Good bye Puerto Natales, Hello Navimag!

It’s our last night in Puerto Natales.

Well, technically that’s not entirely true. It’s our last night at the B&B in Puerto Natales – tomorrow night we’ll be sleeping on the ship as we have to “check in” the night before it departs (feel certain there must be a specific nautical term for this occurrence but have no clue what it might be. “Sets sail”? Only the ferry doesn’t have sails to set. Hm.) early on Sunday morning.

As usual, I’m experiencing pangs about having to leave some place I’ve come to love. (It’s an interesting sensation, having a simultaneous abundance of both wanderlust and sentimentality)

We have a draft itinerary for the rest of our time in Chile and there is no place we plan to spend as much time as we’ve ended up spending here in Puerto Natales (unless more unexpected things happen – never say never 😉 ). I’ve arrived in Chile with only a vague sense about the country and I still can’t really imagine what awaits us as we travel north through this shoe string of a country. What I can say though is that Puerto Natales has given us a lovely introduction and welcome. It’s felt really natural staying here and I’ve enjoyed every moment. The city is the gateway to the Torres Del Paine national park and yes, the park IS as incredible and beautiful as everyone says and I’m not lessening it at all but it’s really this little tourist-town-on-the-off-season and the experiences we’ve had here that have charmed me entirely, and entirely unexpectedly. What a lovely thing to have gotten stranded here. 😀

Happily we have something really exciting and adventurous as our next step, which tempers the verklemptness somewhat! 🙂 And that is four nights, three days on the Navimag ferry!

This is a trip through the Patagonian fjords along Chile’s southern coastline, and from all accounts, it can be either sublime or downright hellish. I suspect the reality will fall somewhere in between – so long as the weather isn’t too uncooperative.

(Well, we will see – according to Navimag’s website we are traveling during the second rainiest, second coldest month of the year. There is probably a reason why there are only two other tourists traveling on the ship with us. In fact we’re bunking with them in a room that appears just big enough to fit two bunk beds. Please keep your fingers crossed for both decent weather and decent company!)

I don’t think I can explain it better than Lonely Planet, so please excuse this large excerpt:

The Navimag Experience: The good, the bad & the ugly

Back in the prehistoric Patagonian travel days of the 1980s and the early ‘90s, travelers had to beg and swindle just to stow away on the rusty cargo freighters that plied the waters between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales. No regular passenger ferries were installed as tourism to the region increased, but the Navimag shipping company caught on and decided to dedicate a section of their boats to passenger transportation. So, these days, you can have that same experience of stowing away on a freighter – packed with 18-wheelers, drunken truck drivers and cattle – but you can make a reservation online and they will charge you hundreds of dollars for your bunk.

The Navimag is not a cruise. If you are looking for a cruise, check out Skorpios and ready your credit card. The Navimag is a quirky travel experience that comes with the good, the bad and the ugly. If you like to have different experiences and are adventurous it just might be the highlight of your trip.

The Good

The boat takes you through days of uninhabited fjords, close encounters with glaciers and views of surreal orange sunsets over the Pacific. It passes through Aisen’s maze of narrow channels, navigates the Angostura Inglesa (a passage so confined that the ship seems to graze the shoreline on both sides) and stops at the impossibly remote Puerto Eden, a small fishing port (etc. etc. – other things that we probably won’t do because of the time of the year, as I’ve been told by the guy at the Navimag office here in town…)

Beyond the stellar scenery, the trip has become a unique bonding experience for independently minded travelers. Strangers become tight friends after numerous bottles of wine, round after round of pointless card games, sympathizing about queasy stomachs (I hope we have enough Dramamine to go around!) deck-top soccer matches, late-night dance parties and plans to meet up in Torres del Paine (most travelers do the opposite direction apparently). Even though the ship’s common spaces are bare and not particularly comfortable, the crew does a yeoman’s job of trying to entertain with games, slide shows, music and a respectable selection of English-language movies.

The Bad

If the weather is poor, your views are limited and you will spend much of your time watching movies or drinking in the dining area. If the weather is worse, you can spend a day or so pitching back and forth on rough seas and fighting to hold down your lunch. If the weather is worse than that your trip can be delayed (for days) prior to departure and you can even be delayed en route if the Golfo de Penas (on the open Pacific) is too rough to cross (the guy at the office told me that too rough means waves higher than 4.5 meters. Yikes.)

In the winter the boat can have less than a dozen passengers (check!), which can be fine or can really detract from the social experience. In the heart of summer, it is often so full that people are packed on top of each other and must dine in shifts. A very crowded boat can make the cramped downstairs dorm rooms seem less bearable.

The Ugly

During the winter, when there are fewer passengers and more cargo, hundreds of head of cattle are kept on the top and middle decks in open-top trucks. They are packed together so tightly that not all animals can keep their feet on the ground and after a day or two the stench of 300 cattle can be tough on your nose – especially if you are already seasick.

