Bob Stannard: The mysterious land of Burma
About eight years ago our son, Wesley, told us about a young woman he had met online and fallen in love with. Her name was May Oo Khaing and she was from Burma; a.k.a. Myanmar. I will admit that I didn't see that coming. Little did we know just how amazing having May Oo in our lives would be.
These two kids now have two kids of their own; Ernest and Ada as well as Vermont's only authentic Burmese restaurant; Moonwink, in Manchester, Vermont. They started the restaurant a little over a year ago and it was an instant hit. And why wouldn't it be? It's a one-of-a-kind restaurant. Where else can you expect to find this cuisine in New England?
It was inevitable that at some point we would all travel together back to May's homeland and meet her extended family. Her mom, Phwar Phwar, had come over a year ago for six months so at least we got to meet one, very important family member. We all left America on Nov. 11 and have been treated to a most incredible adventure. Much like the Dominican Republic, a place we've had the good fortune to visit five times, Burma is not your average vacation spot. If you come here you'd better come prepared for an adventure. In a word Burma is mysterious.
The Burmese culture dates back to 11,000 BCE. By 1,500 BCE these people were melting copper to make bronze and domesticating livestock. They are the first known people to do so. At one time Burma was the most powerful country in the region. They had trading partners throughout Southeast Asia and had become extremely prosperous. They had also survived several attacks including, but not limited to the Mongols, who stayed only one year before retreating.
In 1886 the British arrived. They didn't have a much easier time of conquering Burma than the Mongols. The Brits found themselves under constant attack from a people who were relentless in protecting their way of life. They went about destroying villages and pretty much making a mess out of the country. They left after World War II.
Today Burma is not without strife. It's one of the least developed countries in the world. Driving around one gets the feeling that this place stopped around the 19th century. Although the people are very poor they are also industrious and entrepreneurial. Many families have one breadwinner who is supported by the rest of the family. Family and Buddhism are the glue holding this country together. Burma has one of, if not the largest collections of ancient Pagodas (Buddhist temples) in the world. The ancient city of Bagan is known worldwide for its pagodas. It's impossible to go through these temples without feeling something very spiritual.
As is the case with all countries the customs, food, standard of living and way of life are very different from the lives of average Americans. The first thing you notice is that it appears as though not everyone is working; and that may very well be true. But those who are not employed are busy supporting those in the family who are. If the person working needs help, the family is there to provide whatever assistance they can. Everyone depends upon each other.
We met a wonderful guide in Bagan, Soe Nyunt Aung, who showed us many historic sites. At one point I asked him about an observation that I had, which was that I had not seen one policeman. He said, "We have no police, because we have no crime." Of course, I could not believe that could be true so I pressed him on the issue. "We are all family here. We all know each other. We all pray in the same temples together. We all support each other. Why would we ever commit a crime against one of our own?"
People still make goods they way their ancestors did. Lacquer products are made by people whose ancestors worked in the same factory. Weavers weave the finest material you have ever seen, in some cases using looms used by their great, great, great grandparents.
There is little that is modern about Burma. That's not a bad thing. You can be driving down the road and stop at a random stand and have one the best, freshest, home-cooked meals that you'll ever experience. Of course, their cuisine is nothing like what we Americans eat, what with our fast foods and GMO manufactured food laden with lord knows what. Burmese food has a basic quality about it. Everything you eat is grown nearby. Everything is fresh and probably organic. The food is cooked today the way it was one hundred years ago the way they learned to cook; and that's to make food with love.
As my wife, Alison, said to me at one point, "I feel like we're in a National Geographic movie." That's a pretty good way to describe Burma; one of the most mysterious countries on the planet. It's an honor to be here.
Bob Stannard writes a regular column for the Banner.
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