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2004 flashback: An American classic, Myanmar style

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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.


Written by latefornowhere

June 15, 2016 at 2:23 am

The quest for Yangon’s best burger

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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

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
Price: K11,500
Rating: 3.5

 Blind Tiger

Blind Tiger

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

Blind Tiger
93/95 Seikkantha Road (lower block), Kyauktada township
Price: K14,000
Rating: 4


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
Price: K10,925
Rating: 3.5 

 John Dee's

John Dee’s

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

John Dee’s
Golden Butterfly Hotel
12 Ko Min Ko Chin Road, Bahan township
Price: K3500
Rating: 4 

 Port Autonomy

Port Autonomy

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

Port Autonomy
22 Kabar Aye Pagoda Road, Bahan township
Price: K16,000
Rating: 5 

 Cafe Thiripyitsaya

Cafe Thiripyitsaya

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

Cafe Thiripyitsaya
Sakura Residence, 9 Inya Road, Kamaryut township
Price: K7000
Rating: 2.5


Savoy Hotel

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

Savoy Hotel
129 Dhammazedi Road (at Inya), Kamaryut township
Price: $17
Rating: 4 



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
Price: K18,000
Rating: 2 


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
Price: K16,000
Rating: 4.5 




The roots of Mount Popa

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The word “popa” is widely believed to be derived from the Pali word for flower, and even the folklore surrounding the mountain acknowledges its fame as a place where many blossoms grow: One story that continues to resonate with spirit worshippers to this day involved a servant who was sent each day by King Anawrahta of Bagan to collect flowers from the forests growing on the volcanic slopes. These forests also support an incredible array of plants that are believed to have medicinal properties. Local villagers collect some of them for direct use, while others are harvested to be made into pills and tablets for commercial sale. Some medicinal roots are even sold by vendors at the base of the stairway leading to the top of nearby Taung Kalat. In any case, officials at Popa Mountain Park distribute only a limited number of permits for plant collection, and 30 rangers patrol the park to keep an eye out for poachers not only of medicinal plants, but also of orchids and firewood.



While it is possible to spot some of these medicinal plants while hiking with a local guide, the best way to understand the sheer diversity is to visit the Popa Mountain Park Forest Department’s Environmental Education Center, which opened in 1993 and is located only 2.5km from Popa Mountain Resort.

Inside the centre are displays of dried, pressed and framed plants, as well as many of the butterflies and birds that populate the park. Outside, the Forest Department maintains a sizable Medicinal Plantation with demonstration plots that are signed for easy identification. Knowledgeable park officials – such as the impressively erudite Khin Myo Htwe, who has participated in exchange programs with botany specialists in Japan and South Korea – clue visitors into the properties of each species of plant, and how to prepare it for maximum effect.




Suffering from lucomederma (white spots on the epidermis)? Pluck a Plumba ginaceae plant from the ground, grind its roots into powder, mix it with the water used to wash rice, and apply the paste to the skin. Flatulence and hypertension got you down? Crush some Tinospora cordifolia into powder and mix it with honey. Gentiana kurroo root for toothaches, powdered Withania somnifera bark mixed with alcohol for menstrual cramps, sap from Tradescentia spathacea leaves for burns and scalds, lime-scented Glycosmic pentaphylla for soothing muscle pain: The list goes on and on.


Another attraction near the resort – just 3km away, and often reached by foot or horseback down a narrow dirt road – is an unusual sandalwood forest. According to Khin Myo Htwe, sandalwood trees are not native to Myanmar, but in 1957 a retired forester brought seeds from India and planted them in the Popa region.

“The trees require 20 years to mature, and unfortunately as soon as the grove reached the two-decade mark, poachers moved in and cut down all the trees,” she explained. The trees were targeted for harvesting and sale because of their many applications: the pith is use for medicine for runny noses and itchy skin, while the large roots systems (which penetrate 50 feet into the ground) are carved into Buddha images for homes and pagodas. Women also use sandalwood as a skin conditioner and perfume, and wood is also quite well known as a form of incense.