However, as you should know by now, no valuable travel experience comes without a dose of hardship. If you have the time, trips on the Navimag will not only change the way that you understand Chilean Patagonia, it will also add depth to your entire trip.

So, let’s see what happens.

Earlier when we booked I was really wondering what we were getting ourselves into. I’m definitely feeling calmer now and mostly just curious to see what it will be like.

Also, it helps to remember our time on the cargo ship in Myanmar – how those three days became and remain one of THE big highlights of our trip so far. Yes, we were sleeping on a one-inch mattress, the nights were freezing cold and I didn’t shower for days, but it was just magic and I wouldn’t give up a second of it. The fjords and open ocean will be something completely different from the Irrawaddy River, and the Navimag ferry is at least 10 times cushier than our ferry in Myanmar.

So, let the adventure begin! 🙂 We’ll be offline for at least a few days, so see you again once we reach Puerto Montt!

Before I go though, here’s a quick peak at Chilean Patagonia… Tons more photos to come at some point in the future… 🙂

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My new (miraculously NON-food-related!) obsession

Not only Roman’s cold, but now pouring rain is keeping us from the Angkor temples – another perfect day for catching up on the blog and researching our next stop: Vietnam. 🙂

Here’s a post on something that’s become a bit of an obsession for me: Sarongs!

Most people associate sarongs with flowy, light-weight beach wear – a quick google search shows the same tendency. http://hubpages.com/hub/How-to-Wrap-a-Sarong

This is not the sort of sarong I am talking about. My obsession is with the traditional cotton wrap skirt that we’ve encountered all through Asia.

My obsession started in Myanmar, where this type of clothing is called a longyi, and both women AND men where it, albeit in different styles. With a little encouragement from my friend Ohmar, I started to learn how it was worn, and even bought an inexpensive acrylic version from the market in Bahmo. I couldn’t stop worrying about my technique though and was constantly nervous that the skirt, secured only by my inexperienced wrapping and tucking, would fall down at any second. After a couple of self-conscious wearings, I gave up and shipped it home.

My mother loves to quilt and I love to shop for exotic materials for her while I’m here in Asia. A couple of months after Myanmar, I was with my friends Juelle and Donovan at the weekly market in Ban Krud when some gorgeous cotton material caught my eye. I picked up one purple and one orange bit for my mom, only to discover when I got back to the hotel that they’d already been sewn up: the ends of the rectangular material are sewn together to create a tube of cloth forming a longyi or, as it’s known in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, a sarong! Always eager to play dress up with local fashion, I couldn’t help myself – I tried one on and this time it stuck. My wrapping technique still wasn’t great but the material was too pretty to be ignored. I kept one for myself and felt like a tropical goddess wearing it around, despite my fears of coming unwrapped! 🙂

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My second sarong/longyi purchase and the one that really started it all

This was the beginning of the obsession! The gorgeous colors and patterns draw me in; despite the fact that I am probably ending up with far more sarongs than I will every possibly need, still I have to pick up at least one in every country we visit. I’ve been practicing loads and am no longer scared of the skirt falling off while I’m walking around. 🙂 (It does happen sometimes that it starts to get loose – then I just do like the locals and re-adjust and fasten where ever I happen to be.)

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The sarong I picked up in Laos

Here in Cambodia, I bought an unfinished bit of material, and the friendly seamstress who sewed it up for me gave me some more pointers on how the locals work their wrap – check the photographic step by step guide below. 🙂

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My latest purchase from Battambang, Cambodia

As much as I love the sarongs for comfort and fashion reasons, the best thing about them is quite possibly the reaction they get from locals. They’re beautiful and make great souvenirs in my opinion yet I never see other Westerners wearing them, and from folks’ reactions, neither do they. Walking around in one inevitably draws stares, smiles, laughter and friendly comments.

In Ko Lanta I got thumbs up from local women, in Kratie I got a kick out of the old man who, after I was pointed out to him by a friend, emphatically exclaimed “Oh my God!”. Here in Siem Reap, a friendly young woman in a store I was shopping with told me how she loves to wear sarongs at home even though her mother makes fun of her for it (while people almost exclusively wear them in Myanmar and lots of women in Laos wear them, it’s much less common to see sarongs here in Cambodia, especially in younger people and less rural areas), and said it made her very happy to see me in one. 🙂

How to wear a sarong – the southeast Asia way

I’m sure there is a more accurate/articulate way to explain this but hopefully it makes some sense. As with most things, I’m finding practice makes perfect! 🙂

The ends of the sarong material are sewn together to create a tube:

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The sarongs I’ve bought are really long (and while I’m short, most Cambodian women we’ve met are even shorter!). I asked the seamstress if she could hem it for me but she said that’s not done. Instead, you can adjust the sarong by folding the top of the material until it’s at your desired length.

