Temples, temples and more temples. This is what the usual Bagan itinerary looks like and, until recently, there was little else to do in town. But as tourism continues to grow, creative locals are tapping in to their talents and opening new activities for the temple-tired visitor.
Pennywort Cooking Class is just one of these new businesses. Opened in August 2015 by Ma May Thu Phyo, the hands-on courses are more than just cooking- they are a chance to experience the timeless traditions and lifestyles of the Myanmar people.
The courses take place at May Thu Phyo’s home, located in a quiet neighborhood in New Bagan. Walking toward her house on a sandy, unsealed road we are greeted by lazing cows and curious kids riding bikes. It’s easy to forget, when amid the archeological zone, that people actually reside in Bagan but this short walk provides an insight in to the daily life of the city’s inhabitants.
The home is a typical Bagan house, built to deal with the extreme heat and dry climate: one-story, cement and brick structure with a raised corrugated tin roof. Like all houses we passed, the door is open and a friendly smile greets us at the entrance. We are given a cold drink, introduced to her relatives and taken out the back to the organic herb and vegetable garden.
Before diving in to the cooking, May Thu Phyo takes some time to explain how Pennywort came about. She has a huge, engaging smile and gentle demeanor and we are immediately captivated.
May Thu Phyo was born in New Bagan but, like many in her neighborhood, traveled to Yangon for university. Her father worked as a chef at a 4-star hotel to help support the education fees for her and her brother. Thankful for the opportunity they had been given and keen to ‘pay it forward’, in 2006 the siblings opened Kuthodaw Library adjacent to their house. The library is free for all of the villages’ residents and, in addition to books, they offer educational computer games and regular movie nights for kids.
To support the library, May Thu Phyo tapped in to her passion for cooking and established Pennywort and dedicates 20% of the cooking class fees to the library. She has been surprised, however, that many guests then offer additional support to the library with many of her guests volunteering English lessons or offering to buy books or supplies.
The rapid success of Pennywort has also surprised May Thu Phyo. During her first high season she hosted 5-6 classes per week and she has already received bookings for the approaching 6 months. But she is far from burnt out. In fact, if we didn’t know any better, we would not have been surprised if she said we were her first customers!
We chit-chat a bit more and then wash up so that we can start the cooking. In her aim to offer an authentic cooking class, the dishes are prepared the local way- cooked over charcoal stoves without the use of measuring cups or digital scales. May Thu Phyo helps us to chop herbs, shows us how to grind chilies and garlic using mortar and pestle and explains the origins of the dishes we are preparing. We feel like we are in a friends’ kitchen as the conversation easily flows between food, culture, tourism and general banter.
We finally sit down at an outside table near the library for our freshly-prepared meal. Although the food is delicious, it is hardly the highlight of the day. After days of being in the ‘tourists’ Bagan, we felt like we have finally seen the ‘real’ Bagan. And May Thu Phyo hopes she is just the first of many to develop such projects. ‘Although the temples are a ‘must’ during a Myanmar holiday, I hope we can promote small, family-run businesses that will bring visitors to villages so that we can share our ways of life’.
The morning class starts at 07.30 and includes a visit to the morning market. The evening class commences at 16.30. Each class is 20 USD per person including a meal (soup, salads, main course, fruit and tea/coffee) 20% of the course fees go directly to Kuthodaw Library.
To make a booking, send a message via Pennywort’s Facebook page: https://web.facebook.com/PennywortCookingClass or email to: [email protected]