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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:


Myanmar’s Olympus

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A storm approaches Taungkalat.

When most people hear the word “Popa” they mistakenly think not of the 1509-metre peak of that name but of nearby Taungkalat, a 737-metre plug of volcanic rock nearby which is topped by a Buddhist pagoda complex. This is the main destination for most day-trippers from Bagan, who climb Taungkalat’s steps – said to number 777 – while trying to protect their belongings from being filched by the mischievous resident monkeys that scamper up and down the long stairway. The reward at the top is a spectacular view in all directions.


Mount Popa.

Many ancient folktales surround this region. Taungkalat means “Table Mountain” and was, according to legend, used by alchemists to crush pills. More famously, at the base of Taungkalat is a shrine guarded by two tiger statues. Inside are images of many of Myanmar’s most famous spirits (nats), as well as Indian deities and other supernatural beings. This shrine is an important destination for spirit worshippers from around Myanmar, and Popa is sometimes referred to as the Mount Olympus of Myanmar, based on its status as the center of nat culture in the country.


Banana offerings in the mouth of a tiger guardian at the nat shrine at the base of Taungkalat.

However, these nats are not gods, but rather the spirits or ghosts of people who died in unjust or violent ways. In death they have gained extraordinary powers to grant protection to those who show them the proper respect, but many are also known to harbor foul temperaments and can be quick to curse or harm people who offend them.

The animist practice of worshipping nats predates Buddhism in Myanmar, and there are legends that before the 11th century hundreds of animals were sacrificed as part of spirit rituals at Mount Popa and other sacred sites around the country. However, King Anawrahta, who ruled Bagan from 1044 to 1077 AD, is said to have subsumed nat culture into the sphere of Buddhism, allowing people to make offerings and pray to these spirits as long as they understood that the Buddha was above them all in the order of the universe and celestial realms. As a result, nat shrines can still be seen at many Buddhist pagodas throughout Myanmar.

There are generally considered to be 37 powerful “inner” nats, plus many “outer” spirits from different regions of Myanmar. Although the shrine at the base of Taungkalat contains images of all 37 inner nats as well as numerous others, only four of these spirits actually have their abode at Mount Popa: U Byat Tha, Mai Wunna and the two Mahagiri nats.



U Byat Tha and Mai Wunna

One of the most famous nat legends tells the story of U Byat Tha, who was sent by King Anawrahta to gather flowers from Mount Popa every day. While carrying out this task U Byat Tha fell in love with Mai Wunna, a flower-eating ogress who lived on the mountain. As U Byat Tha started spending more time with Mai Wunna, his deliveries of flowers to the king started occurring later and later in the day. The king must have really relied on his daily floral fix, because for this transgression he ordered U Byat Tha executed.

In the meantime, Mai Wunna gave birth to two sons by U Byat Tha, named Min Gyi and Min Lay. When they grew up they became generals in the service of Anawrahta, but they too were executed by the king, for failing to contribute bricks to the construction of a pagoda in the town of Taungbyone just north of Mandalay. In their deaths they became powerful nats and remain – along with their mother, who is now known as Mother Popa – the cener of worship at Myanmar’s biggest nat festival, held in Taungbyone every August. Mother Popa holds the place of honor at the center of the nat shrine at the base of Taungkalat, flanked by her sons Min Gyi and Min Lay. U Byat Tha is also nearby.



The shrine also houses a statue of Maung Tint De, a blacksmith who died at the hands of the king of Tagaung, a town along the Ayeyarwady River said to be the place where Myanmar culture originated. The king, fearing the blacksmith’s great physical strength, captured Maung Tint De, tied him to a tree and burnt him to death. In protest, the blacksmith’s sister Shwe Na Pae – who happened to be married to the king – also jumped into the fire and died. Their angry spirits subsequently dwelt in the tree, placing curses on any animal or person who came too close. The king eventually had the tree uprooted and thrown into the Ayeyarwady River, on which it was carried downstream.

The king of Bagan at the time, Thelegyang, heard about the tree and had it pulled out of the river when it reached his kingdom. He ordered artisans to carve the wood into the figures of Maung Tint De and Shwe Na Pae, and enshrined them at Mount Popa. Though his sister also became one of the 37 inner nats, it was Maung Tint De who became known as the nat Min Mahagiri (Lord of the Great Mountain), who is worshipped in homes to this day by those who seek his blessing and fear his anger. Because of the manner of his death, he will be upset by offerings of candles, but it is for him that people throughout Myanmar have a tradition of hanging coconuts inside as an offering.