Thursday, January 30, 2014

Dining in Mandalay

There's plenty of good food to be found in Mandalay, served in comfortable surroundings.  And you can't beat the prices.  Here are some recommendations if you're coming to town.

Local Tea Houses:  there are open air restaurants everywhere.  There's usually a TV playing and lots of men.  It is not typical for Myanmar women to go out to tea houses.  Don't be intimidated by that.  I've gone to tea houses with a Myanmar man and with a Myanmar woman and never felt uncomfortable.  You'll be noticed, for sure, but foreigners get noticed just going to the grocery store.

Prices at the tea houses are unbelievably low.  But staff rarely speaks English.  There's usually someone, though, willing to help you order.  I'm fond of the "platah".  I put that in quotes because I spelled it the way it sounds, not the way it's spelled.  I like mine with an egg cooked in and topped with garbanzo beans.  Price?  $.15.  You can also get them "sweet" with bananas and sugar sprinkled on top.  Yum.  Shan noodles are also awesome.  As with most Myanmar meals, when you ask for noodles you also get soup, vegetables and sauces.  Price is less than $1 for a meal.

My favorite tea house is on 74 between 27-28.  The food is good, cheap and served quickly.  Staff is friendly and the tea is hot and free.  Because of Mandalay's heat and dust, I prefer to get my food to go.

Bistro Mandalay:  For upscale dining, I prefer Bistro Mandalay.  I eat there about once a week.  The chef was trained by an Italian chef in Singapore.  They have the best burger in Mandalay (most are deep fried, yuck!) according to AIS teachers, myself included.

They have an eclectic menu ranging from tapas to local food.  Their pizza has a thin crust and is delicious.  I also like the salad and usually debate between the tomato/mozzarella with balsamic vinegar and the orange, avocado and feta salad.

My menu favorites are the steak, lamb medallions and pasta carbonara.  Be warned - it's local meat so a bit on the tough side, but delicious.  I also like the drinks - the Long Island Iced Tea is my favorite, even though the just increased the drink price from 3500K to 4500K.  That's $3.50 - $4.50.  Pizza is about $9, the lamb are steak are each $5 and the pasta is $3.  Salads range from $3.50 to $4.00

The only downside to this quiet, small air conditioned restaurant is that there is one guy cooking.  The plates come out one at a time so if you're with a large group it can take a long time for everyone to get their food.

Bistro is on 74 between 26-27.  Open from 7 am, 7 days a week, they have free WIFI.

Central Park is a small, outdoor, casual place with good food.  They have sandwiches, pizza and a lot of foreigners.  The owner, Wilbur, used to work at AIS and caters to us expats.  He's been known to make flour tortillas when requested in advance.  The atmosphere is very nice and it's a great place to hang out and have a good burger.  On 27, near 73-74.

Cafe City  This place has an American diner theme and free WIFI.  The menu is similar to Bistro Mandalay and the food is good.  It's popular with tourists and wealthy Myanmar locals.  My favorite menu item is the honey grilled prawns (about $8).  Service is friendly and fast (by Myanmar standards).  If I want to chat with one of my students while I have dinner, this is where I go.  One night, I complimented a Myanmar mom on her beautiful baby.  She handed over the baby and left her with me for an hour.

Sedona Hotel  I haven't eaten there, but I've heard they have great buffets at both brunch and dinner.  Having worked in Las Vegas I'm a buffet snob so haven't been tempted.  Plus, for $16 I expect a foot rub and complimentary cocktails.  I'm unwilling to pay tourist prices when I can get great food elsewhere.

Golden Duck  Popular with tour groups, this place is large and famous for it's duck.  They also charge tourist prices but three of us had dinner there one evening - a whole roasted duck and several side dishes along with a couple of beers for less than $25.  Not much on atmosphere but the food was good.  And, because of all the tourists, they speak Chinese.

Restaurants at U Bein Bridge  I spent a lovely rainy afternoon enjoying the view and snacks for sale at one of the many restaurants all connected on the lake.  We had a plate of small fried fish (which reminded me of smelt along with some crab and shrimp.  Cheap, great view, friendly staff who don't speak English but will happily let you look at what food they have on offer to help you decide what to order.  Snacks, view, cold Myanmar beer.  What's not to love?

All this typing about food has made me hungry.  I'll add more later.

Photos of My Life In Mandalay

I love holidays.  The other teachers are off gallivanting so I'm taking advantage of the faster (although still slow) internet to post some recent photos.  Here are some scenes from my daily life...

