Five years ago artist Htet Lin Aung could only dream of becoming an animator. Now he is well on his way to making his ambition a reality.
In June 2011, Htet Lin Aung showed his art in public for the first time. The occasion was the Artistic Reinforcement Touch group exhibition at Yangon’s Lokanat Art Gallery, featuring the work of young artists enrolled in the University of Culture’s bachelor of arts program.
Htet Lin Aung’s acrylic painting of an armor-clad Kinnara birdman stood out among the dozens of other artworks in the exhibition. The mythical Kinnara, normally a symbol of love in classical Myanmar literature, was depicted here as a fierce warrior with its feathered wings spread in rage and menace.
At that time, 18-year-old Htet Lin Aung – who had moved to Yangon from Meiktila in 2008 to attend the university – said that one of his hobbies was studying the characters from Myanmar history and legend.
“I learned about Kinnari and Kinnara in Myanmar traditional art class, and they are used by artists to represent sorrow and love,” he said. “They never had a remarkable place in literature other than entertaining kings and queens. They should be more than that. That is why I created [a different] story of Kinnari and Kinnara. Love causes many things. Where there is love, there is war.”
His dream, he said at the time, was to turn his version of the Kinnari and Kinnara story into an animation feature, and eventually to create high-quality animation that would be seen around the world and recognized as a product of Myanmar.
“To produce animation requires many people and costs a lot of money, but I’ll be patient and go through any hardships until I get there,” he said.
Five years on, Htet Lin Aung – now going by the name Mg Shino, after a character in a Naruto video game whom his friends say he resembles – is well on the way to realizing this dream. He now works in his own small studio in Yangon, where the walls surrounding his work desk are decorated with drawings, cartoons and stills from animation features from around the world.
“Since I finished university in 2011, I’ve given all my time to making animation. From the time I was a child, I’ve dreamt of making my drawings come to life. I didn’t think it was interesting for them to stay motionless on paper, so I was attracted to animation,” Mg Shino said, adding, “My parents never wanted me to become an artist, but now I’m finally getting my chance.”
Indeed, art was always a hard sell for his parents, who thought he was not focused enough on his school lessons as a child.
“My teachers scolded me about my drawings and called my home. But I could never remember the dates or facts of history very well, so I drew small pictures of what I was learning at school to help me remember. I did this all the way through 10th standard,” he said.
His parents planned to send him to a military school after matriculation, but an uncle who saw Mg Shino’s drawings convinced his mother and father to allow him to pursue his passion and attend the University of Culture.
But even landing a job at the 5 Network television station after graduation failed to impress his parents, who worried about the long hours he spent sitting in front of a computer. His work creating animation segments for advertisements and music videos finally helped send the message that he was not wasting his efforts.
“My parents have slowly come to accept my work, and when they see me interviewed on TV about my animation they are proud of me,” he said.
Mg Shino’s recent projects include a short animation segment of Inguli Marla, a notorious prince from Myanmar legend who wore a necklace of human fingers.
“He cut off people’s fingers – even his own mother’s – and finally tried to cut off the Buddha’s finger. I wanted to do a test project of Inguli Marla running, which is nice because he wears a necklace of fingers that moves while he runs,” he said.
Over the years, Mg Shino has also maintained his early interest in Kinnari.
“Now I’m studying the characteristics of bird-humans – their bones and joints, how long their wings should be and how they fly. Different kinds of birds have different characteristics,” he said. “I’m focusing on this project at the moment, and hope to release it next year.”
The influence of Japanese animation is evident in some of Mg Shino’s past work, but an even more obvious inspiration is Walt Disney.
“I loved fairytales, but when I was young I could only watch stories from other countries, like Cinderella, Snow White or Beauty and the Beast. All children love these films, but there was no animation depicting the many interesting fairytales from our own country. We grow up hearing our grandmothers read those stories to us, but I want to bring them to life,” he said.
“The characters I’ve made so far are mostly similar to Disney in style, but now I’m working to create my own style for my own characters,” he added.
In the meantime, Mg Shino must struggle not only with his own creativity but also with striving for success in a country in which the animation industry is virtually nonexistent.
“Until 2005, there were very few animators in Myanmar, but recently a few more young animators have emerged,” Mg Shino said. “Some other countries have well-funded studios where hundreds of animators work together on one feature, but here we all work on our own without support. I had to learn by watching animation cartoons over and over again, and I use Adobe Flash software, which I learned from another local animator.”
He said the local animation industry would benefit from more competitions, more support from the government and businesspeople, and more understanding from parents and society at large.
“People don’t know anything about making animation, and the parents of young artists don’t support them. In our country, most people do not have the habit of encouraging or appreciating each other. They would rather attack or insult you,” he said.