But the poaching incident did not mean the end of sandalwood in Myanmar. Miraculously, birds carried leftover seeds from the decimated trees to a nearby area, and around 20 years later another sandalwood grove took root on the slopes of Mount Popa. This is the forest that can be seen today, and its 60 acres are protected inside a walled compound, which is also home to two sambar deer and four golden deer that are allowed to roam free. The golden deer had to be reintroduced from other regions; native to Popa, they had previously been hunted into extinction in the area.

Khin Myo Htwe said that according to a December 2010 census, there are 574 sandalwood trees in the compound. She added, “Because sandalwood is not native to Myanmar, but because the seeds that created this particular grove were carried here by birds, it’s sort of an ‘unnaturally’ natural forest.”

Naturally occurring or not, the trees are thriving in the climate of Mount Popa, and the forest is popular side trip for visitors.


Popa Mountain Resort has also taken advantage of the local climate by establishing its own garden, which, since it was planted in 2009, has supplied most of the fruits and vegetables used in the resort’s restaurant. Hotel operations manager Myint Lwin explained that the area where the garden is located was once full of thick undergrowth and was initially cleared to keep snakes away from the guest rooms.

“But the soil and weather at Popa are particularly good for plant growth, so we had the idea to make a garden in the cleared area,” he said. “In the past we bought our fruits and vegetables from Popa village at the foot of the mountain, but with our garden we now grow most of what we need for the restaurant. We still buy some produce we don’t grow, and we also need to buy extra produce when there are many people visiting the restaurant. But during the low season when we don’t have as many guests, we even sell some of our produce to the village.”


The list of fruits and vegetables grown at the resort is impressive: cauliflower, capsicum, celery leaf, chili, coriander, citron, eggplant, kalian, lemongrass, lime, lemon, mint, green mustard, pennywort, radish, roselle, tomato, jackfruit, papaya, strawberry, banana, lettuce, broccoli and Thai ginger.

The staff also grow both white and red dragon fruit (the latter variety is more tasty and more expensive), with each plant bearing fruit five to nine times a year. When the dragon fruit nears ripeness, it must be covered with plastic to protect it from thieving squirrels (guava gets the same treatment). Rainy season, according to Myint Lwin, is best for growing fruit, while the dry, cool season favours vegetables and flowers.

“We strive to grow our produce as organically as possible. The soil is so rich that we don’t need to add chemical fertiliser unless absolutely necessary, and even then we use only a very minimal amount,” he said. Indeed, the nutrient-rich dirt literally clings to the shoes of anyone who walks around the garden, and when it’s damp, more than a little scraping is required to remove it from the treads of footwear. Because of this, Myint Lwin said the resort plans to establish paved footpaths between the planted plots for the convenience of guests who want to see where the restaurant’s fruits and vegetables are grown.


It’s fascinating to compare the growth of fruits and vegetables on the mountain to the farming traditions on the plains below. Between Popa and Bagan, in Kyaukpadaung township, many locals earn their living farming crops that are more suitable to dry soil, including maize, peanuts, sesame and other beans. Many of these same farms also have their own palm trees, from which sap, or toddy, is harvested by brave individuals who scale rickety bamboo ladders to collect sap-filled ceramic pots. The sweet toddy can be consumed directly, or it can be converted into a bitter juice popular with locals. It is also made into sweet jaggery candy, and some is set aside for fermentation to brew alcoholic toddy wine.

One farm located about halfway between Mount Popa and Bagan has about 80 palm trees, which are harvested twice a day by U Pho Thein. For him, this means an incredible 160 death-defying trips up and down the ladders every day.


While U Pho Thein demonstrated his work by effortlessly scrambling to the top of an 18m palm tree, another farmer, U Chit Oo Maung, explained the process: “The sap is collected twice a day, from 5am to 10am, and again from 2:30pm to 7pm. The harvesting season is from January until the end of September.”

