Because of the BURMA book, and because a lot of people have decided to head to Burma in the last year, I’ve had a steady stream of people asking for advice. Mostly they are very nice with their requests: “some ideas about where to stay, where to eat, what to eat…” is the usual request.
And so here I am writing a very straight blogpost, to give some basic info, opinionated, of course, on my views of what where when and how? to travel and eat in Burma. The advice will fall out of date fairly quickly at the rate things are changing, but still the restaurant names should mostly be useful.
Before I get started, I’d urge any of you who are interested in local food to have a good close read of my BURMA book. I’m not talking about the recipes, though they can be very useful as a guide in a new country and culture. (For example it's useful if you understand about shrimp paste as an element of flavour, umami-giving, and come to appreciate just how those curries and salads are made.) No, I’m talking about the section in the front that gives general information about the structure of meals and eating through the day, as well as the annotated bibliography at the back of the book.
And so I am assuming that you know that the main meal of the day, centred around rice, is usually eaten at noon. Go looking for a good Burmese or Shan restaurant for your noon meal, and be prepared to eat widely and well. The snack on the street or in noodle shops or tea shops the rest of the time.
The exception to this occur mostly in Rangoon, where there are a number of restaurants that serve big rice-based traditional meals in the evening, mostly I gather because they have become used to serving ex-pats or people eating in an ex-pat pattern.
The general rules for looking for food in another culture or place are always:
Notice what time of day people eat particular dishes or kinds of meals, and then copy them.
Go looking for food markets in the early morning.
See if there’s an evening market to explore.
If you taste something you don’t like, ask yourself why you don’t like it. Then try to figure out why or how it tastes good to others. It’s a useful exercise in understanding the elements of a cuisine and traditional eating and cooking patterns and practices.
All right, now here’s a small list of nice eating etc ideas, mostly about Rangoon:
In Rangoon/Yangon, be sure to stay somewhere reasonably central so you can walk around; tho taxis work fine)
Yegyaw Market in the east end (the extension of 49th Street north of Bogyoke Road), is small and easy to get hold of. Once you’re familiar there (try the fried doughnuts of many kinds) then you might want to poke along the huge market downtown, that runs south from the Kali Temple that is on Mahabandoola; the street market open-air part is the most fun, but in the rabbit warren of the market building there are amazing sights.
Scott Market (also known as Bogyoke Market) is for souvenirs, pearls, jade, etc shopping. Closed on Mondays. Check out Yoyamay upstairs in the SE corner, for amazing textiles; and next door the lacquerware shop, for antique lacquerware. A great place.
I love tea shops, and especially I love Mercury Tea Shop, on Anuwratha Road on the south side at about 46th Street. Go in the morning for flatbreads and beans; or have a dosa…I like their black coffee (it comes with a wedge of lime). Skip the steamed dim sum type things.
Other Rangoon noodle stops include any busy-looking mohinga stand out on the street on Mahabandoola or Anuwratha or a sidestreet, especially west of 40th Street; or else a vendor selling noodle salad. The latter will have a net-covered display of all kinds of noodles, including pale yellow “tofu” that is a Shan tradition and is made from chickpeas or other beans, and is, like the rice noodles, completely gluten-free. Noodle salads are a common and delicious snack at any time of the day, dressed with lime juice, roasted chopped peanuts, herbs, chile powder, and lots more.
And then there’s Osaka, a great little noodle shop open 5 am to 5 pm, on Bo Myat Thun Street, about 1 ½ blocks north of the railway line (four blocks or so north of Bogyoke Road). Order the shwe daung khao swe, coconut milk sauce-bathed pork on home-made (made in the shop) noodles, with broth alongside and great condiments; and the people there are very sweet.
For a spectacular sit-down meal, on any evening but a Sunday, head to Myit Sone (means “the confluence”, as in the confluence of the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State) for a Kachin feast. Have the pounded beef, a Kachin fish curry, potatoes, the steamed mixed vegetables…anything the sisters suggest to you. It’s a completely different cuisine, and a real discovery. Myit Sone is at 22 Baho Road, opposite the Chinese embassy.
The other evening place to eat, this time central Burmese food, is Feel Myanmar near a number of the embassies and very close to downtown (124 Pyidaungsu Yeiktha Street). You can pick out your dishes, food is made fresh all day, including for the evening; there is a huge range of choices, a relaxed generous vibe, and lots of flexibility. And if you’re fine with being in a tourist-oriented place, the Padonmar Restaurant on Kha Yae Bin Road has a lovely garden setting, a pleasure in the evenings in dry season.
Most other big rice meals are to be found at noontime, when traditionally the food is very fresh-made. Try Aung Thuka near the Savoy Hotel, or Khaing Khaing Kyaw (the latter takes reservations). For Rakhine (Arakan) food, with lots of delish seafood options, head to Minn Lan at lunchtime (closed the 23rd of every month). There are a number of branches of Khaing Khaing Kyaw and of Minn Lan; your hotel can help you find the closest one.
If you head out of town, I have a few recommendations. Mostly, look for the early markets; ask about market days and schedules. And be sure to find a stall with a good view and sit down for some mohinga or other noodles.
In Bagan, eat your noontime rice meal at the famously excellent open-air place under the tree in Old Bagan (and rent a bicycle to get around). Be sure to buy the local palm sugars (flavoured with coconut or with sour plum powder) and also the tamarind flake candies; you’ll be happy to have a stash to give away to friends.
In Yaunshwe (Inle Lake) where the markets operate on a five day schedule, get yourself informed about the places and days. Eat at the markets, on dry land or on the lake. Look for the delicious rice steamed (in a lotus leaf) with mashed potato and fish; and the darker coloured steamed rice that has been mixed with blood and then cooked. Try the steamed rice dumplings and ask around for peanut soup. Out in the lake, Heritage Restaurant is an upmarket elegant setting that serves an excellent lunch; reservations recommended (ask your hotel for help). The Four Sisters guest house by the river has a good dinner, simple grilled fish usually, prepared with a light hand; quirky people but nice.
In the rest of Shan State, Hsipaw for example, and also in the far eastern Kengtung (ChiangTung) north of the Golden Triangle, eat Shan noodles for breakfast: rice or egg noodles with a tomatoey meat sauce and fresh greens and herbs on top.
And for hotels etc in Rangoon and elsewhere:
In Rangoon I stay at the nice-people-but-not-beautiful Eastern Hotel on Bo Myat Thun; the East Hotel seems OK too, more central, but is more expensive .
In Bagan I stayed a couple of years ago at the Aung Mingalar (near the bus station) and liked its location and the people; reasonable price too. The market in Nyaung U is great, and busy, but now there are touts because of greater tourism. Just ignore them and head for a noodle soup near the back. Take a trip to Pakkoku, by boat or road (now that the bridge is built) where things are quiet and not at all touristed in the market.
In Yaunshwe (Inle Lake) the Gold Star is another hotel in the unfancy but perfectly nice category, and not too expensive. It’s also a great location, an easy walk to everywhere; rent a bike to excursion around. The same goes for the Four Sisters, which is small and less money than Gold Star.
In Hsipaw, Mr Charles still seems to be the best place; in Myitkyina, in Kachin State, if it ever opens again to travellers, the YMCA is very basic and a great place for conversation about all kinds of news; in Hpa’an in Karen State, the Soe Brothers is another very basic warm-hearted landing place; in Mrauk U (another place that is closed at the moment) plan to stay four or five days at the Prince Hotel, rent a bicycle, and take your time.
Enjoy! and take things as slowly as you can...