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Pull the sarong strongly to one side. Hold the material to your hip to create a crease, pulling the extra material strongly away from your body.

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Keeping the material secure at your hip with your hand, fold and wrap the extra material tightly around the front of your legs.

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Pull the top corner of the extra cloth out and up, against the inner layer of cloth.

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Tuck the upper corner of the outer cloth into the skirt. This is usually where locals stop; I like to tuck down the edges of the skirt for extra security! 🙂

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The finished product! Typically the women I’ve seen wear the sarong with their shirt tucked into it, as in the photo.

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One Beerlao for the road

There’s still more Laos back-filling to do on this blog, not to speak of Thailand and even Myanmar, but for now I want to look forward to our next stop.

Tonight’s our last night in Laos. We’re currently at pretty much the southern most point in the country, a cluster of islands on the Mekong river called Si Phan Don (the four thousand islands).

We’ve had a lovely day and a half here, enjoying Laos up to the last moment our visa remains valid. Bike and boat tours have brought us even closer to, a figurative arm’s reach away from, our next destination: Cambodia.

Tomorrow morning we’ll board a bus that will take us across the border and on to Kratie, our first stop in the new country.

Travel homework

I’ve always tried to do a bit of reading ahead about where we’re going to next, at the very least picking my way through the introductory chapters of the Lonely Planet. But I knew just enough about Cambodia’s recent history to realize I needed to know more before we got there. I wanted to be an informed visitor, but, having heard about people’s impressions of places like the genocide museum and killing fields, I also wanted to know how much I might need to brace myself.

I’ve been reading Cambodia’s Curse by Joel Brinkley.

(Side “gear” note – most books I read are on my iPhone – although it will never be the same as reading a physical book, you just can’t beat that for portability! The other downside – the limited selection and not always being able to preview books in Apple’s online store. There may be better books on Cambodia out there, but this seemed to be one of the most recent, and most relevant to what I wanted to learn about.)

I’m well more than three-fourths of the way through at this point. So far it’s provided an overview of the country’s history – ancient, the events leading up to and during Khmer Rouge times and, foremost, what’s been happening since then. One of the book’s main thrusts seems to be that the massively corrupt government has been and continues to be enabled and condoned by the international community for multiple reasons. Throughout the chapters runs a litany of horrific crimes committed against the Cambodian people – post the Khmer Rouge regime. I’m more or less up to 2008 in the chronology and I’m beginning to give up my hopes for some sort of “happy” ending to the book.

Homework round 2

I know though it’s always best to take everything with a grain of salt (just take a look at all the comments about Cambodia’s Curse in the link), and reading all this has only made me more curious to see the country and its people for myself. Brinkley makes comparisons between Cambodia and Myanmar (a country with an even worse rap than Cambodia that we are SO glad we visited) and Thailand and Vietnam feature regularly in the book, but Laos is hardly ever mentioned.

Laos has had its own share of hardships – it’s been eye-opening to learn about the bombings that took place here during the Vietnam war (apparently it is the most bombed country in the entire world. See some quick facts here.) – yet most of the Laotians we met have been among the most welcoming, easy-going folks we’ve encountered on our trip so far and while there is no doubt it’s a poor country, it has felt, to us at least, safe and not without its dignity, despite the poverty.

So, I wanted to get some additional context beyond the utterly bleak picture painted in the book. Statistics may be flat compared to the stories Brinkley recounted – and I don’t in any way discount the suffering he describes – but it was still interesting to learn that in terms of figures, Laos and Cambodia seem to be running a tight race.

Just the facts

Both countries have a very young population (a median age of 22.9 in Cambodia, compared to 21 in Laos) with a similar life expectancy of around 62.5 years – the lowest among all their neighbors, including Myanmar. Both countries also have higher infant mortality rates than their neighbors (Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam).

In fact both countries are by and large markedly worse off than those neighbors, except in certain areas where Myanmar is in similar or worse shape (i.e. unemployment – 5.7% in Myanmar versus 3.5% in Cambodia and 2.5% in Laos. Myanmar also tops the list of the largest chunk of the population under the poverty line – 32.7%. No wonder since their GDP per capita is also the lowest, at USD 1,400 per year. In Cambodia it’s USD 2,100, in Thailand USD 8,700).

Literacy in both places is the lowest of the five countries at around 73% (the neighbors are at around 90% or higher). Cambodia provides safe drinking water to more of its population than Laos; Laos has got Cambodia firmly beat for sanitation facility access however. Around 87% of Laos’ roads are unpaved; in Cambodia it’s around 92%.

(PS – thanks to the CIA World Factbook for all those figures.)

