Until just a few years ago, Myanmar, or Burma if you prefer, was as mysterious as North Korea. People just didn’t go there and the average person knew little to nothing about it. But with the change from military to civilian rule many changes have occurred, including the opening of the country to the rest of the world and the rest of the world has responded in kind. Tourists have begun to descend on Myanmar in huge numbers, curious about the country but also eager to experience a region of Southeast Asia that hasn’t seen the same tourism infrastructure development as some of its neighbors. My own education started where it normally does, with the food. I knew absolutely nothing about Burmese food or even what I’d expect to find in Yangon, the country’s largest city. While I could have clumsily eaten my way around the city, I wanted to take a food tour for a more organized immersion into Myanmar’s foodie scene. I did some research and didn’t find many options, but then I discovered Yangon Food Tours. In operation for just a few months, this is very much a business with passion and I was excited not just to enjoy a food tour dinner, but also to support a truly local startup.
I met the owner Phone at the tour gathering point along with a few other tourists, all there for the same reason – to eat themselves silly. I purposefully joined the tour on my first day in the city, really wanting to understand the food before heading out on my own. What followed was not only one of the best food tours I’ve ever been on, but one of the most fun as well. It was an eclectic group, Brits and Americans mostly and none of us knew a lot about Myanmar in general, much less the food culture. Phone understood that and at each of the seven stops made sure to explain not only what we were eating, but why it’s popular and why it’s important to Burmese culture.
Staying at The Strand Hotel, the meeting location in front of Maha Bandula Park couldn’t have been more convenient, yet another perk to staying at this iconic property. Another was that I was able to follow the advice of the kind staff at The Strand, which was to enjoy some of Yangon’s street food. The Yangon Food Tour is a good mix of stall and restaurant food, which, honestly perfectly reflects the style of eating in Yangon. And eating is serious business in the city, I marveled at how many restaurants and other opportunities to eat there were everywhere around town. Not unlike other countries in the region, food is at the heart of the experience and to truly start to understand the culture and people, you have to understand what they eat and how they enjoy food.
Moving from stall to stall, enjoying local delicacies such as samosa salad, fried chicken wontons and something mysteriously named a Gangster Snack was fun, informative and of course delicious. Almost more important than the food though was spending the evening walking around the streets of Yangon with a local. Instead of guessing where to go and what to eat, Phone was there to guide us every step of the way, introducing me to areas of the city I know I would’ve missed on my own. Ultimately, that’s the great benefit of any well-executed food tour. Sure, the food is usually amazing but what we learn about the culture and the city itself is almost more important. For most societies, food and how it is consumed is at the center of daily life and to be brought into that secret world is something special and memorable.
Before the tour I was slightly worried though. As a picky eater, I had no idea whether or not I’d be able to eat everything on the tour, even though I had emailed Phone in advance about my concerns. While he’s new to the business, he handled my needs with ease, offering me alternatives when needed or avoiding certain stalls altogether. That’s a certain level of professionalism I don’t always see in even seasoned veterans of the industry and exemplifies, I think, a level of true care and concern that will ensure his business thrives well into the future.
After the stall snacks, we sampled more robust plates at neighborhood restaurants. Places I would’ve walked by without a second glance but which are home to some of the best food in the city. Tasty Burmese tea, Shan noodles and a table full of small plates that could’ve fed an army. There was no walking away hungry that night, Phone wouldn’t allow it. At our last stop this unlikely group of new friends laughed over bowls of ice cream and custard, taking photos with one another and reveling in an evening well spent. It was the ideal first night out on the town, but not necessarily for the reasons I thought before arriving. Yes, the Yangon Food Tour was the ideal introduction to the cuisine of Yangon and Myanmar, but it did more than that. It was also the perfect way for me to get used to the city, to shed any concerns or fears I may have had in a new city and to learn to enjoy Yangon for everything that makes it so great. It was one of the highlights of my time in Myanmar, well worth the investment of $35 and a few hours of my time.