Myanmar

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Three years ago it was controlled by a military junta, and the United States had no formal diplomatic relations. The Myanmar of today, however, accessible to me (as a tourist) for the first time in my adult life, is an interesting South East Asian country, in some ways undergoing change at a break neck speed, in others starting to realize that there is a lot of changing that is going to take place.

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Yangon is no longer the country’s political capital, but it is undoubtably the cultural and economic hub. The massive golden spire of Shwedagan Pagoda is visible anywhere in the city, down to the muddy banks of the river. Ancient as it and many of Myanmar’s puras and pagodas and stupas are, they remain sites of active Buddhist life, and a majority of people in this part of the country are Buddhist. Ancient stones are decorated with neon lights, thousand year old wall murals have teddy bear rugs spread before them for the comfort of those come to kneel before the images of the Buddha. It is hard for the tourist (me…) to wrap their head all the way around, the expectation being something more akin to an “artifact,” something that gives a window into something ancient, a civilization that is no more. That window is still there, but it is a history that is mingled with a present.

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Chef Entrepreneurs in Myanmar

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I landed, or dragged myself up to, the Inle Heart View restaurant, off the road and through a field and up the hill, exactly at noon. The ladies tending the front if their house half way up the hill seemed a bit surprised and alarmed, and I saw why as I made it finally to the empty little restaurant. One if the old ladies came hurrying up the hill after me, and a minute later two fellows pulled up on their scooters. The one, his name Zaw I think (Burmese pronunciation is different than it looks), speaking excellent English, apologized saying they were back at his village. The woman was his aunt, and the other fellow his uncle. He gave me a menu – most if the dishes weren’t really available, the restaurant without electricity and seemingly not very busy thus dusty saturday, so he talked me through ordering some pickled tea leaves, a tomato salad with sticky rice crackers, and some grilled chicken.
And the verdict: excellent.

After bringing the dishes one by one up the bamboo stairs, Zaw stops to talk – not much else to do at the moment, I am the only customer to dote over. Zaw worked at one of the fancy Inle Lake hotels for years, he said, after a course in English and hospitality at the tourist hub Nuangshwe. After working at the hotel for a number of years, he obviously has a much more refined understanding of what western tourists are looking for as they “rough it” through Myanmar. He said he built his small restaurant, which only just opened its doors (there actually are not any doors) in the less convenient location away from the noisy main road, up a hill on a rough dirt road, to provide quiet and a spectacular view of the lake, mountains, and surrounding farmland. He has converted part of his family’s sugarcane plantation into an incipient organic farm plot where he plans to grow food for the restaurant as well as supply food to a Myanmar cuisine cooking school. The menu includes healthy versions of popular local foods – the best ones originally swimming in oil and salt – and a list of creative cocktails.

Zaw told me how the 2008 “monk revolution” centered in Yangon and Bagan brought the until then booming tourism industry to a virtual standstill. Some rough years ensued, but he said business has been picking up since. Finally in 2013 he decided to make an investment himself, building “Inle Heart View” on his family’s land, which is perfectly located southeast of Nuangshwe on a road frequented by tourists on their bicycle adventures to see some of the villages further south on the lake. Dusty and potholed at the moment, the road’s multiple points of construction foretell the increasing tourist traffic that is already painfully evident in the region.

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