So what

I am no statistician and can’t and don’t want to read too much into those figures. But I’m glad I’m aware of them if only for the reason that they are reminding me to keep my eyes and heart open. If the figures for Laos are so poor and yet this country and the people we’ve met here have been so beautiful and uplifting, what can expect of Cambodia? We’ll see how it goes once we’re there, but I suppose the (informed) answer for now is: nothing and everything.

In the mean time, farewell for now Laos, and thanks for all the beer! 😉

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Our last Beerlao in Laos!

Sights in and around Vientiane

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We did a nice mix of tourist stuff and just hanging out while we were in Vientiane.

Food and drink

After weeks in the northern Laos countryside, Roman was happy to indulge in the international fare on offer in the capitol. We found some really nice places for food.

I did get introduced to and promptly fell in love with one Lao speciality – the country’s beer. We’ve tried the “gold” version and some of Laos’ other beers like Savan, but the original is the best. Beerlao, made with rice, hops and yeast and served icy cold on a hot, sunny day has got to be one of the most delicious things ever.

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Deliciousness (This photo’s actually taken in Savvanakhet, not Vientiane)

Noy’s Fruit Heaven had really tasty western offerings with both service and ambience that was cute and friendly. I had one of my rare beef cravings (happens probably about five times a year) and was in luck – Vientiane has a western style steak house called Xayoh and my tender, juicy filet with fries, salad and veggies (and a bottle of that oh so good, oh so cold beer) really hit the spot. And we ate too much ice cream at the newly opened Swensens, something we’d discovered in Bangkok with mixed feelings (another massive global chain… so bad! But, delicious tasty ice cream… so good!).

The vibe

So far I’m finding Laos is very different from the other Buddhist countries we’ve visited. It has a relatively short history as a nation in comparison to Thailand and Myanmar and has suffered many losses of historic sites over the decades whether at the hand of attacking neighboring kingdoms or during the ceaseless hail of bombs from the US during the Vietnam war.

I’m not sure if the relative youth of the temples and sacred spaces we visited in and around Vientiane was a contributing factor to this, but I found that, while they were beautiful, they didn’t convey the almost tangible spiritual atmosphere I’d experienced in some Buddhist sites we visited in Thailand and Myanmar.

I’ll write more about it later, but subsequent to leaving Vientiane we were able to participate in some Buddhist rituals in a rural village and I can tell you those were very moving. Perhaps the Buddhist spirit of Lao is more present in the coming together of its people than in its monuments?

None the less, I really enjoyed the places we saw.

Temples and parks

Haw Pha Kaeo had lush, immaculately manicured grounds populated by flickering butterflies. The wat (temple) itself was lovely. I really enjoyed seeing all the various buddha statues along the outside of the building, watching visitors rub the faces, arms, feet of the bronze figures in devotion. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me the day we visited. Check here for a bit of info and some pics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haw_Phra_Kaew

Wat Si Saket, with its alcove-filled cloister walls containing thousands of little buddha statues gently picking up the warm light of the midday sun from the open courtyard, was peaceful and breathtakingly beautiful.

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A portion of one of the many buddha-filled walls

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Buddha detail

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Offerings and the remnants of candles in front of a Buddha statue

We took a trip out-of-town to visit Xieng Khuan, also known as Buddha Park. Created in 1958, it’s a surreal “park” along the edge of the Mekong river, containing massive, bizarre and wonderful statues representing figures from both Buddhism and Hinduism. I’d say it’s got an almost Edward Gorey-esque feel to it, and while it’s fun enough during the bright Lao afternoon, I’d be disinclined to spend a night in the park alone. 😉

 

 

 

A panoramic shot of the park – click for a closer look

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Monks in front of a massive reclining Buddha

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Monks in orange, statues in bizarre

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Hindu god in the foreground, monks and the Mekong river in the background

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Not sure what’s going on here

Even more surreal though was the next stop we made. We’d shared a ride with a bunch of sight-seeing monks who wanted to go to see a “Cultural Park” before we headed back to the city. This is not something that is listed in the guidebook and I can see why. Although it was open and we had to pay addmision, the “park” felt and looked like it had been abandoned years ago, with locked up, cobwebby exhibitions, public areas entirely overgrown by nature, and not all that much to look at. I think the idea behind it was to showcase Lao culture; there were replicas of different traditional tribal houses and what looked like a good sized outdoor stage that may have hosted dance and music performances. Mostly though there were just shut up buildings, cracked pathways and lots and lots of trees and shrubs. Oh, and some random dinosaur statues. 🙂

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Pha That Luang, an impressive, massive, gold covered stupa, is the national symbol for Laos. We headed there after the amusing visit to the Cultural Park. We got there past closing time, so we couldn’t go in, but we enjoyed people watching and strolling around the beautiful, open grounds and checking out the lovely temples around it as the sun began to sink lower over the city.

