Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Eat, pray, love Yangon

From devouring its exquisite cuisine to treading the holy grounds of the innumerable pagodas and falling in love with the simplicity and humility, its streets have to offer, here are my top 5 reasons why Yangon should be on your list of places to visit

By Aswathy Kumar

‘What about Macau?’ Bali? Fine at least let’s do Bangkok.’
These were probably the constant suggestions we got from our friends every time we insisted that they visit us in Yangon. You see, there are plenty of perks of living the expatriate life here, but the distance from your loved ones can really take its toll sometimes. Though we have been extremely successful in convincing our family and friends to visit us in our previous two postings, DC & Nairobi, we haven't had much luck when it came to Yangon. 

‘There is nothing to do there.’ 
‘We have heard, that there aren't even any shopping malls or multiplexes,’ our friends would say. 

And I agree… Yangon has no fancy shopping malls like in Bangkok, strong cultural scene like in China nor any family friendly hot-spots like in Singapore. But Yangon is a place like no other and here’s what makes it unique and truly exceptional.

The Shwedagon Pagoda 

The Shwedagon Pagoda

It would be almost wrong or even to an extend inauspicious to talk about Yangon, without mentioning the Shwedagon Pagoda that epitomizes the very warmth and serenity that defines the city of Yangon. Probably the very first thing that you will see as you enter the city, the Shwedagon Pagoda is a shrine you need to see to believe. Towering at a 325 feet, no visit to the city is considered complete without paying your respects here. Housed in a sprawling area, extending up to 114 acres, not only is the Shwedagon a complete architectural wonder, it is also the symbol of hope, divinity and reverence. Watching it glimmer in all its glory during sunrise or sunset, courtesy the 1800 carat diamond orb at the very top, is something beyond spectacular. During sunset you can also marvel at the sight of over 1000’s of oil lamps encircling the pagoda shimmering to life, hear the silent whispers of hundreds of monks chanting or listen to the bustle of devotees as they offer their prayers at the several shrines and temples in gold, housed all around its premises. 

The Market Scene

Trying on a longyi at Bogyoke
Agreed Yangon definitely lacks glitzy shopping malls and finding your favorite brands here can almost be next to impossible. As expats, we even struggle with finding basic stuff like socks, shoes or decent clothes for our little ones, often making us run to nearby Bangkok to fulfill all our shopping needs. But that being said, Yangon’s markets are truly a class apart. Take the famous Bogyoke market. Visiting this market is almost like exploring a 
hidden treasure chest, offering a new surprise every time you dig a little deeper. I still remember the first time I visited Bogyoke. It reminded me of the local markets I had explored back home in Delhi… though a stroll around quickly ensured that the riches that adorned its streets was something I had never experienced before in any part of the world.
Find stones in every possible color
 and value at Bogyoke
Sparkly jewels in possibly every color lay scattered all over the little glass cases in the innumerable shops aligning every nook and corner of the market. I had carried $100 with me, thinking it was way sufficient to return with a bag-load of goodies. Little did I know that, these sparkly stones that lay around in these unguarded unimpressive cases where in fact real precious stones, some costing even upto a $60,000.
From blue sapphires to pigeon blood rubies to amethyst, blue topaz, citron, garnet to what not; glitterred in the dull orange light. Forget jewels and semi precious stones, there is a lot the market has to offer if you are on a budget and looking for some retail therapy at a lot less, like hand woven longyis, accessories, colorful flip flops, paintings by local artists, wood carvings, exquisite lacquerware, silverware and religious artifacts to name just a few. 

To also experience Yangon in its true self and understand more about how the locals live, head out to the various wet markets like the ones in China town or the popular Thiri Minglar Zei. Witness a burst of colors as you see hoards and hoards of vegetables, fruits and flowers being sold in plenty at these local markets. What I call, Yangon’s own version of a farmer’s market, here you can find fresh produce for as cheap as 300-1000Kyat. Believe it or not a whole bunch of orchids cost a mere 3000Kyat (Less than $3) and who wouldn’t love a brilliant bargain?


