Whether it’s between the street canyons in the bustling city of Yangon or in the shade of a thousand-year-old temple in the picturesque Bagan- everywhere in Myanmar people drink the national drink from morning to night time- Lah Phet Yay, the tea of Myanmar.
We are sitting in a tea house in the noisy and lively city of Mandala, meeting with Edward. Wordlessly he lifts three fingers in the air so that immediately the attentive staff serves us three cups of the typical Myanmar tea: deep black, a lot of sugar and plenty of condensed milk.
‘That can be blamed on the British!’, the 34 year old grins and takes a sip from his cup. His real name is Thein Htwe but like many people in Myanmar he lets us call him by his western name to make the pronunciation easier for us. Edward is leading the Palaung Tea Growers & Sellers Association. If anyone knows about tea it’s him. His family run business is not only trading tea but also trains tea farmers in the distant growing areas in ecological farming and improves together with them the processing of the tea.
Edward belongs to the ethnic group of the Ta’ang, which is one of the oldest ethnic minorities of the multi-ethnic state of Myanmar. It counts over 135 different ethnic groups many of which, like Edward and the Ta’ang, speak their own language, live their own culture, and practice their own religion.
Many of the Ta’ang people are deeply spiritual and practice Buddhism with an animistic and shamanic tinge. It was Edward’s ancestors who thousands of years ago harvested the first tea plants, Camellia Sinensis, in the region of today’s Shan-state and the Chinese province of Yunnan, and used them as a medical plant.
Everywhere in Myanmar people drink the national drink from morning to night time- Lah Phet Yay, the tea of Myanmar.
From here the tea plant developed towards China where they produced green tea from it. Only the English colonial masters started to plant the tea on a large scale and in the form of plantations using the subspecies Thea Assamica, as it is widespread in the north Indian region of Assam or Darjeeling. The British fondness for ‘Tea with Milk and Sugar’ is still setting the tone.
Over the second cup of the sweet tea Edward is telling us about his big dream to not only be able to drink the undiscovered tea treasures of his country in the tea houses of Myanmar but also in distant lands.
On the international market there is a huge potential for the teas from the land of the golden pagodas. The absolute natural purity and original taste would suit the European palate well. However, tea from Myanmar remains a rarity in Europe.
Each of the passengers seems to hold his breath for a few minutes as the train rattles over the filigree steel construction, 700 meter long and 250 meter high.
Edward knows why that is. Only a few years ago and rather cautiously his homeland started to open up. During the time of the military dictatorship the cultivation of rice and opium was promoted as the long tea tradition was not considered profit-yielding. But this now lies in the past and a return is taking place. Over 80% of Myanmar tea is cultivated in the fertile highlands of the Shan-state but precisely this region is fiercely fought over. A battle which brings the farmers of the region, already on the verge of their economic existence, even closer to economic destitution. To be able to understand the complex situation one has to travel to the origin of tea cultivation, and so Edward surprises us with three train tickets from Mandalay to Lashio. Departure is tomorrow, at 4 o’clock in the morning!
The train from Mandalay in the northern Shan-state departs just once a day. Also, the single lane track can only be traversed very slowly. The carriages are rocking and swaying alarmingly. Looking at the faces of the other passengers one knows who is riding along for the first time.
‘Upper Class’ is written in scuffed letters on the wall on the inside of the carriages, revealing an expectation of the type of passengers who would be availing of the route constructed by the British Empire.
‘Last time when the train derailed…’, Edward starts but we put him off. At 4 o’clock in the morning no one wants to hear such stories. We leave the dust and the bustle of Mandalay behind us and drive towards the sunrise. The old diesel engine is pulling the carriages through a narrow gap of completely overgrown vegetation so that leaves and tree branches are whipping through the open windows onto the shoulders of the passengers.
‘Upper Class’ is written in scuffed letters on the wall on the inside of the carriages, revealing an expectation of the type of passengers who would be availing of the route constructed by the British Empire. Already the British officers had an appreciation for the fresh country air in the hilly Shan region. Besides, the Empire wanted to expand to exploit the colony more effectively. For that they needed a useful infrastructure.
After 130 km the train reaches its most difficult but also most impressing hindrance- the Goteik Viadukt. When the British built it in 1900 it was said to be the biggest railway bridge of the world. Each of the passengers seems to hold his breath for a few minutes as the train rattles over the filigree steel construction, 700 meter long and 250 meter high. The ones who aren’t scared of heights and dare to take a look down are rewarded with a breath-taking view.
Join us on our journey to the origin of the teas! Our next blogpost will bring us to the Golden Triangle and to the seat of a bishop. And we will witness a tragic story in a Buddhist convent. Read more in our next post!