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Pha That Luang

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One of the Wats on the grounds

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Ribbons around a beautiful, massive tree in front of Pha That Luang

Sacred Kyaiktiyo

Our final stop before returning to Yangon was one of the most holy sites in all of Myanmar: the magical and majestic Golden Rock, or Kyaiktiyo (pronounced something like “Chai-tea-oh” in Burmese).

This significant Buddhist pilgrimage site is focused on a massive, holy, golden boulder perched precariously on the edge of a mountain and topped with a stupa. Devotees believe is the rock floats just above the ground against a backdrop of breathtaking nature, balanced on a single hair from the original Buddha. The complex is accessible only by foot and apparently can only be reached during the dry season. (More info if you’re interested)

The place sounded spectacular and fascinating. We really wanted to see it but were rapidly running out of time before our flight, so we decided to travel American style, doing a whole lot of traveling for a short stay. 😉

We got up early at Inle Lake and got a cab to the Heho airport – about an hour’s drive. A slightly longer flight took us to Yangon, where we caught another cab to the bus depot. We got slightly hustled at the station – we paid for what we thought was the first class bus direct to Kinmun, the small town that serves as a base camp for the site. We ended up on a “local” bus that made a ton of stops and dropped us off at the town on its route that was a bit further from Kyaiktiyo. To get to Kinmun, we took motorbike cabs – our packs wedged in front of the driver while we sat on back and could enjoy the gorgeous scenery and late afternoon sun as we made our way over the curving roads. It was unexpected but the nicest part of the journey.

We sorted out a hotel and transport back to Yangon for the next day. The last bus left at 2 in the afternoon, so if we got up at a decent hour we could make it up the mountain for an hour or two visit to the Golden Rock and still be back in time.

There are two ways to make it up the mountain. Ambitious people with more time than we had can walk one or both of the ways along mountain paths. For us, it was the more standard method. Good sized flat bed trucks, kitted out with tremendously narrow wooden benches in the back, regularly transport visitors from Kinmun to the highest vehicle-accessible point on the mountain. From there, it’s about a 45 minute walk the rest of the way along a steep, twisting, shop-laden road to the entrance of the complex.

The trucks start running around 6 a.m. We didn’t quite make it on the first departure, but it was still pretty early and a morning chill hung in the air when we climbed from the concrete platform into the still relatively empty bed of the truck. The drivers don’t leave until they’ve packed as many people as physically possible into the back, so we ended up sitting around for about 45 minutes until the rows of passengers began to resemble a can of sardines.

We were really astounded how many people they managed to squeeze into the space. They may do this for financial reasons, but it could also be a safety measure. The ride up and down the mountain is like a roller coaster without the safety bar and being packed in so tightly may prevent passengers from flying out over the edge! We happened to be at the front both times, so could brace ourselves against the wall in front of us; even so I came out of the ride with some black and blue marks, and I don’t know what folks in the middle of the truck did to stop from bashing into each other on some of the more dramatic hairpin turns! 🙂

After the wild and wonderful ride up, we began the walk to Kyaiktiyo. It’s not too long, but it is pretty steep, so I paced myself and enjoyed the amazing views over the valley and some nice people watching while Roman powered ahead. We met up at the entrance and had our first view of the floating Golden Rock together.

I have to say, it IS pretty darn spectacular. 🙂 The giant boulder has been completely covered in gold and was lit up by the morning sun as we approached it. It looks like someone has gone and carved away the earth beneath it; how it may have come to be sitting so perfectly on the edge of a mountain defies easy explanation. I couldn’t get up close – only men are allowed direct access, but even from a distance, it is impressive!

Like at all other buddhist sites we’d visited so far, the vibe was peaceful while still being lively. There was a good number of pilgrims and monks wandering around, chatting with friends, sitting in prayer and making offerings, but it didn’t feel crowded at all. The air up there is crisp and clean and full of cheeky swallows winging wildly about – it actually made me a bit homesick for Switzerland (in a nice way 🙂 )

After we’d gotten our fill of all the gorgeous sights, it was time to head back down the mountain. Another looooong wait till the truck was filled meant that we made it to town just in time to grab our things, check out and hop on the bus to back to Yangon.

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Pilgrims arriving at the truck station in the morning

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A first view of the Golden Rock

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Male pilgrims affixing gold leaf to the rock

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A Buddhist nun lighting a candle in offering

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Applying gold leaf

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The view from the mountain

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If you didn’t feel like walking the last 45 minutes to the complex, it was possible to be carried up! Can’t believe people actually do this, but this guy seemed to really get into the part. 🙂

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Stopping for some fresh coconut on the way back down – unfortunately I think I got a tainted coconut because I got sick soon after.

