Finding Vegetarian Food in Myanmar (Burma)

As I rewrite my book Vegetarian Asia: A Travel Guide, I’m getting the chance to interview many interesting animal lovers about their experiences traveling through or living in Asia. It seems a shame not to share these interviews with the world, especially since only parts will wind up in my book. So I will present excerpts here in my blog.

Now, the decision about whether or not to visit Myanmar (Burma) is a hotly debated topic among travelers. Burmese citizens have suffered under a brutal government for decades now. But the pros and cons have been well presented elsewhere, so I won’t go into that. For more information on why you should or shouldn’t visit, see this helpful PDF prepared by Lonely Planet.

Freelance writer Bob Madison shared his Myanmar experiences with me. Bob and his partner visited Myanmar in fall of 2006. Bob says of the country:

“It was paradise and I would do it again in a moment.  The Burmese were among the most interesting, friendly people I have ever met.  Because Burma is still off-the-beaten track, the people there have very little knowledge of the outside world.  They are open and friendly – and they are among the few people in that part of the world who still attire themselves in native dress.  It is common for men to wear a longyi (like a male sarong) and for both men and women to cover their faces with multi-colored paste to protect themselves from the brutal sun.”

About vegetarian food, Bob says:

“It was not at all difficult to get vegetarian food – Burma is an incredibly poor country (or, at least, the people are poor and the military junta quite rich), so vegetarian dishes are a staple of their diet.  However, they did seem surprised that someone who didn’t have to eat vegetarian would want to!

However, my partner (now husband!) is a vegan, and I’m mostly vegetarian as a result, so most of our meals were all vegetarian.  My husband is also allergic to eggs; amazingly, eggs play almost no part in the Burmese diet.  Ditto milk and cheese. Most street vendors sold fruit (on a stick) or nuts.  You just have to be careful, because it would not be uncommon to find a food stand cooking crickets (seriously) and serving fruit with the same utensils.

The people in Burma certainly had no animus towards vegetarians, but, again, wondered why we were vegetarians when we didn’t have to be!”

Bob recommends hiring a guide:

“We also footed the expense of a guide; this was invaluable, as there were times when Burmese etiquette and US manners could clash (they do NOT like you taking pictures of bridges, public buildings or chained white elephants; in short, nothing that can get outside and reflect badly upon them or the Chinese, who now effectively run the country.)”

Bob’s favorite Burmese dishes:

“The Burmese made some wonderful dishes with bok choy, with broccoli and with rice.  They have a marked taste for sweet and sour, so that is not uncommon.  Very few things are fried, a great deal steamed or boiled.  There was a dish of rice with cashews, bok choy and a sweet cream sauce that was wonderful! They eat a lot of mango, tons and tons of rice, and a surprising amount of potatoes.  It wasn’t unusual to find a sweet potato dish (potatoes in a mango sauce, for example).  Guava, too.  And they like rice noodle, preferably spicy and with nuts.”

Bob’s advice to other travelers:

“Go now!  Burma is really the last chance to see a vanishing world.  As Southeast Asia becomes more and more ‘modern’ or Westernized, Burma represents a chance to see what this part of the world was like 100 years ago.  Yangon (Rangoon) was a great Victorian city, now largely tumbled into ruins. You can see old Victorian houses and great vintage hotels, mostly in need of some renovation, but just squint slightly and you’re looking into a distant past.  The people are friendly and starved for outside contact.  You will also see how the Burmese cope with crippling poverty – for example, one enterprising person in Yangon with a phone extended the wire all the way in front of his house, and put aside it a coin dish.  Instant pay phone!  At a street fair, the game was to extinguish candles by hitting them with rubber bands.  I have been to many places in this world, but Burma is unlike any other and will always have a special place in my memory and imagination.”

In addition to traveling the world, Bob is an art lover who writes an art criticism blog. While he writes under a pseudonym, he said it’s okay to share this secret with my readers.

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