Jul 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 18 Comments

Searching for a Piece of Burma

In the past I’ve mentioned my undying love for Anthony Bourdain, host of No Reservations. Just a few months ago he came out with a new show on CNN called Parts Unknown. He said that he accepted the offer because it would gain him access to places that American TV cameras rarely get to visit. Guess where the show debuted? Burma.

Bourdain said, “If we had come a year earlier, we would have been deported. Almost overnight, people there were free to say what they want. Press restrictions had been lifted. That was an extraordinary thing to witness.”

I thought about this particular episode as Brad and I skirted alongside the Thai and Burmese border. Besides Anthony’s show on Burma, the only other footage I had ever seen of the country was from a documentary called Burma VJ. This followed the disturbing story of the 2007 protests against the Burmese military regime. The smuggled footage clearly displayed the people’s frustration with their government’s censorship and control over them.

Today however, Burma is in the midst of reinventing itself. In just a short period of time things have changed quickly; censorship has stopped and the borders have opened. Despite the country’s claim to open borders, it is still not so easy to travel within the country. Currently the government has designated specific zones as “tourist appropriate”, leaving the remainder of the country absolutely off limits to the wandering eye of the foreigner. For us, given the restrictions to certain provinces, driving from East to West through the country to reach India would clearly be impossible.

So we couldn’t exactly get into Burma, but we could get pretty dang close. We stopped in the town of Mae Sot; the main point of entry for more than 180,000 Burmese refugees who have fled into Thailand to live and work in the region. These circumstances, as unpleasant as they may be, have created a mix of faces and culture unlike anything we had seen to date in Thailand.

Our first Burmese experience began with Bobo and Ma Yae. Bobo was a handsome Burmese with deep brown eyes, a wide jawbone and black tattoos which ran up his forearms and crept under his sleeves. At his side was Ma Yae, another native Burmese. She had shiny black hair that rested at her shoulders and was as cute as a button in her red collared shirt sprinkled with Mickey Mouse faces. In just a week’s time she’d be returning to Burma to attend her sister’s wedding.

Today, we followed the two of them down to the Y in the road and then right towards the Burmese market. We had signed up for a cooking class and step number one was hunting down the ingredients. Given that it was the morning time, the market was in full swing. As we moved from the outer streets inward, the paths transitioned into a high speed raceway. There were obstacles everywhere and I stumbled between them. The locals were smooth and fluid, weaving in and around each other. Bikes and motorcycles sputtered by, women carried platters of fruit on top of their heads and others crouched down next to their buckets of eels, fish and frogs, bins of steamed roaches next to mangoes, worms, and bags of rice. Under the overhangs of roofs packets of spices and prepackaged goods hung from strings and scattered about the tables were eggplants the size of peas, wing beans in bamboo baskets, bundles of holy basil, and everything else imaginable. Working the stands were men in coned hats, Indo-Burmese Muslim men in plaid sarongs, Karen tribal women, and Burmese natives with their faces brushed  in circular swirls, stripes and speckles with the yellowish-white paste known as thanaka cream.

This Burmese tradition has existed for centuries and serves as a cosmetic and a protectant from the sun. At the market it could be bought in paste or powder form, or in its most natural state as a piece of wood. To apply it, the thanaka wood is rubbed against a circular stone called a kyauk pyin and then a few drops of water are added to form the paste. It is then added to the face in whatever manner the person wishes to wear it. I was completely captivated by the uniqueness of this idea and could have easily spent the day just staring at faces. I was surprised to find that what I thought looked bizarre at first looked quite normal and beautiful by the end of the morning.

Halfway through the morning we stopped for intermission at a traditional Burmese tea shop. It was an atmospheric place: loud, busy, and filled with tiny tables and chairs. Once we settled in we were served a complimentary pot of plain green tea, always free and always bottomless at a Burmese tea shop. Next we ordered vegetable samosas and phyllo dough pastries and a round of lapae yea. This is a black tea mixed with a heavy dose of sweetened condensed milk, so much I might add that it sunk to the bottom of my cup like a thick white custard. Sweet like candy and delicious.