“As animators, we are not wasting our time but working hard to realise our dreams. We can see what painters want to say with their brushwork, and we can understand what actors or directors want to say in their movies. When action and art combine, the result is animation. For me, this is the best way to get people’s attention and send a message.”
Samples of Mg Shino’s art and animation can be seen on his Facebook page.
Lynn Whut Hmone conducted the original 2011 interview with Htet Lin Aung; more recent quotes from the artist were translated from Myanmar language by Nyein Ei Ei Htwe.
Flowers grow, flowers wilt, flowers die. But some artists dedicate their creative energy to preserving, in perpetuity, the beauty of flowers in full bloom. Such is the case for the five painters participating in the Gandha exhibition at the Yangon Gallery from August 27 to 31. Working in oil, acrylic and watercolor, artists Maung Aw, Mon Thet, Hla Phone Aung, Win Thandar and Zay Yar Aye are all renowned for their works depicting colorful blossoms in nature or as still-lifes.
The show is the brainchild of Than Thar Palae Thwe, who normally serves as Yangon Gallery’s business development executive but who is making her first foray into curating.
“I’ve been helping my colleagues organize exhibitions for the past two years, so I’m familiar with the artists, but this is my first time as a curator,” she said. “I named the exhibition Gandha because it’s a Pali-language word that means ‘fragrance’. I wanted to use fragrance as a metaphor for flowers.”
Than Thar Palae Thwe’s first challenge was securing the participation of Maung Aw, one of Myanmar’s most well-respected artists. Now 71 years old, he gave up painting flowers decades ago in favor of other themes. “Maung Aw’s flower paintings are really well-known among the art community and buyers, but he stopped painting them around 20 years ago and changed his drawing subjects. But I wanted to show people his flower paintings,” she said.
Than Thar Palae Thwe visited Maung Aw’s studio to appeal to him in person. “He doesn’t paint every day now because of his health, so I was worried about that – what if he refused me? But he accepted it easily. I asked him to please draw one or two paintings as he wished, and he gave me three new paintings,” she said.
Once Maung Aw was on board, it was easy to convince the other artists to take part. Like Maung Aw, Zay Yar Aye had also stopped displaying his flower paintings 10 years ago but agreed to contribute six or seven new and rare watercolors – he usually exhibits acrylic work – created specifically for the exhibition.
“One reason I am participating is because the artist I like best, Maung Aw, is also included in this exhibition,” Zay Yar Aye said. “I started painting flowers in 1996 and I continued for about 10 years. Those paintings were easy to sell, but several years ago I realized that I needed to stop because I was ashamed of myself for doing it just for the money. Flower paintings were keeping me from working on other subjects,” he said.
Now, returning to an old theme has helped re-invigorate his artistic life, he said. “The new flower paintings are based on my old style, but mixed with the new style I have developed since I stopped. Around 15 years ago I was not mature and my technique was not as good as now.”
While colorful blossoms are naturally imbued with physical beauty, Zay Yar Aye believes flower paintings should provide more than just a visual experience, and he strives to epitomize the title of the exhibition. “When people see my paintings, I want them to get the smell of the flowers. Maybe that’s why people like them. I get that across because of my passion for flowers – and also because I know the secrets of how to put the smells in the flowers,” he said, adding that those secrets would remain undivulged.
For Mon Thet, who has been painting flowers for more than 20 years, the invitation to participate in Gandha prompted him to make a special trip to paint the famous rose gardens at Pyin Oo Lwin. His aim as an artist, he said, is to give viewers a “different perspective compared to nature” and to express the delicacy of his subjects. “When I see flowers the first thing that comes to my mind is that I feel refreshed and relaxed, so I want to see people who look at my paintings get the same feelings as me,” Mon Thet said. “I want to erase people’s fatigue and give them good feelings.”
Erase your fatigue at Gandha, showing from August 27 to 31 at the Yangon Gallery, located in People’s Park near the Planetarium Museum off Ahlone Road. The gallery is open daily from 10am to 6pm.
Artist Nann Nann has always been versatile in her creativity. Since graduating in 1998 from the University of Culture in Yangon with a bachelor of arts degree, she has delved into painting, sculpture and even performance art, holding exhibitions in Myanmar, Thailand, Hong Kong and the United States, and earning numerous awards from organizations both at home and abroad.
Her preferred medium is stone, but opportunities to make the kinds of large-scale sculptures she prefers are rare. Still, she has managed to land several important commissions, including marble sculptures for FMI City in Mandalay and SPA Corporation in Yangon, as well as a bronze piece for Eskala Hotel at Ngwe Saung beach.