The climber ascends the tree carrying minimal equipment: a knife in a wooden scabbard tucked into his waistband, and two or three small, empty ceramic pots dangling from rope also tied around his waist. When he reaches the top he removes the toddy-filled pots that had been put in place during the previous ascent, and replaces them with the empty pots.

He then uses the knife to slice about 1 inch from a part of the male trees called the htan-nou (toddy udder), a stem enclosing the palm tree’s flower cluster from which the sap drips when freshly cut. Each stem can produce toddy for about three months before being depleted, with the daily yield decreasing over time. A new stem will fill one pot in about 10 hours, while older stems will only partly fill the pot during that time.

The sap is sweet when initially collected and can be consumed in that state. Popular with locals is bitter toddy, which is made by mixing sticky rice power with the sweet sap and then allowing it to sit for one day. Although this drink is non-alcoholic, it is sometimes amusingly referred to as “sky beer”. The truly alcoholic variety is brewed by boiling jaggery candy and water in a pot, mixing in sticky rice powder, allowing the concoction to ferment for two days, and then dripping the liquid into glass bottles.


To make jaggery candy, fresh sweet juice is boiled in a large pan over an open wood fire until it becomes a thick paste. After it cools it is rolled into balls and allowed to dry in the sun. According to U Chit Oo Maung, a farm with 80 trees can produce about 25kg of jaggery each day, and this is usually purchased by brokers who then resell it to hotels, restaurants and other shops.

“But we don’t made much money from jaggery, even though it requires a lot of work to collect the sap and produce the candy,” he said. “That’s why a lot of palm tree climbers would rather find work doing other jobs in cities or even overseas, where they can earn more money.”

The palm trees of the Kyaukpadaung region can be used for much more than collecting toddy, and in fact no part of the tree goes to waste. The fruit of the female tree can be eaten directly, and the juice can be mixed with rice to make a custard-like snack called htan thee moun. The husks of the ripe fruit are usually fed to cows and oxen. The large fronds from the trees are used as roofing material for houses, and the tough frond stalks can be made into everything from baskets and hats, to furniture and yokes for oxen.

The tree trunks, meanwhile, are made into posts for houses, as well as tables and chairs, and the lower portions are even carved out to create big flower pots. The roots are used for firewood, and some portions of the root can even be roasted and eaten. The tree’s seeds are pressed to produce an oil that is used to make soap.

The list goes on, and as long as the diverse plants of Mount Popa and the Bagan region continue to thrive, the locals will be able to benefit from their bounty.

Trishaw gastronomy: A Mandalay teashop foodies tour

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Mandalay’s Nan Shae Market is ground zero for casual snacking.

Before embarking on the half-day Mandalay Teashop Foodies Tour offered by Grasshopper Adventures, my wife and I pondered whether to eat a bit of breakfast at our hotel.

Despite the insistent grumbling in our bellies, we opted against the idea. That decision gave us enough extra time to walk to the tour company’s office on Mya Sandar Lane, where the trip was scheduled to start at 8am.

While most excursions offered by Grasshopper Adventures require clients to utilize their own energy to pedal a bicycle, the foodies tour is conducted via hired trishaw, allowing travelers to relax and enjoy the scenery while someone else supplies the locomotive labor.

As it turned out, skipping breakfast was a smart idea. Nestled in the cozy passenger seats of our respective three-wheeled chariots, we were soon trundling along the shady byways and busy thoroughfares of eastern Mandalay, gobbling our way through an entire day’s worth of food in just a few hours.

Under the direction of our ethnic Kachin guide Zaw La, our first stop was a street-side fried food stall – the kind of place where locals pause on their way to work to pick up plastic bags filled with fried chickpea, lentil and tofu snacks, along with small baggies of tamarind, garlic and chili dipping sauce. We ate a few samples to quell the early-morning emptiness in our stomachs, and then continued along a quiet, leafy backstreet where pink-clad nuns walked in long processions collecting alms.


