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A Girl Abroad: Tea Culture in Myanmar

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Photos and story by Enya Mommsen for The Style Line

Myanmar is currently in a state of transition.

After being confined from outside influence for over fifty years and it’s progression into “democracy”, the country has undergone new developments in infrastructure and seen a drastic increase in tourism. In just 2012, 1,000,000 travelers visited compared to the 816,000 of  2011.

The attraction for visiting  exists in discovering parts of the Old World in collision with the New World. Myanmar is experiencing a short and unique moment in history, where one can observe a fascinating juxtaposition of its own culture.

*THIS STORY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN March 2015 AND REFLECTS UPDATED CHANGES TO THE LAYOUT

An old Burmese folk tale says that tea was discovered by a strange king who always had his drinking water boiled. One day, the king set out on his own to the forest to be in solitude.

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That night while struggling to boil his own water, he bumped into a tree and some dry leaves fell into the pot.  After trying the warm water, he found that its taste was better than ever before.  Overwhelmed by his exquisite new invention, the king demanded that all his people know of this recipe, and so it caught on…

enyamommsen_styleline_tea-13Tea culture in Myanmar is a grounding contrast from the chaos of daily life,

especially in Yangon. Being that it was my first time in Asia, the refuge offered by these small street vendors was a necessary one. On one particular day my wanderings led me to a tea shop on a corner with sidewalks under construction.The street was lined with small plastic chairs and table sets. After hours on end of pacing in the sun’s heavy heat–taking in new city smells, thanaka covered faces, sounds, and street traffic — it was time to pull the brakes on chasing the day and let the evening unfold.

The man at the shop moved through his course, eagerly pouring the tea from one pot into another as his wife made rounds serving the guests. Propane tanks were used to heat up the pots, and buckets of water to rinse off cups and silverware.

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At a neighboring table, a man spilled the tea from his cup onto his saucer to let it cool, something I had noticed most tea drinkers did. He pulled the saucer up to his mouth and made a quiet slurping sound. This swift series of gestures looked like what could be a ritual.

His serene posture and a fixed gaze toward the distance reminded me of a king, like the one in the folk tale.