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I was in Yangon last week, my first time in Myanmar, and I’m already pining to return. (It didn’t hurt that I was staying in this surreal boat hotel, which felt like being left alone on a weird movie set overnight.)
The rate of change in the country is nearly unimaginable. When I arrived, I bought a SIM card for about 10 dollars. While making lunch with chef Thit Htoo a few days later, he told me that just a few years ago, a SIM card could set you back $5,000. Five thousand dollars! Since the country began transitioning away from military rule about five years ago, access to the internet has skyrocketed and prices have plummeted. One Yangon resident told me that a generation had skipped past landlines to go directly to smartphones.
In many ways, these changes have been incredibly positive, and most of the people I spoke with couldn’t say enough about how much the internet was altering daily life for the better. But the rapid embrace of both democracy and global capitalism is also jarring. As one Yangon resident told me, “Capitalism is its own form of oppression.”
And ethnic strife continues to plague the country. I spent one afternoon in a Burmese home, where I was greeted with tea and a traditional dish of laphat, or fermented tea leaves served as a salad. Desmond Tan, owner of the Bay Area’s Burma Superstar restaurant and a Yangon native, introduced me to the farmer and producer responsible for the tea leaves, who operate out of Shan state, where development has been tempered by fighting between paramilitary groups and government forces. The growers are both confident in the region’s progress—improved roads and communication, for example—but see some of their efforts thwarted by the near-constant violence.
It’s a fascinating, if difficult, moment for Myanmar as the country tries to find its political and economic footing while negotiating between its two outsized regional neighbors, India and China.
It was a great trip, filled with new friends and good food. I’m still dreaming of that laphat, and the bowl of Shan noddles I ate one evening with spicy pickled peppers. And I may or may not have tried some betel nut while there, and while chewing on herby wood chunks and producing vast amounts of red saliva might not sound fun, it totally is.
Planning your own trip to Myanmar? Here’s 17 things to know before you go. Don’t miss R&K’s tips on eating well in Yangon. My personal recommendation is to find the nameless tea shop downtown where I ate goat bone curry and hot naan with endless cups of tea spiked with evaporated AND condensed milk. You’ll know you’ve found it when you see this guy making the naan.
Now I’m off to continue recovering from the jet lag that’s been dogging me all week (my 15-hour flight from Hong Kong on Sunday was no joke). That means lots of water, some melatonin, and copious amounts of Netflix in my future. Wish me luck!
That’s it for this week! Next week, R&K’s Alexa van Sickle will be here filling you in all all things Scotland and whisky. In the meantime, keep in touch on Twitter @caraparks. You can see more photos from my trip on Instagram.