A Little Sweetness… Hospitality and a Lesson in Burmese Candy

The thudding of a large motor caught our attention as we carefully navigated our bicycles down the pothole-strewn road. A glance to the right showed the slanting sun reflecting off an expansive sea of dry, off-white husks coating the yard of a house. I cocked my head to the side perplexed…the day before, Ana and I had noticed these houses with husk-like debris where grass should grow, and now, as then, I was unable to explain their curious presence in yards all over this region of Burma.

Jaggery shop, Inle lake

Sugarcane stalks line the ground of a small housing compound near Nyuang Shwe, on Inle Lake, Burma.

We cycled past the compound, the motor’s grinding peaked at the edge of the fence, then faded quickly as our bicycles whisked forward. Like yesterday, we were about to simply let the confusion sit in complacency and continue on our merry way, our legs pumping hard on the creaky, dual-gear bicycle that was clearly not built for sand and gravel roads.

Another moment passed and I was mentally kicking myself. Two days in a row we just drove right by…we’re in Burma, what’s the worst that could happen if we stop and ask to look around? This country has only been friendly. I felt like a poor teacher to my niece at that point, after all, the whole point is to teach her curiosity for the world and how to seek answers. So, was it fear of walking into a stranger’s house, or laziness preventing me from stopping and asking questions?

Maybe it was both.

Ox cart and driver, Inle Lake, Burma

An ox cart driver winds down the semi-paved road to Hot Springs near Inle Lake.

I called out to the group to stop for a pow-wow. Ana and I were bicycling back from the Khaung Daing Hot Springs, a mere 45 minute bike ride into the countryside around Inle Lake, with two other travelers we met that morning over breakfast at our guest house.

A quick look at the other adults, and I could see the men had been curious too. Without another word, Mike, a sweet British man traveling solo for the first time in his life, announced: “Alright then, let’s check it out!”

Moments later, the tentative smiles from two young children met us at the gates of their housing compound.

Burmese Children at Inle Lake

Two adorable kids play at their sugarcane factory near Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

The kids hesitated before scattering toward the clanking contraption nearby, motioning for us to follow.

It looked like an open tractor engine sprawling across the packed dirt floor. Two men manned the front of the machine and with a flash of understanding I realized my feet were resting on a soft bed of dry sugar cane husks. The churning motor and huge metal gears spun the wheel and generated enough pressure to squeeze out every drop of sweet moisture from the sugarcane stalks.

Sugarcane juicing machine, Burma

The sugarcane press is a huge handmade machine, with long belts, an engine, and a pressing parts that squeeze the juice from the sugarcane stalks into a bucket for candy processing, near Inle Lake Burma.

We had chanced upon a candy factory!

And though it was a far cry different from stumbling into Willy Wonka’s world of wonders, the efficient teamwork and huge boiling vats of scented juice ignited our collective curiosity.

The men processing the stalks paid us no mind—and not out of unfriendliness, but rather out of affection for their limbs; the huge gurgling machine would not easily forgive a slip of the fingers.

Just as I noticed the children had disappeared, they burst out of the house nearby, with their mother walking at a clipped pace with a tray of tea and sweets toward our rag-tag group of five. She shyly motioned us over to the low, woven bamboo table and gently proffered cups of pale Chinese tea. As we stood and sipped, she took a moment to break up the thin, flat block of sugar candy. Spying Ana’s curious gaze on her every move, the mom (in an understanding all mom’s must have) handed over the first piece of sugarcane candy to Ana, carefully watching for Ana’s reaction as she bit into the hunk of pure sugar.

jaggery sugar candies, burma

Tea and jaggery candies at Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

A grin split Ana’s face. Jaggery, or rather, sugar candies, are popular sweets all over Burma, and Ana relished the opportunity to once again have free reign over a bowl of pure sugar.

I nabbed a square myself (I’ll openly admit to my wicked sweet-tooth). With the hospitality now covered, the mother smiled and gestured to production line, letting us know it was okay to go investigate what they were doing.

With our gazes once again focused on the workers, the men spurred into action, and even though there wasn’t a lick of English spoken, each man patiently demonstrated the candy-making process at his station in the room.

Raw sugarcane stalks process through the pressing machine, and the once juicy stalks are left as dry husks while the liquid drains into a bucket.

Boiling sugarcane into candy, Burma

Huge boiling vats of sugarcane juice are being processed into sugar candies near Inle Lake, Burma.

A tube runs from the bucket, over the ground, and into nearby open vats where the murky green sugarcane juices collects for even more processing.

The greenish hued sugarcane juice is a popular snack all over Burma (and South Asia for that matter!) and the mom passed around a glass of warm, fresh juice for sampling. Traditionally, if you order sugarcane juice on Burma’s city streets, it’s served cold with lime and it’s a popular mid-morning snack. We sipped our juice warm and fresh from the press just to get a taste of the flavor just before it goes into processing (Ana’s verdict on the juice was not favorable, but hey, she’s just a kid, what does she know!).

Thickening sugarcane juice

Huge boiling vats of sugarcane juice are thickening so they can turn into Burmese sweets, Inle Lake, Burma.

