Bagan restaurants

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The Nanda puppet show in Bagan

Puppets, above, and puppeteers, below, at the Nanda restaurant in Bagan, Burma. All photos by David Lansing.

I later learned from Sai that he didn’t take me to the Nanda restaurant for the food which, as I’ve mentioned, wasn’t particularly good, but for the puppet show.

“You go to Bagan, you must see puppet show.”

I don’t know. I’m not much of a puppet guy. They’re not as bad as clowns but they’re pretty close. And these puppets, which were hanging from hooks next to the stage in front of the restaurant, were kind of creepy looking. Lots of sad faces. The female puppets, in particular, were all posed to look like they were just about to start crying.

So while we’re eating a group of musicians is playing discordant Burmese music with lots of banging and crashing noises interrupted by sorrowful tones from a small flute and then the puppets came out.

As best I could figure the story lines were all pretty much the same. There would be peasants and then a mean-looking puppet with a small sword and then a smiling regal-looking hero comes and slays the mean-looking puppet followed by much rejoicing. Only to begin all over again. In short, it seemed to be a play about the entire 2,000-year history of the country.

After about the second or third act, I got up and went outside. I sat on an old bamboo deck chair in front of the restaurant and watched as families in horse-and-buggies or on small scooters—toddler in front, dad steering, mom sitting side-saddle in the back holding a baby on her lap–cruised by. This, to me, was much more entertaining then the puppet show.

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In search of Burmese cuisine

Our meal at the Nanda restaurant in Bagan was fine, just fine. But it wasn’t very Burmese. Photo by David Lansing.

I’ve been complaining to our guide, Sai, about not getting a chance to eat any traditional Burmese food. So yesterday he took me to a place where, he promised, I’d have a good meal. The restaurant was called Nanda. To get to it, we had to walk by a couple of grand tourist shops (which should have immediately set off alarms) and once inside were seated at a long table filled with German tourists who had just arrived by bus. Obviously this wasn’t going to be what I had in mind when I asked Sai to take me to a traditional Burmese restaurant.

Burmese culture is characterized by onana, the all-pervasive avoidance of doing anything that would offend. Thus you never touch a Burmese on the head (not even children). You always allow the oldest people in the room to eat first. And you take foreigners to mediocre restaurants because you know they would be offended being offered fermented fish or a laphet thoke salad (pickled tea leaves) or a sour soup made with tamarind.

Instead, Sai ordered us large prawns, simply prepared, rice fried with peas and pork, and a large omelette. The best I can say about the meal is that nothing we were served was offensive. Which, I’m sure, is exactly what Sai was hoping for.

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