Yangon-A Place to Learn Meditation

Living in Myanmar is a different experience. The whole country is quieter, calmer than the rest of bustling Asia, beautifully, naturally green, with an unparalleled aura of peace. This is seen even in its biggest cities like Yangon and Mandalay, which have all the features of buzzing commercial centers, and yet have a soothing effect. It’s the tranquil air that touches deep, and most who experience it, opt to stay on. A far cry from lives many of us have left behind, to set up homes in Yangon, we now shun the noise, frenzy, stress and rush that is a part of daily lives in places not far from here. Many of us have turned to Buddhist meditative practices, and now understand how little we need to survive, and while we have not yet renounced material belongings, the craving for more, has dissipated.

The peaceful ambience has to be witnessed and experienced in person, to comprehend what it means to have a calm existence, without any rush or frenzy, without noise and pollution, without panic and chaos of multitasking which at best, yields half-baked solutions to multiple issues. The people also appear so calm and gentle by nature, there are no loud haranguing voices, no shouts and fights, only soft sounds of conversations even in cafes and tea shops. This can be attributed to their Buddhist beliefs, with 90% of the population following Buddhism. Meditation is a way of life, an essential that they turn to, frequently, and most people try to take a few days off annually, for mediation retreats in monasteries in some part of the country.

Myanmar’s association with Buddhism and meditation is centuries old, actively supported by royalty down the ages, and meditative practices were passed on from masters to disciples, generation after generation, and never getting lost. The Vipassana technique of mediation, though originated in India, continued only in Myanmar in its pristine form, while getting lost for centuries where it started. Today, mediation in various forms is spreading all over the world, and many of those carrying this torch have taken their first steps on this path, in Myanmar.

Yangon then, is the ideal, perfect place to learn meditation, with its numerous meditation centers offering comfortable though basic living facilities, and these too, free of cost. Any donation made to compensate for expenses is highly appreciated but remains optional. It is only if one goes for a mediation course that combines yoga, nature walks and meditation and is organized by travel agencies, that one has to pay, depending on the duration and quality of living quarters.

What is Meditation all about

There is always an urge to improve as human beings, meaning that we would like to get rid of our bad habits, vices, negative thinking patterns, and develop a pure mind, far removed from venomous thoughts, ill-feeling towards others, and never wanting to hurt or harm anyone by our words and actions. This is possible only if we develop a razor-sharp mind that stops us before we make a wrong move or utter hurtful words, develop empathy and move towards a high level of purity that touches the core of our being. Meditation is the only way to self-purification.

Asian cultures have inculcated a need for spiritual elevation as one gets on in age. However, in recent years, the spiritual journey for many, begins once they cross twenty and seek a meaning and purpose in life, beyond the material and the mundane. All the meditation centers have a significant number of disciples in their twenties, and some even conduct special courses for teenagers.

Our lives that focus on the physical and material cause only pain, misery, jealousy, craving and aversion. Spirituality and its pursuit lifts us above these. Meditation is the route to freedom from all misery-causing factors, like the ego, which is often the root cause of all negative sensations and aversions in our body. Forgetting the “I” and overcoming self-importance is the only way we can reach the stage of non-self. In the present age, self has become most important and all our actions are about self-gratification, the rest of the world ceases to matter.

Mediation helps us make our mind calm and through introspection, looking inwards rather than outwards, we achieve peace. It involves different ways and methods, though the end goal is the same, achieving peace and rising above misery. One can focus on an object, a part of the body, an action like walking, but all the time, being mindful. One practices moment to moment awareness of the physical and mental state, observing every sensation that arises and passes away. This helps us understand how impermanent everything is, every feeling that comes, goes away, whatever begins will come to an end. We observe and we understand, and eventually imbibe this well enough to apply this truth to every aspect of our daily life.

Meditation need not stretch for 24 hours, day after day. It has to be learnt, and then practiced, preferably daily, whenever one can spare the time. It does require quiet surroundings to facilitate concentration, at least initially, till one has reached such an advanced stage that noise and surroundings no longer distract.

Meditation Centers in Yangon

There is always a long waiting list of prospective students of meditation, both local and international. Before enrolling at any center, it is important to know the precise meditative practices taught and practiced at each of these, and see which one we resonate with. Some teaching walking and sitting meditation, both being an exercise in mindfulness.

All the centers have comfortable living quarters, separate for men and women, provide simple, nutritious food, and basic facilities to accommodate new and old students. The rooms do not have any phones and it is generally recommended to not carry laptops, smart phones, books or reading material. Communication with the outside is possible through the office which has international calling facilities, fax machines etc. Doctors are available for medical emergencies.

Most centers teach Vipassana using the Mahasi Sayadaw method. Dhamma Joti Vipassana center was set up by S N Goenka and follows the tradition of Sayagi U Ba Khin. In most centers it is possible to receive instructions in English as well. Every year, thousands of international and local students of all age groups enroll for courses in these centers. The daily practice begins at dawn though timings of different centers vary, and continue till nearly 10 pm, with breaks for food and rest. There is time for individual mediation and group sittings, and teachers are available for improving the meditation technique and resolve doubt. For the few days spent in these centers, living is confined to one’s own physical frame, where one focusses on mindful actions of oneself, and not interact with others at all. Even eye contact is avoided.

Students are expected to adhere to the rules and regulations of the center, follow the eight precepts, practice noble silence, and eat twice a day, abstaining from eating after noon time. Beverages are offered in the evening. This gives us a sense of how little we need to survive, and how wasteful our lifestyle is, in the outside world. This may appear tough as an outsider, but once we step in, the purpose spurs us on, and the focus is on learning alone.

Some of the mediation centers in Yangon are listed below:

  • Dhamma Joti Vipassana Center
  • Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Center
  • Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha Mediation Center
  • Panditarama Meditation Center
  • Shwe Oo Min Dhamma Sukha Yeiktha
  • International Theravada Buddhist University

For those wanting complete solitude away from the city, can opt for the few forest retreats in Myanmar, like the Pak Auk Forest Monastery in Mon State, and the Panditarama Forest Monastery not far from Yangon.


