Mandalay’s Changing Tea Shop Culture

Maung Nya Nya The Irrawaddy

MANDALAY — Mandalay’s tea shops are present on nearly every street and in every ward.

Former US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell once remarked, while making small talk with locals in the former royal city, that “in Mandalay, important words start at tea shops.”

Department personnel and company staff members are known to talk over a cup of tea before formal meetings and discussions back at their workplace. Likewise, many business transactions, concerning purchases ranging from crops to jade, begin in tea shops.

These small enclaves have given birth to some of Burma’s most renowned artists, writers, poets, politicians and cartoonists; in tea shops, smoking one cheroot after another, drinking pots of plain green tea, they developed their art.

After the student uprising in 1988, tea shops began to noticeably change. They became bigger and neater. And of course, the prices increased. Apart from the standard offerings of tea, coffee and basic snacks, they started to sell Burmese cuisine, Asian and western snacks, and ethnic foods.

Tea shops installed televisions and showed football matches and Burmese and foreign movies to captive audiences. With many offering free Wi-Fi, tea shops are now connected to the outside world and serve as hubs for customers who come to chat on social media.

The shift is ongoing, marking a significant change in the tea shop culture that once thrived on simplicity.