As we made our way out of the market, we watched a woman prepare a dozen or so betel leaves in an assembly line fashion. Brad had read about this very thing in a Paul Theroux book. The author had admitted to his hatred of the habit, complaining that the users were constantly spitting red juice everywhere. The thing is this is really popular stuff and people have been spitting it for the last 4,000 years throughout much of Asia and Oceania. It is an addictive stimulant that causes a warming sensation in the body and increased alertness and it has also been declared by The International Agency for Research on Cancer to be carcinogenic to humans.

So of course we were intrigued by this woman, who used her spatula to apply a paste of calcium to the leaves.  After covering the leaves in a sticky goo, she opened a half dozen calcium-smeared containers, reached in and sprinkled their contents on top of the leaves: whole cardamom seeds, clove, catechu, slices of betel nut and so forth. She then folded them over into bundles and handed them to us.

“If you start to feel dizzy after a minute or two, please stop and spit it out. Do not swallow it.” Bobo was clearly wanting to avoid any potential international health incidents. “Place the whole thing in your mouth. Chew on it and spit it out once you’ve released all of the juices and flavors from the inside. And please, if you start to feel dizzy, spit it out!

Brad and I each had one and so did Ma Yee.  She also took one to go, tightly wrapped and secured with a rubber band. And the flavor? It mostly just tasted like a leaf filled with toothpaste and a hint Indian spices. One was enough for us.

For the remainder of the afternoon we made an exquisite meal of potato dumplings, Mandalay noodle salad, Karen pumpkin curry, and lime basil juice. We learned new preparation and cooking techniques and enjoyed the results. Surprisingly the lime basil juice was the winner for the afternoon. In addition to these dishes, I had also made a special request to Bobo earlier in the day.

I had read that Burma is one of the only countries in the world where people not only drink tea but also eat the  leaves. They are eaten either as a pickled tea leaf salad or served in the center of a shallow dish (also pickled) along with fried garlic, peas and peanuts, toasted sesame, dried shrimp, preserved shredded ginger and fried shredded coconut. I was eager to make the former and Bobo was willing to show me how.  We did a little bit of re-hydrating , crushing in the pestle and mortar, and then tossing the leaves with tomatoes, cabbage, fried nuts, and seeds. The resulting flavor was something entirely new. I loved it.  The tea leaves were pungent and spicy, mixing perfectly with the crunchy nuts and mild vegetables.

We enjoyed our meal at a picnic table behind the café. It was peaceful and serene and everything just felt good. A perfect afternoon. I wondered what would come of Mae Sot in the future. I had asked Bobo what the community was like here and if most people knew each other and his response surprised me.

“No, I do not recognize most of the faces here. People are always coming and going. This isn’t really anyone’s home. Now that things are getting better in Burma, many of the NGOs in town are starting to disappear. People are even beginning to return home”.

It was a little sad to think Mae Sot was changing so quickly, but more than anything it made me happy. People deserve to live with their families, live in peace, know their neighbors, and enjoy the sunrise and sunset from within their own country.


Squeeze the juice from two medium sized limes. Detach the leaves from 5 stalks of lime basil (this is important) and discard the stems and flowers. Put the lime juice, basil leaves, 3-4 tablespoons of liquid sugar, and 1 cup of water in a blender and mix well. With a strainer, run the juice through the filter and serve with ice!


Preparing the tea leaves: Rehydrate 2 tablespoons of dried green tea leaf with warm water for a few minutes. With a pestle and mortar, pound together the tea leaves, 4 small green chiles, 2 cloves of garlic, 1/3 teaspoon of salt, ½ teaspoon of sugar, and the juice of one lime. Set aside. In a small pan, roast or fry a ¼ cup mixture of sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts, and broad nuts (if you can find them). Set aside.  On a plate, add ¼ cup of finely shredded cabbage, ½ tomato thinly sliced, the tea leaf mixture, nut mixture, a pinch of salt and the juice from one lime.