Eating out in Yangon 2019

In six years that I have been here, scores of restaurants have opened and tens have shut down as well. The initial foot falls are high and the quality of food appealing. But gradually we find many of them with few diners, somewhat deserted, and one day, the place shuts down, sometimes taken over by another eatery. Public memory is short, and names are soon forgotten too.

The ones to stay include Rangoon Tea House, Nara Thai, Corriander Leaf, Marina, Thai 47, to name a few. the reason for their staying alive, isn’t difficult to gauge – their quality has remained the same over time, and they have made improvements based on customer reviews. Foodies I guess, I wish to replicate experiences, savor their favorite dishes and expect the same taste, aroma and flavors each time.

Some restaurant experiences leave a lot to be desired, but over time, we have learnt to scale down our expectations and be more accepting of what comes our way. This is also in keeping with the Buddhist way of life, to be equanimous, non-reacting and less critical, and we find ourselves becoming softer, less aggressive and hence improving as individuals.

For me, the best pizzas are still at Parami Pizza, even though many new Italian restaurants have opened. Sharky’s pizzas are good too, but Parami scores higher. We are not partial to the Americanized versions with thick crusts and an overload of cheese and other toppings. Even the soups, salads and meats are cooked to perfection, the pastas creamy but light, while L’Opera has very rich sauces that overfill.

The best Chinese still at Dou Hua, the Chinese restaurant on the first floor at Park Royal Hotel. Buffett and a la carte selections offer variety and it is difficult to find fault in any of the preparations. The familiar, friendly staff adds to the warm ambience.

For Thai I like Nara Thai even though their omelet isn’t as sinfully deep fried. The ambience is appealing, clean, spacious, and attentive staff, which is a welcome change from older Thai eateries that look dated and somewhat musty. However, of late, there have been complaints about a change in the food being served.

Gekko, quite the favorite for Japanese cuisine, is a bit difficult to find, without a conspicuous name board outside, one misses it despite being right in front. Like a typical bar, it is dark on ground level, loud music, and not quite a place for both food and conversation.

If its just food, then the ultimate is, to use Yangon Door2door to deliver the cuisine of your choice, at your doorstep, to savor in the comfort of your home. This concept of home delivery has transformed the food scene in Yangon and has become extremely popular in a short span of time. The list of restaurants covered is getting longer, and their earnings from the restaurants not the customers.



Is Yangon Sliding Under Urbanization Pressure?

Yangon’s crowds are growing and the numbers on the roads are increasing, be it vehicles or people. IS Yangon overcrowded? Yes, very much. Parks are packed with people taking a break, the sidewalks with pedestrians, and the roads with more vehicles than Yangon has ever seen before. All this is in stark contrast to the Yangon we saw in 2013, when its seemed the most refreshing place to live in, a very green, quiet and serene city with an aura of peace that permeated the inner most core of our being, a few cars, a few people, and there was sufficient room for all. Anywhere I went, there were vast open spaces, quiet corners and empty roads. Fast forward to 2018, one look at Yangon now, and this would seem like a fairy tale.

Yangon today looks like any other big Asian city, with its traffic jams, congestion, pockets of densely populated areas, emerging slums, crowded streets and people spilling everywhere. The once neat and clean city, is often seen with littered sidewalks, broken pavements and everything one sees in a place that cannot take the load of the number of people occupying it.

The transformation can be attributed to a series of factors linked to economic development, which brings with it, urbanization, industrialization and modernization.  Migration from rural to urban areas is one of the first phenomena ones sees.

What Yangon stands for

Yangon’s pristine aura of peace, enigmatic charm, unparalleled scenic beauty, colonial heritage and elusive old-world charm, has made it a top tourist destination and the most popular city for the people of Myanmar. As the country’s biggest urban center, Yangon has charmed one and all. Once the center of art and education, Yangon has been changing and evolving, for better and worse. Today, it is a city that is ready to burst at its seams, stretched to provide basic amenities and subsistence to a rapidly growing population. It is rapidly emerging as a cosmopolitan, commercial hub, providing jobs, homes and livelihood to locals and expatriates alike. Yangon is the country’s commercial capital, with the best quality of life, and the first stop for everyone entering the country.

Yangon being the largest city, has 8% of the country’s total population, the number of people being four times more than those living in Mandalay. This accounts for nearly 52% of the country’s total urban population. The current population growth rate of 3.4% per annum, will take the city to the 10 million mark by 2030.

For Myanmar folk, it is the land of opportunity where the best of education, job opportunities and healthcare facilities are available. Yangon accounts for 50% of the country’s industrial capacity, is the largest financial and commercial center, the seat of education, art, culture, healthcare, tourism, research and development.

Yangon’s character has changed with bridges and flyover, vertical high rise structures rising alongside pagodas, housing sector expanding, shopping malls and multiplexes mushrooming all over the city.

Urbanization and the migrant influx

Urbanization in Myanmar has been pushed due to challenges faced in rural areas. With employable population increasing, earning money has become difficult, since there is lack of sufficient land to employ everyone, old farming techniques still being used, threat of natural disasters and difficulty to overcome past disasters, and lack of work opportunities beyond agriculture. The urban pull emanates from better job opportunities in various fields and higher minimum wages. Evidence shows that urbanization peaks when city wages exceed rural earnings, and revenue from natural resources becomes stagnant with limited potential for growth.

Myanmar’s urbanization process has radically changed two big cities, Yangon and Mandalay, and urban population accounts for 34.65% (2016) of the total. Over 50% of the 11,000 registered firms in Myanmar, are Yangon based. Industrialization which incorporates manufacturing and services, is a big driver of urbanization and this holds true for Yangon. As a result, migrants from all parts of Myanmar come to Yangon looking for jobs and earning options.

