Friday, December 26, 2014

When Thoughts Become Beautiful Things

On Sunday, December 26, 2004, while much of Asia was reeling from the news and aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, I was busy shopping around Khao San Road, Bangkok's backpacker haven, for the cheapest bus tickets to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, completely oblivious to the mayhem the tsunami had wreaked. 

That night, I was on my way to Chiang Mai in a rickety bus with torn seat covers, open windows, no airconditioning, surrounded by shady looking, mostly hooded and non English-speaking, Thai men. Around midnight, I woke up as the bus rumbled to a halt for a break about an hour east of the border with Myanmar (from hereon Burma, as I like that name better). My cautious solo-woman-backpacker sensibility ensured I stayed put, but I watched with envy as some of my co-passengers stepped out to indulge in street food from a Burmese ‘roti’ seller, selling from a shop counter propped on his bicycle seat.

As I looked on with yearning in the pitch dark, only able to smell the unbelievably fragrant food, I thought of what it might taste like, if it was just plain ‘roti’ – the kind I ate everyday in India – or whether it had a typical Burmese filling, and what that filling might be. I wondered if I’d ever find out – for from where I was then, in my mind, there wasn’t a chance in hell I’d make it any closer to Burma, ever. 

Today, exactly 10 years later, by the calendar, by the clock, on December 26, 2014, by complete coincidence, those fleeting thoughts are about to become something real. I’m about to enter Burma – and hopefully be surrounded by an abundance of Burmese ‘roti’ stalls and everything else that the country has to offer. 

The thought of going has crossed my mind few times in the past 10 years. How enchanting to travel to a country that was mostly off-limits; it had direct flights from only two countries – Tibet and Thailand – at the time. But would I be able to pull this off at home? My mother’s voice reverberated in my head from the time I called from Ladakh just two months ago and told her I was planning to head to Kashmir next. “You are doing no such thing – just pack your bag and come back to Bombay!”

Burma’s 50 year military dictatorship ended just as we returned from our holiday in Cuba in 2011. Spending a few days in a country just emancipated from decades of isolation – it would be the perfect way to relive bits of what I had just experienced in Cuba. Get time warped, all over again. I first suggested it as a potential holiday destination last year, only to end up in exactly the same latitude, but 99 degrees West, to Mexico, instead of 99 degrees East, to Burma.  It's pointless trying to book if you haven't started at least 6 months in advance! 

We’ve lost some time since the country ‘opened’ up - and flights from over 20 countries are now possible to Burma - but everything I’ve learned about it since we booked our holiday has convinced me I’ll still get my fair share of that old world charm. The Whatsapp and Facebook exchanges with a couple of ex colleagues describing the scary ATR flights between Yangon and other parts of the country; the proudly proclaimed lack of basic infrastructure I almost take for granted every minute of my life; the Burmese visa application, which is one of very few in the world that still asks for your father’s name, and the colour of your eyes and of your hair; sub-continental English written like it were from a conversation straight out of Shantaram. Few things could charm me more. 

Though the food is what initially roused my interest in Burma, I know little about what to expect when I go there. Barring a couple of mediocre food (but seemingly authentic cultural) experiences at London’s only Burmese restaurant, Mandalay, and the fact that I grew up eating Burmese khauk swè my mum cooked from a recipe she got from my aunt whose family lived in Burma for many years, I know little about Burmese food. Any Indian friends I’ve told about my travel plans have invariably said Burmese food is very good, though nobody seems to have eaten anything other than khauk swè. So I am undoubtedly going to be eating a lot of khauk swè, but I hope that’s not just it. What I do almost certainly know though is George Orwell was wrong when he described it as ‘what is almost the worst thing in Burma, the filthy, monotonous food’. And if he wasn't, our strategically planned food stops in Hong Kong either side of Burma will more than make up for it.

Some of the things that charm about Burma

The proudly proclaimed lack of infrastructure…
Note: In Myanmar, Internet connections are often slow and sometimes unavailable and international mobile phones do not work. While there is no problem making and receiving international phone calls at all the major hotels, we suggest advising clients to tell families and friends before they leave that communications can be difficult, and so “no news is good news.”

Sub-continental English written like it were from a conversation straight out of Shantaram…

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