Sometimes it doesn’t take a lot for me to grin from ear to ear.
A couple of hours after touching down at Mandalay International Airport I got checked into my colourful room at Dreamland. There I found a plug socket unlike any I had seen before. Having researched what electrical plugs were used in the country, I had my 2-pin adapter at the ready. Yet this socket was designed in such a way as to accept every type of plug going – the common two round pins, the American two flat pins, the awkward British three rectangular pins, and even the bizarre Australian three flat pin arrangement. And it included two USB connections to boot.
This, dear reader, blew my tiny mind. This was one of the greatest things I had ever seen. “If I build a home, there will be one of these in every room,” I told myself. It turned out I was not the only person thinking this. I spoke to another foreigner who had the exact same thought. The ubiquity of these plugs represents one advantage of a country with a legacy of multiple different country’s influence on its infrastructure.
You can often see this multitude of influences in Myanmar. For example, the most common breakfast foods are a mixture of Indian, Chinese and Burmese staples – samosas, fried Chinese stick bread and Shan noodles all regularly providing the first meal of the day. My rudimentary Burmese language course had prepared me just well enough to feel comfortable walking into simple, traditional tea houses unused to European visitors. Not really knowing what people tended to eat for breakfast, I just looked at what was being prepared at that time of day.
First thing in the morning – that is, when they open between 5 and 6am – I would see mass production of samosas and ei kyar kwae. The latter resemble massive Spanish churros (more like the cucumber-width ones I had in Rhonda in April than the thumb-width ones usually seen in the UK) without the sweetness, and taste very plain but are a good filling start to the day. If they put sugar on the table I’d dab them in the sweet crystals; if not they’d be dipped into some of the chilli sauce found on every table. Three samosas, one ei kyar kwae and two cups of char zay (strong tea sweetened with plenty of condensed milk) became my regular breakfast for most of my time in the country. Partly this was related to my early starts which often preceded the breakfast times at my accomodation (mainly for early buses or booked tours on a motorbike or boat) and partly because I so enjoyed sitting amongst the Burmese people – predominantly men – starting their days around me and more often than not laughing at my limited and thoroughly clumsy use of their language (e.g. “Is it good?” “It’s a bit hot, isn’t it?” “I don’t understand very much” “Er, one thousand, um, er, five hundred?” etc).
Having read in a number of places that spending time in Burmese tea houses was a fun part of visiting Myanmar, I was quite surprised. Firstly that I never came across another foreigner in any of them, secondly that no other tourists I spoke to seemed to have spent any time in them, and thirdly that they were a lot more basic than I had pictured in my head. “Burmese tea house” to me conjured up images of tastefully decorated bamboo cafes with comfortable chairs around dark wooden tables, perhaps serving spiced tea in the style of Indian chai. In fact, they are fairly uniform: a neat arrangement of square tables, each bearing an insulated jug of green tea, a napkin dispenser and usually a bottle of chilli sauce, neatly placed in the middle of the table by the usually very young waiting staff. And they come in various flavours of ‘basic’, from the strip light-illuminated, concrete-floored, steel-roofed Emperor Cafe & Food Centre in Mandalay, to four tables under a rickety bamboo roof at the edge of the Nampan market at Inle Lake, and most commonly a set of metal or plastic tables and chairs under a ceiling supported by metal poles bearing those amazing plug sockets. It turns out I wasn’t going to need my portable power bank very often.
I’d generally walk in and plonk myself in a space of my own – or share if it was busy – as each person or small group sits on their own table, perhaps looking at the ubiquitous TV screen (showing the news, subtitled movies, and most often European football matches), swiping their smarphone screens, or simply sipping tea and eating their freshly-prepared grub. If they need anything, they’ll get the attention of the waiting staff with a loud suck of their teeth. The orders are then shouted back and forth to the kitchen as they come in. The kitchen might have one or two people preparing everything, or separate groups focused on bread-based fare like chapattis or samosas, others working on fried rice and soups, one person making the hot drinks, and perhaps the boss sitting at a bar ensuring everyone’s on point.
It was in the Emperor Cafe that I met Mr Fya on my first night in Mandalay. He heard me trying my best to be understood with my Burmese vocabulary probably equivalent to a 2 year old, and volunteered his far superior English. Mr Fya and his friend turned out to be teachers of physics at the local university, and he was keen to practice his English and helped me learn the name of the type of tea I would subsequently drink at every visit to a tea house. This was entirely typical of the hospitality and helpfulness of the people I met in Myanmar. As other westerners that I spoke to had also found, any eye contact and smiles were universally reciprocated, and whenever I asked for help there would be a quick search for anyone in the vicinity who spoke English, and a thorough explanation of the directions or information I needed.
The tourist hotspots of Bagan and Inle Lake had more people trying to push their wares or get me to sign up for their tour or bus ticket, but even in these areas the slightest journey away from the tourist centres led to calm, friendly and quiet streets. Walking around Mandalay, New Bagan or Nyaung Shwe after dark never felt remotely threatening, and even the pushiest kid selling postcards would be all smiles and flattery.
However the tapestry of Myanmar culture has been woven – and notwithstanding the ethnic tensions invisible to a visitor like me – the abiding impression I carry is of incredibly welcoming, warm and kind people with whom I felt privileged to spend so much time. Especially drinking cups hot, sweet tea.