Synopsis: Bourdain travels to Myanmar as the nation emerges from decades of military dictatorship. Here the food reflects a sudden surge in freedom of expression: The cuisine famously includes many salads and relishes, and everyone mixes and matches flavors to their liking. But Bourdain reminds that there are huge swaths of the country where outsiders are not permitted to travel and the government is in conflict with ethnic minorities. Bourdain asks the people he encounters on his voyage: Exactly how free is freedom from military rule in Myanmar?

Storied past, uncertain future

“Credit cards accepted? Almost nowhere. Cash machines? Uh-uh. Wi-Fi? Internet? Rare. 3G? You gotta be kidding. If you need to exchange money here, only crisp, absolutely new $100 bills accepted. In Myanmar, it’s another, older world.”

  • “Chances are you haven’t been to this place. Chances are this is a place you’ve never seen, other than maybe blurry cellphone videos, old black-and-white newsreels from World War II. Chances are bad things were happening in the footage you saw. Myanmar after 50 years of nightmare—something unexpected is happening here, and it’s pretty incredible.” 
  • “In Yangon, capital city of Myanmar, it’s dark. Blackouts are frequent, with the ancient power grid. What sources of light there are in the street cast an eerie yellow-orange hue.”
  • “Burma, now Myanmar—where Orwell had once served as a colonial policeman, where he’d first grown to despise the apparatus of a security state—became more Orwellian than even he could have imagined. A nation where even having an opinion could be dangerous.”
  • “Just as the doors are opening, my crew and I are among the first to record what has been unseen for decades by most of the world. Meanwhile, this Southeast Asian country of 80 million people is collectively holding its breath, waiting to see what’s next. And will this loosening of government grip last?”
  • “In Yangon motorbikes are outlawed. ‘Why’ is a matter of much rumor and speculation. So it’s the bus for me. Something seems almost—out of sync. Not too long ago, even filming here officially as an open, professional Western film crew would have been unthinkable. In 2007 a Japanese journalist was shot point-blank and killed [while] filming a street demonstration. Be seen talking to anybody with a camera and there would likely be a knock on your door in the middle of the night. Yet so far, confronted with our cameras: a few smiles and mostly indifference at worst. Shocking, considering how recently the government has started to relax its grip.”
  • “Early morning in Yangon. Among the crush of commuters, shoppers, people trying to make a living, rise up the last remnants of empire. Faded, often crumbling, but still there after all these years. These are the offices, businesses, and public buildings of the British colonials.”

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“For the moment, at least, things seem to be moving in the right direction. A country closed off to most for so long, sleeping, a 50-year nightmare for many of its citizens, finally, may be waking up. To what? Time will tell.”

  • “The Sofaer building was once one of the swankiest department stores in Rangoon. A century ago in Kipling’s poem, ‘Mandalay’ was beckoning the overheated imaginations of a generation of young Englishmen. Here you could buy fine Egyptian cigarettes, French liqueurs. The floor tiles were shipped over from Manchester. Now people live here. A half-century of a pariah state has left very few of these buildings in good repair. And there are divergent views on whether to preserve them. For many, a reminder of colonial subjugation; for others, vestige of a golden time.”
  • “It’s very easy for me to sit here and say whatever I want about the government, right? We can go home, you know. Our lives will go on. We don’t pay the price for that show. Everybody who helped us could very well pay that price. It should be pointed out that a lot of people did not. A lot of people were very nice to us but said, Look, I just—I’ve already been in jail, you know. I really don’t want to go back. It’s a very real concern, what happens to the people we leave behind.”
  • “These days in Myanmar, in the streets, on the docks, it’s all about moving forward. In an economy ripe to explode if things continue trending in their current direction, the busy hustle and bustle of Yangon’s port appears even busier today, as workers prepare for the oncoming holiday.”
  • “A thousand years ago Bagan was the capital under a long line of Burma kings. It’s the sort of place where the old coexists with the even older. As elsewhere in this part of the world, in many of the Buddhist temples here, far older animist, spirit-based beliefs coexist with more recent Buddhism.”
  • “We’re traveling across the largest mainland nation in Southeast Asia. But it should be pointed out that we are still within the confines of the tourist triangle—areas permissible for travel. Whole sectors of this country—much of it, in fact—are off limits. Simply put, there is shit going on they do not want you to see. A low-intensity conflict with the ethnic Kachin tribe would be one of them. A wave of persecution and death in the Thu Kine state. The country may be opening up at its center but all along the edges is waging a desperate war to hang on to the status quo. Needless to say, the status quo is not good.”
  • “You know, everyone I’ve met in this country so far, in fact, has been to prison.”

Pluralistic cuisine

“I have a list: Things to Eat in Myanmar. And this is one of them: chicken curry. And from roadside joints like this, nestled among the temple ruins, you’re more than likely to catch a very enticing whiff.”

  • “Of course, morning in Yangon has always been about tea. It’s black, Indian-style tea, usually with a thick dollop of sweetened condensed milk. You want it sweet? Less sweet? Very sweet? Strong? Less strong? Everybody’s got a preference. Everybody’s got a preferred tea shop, where they know presumably how you like yours.”
  • “This is something very confusing in general in this part of the world: Everyone eats everything differently—very much to their taste. Anything goes.”
  • “I’ll tell you, it’s the backbone of every street fair in the world, isn’t it? Deep-fried food.”
  • “Sizzling meats, the clink of beer glasses, ringing bicycle bells. This is Yangon’s 19th Street. Does Yangon rock? Can it rock?”

Charm of Bourdain

[Over a plate of prawn shells at Minn Lan Restaurant] “That is some good shit, my friends. We shall know them by the number of their dead.”

  • “With all the kissing sounds—that smooching, kissing, you know, sound that you’re hearing all over the place—my wife would have been in like 10 fights so far. Sorry, who are you smooching at, bitch? This is how you summon a waiter in Myanmar. I know. I know. Try that at Hooters and you would be rightly ejected. It takes some getting used to, for sure.”
  • “You’d expect this, an ancient city of nearly unparalleled size and beauty, to be overrun with tourists, souvenir shops, snack bars, tours on tape, but no! For the most part, you’re far more likely to bump into a goat than a foreigner.
  • [To the passengers of a man-powered Ferris wheel] “Good luck! May you return safely with all of your limbs intact.”

On the road to Bagan

“The Night Express to Bagan: 600 kilometers of what will turn out to be kidney-softening travel by rail, but Bagan, Myanmar’s ancient capital, I’ve been told, is a must-see.”

  • “Mishaps on both Burmese planes and trains are not, shall we say, unheard of.”
  • “Yangon’s gravitational pull broken, and with darkness falling, the train picks up speed. At times terrifyingly so … One can’t help wondering what the engineer and conductor are thinking as the train speeds heedlessly on faster and faster. … Try pissing in the bathroom and find yourself launched straight up into the ceiling, bringing to a rude conclusion what was already an omnidirectional experience.”