The story of the best meal I had in Yangon

August 12, 2014

Indian food bliss in Yangon.
The sidewalk leading to the Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon was lined with vendors offering up all the essentials. T-shirts, shopping bags, posters, and pinback buttons bearing the likeness of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s living monument to the fight for democracy, were available at a low, low price from any one of them. The street wasn’t bustling with energy but the scene felt chaotic by Myanmar standards, although everything seemed to steadily devolve in the insufferable heat.

Inside the bazaar it was a totally different story. The shaded interior offered a much welcomed respite from the sun, electric fans buzzed out of every other stall and there was an unspoken sense of order prevalent throughout.

A middle aged man approached me as I walked into the market and sparked off what by now had become a familiar exchange.

Mingalaba!

Mingalaba.

Where you from?

America.

Obama!

After a mild back and forth he bluntly told me not to bother shopping at Bogyoke because only foreigners shopped there and that was why there was such a high mark-up on all the merchandise. I would find much better prices at the local market across the street and he would gladly show me the way. He happened to have a shop there, full of quality goods, much better things than I was seeing here and so on. He was very long winded (don’t laugh) and only slightly amusing. I nodded along politely but remained thoroughly uninterested in his sales pitch.

He got the hint.

“Good Luck and take care my friend,” he said as he took off. The most cordial tout I have ever come across left me just as swiftly as he’d come after me.

This was the first time in my short stay in Yangon that I had been approached by touts. After I parted ways with the man, others came after me, albeit sporadically, offering all sorts of products and services. Nothing outrageous like they do in Cambodia where they start off with accommodation, jump to marijuana, hash, heroin, women, etc, etc, with the list getting progressively worse before they leave you alone, but that’s a whole other story. The difference that day was that in Myanmar’s biggest city’s most famous bazaar, I wasn’t being accosted by people from every side, all at once. And they were so polite. I once had my shirt ripped by a group of overzealous vendors fighting over my attention at the Bến Thành Market in Ho Chi Minh City. Having had my share of experiences in bustling places overflowing with frantic peddlers, it was amusing how easy it was to fend them off in Yangon. Most of the time, all it took was a wave of my hand. These are not the droids you are looking for. It was way too easy.

The Bogyoke Market is an elegant market, but in the light of a more modest place like the Luang Prabang Night Bazaar in Laos, that elegance seems contrived. Compared to the overwhelming chaos of the other big markets around the region, like the tangled labyrinth of shops and people that is the Jatujak Market in Bangkok or the hustle and bustle of the Central Market in Phnom Penh, Bogyoke is too clean, too orderly and too easy to navigate not to be an oddity. Despite the ease with which I maneuvered through the building, there were lots of people around. The only place where I witnessed a larger convergence of foreigners in Yangon was at the Shwedagon Paya, although the number of visitors at the market still pale in comparison to those at the massive Buddhist shrine.

The Bogyoke Aung San Market offers a hassle-free experience that seems foreign to the way big bazaars operate in Southeast Asia. The mark-up on merchandise can be easily overlooked by westerners but there’s a reason why locals don’t shop there. Other than the architecture of the building in which it’s located and its conspicuous tidiness, there is nothing special about the place. Nonetheless, it is a destination highlighted by many travel guides, although it could easily be the opposite of a highlight. Something tells me that this will soon be a place where Jedi mind tricks no longer work.

Big markets around Southeast Asia (and some of the small ones too) are experiences all to themselves. You set some time aside, maybe half a day, sometimes a whole weekend, and you take the plunge. You don’t have to have an objective in mind before you dive in. It’s part of the city’s rhythm itself, from Bangkok, to Luang Prabang. Not so much in Yangon.

I didn’t go Bogyoke with the intention of picking up anything in particular but left emptier than I had arrived. I didn’t even take any pictures. My disappointment wasn’t enough to fill the void that I felt walking out. But that turned out to be more than just a metaphorical void, I desperately needed food. To my alarm, I couldn’t find a proper food stall and I felt the heat was slowly cooking every part of me. After a few blocks of erratic movement, I stumbled onto a chair in the warm shade of an Indian restaurant. Semicoherent, I waved a server over and ordered a plate of the best Chicken Biryani ever.