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Burmese soda on sale at one of the small road-side shops

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Pilgrims piling into the truck

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On the way down we shared the front bench with a group of very sweet older women all dressed in matching traditional garb. This is them, holding on for dear life on the truck ride down the mountain. It was risky letting go to take the photo but I’m glad I did. 🙂

Silver waters, golden sun: Inle Lake

Accommodation notes

Inle Lake (pronounced In-lay) was another two night, one full day affair, resting and setting up logistics the day of arrival and then doing the heavy-duty sight-seeing the next day. We had a very early departure from Bagan, but our hotel (New Park – definitely recommendable for the price. Simple, clean, nice staff) was kind enough to make us breakfast ahead of their schedule and arrange for a ride to the airport. Still, even with a couple of cups of decent coffee in me (i.e. not three-in-one 😉 ), I was still feeling pretty bushed by the time we arrived at Heho airport.

Our next hotel, May Guest House, was a short walk away from the busier water-front area of Nyaungshwe (the town at the edge of Inle Lake and the launching point for many of the tourist activities) and was very welcoming. Upon arrival, the friendly owner set us up with two generous pots of coffee in the cute (but chilly in the morning!) garden breakfast area, and helped us to set up the customary long-tailed boat tour for the next day.

True Myanmar, despite the tourists

Inle Lake, like Bagan, is one of Myanmar’s primary tourist attractions. A shallow but good sized lake (about 44 square miles according to Wikipedia), it’s shores, tributaries and the lake itself are full picturesque stilt villages around and on the water and some prime opportunities to experience Burmese culture, from local crafts to specialized fishing techniques to crumbling temple ruins.

It’s possible to rent a canoe and paddle around certain areas, but the most effective and common way to get around is to hire a motor boat. There are lots of popular and programmed stops along the water where tourists will tend to end up coagulating. Some of it can feel a bit contrived, like the many artisan shops where you wander through with the other westerners, get a cup of green tea and a demonstration and then of course ample time to window shop and hopefully buy a souvenir or two. Even though it’s less than subtle, the traditional crafts were beautiful and the techniques demonstrated very interesting, and the people working in the shops were always genuinely friendly and not pushy at all to us. Additionally, as Roman pointed out, having these areas where tourists gathered did seem to preserve some real space and privacy for the lake’s residents.

This point aside, Inle Lake was just stunning and definitely worth the visit. We were out on the boat all day long. We witnessed the sun burning the blue-grey morning mist off the waters, revealing fishermen with their distinctive rowing technique, one leg wrapped around the oar, as well as set in a blaze of gold that splintered across the lake as we sped through crisp, cold air back to Nyaungshwe.

In between we got to visit temples, workshops, a heritage house that was also home to the relatively rare Burmese cat and to float through some absolutely gorgeous stilt villages and floating gardens. The homes on the water just took my breath away. Some of the neighborhoods had houses different from the traditional bamboo homes that I was enchanted by in Bhamo, these were more sturdy looking wood structures and often painted with primary reds or blue accents – something about them actually made me think a bit of an old New England fishing town. 🙂

Other bits

I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking but I want to make sure I also remember a few things from our time in Naungshwe.
– Our first night when we were wandering trying to get our bearings, we ended up basically in someone’s back yard – they were so friendly and tried to be helpful despite the intrusion and language issues. It was cool to see their and other traditional houses, like the kind I’d admired from the boat up the Irrawaddy, up close. Some had no electricity and you could see lantern flames flickering inside and the family’s livestock hanging out under the house. Made me wonder how they kept warm as I was pretty chilly at night, even in our more sturdy hotel.
– The lovely restaurant with the friendly owner and his super cute little daughter who biked and laughed and played the whole time we were there. She was SO loved and so cute!
– Rescuing the stray kittens from the pack of street dogs. Wish I could have taken all three of them along with us!

Photo impressions

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Fishermen in the morning. The boats they use are so shallow, from a distance sometimes it almost looks like they are standing on the water

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The traditional rowing technique

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Tourists bargaining over trinkets

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Traditional Burmese puppets at one of the first (and most touristy) shops we visited. They had some women from the long-neck tribe working there and everyone was taking photos of them like they were a zoo display – made me feel really uncomfortable. No other place we visited was like that at all thank goodness. The puppets were really lovely though.

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Football by the water’s edge

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Amazing ruins at Shwe Inn Dain Pagoda

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The ruins outside the main temple were awesome – overgrown and silent. We were the only ones there and couldn’t help feeling a bit like Indian Jones. 🙂

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Water jugs inside the temple

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Amazingly beautiful houses! I love the electricity poles in the water. 🙂

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House detail. So many of them had lovely verandas with pretty potted houseplants. I really like the simple but lovely stairs leading down to the water too.