“My feeling as an artist is that I want to use stone, but it is a difficult medium. You need a lot of work to make a stone sculpture,” Nann Nann said, adding that she often uses painting as an outlet for unrealized sculptural ideas.
“Since I have few chances to create stone sculptures, I make paintings using thick paints and abstract brushwork to depict space and form. The images look like sculptures on the canvas,” she said. With few chances to make her beloved stone carvings, and with painting restricted to two dimensions, Nann Nann’s latest exhibition, titled Art in Me and opening August 19 at the Yangon Gallery, sees her treading new creative territory: wood sculptures made using found objects.
“For the past six or seven years, I’ve been collecting interesting objects whenever I travel around the country for my painting or sculpture projects,” Nann Nann said. “When I see things I like, I collect them – mostly wood objects you can find at old furniture shops or at monasteries in rural regions. When I see something, sometimes I know right away how I’m going to use it and other times I just collect it because it’s interesting and I figure out later what to do with it.”
Once back in her studio in Yangon, Nann Nann sets about recycling the found objects, sometimes polishing or painting the wood, sometimes adding new elements or designs to create something different.
“It’s interesting to me when I find a wood carving that represents something real, for example a woman or an elephant. There is a name attached to it – you can identify what the object represents,” she said. “After I recycle the object, it still has that same name, but when you look at it from afar, it looks more abstract. You can’t tell exactly what it is.”
One untitled piece showing in the Art in Me exhibition originated as a wood sculpture of a man rowing a traditional canoe. Nann Nann upended the boat so it stands vertically, then affixed a dim light inside that emits a feeble but warm glow.
“When you see the dim light, it reminds you of a small fishing village. If you have ever been to a fishing village near the ocean, the environment is very tranquil and the house lights are dim. I want to give you that feeling. I’m not just turning the sculpture into a lamp. Each piece in the exhibition is trying to convey a different feeling,” she said.
For Nann Nann, evoking particular emotions is what making art is all about. It’s something she learned from her parents – both of whom are well-regarded painters – as well as from the many art teachers from whom she has learned over the years.
“I put all my emotions into my art works. It makes me feel good when I’m making something new and I get a strong feeling inside,” she said. “When I get inspiration from within myself, I just want to create and create.”
This story was originally published in the August 19-25, 2016, edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.
In the sport of bicycle racing, the word “hammer” has several uses. It can be a verb indicating the act of riding very hard and very fast while feeling no pain: “He hammered up the hill, leaving everyone gasping in his wake.” To “put the hammer down” is to initiate the act the hammering.
In the noun form, a “hammer” is a cyclist renowned for his ability to hammer. And to “get hammered” is to be spat out the back of the race as the result of the efforts of hammers who are hammering away at the front. As the old saying goes, sometimes you’re the hammer, and sometimes you’re the anvil.
In this year’s Tour of Thailand bicycle stage race, held in the country’s northeast from April 1 to 6, the five-man Myanmar National Team were among those who got hammered.
Myanmar was one of seven national teams – along with Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Bahrain – invited to take part in this year’s race. The 13 other participants were sponsored trade teams from Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Kazakhstan, Iran and the Netherlands. The races on each day ranged in length from 132 kilometers (82 miles) to 231km for a total distance of 1057km. Like the Tour de France, there was a stage winner each day, plus a “general classification” based on the riders’ accumulated overall times.
As a member of the Myanmar Cycling Federation’s executive committee in charge of road cycling development, I accompanied the team to Thailand in the capacity of manager, which, despite my three decades of involvement in the sport, was a role I had never before filled. I once read an interview with the manager of a professional cycling team who said the best days for any team’s support staff were those in which nothing dramatic happened in the race. It was only after surviving Stage 1 of the Tour of Thailand that I came to fully appreciate these words.
The first clue that things might go wrong occurred at the team meeting the night before the race started, when I drew number 13 in the lottery to determine the order of the 20 support vehicles that would follow the riders. Professional cyclists in Europe who are assigned 13 usually pin the numbers upside down onto their jerseys to undo any potential ill luck. But when it came time for me to affix those impious numerals to our pickup truck, I thought, “This is Asia. Thirteen isn’t considered unlucky here,” and stuck them on right-side up. The gremlins of misfortune must have chortled in glee at my dim-witted miscalculation, but I was deaf to their spiteful mirth.
Indeed, the first day of the Tour of Thailand was nothing short of a calamity for our team. Just 30km into the 187km race from Ubon Ratchathani to Mukdahan, the race radio crackled with the news that there had been a high-speed crash, and that one of Myanmar’s riders was involved.
As manager and driver of the support vehicle carrying our spare bikes and wheels, it was my job to put the pedal to the metal, drive like a bedlamite to the accident site and offer assistance to our stricken rider.