Theoretically, urban hubs are the perfect meeting place for talent and opportunity, but lack of a qualified, educated and skilled work force, is an issue. Consequently, jobs which do not require high skill levels are easier to find. Often such jobs do not pay well enough to provide subsistence to families, despite the fact that government-stipulated minimum wages are paid. The result is, search for cheaper accommodation, the growth of slums, and squatters seen in all parts of the city.

Slums are informal, temporary, non-pucca hutments or shanties that crop up in clusters, wherever there is free space, generally on the fringes of cities. Unofficial figures indicate that a quarter of Yangon’s population lives in slums that have cropped up in suburbs. An influx of tenants leads to an escalation of rents in the city areas, and pushes the poorer section further away towards the outer parts. Most slums are overcrowded, unhygienic with limited access to clean water and adequate sanitation facilities. Housing space per family is generally less than 200 square ft, the construction type being wooden frames with leaf roofing, temporary and vulnerable to the elements. Hlaing Thar Yar township has the highest number of slum dwellers, most of whom have migrated from the Ayerwaddy Division.

Myanmar is one country whose urban poor are worse off than the rural poor. This is because urban living requires cash for everything and nothing comes free. In rural areas, there are no payments needed for a lot of things that come free, there is exchange and barter, and very few people sleep hungry in villages. The same does not hold true for Yangon’s squatters. Their living conditions are in sharp contrast to the middle and upper classes, and the contrast between the haves and have-nots, is the ideal breeding ground for petty thefts and crimes. The opening up of the country, the influx of foreign goods and capital, the emergence of shopping malls and entertainment areas, has evoked interest from the once content and complacent population. There is a desire to acquire the latest in fashion goods, devices and gadgets, and get a taste of all that Yangon offers. Those opting for shortcuts would resort to dishonest ways of getting these.

How Urbanization impacts developing countries

Developing nations surge ahead on the basis of manpower that drives industrialization. There is a redistribution of population, an exodus from villages towards cities, in search of better job opportunities. Urbanization involves rural flight and expansion of urban areas, and it is almost always, driven by economic factors, since earning potential in urban areas is much higher than rural areas. Agriculture is the primary source of employment in villages in most developing countries where governments have not been able to set up small scale or cottage industries that tap local resources and add value to raw materials.

Urbanization is an essential step for all nations on the path of development. Urban areas are the ubiquitous centers of education, talent, training, capability, experience and expertise-all prerequisites for industrial growth, which will lead the country towards self-sufficiency, increase productivity, generate employment, raise standards of living, increase per capita incomes, savings and investments. Thus it leads social and economic transformation of societies, improving quality at micro and macro levels.

Nearly 54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas today, a far cry from 1800 A.D., when urban population was just 2%. By 2050, the United Nations expects two-thirds of the world population to be in urban areas This is because empirically, it has been seen that cities have more economic potential with their concentration of resources including capital and labor, where talent meets opportunity provided by the manufacturing or services sectors. Urban areas provide variety of opportunity on one side, and consumption on the other.

Urbanization also results in high population density (the number of people living per unit of area), causing overcrowding, shortage of space, homelessness, congestion and pollution. In most developing countries, there is inadequate infrastructure, insufficient affordable housing, water and sanitation, and other basics that are a citizen’s right to lead a dignified life. The dearth of housing leads to slum creation, squatters, shanties being put up on pavements, sidewalks and under bridges, and herein fester crime and danger, out of poverty and frustration, and people take to begging just to survive.

A series of push and pull factors are the root cause of urbanization. Residents of villages are forced to move out when survival becomes difficult, earnings do not cover expenses, and there seems to be no future opportunities for improvement. Hence the push factors come into play, which include landlessness, low wages as farm workers, seasonal work in fields depending on the crop, lack of alternate employment opportunities, and natural disasters that cause loss and damage.

Pull factors include the facilities and opportunities that cities provide. From afar, cities appear to be like paradise and survival easy with all that they offer, better and multiple employment opportunities which are not seasonal, potential to improve skills, better education and healthcare, better infrastructure and communication facilities.  These somehow camouflage the impending threats of extreme poverty, unemployment, vulnerability to crime, exposure to pollution and unhealthy elements.

Can rural exodus be stopped

In the ongoing debate on the ills of urbanization, there is talk of halting the process and a search for alternatives. The solution lies in providing employment opportunities in rural areas through the setting up of small scale industries in villages where local arts and crafts can be manufactured, value added agricultural products can be produced in villages close to the source of raw materials to avoid transportation costs as well. Myanmar’s export earnings from rice, beans pulses, vegetables and fruits, fisheries etc can increase substantially if they are packaged according to international standards and sold as finished goods rather than being finished in other countries. Improvement of education facilities, setting up secondary schools and vocational training centers will also stem part of this influx into Yangon.

The Reality of Motherhood

Women rediscover themselves when they become mothers – they realize their ability to love unconditionally – to put the needs and comfort of a tiny being before their own-melting at their offspring’s helplessness and finding their innate ability to be brave and strong whenever the child needs help, no matter how often. That is the time the story of a mother’s giving begins- sheer altruism, empathy and selfless devotion, with no expectations of any kind.

Motherhood also completes women as individuals, improves their personality and brings out the best in them.  Motherhood is not a need-it is a choice-a choice that will try our patience for the next 20 years, if not the rest of our lives-push us to the brink of sanity-but the tipping point, thankfully, never comes-the cup never brimmeth over.

