The Burmese secret to beauty lies in the bark of several trees that grow in the country. When the bark is ground with water, it turns into a golden-yellow paste called Thanaka, which women, children and men alike apply religiously to their faces and bodies. This centuries-old remedy is thought to proffer myriad dermalogical benefits, including tight pores, oil and acne-free skin, as well as heal a rash.
Some of the Mekhala Retreat and Mekhala Living staff are Shan people, an ethnic minority from Burma. They too sport Thanaka on their faces and arms, and are a colourful sight, with flawless skin that attest to the benefits of this traditional beauty cream. We’ve often toyed with the idea of incorporating Thanaka into Mekhala’s skin care range, so it was with much excitement that I beheld the multitude of gorgeous, painted faces that greeted us when we descended upon Yangon this Easter holiday.
The Burmese are a warm, friendly people, not quite tainted by capitalism, if one ignores the endless mobile phone stores (mobile telephony being easier to establish than dedicated phone cables) and billboards advertising 3-in-1 coffee. Most continue to dress in traditional sarong-type skirts called longyi, practical garb in 40-degree heat, as long as you’re “free and easy” on the “down low”.
What the Burmese have learnt about capitalism is you can charge tourists more, especially if they are putting up at a reasonably priced hotel with colonial charm – known in the local language as “expensive and old”. Here, you can expect to pay first world prices for a room, a meal, a guide, a car/taxi and a massage. If you mosey down the road, 75-minute massage prices plummet from USD75 to USD3. Bring your own towel though.
Things are cheap if you go local. We discovered a gem called “Free”, a street away from the consular area and more up market restaurants popular with tour guides. You can choose to sit outside on stools (we did on our second visit – it’s hot, but a fan blowing moisture from a questionable source keeps things bearable), or inside where the action is. Here’s a photo of the mayhem. See if you can spot the Thanaka on the worker’s face!
You basically go up to the buffet table and tell the one of the lovely ladies what you’d like. The waiter will find you somehow with your order plus rice and drinks. A meal with incredible Myanmar beer costs USD3 a head–same as the dodgy massage.
Burmese food is GREAT. We’ve had a taste of it in Chiang Mai, which isn’t far from the border. I would still rate it behind Vietnamese and Thai, but it's certainly enjoyable. Fresh salads with seeds, nuts and herbs, mild curries with an Indian influence, and incredible stews and noodles.
This is a healthier version of Khao Soi (Burmese/Northern Thailand Curry Noodle). Mekhala’s all natural Yellow Curry Paste is the main source of flavour. I’ve used low fat coconut milk because the curry should be more of a broth, and I’ve left out the traditional deep fried noodle topping in the name of (not getting) heart disease! Do not omit the limes and pickled mustard – they really balance out the richness of the broth and add sharpness to the dish.
Healthy Chicken Khao Soi
1 Heaped tbsp Mekhala Yellow Curry Paste
400gm Low Fat Coconut Milk
1 Large Chicken Breast, sliced
1 Stalk Green Onion, sliced
500gm Fresh Rice Noodle
2 Large Limes, cut into quarters
2 Eggs (Optional)
1 Jar Chinese Pickled Mustard*, sliced
Boil the eggs, peel and cut in halves
Heat a wok or pot and add the curry paste
Add the coconut milk and chicken, and simmer for 10 min over a medium-low heat, adding water to thin out the curry
Meanwhile, distribute noodles into 4 bowls
Ladle curry broth and chicken into each bowl, top with spring onions and ½ egg
Serve with sliced pickled mustard and limes on the side.
*Available at most local supermarkets