Urged on by the hysterical shrieks of Myanmar coaches U Naing Win and U Khin Myint, who were with me in the truck, I pulled up to the scene of carnage to find one of our cyclists, Mang Tin Kung, sitting in the middle of the road already getting his injured wrist bandaged by medical personnel. Meanwhile, the frantic coaches leapt from the pickup and performed some quick repairs on the damaged bicycle. Within seconds, Mang Tin Kung was back in the saddle and on his way.
Bicycle racers are generally a resilient lot – the polar opposite of football players, who can’t seem to stop themselves from flopping to the ground in feigned injury whenever another player passes within half a meter – and despite skidding across the scorching-hot pavement at 50kph, Mang Tin Kung was keen to continue racing. Unfortunately, circumstances conspired against him: Unable to grip the handlebars due to his fractured wrist, and stuck in a monstrously high gear compliments of a broken rear derailleur, he gamely struggled on in agony for more than 10km before realizing there was no way he could catch the main group of nearly 100 riders, who were racing at full tilt and weren’t about to slow down for anyone. Mang Tin Kung’s race was over before it had even begun.
From this bleak start, the day never really improved. Not long after Mang Tin Kung’s retirement, and before we had even reached the halfway point, another of our cyclists – Australian Ben Rowse, the sole non-Myanmar rider on the team – suffered a flat tire just as the race pace was increasing from torrid to downright infernal. Again I responded to the race officials’ radio instructions to speed forward like a lunatic to where Rowse was awaiting mechanical succor by the roadside. The coaches tossed him a spare wheel, and he was quickly back on the road chasing the relentlessly charging peloton.
Incredibly, after pedaling furiously for nearly 30 minutes – all the while, his bike computer unhelpfully informing him that his heart was thumping away in excess of 180 beats per minute – Rowse was able to catch back up to the main group. But he squandered all of his physical resources doing so and, a few kilometers later and sapped of all energy, he dropped off the back and was forced to abandon.
By the finish line, two more Myanmar National Team riders – Chit Ko Ko and Soe Thant – had also quit, victims of the first stage’s Tour-de-France-worthy average pace of 45kph over more than four hours of racing in 38 Celsius heat. They were simply undertrained and psychologically unprepared for the difficulties of the day. That left us with one finisher, 21-year-old Kyaw Tun Oo, who crossed the line tucked safely in the main field more than 10 minutes behind a couple of smaller, faster groups of riders who had taken off up the road.
While our riders were getting hammered out on the course, I was also facing personal challenges in my first experience as a support vehicle driver, which basically involves several hours of fighting for position on limited road space with 19 other team car drivers, all of whom are intent on handing up water bottles and food to their riders, changing wheels as quickly as possible when flat tires occur, and fixing bikes that have been broken by crashes. I was just happy to make it through the day without nose-diving into a roadside ditch or running anyone over.
The good news was that after Stage 1, the rest of the race was relatively incident-free as far as we were concerned. This was largely due to the fact that, according to the rules of stage racing, riders must finish each stage to continue the next day. Our team’s four abandons from Stage 1 were therefore out of the race for good, meaning that U Naing Win, U Khin Myint and I only had Kyaw Tun Oo to look after for the remaining five stages. Each day Kyaw Tun Oo finished strongly in the main group, avoiding crashes and suffering only one flat tire, on Stage 3, after which he was able to chase back to the main group without much trouble.
Kyaw Tun Oo’s riding was astute enough to catch the attention of the other teams, and managers from the Netherlands, Taiwan, Malaysia and other countries approached to tell me how impressed they were with his performance, despite the obvious shortcomings of Myanmar’s national team program.
Like most institutions under this country’s odious military government of decades past, for years the Myanmar Cycling Federation was largely dysfunctional, contributing little to the advancement of the sport and, at times, actively suppressing its development – this latter point was aptly illustrated by a bewildering incident in 2005 when MCF officials actually called in the police to prevent a well-organized and well-sponsored mountain bike race from taking place north of Yangon.
But in the past couple of years the federation has turned a page under a new president who is passionate about, and understands, the sport of cycling. More races are taking place each year, and more riders are participating in these competitions. Most important, more locals are simply getting out on their bikes for recreation under the auspices of vital, independent organizations like Bicycle Network Myanmar.
For now, Myanmar’s top riders are struggling just to finish big international races like the Tour of Thailand, but the pool of potential champions is set to grow, and it won’t be long before a hammer from Myanmar is hammering at the front of the pack, putting the hurt on the cyclists getting hammered at the rear of the peloton.
This article was originally published in the July 22-28 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.
Ten years ago, my original Yangon burger story was published in The Myanmar Times. I post it here for the sake of comparison with today’s much-improved burger scene in Yangon, which is covered in the preceding post.