A front-row seat at the coup

August 6, 2014

Ever wondered what it’s like to live through a military coup?

Earlier this year, I posted a few entries about the turmoil going down in Bangkok (1, 2, 3, 4). I was getting ready to move back home and friends and family were starting to have doubts about the likelihood of my return. Things ‘settled down’ after the February elections but everything was not back to normal.

On the morning of Tuesday, May 20th, as I boarded my flight back to the US, I saw the news pop up on my phone. The military had declared martial law. By the time I arrived home some 24 hours later, things seemed very tense.

Every time I tell the story of that fateful day, the one where I boarded my one way trip to freedom, I’ll just do a rundown of the movie Argo, only that it’ll be set in Thailand and it’s starring me. At least that’s what it feels like I’m doing, specially when I include the part with the military truck chasing the plane down the runway, as I look out the window at the frustrated faces of the Thai soldiers trying to stop the 747. Nevermind I always sit on the aisle.

Later that week there would be a full on coup. Lucky for me, I was already half a world away. I didn’t get to live through that mess but a lot of my friends did and one of them wrote an essay that got published in a newspaper here in the States.

It has been about two months since but if you’ve ever wondered what life would be like living abroad during a military takeover, Jamie’s essay encapsulates the atmosphere of the time perfectly. Just keep in mind that Thai coups are a special breed and things would probably turn out differently elsewhere.

Enjoy.


on patterns that never end.

August 5, 2014

One of my favorite things about my brother’s art is his patterns. As a matter of fact, I used one of the first patterns he made way back in the day as wallpaper on this blog, it’s called “October, November, December.” You should see it up on a wall in real life, or you could right click, copy and tile it on your desktop and have your mind blown. He recently held a workshop on pattern making in Palm Springs in Cali.


Peep some of his work.


Luck in the streets of Little India, pt. 2

July 28, 2014

L1001321 by Alexander Zudasov

It was early in the evening in the streets of Georgetown, hot and steamy as ever, with the sun slowly bleeding into the sky and he was finally heading home after having spent a whole day doing things that weren’t putting money in his pocket. Somewhere in the vicinity of Little India he spotted his mark. Normally, he wouldn’t look for targets on empty streets like this but with a terribly slow week on top of an alarmingly scant season, he was keen to jump at slightest opening.

And there it was, opportunity knocking, wearing a tattered beer’s logo on his chest and well-worn traveling pants. Hiding a pair of fancy running shoes under a layer of caked mud, dressed in a halfhearted attempt to imply frugality but too neatly groomed for his own good. A man wandering about aimlessly in a place he did not belong. Even in the fading light of day, it was easy to spot him just by the way he moved. But there was something eerily familiar about this one. He realized that the stranger could have passed for a local had he worn simpler clothes and had more of the local spices permeating his pores. Those foreigners, he thought to himself, they even smell different. He often wondered why they never made an effort to blend in. His friends would always tell him it was lucky for him they didn’t.

Ironically, for one with his particular hustle, he didn’t place much value in luck. He firmly believed that there was a point in everyone’s life after which you made your own. Every event was a turn to be played out in someone’s favor. Some people were completely oblivious to this fact, mostly foreigners and the children of rich folks, those who could not be bothered with small details like worrying about their next meal, or having to sleep in the rain. There were always winners and losers and he had been dealt a rough hand in this game of life, right from the start. He came from the streets and he never had the privilege of leaving things to chance. Every act was a choice and he owned every one of them. As a result, he had mastered the art of making others believe in these fortunes he dispensed while he determined his own fate.

The scent of incense mingled with the thick air as he waited in the middle of the empty intersection. He offered a patient smile to the lonely soul drifting in his direction. Their eyes met and the fortune teller made his move.

“You are a lucky man!”

“Really?!” The stranger exclaimed, slightly taken aback as if the diviner had simply materialized out of thin air.

“You are a lucky man,” he repeated. “Do you know why?”

The fortune teller could already feel the page turning on his monetary misfortunes.

Calmly grinning, the stranger replied, “yes, I know.”

A tinge of alarm crept up his spine to the back of his head following the unexpected response and he was struck by a memory.

