Myanmar: Tea Shops in Mandalay
Mandalay is a historic city, on its dry plain ringed by blue hills. In the heart of the city is the remnant of the moated square citadel where the last royal dynasty of Burma came to an ignominious end thanks to the empire-building British. But what about present-day Mandalay? Around the old citadel a grid of numbered streets spreads out, where a rich and bustling life goes on; and at the heart of that life is the humble tea shop.
The tea shop is where people watch a football match on TV with their mates; have a drink on the way home; set the world to rights; and stay connected with the social fabric.
Each tea shop is generally known for a particular snack food and waiting staff will often know the tea preferences of their customers. Burmese tea is served rich with masala and sweet with condensed milk. Each table also has a flask of green oolong tea that is sipped from tiny cups.
Later in the morning we stopped at a more modern ‘posh’ tea shop. The tea here was twice the price of the local tea shops but it was packed with people in smart work clothes. There were even cars parked outside! They served a delicious spread of sweet and savoury snacks.
Something you must try when travelling in Myanmar is mohinga – the national dish. This is a fresh, noodly, soupy breakfast packed with condiments such as coriander and chilli. You will see mohinga being appreciatively consumed at street stalls everywhere in Myanmar.
Being pedalled through the streets of Mandalay on a vintage trishaw was relaxing and at times magical. It is such a gentle way to travel, easily passed by all the other vehicles on the road but perfect for Mandalay’s quieter streets.
We explored a covered local market and stopped to watch a woman grinding sandalwood bark on a flat, flower-shaped stone. Thanaka is both the name of the tree (Limonia acidissima) and the paste created from the ground bark used by most Burmese women and children for beautification and sun protection.
The thing that really hit me wandering through the busy market was how limited we have become in our consumption of (particularly) vegetables in the west. There were all sorts of fresh greenstuffs laid out for sale, as well as five different types of egg (including the duck eggs covered with a lime mixture).
One of our last stops was to try another quintessential Myanmar dish. It’s called laphet and it is a pickled tea leaf salad. That may not sound super appealing but it is delicious and eaten almost every day in Myanmar. The café we visited specialises in laphet and I was surprised to find out that Myanmar is the only country in south-east Asia where they grow tea for eating.
Just as our appreciation of the culture and social fabric of both Mandalay and Myanmar would be so much more superficial if we had not taken this excellent tour.