Fermented Fish Paste and Other Culinary Treats

I met my nemesis in Myanmar at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was the food. In Indonesia I’d wondered at the Spanish girl who couldn’t stomach Indonesian food and had brought along enough chorizo and crackers from Spain to get her through our 3 day boat trip. Probably too pampered I had thought. Be careful what you judge is all I can say, because instead of 3 days I had 25 days of fermented fish paste looming ahead of me.

My apologies to any Burmese, but quite frankly fermented fish paste is not something I can eat with any great gusto. Once I tasted that, I was done for. Paul to his credit had no problem with the food despite a fish allergy. He stuck to rice and meat and a couple of veggie dishes and was fine. I on the other hand was seeing fermented fish paste coming at me before I even sat down at the table.

I’m sure that fermented fish paste is off the charts on the health-o-meter, seeing as it combines those two chart toppers ‘fermented’ and ‘fish’. But apparently I don’t care quite as much about health as I thought I did. Likewise we discovered that for Paul, quantity and good price are at the pinnacle of his food pyramid and Myanmar certainly hits the ball out of the ballpark on that.

Sabine and Nerys had similar thoughts about fish paste as I did. Sabine summed it up by saying, “There’s better food in prison.”

In a few places we managed to dodge the fish paste bullet by eating Shan noodles and Indian food. In Yangon we were such faithful customers at an Indian thali place that by the end of our four day stay our Indian waiter was spoon feeding Aaron his dahl and rice and feeding him dinner from his daughter’s plate. At least, I think it was his daughter. If not, then this was one boss with major boundary issues. 

I also found the milk tea had a strange flavour. I could only ponder that perhaps the waiters had a habit of stirring it with the same spoon as they served the fish paste. Maybe it was a bit like sand when you have a beach holiday. You find the stuff everywhere – in your suitcase, on your phone, toothbrush, underwear. Fermented fish paste might be like that too. You start cooking and before you know it fish flakes are turning up in all sorts of odd places, from teapots to salt shakers and cookie tins.

One evening early on in our visit we were so perplexed by what to eat that we ended up eating Melba toast for dinner. The kids at first couldn’t believe their good luck. Their Mama with a horror of wheat is freely handing out Costco sized mounds of Melba? Let’s just say that by the time they had eaten enough Melba to constitute a meal, they were not so sure about their good fortune, because afterwards they could barely scrape their tongue off the roof of their mouth, and scrape is the right word for what happened to their tongue in the meantime.

The day we left Myanmar we found ourselves once again stopping at Bangkok food stalls to devour curries, only this time I thought I could smell something a little different wafting in the air. I was horrified to smell fish paste. Mercifully, the flashback faded fairly quickly.

The Lineage of Being Female

Sometimes when you travel your insides are suddenly on the outside. It can happen in a instant and surprise you by how quickly it comes over you.

We were walking up the narrow steps of a temple on a hill in the countryside near Hpa-An when a Burmese woman coming down stopped and took Nerys’ wrist in her hand. She looked at her closely, but kindly. Then she did the same to Sabine. The girls stood while she held their wrists. Then she turned to me and held my wrist too without speaking, just with kindness. I felt the connection of one mother to another and a transfer of the universal feeling of having daughters and everything you do for them, experiencing the world through the lineage of being female.

I felt emotional and did not linger, lest I have to explain why some stranger holding my wrist was bringing tears. I held her wrist briefly in return, then scurried up the stairs.

Connecting with someone from a different culture is like drinking from a well of sweet water. You feel something about what it is to be human in this very big world of ours.

In the Land of Mazo

Once in awhile in Myanmar we’d see a monk smoking. It was a little incongrous to see someone wearing maroon robes with shaved head dragging on a cigarette. It seemed like it could be the opening scene in a really awful comedy, Monks Gone Bad.

Since apparently it’s fairly easy to enter monastic life, it also means that the flipside can be a few people who are in it for a perceived easier life than the rest of the population. But pretending to be interested in meditation or following 300+ rules about behavior must get to be a drag if your hearts not into it, no pun intended.