When five thrifty teachers need a taxi to go out to dinner on a Friday night, do they spring for two cars?  No, they put Sherri in the luggage area.  As she said "Please, I was in the Peace Corps.  This is nothing."  She's RPCV Thailand.  Also teaching at AIS, RPCVs from Ukraine, Romania, El Salvador, Ecuador, Vanuatu, Philippines and, of course, Samoa.

One of the herd of water buffalo next to my apartment.

I was sitting in a taxi a block from my apartment.  This was my view of the cows strolling by.

Another beautiful sunrise - my view from my classroom.  That's not fog, though, it's dust hanging in the air.

Cows on the move.  This is the road in front of my apartment.

We made dragons yesterday for Chinese New Year.  Yes, I realize it's the Year of the Horse, but dragons are more fun.

This is my buddy Jack.  Please note he's wearing two sweaters.  It was over 90 degrees outside.

We took our dragons down to wish the school Director and admin staff Happy New Year.  The kids are wearing their PE uniforms.

The red envelope that held my "lucky" money.  Happy New Year!

Indian Myanmar Friendship Concert

I got a printed invitation to a concert yesterday.  The "Friendship" concert was last night - to celebrate the friendship of the armies of Myanmar and India.  It was at the National Theatre not far from the school.  The Indian military band performed.

It was very not-American.  They decided that morning to have the concert. And announced that at the event.  I just thought my invitation was an afterthought, but no, that's how we roll in Myanmar.   It was impressive that they pulled everything together so quickly - printed invitations, engraved gifts for dignitaries, the largest flower arrangement I've ever seen in my life for the band, a pretty good crowd, tv coverage.

The invitation was hand-delivered to my classroom.

They took photos throughout the entire concert.

I kind of expected the military band to be in uniform.  

The music was a mix of Indian and Myanmar hits along with Western hits - like Auld Lang Syne.  Fitting, I guess since it was the Chinese New Year's Eve.

I arrived 15 minutes early.  The concert started 20 minutes late.  We were on Indian/Myanmar time.  The National Theatre was like the rest of Mandalay - beautiful wood carvings around the stage and painted, dirty floors.  Luckily the seats were very comfortable.  No one else seemed bothered by the swarms of mosquitoes but I found them off-putting, especially after I swallowed one.  Unfortunately, that happened just before the guy with the TV camera decided to do a close up of me.  For several minutes.  Riveting television, watching the only white woman in the joint try to look pleasant and interested while trying not to choke after inhaling a bug.  If you're in India or Myanmar, be sure to tune in the news to see me.

Got to chat with the Indian Ambassador and the top Indian military guy in Myanmar after the concert.  I'd gone in the door where the taxi dropped me off.  I left the same way.  Seems that was the VIP door.  The Indian VIPs had just said goodbye to the Myanmar top dogs, who were the highest ranking military and government officials in Mandalay.  Who were mostly wearing Members Only jackets, by the way.  That seems to be the style here with the wealthy elite.

All in all it was an enjoyable and interesting night.  Being culturally insensitive, I was laughing inside about some of the event because it wasn't done the way this type of event would have been done in the US but it gave me some real insights into Myanmar.  The only drawback, aside from the mosquitoes?  I'm a bit concerned with the number of still photos and videos a couple of the Myanmar military guys were taking of me.  A small reminder that I'm no longer living in "the land of the free".  Then again, the same guys were taking a lot of pictures of the Myanmar major general who was there.  Hopefully, I'll just end up in someone's scrapbook.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Why Live in a Developing Country Thousands of Miles From Home?

I wish the internet was fast enough today to post some photos.  But it's not and that's one of the disadvantages of life in Mandalay.  It's not a lovely city in many ways.

It is dusty, dirty, and architecturally mixed and unlovely.  There are mansions next to shacks.  And everywhere, there is traffic.  People on bicycles, cars, trucks, motorbikes, pedicabs, vendors pushing carts and the occasional horse or cow.  There are truly no traffic rules that are followed, which makes walking and driving dangerous.

The electricity goes out frequently and can't be predicted.  Luckily at my school/apartment, the generator kicks on within five minutes.  If you're in a restaurant, they usually have generators but they tend to be loud and emit fumes, which tends to take away from an enjoyable dining experience.

The weather ranges from chilly to blazing hot.  Stifling heat even in the dead of night for months on end.  Torrential rains that turn streets and walkways to mud.  And have I mentioned that Myanmar has more venomous snakes than any other country in the world?  Oh, and the mosquitoes and dengue fever?  There's also the poor health care and extreme poverty.  And the lack of western food items and few entertainment options.