Strange, how nature has fashioned women-with our large hearts that give more than they can hold-that embrace and get embroiled in every aspect of their child’s life – making his life their own. The protective, nurturing instinct comes to the fore and the child forms an entire world for them. The mother is perennially undaunted by the prospect of losing her own identity and foregoing her interests completely as she molds the personality of her little ones. Her devotion and commitment extends far beyond the call of duty, driven by affection and the strong sense of responsibility towards her children. She saves them from awkward situations, protects them from the barrage of reprimands, scolding and punishments, always ready with excuses on their behalf, even tough it means bearing the brunt of immediate and extended family. For the mother, its not about herself, and what she has to endure, she has to protect them from hurt and discouragement, and teach in her own way, that is hopefully more positive. Her rapport and closeness with the children, she hopes, will help her achieve, what others’ complaints will not. Its not that she is not proved wrong, she is, because they do not often see the mother sandwiched between two generations, they seldom can see beyond themselves, and her softness becomes her undoing.

But somewhere along the way, ego, ambition and unfulfilled dreams get added and many mothers end up living their lives through their children, pushing them aggressively and adding stress and pressure in a world where children carry numerous other burdens to keep up with their peers, who may often be abusive, mentally, if not physically.

We may have given life to our children, but cannot control it completely. It is our duty to provide for them, nurture them to be responsible citizens and fine human beings, but give them space to blossom and grow too. We cannot fulfill our incomplete dreams through them, or use them to achieve what wasn’t within our reach. The joy should be to see them achieve on their own, providing the perfect environment to excel, develop a good personality and evolve a code of ethics, values and principles of the highest order, where purity, peace and sincerity are all important.

If we push our children, it must be so that they can build a beautiful, successful life, and they never regret missed opportunities and wrong doing, or losing out due to sheer laziness and the very human habit of procrastination.

Parents nurture their offspring for as long as they are together. Nurturing covers a wide spectrum, including so much love that it lasts a lifetime, care that is unparalleled, and discipline, which teaches children how to conduct themselves, know their limits, and give space to others, including their parents.

And one day, it is time for the children to fly…build their lives, cultivate their interests, learn and acquire skills and degrees that will sustain them through their adult years. Though times have changed, communication and accessibility keeps parents and children connected all the time, the mother is left forlorn, seeming to have lost her purpose in life and the very reason for her existence. It requires so much strength to fight this feeling and overcome this state…for decades she has forgotten to think and feel for herself, never puts her own needs before those of her children, and often, does not even remember what she likes.

That is when the waiting game begins-for their calls and messages, for them to come home during vacations, and for chances to meet for short breaks. The parenting, the support and the care continues, but an emptiness fills her days, with no frenzy, and not much to look forward to. Perhaps the mother child bond supersedes all, but their leaving home must lead to a new beginning, a journey of self discovery for all mothers, to learn what they now like, as older, wiser and mature women, and learn to find completeness in their own being.

Myanmar’s Dairy Industry

A Case for Milk – The Dairy Industry in Myanmar

The white nectar that sustains infants and builds their body and bones in the first year of their life, the wholesome liquid that nourishes and nurtures those unable to eat solid foods, and the rich source of calcium, is slowly weaving its way into the average Myanmar diet. Supermarkets now stock a wide range of dairy products like yoghurt, cheese, buttermilk, cream, butter, ghee, milk powder, evaporated and condensed milk, many of which have a long shelf life. The product range and variety has increased manifold in the last 5-7 years, with more local small scale manufacturers experimenting with newer products as well imported dairy products lining shelves.

Traditionally, milk was never an important part of the average Myanmar diet, as has been seen in other less developed countries. It has also been seen that milk consumption increases as communities and countries develop, earning capabilities improve and awareness about health and nutrition increase. An increase in income leads to the incorporation of milk and dairy products in largely starch based diets. There is a strong correlation between income and milk consumption at the micro level, and between the dairy industry and stage of economic development of a country. At present milk consumption in developed countries is steady, but growing the fastest in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of milk if we combine the production of cow and buffalo milk, though the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of cow’s milk.

The health benefits of milk

The general reference to milk implies cow’s milk, and in some places, buffalo milk, though milk can be procured from other mammals just as well, and from plant based sources like soya, rice and almonds. Cow’s milk is the highest consumed milk due to the nine essential nutrients it contains, including calcium, potassium, and the daily human requirement of protein. Cow’s milk has better flavour and texture, followed closely by buffalo milk which is popular in very few countries, India being one of them. Cow’s milk has an 87% water content and 13% solids which include minerals, proteins, fats and lactose.

Proponents of milk consider it to be nature’s complete nutrient for humans, providing calcium which is needed for better bones and teeth, and prevents osteoporosis in old age. Daily intake of milk helps to neutralize toxins which enter the body through other foods and can damage the human body. The nourishment derived from milk helps sustain energy levels and keeps our minds and bodies active. For infants and those without teeth, a milk and dairy diet is complete nutrition for growth and sustenance. Health experts are convinced about the role of milk in controlling blood pressure and diabetes.

Commercial milk production

Milk is by far the most nutritive beverage and widespread propagation of its importance as an essential dietary requirement has led governments to encourage setting up of dairy farms, both small and large. This includes nurturing animals, collecting and selling milk. This is not simple at all and the journey from cow to cup is rather long.

Raw milk taken from the cow has to be processed to make it safe for human consumption. Being highly perishable, raw milk lasts for only a few hours unless refrigerated. Therefore, large dairy farms typically collect milk in refrigerated stainless steel containers and send them to milk processing plants where milk is passed through a series of separators and clarifiers which remove debris, bacteria, and also separate heavier and lighter milk.

Essentially milk has to be pasteurized to kill any harmful bacteria. Pasteurization involves heating milk in a specific manner to kill all harmful bacteria but retaining the good bacteria and natural enzymes. It also helps to extend shelf life of milk. The next step is homogenization, a process used to crush the fat globules floating in the milk solid, to make them so small that they cannot rise to the surface and form a thick creamy layer. Milk is also differentiated by fat content, and a set of processes render full cream, low fat or skimmed milk. Vitamin fortified milk and flavoured milk are other varieties produced.