Then there was the monk who was very interested in Nerys’ Kindle. “Is that Mazo?” he asked me. “Mazo?” I had no idea what he meant. He repeated the word again. I shrugged it off as just another language hiccup. I gave him the Kindle and showed him a few features on it. Then he turned it over. Amazon it said on the back, and I realized that was what he meant. Mazo.

Temples Large and Small

After Hpa-An we headed to Mawlamyine. We hired a guide, Hlien, to take us around for the day. He was the most smiling and generous guide we’d ever had, arriving with bananas, bags of chips for the kids and endless water bottles. “We love foreigner children,” he told me. His English was at the level where he could talk to you fairly easily, but if you replied with any level of complexity, forget it. But since he never stopped smiling the whole day, it really didn’t matter much what we said. We just enjoyed his hospitality and enthusiasm to show us his city.

Our first stop was an old church where they were setting up for Sunday service. One man told us that his church had had the first surgeon in the country and that another member of the congregation had brought the first printing press to Myanmar from the US. I would have liked to have asked more questions, like what it’s like to be Christian in a strongly Buddhist country, but on we went to the next stop.

We parked by a meditation centre and went inside, tiptoeing past hundreds of meditators, many of whom sat under mosquito nets that looked like giant food covers made out of netting that your grandma uses at picnics. When the kids saw this an attack of giggles hit them. It nearly got me too as I scurried them out of the hall. 

Just outside the room, I spoke to one woman who had flawless English. “Do you know about meditation?” she asked quietly so as not to disturb anyone. I asked her a few questions. It turned out they were doing Vipassana. I told her about Goenka bringing Vipassana to the West from Myanmar. She pointed out the lone westerner in the room, a woman in her thirties. I would have liked to have talked more, but the others were waiting.

Myanmar not only has more monks per capita than any other country, but has a strong tradition of meditation for laypeople. Goenka’s teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin was a layperson (and also the Accountant General of Burma).

Then we walked over to the monks’ buildings and their meditation centre, which was a beautiful wooden building (thankfully empty so the kids were free to giggle away – though never as funny as when the room is full). On the walls were various Buddhist sayings, such as “Pay no attention to the faults of others, things done or left undone by others. Consider only what by oneself is done or left undone.”

This stuff was gold. Forget math or history or what have you, this stuff should be taught in school. I pointed it out to the kids but they were like, “Sure, Mum, whatever.” They were far more interested in the plastic foot massage mat by the entrance.

On the way back a monk came out of his little hut and asked us where we were from. He told me that a Canadian guy had stayed at the monastery for a year. His English was pretty good and I would have liked to chat more but everyone else had walked on. This was becoming a theme.

Next we set off to see the world’s largest reclining Buddha, which you can go inside and tour different floors and rooms with large dioramas on Buddhist themes. We wandered around looking at the different scenes, some of which were gory ones of man gone Wrong, complete with demons and red paint. Paul turned to me and commented, “Myanmar is a very different place.” I had to agree.  

Then we toured a few temples. Myanmar is covered in temples and stupas. They also enjoy repeating statues of monks or Buddhas with hundreds lined up in a row. Some have said the abundance of Buddhist structures in Myanmar is because of the strong merit-making thread in Burmese life; namely you accrue more merit building a Buddha than putting in plumbing for example. Whether this is true or not, I have no idea.

The day ended with feeding birds by the Irrawaddy river at sunset. Every so often we’d see a dark shape floating down the river. At first glance we thought it was a dolphin, then a body, and then we realized it was bobbing bags of garbage.

Your Very Own Microcosm

When you’re traveling as a family in Asia, you spend a certain amount of time in your own world. At times people step into yours or you step into theirs, but frequently you just need to attend to the things that being a family brings… like why did child #2 not brush her teeth and what has child #3 lost now?

Seeing the sights sometimes falls far below making sure everyone is staying relatively sane (and able to find something they actually want to eat). You’ll find yourself saying things like, “Sure, it would have been nice to see the world’s largest Buddha but Missy lost her hairbrush and there’s no way I’m living through another day of screams about knotted hair.”