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  1. Ian

    Sheena, Anthony Bourdain would be proud. I love your posts, both you and Brad have a talent for writing. Enjoy yourselves, and keep posting!

    Comment by Ian on July 5, 2013 at 9:29 pm

  2. Here’s a solution to your China problem and would also turn your trip into an ACTUAL adventure: sell the polluting van and go by bike!

    Comment by Brian on July 5, 2013 at 9:57 pm

  3. “An actual adventure?” You must not read our blog.

    Comment by Brad on July 5, 2013 at 10:43 pm

  4. Gary

    What an adventure – thanks for sharing! I’m catching up with old posts too. Your sense of humor is useful – on the road and in your writing. As you write, I can almost feel like I am with you…..well, almost.

    Comment by Gary on July 5, 2013 at 11:09 pm

  5. Robert Wilmoth

    Nice job Sheena! I really enjoyed the dialog and the images. What a trip. What a treat. Thanks to you two for “taking us along”. Safe travels ……………….

    Comment by Robert Wilmoth on July 6, 2013 at 2:01 am

  6. Driving is weak. Think about how much fuel you’ve wasted when you could have been using your own power. Ditch the van and get on bikes. And then yes, you can call it an actual adventure.

    Comment by Brian on July 6, 2013 at 10:33 am

  7. Time to ditch the “holier than thou” attitude, Brian. Do you live in a house? Well then, you have at least double the carbon footprint that we do. Do you think a bike adventure is a better adventure than a van adventure? Well then, go have a bike adventure and stop complaining about what we’re doing. I had my bike adventure during my career as a professional cyclist, and I’m on to different things. I’m so sick of listening to anonymous people on the internet telling me how to live my life. Go grab your Huffy and pump some laps around the block, it’ll be a great adventure.

    Comment by Brad on July 6, 2013 at 11:11 am

  8. Adam

    Absolutely love following your blog. We’re planning our trip away to go in 2 weeks time through spain and portugal in our T25! Not quite in the same league as Asia, but reading all your stories is getting my psyched! Keep up the good work guys!

    Comment by Adam on July 6, 2013 at 3:16 pm

  9. Ernesto

    wow que fotos que lugar q historias q aventuras mas sorprendentes los admiro mucho……

    Comment by Ernesto on July 7, 2013 at 6:22 am

  10. ignatz

    What kinda bugz are those? How are they prepared? Are they components of a main dish, or an appetizer or? Are they crunchy or squishy – and taste they?

    Comment by ignatz on July 8, 2013 at 11:04 am

  11. Janez

    Brad and Sheena Hello,

    I enjoy you’re story telling – it feels like being there. I was wondering – where do you safekeep Nacho as you explore through the markets?

    Comment by Janez on July 8, 2013 at 11:25 am

  12. @ Adam: Spain and Portugal should be quite amazing as well! Enjoy all the fine things Europe has to offer. It will be many many months before we can enjoy good wine, cheese, bread, and salami.

    @ Ignatz: I’m not quite sure on the specific bug, but they looked most like cockroaches to me, perhaps steamed in their natural juices? They are served as a snack, an affordable protein option for many people. We didn’t try these particular bugs but I will say that since then, we’ve tried a number of bugs just as ugly as the ones in the photo.

    @Janez: Usually we just park Nacho on a road in front of a shop or some place where there is a lot of activity. Busy places seem to be the most secure.

    Comment by Sheena on July 8, 2013 at 2:15 pm

  13. Sean

    Do you all ever have stomache issues from eating/traveling all over the place? I bet your immune systems are strong as heck.