The milk is then packaged and sent to various destinations in refrigerated vehicles, though long-lasting varieties can be sent through normal vehicles.

All types of commercially packaged milk has to meet stringent standards set by a regulatory authority of the country. Quality control is important and has to be maintained by ensuring hygiene and cleanliness levels of the milk processing plant, as well as the health of the animal that provides the milk.

Myanmar’s Dairy Industry

The diary sector in Myanmar is in an early stage of development. Research indicates that almost 85% of Myanmar’s milk comes from small dairy farms, that sell raw milk, due to limited processing facilities, to consumers and businesses close by. The annual production of milk is around 620 million kilograms, and this is less than half the national milk requirements. The Yangon region has seven large milk processors that process raw milk collected by a small network of milk collectors who in turn procure raw milk from very small dairy farms within a distance of 30 km. Quality control and certification of the milk processed is not a regular practice.

The gradual increase in incomes is spurring demand for milk and milk products, which cannot be met by domestic production. The range of milk products commonly consumed include fresh milk, flavoured milk, yoghurt, plain and flavoured, milk powder, condensed milk, and ice cream. A big source of demand comes from the thousands of tea shops across the country that sell millions of cups of tea laced with generous amounts of condensed milk. Most of this is imported since the local varieties produced in factories in the Mandalay region are unable to compete with imported condensed milk in terms of both price and quality. Milk powder is used extensively in the making of highly popular 3-in-1 tea and coffee sachets.

The gap between demand and supply is being met by imports from Thailand, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and other countries. A large segment of this is milk powder, that is also sold as reconstituted milk. According to commerce ministry figures, in a single week in July 2017, 409 tons of condensed milk and 70 tons of milk powder were imported into Myanmar via sea routes. Regular imports from neighbouring Thailand come from the land route across the border.

Some of the leading local brands include Walco, Silvery Pearl, TM, PEP, Fun Hwa and others. This is fresh pasteurized milk in full cream and low fat varieties, but available mainly in the Yangon region. Imported long lasting milk brands include Cowhead, Emborg, Dutch Lady, Foremost, and scores of others, some of which also sell milk powder, condensed milk and evaporated milk in supermarkets and smaller shops lacking refrigeration facilities.

Despite the setting up of various bodies like the Myanmar Dairy Association and Myanmar Dairy Products Manufacturers Association among others, the dairy industry faces multiple stumbling blocks to increasing supply, like inadequate infrastructure, lack of funding and financing options, no access to technical expertise and advisory bodies and others, all of which are essential for improving the quality of milk and making each step of the milk producing process efficient. The dairy industry is at least two decades behind its Thailand counterpart with lack of access to continuous power supply, adequate refrigeration facilities for storage, and reliable transport. Increasing livestock to increase production would be easy, but related issues at every step of the production process need to be resolved first.

Milk and dairy products became a part of the human diet as early as 8000 BCE. Cattle breeding and livestock have sustained civilizations over centuries and milk served to provide essential nutrients in the absence of other foods. However, Southern Asian nations did not include dairy and dairy products as an integral part of their diet, and this trend has continued over centuries. It is only in the last few decades that these nations have started incorporating milk and dairy products into their diets.

The small interest in milk and dairy products began during British Rule for local Myanmar folk, and the Indian influence on food kept that going. Even today, Myanmar’s dairy industry can follow the Indian example, where its Operation Flood, launched the National Dairy Development Board, initiated an unstoppable ‘White Revolution’ and converted India from a milk deficient country to the world’s largest producer, besides generating employment especially in rural areas. The similarity in cultures of India and Myanmar, their proximity and willingness to share knowledge makes India the ideal neighbour to take a cue from.


Diary of a Vegan in Yangon

The Diary of a Vegan in Yangon

A trip to Myanmar is exciting for all the magical, mystical experiences that await us, the untouched natural beauty, serene environs, beautiful pagodas and the innocent beauty of the local Myanmar folk. The only shadow is cast by the prospect of my being a vegan! Will I be able to find pure vegetarian, dairy free food to survive?

My research revealed that there wasn’t much to worry about even though local fare revealed extensive use of eggs, meats, shrimp pastes and fish sauce, but “tat-tat-lo”(the Burmese word for vegetarian) was to be my saviour, followed by pictures of milk, yoghurt, cream etc., since I couldn’t find a Burmese equivalent for vegan.

As I stepped of a modern, plush international airport at Yangon, I was sceptical and was contemplating a minimal, survival diet, when the taxi ride to the hotel revealed umpteen tea shops and shanties selling seemingly vegetable savouries. As I set out on my sight-seeing tour, I was pleasantly surprised to see the road side vegan options, and knew that restaurants and food courts would have much more. I was relieved that I would not have to stick to upscale star-rated hotels for food and request for special meals through the length of my stay here.

I wanted to try my first Burmese meal, and which better place than the famed Rangoon Tea House. A relatively new eatery, it has worked its way into the “top ten things to do in Yangon” list, in a very short span of time. Just expressing my vegan preference sufficed to get me their signature Tofu salad, Peas Paratha and Aubergine bao. Numerous other options were present in the menu, and I was told that eliminating fish sauce and shrimp paste, commonly used in Burmese cooking, would transform the dish into completely vegan fare.

A visit to the supermarket helped me see that the locals do not seem to have a milk drinking habit, though yoghurt is consumed, and tofu is far more preferable to cheese. The yellow Shan tofu had an instant appeal and its taste unparalleled. I learnt about Shan food and the numerous vegetarian and vegan options it offered, and decided to try the 999 Shan Noodle place for my next meal. By the end of the first day I knew, that I could survive on the exotic Myanmar salads and asking for “tat-tat-lo” would get me my vegan preference since I learnt that none of these had any dairy infusions.