My salary is very low.  I'm so far from home.  Why do I do it?  I've been thinking about that.  Perhaps I'm a masochist?  No, I just have a short attention span.  I love change and hate routine.  Here are some of the reasons I live here:

The people.  By and large they are exceptionally friendly, honest and helpful.  I love that usually when I buy something at the outdoor market, the vendors will toss in an extra handful of something as a gift.  I love that if a local who speaks English sees me struggling to communicate, they'll stop what they're doing and come to translate.  I love that consistently, when I'm in a vehicle driving along or sitting at a light, if I make eye contact with someone they smile and wave.  About 95% of the time.

I love that every time I leave the school compound I don't know quite what to expect.  Every single time something out of the ordinary happens.  Nothing huge, usually, but something unexpected.  Coming back from dinner one evening last week, for example, the cows were strolling home down the small road which leads to the school.  The driver stopped the car and we waited patiently as the cows walked by.  One tripped and fell sideways into the side of the car.  No harm done to cow or car.  But an interesting way to end an evening out.

I love exploring the markets and grocery stores.  My goal is to try a new beverage and food each week.  With the food items, I don't know most of the time what I'm eating.  I also don't like it much of the time.  But I've found some real winners so it makes it worthwhile.  The drinks have been interesting.  The can of bird's nest with aloe drink tasted very much like root beer.  The small bottle which the store had labeled "Chinese Champagne" was nothing like Champagne.  It was clear, flat and tasted like a moonshiner decided to flavor his homebrew with a little durian.  It was strong.  It was horrible.

I love the prices here.  After two years in Samoa I was shocked about how high food prices had soared in the US in my absence.  It's going to be tough to go back now after living in a place where you can get a meal for 15 cents.  My favorite upscale restaurant currently, Bistro Mandalay, has delicious food and great prices.  I recently had a caprese salad, lamb entree and two cocktails.  Total price?  Less than $15.

I love that I have creature comforts.  Samoa is beautiful and the people lovely but I hated the heat, mosquitoes and showering in cold water.   Here, I have all the comforts of the US.  Hot water, air con and most foods that I'm used to in America.

I love that when people are together they are not texting or talking on their cell phones.  When I arrived home from Samoa in November, 2012, I had lunch with 3 dear friends.  At one point all three were either texting or talking on their phones.  Here, phones are too expensive for most people.  So they actually engage with the people they are with.

I love teaching Myanmar kids.  Like Samoan kids, they love attention and playing games.  They get so excited about small things.  They are not jaded.  They are generous and clever.  They work hard.  They drive me crazy.  I love them.

I feel so lucky to be living in an "exotic" location.  Life is easy but interesting.  I work with people who have traveled the world.  I work with people from diverse cultures, languages and races.  It is interesting.  It is stimulating.  It is not boring.

I love my life in Mandalay.


There's a long weekend coming up to celebrate Chinese New Year.  Hopefully then I'll have time to update the blog but for now, here are some random observations:

Cashiers in America have a cash drawer that is neatly divided into 1's, 5's, 10's, 20's and change.  Plus usually a place for the big bills.  Not in Mandalay.  They have a drawer where they just toss money and dig around for change as needed.  Reminds me a lot of my wallet.

Witnessed a traffic accident last week.  We were on our way home from grocery shopping, driving down 35, one of the main streets.  It's four lanes, 2 each way.  We were in the left lane, heading east.  A motorbike with a man driving and a woman riding sidesaddle wanted to turn left so they did a typical maneuver.  Since there was oncoming traffic, they just headed up the lane going the wrong way, waiting for the next lane to clear.  If I were on Judge Judy I'd move little cars and motorbikes around to demonstrate.  Bottom line, somebody going the correct direction was in their way, they tried to veer left but it was too late.  All three from both bikes went flying.  Far too typical.  We didn't even slow down.

It hasn't rained in a couple of months.  Everything is covered in dust.   I have bronchitis and my asthma is acting up.  I spent 30 minutes at the hospital seeing an internist.  Paid $14.50 for the doctor visit and three prescriptions.  While I was paying my bill, a doctor came over to offer his help, since most staff don't speak English.  He snatched up my records, which showed my age.  "You don't look nearly that old.  And you're lovely."  He told me he used to live in Boston.  I told him I have friends there.  Then I coughed up a lung and went to get my prescriptions.

On the way to the hospital to see the doctor yesterday we were stopped at a traffic light (one of the few).  My window was down and a motorbike pulled up next to me.  A young man was driving, with two young women passengers.  We were about 12 inches apart.  I smiled.  They smiled (through their cloth masks).  I said "Hi!".  The girl in the back pulled down her mask and said "Hi!".  Then the girl in the middle followed suit.  Then the driver pulled off his mask and said "Hello!  How are you?"  "Well, thank you, and you?"  The light changed, they all nodded enthusiastically, put their masks back in place and turned left, away from me.  I love those moments.  They happen every single time I drive anywhere in Mandalay.  I'm so, so lucky to be here when locals are still pleased to see foreigners and aren't sick of rude tourists.