One night a few weeks ago I settled onto my sofa to enjoy another installment of Stupid Movie Night on satellite TV and was treated to a cinematic masterpiece in which mutant killer bees terrorized a small American town until they were lured to their doom by their love of hamburger meat.
Thinking long and hard about the movie afterwards, I would have liked to believe that, had I been one of those bees, I would have been too smart to follow the raw meat into an enclosed space in which a deadly trap was sprung by crafty humans. But I love hamburgers as much as the next mutant killer bee, and the fact is nothing would have prevented me from following those delicious patties into darkness and death along with the rest of the hive.
The hamburgers depicted in the Hollywood-made killer bee movie were of course all-American summer holiday cookout burgers. Hamburgers in Myanmar can be a whole different ballgame.
Seems like every time I order a hamburger here, there’s something a little weird about it. There are the cheeseburgers with cheese but no meat. There are the burgers whose patties are so small the meat seems to be a condiment to accompany mayonnaise and tomato sauce rather than the other way around. And there are the ones that come with no bun at all, requiring of the diner the unnatural, even profane, act of eating a hamburger with a knife and fork.
All this weirdness prompted me to embark on a daring quest to sample the vicissitudes of burgerdom in Yangon and report my findings to the armchair hamburger eaters of the world. Following is a catalogue of my experiences. To save space I have limited the survey to beef burgers and therefore have excluded a number of venues that listed beef burgers on their menus but in fact served nothing of the sort.
Burger Busters (114/B Inya Road)
Enticed by words like “BBQ sauce” and “mashed potatoes” interspersed among the Myanmar-language description on the “special” menu, I ordered a cheese beef burger for K3000. What I got was a large beef patty whose mushy consistency was mostly caused by a Texas-sized slathering of Texas-style BBQ sauce. It was topped by a slice of cheese but came with no bun. Beneath the watchful gaze of the other patrons at the restaurant, I fixed this problem by cutting the patty in half and making two sandwiches using the garlic toast that came as a side (along with the mashed potatoes). The result: passable burgers that were hard, crunchy and garlicky on the outside and soft, chewy and BBQ-ey on the inside.
Café Aroma (Sule Pagoda Road near Nay Pyi Taw Cinema)
The beef burger (K1700) is described on the menu as being “topped with minced beef, tomato, cucumber, lettuce and pickles”. Cucumbers are not a regular ingredient in American hamburgers but they are common in Yangon. Although many true US patriots would remove them and fling them away in disgust, cursing “dang ferners” for sullying an American icon, to me they seem a fine supplement to the repertoire of burger ingredients, adding a bit of crunchy freshness to the mix.
The ingredients at Aroma add up to a fairly tasty burger even though the patty is a bit too small. They come with potato chips but no fries. To get them, order the “finger potato deepfried with tomato sauce” (K650) from the menu. I would recommend it. They are very crispy and quite yummy.
Excellent Burgers and Snacks (182, corner of Anawrahta Road and 33rd Street)
This small, narrow restaurant looks more like a typical downtown biryani shop (complete with tiled walls) than a burger joint. It is open to the street and therefore has no air con but there are electric fans aplenty. There is also upstairs seating but downstairs you can watch VCDs of lovelorn girls clutching roses and crying into the sky.
The beef burger (K1000) is served with lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber, coleslaw and chilli sauce on a sesame seed bun. Oh yeah, there was a beef patty somewhere in there as well. It was tiny, adding virtually no flavour to the burger. There was, however, a tangy aftertaste that had me fearing for my health until I opened the bun and identified it as originating from the coleslaw-like substance spread on the bun.
The burger comes with a few crispy fries. More can be ordered for K900.
Feel Burger and Snack (Yankin Centre, basement level)
Feel offers all sorts of burgers: chicken, pork, beef, fish, sardine, vegetable and more. There are no prices on the menu, but fear not – a jumbo burger will set you back a mere K1150, fries an additional K900.
Burgers come with mayonnaise (see below), onions, cucumbers and tomato sauce. The “jumbo” option adds egg and cheese. Double burgers are also available.
The burger was brought to me on a plate with a knife and fork. Now I know the concept of eating a burger with a knife and fork is an invention of the Prince of Darkness himself, but in this case the grease factor prompted me to use them (Lord have mercy on my soul). Despite my general proficiency with silverware, it was not long before my dinner was an unwieldy mess on my plate, prompting my girlfriend to comment, “The burgers I make are more beautiful.”
In-depth analysis points to the abundance of mayo and its lubricating properties as the main culprit in the cosmetic degeneration of the burger. Those who don’t like mayo (once described to me as something the French invented to hide the horrible taste of their food) might want to point this out to the server, as it had been slathered on at least two, possibly three, separate locations throughout my burger.
