"When we tell people where we're from, half the time they're like, 'Oh shit, I've never met anyone from the Wa State before. How do you guys speak English?'" says Phyone Pong Yon, rolling her eyes. She speaks several languages, actually, in addition to her impeccable English born of years of international school systems in Singapore and the UK. Dressed in a plain black tee, she hardly fits the stereotypes that most Burmese harbor about the Wa ethnic minority. "When people think of Kachin, they think of good food; with Rakhine, they think of the beaches of Ngapali, but with Wa people, they just think of drugs."
Of Myanmar's 135-plus ethnic groups, the Wa remain one of the least understood and most heavily stigmatized. A semi-autonomous region of the Shan State near the Chinese border, the Wa State is a place few outsiders have seen. Once dubbed the Wild Wa, this territory operated under the radar for years after Wa rebel fighters struck up a shaky peace accord in 1989. Though the state remains unrecognized by the Burmese government, officials have historically given the area and its remaining armed inhabitants a wide berth. Under the purposefully averted gaze of the authorities, a thriving trade in trafficking everything from heroin to illegal wildlife cropped up. Yet for all the reports, both sensationalist and accurate, of illicit activities, there's little widespread information about the day-to-day lives of the region's roughly 600,000 residents.
"In the media, there are a lot of negative things about Wa people and most people only believe what they hear," adds Ipkaw Pang, Phyone Pong Yon's older sister. Despite her equally international upbringing, she's chosen to don a combination of Western-style clothing and traditional Wa garb. "We feel that there's more to the Wa State than just what people see in the media. We want to create more awareness about our culture and food."
In order to help bridge the gap, the siblings first contemplated launching a museum, but opted instead to open Root Kitchen & Bar in downtown Yangon. Despite their relatively young ages—23 and 28, respectively—and lack of restaurant experience, they hope to give guests a few more positive associations.
When I meet the two for lunch, I'm struck by the fact that Root is a stark contrast to the city's only other Wa restaurant, a much shabbier hole-in-the-wall. "We wanted to do something with a modern twist to it," says Phyone Pong Yon. With its custom furnishings and cocktail bar, this place would feel right at home in any developed urban hub. It's good for business, since it makes the place an easier sell to NGO workers and expats, but it's also a conscious attempt to subvert preconceptions. "And we really like to drink cocktails. So we thought, let's do a bar as well. So we decided to do Root."
Make no mistake, though, beneath that glossy veneer the restaurant has ties to the Wa State that run deep. The decorative covers on the throw pillows here take more than a month to procure, because the Wa women who make by hand them work on farms during the day and weave in the evenings. It's a labor-intensive art, one that's slowly dying as the younger generation casts it aside. A mass-produced substitute would've been far simpler, but wouldn't resonate in quite the same way. Similarly, the food is the real deal. Blisteringly spicy dishes are just as fiery as on their home turf and many of the ingredients are directly imported from the Wa State. Given that transportation is sparse and the fastest way home is an arduous two-day journey by land and air, that's no minor undertaking.
"When we first opened, we were worried about whether or not people would enjoy our food, because we're trying to go really authentic," says Phyone Pong Yon. "To our surprise, people are like, 'Wa food is actually pretty good. It's not weird.'"
Far from being "weird," the spread before me is full of rustic, countryside comfort. There's a hearty lentil soup, grilled chicken wings, crisp-skinned whole fish, and fried fish to wrap in lettuce leaves with peanut sauce and springy vermicelli. Chewy, smoked, and air-dried beef, the flavorful Wa equivalent of jerky, appears both shredded in a salad and in moik, the ubiquitous brown rice dish with a consistency hovering between a porridge and risotto.
"When other ethnic groups like Kachin come by the restaurant, we find a number of similarities between our cultures," says Ipkaw Pang. "We have Wa liquor here and they'll be like, 'This is like Kachin liquor, but not as strong.'" The cloudy, slightly sweet spirit has a mild, fruity taste. Especially when mixed into cocktails with names like Wa Dream and Wa Tang Clan, it makes for a dangerously smooth sipper.
Food and drink have a history of providing common ground, even in a country as historically divided as this one. More than a hundred distinct languages and cultures have created fissures throughout Myanmar. Since the British pulled out in 1948, the country has endured a series of insurgencies from groups such as the Arakan Liberation Party and the Karen National Union, as well as the often brutal retaliation of the Burmese army. Though many suffered under the military junta, ethnic minorities were hit the hardest. Even today under a loose democracy, the plight of the Muslim Rohingya, who the government refuses to consider Burmese at all, in the Rakhine State is a full-blown human rights crisis.
The sisters grew up sheltered from the worst elements of these ongoing conflicts. From Singapore, a land that had more or less managed to convince its primary distinct ethnicities to get along, all of the trouble seemed far, far away.
"We would see the ethnic clashes in Myanmar on the news in Singapore, but we didn't really understand it until we were back here," says Ipkaw Pang. "When we drive on the road, the police will stop us sometimes. We have Burmese IDs, but they say 'Ethnic Wa.' I always want to ask them, 'Is there a problem now, officer? You didn't see me as a threat earlier.'"
Despite carrying the "ethnic" label since birth, the sisters have lived most of their lives removed from Wa State itself. They and their seven siblings grew up scattered between Singapore, China, and the Wa State, while the parents and extended relatively remained back home.
"There were four of us in Singapore," remembers Ipkaw Pang. "We would always try to make moik with the white rice they have there, but it was never quite right."
Even after moving at out at the age of four, they kept the connection to their home culture as much as possible, making a point of speaking Wa amongst one another. To this day, when they make the return trek, their parents welcome the prodigal daughters with celebrations and feasting.
"Whenever we came back, our parents would always slaughter a pig or a cow. Like, 'Welcome home guys!' They'd invite all the aunties and uncles and we'd gather around one huge table," says Phyone Pong Yon. Those giant family dinners were what inspired the communal table in the restaurant itself. While some elements of Root derive from the girls' memories, others required a bit more research. "Because we never grew up there, there is a limit to what we know. Opening Root helped a lot, because we had to go back to our parents and relatives and ask, '"What do we eat? What do we do?"'
Maintaining that connection is, ultimately, at the very heart of this venture. In the future, Phyone Pong Yon would like to use her film training to produce short documentaries on the Wa State. Both young women have a powerful sense of appreciation for their birthplace, even if leaving it afforded them greater opportunities. By gaining a deeper understanding of their own heritage, they hope to be able to dispel some of the myths surrounding it.
"Our parents keep telling us, 'No matter where you go, never forget where you came from. Always speak your own language,'" says Ipkaw Pang. "This is one reason why we call this place 'Root.' This is the root of our culture, the root of us."