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Detail from one of the workshops we visited where people created thread from lotus plants and silk, died the materials and wove beautiful materials that became scarves, longyis, ties, shirts… Our tour guide at the shop was a chill young man and the place and goods were all gorgeous. If only we weren’t traveling light… In the photo: A woman works the wooden loom with her feet.

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At the Inthar Heritage House, where they have a lovely home for dozens of cuddly Burmese cats. They are gorgeous animals and known for how affectionate they are. Their trademark is to jump up and hang out on people’s shoulders. I had one do this nearly as soon as we got into their enclosure and it was sweet and lovely – until the thing sneezed kitty snot all over me! 🙂 Our very sweet host at the House was mortified and helped clean me up. 🙂

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The house itself was also amazing. A project of love for the woman who owns it, it was reconstructed from old wood and is full of her family memorabilia. Very gorgeous and another inspiration for my future dream home. 🙂

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Stilts reflecting in the water

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Our boat driver taking a break in the late afternoon sun

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A woman trimming cheroots at the last workshop we visited

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Cheroot filling

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Homes, hill and lake in the afternoon sun

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Another gorgeous house

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Sun setting beyond the floating gardens on our way back

The land of a thousand temples

Our next destination after Mandalay was Bagan, another major tourist stop in Myanmar, and with good reason. Quoting from Lonely Planet’s description: “Bagan fills a 26-sq-mile plain of 4000-plus temples that date back centuries. It’s one of Myanmar’s most wondrous sights and rivals Cambodia’s Angkor Wat in terms of scope and jaw-droppability. ”

We weren’t sure exactly what to expect, but it sounded impressive and we wanted to make sure we had a chance to see it before we left the country.

But first we had to get there.

Ghost airport

After breakfast the next morning, we got a cab to Mandalay’s airport. We drove for nearly an hour, emerging from the dusty city streets full of the rumble and hustle of rusty buses, rickety cars, skinny trishaw drivers to yet another empty Burmese highway. The airport itself was also surreal.

Seemingly in the middle of no where, we approached it on a wide, sweeping, drive that was devoid of any signs of life. The airport looked new and modern and big enough to handle a good deal of air traffic. However, when we got inside, we found only a small crowd waiting in one end of the cavernous, pristine arrivals hall, where the gift shop and cafe nooks stood sadly empty.

The security check was essentially a glance at the outside of our passport, and although the airport had eight of them, all passengers were directed to the same gate. There we waited while flights were announced by clipboard-carrying airport staff calling them out to the crowd and two TVs suspended from the ceiling played the government sponsored channel (shows included a pair of hands playing songs on a piano for a half hour, a recording of a Buddhist ceremony and what looked like a tourism-type famous-sights-of-Myanmar infomercial). By far the most subdued and bizarre airport I’ve ever been to!

The land of a thousand temples

The flight to Bagan was easy. Before we knew it, we were descending over a green and yellow landscape and already catching glimpses of a few of the ancient brick pagodas the region is famous for. We had an easy ride to the hotel, and spent the rest of the day settling in, exploring the neighborhood and grabbing a bite to eat.

The next day was our only full day in Bagan. Ideally, one would have a bit more time to explore and soak it all in, but since we didn’t have this luxury, we opted to hire a guide and horse cart to make sure we saw as much as possible. Aung just happened to be the first driver/guide we met, but he turned out to be lovely, friendly and easy-going and we enjoyed the tour he gave us very much (phone number 0947208587 in case you ever happen to be in Bagan! 😉 ). It was also nice to see how healthy and cared for his horse seemed to be – in India the horses always seemed painfully neglected, skinny and threadbare.

Aung took us to 9 different sites over the course of the day (with a break for lunch in between). For those who are interested, I’ll include a list of the sites we visited below, but as amazing as each individual temple was, when it comes to Bagan, the sum is greater than its parts.

The landscape is just magical. The climate was very different from the north, with a touch of sun-baked partial desert to it like the American southwest or Italy’s Umbria. We were really enjoying trundling along the dusty, scrub-lined roads, cooking in the heat of the sun reflected of the stone courtyards of the gold gilded pagodas or escaping it in the cool, dark atmospheric tunnels of the ruins. But it wasn’t until we emerged from one such tunnel at the top of an old temple high enough to see the expanse of the Bagan plains below us that we were hit by the full majesty and beauty of the place. The entire landscape, as far as the eye could see, even on the distant edge of the flatlands where they began to blur into the far hills and river was dotted with hundreds upon hundreds of pagodas. The full effect of this sight is indescribable. Roman and I could only sit one those ancient bricks and let it watch over us. We didn’t want to leave, but were rewarded later with an even more spectacular vista from another building (Okyaung Gyi) at sunset.

