A cup of coffee in Mandalay, Myanmar.

There won’t be many big, beautiful photos to accompany this post, just colorful words in an attempt to paint a vivid picture of the experience. An experience mundane as it may be, brought to life by these outsider lenses through which I’m able to glimpse inside the culture of Myanmar.

At the back of a seemingly ordinary teashop in the roadside town of Thazi, in the Mandalay region of central Myanmar, a boy kneaded dough for what appeared to be cinnamon rolls. An oven with a roaring fire was ready for baking. There were other workers doing whatever tasks they may have been instructed to do, but the boy with the dough stood out to me the most.

I was probably craving cinnamon rolls. However, I doubt they were actually cinnamon rolls.

Although it seemed haphazard and messy, I’m sure everything and everyone had a place to keep the teashop running accordingly. Beds where the workers probably slept were tucked in an adjacent room.

I couldn’t help but notice the activity around me as I stood in line for a squatter toilet. I didn’t go unnoticed either. Two girls over a table covered in opened cans of sweetened condensed milk were watching me, giggling. And the boy with the dough looked at me in between kneading and rolling, rolling and kneading.

I saw a foot as I glanced out the window of the tiny room with a squat toilet. There were two of them, attached to legs that connected to a body, which meant someone was sleeping next to me as I peed. I ducked to avoid being seen, and went on with my business.

Runoff from the roof trickled into a bucket near the boy with the dough. Plants grew, adding life to the austere room.

Worn tables with old stools and chairs sat outside the teashop, under a canopy of sorts. A group of men lounged nearby. I grinned at one of them on the way in. He shyly smiled back, possibly surprised I even noticed him gawking.

The 27th SEA (Southeast Asian) Games were on television, but the soccer match had to compete with classic 80s music from the United States playing in the background. Although I didn’t recognize any of the Burmese lyrics, I knew every tune. It made me feel at home in a strange way.

Dozens of teakettles were lined up and stacked on top of each other, suggesting this particular place got busier at night. Teashops are a common sight in Myanmar. They’re where locals go to socialize, or simply be together. Some are quite small. Others are fairly large like this one was.

Smoke filled the area. An older man kept staring at me from his table a few rows away. Puffing on his handmade cigarette, he gave one of the young, female servers some money for something. She refused at first, but went back for it after looking around to see if anyone noticed. The man lit his locally made cheroot with a lighter hanging by a string from the ceiling.

Dusty paper lanterns hung above me. Our server had thanaka on her face, a light-colored cosmetic paste made out of ground bark. She handed us teacups and a kettle of green tea to drink as we waited for our coffee. Women separated noodles with their fingers at a table near the older man who kept starring at me. A young man adjusted his longyi in the corner.

Freshly brewed coffee was a nice surprise, but just as sweet as the instant packets usually served at teashops and cafés in Myanmar. Those girls covered that table in cans of sweetened condensed milk for a reason. Our coffee was served extra sweet and creamy. A thick layer of sugary goop mixed with grounds was left at the bottom of my cup. I downed it in a rush as we got up to go.

My chest felt heavy as we drove away. Perhaps my body couldn’t process that much sugar at once. I started to choke up as if I was going to cry. A sense of urgency overcame me. Time is running out, I thought, I need to document this country before it changes. But how, when, and is it already too late?

I chose not to take photos because I didn’t want to miss any details, and I don’t want to be an outsider who just snaps a shot and leaves. I want to get to know a place, its people, and the way things work before I capture a moment like the one I had in a seemingly ordinary teashop in the roadside town of Thazi, Myanmar.


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  1. I was on a tour in Rome, and the tour guide started getting angry because everyone was getting out their iPads and phones to take pictures. He said "they aren't seeing it with their own eyes". I think sometimes it's good to put the camera away and actually be in the moment.

  2. Paula! Thanks so much for sharing. I often find that as "the photographer" I don't fully get to take in experiences because I'm so caught up on how to best document it through a lens/different angles. Although I hope to capture many moments of life in Myanmar on camera, I also want to fully live the experience.


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