Is bubble tea taking over Yangon?

Served in small porcelain cups, “laphet yay” is the nation’s signature drink. While Thailand has the street side stores, Britain has its pubs and Italy the piazza, the tea shop is the place where Myanmar people come to chat about politics, their social lives or just to watch the soccer – over a small cup of tea, and a Chinese bun.

While many tea shops have modernised, selling global soft drink brands and energy drinks, the traditional beverage is also being challenged by another drink. As older folks still flock to the tea shops, the city’s youngsters crave a cooler, more colourful, type of tea: bubble tea.

The craze has been spurned on by the development of new shopping centers in the city, and the influx of traveler-entrepreneurs on the streets.

Originally invented in Taiwan during the 1980s, bubble tea has traveled far and wide before coming to Myanmar. Though it has been popular across Asia for the past decade, it is also a favorite drink in the United States and Australia, where it first sold in niche locations like Chinatown, but now sits alongside Starbucks and McDonalds’ in suburban shopping centers.

Otherwise known as “boba”, a Japanese word for the chewy tapioca pearls, the drink comes in a variety of flavours and colours.

Storefront venues like Gong Cha, a South Korean-Taiwanese franchise, and Koi Thé, a Taiwanese tea shop, have opened in Yangon’s shopping centers. These are places where teenagers and travelers congregate, to buy bubble tea drinks to carry around and drink whilst shopping or walking the city streets.

Metro went out to many of these outlets to survey the most popular drinks. The cheaper street-side stores and shopping center franchises both sell a range of flavours, from freshly blended avocado smoothies to pre-packaged strawberry green teas.

Located in one of Myanmar’s most vibrant shopping centers, Koi Thé Myanmar attracts customers who are either dining at the food court or about to watch a movie. Sitting outside the store is a large plastic cup advertising the brand, which attracts customers sitting inside sipping their drinks, chatting, playing with phones or waiting for their movies to start. It’s one of the more up-market stores in Yangon.

For a menu with over 20 different drinks, extra toppings and combinations, the staff are organised when it comes to taking orders. A Lin, a service worker from Koi Thé Myanmar, said that he undertook 3 months of training before he could make all of the drinks. He told Metro that the Pearl Milk Tea, which contains Koi’s one-of-a-kind golden tapioca pearls, is the most sought-after drink.

Tea Black, a franchise located in the trendy Yawmingyi Street, offers a similar range of fruit smoothies, pearl teas and coffees, but also crispy waffles. The prices are a little less expensive, given that it’s on a street corner rather than the shopping mall. The pearl milk tea was also its most popular drink, with the staff suggesting that it was mainly young people who bought the drink on the way back from school.

The franchise is particularly keen to promote its other drinks, as the cover of their advertisement shows a special Cheese Green Tea deal for just K2000. Variations on the cheese theme were found in other outlets too, though it was not something I was keen to try.

Zheng Xin is a Chinese store near Sule which has been open for two years, selling the same extensive range of drinks, in addition to fried chicken takeaways. Prices here were the lowest, at just over K1000 per drink, and customers favoured the more tangy jasmine green tea and blueberry fruit juices.

Bubble tea drinks have become so popular in Yangon that they are also available for order – either through the outlets themselves, or via the Door2Door home delivery service. Gong Cha and Cha Thai both have listings on Door2Door, offering free delivery for orders over K10,000. Their top rated drink also happens to be the pearl milk tea.

So what makes bubble tea so appealing?

Ma Alin, who runs a small stall on 38th Street in the city, says that people enjoy the variety. She also sells fried chicken and hot dogs, and mentioned that “different people like different drinks. My drinks aren’t limited to just tea. We have coffee and fruit drinks.”

The popularity of this drink may also be due to the climate in Myanmar. For decades vendors in Thailand have sold iced Cokes and coffees in small plastic bags, but Myanmar seems to lack a cool drink alternative.

The signature Laphet yay is Myanmar’s beloved drink, but it only comes in one temperature: hot.

So, it is likely that in Myanmar’s all-year round humid weather, customers seeking to quench their thirst search for the bubble tea shops.

Regular customers of Gong Cha, a South Korean-Taiwanese franchise, stated that “the pretty and efficient packaging of bubble tea is also what makes the drink successful.’’ People can carry bubble tea around with them, with a lid that safely seals the contents.

The packaging is seen as a thing of beauty by some, with young connoisseurs taking “Instagram-worthy” snaps to share with their friends and post on company websites.

At Ma Alin’s stall I observed a group of children excitedly waiting to be served. When asked about their favorite drink, they all replied, “pearl milk tea!”

An elderly woman who was with the children even added, “They are about to go to tuition right now. They come to this stand every day before their class”.

Small stalls with local street vendors are now putting their own versions of the classic pearl milk tea on their menus, attracting eager children and teenagers ready for their daily intake of bubble tea.

It seems like bubble tea places are taking over Yangon one franchise – and one street stall – at a time. By offering more than just a hot tea, in a fancy portable container, is Yangon’s younger generation losing their traditional tea-shop culture?

Source: Myanmar Times

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