Myanmar cuisine options stretched into a long list for me, Monsoon Restaurant visited by Bill Clinton, House of Memories owned and run by a family closely associated with Gen Aung San, Padonmar Restaurant known for its celebrity clientele, and scores more. Tea shops and tea salons are as popular as cafes, and each offers vegetarian snacks, some of which are vegan too.

As a walked in the downtown area, I came across the Nepali Indian Food place on Merchant street, which serves pure vegetarian fare. My knowledge of Indian cuisine told me that vegetarian can easily be transformed into vegan if I request them to eliminate milk and cream for their recipe and not opt for any ‘paneer’ dish. Paneer is the Indian cottage cheese and a favourite of all vegetarians. Yangon now boasts of 33 Indian restaurants including 3 fine dining ones.

My exploration of Yangon showed the amazing variety of cuisines available, like any other cosmopolitan city, with Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, Italian and other restaurants, both big and small.  Asian cuisines are more vegan friendly, but Italian food without cheese and their tomato based sauces are equally palatable. Set menus of course, were a no-no, since there was always a course or two, with dairy based dishes.

I found that bread was an avoidable option since most breads contain egg here, so breakfast was also distinctly local, with tat-tat-lo mohinga and khow suey,both of which savoured each morning. Desserts were mainly fruits , an amazing variety of them, each of them sweet and juicy. My biggest discovery was Nourish Café in Yangon Yoga House, that advertises for serving plant based food to nourish body and soul. It is only as I walked in, that I realized that it is Vegan Café with a full vegan menu!

For long, I had felt my switching to veganism would be limiting for my love for travel, to new destinations, but my few days in Yangon have proved me wrong. For me, being a vegan is a lifelong choice, and I will never be able to take in a morsel of meat or dairy products again.

Veganism is a subset of vegetarianism and refers to plant based diets and an animal product free way of life. It has caught on in the Western nations much more than it has in Asia.


Veganism – the Next Diet Mantra

Veganism is the latest, glamorous fad, and has become a part of one’s identity. Every celebrity who is vegan, is introduced so, almost adding to his/her credentials. It may be in vogue to protect animals, talk about cruelty to them, and be ‘the voice of the voiceless’, and hence give up on animal foods. But it is not easy to give up on dairy, seasoned as we are, to consume milk and milk products from the time we are born-the single diet component that spurs growth for the first two years of a child’s life. Vegans have done this and switched to plant-based milks like soy and almond milk, among others.

Veganism is an off-shoot of vegetarianism, a subset of people who eat plant-based foods only, and do not consume any dairy products either. A vegan is a person who does not use or consume any animal product – food, clothing or accessories, anything that involves cruelty to animals. Thus, they do not have fish eggs, meat, poultry, milk, dairy products, even honey. Vegans also do not buy or use leather bags and handbags, wallets and belts, leather jackets or fur coats.

The Vegan Diet

Being a vegan is a choice for health, environment or ethical reasons, and in today’s world, there is no dearth of non-meat, non-dairy options. The repertoire of vegan foods and preparations is multiplying, with vegan substitutes making up for all that one may have missed, in the form of exotic cakes and pies, puddings and cheesecakes. In countries like the UK and USA, where a higher number of vegans are found, vegan curries, vegan pizzas and cakes are commonplace, as much as a wide variety of meal options.

The vegan food list includes fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts, seeds, and beans. Soya products become an important source of protein, tofu substitutes cottage cheese, and soya also forms the base for mock meats, mock cheese, and soya milk is used as the perfect milk replacement for drinking and for yoghurts. Peanut and other nut butters replace the dairy butter and are richer in nutrients.

Globally, plant-based diets are gaining ground, and even the biggest meat eaters are beginning to notice the benefits of incorporating fruits and vegetables into diets. Surveys indicate a rising vegetarian trend, though countries like India which have over 30% of its population as vegetarian, attribute it to religion. The number of vegans is on the rise, and the flip side of consuming milk and dairy products is gaining ground. A section of scientists and doctors are propagating a dairy free diet for all the ill-effects of milk produced by cows that have been pumped with antibiotics, growth hormones and a diet that only makes them give more milk. Milk produced by cows that graze freely and lead normal lives, without human intervention or prodding, is the only safe nutritional source, not what we buy from supermarkets etc. This is also one of the many reasons behind the wave of veganism that has caught us all.

Yangon-A City with Character

The City I Call Home
Yangon – A City with Character
The enigmatic city, Rangoon became Yangon in 1989. But as they say, “what is in a name”. it is the same place with character and beauty, charm and attraction for locals as well as foreigners. Having visited this city once, there is a desire to come again and again.
Yangon today is well on its way to becoming a modern cosmopolitan Asian city, acquiring all the structures and components of a developed domain. High rise buildings, hotels and luxury condominiums, shopping malls and restaurants have all mushroomed all over the city.
Once the centre of trade and education, the city has a colourful past, having served as the capital of the erstwhile Burma and continues as the country’s commercial capital, still the most developed out of all cities, holding something for everyone who visits, or like me, chooses to stay.
The city has a long history and has been exposed to numerous influences, all of which are evident in some aspect of the city. The most conspicuous is the strong British influence that stays long after they left the country 68 years ago, in the form of architecture, cuisine to an extent, and the English language which faded away during the decades of isolation.
Yangon has a distinct Asian feel, a lot of the world charm, excellent architecture, natural lakes and parks and sufficient greenery that makes a difference to the quality of life. The largest number of colonial buildings in South east Asia, can be found in Yangon, and it is home to the most beautiful Shwedagone Pagoda, and the 2000-year old Sule Pagoda, and scores of other equally peace-inspiring pagodas, museums and markets, lakes and gardens.
In the last five years the city has grown and expanded, and now seems to be bursting at its seams. We have witnessed the skyline changing, and the one visible, vast green expanses stretching till nearly the horizon, have now been curtailed, with tall new structures of hotels, malls and residential complexes, and cranes lifting concrete have replaced the golden domes of pagodas we could see in the distance.
The number of cars has multiplied manifold, and traffic jams have become a permanent fixture on most roads. The density of population has also increased, with citizens finding this city the best bet for employment and a seemingly better life, as well as expatriates coming to explore avenues for business.
Yangon is home to nearly 6 million people who find it safe and the most liveable city in the country. It is only now after five years that we hear of petty crimes, random night time dangers and a threat to its safe status. I remember the time when the prospect of moving to Yangon first came up, I checked and found out that Yangon at that time was the safest city in the world. The image is somewhat tainted now.
What I like about Yangon is the pace of life, the smiling faces, the simplicity of its people and the richness of its culture, the all-pervasive Buddhist beliefs that are deeply entrenched in the common man, who learns to share and donate out of his meagre portions, who extends help and assistance to anyone and everyone, and who happily renounces worldly ties and goes for meditation retreats once or more annually.
It is this Buddhist spirit that keeps them content and accepting, away from violence and craving and also away from crime. From very early in life people learn to follow the path of Dhamma, give donations to the needy and share what they have, and live a life of devotion and faith.

