Before I start – apologies for any typos, this was written on a bus that didn’t have the smoothest suspension, and the ipad autocorrect tends to go awry with British English.
Mandalay day 3 and it was all about the food, pretty much like every other day, except this time we’d be cooking it courtesy of A Glimpse of Mandalay. There was four of us for the day, an Italian couple, and an English woman, who I think was a retired copper and was definitely guide dog trainer. Her friend had gone off for the day to meditate as she was big on the monk madness so wasn’t joining us. She missed out on a shot of a group of monks crosslegged on top of a minibus in rush hour (not sure of the points score on that, but mega, no doubt).
It was another lovely group (I’ll include my own loveliness in that, obvs). Everyone had travelled a fair bit and the Italians had done trekking in Brazil in jungle and desert, which isn’t anything I’ll want to do anytime soon, but sounded amizzin’.
First stop was Zegyo market, again, to buy the ingredients. No rats this time but definitely naked bibbee birds on a stick kebab styleeee.
Not for us though, thankfully, nor the fish sauce, which after Sai’s explanation about the benefit of worms in the mix, I was wary of getting too close to look at anytime soon. We did however get some 4-angled beans, which was a nice reminder of Nazlina’s class in George Town.
20mins ride away and we were out in the sticks, away from the hustle and bustle of Mandalay, it couldn’t have been more of a contrast. We were alongside a river, surrounded by fields and trees. The only sound was a cockerel giving it large and an occasional moped going by. We were making five dishes in total, which seemed a lot but no one was ‘complaining’ except Karen (Brit), as one dish was vegetable curry as she was more of a meat and potatoes kinda lady. Saying that though she happily tucked into the veg tempura that we made and even said that the veg curry was all right but she wasn’t going to be a convert anytime soon.
The key ingredient to Burmese cooking appears to be the masala mix as everything else going in the pot was standard fare – yer garlic, and yer turmeric, salt and stuff. The masala was only added at the end of the cooking, which was different too.
Everything was pretty straightforward and apart from not cutting the potatoes the right way (which me and Karen both got wrong, which leads me to conclude that there’s a peculiar British way to chop a spud) The chicken curry was left to simmer down as we made pudding – little rice balls in sugar water. These were probably the most disappointing dessert ever. They look like balls of rolled icing sugar, have the consistency of raw dough and taste like raw dough. You boil them till they float, at which point you should really throw them away and get a nice creme brûlée out the fridge but we scooped ours into a brown sugar water and then proceeded to gallantly chew our way through them. Apparently we had to eat them first as otherwise they don’t taste as good if they’re eaten cold later, so fuck knows how they can get any more tasteless.
Back to the mains and we chopped our veggies for the curry, and prepped our green beans for the salad. Francesco was seemingly all about the precision as he’d be carefully and attentively chopping his veg to the correct diameter and length whilst the laydeees were a bit more blasé and were just content to get it done. The rice was simmering and it was all coming together nicely.
Our table was heaving with food, our stomachs were groaning from rice flour dough and the cat had woken up and was whoring for all she was worth for anything off the table that had previously had a pulse.
We gave it our best but we were done in by dessert and pretty soon had to admit defeat and leave over half of the food on the table. The cunning ploy of ensuring a solid layer in our stomachs before the main affair meant we were forced to provide leftovers. They weren’t going to waste, the cooking staff got to have them. A win:win – we got to cook and they got to eat.
We didn’t need to do the washing up, so there was a bonus there I guess, and we then got to have a siesta. I didn’t think I’d sleep being as it was a bamboo floored sleeping space, but I was definitely el sparko for a while, only coming too when I thought I’d maybe be scaring the locals with a view of my pants. I however had the opportunity to do that next, as we were heading out for a bicycle ride around the village.
There was a mix of water buffalo and Chinese buffalo (mechanical ploughs with lawnmower engines on the front) out in the fields preparing the ground for planting. We randomly visited a mushroom farm housed inside a humid woven bamboo barn were hundreds of plastic bags filled with spores and soil waiting to shoot out mushrooms and to clog up the field being with the discarded rubbish.
The area was littered in parts, people seems to not mind washing clothes or bathing amongst plastic rubbish. There was a collective cry of ‘No!!!!’ back at the ranch when we saw one if the staff chucking a plastic bottle of tamarind seed into the river. He just chuckled at us as if we were the mad ones.
Finally we headed up to Yan Kin Hill (no tugging here, it means harmony) to watch another sunset, see a shrine to Buddha when he was a fish and have a monk show us a gold leafed bit of bamboo that was RILLY RILLY important but I’ve no idea why (thus no photo).
In fact we were all chatting about guides and recommendations and email addresses (Marie-Antoinetta had the longest EVA) we collectively missed the sun fade away. My last day in Mandalay over.
Despite thinking I’d never need to eat again I decided I’d have a light meal, and therefore dinner was a treat at Bistro 82. Sea bass with a tea leaf crust and some mash and a purée (both were probably purée but one was definitely spuds), and a decent dessert of a chocolate mousse with poached Asian pear. I was pretty convinced that I wouldn’t be getting anything like that in Hsipaw, and at least I was right in pitching my expectations accordingly.
Next morning I awaited my taxi, not as posh as it sounds, it was a shared taxi of four randoms heading toward Hsipaw and a driver with a car that should be driven on the other side of the road, driving like he was at Le Mans. I bagsied my door side, I was going to be no ‘middle of the back seat Minnie’, I left that to the last person to be picked up, a Chinese lady with as much Burmese as me. On the way out of town I caught sight of a man with a couple of mahoosive baskets, slung either end of a bamboo pole. He was carrying layers of birds, owls (over a dozen), parrots, and a bird of prey tethered on the top. I had a sinking feeling they were going to be joining the rats and the baby birds at market, however I’ve since been told they were probably going to be sold for people to keep them cooped up at home in little cages. It was more then a little sad to see.
The road out of Mandalay was full of heavy goods trucks, and it seemed a major goods artery. The roads were being widened everywhere and at the hills on the way to Pyin U Lwin (an old colonial hill station) was operating one way. As a result cars coming down had handily parked either side of the road this forcing the traffic going up, that had right of way, into a narrow funnel at certain points. At this point on winding roads undertaking lorries seemed the favoured practice, at least we knew our only chance of death was from being crushed by a lorry and not that we’d topple off a mountain edge or be hit by oncoming traffic.
We all arrived to Hsipaw after about 6hrs and me to my hotel, eventually – joys of trusting the internet- booking.com had handily marked the hotel on the main road, and I definitely wasn’t booked in to stay at the Central Market. Still we found it, and my joy was immediately tempered by the room, a damp and musty place that looked as if it’d been subject to a robbery and all the fittings and fixtures were torn off the walls and had not been replaced. This was clearly the cheap room on offer, luckily the other cheap rooms were in a converted traditional house across the way and I snaffled a room there instead. The downside was the very loud middle aged French couple in the room below me (there’s a lot of these slightly grubby, faux hippy, chain smoking wrinkled French couples around in Myanmar -I expect they’ve been hounded out of France for taking elephant print trousers as a serious item of clothing that should not be used as fuel). They had no concept of volume level for a conversation after 11pm, I found that the passive aggressive approach of banging the floor with both feet around about midnight did the trick of them shutting the fuck up.
It was time to do as little as possible for a couple of days – a challenge I can readily accept.