When I was in DC, my idea of the Burmese cuisine would begin and end with Khow Suey (Curried egg noodles in coconut milk). One visit to the innumerable local tea shops and road-side restaurants in Yangon, proved how ignorant I had been all these years. 
When it comes to Burmese food, the choices are simply unlimited comprising a large number of noodle based dishes like the famous breakfast dish of rice noodles in a fish based soup and topped with fried fritters called the Mohinga, Kyah oh, vermicelli noodles in a pork based soup; salads dishes like the popular pickled tea leaf salad, Lahpet and Htamin thoke, a popular rice salad with tomato puree, potato and dried shrimp to several Chinese influenced dishes like the steamed pork buns or Pauk see, Htamin gyaw (Fried rice with egg) and Kaw yay khauk sw√® (curried noodles with duck or pork and eggs) and Indian-inspired dishes like the palatas (similar to our layered paratha) and Dan bauk (biryani). 

Though there is new restaurant cropping up in the city every week offering a variety of international cuisine ranging from Mexican, Indian to Thai, Italian and French, to experience the real flavor of Yangon, head to these tiny tea shops embellished by their neatly aligned colorful miniature plastic chairs selling chai, fried local savories and dishes. For a complete Myanmar barbecue & beer experience, you can also head to the famous 19th street aka China town where you can see glass cabinets displaying a variety of fish, meats and veggies in skewers. A glass of chilled local Myanmar beer and you are ready to rock the night, Yangon style

BBQ at China Town


…one of the many reasons, I fell head over heels in love with this city. Though I loved DC and truly cherish the friendships I made during my stay there, I wont be lying if I said that I was grateful to be finally free from the suited bureaucrats I encountered everyday in the metro, their faces permanently glued to their iPhones, appointment-only playdates and the oh-so-artificial hellos and greetings in the elevators. 

Friendly, enchanting and always smiling

Extremely friendly, helpful and enchanting, people in Yangon always have a smile on their thanaka smeared faces, that can almost instantly relax anyone. And what’s more… they love taking pictures, so click away without having to worry that someone may call the cops. Go to any supermarket with a toddler and they are certain to fuss all over your little one and may even offer to baby sit while you shopped around.

Always eager to help, I still remember the time I tripped on one of my market trips. A crowd had gathered almost instantly, and unlike in India where they would just stand around and enjoy the show or like in DC, where they would simply carry on with their affairs as if you were invisible, here each one of them were seriously concerned about my injury. While one boy ran and came back with a traditional ointment for my twisted angle, another grabbed a seat for me to rest and a third guy, quickly returned with a cold coffee from a nearby cafe. 

That’s Yangon for you. Okay, maybe they dont speak a word of English or barely understand you…and maybe even the waiters at restaurants may not have received any formal training in the hospitality industry, but their constant friendly and dazzling smiles are more than enough to brighten up any day. 

Travel back in time

Ever wondered how life would have been in the good old days? Where people had time to sit around in front of little tea shops and discuss the daily news while sipping a cup of hot chai, or splash around in small rain water puddles in the middle of a hot summer afternoon. A time when people where not caught up in some mad rat race and actually had the time to say hello. A time of unreliable wifi connections, zero flyovers and nonexistent skyscrapers. A time when the only way to find out what’s on the menu in a restaurant was by actually going there and not by scrolling through any website. 

If yes, then Yangon is probably your best bet to take you back to the past, where everything was a lot simpler and more beautiful. Travel back in time as you stroll amidst the colonial buildings in downtown Yangon, watch the local men play a game of Chinlon ( a traditional game where you are expected to keep a single rattan ball in the air by using a combination of knees, feet and heads) on an early Monday morning, take a slow ride on the famous circular train to absorb the wondrous sights this charming city has to offer or take a ferry or a trishaw ride to imbibe the true feeling of Yangon, a city that seem to have completely frozen in time. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK PART-2 : Plunging into waterfalls at Litchfield National Park

