Sustainable Vegan Travel in Myanmar
We recently returned from a trip to Myanmar, one of our now favourite countries in Southeast Asia. For those of you who don’t know it yet, Myanmar is beautiful; it’s a country full of shining gold stupas, really friendly people, rich culture and heritage and natural landscapes to make you swoon.
We tried to cram in as much travel as possible during our trip and by far one of the best things we did was to sign up for a 2 day cycle tour ‘Bagan to Salay – Off the Beaten Path’ with one of Southeast Asia’s leading adventure tour companies, Grasshopper Adventures.
Myanmar village life
Now those of you who know us well, might not see a natural pairing between us (two food and luxury loving vegans) and a 2 day cycle tour along sandy roads, remote villages and sleepy towns, on bikes, boats and at one stage squashed together in the back of a truck. But, this was no ordinary cycle tour and it turned out to be a match made in heaven.
Sustainable travel with Refill not Landfill
One of the reasons we are vegan is that we wholeheartedly believe that this way of life is better for our planet and for communities that live on it. We loved that Grasshopper Adventures were pioneers in the launch of the Refill not Landfill initiative in Myanmar and that they use local guides and promote projects and actives that have a positive impact on communities and environment. We liked their philosophy, their work in Cambodia (our Southeast Asia adopted home) and had fallen in love with them just a little bit when we read the tour itinerary so decided we needed to make it happen. Oh and they also said that providing vegan food would be no problem, so we were obviously sold.
Life on the Ayerawaddy River
Now it might be worth mentioning at this stage that we accidentally scheduled our two day tour right in the middle of the Thingyan Festival, Myanmar’s famous new year, water throwing celebration. Caryl (based on very little fact) reassured our group (we were travelling with two friends) that we’d be in remote villages so would probably avoid most of the water throwing. It turns out she was right about the remote villages but couldn’t have been more wrong about the water throwing.
We made the most of the peace and tranquility on the Ayerawaddy River before facing the wet and wild festivities…
Vegan travel and vegan snacks in Myanmar
We started our tour with a boat ride along the epic Ayeyarwaddy River, snacking on a vegan version of traditional tea leaf salad, drinking tea and marvelling at the views. Then the cycling began with our group sandwiched between our friendly guide in front and handy mechanic at the back. Grasshopper Adventures pride themselves on using local guides who are charming, well informed and passionate about their country and ours were certainly no exception. They were a wealth of information as well as being very encouraging (we were a slightly inept cycling group at times admittedly).
We cycled for about 5 minutes before our first ambush by village children armed with pots of water (and much laughter). This was the first of…. hmmm let us think… maybe 4000 drenchings with water? Side note: sometimes that water was chilled with ice for extra shock and laughter factor.
There are limited photos of the craziness that ensued as we needed to protect our cameras from the constant deluge!
Basket making and vegan street food
We cycled through countryside that was so beautiful we could have cried; there is no underestimating just how gorgeous the land is in Myanmar, rich with crops, full of trees and birds and flowers. This is still the land that tourism forgot, where people live in traditional houses, wear traditional clothes and still smile when they meet a stranger from a different country. We met smiling faces painted with thanaka paste, traditional sun protection and skincare in Myanmar, at every turn.
We visited families making baskets using the same technique that had been passed down through generations. We stopped on the side of the road to eat vegan street food with the blazing sun beating down on our backs. Sounds romantic? Don’t forget the words soaked to the skin with water. Soaked.
We loved our cycle adventure!
It added a kind of hilarious new element to our tour, one where we rarely thought about the distance we were cycling (apart from a few really big hills and then we had our lovely guides to keep our spirits up). There was nothing else to do other than embrace the celebrations and throw (or cycle) ourselves in; it was a truly special experience.
After our first day of cycling (and getting wet) we arrived in Salay where our soggy little group headed for Salay House and the adjacent Salay River View Inn, where we were let into one of Myanmar’s best kept secrets (something that Grasshopper Adventures are expert at doing). Imagine our joy when we arrived to stay overnight in a family run, restored British-Colonial period property right next to the Ayeyarwaddy River. To add to this, being vegan at Salay House was a breeze as our hosts had thought a lot about how to cater for vegan guests.
Vegan food at Salay River View Inn
We were treated to a specially created vegan menu and after a day of cycling in the water festival fun, arriving somewhere that really went to town with the food was exactly what we needed.
Everything was fresh, home cooked and gave a real taste of the local cuisine. We enjoyed bowls, plates and platters of delights such as ‘Acacia Leaf and Small Bean Soup’ which was full of ferny leaves and a nourishing broth. We fuelled up on fried treats like samosas and vada, bowls of fried corn, potato aubergine and zucchini curry and of course tea leaf salads. There were more other traditional Burmese salads too like a green mango salad, sour, crunchy with cabbage and tossed in roasted chickpea flour, an ingredient that adds such a unique texture to the salads in Myanmar.
Sat under the mango trees with views of the river and surrounded on all sides by tropical plants; it was a truly blissful place to eat. We devoured meals full of vegan versions of local foods made with fresh ingredients all bought in the local market. This is sustainable travel at its best. Salay House is one of those gems where you’ll stay and wonder why the rest of the world hasn’t discovered this place (whilst selfishly being thankful that the rest of the world isn’t bothering you here).
After a bit more exploring of Salay (think sleepy streets, full of beautiful colonial style buildings, friendly locals and ancient temples) we set off again for day 2 of cycling (and getting wet from the Thingyan festivities which were still going strong). We headed back in the direction of Bagan, seeing the creaking, vintage but still working ‘nodding donkeys’ in the oil fields where oil was first discovered in 1906 by the British (who then established the British Petroleum oil company).
There were hills to be conquered, luckily with the encouragement of our Grasshopper guides, and some bigger towns which had been almost totally taken over with festivities and turned into huge water throwing parties with booming sound systems. Before we knew it, we were heading back into Bagan old town, one of the most iconic sites in Myanmar. It’s impossible not to see the red brick temples and landscape dotted with stupas and be amazed by the sheer scale of it all. To say it’s impressive is an understatement.
More vegan food…
We ended our trip with a celebratory lunch at Si Thu Restaurant in Bagan, overlooking the majestic Ayeyarwaddy River. Colourful traditional puppets were hanging from the surrounding trees and we ordered more delicious vegan food. We savoured the sweet taste of having successfully survived cycling through what is surely the world’s biggest water fight, making a thousand happy memories in the process.
Here you can read our Vegan Guide to Bagan to find our what other vegan food we found at the end of our tour.