He had had a dream, not long ago, where he met a man at a crossroads, and this man led him on a strange path. In the dream, he had been moving about aimlessly from town to town, places he had always known but to which he had never been. Every alley, every edifice, every character in every town, every nook and cranny was as familiar to him as the lines covering the flat of his hand. Then along came this unfamiliar face who led him to unfamiliar places, from that very intersection, wearing that same gentle smile and serene eyes, moving in that unerringly foreign way.

There he stood, confounded by the turn of events. As the stranger walked away, he was reliving an encounter already branded in his memories. He knew the eversion of the man’s next step and the expression on his face. In an instant, he was overwhelmed by a fury of recollections, dreams that foretold a myriad other fates, ungainly riches, conniving deceptions, lifetimes of accomplishments, happiness, hunger, despair, conception and death. He relived them all, sights that could not be unseen, of memories yet to come.

The hustler became aware that his hoax had become real. But fate was not devoid of irony. While the futures of others lay prostrated before him, he was conspicuously missing from this vision. The uncertainty of his own destiny paralyzed him with fear. For the first time in his life he felt lost and darkness shrouded the road ahead.


i love coffee

June 8, 2014

Every now and then you luck out and bump into a beautiful head nodder like this. Get up, get down.

[h/t Postbourgie]


Mandalay

January 30, 2014

I had been roaming the streets of downtown Mandalay for a few hours when I came up on the unmarked area. The Air Asia pick up stop was a dusty, nondescript location, in-between streets. Somewhere near the palace. It was about 7 a.m. and there was a couple attending a fuel stand in the vicinity. They were selling it out of soda bottles.

“Mingalaba,” I said.

They smiled. Their teeth caked in redness, stained from chewing paan, a common narcotic. High on life.

They immediately eased my tension by letting me know I was in the right place. “Bus one,” they pointed right. “Bus two,” they pointed left. “Later,” they waved time along. They offered me a seat.

“Where you from?”

“America,” I smiled back as I fiddled with Betilde’s anis cigarette in my pocket. (Or was it a cigar?) As I pulled it out, I realized I’d broken it in half. Just like the other two before that. Maybe tasting the local product wasn’t meant for me.

It must’ve been the look on my face. The couple offered one from their own stash which was clearly for sale. As he unwrapped it, the man said “gift.”

I smiled again. I lit up.

(I can now attest, with the utmost certainty, that these are not cigars. Then again, ‘just as long as you don’t inhale,’ as Perdorn succinctly noted a few hours prior…)

The couple now asked me to join them for breakfast chapati. Another couple was already at work. I politely declined, having eviscerated a much bigger one on my own earlier that morning.

After they were done with their meal, they offered me another smoke. I declined again feeling overcome by this eerily familiar disdain for the after-taste of tar and tobacco. I felt the urge to flush my mouth with peppermint. Or maybe just a taste of lahpetyei.

I put out what was left of my cigarette. The buses had already arrived and the couple knew it was time for me to go. With the same big smile on their faces they waved me off, “bye, bye!”

“Cezubeh!” I said, as I boarded the bus.


Early voting and rising tensions

January 26, 2014

This pic is making the rounds on the twitterverse in Bangkok. A voter on his way to the polls getting attacked by an anti-government mob. Whether it’s staged or not (people are getting riled up from each and every side about its veracity), you can get a sense of the tension that’s building up in the city. Anti-government demonstrators are indeed blocking some polling stations and people trying to cast their ballots are getting upset.

440,000 out of 2 million people registered for advance voting can’t cast ballots after PDRC obstructed election in BKK & other provinces.

— Sunai (@sunaibkk) January 26, 2014

Even if opposition leaders wish they could say otherwise.

Suthep: We went to protest sites to show our views , not to obstruct election — Lerla (@Lerlaforever) January 26, 2014

Violence is starting to breaking out. One anti-government leader was shot dead just outside a polling station in a suburb of Bangkok and we’re all just waiting to see whether or not the military will get involved.

The Democratic Party sure chose a terrible way to show their angst toward government corruption. There will always be claims of foul play in highly contested high profile elections, but blocking someone from carrying out a right so many around the world have fought so hard to achieve is not the way to go, specially not when the whole world is watching.


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