For this week, I intended on writing a story about terrifying street-food in Rangoon… but then I arrived in the mountain village of Kalaw, and suffered an incident so absurd that I couldn’t resist sharing my tale immediately.
There are times in life when blissful ignorance rewards you handsomely. Other times, however, that ignorance only serves to blow up in your face, shouting at you to grab your ankles, as it spits on its unforgiving hand.
I’ll let you decide which category this little ditty falls under…
At 7:30 in the morning, the tribal markets of Kalaw were simply too much to handle. Perhaps I was just overtired. But perhaps it was the acrid stench of dried fish, and the flurry of ruby stained machetes, hacking and dismembering animal carcasses on wooden stumps with an unnerving thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Either way, the whole ordeal hit me like a gallon of espresso.
I jostled my way through the crowd, past endless aisles of bamboo mats piled high with chili, ginger, garlic, and bananas; vibrant mountains of produce, meat, and Burmese handicrafts. Behind the bamboo mats sat women from the Pa-O, Danu, Palaung, Danaw and Taung-Yo hill tribes, their weathered faces adorned with brown thanaka paint and framed beneath traditional cloth headdresses.They watched the crowd shuffle by, shouting in a dozen tribal dialects and hungrily puffing herbal cigars.
I was so caught up in the maelstrom of colors and sounds, that I failed to notice the sharp turn in the path ahead of me, and nearly crashed into a shaky, wooden stall.
“Mingala’ba!” greeted the young woman inside, catching my attention just in time. It was then, as I turned towards her and her cast-iron wok, that I eyed that fateful stack of Burmese pancakes…
How enticing they looked, majestically stacked on a banana leaf, perfectly golden-brown in the morning sun. My stomach growled. It had been almost a day since I’d properly eaten or slept, so I figured a solid breakfast would put me in a better mood.
“Bein mote,” chuckled the woman, as I pointed to the pancakes and threw her a couple kyat. She smiled and handed me my flapjack.
I had barely walked ten paces away before I gracelessly shoved the pancake in my mouth… and immediately realized that this strange ‘Burmese pancake’ was no ordinary pancake at all. No, no. This was something heavenly.
It was sweet and moist, like the barley-made tsampa cakes one would find in Nepal. But overriding this were bold flavors of nuts, and maybe banana (I thought I could see the seeds), and something else that I just couldn’t put my finger on…
Time slowed around me as my knees went weak. For a long, magic moment I stood there, passionately making out with my pancake, while somewhere in the distance, Kenny G softly crooned on a saxophone.
Then suddenly I was alone, and my pancake was gone. And the world was cold.
I charged back to the pancake stall and thrusted a wad of bills in the woman’s face. “MORE!” I ordered.
Several moments later, I was in rapture again, making sweet love to my breakfast cake as velvety saxophone caressed the air….
It was on my third or fourth return, when the woman noticed me pushing towards her through the mob, eyes wide, forehead dripping with sweat, that she burst into a relentless fit of laughter. In my ignorance, I assumed it was because I was eating so much, and because I’m big and goofy and white. Which is partially accurate.
But I simply didn’t realize what I was eating…
When my stomach was filled with pancake, and my camera with fine pictures, I bid the market farewell. The walk back to my guesthouse was all blue skies and songbirds. I was re-energized, walking on clouds, bouncing with highly unusual optimism and energy. I felt great. I could pick up a car.
“I love this town!” I announced to Harri, the large, Panjabi proprietor of the guesthouse, as I barged into the lobby. Harri nodded as I gushed about the market, and the fascinating culture of the hill tribes, and the mountains of chili and ginger and meats, and those unbelievable Burmese pancakes.
At this, Harri raised an eyebrow. “Pancakes?”
“Yeah, there were pancakes…” I muttered. I fished out my camera and toggled over to the photo I had snapped, of the pancakes being majestic on a banana leaf. Harri inspected the photo for a moment, before a look of amusement washed over his face. “That’s not pancakes! That’s bein mote!” he exclaimed.
“Huh?” I already knew I was in deep shit.
“Opium cakes!” he cried, and my jaw fell to the floor.
“No…” I suddenly felt very, very strange.
Harri chuckled. “How many did you eat?”
“Uh…” My eyes fell to the floor. I could feel my hair. “Four?…”
“Oooh…” he winced, and promptly retreated to the safety of his paperwork, leaving white-boy to deal with this one alone.
With my head lowered in shame, I sauntered up to the third story balcony, parked myself in a chair, and watched in horror as the impending tidal wave of morphine dragged me out to sea….
For the rest of the day, as the tribeswomen slowly returned to the hills, hauling massive wicker baskets on their heads, I sat firmly in that chair staring out at them, itching, fidgeting, and giggling idiotically to myself….
Poignant Epilogue: When twilight fell on the village of Kalaw, and the last of the women had disappeared into the forest, I stared into a tar-stained toilet bowl, puking and shitting my brains out. The End.