The Shwedagone Pagoda

The Shwedagone Pagoda

Any reference to Myanmar brings to mind pictures of a tall imposing golden dome of a vast structure against the backdrop of the clear blue sky, and as dusk descends, it lights up the surrounding areas as the hundreds of lights luminate the glittering gold. This is the Shwedagone Pagoda, also called the Great Pagoda, the Golden Pagoda or the Shwedagone Zedi Daw.

From a picture post card to images online, none do justice to the 99-meter tall Shwedagone Pagoda. With a city built around it, one crosses it frequently enough but none of us ever have our fill of the place. There is something that fascinates, that tugs and we feel a pull towards it, and as we cross it, we stop everything else, to just keep looking till it disappears from sight, and absorb its beauty one more time.

The Shwedagone pagoda is one more reason to love Myanmar, and having seen this one pagoda, all others, despite their own charm, pale in comparison. Its not just about the beauty of the physical structure, its towering presence above and beyond other structures, but more about its peaceful, almost ethereal ambience which we are all so reluctant to leave.

The pagoda is 2500 years old with a long history. It was initially built by the Mons as a short 8.2-meter structure on top of the Singuttara Hill that lies to the west of the Royal Lake. Over time it has undergone renovations and now stands at 99 meters with layers of gold plates that make the structure glow at any time of the day and night.

It is the Shwedagone experience, and not its history, that I would like to share. An entrance fee of USD 8 is charged from tourists. As we enter, in sleeved shirts and full pants, the crowds are the first to catch our attention. One sees so many local Myanmar people, most other historical religious places would have a higher number of tourists. Tanakha on their faces, they softly make their way towards the entrance. This is what makes Myanmar different, from places like India-the crowds never rush, push or tug, no breaking of lines and no hurry to be the first to enter. Quietly everywhere, even the children, await their turn.

In five years, the quiet ambience has been replaced by crowded fervour just due to the number of visitors within. The ambience is no less mystical, but there is often a wait to worship at shrines, pouring water, or the exact spot on the platform from where one can see the different colours reflected as the rays of the setting sun and the spotlights thereafter, fall on the large diamond and other gems at the top of the stupa. The top of the stupa is encrusted with gems including 5448 diamonds, 2317 rubies, sapphires and other gems, 1065 golden bells, and a single large 76-carat diamond.

The best time to visit the Pagoda are either early morning around sunrise before the sun reaches too high and becomes too hot, or around dusk when there is still natural light, and see the drift towards darkness and see artificial lighting flood the place illuminating the dome, spire, the 64 pagodas encircling the base, and every shrine.

A single visit is never enough to this oldest Buddhist pagoda in the world. Even after several trips one wants a chance to visit again. It is probably the peace and calm that permeates the soul, the feeling of being in a place far removed from the outside world.

As for myself, I have visited the Pagoda numerous times, and would happily go time and again. I cross it often from the outside and for those five minutes, as I drive by, my eyes remain glued to the sheer golden beauty of the Shwedagone Pagoda.

The Dear Departed….

Seven years to this day…seems like an eternity. Seven years since a beautiful soul, a highly principled man, our father, left this earth.

His was the life of a truly great man,
Who made his life so sublime,
And departing, left behind him
His foot prints on the sands of time.

To think that there was a human being so devoid of malice, jealousy, envy or hatred…who was so accepting of failings and shortcomings…who was grateful for whatever was put in front of him, without finding fault…who was so detached from the material…for whom wealth and money had little significance…what he had in his pocket, he would happily give to anyone and everyone…who even in death, gifted light and sight to someone living.
His powerful presence meant the world to us, his quiet, gentle ways gave us strength, his wisdom, his stories and his Urdu poetry, all ring in our ears, even today. His learning and insights of decades, came our way in a shorter span of time, and stay with us to this day…the only difference being, we as his children listened attentively, hanging on to each word he uttered, while the youth of today lose interest in a few minutes, if not seconds.
He gave us the gift of life, and loved in his undemonstrative ways, nourished and nurtured, and taught us how to live a life of integrity with the highest ideals and principles, how to be unflinchingly honest, rather than believe the lies we weave, and how to value what we have, and what we are blessed with. He taught us the value of humility over arrogance, mildness over aggression, how giving in, is often a bigger victory than taking a rigid stand. How walking away always scores over confrontation, and not getting provoked, our ultimate test.
We learnt about mindfulness long after he had gone, and then realized, that though an atheist, not given to spiritual teachings and sermons, did everything so mindfully…
The world is emptier without him, and we feel so alone, even as we try to walk on the path of goodness he put us on…holding our hands as we began our journey of life.

