to go. She’s kind of a Mohinga expert. Anyway, you should meet her before she leaves.”
Downstairs, at giant teak table large enough to feed a platoon of ravenous WWF wresters, we found ourselves staring into a bowl of garlicly catfish soup. The aunt was smiling on. Seinn was texting someone and sipping a coffee.
“Is the always for breakfast?” Andy was nervous. She normally skips breakfast in favor of extra sleep. And to be honest, a foreign bowl full of a slippery fish meat and spices isn’t exactly the smells of a rich Arabica tempting you from the sheets.
For my part, it looked nice enough. I just wanted to save it until lunch. Where were the cinnamon rolls around here?
But there was no such doings there, mister. Mohinga, we learned, is not just a soup, but a breakfast soup. And not just another run-of-the-mill breakfast soup, but the end-of-trump cards-of-all-the-world’s-greatest-breakfast-soups: the catfish carefully peeled and sizzled and mashed into a delicate sludge that slips cozily around the noodles, that lurks beneath the piles of crunchy add-ons you fill to the brim of the bowl, that settles into the dozen mingling spices of a Asian traderoute meal.
This was Mohinga—the dish that set our tastebuds whirling and jolted our minds into a world of pre-lunch possibilities. Mohinga! The dish described in Gabriel’s cookbook for heaven, poetry in a China bowl, wizardry sprung out of fantasy and into your belly—it’s the crispy toppings and the million sparks of flavor sizzling around them; it’s the soft yielding of the catfish flesh and wondrous broth swimming through it all.
Mohinga is the last thing you think you’d like with your morning Joe, but it’s the first thing we asked for every morning after. Chuck those cinnamon rolls back to the other side of the Pacific.
“So you like it?” Seinn asked over her morning mix of coffee and social media updates from the other side of the globe.
We were too busy stuffing our greedy gullets to answer, too busy planning how to wrench the final portion for each other’s grasp. Seinn’s Aunt beamed over the table: a wolfish appetite, the ultimate compliment to a chef in any language.
Myanmar’s got other dishes, too, we found: salads of seaweed and lime, delicately blended curries that somehow knock you over and the head with flavor and keep you crawling back to the table for more, seafood fresh and juicy and entirely spicy in all the best ways sizzling out of a wok with decades of experience, and barbecue sauces dripping from meat dripping from bones. It’s got seasonings meant for kings, and so many salads and fruits, that you think you might be visiting Eden’s remnants.
That, after the Mohinga, is what stays shouting in my mind—the dozen tiny bowls gracing the table, and the sensibly wondrous salads springing from each. From sea-sprouted leaves to subterranean tubers to al the sprightly mix of earthy, springtime goodness, we couldn’t stop the salads. And then the crisp fruit presented for desert: humble, simple fruit unassuming in its sweetness, confident in its identity, altogether willing to wash your taste buds in a cool, sugary cleansing.
At the table, I also found the difference between Burma and Myanmar—the former refers to a people group living within the latter. That group, apparently, was the largest and most influential during the time of British colonization, and thus commanded their naming of the region: Burma. Myanmar came into use when the government needed to make the nation more unified; Myanmar catches all the peoples there.
But who’s got time for history?—lunch is only a few hours away…
It’s a Boat?
“I’m telling you,” Andy told me, “That I’ve seen this thing before. It’s this giant boat. It’s Yangon’s symbol. It’s in all the souvenirs.”
“Are you sure?” I scratched my head with my free hand and backed up another half-kilometer to try to fit it in the camera lens. “Because it looks a lot more like a stinking castle.”
It was true—except for the “stinking” part. It was actually quite indulgent.
“Restaurant now,” Seinn reported. “Help me remember where I parked when we get back.”
It was already dark, and streetlights streamed through leaves calm as a Sunday tea. Ahead loomed the unmistakable gold of Myanmar in all its curliest, curviest glamor, replete with lion doormen frozen in eternal scowls and teeth.
Andy was right, of course: it is a boat. Or at least it was. And I’m glad she always right—it’s like have a walking Wikipedia by my side, except cuter and more likely to make me laugh.
Now, the former imperial party barge that plied the river wide and deep ferrying kings and nobles on their mystery errands on the long, long waterways, sits fettered down in a calm ripples and breeze of its retirement lake, and sucks in tourists with its lurid appeal of indulgent luxury and museum-you-can-touch ambiance of a restaurant.
How do I know this? I don’t. It was already closing time. We made it no further than the regal drawbridge festooned in colors and carvings ready to bow you into the august presence of table number five. But there at the gate, a trio of youths in traditional Burmese garb sat among replicas of continental conceptions of Oriental indulgence—the pretty girl caked in makeup and completely submissive, the grave young man with a face like a girl and a hands smooth enough to comb the emperor’s favorite horse’s mane. The furniture draped in gilded patterns and heavy, heavy cloths. All that was missing was the opium pipe and a Welsh colonel with a mustache like a walrus to make the scene complete.
Andy jumped into the tiny set. “C’mon, babe,” she was all smiles and bubbling-energy-bordering-on-exhaustion, “before they close it for the night.” Seinn laughed and snapped the pictures.
“Now this is what you guys think of with Burma, right? All this colonial stuff?”
The park probably looked great during the day—when the palms and orchids could rim the floating palace in all nature’s graces as is fitting and proper. The trails wound smooth and clean around the tiny bay, and we stopped to coax a few low-light pictures from the palace, and then we shrugged and headed back home.
“Next time there’s a dinner cruise,” I started, “I say we take this thi–” but they were already groaning. “What? What? Am I the only who makes that joke?”
Our quaint little jaunt with anniversary rappers and photo-snapping passengers was winding back to port—thanks and farewells and last sips of icewaters from the sparkling pitchers. Miles of cargo containers looming in stack and stacks down the riverfront gazed solemnly on as we rode past. They are the harbingers, I thought. They are the first reports of the progress arriving here: the containers full of imported power tools and appliances and electronics, stuffed with furniture and fashions and plastics, loaded down with ton upon ton of the world’s merchandise, waiting to get a foot in the slowly opening door of Myanmar’s economy.
Tourists won’t be far behind.
Guys like me will fill the music-laden riverboats and the miniature seats of the cafes. We’ll assault the hilltop fortress of gold with cameras and cell phones blazing. We’ll send the wives off to the spas while we sling unsolicited opinions around the world wide web about the virtues or faults of the newest hostels, or flavors of Mohinga, or the merits of the giant boat in the center of the park.
Then, of course, comes the group picture—that magical time when we all dump our phones and cameras at the feet of an unwitting volunteer, and squeeze ourselves, our ties, our heels, and our smiles into the frame for click after click until the boat has docked and we mill out into the waiting night.
This is Yangon. This is my first step into the glory of former Burma, the seat of colonialism primetime, the newly-opened mecca of adventure tourism and off-the-beaten-track Asian excursions. “One stop down,” I’m tempted to whisper. “Yangon—check.”
But I know it’s not so easy. Not in a place where English still is downlplayed in the schools and rappers chant of protest as often as they recount their carnal pleasures, if you believe Anthony Bourdain’s travel commentary here. Yangon, where Buddha sits in the center of LED brilliance, and the populace alternately lifts water to his lips and flocks to a wifi hotspot, where the gold glistens and the buses chug and the foreigners come creeping back through the half-open door of the capital.