Sunday, December 25, 2016

Myanmar, Day 9: Christmas in Mandalay

We all woke up about the same time, but Vito was certain that Santa had stopped by in the night, and so he spent thirty minutes looking around the room for presents that Santa may have hidden, even though we explained that the Easter Bunny was the one that hid things, not Santa. Moreover, we had strongly hinted that, because Vito had not informed Santa ahead of time that we would be in Mandalay at Christmas (although, he had mentioned the fact in a scroll that he left for Santa rolled up under our tree in Doha), the likelihood of receiving anything here was quite low. Nevertheless, that didn't stop him from looking, including within our zipped luggage and backpacks.

Shweinbin Kyaung, an old Buddhist Monastery. 
Still tired from the adventure of the previous day, with no real itinerary for the day, and after a lazy morning and a breakfast of white bread, chicken sausage, bacon, eggs and coffee (Vito had juice), we headed out to visit the jade market. It took a while to hail a cab, but eventually we found one. We didn't want to buy any jade, but we were interested in seeing the place. The parking area outside the entrance was crammed with motorbikes and a truck with large blaring speakers was advertising what looked like a soccer match for later in the day, so there was an excitement in the air. After paying a nominal entrance fee, we entered and started looking around. Rows of vendors, jade polishers and engravers were in their stalls and many people were crowded around various tables piled with plastic bags of jade. The sound of jade bracelets clinking could be heard all around us, and on either side men and women examined jade in various forms, looking at pieces with discerning eyes, others shining penlights through the translucent stone to look for imperfections, still more were looking at uncut jade stones or sorting polished stones in little cupped steel dishes or on scales. As always, men standing around chewing betel nut and spitting the red juice into spittoons. Garbage cans  and sewage drains were overflowing. We browsed the jade wares, looked more closely at some black jade, which we had never seen before, examined a few pendants, and then made our way back toward the entrance to leave. The guidebook we were using mentioned a renowned tea house nearby and a notable attraction in the area and we went in search of those places.

The tea house, Unison Teahouse, was full and lively. We ordered two house teas and Vito ordered a dragonfruit smoothie. The tea barista had an unusual way of mixing the tea with sweetened condensed milkholding the teapot high over his head when pouring—before slinging the hot glasses of tea to the window. The tea was delicious and, after finishing, we walked to the nearby Shweinbin Kyaung, an old teak Buddhist monastery. It was quiet and there were only a few other foreigners snooping around. When we were ready to leave, it was hard to find a taxi on the quiet side street, but we managed to hire two motorbike drivers (Vito and myself on one and Angela on the other) to take us to King Galon's gold leaf workshop.

The drivers waited for us to finish and then took us to lunch. We returned to Mingalabar (an establishment that we had eaten at on our first night in Mandalay), because the food was divine—pickled tea leaf salad and shan noodles. The desert, a brown-sugar covered puffed rice, which resembled popcorn, was spectacular. Following lunch, we found another tea house, starting to really enjoy people-watching from such locations, and then caught a cab back to our hotel to rest before going out for Christmas dinner at Bistro 82.

When we arrived at our hotel, many people seemed to be boarding. There hadn't appeared to be so many guests staying in the hotel so we asked the porter what was happening, and he explained that there was going to be a buffet cruise at 3PM, just a few minutes from our arrival. Vito was thrilled as he hadn't really been able to understand why we were staying on a boat if it didn't go anywhere. Sure enough, however, the anchor lifted and we headed out into the wide brown, silty river. We had a balcony room on the port side of the vessel and nice teak chairs to sit on, and we sat in the sun and enjoyed the two-hour cruise with frosty Myanmar beers from our mini refrigerator. If we had been any later, we probably would have missed the cruise completely!

Christmas dinner was fancy: red beet carpaccio with grilled scallops to start. For the main courses, Angela ordered grilled red snapper with basil risotto, Vito took a roasted lamb leg with bean cassoulet, and, going a more traditional route, I tried the stuffed turkey with cranberry jus. The restaurant was festively brimming with guests, bubbling with conversation and holiday music and appropriately decorated for the occasion. The food was not exceptional and, sadly, five times more than any meal we'd eaten since we'd been in Myanmar, but, I suppose, that's the price for trying to celebrate our traditions in a foreign land.

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