A fried snack vendor sets up for the morning rush.


Young Buddhist nuns make their alms rounds.

Farther down the street we checked out Nan Oo, a family-run enterprise where noodles are made fresh every day and sold to teashops and individual homes. The products are manufactured in several tasty denominations, including Shan, meeshay, coconut and monti varieties.


Fresh noodles at Nan Oo.

From Nan Oo we followed the noodle-distribution trail by swinging onto busy 19th Street for breakfast at Shwe Latyar mohinga shop, where the locally made noodles are counted among the fresh ingredients. We ordered Mandalay-style mohinga – which is has thinner fish broth, fewer noodles and less oil than the Yangon variety – plus chickpea tempura and green tea.

As we ate, Zaw La filled us in on the history of the Royal Palace, the layout of Mandalay and some important Burmese social customs. He also pointed to a public hall across the street and explained that whenever a marriage ceremony takes place there during one of his tours, he drags his clients along to crash the party and to enjoy the glories of a traditional Myanmar wedding.


Mandalay mohinga for breakfast.

Unfortunately, all was quiet on the matrimonial front on the day we joined the tour, so we plunged straight into the nearby Nan Shae Market, where the first floor is dedicated to clothing and the second floor houses vendors selling fly-magnet meat and a cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables transported daily from Pyin Oo Lwin.

Of course there were also snack vendors galore in the market, and Zaw La urged us to cram some mount sikyaw (sticky rice dough mixed with jaggery) into our already half-full bellies. Crickets were also available for consumption but we decided to skip them, if only because it was too early in the day to indulge in nature’s own beer-matching munchies.


Snacking can be dangerous, so it’s important to wear a helmet at all times.

On our way out of the market we passed a stall selling bananas and coconuts – not for eating, but for making offerings to nat (spirit) shrines. Zaw La was inspired to tell the tale of the mighty blacksmith Maung Tint De, who was murdered by the king of Tagaung and later became the nat Min Mahagiri (Lord of the Great Mountain).


Bananas meant for offering to the spirits.

Off we rolled on our trishaws to another teashop, this one famous for its hearty pauksi (chicken and pork dumplings) and ei kyar kweh (Chinese fried donut sticks). We indulged in both, along with cups of Myanmar’s ubiquitous black tea with condensed milk, a tradition that Zaw La explained came to this country from Portugal via India.


Chicken- and pork-filled dumplings.

The atmosphere at the shop was noisy, with the under-aged waiters sounding like agitated gremlins as they shouted orders at ear-splitting volume. Zaw La said visits to this shop elicited the one question most frequently asked by clients on his tours: Why are these kids working instead of attending school? His ready response provides instructive insight into the debilitating effects of poverty in Myanmar, as well as into the dire state of the country’s educational system.

The next stop was the legendary Ah Yee Taung laphet thoke shop on 26th Street, where different varieties of pickled tealeaf salad can be sampled from a lacquerware dish before ordering a full serving – we chose the tongue-searing “special spicy green tea snap”, which also supplied our umpteenth caffeine kick of the day.


Laphet thoke (pickled tea leaf salad) samples in a lacquerware tray.

With the morning advancing and the temperature rising, we welcomed the ensuing respite at a thirst-slaking roadside juice stand, which boasted a wide range of fresh produce from which to choose. Zaw La urged us to mix the fruit as we desired, but my puritanical upbringing has conditioned me to tend toward the conservative in beverage-related matters so I stuck with pure pineapple juice.


Fresh fruit at a roadside juice stand.

We sat on plastic chairs in the shade of an almond tree and sipped our drinks while chatting and mulling the implications of the words “Zeus, the dope god” – a cryptic message that some enterprising graffiti tagger had painted on the wall of the water purification factory across the street.


Baffling graffiti.

From there it was just a couple of blocks to Shwe Pyi Moe Café on 66th Street. Famous for its Indian chapatti and poori platters, it also serves a menu of Shan favorites.

