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Travel: Return to Rangoon

Twenty years after his first visit to Burma, Brett Atkinson finds the ruling military junta is cautiously embracing economic and social reform.

I first see Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma’s oldest Volvo at Rangoon Airport. Not the softly spoken freedom fighter feted by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but as a faded postcard reverentially mounted on my taxi’s sun-faded dashboard. It’s a laminated totem of hope that’s becoming more common and celebrated across the former Burmese capital.

Tucked into street vendors’ ramshackle noodle carts, or looking down from teashop walls near Rangoon’s venerable Scott Market, cherished, frozen-in-time portraits of “the Lady” are now permitted to be displayed. Even the plane tree-lined road leading to her lakeside villa is proudly pointed out by my driver, his hands fleetingly abandoning the steering wheel to meet in silent homage.

Following her release from 15 years of intermittent house arrest in November 2010, Burma’s ruling military junta is cautiously embracing economic and social reform, and the influence of Southeast Asia’s most renowned political dissident. Two decades after my first visit to Burma, Rangoon is morphing other old memories into new surprises. Back then Volvos – however rundown and creaky – were virtually non-existent.

Now the occasional BMW, Mercedes or Lexus patrols the city’s wide avenues. A cursory glance reveals Thai number plates, the cars smuggled illegally across Burma’s spidery eastern border. Other Bangkok echoes include garish concrete-layer-cakes housing seafood restaurants and karaoke bars, and Honda dealerships filling the corrupt pockets of the regime’s cronies. But away from the motorway linking the airport to downtown, any hastily applied veneer of modernity is stripped away, and my 20-year-old Rangoon reverie re-emerges.

Strident moneychangers still loiter round the Sule Paya, the 2200-year-old golden temple incongruously occupying the city’s main roundabout. Their backpacks and money belts bulge with US dollars, euros and Burmese kyats-mocking local laws banning black-market currency transactions. A dribble of bus and bicycle traffic eases by City Hall, built from 1928 and combining British and Burmese influences. Effortlessly avoiding a slow-moving bus, a couple of slower-walking locals reinforce just how different sleepy Rangoon is from its urban neighbours.

Further downtown towards the drifting Yangon River, Rangoon’s British colonial past is showcased amid phalanxes of red-brick and mildew-stained facades. Customs buildings and law courts are seemingly transplanted from Victorian England, their imposing colonial profiles struggling to retain a dignity under waves of tropical humidity. While nearby capitals are spruced up with foreign investment, one of the British Empire’s grandest cities remains subsumed under a dank and fecund cloak.

Occupying a bustling riverfront location is my Volvo’s final destination. Built in 1896 by the Sarkies brothers – also the founders of Raffles in Singapore – the Strand is an icon of Southeast Asian travel. Twenty years ago, cautious restoration of the hotel was taking place, and my milky afternoon tea in the Strand’s lobby was interrupted by a parade of Burmese tradesmen. Now the palm-studded lobby segues into spacious suites with teak floors and mahogany furniture, and moneyed international guests maintain the hotel’s cosmopolitan past.

It’s a chequered history, including occupation by the Japanese Army in 1941; the hotel even survived visits from filmmaker Oliver Stone and Mick Jagger a few decades later. Other guests have included Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham, both celebrated in the Strand’s Writer’s Bar, Rangoon’s preferred after-dark destination for diplomats from nearby embassies along Strand Rd. In a new century, a chilled Myanmar lager effortlessly trumps a chipped cup of tepid Earl Grey.

Outside the Strand’s air-con and orderly haven, broken pavements lead to another collage of old and new Burma. Near Rangoon’s main post office, street vendors sell garlands of fragrant blooms, and bookish Anglophile fortune-tellers offer guidance in measured English tones. Their street-level and streetwise commercial neighbours include DVD vendors with hastily copied blockbusters and boxed sets. Amid the pitch for bogus versions of Bridesmaids and Boardwalk Empire, I’m also surreptitiously offered bootleg copies of books by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Not here, and not now, but in a country where Facebook, Twitter and Gmail are all banned, debate and discourse is definitely being kept alive in other ways.

Cut and dried

Bacalhau is to Portugal what pasta is to Italy, by that doesn't make it taste any better, says Peter Calder.

It was my good luck to have reached almost three score years before I first tasted bacalhau. For the benefit of those fortunate enough not to know, bacalhau is the name in Portugal for dried and salted codfish. The word does service by extension for the dishes based upon it, of which there are either 365 or 1001 depending on whom you talk to.

The range is unsurprising since there is no end to human ingenuity when confronted by a challenge: in this case, to disguise the aroma and taste of something that should not really be eaten at all. For, whether drowned in a spicy tomato sauce, or tortured under a grill and drizzled with lemon, bacalhau never surrenders its essence: it has the mouth-feel of one of those mountaineering sandals spiked with six-inch nails and the flavour of – well, it actually has no flavour at all, other than salt.

As a matter of principle, when in another country, I always eat the local cuisine. And bacalhau is to Portugal what pasta primavera is to Italy or sushi to Japan: a foodstuff so central to the nation's gastronomic conception of itself that it takes both prior know-ledge and an effort of will to avoid it.

In six days in Lisbon, I yielded to professional duty and ordered bacalhau as often as I could. Having arrived in the late afternoon and seized by the unadventurousness of the disoriented, I ordered it in a brightly lit and banal cafe in a pedestrianised precinct where the menus are in English, French and German, with Portuguese a poor fourth; the next day I ate it grilled by a cheery immigrant Angolan on a streetside brazier in a part of town probably best avoided after dark; and I made a point of challenging the waiter in one of the city's more fabled restaurants to prove to me that my prejudice was unfounded. Each order was a triumph of hope over experience but nobody succeeded in offering me for my money – which ranged from two euros to almost 20 – anything that was more than theoretically edible.

This is doubtless some sort of heresy but nothing will make me recant, or plead guilty to lacking catholic taste. I've enjoyed horse, its taste boosted by a thumb-sized wedge of mutton fat, in Mongolia; I braved (but did not much like) snake in Vietnam; I seek out and enjoy offal dishes in the places where they are done well (the French have a fine touch with kidney and brains).

Those who remember the lovely little backstreet place where they discovered bacalhau's charms may be caught in an authenticity trap: a dish is, by definition, delicious because it is what the common people eat and only a snob would say otherwise. These same people will be slow to name macaroni cheese or preservative-rich pork-flavoured sausages with bubble and squeak when a visitor to this country asks about authentic local cuisine (they will instead name some fine Italian and Japanese faves), yet these dishes are more commonly enjoyed in Aotearoa than the melanzane alla parmigiana or teppanyaki they will heartily recommend.

There's nothing wrong with enjoying bacalhau, or its vernacular equivalents anywhere, of course. But to imagine the Cubans eat the mixture of white rice and black beans that they call moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians) for any other reason than that it is all they can afford, and to pretend that eating it is some kind of gastronomic sophistication, seem to me profoundly patronising.

People eat salted cod in the west of the Iberian peninsula because they have to. It's cheaper than fresh fish or the meat that is a luxury item. If they knew how disobliging I had been about it, they would wonder, with some justice, what kind of paradise I lived in that I could be so choosy. And don't tell me I just didn't find the right place. The €19 bacalhau, roasted with onions and peppers, was whipped up in Martinho da Arcada, a joint by the Praca do Comercio, which has been open since 1782. If, with all that practice, they can't convince me, nobody can.