Romancing the falls at Litchfield National Park

By Aswathy Kumar

At a mere 116 kms from Darwin, many prefer to take a day trip to this picturesque national park in Batchelor, a small town located south of Darwin. But we had done our research and seen some spectacular shots of this sprawling park (extending over 1500 square kms and original home of the Wagait Aboriginal people) and knew instantly that it well deserved more than just a day. From Kakadu, we reached Batchelor around early noon and our first stop was at a nearby convenience store to stock up on some basic supplies like eggs, bread, cereal, some instant noodles and frozen ready-to-eat food packets. There are no fancy restaurants or luxurious hotels in Litchfield and accommodations are minimalistic though comfortable. Since we were a rather spoilt Indian lot and not used to the basic outdoor campsites that were in plenty at Litchfield, we opted for a basic yet fully equipped cabin accommodation, a mere 30 minute drive to the famous park. 

Termite Mounds, Litchfield National Park
As there was nothing too exciting to the rooms and there was no point lounging around; after a quick meal of some instant noodles, we immediately headed out to explore Litchfield, renowned for its tranquil waterfalls, scenic landscapes and romantic picnic spots. Our first stop was the Magnetic and Cathedral Termite Mounds, considered to be one of the most fascinating sights at the park. Here, you can witness over hundreds of perfectly aligned termite mounds, each extending up to almost 2 meters in height. We didn't have to pay any fees to witness this marvel, got to take some fantastic shots and my seven year old had a ball of a time pretending to be an alien in some strange planet. 

Buley Waterhole

The mounds were no doubt anything short of spectacular but nothing would have prepared me for what I was about to experience next. Now many a times especially in some crazy teen movie or chick flicks, have I seen crazy teenagers dive into plunge pools and push each other off from rocky ledges into the crystal waters. Never had I expected 30-something responsible parents like my husband and I or 60-something in-laws to act the same. We arrived at the Bully water-hole, one of the many places you are allowed to take a dip. (Many waterholes are considered unsafe due to crocodile sightings especially during rainy season). Though we had no bathing-suits on and was completely unprepared, it did not stop us from plunging into the blue and experiencing the strong gush of its forceful waters against our skin, push each other off from rocky platforms, all while enjoying the brilliant view of the stoney ledges and plush green forests surrounding the series of cascading water-falls and rock-holes. We were grateful that the campsite offered good toilet facilities and changing rooms to dry ourselves off before walking upstream to a next equally picturesque picnic spot, the Florence Falls.

Florence Falls
Wangi Falls

It was just a 3km walk from the Buley Rockhole to the viewing platform at Florence falls that offered panoramic views of the double falls surrounded by the tranquil monsoon forest. As my in-laws and my daughter decided to stay put and enjoy the view from above, my husband and I slowly made our way down the 160 steps to get up close to the falls. The walk was not only highly romantic, considering we were the only ones there and my husband had out of the blue decided to pull me closer for a quick kiss, we were also lucky to have spotted a wallaby that had stopped by to say hello. 

After a meal of Chicken Schnitzel and fries at the popular Wangi Cafe located beside the famous Wangi Falls, another great location to get some wonderful shots, we headed back to our accommodation. We knew we needed a good night’s sleep that night. After all, our adventure had only just begun…

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


Our Great Australian Outback Extravaganza
By Aswathy Kumar
“South Africa…perfect for wildlife?” 
“How about Europe…so romantic.”
“I think we should do Philippines…heard their beaches are absolutely spectacular.”

It was my mother-in-law’s big 60th and we were finding it hard to choose a destination for our annual family vacation. After all we were a rather extraordinary group with extremely different ideas of what a holiday should be like. There was my mother-in-law a complete, wild life enthusiast, my husband: the adrenaline junkie, my father-in-law, a devout food fanatic, an inquisitive seven year old, my daughter and finally me, a die-hard romantic whose idea of fun was sauntering barefoot on an isolated beach or enjoying a candle-light dinner under a star-studded sky. In short, an interesting mix of people with rather distinct tastes.

“How about Australia then?” Suggested my husband. “It’s pretty massive and I am sure we can find something that each one of us like.” And boy was as he right! Be it getting up, close and personal with the gigantic salt water crocodiles at Kakadu National Park, plunging into the scenic water falls at Litchfield, taking a romantic hike under the rainforest canopy at Daintree, snorkeling with some of the most exotic marine life at The Great Barrier Reef to shop-hopping and experiencing city life at its best in Sydney, this monstrous continent did have it all.