Myanmar Summers – Beat The Heat


Come March and man and earth alike seem parched and dry, under the sweltering heat of an unrelenting sun. Stepping out after 8 am has us all sweating profusely and scurrying for a patch of shade, and any respite from the blazing heat. Distances have never seemed as much and the cool air-conditioned comfort of offices, never more welcome. This continues through the months of april and early May, with a brief respite during the week long thingyan break when playing with water and all else that comes with the water festival. The monsoons are by now eagerly awaited, and the wait for the rain Gods to condescend and send the first showers continues.

The Department of Hydrology and Meteorology had predicted a warmer than usual March, the summer of 2016 to be the hottest ever, and the El Nino effect could even lead to shortage of water. The coming days are only going to get hotter and with it are health hazards and illnesses especially food gets rancid sooner and adequate refrigeration and storage facilities are missing. Already the power load has increased and power failures have increased. A delayed monsoon is also predicted, raising fears of deaths due to heat stroke when the hot spell continues unabated.

Myanmar is not really the hottest country in the world. The problem arises due to people not being accustomed to this kind of heat and global warming is gradually pushing average temperatures up. May is also the month when the average sunlight hours are the highest.

The number of people fainting and falling in the heat is increasing as body salts reduce due to excessive sweating. Overcrowded public transport with lack of proper ventilation, further aggravate the problem. Stomach disorders and food poisoning is on the rise.

Thankfully the heat abates after sunset thanks to the numerous water bodies and the breeze that brings cooler air onto the land expanse. This makes the late evenings and nights a bit more comfortable. But with the highest temperature of the day touching 40 degrees, the drop in night temperatures is only of a few degrees.

Beating the heat – A few Tips to stay cool

Global warming that we see in every corner of the world, is here to stay and Myanmar is just getting hotter by the year. Interestingly, every year as the heat intensifies we seem to forget how bad it was the year before. With no other alternatives, it is best to attempt to stay cool and avoid the ill effects of the heat by adopting a few recommended remedies.

  • Wear cottons in light colors – Cotton material is ideally suited for summer and thin cotton helps in allowing air to pass through. Cottons also absorb sweat and prevent stickiness on the skin. Wearing light colors helps because they reflect the sun’s heat away from the body and help it to stay cooler. Dark colors absorb the heat and pass it on to the body. According to a 2011Mayo Clinic report, light colored clothing are the key to regulating body temperature and help in staying cool, thereby subverting the risk of heat strokes. White color retains the least amount of heat.
  • Increase consumption of fluids to stay hydrated – Heat tends to dehydrate the body and fluid loss is far quicker. This leads to exhaustion and fatigue sets in much sooner. It is important to increase fluid consumption and this includes water, the most important nutrient. Water helps to maintain body temperature and takes the heat away from the body’s internal organs, hence preventing damage due to a heat stroke. Fresh juices and coconut water are other cooling fluids that help in keeping the body hydrated. Tea and coffee while adding to fluid intake, also have a diuretic effect.
  • Avoid walking under the sun, select the shaded alleys – In countries like Myanmar the sun hits us even more due to the vast expanses of land getting the heat of the sun directly, few pockets of inhabited land and virtually no high rise buildings. Though there is respite in the form of water bodies and the greenery surrounding them, it cannot reduce the heat felt. Thankfully there are trees all around even in cities like Yangon that are the most thickly populated. It is preferable to walk in their shade or even in the shade of the buildings to prevent sunburn and heat strokes.
  • Stay indoors during the afternoons – the sun is directly above us at noon but its heat is maximum on the ground at 2 pm. Though it begins to subside subsequently, the afternoons are the worst times to be outdoors. It is best to keep outdoor activity for early mornings and late evenings.
  • Avoid foods that are heat inducing – In eastern cultures, there is a distinct concept of warm foods and cold foods, that is heat-inducing and cooling foods. Thus fruits are supposed to be cooling while dry fruits supposedly induce heat in the body. Similarly red meat is heat inducing while salads are cooling. Having cold fruits and yoghurt is always beneficial in keeping heat away from internal organs.
  • Cover glass windows and keep closed during daytime – Plain glass windows are unable to block the heat piercing through, unless the glass is tinted or covered. Even curtains need a sun blocking lining to stop the heat. Keeping windows closed prevents the hot air from entering and makes a marginal difference in room temperature. The natural inclination always is to open doors and windows to capture any amount of fresh breeze.
  • Lighter food with salad focus – Heavy, oily foods and fried snack foods take longer to digest due to the high oil content. Similarly, spicy foods and caffeine add to the heat produced in the body, with some spices even causing burning sensations. Certain types of medicines taken for lifestyle diseases like diabetes, hypertension and heart ailments also produce heat in the body due to their chemical composition but are unavoidable due to their therapeutic value. Salads with their high water content, cooling properties and freshness can make up for heat producing foods and if consumed in larger quantities, can help to keep body heat low.
  • Prevent loss of body salts – when outside temperatures are high the body faces more stress and tends to sweat. Sweating takes away body fluids and minerals. This aggravates the stress on the body and can cause cramps. Sweat contains salts and when these body salts are depleted, a feeling of weakness leads to fainting spells and one falls down just anywhere, causing injuries. The only solution lies in having plenty of fluids especially juices of coconut and orange. Electrolyte supplements help too.
  • Exercise in cooler places or just swim – Exercise causes sweating and this can be a double whammy if carried out in warm places or outdoors. Cooler areas like under the shade of trees, or indoors, is more practical and sustainable for a longer period. Alternatively, exercise can be kept for after sunset when it is cooler. The best exercise during these hot summer months is swimming, since being in the water is extremely refreshing and cooling since it reduces the body heat. Swimming is a work out for the whole body that also reduces weight and therefore is the perfect form of exercise.

For countries where increased temperatures are a recent phenomenon, it is going to take some time to get accustomed to the scorching heat of the sun. Myanmar is witnessing some of the most severe summers now and the effects of El Nino as predicted are making life quite uncomfortable. The monsoon showers are still a month away, but till then it is important to beat the heat.