The café was meant to be the tour-concluding lunch stop, but by this point my wife and I could barely eat another bite. I managed to stuff a bit of chapatti and mutton curry into the last square centimeter of space left in my stomach, and then I waved the white flag of gastronomic capitulation.

And with that, Mandalay Teashop Foodies Tour came to a successful conclusion. But pity the poor trishaw drivers tasked with pedaling our bloated bodies those last few blocks back to where we had started our journey four hours earlier and several kilos lighter.

Travel Information

The Mandalay Teashop Foodies Tour costs US$33 per person and can be booked through Grasshopper Adventures, 4/3 Mya Sandar Lane (between Streets 24th and 25th streets, and 62nd and 63rd streets), Aung Myae Thar Zan township, Mandalay. Telephone: (95) 09-40265-9886; website:


Yangon’s best Kachin food demands overindulgence

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Shredded beef with raw garlic slices and green chilies from Jing Hpaw Myay Kachin restaurant

There are a couple of inexpensive restaurants in Yangon where the food is so good that, despite constant cravings, I can only bring myself to visit once a month. This is because every time I go to these places, I tend to lose all sense of self-control and end up eating way more than I should.

One of these gluttony-inducing establishments is Jing Hpaw Myay, which is easily the best ethnic Kachin restaurant in the city. Located on a side street just off Bargayar Road in Sanchaung township, the venue is small and no-frills – just a dining room with a few tables, plus photographs of Kachin State hanging on the walls – but the atmosphere is friendly and welcoming.

However, it’s the food that is the big draw. The foundation of every meal I eat at Jing Hpaw Myay is shat jam (1600 kyats, or US$1.50), a type of Kachin steamed rice deliciously flavored with chicken, vegetables and special herbs imported from Myanmar’s far north. An order of shat jam could constitute a meal in and of itself, but that wouldn’t be conducive to massive overindulgence, would it?

Inevitably, I also order the steamed fish with banana leaves (1500 kyats), typically made using carp that has been marinated in a pesto-like mixture of acacia leaves, coriander, basil, chili, ginger, garlic, peanut oil and soy bean paste. The fish is then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed for about 20 minutes, resulting in an irresistibly spicy treat.

Beef, in one form or another, also usually figures into my personal Jing Hpaw Myay equation, either dried pounded beef with garlic and ginger (1500 kyats) or shredded beef with raw garlic slices and green chilies (1500 kyats). The latter dish has a much stronger flavor, but the chilies can be left out if you don’t like spicy foods.

Vegetables? The Kachin-style mashed potatoes (2500 kyats) are excellent, but don’t expect fluffy, creamy Western-style potatoes; these are dense, gluey and very filling.


Kachin-style mashed potatoes

For something a bit different, try the tomato and rock ginger salad (2000 kyats), which is extremely tangy, even pleasantly medicinal.

The ginger grows wild on dripping-wet rocks in the forests of Kachin State and is brought down to Yangon specially for the salad. The rock water is said by locals to harbor the perfect pH balance for promoting good health, immunity and longevity – according to Kachin folklore, Queen Victoria, upon hearing about these properties, had the water bottled and sent to her in England.

The drink selection at Jing Hpaw Myay is fairly typical of Yangon restaurants, including soft drinks and beer. But one special treat is Kachin rice wine (1200 kyats), which is pinkish in color and served in bamboo cups. This is not the painfully strong rice wine found in Chinese restaurants or in Shan State; it actually boasts a discernibly pleasing taste, and makes a fine accompaniment to any Kachin meal.


Kachin rice wine

Jing Hpaw Myay, 2B Kyun Taw Street, Sanchaung township, Yangon

Tel 01-524-525, 09-420247034

Food: 10

Drink: 8

Service: 8

Atmosphere: 8

X-factor: 8

Value for money: 10

Score: 8.7

Written by latefornowhere

September 27, 2013 at 2:44 am

Posted in Food, Uncategorized