Part 1
Into the wild at Kakadu National Park
Scenic landscapes and wetlands make for spectacular view at Kakadu National Park
The sun had slowly started to set as we arrived at our very first stop, Kakadu National park, a 20,000 square km sprawling park declared a World Heritage Site.  A mere four hour drive from the closest International airport in Darwin, we were almost certain that we had finally arrived in the famous Park when the colorless highways and drive-in restaurants started to give way to scenic landscapes splattered with hues of green, scarlet and tangerine and the shrill sounds of thousands of birds soaring in the evening sky started to echo in the background replacing the annoying sounds of sneering vehicles. Picturesque wetlands, embellished with white and purple lilies, characteristic of Kakadu told us that we were close to our destination. Home to over 2000 species of flora and fauna, I immediately knew that Kakadu was definitely going to be the perfect concoction of wilderness and beauty. 
Most of the wetlands are inhibited by the saltwater and freshwater crocodiles

One of the first things that welcomed us here, were the 'Beware of crocodiles’ and danger signs
that were splattered all across the seemingly harmless wetlands, all deceiving us from the danger that lurked right beneath its calm waters. Northern Australia is home to two species, the estuarine (saltwater) and the freshwater crocodiles that are seen in plenty in this region to the extent that any water body that is not mentioned safe for swimming, is better left untouched.

But then again we had travelled this far and that too with my fauna fanatic mother-in-law, so there was no way we were going to leave without getting a sneak-peek. A quick meal and rest later we were walking on top of a wooden bridge, leading us straight towards the Jim Jim Creek, where we boarded our boat that would take us around the Yellow Water Billabong, probably the best and safest way to get up close to these monstrous beasts and experience wilderness at its very best. The Yellow Water Billabong, Kakadu's most famous wetland  is also the largest in Kakadu and contains extensive wetlands including floodplains, swamps, river channels and a large number of species of birds and animals.

The Yellow Water Billabong

Now I have seen crocodiles in plenty at the zoo and even gotten pretty close to a rather humongous one at Crocosorous Cove, in Darwin. But nothing would have prepared me for what I was about to experience in the next one hour. I still remember the feeling as we spotted our very first crocodile. It was about 4.2 meters and could have been easily mistaken for a floating log. But this one was in no way going to let us pass without letting us know its presence or establish its territory, choosing to move as close as it can get to our boat and slowly cruising along with it. “They like to taunt you and the crocodiles know no fear,” our guide said warning us not to put our heads or hands outside. Apparently they can jump up to a height almost twice its own length and cases of crocodiles attacking humans were definitely not unknown in this wilderness.
With my husband exploring the rocky escarpments at Kakadu 
As our cruise continued, we sat, clad in our plastic ponchos, in a rather  unimpressive boat with strangers, soaking wet as the heavens had decided to open up just then, imbibing the several stories of this original Aboriginal lands, our guide was narrating with much enthusiasm. There was the one of the rainbow serpent, considered to be the protector, source of life and creation among the Aborigines, the original settlers of these lands. They believed it was the rainbow serpent that created the hills, valleys and the rivers along the way it moved. Then there was another and my personal favorite of Ginga or crocodile man who once got badly burnt and jumped into the river to save himself and later changed into the sandstone escarpments seen at Kakadu today. 

The less eerier part of our trip was seeing the innumerable birds that swarmed the water body including large number of magpies, egrets, jacanas, herons and whistling ducks that had gathered around the tributary for our warm welcome. Kakadu hosts almost one-third of the total bird species found in this massive continent, not to forget the 2000 unique species of plants that make up for the fantastic scenery that unfolded in front of us.

Apart from the river cruise, the other best way to truly imbibe the spectacular, that is Kakadu, was to hike up to the various lookouts that offers panoramic view of the heritage site, which is exactly what we did the next day, making our way to the famous Gunwarddehwardde Lookout, where we could catch breathtaking views of Kakadu and the Nourlangie Rock. We were so fascinated by the various Aboriginal tales, we also decided to stop by the local Aboriginal cultural centers displaying rock art dating almost upto 20,000 years old.

