Christchurch and Burma

Finding a bit of Burma
at The Bodhi Tree in New Zealand


by Freddy Santamaria


Following the tour of New Zealand's South Island, this week we go to Christchurch, New Zealand. Considered by many to be the capital of the South, Christchurch enjoys a reputation as the most English of New Zealand's cities, thanks to its gracious parks and old buildings and the tree-lined Avon River crossing the town center. At first sight the connection with Christchurch and Burma is none. But, on a second thought - yes, there is a connection: Christchurch has one of the best, if not the best, Burmese restaurant in the world "The Bodhi Tree".

First, let me ask you haw many of you are familiar with Burma - or Myanmar as is called today? Not many I suspect, because Myanmar is now one of the few countries in Asia under military rule. So, if you don't go for business, tourist trips to Myanmar are not to be found in a great number.

Red tape is everywhere in Myanmar and when you travel inside the country, your passport can be checked 4 or 5 times before you board a plane or take a train. In 2002 and 2003, the number of total visitors from France (sorry, I only have the numbers from the Myanmar Embassy in France) was "only" around 2,000 to 2,500 each year, and 90% of those were via Tour Operators or Guided Tours. Only 10% were solo travelers or business trips.

After this small introduction, let me say that Burma is beautiful, the people very nice and friendly, and the food delicious, but unfortunately dangerous. The hygienic conditions in the public places is not of first rate and even the nicer Burmese restaurants are in that category. The only alternative is to eat at western-style hotels, but then the Burmese food is westernized, so thereís no point in tasting it.

Any way, if youíve decided to visit Myanmar - first you need a visa, which is normally a one-week delay. Second, the city you should arrive in is Yangon and the places to visit should include Bagan, Mandalay, and Inlay Lake. Of course, many other places are of interest, but for your first visit those places provide the best introduction to Burmese life, culture and scenic landscapes.

Getting back to Christchurch and The Bodhi Tree Restaurant - Cuisine of Burma.

The Bodhi Tree was opened in 2003, by Burmese Chef Khin Maung Oo (known as Lee) and his Kiwi wife Beverley Humpage. New Zealand's food magazine Cuisine welcomed the addition to the ethnic restaurant scene in the city with a rate of 7/8 out of 10 for Food & Service. Since then, the restaurant is full every day with only two services in the evening at 6:30 PM & 8:30 PM. If you are a regular, you can have a table for 9:30 PM, for weekends you must reserve 3 to 4 days in advance. The restaurant is small with only around 16 tables.

Cuisine of Burma - The meal and related matters:

The ideal Burmese meal is to eat rice in the most appetizing way possible. For this, you need tasty accompaniments and these must combine well for consistency and taste - not omitting those saliva-making flavors, which will induce the eating of more rice. (At the end, however, the food is so great that your rice is untouched!)

A meal consists of a variety of dishes - meat, vegetable, salad, seafood and soup, with the whole meal served simultaneously in keeping with tradition. The dishes are smaller sized portions to enable a variety of dishes to be shared as one meal. (The usual suggestion is about 3 to 4 dishes per person "plus" rice.) The cooking is done using only olive and canola oil.

And now, letís go to review the menu: (with some explanations for your guidance).

Nibbly Bits
(Served either before or after dinner)

* Le Pet Thoke - Famous tea salad - pickled tea leaves mixed with garlic, lentils, nuts, sesame seeds and chili > 9.50 NZ$ (one of the most traditional dish in Burma)
* Nga Sein Chin - Great appetizer - fresh fish marinated in lemon, shallots, chili, olive oil, and sprinkled with coriander > 10.50 NZ$

Soups

* Mohinga - Light fish broth flavored with lemongrass & shallots > 4.50 NZ$
* Ono Hin Ye - Coconut & chicken soup > 4.50 NZ$

Vegetables/Salad Dishes

* Beibyoke - Lightly spiced and sauteed blue peas, sprinkled with crispy shallots> 8.0 NZ$
* Beidi Thoke - Fresh green beans blanched and dressed with sesame, shallots, garlic oil, chili and nuts > 9.00 NZ$
* Ciandi Thoke - Grilled eggplant dressed with sesame seeds, chili, olive oil, shallots and coriander > 9.00 NZ$
* Timbodi Thoke - Shredded green papaya dressed with lemon, dried shrimp, shallots, peanuts and olive oil > 9.50 NZ$
* Tofu Thoke - Yellow split-pea tofu tossed with salad greens & dressed with tamarind, chili oil, soy and crispy garlic > 9.00 NZ$