Families are also like a microcosm of the world you came from, offering clues as to why we foreigners are the way we are. I sure hope they didn’t use my family as the template or there will be some very strange perceptions out there about Westerners, many of them involving screams & hairbrushes.

Myanmar at First Glance

We crossed the border into Myanmar at Mae Sot, in the north west of Thailand. We caught a taxi from the bus station to the border, and then we walked across a bridge over a river into Myanmar. On the other side was immigration. Which was a small room with one man in a uniform. He looked at our visas and took photos of each of us while his friend watched American boxing on a TV in the corner.

Once the photos were taken, the friend sprung into action. He told us about his friend with a taxi who could take us to the next town, Hpa-An. “What about the bus?” Paul asked. “There are no buses in the afternoon,” he replied. It seemed a convenient story but it could be true for all we knew. He continued talking quickly, “I know what it’s like having kids, I have kids. You wanna make good choice. My friend just over there. He take you, come with me.”

So he was a tout, conveniently hanging out in the immigration office. We decided to wait and see what or who else would turn up, and politely made a hasty exit.

As we beetled away as fast as backpacks will allow you to, we surveyed the town. Like many border places, this one was not a pretty sight. Leaving it as soon as we could before we had to deal with hungry children was probably best.

Our first impressions were that there was something vaguely Indian about Myanmar. It was possibly the smell and also the many longyhis that both men and women wore. Red betel nut stains were all over the side of the road, and we were back to the dust, somewhat dilapidated roads and broken sidewalks again. What was very different was the chalky yellow paste that the women and some kids wore all over their cheeks and foreheads, called Thanaka, to protect their complexions from the hot sun.

The kids waited patiently as we sorted out the ATM. Since we stuck out a fair bit, it wasn’t long before other drivers approached us. One younger guy quickly offered 30,000 kyat or $30 cdn to take us to Hpa-An. The other drivers turned on him, scolding angrily and he disappeared. Perhaps he had broken haggling protocol. We eventually agreed on the same price with another driver and loaded ourselves into his taxi. It turned out a Burmese woman was along for the three hour ride too, so there were five of us in the back and Paul in the front.

Creating a Kinder Society

If we want to create a kinder society, we ourselves must act with kindness and respect. A kinder society is not created with unkind words.

Opportunities come in many disguises. If we don’t agree with someone’s opinions, can we use it as a way to listen and create what could be real dialogue? Find out why they think what they do? What is it if we only talk to people we agree with? It’s certainly easier but do we learn tolerance that way? And sometimes we might see something in a way we hadn’t thought of.

I’m not denying it’s not painful to hear peoples’ opinions we think are cruel or just plain wrong. Sometimes our instinct is to make fun of them, shut them down or argue. But perhaps this is not always the best way to create what we are seeking.

We need to keep long-term goals in mind and reach for equanimity however we can. In the short-term it can seem satisfying to shut down the other person, but perhaps if we feel like doing this we need to walk away until we are ready for dialogue. Because opposition usually creates greater opposition and then we are even further from our goals.

It Made a Noise When It Walked

We arrived at a little island in Thailand and found a beautiful ocean and a quaint little place to stay. Even in Paradise though life is moving on and “there were incidents and accidents, there were hints and allegations,” as Paul Simon sings on Graceland. You just cannot pause life. It keeps flowing on trying to teach you things even if you are wishing it to pass you by so you can lie on a beach for a couple of weeks.

So there were a few incidents. One of the minor ones involved arachnophobia but it was not so minor for the minors among us.

Right behind our beach bungalow was a tropical forest and right in front a turquoise ocean. It was a very peaceful spot, but in the middle of the night we were woken by hysterical screaming coming from the somewhat rundown and moldy bathroom. Sabine rushed out, “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen. I went into the bathroom and then I heard a noise. It was so big it made a noise when it walked.”  I ventured in to have a look. The beast was sitting on the wall and what I can only call its wingspan was truly gigantic. This was one spider I wasn’t going to be gingerly scooping onto paper to free in the forest. I beat it with my hiking boot while screaming and pronounced the bathroom spider-free.