Despite the mess, the Feel burger was among the best I’ve had in Yangon.
50th Street Bar and Grill (50th Street, lower block)
The atmosphere at 50th Street Bar and Grill is like a seductive dream, with comfy seating, a pool table, darts board and satellite TV. It’s all designed to make you forget you are in Yangon so you don’t think twice about spending US$6 on a bacon and cheese beef burger with lettuce, tomato and BBQ sauce. And while the burger is pretty good, it is not $6 good. The meat has an odd texture and sharp taste, and the bacon can be molar-achingly tough to chew. The accompanying fries are big and the salad is small. If you find yourself at 50th Street, my suggestion is to stick with the pizza, which is among the best in Yangon.
MacBurger (Pansodan Street)
Here’s what happened: I ordered a Mac Ham and Cheese (K900) and Mac Fries (K400), the latter of which were a bit tortured looking but not nearly as tortured as the sound of karaoke from upstairs, which we could hear over the Chinese DVD playing on multiple screens in the cafeteria-like dining room, whose off-off-white walls were decorated with pictures of Julia Roberts, Hollywood movie posters and a bundle of dried cornstalks (?). The burger itself consisted of a tiny patty of some chewy, vaguely meat-like substance besieged by lettuce, tomato, cheese and coleslaw. It tasted better going down than it did coming back up later, but only a little. Conclusion: Eating at MacBurger is a dangerous experiment not worth repeating; the aftermath made me rue the day I embarked on my foolish burger quest.
Onyx (near the corner of Inya and Dhammazedi roads)
My first visit to Onyx occurred during monsoon season on a night when the driving rain had turned the dirt driveway into a slop trough. The effort to slog to the other end and into the restaurant was well worth it, though. I have been back many times since. The beef burger steak (K4000) is made with chopped beef, herbs, onion and garlic and is served with a small salad, potatoes, steamed vegetables and bread on the side. Again I was faced with the unsavoury experience of eating an open-faced burger with knife and fork. But you know what? I didn’t care! Onyx burgers are severely delicious and well worth eternal damnation. See you in Hell.
This collaborative effort between myself and three other writers was originally published in the June 3-9 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.
Ten years ago The Myanmar Times embarked the most quixotic of quests: to compile the first-ever-ever list of decent burger joints in Yangon.
This proved to be far more challenging than more recent arrivals to Myanmar might imagine: As our plucky reporter wrote at the time, “Seems like every time I order a hamburger here, there’s something a little weird about it.”
This proved to be the understatement of the five-decade junta era, as our expert investigative journalist encountered such oddities as cheeseburgers with cheese but no meat, burgers whose patties were so small that “the meat seem[ed] to be a condiment to accompany mayonnaise and tomato sauce”, and even one abomination with no bun at all, requiring the use of a knife and fork.
Oh, how things have changed. In the past five years, Yangon has seen an influx of restaurants offering proper American-style burgers boasting elements previously scarce in Yangon, such as thick, juicy patties made from freshly ground imported beef; high-quality cheese; grilled or toasted buns; and toppings carefully chosen to complement, rather than antagonize, one another.
In the midst of this burgeoning cornucopia of classic burgerdom, we at Weekend reckoned it was high time to resurvey the beef-patty-between-two-buns landscape in Yangon. The following is not intended as a definitive list of the nine greatest hamburgers in Yangon, but rather as a starting point: a guide to some of the better places in town to get your burger fix.
50th Street Café Restaurant & Bar
Times have changed since we last rated Yangon’s best burgers – the country has gone through two changes in government and one in name, SIM cards can be procured for $1, and 50th Street is no longer the only oasis for wandering expats seeking a reminder of home. That said, the downtown institution’s burger (K11,500) is still one of the best and most reliable in town, and there’s good reason it’s stood the test of time.
One of the bigger burgers we sampled, 50th Street’s meat is satisfyingly rich and smoky, with a proper charred crust. It’s stacked with lettuce, tomato, a thick if not terribly melty slice of real cheddar, and streaky bacon slices – always a good sign. The real kicker, though, is the tomato barbecue sauce and Thousand Island dressing, which bind all of the flavors together for the perfect bar-burger bite. Perhaps the burger’s only weakness is structural: The meat, while juicy, is a bit prone to crumbling, and the bun is far too much bread for the rest, making handling a bit unwieldy. It is well toasted, though, which is a huge plus, saving the burger from a soppier fate. Also be sure to try the dal burger (K7500), perhaps a sacrilege to committed carnivores, but a favorite of many vegetarian Yangonites. –Eli Meixler
50th Street Café Restaurant & Bar
9/13 50th Street (between Strand and Merchant), Botahtaung township
I’m no fan of vacant marketing terminology: “pop-up” restaurants that never disappear, or places that promote themselves under the unpalatable term “gastropub”. The same goes for post-Prohibition “speakeasies”. That’s not to say I avoid such establishments altogether, especially when a so-called speakeasy like Blind Tiger has a reputation for serving up one of the better burgers in the city.