After squeezing, the juice enters a long boiling process, where it is slowly transferred down the line, vat to vat, until it’s in the vat nearest to the hand-stoked fire and boiling rigorously. The entire process seems to take hours for one single batch, but we were lucky to catch the juice in its final stage, when it became a thick, brown syrup ready to be poured, spread, and dried.

The family spreads the very think sugarcane juice so it can dry into jaggery candies, Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).Spreading the boiled sugarcane juice, Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

The final candy is very hard and difficult to break into small chunks, so before it’s packaged for sale in town they slice it into manageable cubes. Sugar candies are one of the more humble and popular Burmese desserts; we found small candy jars on most restaurant tables. The type of sugar candy on offer though, varies from region to region. Most often we found jaggery, a treat much like maple syrup candies in North America, but they are instead made from Toddy Palm sap. The Toddy Palm plant shaped rural life in Burma throughout history, and the jaggery treats are just one use for Toddy Palm. The palm is still today used for shade, medicines, cooking, and utensils…and because of the plant’s multiple uses, it’s a wise use of land as Burma expands into more agriculture and farming.

Rural areas favor these grainy, sugar-based sweets because they are made locally and thus are often flavored with other nearby fruits and flavors. And though our fresh sugarcane candies were delicious, Ana and I both fell in love with the sour plum candies in the Bagan region of Burma–the tart plum is a needed counter to the jaw-clenching sweetness of pure sugar and toddy palm juice!

sour plum candies burma

Hand-rolled sour plum candies made in the Bagan region of Burma.

As we nibbled the last of our sugar candy, it was about time to leave the family to their work, but I felt guilty that I had no real way to communicate our sincere thanks for such open hospitality.

Just as I slurped my last sip of Chinese tea, a young teenager came barreling into the yard. He cheerfully yelled out an English “hello” and announced he was a cousin to the family who was called to the candy compound from across town so he could answer our questions.

I was both baffled and overwhelmed. Tea and sweets were not enough, seeing us English speakers so curious about their work, the family sent for a relative who could communicate with us.

candy making shop burma

Our translator, a cousin to the candy makers, requested a cellphone photo before we left the shop near Inle Lake, Burma!

As the cousin started his line of questioning, so familiar to me at this point, every single person in the workshop gathered around for the translation.

“Where are you from?”

Grins broke out on their faces when they learned our group was from France, England, and America.

“How long in Myanmar?”

Just three weeks, but it’s been beautiful.

Then it was our turn to ask questions and the cousin explained the family structure. Mother and father to the two children nodded as the cousin pointed. That’s the uncle. A brother. Another cousin.

It was a family affair in the candy workshop and as the cousin’s English petered out, and the men drifted back to stoking the fire and stirring the vats, we gave profuse and generous thanks for the more than an hour we had spent in their hospitality.

Jaggery candy processing workshop

The jaggery sugar making hut near Nyaung Shwe, Inle Lake, Burma (Myanmar).

The children watched with curious owl-eyes as we hopped back onto our bicycles and sang out one last cheery thank you, “chezu tinbade!

Then we disappeared down the dirt road, the thudding motor fading quickly as we pedaled into the late afternoon.

I rode back to town in wonder of the warm and open hospitality that functioned as a rule throughout Burma, rather than the exception. What started as the simplest of bike rides ended up showing me a spirit of kindness and inherent friendliness that is not put on for the sake of tourism, or a mask for show.  The government’s forced isolation means that tourists are still a novelty, an occasional accent to a local’s life when a foreigner rides a bit off the path. In Burma, the reward for journeying down the harder road (and let me assure you an hour down a questionably paved road is tough!) was always met with smiles and stories.

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30 Responses to A Little Sweetness… Hospitality and a Lesson in Burmese Candy

  1. Duncan @ Travelistic March 23, 2012 at 5:37 am #

    Looks amazing – i love the industrious nature of these people out in Burma. Taking what they can grow naturally and turning it into something to sell… Such a great little experience for you. 

    I can imagine these sweets cost next to nothing to buy too, and to think what effort went in to making them!Duncan

  2. Duncan @ Travelistic March 23, 2012 at 5:37 am #

    Looks amazing – i love the industrious nature of these people out in Burma. Taking what they can grow naturally and turning it into something to sell… Such a great little experience for you. 

    I can imagine these sweets cost next to nothing to buy too, and to think what effort went in to making them!Duncan

    • ShannonOD March 23, 2012 at 8:43 am #

      It’s true Duncan, there is a lot of labor behind the sweets and they are one of the cheapest of the desserts/snacks there! Finding all of the local businesses and crafts was really neat, every region seems to have its own specialty :)

  3. Brock - Backpack with Brock March 16, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    What an interesting experience!

  4. Online Travel Guide March 14, 2012 at 4:12 pm #

    I haven’t tasted these burmese candy. How does it taste? I hope it’s good. I’ll try to visit Burma 2 years from now. 

    • ShannonOD March 14, 2012 at 8:09 pm #

      They’re really sweet and some were a little grainy with sugar crystals, though others have a creamier texture — each style was a little different, but delicious! :)

  5. Sunil Himalaya Hiker March 11, 2012 at 4:00 am #

    Wow..something nice to read being myself traveller based in Nepal.

