Her road to Mandalay

Myanmar (the former Burma) has been much in the news as it struggles to become a democratic country. One of my sisters works there for the American ambassador. The other, Gina Gouveia, visited her recently. Her journey to the fabled city of Mandalay, told in WAG’s February “Celebrating Love” issue, begins in the old capital city of Yangon (Rangoon). – Georgette Gouveia 

Scene: Thanksgiving morning. My sister’s residence in Golden Valley, Yangon Myanmar.

Ten days have passed since my arrival in this developing nation. I send off a text to a friend in the States…”Happy Thanksgiving. Heading to the airport for our trip to Mandalay…who says that?”

Her reply: “No one!”

And so it begins…

YANGON

Eight months into her post with the U.S. State Department supporting its ambassador there, my sister Jana already navigates Rangoon with ease. Referred to by the locals as Yangon, Rangoon is the old capital city of Myanmar (formerly Burma) in which most of the foreign embassies are based. Since my arrival I’ve explored a lot of the city on my own, with the aid of a capable and knowledgeable driver, and am reveling in the immersion in a culture, a world, a people and a geographic and political climate so different from home.

The telltale elements exist, reminding me in some ways of India but not entirely. The influence of nearby Vietnam, Thailand and China are at play, too. I’m in sensory-overload and jet-lagged, but I can’t get enough. I’m scouring guide books and hitting many of the highlights – Shwedagon Pagoda, the oldest, largest and most formidable in its skyline; The National Museum, filled with centuries of history; Bogyoke and Theingyi Zei, two of the city’s largest marketplaces; and destinations off the beaten path such as the Helping Hands community, where locals craft garments and accessories for just above-market price to benefit children and families in disadvantaged communities. I happily leave with a colorful stash of summer garments for the grandchildren.

When my sister is able to join in, it’s mostly for dinners out – a trip to what she calls a “splurge” restaurant – a tried-and-true place from her top 10. In my explorations, I even find places and dishes that need to be added to her list. One standout is the chicken and vegetables steamed in a large banana leaf with pea leaves and chilies (of course) at Shan Yoe Yar, a bustling two-story restaurant with an open kitchen, featuring dishes from Shan State to the north. Like much of Burmese cuisine, it’s got all the elements for an adventurous palate – a perfect melange of flavor and spice with just the right amount of heat and crunch. “I want to eat this every day,” I tell her.

I find myself travelling further downtown just to visit Genius Coffee’s modest café for their single-origin coffee from the Shan Highlands. It is pure liquid gold. Located in a congested commercial section of the city on the fringe of “Little India,” Genius Coffee is where I get my fix (plus four pounds to bring home at 6,600 kyat per pound, or roughly $5. Also to my delight, I discover the local roadside stands selling abundant vegetables, exotic fruits and flowers indigenous to this land. November to February is, after all, Myanmar’s “winter,” meaning that the average daily temperatures peak anywhere from 85 to 90 humid degrees, leading you to wonder what summer could bring. With its cooler evenings, winter comes on the heels of a four-month monsoon season, producing the lush tropical foliage associated with the country. As in much of Asia, nature is adored, akin to worship really, and despite the dusty, dirty roadways, the street animals and the lacking infrastructure affected by violent floods, its beauty pops at every turn this time of the year.

The commercial downtown, scattered with large buildings, is home to classic examples of the original grand British Colonial architecture now in various states of disrepair or, in some cases, happily rejuvenated, as in the case of the recently reopened Strand Hotel, built in 1901. We stop in one evening for cocktails in Sarkies Bar, named for the original owners, a handsome and inviting space where one can imagine the notorious characters who once passed through this storied space. 

For the full story, visit wagmag.com/my-road-through-mandalay/.

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