Some things, like Thanksgiving and five-pound gummy bears, look great from a distance but fail to impress once they are within reach. A Burmese town called Bagan is exactly like that.
Bagan is hyped as a must-see tourist destination in Burma's Mandalay Region, a once-in-a-lifetime kind of destination. It was the capital of the Burmese kingdom four times over, and is home to more than 2,200 Buddhist stupas and temples, plus one Hindu site. Travelers' tales from Bagan are never short of magical sunrises, glorious sunsets, and mystical mists. All of that is sort of true, but upkeep of the historical sites is nearly nonexistent. Damage from an earthquake and heavy rains is rarely repaired, electric wires are haphazardly strung into pagodas but connect to nothing, trash is burned on supposedly sacred ground, broken glass shards await bare feet the same way Piranha Plants anticipate Mario's landing (footwear is prohibited in religious sites). But the locals are friendly, engaging, genuinely curious and interested in the outsiders who make long journeys to see their part of the Burma. After a full day of unavoidable dry heat and dust, there's always great food waiting for weary travelers.
Locals say Bagan produces the best pon yay gyi, in essence a black bean curd paste. It is exactly what you would expect—thick, salty, heavy, and doesn't look too appealing, but packed full of flavor. It tastes delightful and you've probably eaten something similar at your favorite Chinese restaurant. A friendly man directed me to a family-run workshop called Lucky Owl in Nyaung U, just a few kilometers from Bagan's slightly disappointing spiritual heart, where dozens of workers churn out loads of the stuff every day.
School is on break, so kids were running around the workshop like it was their playground. It didn't take long to realize that amidst giggles and high-pitched playful shouts, they were actually part of the staff. Burmese labor law doesn't seem to demand a minimum age for employment, or maybe nobody really cares. (In fact, my favorite lakeside beer spot in Yangon is staffed solely by kids who can't be older than 12.)
Muscular men shoveled boiled soy beans out of raging, bubbling broth. The kids—aged seven, eight, nine—packed those beans into sacks so they could be shipped out to nearby farms and used as feed. A rooster stole spilled morsels from the ground, determined to have his fill before the entire stock was gone.
The rest of it is pretty simple: as the soy broth boiled away, it was transferred from vat to vat as it thickened over fires fueled by peanut husks, ultimately reaching the consistency of miso after a lengthy process of reduction. It was messy, steamy, hot, and just a little dangerous.
The place was a constant buzz of frenetic activity. I left 2,000 kyat (a little under $2) in a tip box. One of the workers told me that's just about what they make in a day. He smiled and directed me to the next section of the compound, where about 20 women were stuffing paste into plastic packets, making them store-ready with impulse heat sealers. Restaurant cooks and residents of Bagan walked in through the rear entrance and bought sacks of the stuff at a time. The rest was loaded onto a pickup truck for drop-offs near and far.
I wanted to learn more about food in Burma's Mandalay Region. A retired teacher and former English language trainer employed by the Burmah Oil Company, U Thaung Lwin, told me that they're now known for their pon yay gyi, as well as peanut, sesame, and palm products, but that wasn't always the case. A few centuries ago, Bagan was full of rice paddies, and the high quality long grain rice still found in Burma today was grown in the kingdom's heartland and occasional capital. Yet various rulers for various reasons built massive Buddhist stupas and temples, so they fell the massive teak trees that covered the landscape to feed fires that made bricks. This changed the landscape, eroding soil and shifting rivers, eventually creating the arid landscape that Bagan is today, all in the name of atonement and worship, or as political maneuvers. The fertile lands of Bagan are no more, and official water management is practically absent. Local farmers said that harvests from the past few years have declined, and they're worried about the ongoing drought.
China and India cross paths in Burma, and it is impossible to miss the influence of either nation in the Burmese diet. I know very well how the Chinese use black bean curd paste in their cuisine, so I wanted to see how the Burmese do it. It's a common ingredient in Bamar meals, cooked with pork and served over rice, or as part of a salad on the side. It's cheap and nutritious, packed with all those calories that are needed for labor and hard, productive living.
Marco Polo visited Bagan in 1277 and wrote that its religious sites "make one of the finest sights in the world." The city was a fertile place then, and was a bountiful land. He stood atop one of the pagodas and watched the sun move westward, then sink below the horizon, before moving on to an evening meal. He probably tasted pon yay gyi too. Maybe it was even offered to him by a forefather of somebody I met in Bagan.
At Shwe Moe, one of the cozy roadside diners in Nyaung U, there were only a handful of patrons on an early April evening. Things would quiet down soon after dusk. A loud Nissan, uncharacteristically clean and standing out from the dusty landscape, pulled up. It had stylized checker pattern stickers on its sides, and a Burmese rap song rumbled through its hull. The doors swung open and out poured five Burmese teenagers, all in board shorts and Abercrombie shirts. I felt the car's air conditioning from about fifteen feet away. They picked a table, sat down, and asked the owner what there was to eat.
He told them that stock was low because it was Bagan's low season for tourists. Pork was off the menu but everything else was fine. He told them that I ordered pon yay gyi with fish, among other things. They cut him off immediately, and said in English, "We don't eat that stuff. That's not for people like us." Caught off guard, he retreated and brought them a plate of fresh fruit. They nibbled on a few pieces and left without paying, though that didn't seem to bother the staff. This was one of several occasions where I encountered kids from wealthier Burmese families who wanted to distance themselves from their own culture. They want burgers and shakes instead of the food their grandparents ate. That's fine. Tastes shift. But Lucky Owl has a smooth operation in the heart of the community, and unlike the rice paddies of Bagan that once were, they aren't going to disappear anytime soon.