The 8-ounce BT Burger (K14,000) comes with a choice between five cheeses, five toppings and seven sauces. I like this approach: Rather than slogging through a menu of half-a-dozen fancy burgers, diners here can decide exactly which ingredients they want between the buns. I went with the cheddar cheese, five toppings (bacon, roast peppers, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomatoes) and the Blind Tiger barbecue sauce.
The caramelized-onion-and-barbecue-sauce combo was dangerously delicious, to the point of slightly overwhelming the taste of the burger, which came out closer to well-done than the medium I had requested. Still, the top-sirloin patty maintained a desirable degree of juiciness that was easily sponged up by the supple yet stalwart bun. The main casualty of this deluge of delectability was the disappointingly spare portion of bacon, which was all but undetectable on the tongue.
As a bonus, the BT burger taste explosion was significantly enhanced by the toothsome fresh-cut garlic-and-sea-salt fries served on the side, a treat so addictive they should be prohibited by law. – Douglas Long
93/95 Seikkantha Road (lower block), Kyauktada township
AJs Bar & Grill
The red neon sign hanging over the sidewalk caught my eye. Intrigued, I entered the Queen’s Park Hotel and headed upstairs to see what AJs was all about. After a little less than an hour in the near empty bar, I emerged deeply satiated and convinced that the burger scene in Yangon had a new star in town. With a perfect 80/20 lean-to-fat ratio and a handful of perfectly seasoned fries, I could have believed I was in Texas for a moment. Get in while this place is still relatively unknown, but be warned – if you’re not used to full and fatty beef, as I was after almost a year in-country, you may feel a little queasy the next day. The AJ’s signature burger is not for dilettantes. – RJ Vogt
AJs Bar & Grill
132 Bo Myat Htun Street (at Anawratha Road), Botatahtaung township
I half-suspect this place is a loss leader to lure people into living in the attached hotel. How else to explain well-made Western dishes at such incredible prices?
On the burger front, John Dee’s offers 10 options – all with choice of fries, onion rings, salad, or coleslaw – from your basic quarter-pounder beef’n’bun (just K2000!) to fancier constructions like Cajun, “Route 66” (double beef), Blue Cheese, even sliders. The priciest tops out at just K4500 (!!). Plus the menu boasts meat that’s ground daily, sauces and buns made in-house, and no additives or MSG in anything.
Sounds too good to be true? Well, the proof is in the patty: My “Butterfly” (bacon, cheese, onion, mushrooms; K3500) came dressed with lettuce, tomato, mayo and, on the side, a slice of dill pickle long enough to measure things with. The ingredients tasted farm-fresh, it’s cheaper than fast food, and it’s two to three times as big. I’m not quite prepared to crown it Yangon’s best – I’m going to eat two or three more first, just to make sure – but there’s no question it’s our best-value winner. – Wade Guyitt
Golden Butterfly Hotel
12 Ko Min Ko Chin Road, Bahan township
Port Autonomy’s verdant hilltop location just off Kabar Aye Pagoda Road is one of the finest locations in Yangon for whiling away an edenic Sunday afternoon enjoying the weather, eating great food and being tempted by bottomless devil’s-water cocktails.
As you peruse the menu, might I suggest that the committed meatarians among you skip the fish tacos and buffalo chicken, and go straight for the PA Burger (K16,000). Elegant in its simplicity, the PA is the closest thing to a classic hamburger available in Yangon.
They say there are seven levels to heaven, and they can all be found in layers on the PA Burger: the toasted bun; the melted cheddar cheese; the fresh lettuce, tomato and onion; the abundant pickles; and of course the star of the show, the house-ground Australian beef brisket patty. With these basic ingredients striking just the right balance of flavours, you can savour the essence of the high-quality beef while still parsing the individual components.
For an extra K2000 you can take one step beyond heaven and add bacon. I strongly suggest springing for the bacon: There’s lots of it, and it’s sizzled to perfection. One bite and you’ve found your way to paradise. – Douglas Long
22 Kabar Aye Pagoda Road, Bahan township
Before Sakura Residence started advertising its Thingyan sale (don’t get excited, you missed it), its billboard hyped Cafe Thiripyitsaya with a picture of a hamburger so big it was practically spherical. This, I thought, is a place that stands behind its burgers – literally. I can’t prove now that the sign claimed the “best burger in Yangon”, but the Facebook page still does. Them’s fightin’ words: Let’s eat.