Main Dishes

On the menu, there are only six meat dishes, including mild chicken, beef and pork curry's, all cooked to perfection. But, the most interesting and exceptional meat dishes are:
* Pet Thoke - Pork and vegetable dumplings (pot stickers) served with dipping sauce (7 pieces)
at 8.50 NZ$
* Seit Da Kin - Cubes of lamb marinated in spices, grilled & served with a chili/mint dip at 11.00 NZ$
(The best grilled lamb Iíve ever eaten.)

Seafood Dishes

The seafood is fresh every day and only five dishes are on the menu - by but taste 3 are delicious:
* Nga Hin - A boneless fillet of fresh fish (catch of the day) brazed in a fresh tomato, coriander, chili a tamarind sauce > 14.00NZ$
* Biay-Ji Nga Jo - Tender squid pieces sautéed with basil, chili and onion > 11.00 NZ$
* Nga Kin - A boneless fillet of fresh fish baked in the oven; simple but superb! > 13.00 NZ$
* Of course, you have also prawns sautéed and fresh mussels steamed Burma style with spices.

Desserts

* Majidi Ye Ke Mot - Tamarind sorbet - tangy & refreshing at 5.00 NZ$
* or for "The Brave" - chili topped sorbet (a delicious experience) - same price

Beverages Beers & Wines

You must try Burmese tea for only 2.00 NZ$ and the Myanmar beer at 5.00 NZ$. The restaurant also has a nice selection of New Zealand wines whites and reds at very good prices (29.00 & 32.00 NZ$ bottle) or by glass (7.50 & 8.00 NZ$). You can also "BYO" (Corkage charge is 5.00 NZ$ per Bottle). Spirits (doubles) are at only 6.00 NZ$ and include bourbon, whisky, gin, brandy and rum.

After this review, I hope you change your mind about whatever ideas youíve had of the Burmese food.
Also note - the prices are very, very, correct given the freshness and quality of the food, particularly when compared with the top New Zealand's Restaurants.

The Bodhi Tree is located on:
808 Colombo Street
(next to the Town Hall & The Congress & Exhibition Center)
Christchurch (City Center)
Within walking distance from any of the major hotels
Hosts are Lee & Beverley
Phone/Fax - (64) 3 377 6808
(Closed for lunch and Sundays)
Reservations recommended

(Conversion Rate: 1 NZ$ varies from 50 to 75% of 1 US$)

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As a complement to this information:

Christchurch was founded by English settlers in December 1850. "The Garden City," as it is called, has a great park - The Hagley Park (twice the area of downtown). The Botanical Gardens boast the finest single collection of exotic and indigenous plants in New Zealand. Also, the university and colleges are in the top rank in the nation. (Many Asians go to Christchurch to learn English.)

Places to see in the historic Christchurch:

- Canterbury Museum (1877)
- The Cathedral (1881)
- Christ's College (1863)
- Old Municipal Chamber (1887)
- The Arts Center and Rutherford's Den (1877)

Places you must visit:

- The Christchurch Gondola (Great views of the city & Lyttelton Harbor from the top of the Port Hills - by normal city bus)
- Banks Peninsula and Akaroa -New Zealand's only French settlement. (The French were the first Europeans to settle in Akaroa.)
- New Brighton and beaches, where the Pacific Ocean meets the East Coast of Christchurch.

The best business hotel is the Crowne Plaza
- Facing Victoria Square, next to the Town Hall and the Congress Center
- Corner Durham & Kilmore Street
- Phone : (64) 3 365 7799 - Fax : (64) 3 365 0085
- E-mail: hotel@crowneplazachristchurch.co.nz
- A room on the Club Floor with views on Victoria Square & the city > 225.00 NZ$
- The Atrium Bar is the only lively spot in town on week days in the evenings - itís the "in place"

Other hotels in Christchurch are:
- Rydges
- Millenium
- Copthorne Central
- Durham Hotels
- The Grand Chancellor Hotel
- The George
- All in the down town area

For lunch, I recommend the bars and restaurants on Oxford Terrace in the Avon River, a five-minute walk from Cathedral Square. Also good:
- The Boulevard
- Sticky Fingers
- Coyotes
- All Bar One

Other relevant restaurants for dinner:
- 50 on Park (George Hotel)
- Sala Sala (Japanese)
- Yamagen (Japanese)
- Victoria Street Café (Crowne Plaza)
- The Tap Room

- (The prices on these restaurants can be, double or triple the prices at The Bodhi Tree.)