From then on nobody wanted to go near the bathroom. I told them I’d blocked up the drain with toilet paper and that would keep out the spiders. I neglected to mention the eight vents near the ceiling open to the forest outside.

Driving Like a Madman

We caught a passenger van from Ekkamai skytrain station with my Canadian friend and her daughter on our way to a little island near Trat in south Thailand. The seven of us piled into the back rows of the van while a monk, a black guy from Madagascar and a Thai guy got into the front row. The road was as smooth and even as anything you’d find in the West, but we overlooked one small detail: the driver. He believed this was driving:

  1. Accelerate madly.
  2. Coast until you drastically slow down.
  3. Hit the gas pedal and accelerate madly again.
  4. Repeat.

The end result was a van full of very green kids. Aaron was the first to throw up. Thank God I had a bag at the ready, though the whole thing struck me as hilarious. Here we were – in a perfectly comfortable car on a perfectly even and straight road, being driven by some madman who desperately needed some driving tips but nobody spoke Thai. My friend too caught the laughing bug and then the two of us sat cackling like crazy white women.

We stopped at a gas station and we all fell out of the car in desperation to get out. The other passengers seemed okay, though perhaps a little quiet. We stood at the curb passing around Gravol while the driver filled the gas tank. The monk turned to me and said, “I’m a monk.” Considering he was wearing orange robes and had his head shaved, this was not exactly news.

We had run out of plastic bags so I hustled into the gas station store to get some. Miming “May I have a plastic bag” to the guy at the counter only added to the effect of hilarity this journey was having on me. Something so horrendous as being stuck for four hours in a car full of kids about to throw up struck me as the funniest thing ever.

A King who Reigned with Dhamma

We arrived in Bangkok and instantly the differences were unmistakeable. The roads were completely paved and there were sidewalks, as well as a Skytrain and heaps of car traffic. “There’s no garbage,” Nerys noted. And restaurants with doors & windows, and glass malls and brand name stores, hundreds of them. All the trappings of a modern city.

There was something else as well. All around the city – at Skytrain stations, on billboards, in stores, in temples, in taxis – everywhere photos of King Bhumibol Adulyadej who had passed away a month ago. Buildings were decorated with white and black ribbons and many Thais wore all black or at the very least, black armbands. Some wore black t-shirts with the words “I was born in the reign of King Rama IX of Thailand”. There were also portraits of him painted in all different ways and photos for sale.

You can’t pick up that much understanding of a country passing through for a week or even a few weeks. But here was something very palpable. How often is it that someone in a position of great wealth and influence is also a person of vision, self-sacrifice, compassion for the people and self-discipline? In King Bhumibol it seems the Thais had such a person. When he took the throne, the King’s oath was “We will reign with dhamma for the benefits and happiness of the Siamese people.”

When you compare Thailand to surrounding Asian countries, you can see how far Thailand has come. The monarchy gave the country a strong stabilizing force. The king followed the Ten Principles of a Dhammaraja (a king of righteousness), which are things like giving in a good way, selfless sacrifice for the greater good, and living a simple life.

He studied the needs of the poor through visits and talking with them, and came up with ways to improve their lives. One of his most famous projects was to help farmers convert their opium farms to more moral and profitable farms growing fruit and vegetables.

He was greatly loved and respected by the Thai people, though I’m sure he had his faults. But the point is that you could feel how such respect, love and trust from the people creates an atmosphere where the leader is then free to continue leading with even greater wisdom, which in turn engenders more respect and love.

As I stood on the Skytrain platform and looked at his photo against a black background, I too felt such sorrow that the Thai people had lost their King. A leader like that is a rarity. And how do we create the conditions for such a leader to emerge? Perhaps the first step is in our hands – to speak with respect and kindness about our own leaders, and to temper our words of criticism.