First off, if you like everything about burgers except the burger, you’re in luck: Options (K4500-8000) include fish, chicken, red bean and mushroom, and tonkatsu (Japanese breaded pork cutlet). I mulled the double cheeseburger and the “Mega Beef Burger” (with fried egg, always welcome), but for testing purposes opted for a classic Smoked Bacon and Cheeseburger (K7000). Sheltered courtyard air, monsoon spattering the pool while monsoon is still novel – what could be better?
Well, the burger could have been. Coming with fries and a small salad – I hereby dub these “edge salads”; they aren’t “sides” until they merit their own plate – the burger would admittedly fill one of those “man I could go for a burger” cravings. My first impression was saltiness, which boosted flavor but then made everything taste the same; and while the patty was thick and generous, the cheese was a processed slice, which is a no-go. By the end, I had enjoyed myself, but didn’t feel good about it.
I’d recommend the burger here if, well, you’re already here, or else if you’re passing by with a hankering. It tasted like a lunch burger, not a dinner burger – for Yangon’s best the quest leads ever onward. – Wade Guyitt
Sakura Residence, 9 Inya Road, Kamaryut township
Savoy’s burgers get high praise so it was with mounting concern that I scanned their menu without finding one listed. “Abort! abort!” I thought (proving, if there were ever doubt, how unfit I am for undercover journalism). That’s when my server brought over the other menu, the all-burger menu. This listed a full seven offerings, and was less a menu than a plaque, as if it were an honor just to be reading the descriptions.
Prices range from US$15 for a veggie version to $19 for the “Oceans Three” (salmon, scallops, prawns). In between are those with 180 grams of Angus dressed up for various costume parties: “The Greek” (feta, tatziki, olives), “The Mexican” (chilli con carne, jalapenos, salsa), “The New Yorker” (crispy mac and cheese, plus bacon), etc. All come with fries, wedges or salad. The menu also alleged 1 free bottle of Tuborg, though it was neither mentioned nor brought out with my lunchtime order.
On first bite, Savoy lives up to its reputation as a title-contender. The patty was nicely cooked to my specification, the generous slab of melted cheddar was the real deal, and even my NYer’s mac and cheese, while not strictly necessary, proved a fun diversion without becoming a distraction. However, structural issues emerged. MT’s 2004 burger round-up says, “In-depth analysis points to the abundance of mayo and its lubricating properties as the main culprit in the cosmetic degeneration of the burger,” and the same happened here: Putting mayo on the very bottom a very absorbent bun led to a soon-soppy mess that not even eating it upside down could save. – Wade Guyitt
129 Dhammazedi Road (at Inya), Kamaryut township
Sharky’s is an institution, I get it. They have it all: great quality cheese and meats, delicious coffee and ice cream so milky it’s hard to imagine eating anything out of the City Express freezer. It was surprising, then, to find the Sharky’s burger left plenty to be desired. It arrived on a handsome wooden platter adorned with potato wedges, but I was alarmed to find the burger had been pre-quartered. What am I, a child who can’t handle a burger in my own two hands? Never trust a pre-cut burger, that’s what my grandma used to say.
The meat patty – gamey and thin – was far below the quality of the Sharky’s brand, and the bread – dense and chewy – featured too prominently for the accoutrements in between. The atmosphere is ideal for an old-fashioned, American burger chowdown, but the price and taste miss the mark. Get a better, cheaper burger around the corner at Harley’s, and save your Sharky’s savings jar for the gelato and espresso. – RJ Vogt
81 Pansodan Road (lower middle block), Kyauktada township
Union Bar & Grill
In addition to sleek décor and playful cocktails, the newly revamped Union Bar on Strand Road is also dishing up a range of new burgers, and they’re well worth a stop. The “Union Burger” boasts one of the seasoned and flavorful patties in town: Beef is ground in-house with onion, herbs, and plenty of fat, while at 5oz, it’s perfectly in the “just-too-big-to-wedge-into-my-mouth” range. It’s piled with crisp, thick slices of tomato, lettuce, onion, and cheese – no sad limpid vegetables here – and served with a small scoop of pulled pork and superbly crisp fries (pro tip: pair it with the steak sauce). It’ll set you back K16,000, which is no pocket change for a lunch, but you won’t find a better-executed classic burger. Alternatively, up your budget for one of their 12 other burgers, including variations made with brisket and Wagyu beef from Australia, but be prepared – the latter will set you back K24,500. – Eli Meixler
Union Bar & Grill
42 Strand Road (at 42nd Street), Botahtaung township