Christchurch is famous for shopping (Merinos & Possum wool). Avoid the big tourist shops and visit two small shops on Worcester Blvd. (between Cathedral Square and Rydges Hotel. For unusual things and outdoor gear, visit Kiwi Disposals at 611 Colombo Street

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Post Script on Myanmar

If after tasting Burmese Cuisine at The Bodhi Tree, you are interested in visiting Myanmar, let me give some travel tips:

The best airline to reach Yangon is Thai Airways (Star Alliance Group) from Bangkok. Yangon Airport is 40 minutes from downtown, and the best way to get there is by taxi or hotel limousine on request. (For taxis, you must bargain before - meters are not used!)

Currency:

Myanmar currency is the "Kyat", but for foreign visitors the currency exchange at the Airport is the "FECs" - Foreign Exchange Certificates - Equivalent to US Dollars. It is mandatory to change the equivalent of 200.00 US$ and is only accepted in major hotels, airlines and travel agencies. The only way to change the FECs for Kyats is in the street money changers (rates are variable) so you must see 3 or 4 before doing any exchange;

The best way is to keep the FECs is to pay your hotel with them and exchange cash dollars for Kyats. In the street FECs are not accepted, so you need to have Kyats or cash in US dollars. The best business hotel in Yangon is The Traders Hotel (Shangri-La Group)
- Located in the center of town, with views of the whole city.
- 223 Sule Pagoda Road
- Yangon
- Phone: (95) 1 242828
- Fax: (95) 1 242800
- E-mail: businesscentre@tradersyangon.com.mm
- The price for a suite (60 square meters) on the Club Floors is only 105.00 US$

Other hotels in the city are
- Sakura Residence
- The Kandawgyi Palace (on the Royal Lake)
- Sofitel Plaza
- Hotel Nikko (Royal Lake)
- The Strand, the oldest hotel from the colonial era (1901) and the British Empire, and one of the most expensive hotels in Asia > from - 450 US$ Night. The Strand is facing the Yangon River (far from the center) Kipling, Somerset Maughan, and Lord Mountbatten were all regular customers in the old times. The prices are so high at The Strand, you can always choose to go to visit the splendor of the place at Tea time only.

In Yangon, you must visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, towering 100 meters above the green cityscape of Yangon. The Pagoda is the landmark visible from miles around.

Also, have a day tour to Bago located 80 Km from Yangon, ancient capital of Burma in the 15th century.

Or, take the "cheapest"' tour of Yangon by the suburban train. It takes you around the city in 3 hours for only ONE US$. (Foreigners are advised to take the last car of the train - Yangon Main Station)

Bagan (one of the richest archaeological sites in Asia) on the eastern of the Ayyarwaddy River covers an area of 42 Sq. Km. The site contains over 2,000 well preserved pagodas of the 11th to 13th century. The best hotel there is Thiripyitsaya Sakura Hotel with on the river Bungalows from: 70.00 US$

Mandalay - the last capital of the Myanmar Kings located in Central Myanmar, is 668 Km north of Yangon. Visit the Mandalay Palace. The Sedona Hotel there is one of the best.

Inlay Lake - 900 meters above sea level, 22 Km long & 10 Km across. While there, see Ywama - the largest village on the lake with its floating market and the Phaung-daw U Pagoda. The Lake View Resort in Inle Kaungdaing Village is a "boutique hotel" on the shores of the lake.

Domestic airlines to get you to these destinations include:
- Myanmar Airways
- Yangon Airways
- Air Mandalay
- Which connect all the places in Myanmar with Yangon

You can get tickets via a travel agent or the travel services in your Hotel.

Bon Voyage!



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Freddy Santamaria "The Smooth Operator" - Paris, France - August 9th 2004


Copyright (c) 2004, Freddy Santamaria. All rights reserved.