    • ShannonOD March 11, 2012 at 4:08 am #

      Thanks Sunil, Nepal is such a wonderful place to get lost in rural towns — I didn’t do nearly enough of that when I was there, happy travels! :)

  6. Ellery March 10, 2012 at 11:09 pm #

    Cool post.  You really can see some neat things when you travel off the beaten path.  My brother has taking me on motorbike tours all over Mae Hong Son and led me down some dirt roads that I’d bet not many tourists have ever experienced.

    • ShannonOD March 11, 2012 at 4:09 am #

      Off track up North sounds really amazing, there is so much less tourism near Mae Hong Son, mostly just the NGOs, so I bet it was a wonderful experience to see the locals and interact in areas that see far fewer Westerners :)

  7. Andrea March 9, 2012 at 2:00 am #

    I love this! What a perfect reminder to slow down and enjoy traveling, rather than just breeze on by.

    • ShannonOD March 10, 2012 at 12:01 am #

      Thanks Andrea, I find I sometimes really need that reminder to take a deep breath and look around :)

  8. Rishi March 8, 2012 at 2:08 am #

    I have just recently discovered  this blog, and you as a result.
     You are living a very good life. I should know….I am from India, currently in Canada for the last 2 years and having a mighty quarter life crisis(I am 26). I won’t go into it but I just want to wish you the very best as you explore some Earth, and I explore your adventures in front of my computer!
    Rishi.
    PS- If you get a chance- go to India. Avoid modern civilization and its shackles which are represented by big cities like Delhi and Mumbai(avoid Mumbai at all costs) and travel east in the hilly areas if you get the opportunity. Take Care Shannon, I will lurk here.

  9. Rishi March 8, 2012 at 2:07 am #

    I have just recently discovered about this blog, and you as a result. You are living a very good life. I should know….I am from India, currently in Canada for the last 2 years and having a mighty quarter life crisis(I am 26). I won’t go into it but I just want to wish you the very best as you explore some Earth, and I explore your adventures in front of my computer!

    Rishi.

    PS- If you get a chance go to India. Avoid modern civilization and its shackles which are represented by big cities like Delhi and Mumbai(avoid Mumbai at all costs) and travel east in the hilly areas if you get the opportunity. Take Care Shannon, I will lurk here.

    • ShannonOD March 9, 2012 at 1:17 am #

      Hi Rishi! Glad you found my site useful, though I am sorry you’re hitting your quarter life crisis, I was exactly in that place a few years ago…shoot me an email if there is anything I can do to help you figure things out :)

      As for India, I went to Rajasthan back in 2009 and have been itching to go back and explore the east, I didn’t go east at all and regret it! Cheers, ~S

      • Rishi March 9, 2012 at 6:52 pm #

        Ha, Finally finished scanning through your entire blog and all I can say is you’re very lucky to have chosen this path. Most of us wish to have wings but are too scared. I enjoyed your segment on India, as expected…it was insightful and a hoot. I cannot access your email. It takes me to Outlook express which I refuse to set up on my system. Can you paste it here, if possible?

        • ShannonOD March 10, 2012 at 12:05 am #

          Sure thing Rishi, it’s ShannonRODonnell gmail.com :) Look forward to hearing from you!

  10. a wandering sole March 6, 2012 at 10:13 am #

    We went to a candy factory in Vietnam. It was fun as well!

    • ShannonOD March 9, 2012 at 1:02 am #

      That sounds neat, what type of candy were they making?!

  11. Bula March 6, 2012 at 3:22 am #

    I love the picture of the sour plum candies. I wish I had had an aunt who would have taken me around to explore the world at a young age. Such a wonderful story. 

    • ShannonOD March 9, 2012 at 1:01 am #

      Thank you Bula, the sour plum were delicious, and it was neat to see the women hand rolling the treats I had spent several days already enjoying!  

  12. camorose March 5, 2012 at 8:11 pm #

    Beautifully written story and lovely to learn a bit more about where sugar cane comes from! Really enjoyed this. 

    • ShannonOD March 9, 2012 at 12:56 am #

      Thank you Christine! Also, Ana and I went to Friday morning market this morning for soup and thought of you, hope you are well  :)

  13. Stowaway March 5, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

    I love this story. I too find myself averting my eyes from something I don’t understand, rather than investigating it. Well done on satisfying your curiosity — and your sweet tooth!

    • ShannonOD March 9, 2012 at 12:55 am #

      Thanks! It’s always when I overcome that hurdle of looking away/going the easier route that there is something wonderful on the other side :)

  14. Kelly Paras March 5, 2012 at 5:44 pm #

    So cool to see the entire process!

  15. Audrey March 5, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    A beautiful story, and another example of how following your curiosity can lead to rewards…in this case of the sweet variety :) You expressed Burmese hospitality so well in the sentence where you talk about hospitality being a rule throughout Burma instead of an exception.

    • ShannonOD March 9, 2012 at 1:19 am #

      The sweet reward was definitely a plus, but it’s the hospitality I find so hard to articulate, it was just so omnipresent throughout the country! :)

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