Birds at Kakadu National park

Australasian Darter


Rufous Night Heron
Whistling Ducks

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The heart of baking

A Rendezvous with Cavelle Dove, Co-founder of Yangon Bakehouse, a social enterprise aimed at empowering women from disadvantaged backgrounds by equipping them with the necessary life and work skills for a better future

By Aswathy Kumar

Meet San San (name changed to protect identity), a 39 year old mother to a daughter and a son. San San left school following a road accident when she was in Grade 9 and married when she was 24. Things did not go well for San San. Her husband was unreliable and soon left her when her daughter was just 3. Faced with the sole responsibility of providing for her two little ones San San started selling little products on the streets of Yangon. Raising enough money to feed her children were proving to be difficult, forcing San San to start working as a prostitute. 

For Thadar too, life was far from easy. She had to leave school at a very young age to support her family and started working in a shop for a mere $30 a month. Soon, Thadar’s life took a drastic turn when her only support system, her mother was diagnosed with AIDS. Thadar felt alone and devastated. Meeting even the basic needs of her family was becoming impossible.

Today you can see San San and Thadar, clad in crisp white aprons adorned over their black tee with the letters Yangon Bakehouse printed across it. They are amongst those women who have been enrolled under the 11-month apprenticeship at The Yangon Bakehouse, a social enterprise that train women in a food & beverage program giving  them job skills in cold & hot kitchen, bakery and barista. Today they are not only competent bakers, but are confident, wears their uniform with immense pride and hopes to start their own business one day. 

Cavelle Dove, Co-founder, Yangon Bakehouse
 “It all started with a small group of 4 women over a cup of tea, talking about the big changes that were taking place in Myanmar," said Cavelle Dove, co-founder Yangon Bakehouse talking about the story behind the initiative. “We all had one common concern. Will women from the most disadvantaged communities benefit from these changes that were happening around them? That’s how the concept of providing a platform to train these women right at the bottom of the pyramid with the necessary life and job skills emerged,” she said. 

The program has a a strict selection process to ensure that only the most disadvantaged benefit from it, that include women with no education, skill set or family support. “Women who come to our program are usually those who barely have any means to support themselves. This may include garbage pickers, prisoners, orphans or even former sex workers.”

They then undergo a 3 month classroom training where they are taught English, specific to the restaurant business, importance of hygiene, various cooking techniques, proper food storage, recipe reading amongst several others. The women then work 6 months at a training site learning skills in the kitchen and an additional month working at the cafe where they finally get a chance to actually interact with the customers, followed by job placements. “At the Yangon Bakehouse, its just not about mastering the skill of baking a brownie or a banana muffin, it’s about building their confidence and empowering each individual one step at a time, which include helping the women open their own bank accounts to finally writing their own resume and applying for jobs in the hospitality industry, ” said Cavelle.

Talking about their biggest challenges, Cavelle said, “At times we have had women who haven't even tasted or even seen bread and instances at the cafe where someone had ordered a tuna, cheese and chicken sandwich, only to find a layer of each stuffed between two slices of bread. Even sourcing the necessary ingredients could be a challenge. All our product is locally made and often getting them at the right time may not go as smoothly as expected. So the next time you see me at the supermarket with 300 packets of butter, you can guess that our supply of butter for the day hasn't yet arrived,” she joked. 

And the future…

Things are already looking up for the bakehouse with them opening a new outlet on Inya Road and a new cafe at a corporate office. “For a social enterprise like ours, it is very difficult and uncommon to be sustained by just sale and we have been getting immense support from our donors, volunteers, NGO’s and corporate sponsors. But when we think about the future, we definitely hope that atleast by the end of 2016 we will be supported 100 percent from the sale of our products. That’s our vision, our goal and our future.”

(photo credit: Google)

Monday, September 7, 2015

Latest from Travel & Flavors

Please read my article in this month's Travel & Flavors. This time, it's all about Bagan