Bob Percival walks downtown 12th Street and finds eggs galore, a classic Yangon tea shop, gourmet Rakhine food, and a contemplative banyan tree.
Winter is nearly finished, and cool breezes are blowing from the south, across the delta towards Yangon City. The heat of April will soon be here, so it is something special to walk the early morning streets with the wind fluttering in the prayer flags and rippling through the freshly washed clothes that are drying on people’s verandas.
Today I am walking with Khin Yadan Htun, my good friend who introduced me to all things goth and the amazing make-up that goes with it – purple-black lipstick is a definite de rigueur.
We start our walk at the bottom block at Strand Road and 12th Street. On the right-hand corner there is a two-story building with beautiful weathered timber walls, shutters and fascia boards. The building is a hundred years old. The ground floor has become a modern crowded office. On the pavement outside is a small structure built to hold a water pot, an offering to quench the thirst of weary travellers. The inscription reads: ‘Donated by Shwe Htay Jockstick’ – ‘All spirits and humans can say Thandu’. On a much less spiritual tone, another white sign on a blue wall states: ‘Please don’t piss to the wall’. Ah, Yangon.
Further up on the right, you will see a funky 1963 apartment building, and at No. 10, the Egg Distribution shop of Aung Kyaw Oo. The cartons are stacked high, with 300 eggs in each carton, each egg costing MMK 100,000 wholesale. The eggs are sourced from the numerous chicken farms down in the delta town of Myaungmya, mainly sold to restaurants throughout Yangon. The shop has been here for over ten years. Also on the right-hand side there you will find a stylish 1956 concrete building with some Streamline Moderne design elements, a dilapidated rustic bamboo and wooden shop front at No. 22, and a downbeat shop selling engine-oil at MMK 1,500per liter, with lots of charcater. There is also a gaming shop with the helpful sign, ‘keep calm and play data’.
It’s time for tea, so we drop in at the very well known and established traditional U Chit tea shop, just a bit further back on the other side of the street. The tea shop is very crowded and has great local energy. These traditional tea shops are harder and harder to find, as tea shop licenses are no longer being handed out by the local council, due to pressure from new franchises and businesses eager to use these old spaces. We are looked after by Khin Maung Myint, who has been working at the shop for two years. The owner is Li Chit, who has been here for over thirty years. Apart from the tea (MMK 300), the shop offers fried rice, nangyee and noodle salads, as well as pork and chicken bao (MMK 500). The most popular dishes are the Burmese curries and salads.
Near the U Chit tea shop is TPK Packaging, where you can source plastic and paper coffee cups of every possible variety and design, custom made for your business. One drawback might be that the minimum order is 30,000 pieces. Not to worry.
On the bottom left-hand corner of Mahabandoola Road, at the end of the lower block, is a great buffet eatery offering Rakhine gourmet dishes – gourmet soup (MMK 400), gourmet salad (MMK 500), shrimp paste, papaya salad, and very tasty fishcakes (the fish meat sourced from 17th Street Chinatown Market), now that’s cheap gourmet food! It is a 30-year-old family business, presently run by family member Zaw Lin Htut. They are open from 11 AM to 5 PM, the most crowded time being around 2:30 PM.
We cross traffic-ridden Mahabandoola Road to the middle block – it’s such an accomplishment these days just to get to the other side safely. At No. 32 is the very colorful snack store run by Ei Ei Khine who has been working here for over ten years. It’s a good business for her. What you do realize is that there is nothing actually fresh here, only packaged food. Ei Ei Khine’s beautiful dog, who sits royally on the chair provided, is called Vadla. Opposite is the cordial juice stall of San San, who has done business on this corner for thirteen years, offering pineapple, orange, berry, grape, sago flavors. Fresh lime juice and sugar are added to your liking – only MMK 220 per glass.
Back over on the other side of the street is a small garden situated in a clean cool laneway (a new Yangon phenomenon). Also nearby, are Super Min Bag Sewing shop at No. 58B, Genky Myanmar Physiotherapy, Happy Home Pre-school, and the Agga Youth Hotel at No. 56.
The middle block is essentially a quite residential quarter, but there are small gems here, like the brightly colored ironwork at No. 37, a row of lovely 1956 apartments that stretch from No. 61 – No. 71. At No. 79 is the remarkably cheap Rivers Youth Hostel managed by the very friendly April. Here you can get a bed for USD 8 – 10 a night, in dormitory-style rooms that hold up to forty beds. Each bed has its own curtain for privacy. This is a great solution to the overly expensive Yangon accommodation.
It is time for an early lunch, so we stop off at the excellent Kachin Traditional Food stall. To finish our walk we give our blessings at the nat and Buddha shrines placed at the base of a grand banyan tree, growing in a quiet corner at the far end of the street. A calm space in a very hectic downtown Yangon. Enjoy.