This post is part of the series of ‘Dogmeat Diaries’ by Ashley South. (Read the first entry here for an explanation about the title choice.) The Dogmeat Diaries recollect (not necessarily accurately) and reflect upon Dr South’s experiences working in and on Burma/Myanmar over several decades.
I had flown into Yangon that morning and was staying at my old buddy Sean’s house, in the leafy lanes of Golden Valley. This was a large and airy bungalow, with beautiful wooden floors, and chunky, tasteful hardwood furniture, designed by Sean’s wife, Naoko. Having tumbled on the floor for a while with their two clever and cheerful children, I headed out to lunch with Naoko – Sean being up-country until the following day, visiting projects supported by the international NGO he ran.
We headed for Thein Gyi market in the downtown area. Less ‘touristy’ than the more famous Aung San (previously ‘Scott’) market, this was the place to go for foodstuffs and fabrics, and one-hundred-and-one other useful items. I bought two pounds of top-quality pickled tea (leq-pe), which would keep my wife and mother-in-law well-stocked with salad supplies.
Naoko and I then picked our way through the crowds, to a rather un-inviting stairwell in the side of the 1950s-era concrete market building. By the time we had walked up three floors, we were ready for lunch. Our aim was to dine in a small rooftop restaurant recommended in my guidebook. Although I never double-checked, I’m pretty sure that the place we ended up in was not the one described in The Lonely Planet.
There was a restaurant at the top of the stairs, and the waiter who greeted us in broken English seemed friendly enough, if a little surprised to see us. Having confirmed that we did indeed want to eat here, he asked “would you like to see your snakes”, before choosing a table.
Naoko and I were still chatting about our purchases (some exquisite lacquerware for her), and somewhat distracted. In the back of my mind, I registered that this as a strange enquiry, but assumed he meant to say ‘steaks’. Perhaps he had assumed that, as foreigners, we would prefer to eat western food. It’s common in Asian restaurants to inspect the dishes on display and make a selection before sitting down. I replied “yes – why not”.
Still nattering happily, Naoko and I were led towards a large wooden crate, with a heavy, hinged door in its top. The waiter donned thick gloves, and with one hand opened the crate while the other produced a large pair of tongs – with which he reached into the crate, and retrieved a huge snake – a cobra, I think. The best I could do was to mutter, “Er – no thanks”.
“Perhaps, in that case, Sir would like this one?” With which he produced a second, even larger and angrier looking snake.
With nervous giggles, Naoko and I declined, and started to back away. In doing so, we bumped into a big dirty cage. On circling round, we saw within a hairy and miserable-looking bat, the size of a large puppy.
Our cheerful tormentor seized the moment: “Ah – you like the big bat, eh?”
“No, no”, I replied. “Not this bat. Oh, no.”
“No problem Sir – we have others”. I think he thought that we were put off, because we wanted a vegetarian bat, not one which had fed on flesh. “All very fresh fruit-bats.”
We eventually managed to retrieve the situation, and explained that we were after seafood. Somewhat shaken, we retreated to the rooftop seating area, and awaited the arrival of our prawns with some trepidation. It was a fine meal, with views across the Yangon skyline to the city’s two great, golden pagodas: the giant and majestic Shwedagon to the north, and the Sule to the east.
(I had eaten snake couple of times before, and found it quite tasty. My general rule is not to refuse any food offered by gracious hosts – but to avoid jungle food when not in the jungle.)
Dr Ashley South is an independent author, researcher and consultant, and a Research Fellow at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. Between 1992 and 1994, Ashley worked as an English teacher along the Thailand-Burma border. This was followed by three years coordinating relief supplies to ethnic Karen and Mon refugees and internally displaced people, who had fled armed conflict in Myanmar. Since then, he has mostly worked as a consultant for the aid industry and in academia, focusing on ethnic and humanitarian politics in Myanmar, and the southern Philippines. Most of his publications are available at: www.AshleySouth.co.uk.