I still smile when I turn my lamp on in the morning instead of a fluorescent light.  And tonight, getting home after a very long day, I realized I could turn on my tv to listen to it while I put away groceries.  I took way too much for granted when I lived in the US.

Tomorrow after school is cooking club for 11 of my first graders and 1 3rd grade brother. We're making deviled eggs and ham sandwiches.  I'm bringing my mustard and sweet relish, both purchased in Bangkok.  I hate to share but can't wait to see the look on their faces when they taste mustard for the first time.  I'll have my camera.

The school is having a 4 week eating competition.  When it was announced, I was so excited.  I told everyone I could take the "how many cheese enchiladas can you eat in 5 minutes" competition.  Then they told me it was for healthy eating.  What kind of fun is that?  I've been encouraging my kids to eat carrot sticks and fruit during our afternoon snack time instead of chips and cake.  Today, one girl came in and announced she ate a carrot.  "A whole carrot?"  "No, a little piece of carrot."  "Good for you!"  "Yuk.  I didn't like it."  "Will you try it again tomorrow?"  "Ok."  Love these kids.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Spring Comes Early in Mandalay

When I arrived in July in Mandalay it was hot.  Understand that I'm used to hot.  I grew up in southern Arizona.  I have a home in Florida.  I lived the last two years in the South Pacific.  I'm used to hot.

Making the two minute walk to work left me sweaty.  The classroom, even at 7:00 a.m., was stifling.  Every morning I raced to turn on the air con, which quickly cooled things down.  When the electricity went off, which happens frequently during the dry season, it takes about five minutes for the generator to come on.  The room temp sky rockets during those few minutes.

That experience has made me so grateful for the cool weather we've had the last couple of months.  Chilly at night, warm and sunny during the day.  Perfect weather.  But it's getting warmer.  Once again, sitting in an unairconditioned car is a slightly sweaty experience.

There are some funny moments as the weather heats up.  Because it's chilly in the mornings and the kids are accustomed to very hot temps, they arrive fully bundled up.  Heavy coats, leggings and t-shirts under their uniforms.  They gradually strip down to just uniforms through the day.  Sometimes though, when they complain that it's too hot and beg me to turn on the air conditioning I have to remind them.  "Take your coats off."

It's not bad now but spring has definitely arrived and summer won't be far behind.  Locals have told me April is the worst month of the year.  I'm coming back from a month in the United States on April 4.  Swell.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

More of Mandalay - Zegyo Market

Another day of tourist activities in Mandalay.  This morning was cool and sunny and I headed to Zegyo Market.  I've heard a lot about it.  It's the largest market in Mandalay.  It's been around for years but recently a new building was built (Italian architect) that is 5 stories tall.  It was not at all what I expected.

I expected meat, veg, fruit, etc.  There was none of that.  There was fabric.  Bolts and bolts of fabric.  Floors of it.  Along with cheap kids' toys (which was why I was there) and a variety of food.

The market seems to be more a wholesale operation - selling goods to owners of small neighborhood stores in Mandalay and beyond.  It's worth exploring, though, since I also found a terrific (tiny) shop selling some unique craft items.

This, and the next few photos aren't related to the market, but the pics were on my camera.  Please bear with me.  This is Mexican food I made with all local ingredients.  Score!

My neighbor has a real oven, rather than a toaster oven that only toasts (which is what I was given).  Sugar cookies.

New Year's Eve goodies.  Caviar, smoked oysters, black olives, green olives, cheese, crackers.  Lovely.

And back to the market.  This is a typical aisle.  It is large, tightly packed and not air conditioned.  

There was a TON (actually, probably lots of tons) of fabric.  Most already cut into longyis.  Casual, formal, silk, cotton and wool.  Camo was also available.

After the sensory overload of the first four floors I was surprised to reach the fifth, most deserted, under construction floor.

But this small but nice beauty salon was on that floor.  Along with KBZ Bank branch.

And next to the bank - numerous gem dealers.  Some set, mostly loose.  Did you know that Myanmar mines amazing gems?  The ones in this photo are loose but laid out so you could see how they'd look in a necklace, etc.

The third floor is groceries.  As I walked through the floor my nose was delighted.  I went from soap/shampoo/detergent, to candies and cookies and then on to medicinal herbs and barks.

Valentine's Day is coming and Myanmar is ready.

Huge bags of barks, roots and herbs.

I met a great craft dealer who led me back upstairs to his small shop.  Worth visiting.  

This is a hunting necklace made of bison teeth.

Lots of statues/Gods, each with a story.

I had to have this bronze tail-eating dragon.