    Comment by Sean on July 8, 2013 at 11:26 pm

  14. Karen

    Thanks for sharing a bit of your journey with me, it was great!, I will try to follow along through your blog while I travel in a different direction myself


    Comment by Karen on July 9, 2013 at 5:40 pm

  15. AJD

    You guys are great. I’ve read your entire trip. I live in Canada. I want to travel, and so does my wife. We’re young (I’m 29, she is 27). But she is afraid of giving up her job. She is a Registered Nurse and I’m a Paramedic, and I keep telling her that we could find jobs anywhere (although, how true this is I don’t know!)! Reading your blog to her has definitely helped her overcome some of the fears (and, uh, sometimes made them worse……….). The other issue is kids… I say that travelling with young children won’t be the same (obviously), and we should save up and start travelling in 2 years…. then travel for a couple of years and come back and then start a family. Early 30’s isn’t too old at all.

    Anyways, I’m wondering if either of you have any advice for us? Maybe some woman’s advice from Sheena to my wife? (Only good stuff, of course).

    Thanks for the great blog. And don’t listen to the haters. It comes down to pure jealousy most of the time. When you both are travelling around the world, make sure you never forget how angry most people are in life. Honking their horns in traffic 5 days a week, living pay cheque to pay cheque with huge debts, etc. Don’t let them dump on you! You guys are great! Take care – Adam

    Comment by AJD on July 17, 2013 at 2:47 pm

  16. @ Sean: I’ve had my share of stomach issues since we’ve been out, but I’ve always had a sensitive stomach. Brad on the other hand seems to be invincible. He’s only had an upset stomach once or twice but nothing serious. We hear this streak will end as soon as we reach India.

    Comment by Brad on July 18, 2013 at 3:02 pm

  17. Sheena

    @ Adam: It is hard to make life changing decisions. It is scary and there are always the what-ifs. I had plenty of them myself, yet we both knew that if we didn’t do this thing that we were so passionate about, we would fully regret it later on in life.

    It is always easier to do nothing. I haven’t met an overlander yet that has regretted leaving the comforts of home and hitting the road. I have however met many older people who look back and regret things that they chose not to do because it seemed to hard or inopportune at the time. Now because of circumstances in their life/health, it is no longer possible. Like us, you have youth on our side.

    As for children: the reason we are doing this trip now is because we also want to have children. Since we’ve been out we have met many, many people traveling with kids. It is entirely possible, but just a different kind of trip. We even met a couple traveling by bike with two kids (both under 5) and another couple (sprinterlife.com) who had their baby on the road and are still going. They seem to be having just as good of a time as before. It is awesome.

    As for you jobs? Seriously, I think with your careers you could get jobs anywhere. Not to mention if you were interested in doing some volunteering on the road, you could do some major good in a lot of these developing countries (and fill the gap in your resume). I would think any employer would want to scoop you up after doing something like that. Besides volunteering, we also met many “traveling nurses” in Central and South America. I was actually quite jealous of the added experiences they were having – creating friends on the road, helping people who rarely received medical care, and immersing themselves in other cultures.

    As for any fears that we’ve made worse for you wife – I’m sorry! I will tell you however that many of our most trying experiences have made for our best memories. These experiences have made us stronger as a couple and shaped us in the most positive and unexpected ways.

    My suggestion/advice to you would be to make a plan NOW and start working towards it. If you back out later, fine, but at least you have the opportunity to do it when you are ready. The closer you get to your goals (ie: finances or whatever) the more comfortable you will feel with the idea. It is so easy to passively let time go by. I often have to remember to live in the moment and not dwell on the future. Every turn in the road takes you to a new place, and who knows, traveling may create some new opportunity that you never knew was possible. At least that is what I tell myself. :)

    Comment by Sheena on July 18, 2013 at 6:33 pm

  18. Mom

    Phenomenal pictures and descriptions of the culture: the food, the practices, the pasty “chaw”! I have never seen better coverage of culture and accompanying illustrations in ANY school textbook—or National Geographic, for that matter! Thank you, Sheena, for the first-hand education of these beautiful people.

    Comment by Mom on July 24, 2013 at 10:16 pm

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