Breaking Burma Day 85: Cheap Eats and Some Things Never Change

After warming up to the day with complimentary breakfast and tea, I headed for the lobby ready to start my day of exploration. As I learned once more, some plans are never set in stone. I met a German woman in the lobby looking for someone to split a guest room with and so we began planning some sights we might visit today together. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I would try to buy a train ticket that would take me overnight to Mawlamyine for an area written passionately about by Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell as well as a monastery that offers gratis accommodation at their mediation centre, one of the largest in Myanmar. Since I have no flight out yet from Myanmar I can spend some time to linger. Unfortunately the train is not a sleeper train and takes over ten hours to reach my destination so sleep will be getting the middle finger once again. I got out of my night’s stay at Motherland Inn thanks to the German but wondered at the same time if it might burn me if the train were to be booked before I could score a ticket. After waiting for her for a bit, we walked to the train station so that I could get my ticket. Thankfully and sadly I would be able to ride the ten plus hours on the train for a grand total of five dollars. After that, we decided to work our day around a free tour covering the history of Yangon and its buildings at 4 pm. With a split taxi on the cheap, we got to Kandawgyi Lake (otherwise known as Royal Lake, most likely due to the fact that the Brits built it as a reservoir) for a walk around to take in its sheer size, position for a clear view of Shwedagon Pagoda afar in the distance, and the large golden temple/boat-like looking structure that juts out of the land into the lake. With 4 o’clock approaching, we took another cheap taxi to City Hall and Sule Pagoda, near which the meeting point would be. We still had some time to spare so we stopped at an Indian stall/eatery. For a grand total of one U.S. dollar, I got one of the best tasting soups loaded with chickpeas, lentils, falafel bits, tomatoes, a hearty broth, and samosa chips for an added crunch, a falafel ball mixed with some colorful greens, a large filling samosa, papaya, and a sugarcane flavored drink to wash it all down. How soon in that rundown did you start to hate me just a little? Back around City Hall we could not seem to find this mysterious, green shirted tour guide that was supposed to appear out of thin air. With a chunk of time left unused, we decided to check out Strand Hotel, a hotel built in the 1930s that still has some feel left over of English past. By this time in the day or rather much earlier, I had had already enough of this German woman and was glad to shed her weight. With her out of the picture, I explored the side streets and its many markets. Walking around during the day, I had been getting quite a few funny looks and/or admiration for my display of the longyi. What can I say? Anthony knows how to rock a skirt. For the most part everyone seems to have a smile on their face. Sure I welcome it more than most but it all feels genuine. So many people try to engage me in some manner, possibly to practice their English or meet one of the few white people that they will ever come across. Even if all they know is how to say hello, they will say that greeting proudly. As a side note, the sidewalks must have zoned sections for what they can sell because the items sold seem to be organized in blocks such as food ready to be served, produce, books, and electronic gadgets. Eventually I made it back my guesthouse after many distractions such as watching a game of checkers played by locals or observing the food culture of the streets. Once I collected my luggage I had two choices when it came to getting to the train station from my guesthouse. I could have either hired a taxi for probably two dollars or, OR…, walked the thirty to forty five minute journey. Since I had enough time to spare, why would I deny myself the pleasure of walking through the circus that is Asian night life. Through the night markets of food stalls and random knick-knacks I walked with a watchful eye for tea leaf salad, otherwise known as laphet. Laphet is a well known Burmese cuisine speciality made of fermented tea leaves. Myanmar is one of the rare countries that eat tea leaves in some sort of prepared dish. I had a vague idea of what I was looking for but then again, I had no idea what I was looking for. Many times I had gotten tricked into thinking a certain kind of stall had what I wanted since these stalls had baskets of leaves sitting around waiting to be used. These stalls were in fact selling beetle nut, a highly addictive sedative. Some of those same smiling faces that I have been encountering are spoiled by this drug eating away at their gums and teeth. I find chewing tobacco and its resulting juice disgusting but this is plain repulsive and rather sad. It’s disheartening to see so many people addicted to this ravaging drug. Oh well, back onto more light-hearted things. Most of the food stalls have the standard Shan noodle variety or grilled meats but I was on the hunt for something more diverse. I stumbled across one stall that had the potential of fitting the bill. While serving other customers, the woman running the stand noticed my curious glances and, with a look in my direction to say it all, she inquired as to what I would like. I said ‘laphet’ with the best Burmese my mother tongue could come up with. She seemed to understand what I was getting at and offered a taste of paste she had in front of her. It was spicy, new, and intriguing. I gave her a thumbs up, to which she returned with a nod and then continued serving her current customers. After everyone else cleared out, the stall was all left to me. On her table stood seven or so dishes filled with different ingredients; some were green and had the potential to be tea leaves while others had chilis and to my keen eye some roasted nuts and beans. I said once again ‘laphet’, to which she responded with a questioning look as if our established connection from earlier had never been in place. She pointed at the dishes figuring I would nod to which one I wanted. Giving it my best go, I explained with hand signals that I wanted a bit of each, all mixed together. In the clear plastic bags similar to what I explained earlier in Thailand (like small goldfish bags), she spooned bits of each dish and then tied it up before handing it to me. I had no idea how I was going to eat such a thing since I had no utensil. My original plan was to eat it with my oh so sterilized hands but fortunately for my intestines I acquired a set of chopsticks from another stall down the way. The whole explanation of this story probably took longer to read than how it actually happened, haha. I guess my life and days out here are just that intriguing :). Once I got to the train station I could finally attempt to decipher what that women placed into the bag. After tearing open the bag, I had my first bite with the help of those chopsticks. My tastebuds went through a variety of emotions. The flavors were like a song that my tastebuds didn’t quite know the rhythm and beat of. Despite the foreign tune, my tastebuds danced along anyways maybe with a few spastic jerks, trying to get into the groove of what they were experiencing. The laphet or whatever I stumbled across was salty and spicy with some much needed crunch on behalf of the roasted nuts. I would describe it further but I have no way of making more sense of it. The meal was delicious and I will be trying it again but hopefully in a more formal setting. After touching back down to reality once the bag was empty, I realized I needed to look for the correct platform from which I would board the train. Being lost I asked for help and found someone that led me to my train and specific seat. Inside my cabin and very likely the entire train, I was the one and only white person in sight. The people sitting around me looked at me as if I were lost or an alien. Children came through the cabin with their biggest smiles, charm, and a fair bit of English trying to sell their goods or trinkets. They were as cute as can be and just as convincing but I wasn’t in the buying mood. The seats were cushioned and designed to recline but mine didn’t seem to want to budge. People around me were pointing and trying to explain to me how to do it in their limited English but for whatever reason it was frozen in place. Several people tried and failed to get it to move. After awhile we all came to the conclusion that it was broken but one woman was kind enough to let me switch seats with her. I tried to give her some money as thanks but she refused to take any payment for such a kind deed. In my new seat I met her little son Frankie, who was no more than 8 years old. With his flat brimmed baseball hat, comic emblazoned clothing, and red painted hair, he was as cute as can be. The kid knew some English and shared some of his snacks with me. I commented on his Spider-Man shorts and thanked him for each little treat he passed along my way. Once the train left the station I had no choice but to accept what Steven Tyler sang over and over again, that ‘the train kept a rollin’ all night long’. The train shook and swayed with every meter of rail it passed. At its highest speeds, which isn’t saying much, the train bounced along as if it were on springs with me feeling as though I were sitting on an agitated pogo stick. At its worst, when I was ready to go airborne, people looked at me with a smile knowing how out of place this must feel for me. I love my roller coaster rides but not when I am attempting to get some sleep. As shitty as this train ride continued to be, it turned into my best experience with locals so far.

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