The final highlight of the tour came after the sun had set. Riding through the dark, Aung took us to one last temple, where a ceremony was being held. We heard music as we entered but still were surprised when we rounded a corner and discovered about 25 people sitting around in one of the rooms. The majority of them were in front of a large buddha statue, and were the source of the hypnotic, soothing chanting that reverberated around and outside the temple. A few others were further back in the room, socializing, drinking and eating and smoking. We plopped down in a corner just to enjoy the scene, but soon were being handed tea, tea leaf salad and even a cigarillo by some of the lovely folks there. It was just magic.

With floating hearts, we finally left the temple to head back to the hotel. I was dreaming, enjoying the feeling of cool night descending as we moved through dark streets, when suddenly, something caught my eye. The profiles of two people on the side of the road looked awfully familiar. We asked Aung to stop and I hopped off the cart to go greet Elmer and Ohmar who had themselves just gotten to Bagan! Another happy crossing of paths and another lovely night of food, beer and conversation. 🙂 We also had another flight the next morning to our next stop – Inle Lake, so eventually the evening wound. At this point our intended destinations were diverging, so we said goodbye – till Yangon.

Our itinerary

These are the sites Aung took us too. Apologies for any spelling mistakes.

1.Shwezigon Pagoda
2.Kyansit Thar Cave
3.Tha Gya Hit
4.Ananada Temple
5.Menyein Gon
6.Nanpaya
7.Manhuha
8.Okyaung Gyi
9.Htilominla

Photo impressions

None of my pictures can convey the incredible vast vista or atmosphere of the place – I’m sure you can find much better with a quick search on-line. I have included a couple of my attempts to capture it, but most of these are just snapshots of some of the details of our time in Bagan.

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Young novice at Shwezigon Pagoda

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Tile floor inside one of the temple

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Roman bargaining with one of the vendors outside Shwezigon

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Old wall painting inside one of the temples

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Big buddha inside a shadowy temple

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Money in one of the donation boxes at (I am pretty sure) Ananda Temple

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Devotees entering one of the temple’s rooms

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In a wall alcove

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Door detail

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Roman ascending Menyeingon (I think) to take in the amazing view. None of the temples had lighting or hand rails or anything like that. Outside that patch of light it was practically pitch dark inside. Loved it. 🙂

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Temples as far as the eye can see!

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Temple detail

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Woman praying before a massive reclining buddha (note the eye and eyebrow…)

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Sunset from Okyaung Gyi. Another bigger-than-life sun!

A day (and a bit) in Mandalay

After having that darn “Road to Mandalay“ song in my head nearly the whole time we’d been in Myanmar, I was happy to have the chance to see the actual place. The first hotel and neighborhood we’d stayed at when we were catching the ferry had left a pretty grungy impression. Though the city does have a bit of a run down feel, it came across as much more charming on our second meeting.

Given the day we lost when the boat got stuck, we had even less time than we’d planned in Mandalay but it felt like we managed to see a good amount in and around the city. There was a mix up with our hotel reservation, so the first day was all about sorting out a place to stay (we ended up at the Silver Star which was didn’t have much personality but otherwise just fine), reviving and getting cleaned up from the train journey, sorting out food (dinner was at a Lonely Planet recommendation called Nepali Food. We were waited on by the sweet teenage daughter of the owner who sang or did her homework at the back of the restaurant when she wasn’t working. The thali was great and it was fun to eat by candle light when the power to the street got cut).

We set out the next morning, our only full day in the city, with a laundry list of things we wanted to see. We hired a trishaw driver to take us to our first spot but hadn’t got very far before we heard someone calling our names. Who did we see but Elmer peddling madly after us on a bicycle! He and Ohmar just happened to be eating on the street by our hotel and had seen us through the restaurant window as we wheeled by. It was such a nice surprise, and we arranged to meet them for dinner after our sight seeing.

Sights and activities

Our first stop was an area of the city known as the monks’ district. The draw was an old teak wood monastery. We didn’t end up managing to find it, but we loved wandering around the quiet neighborhood, which had a lovely, gentle energy about it. We spent time at an open air tea shop, drinking three-in-one coffee sweetened (as if it needed more sugar!) with condensed milk and people watching and visited a (non teak wood) monastery where we shared an impromptu chat with a lovely, passionate monk.

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Monks and others watching TV in a restaurant in the Monk’s district

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Detail from a sign

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Bridge heading towards the monastery

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Communal water jugs inside the monastery

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Hard working bus boy (literally) at the tea shop

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Playing games below a chinthe

We visited a shop where gold leaf was made. The city of Mandalay is the primary producer of gold leaf for all of Myanmar and there is a whole neighborhood that centers around this old craft. Here is some info about the use of gold leaf squares in Buddhism – it’s about Thailand but definitely pertains to Burmese Buddhists too. The gold leaf is produced through some very hard core manual labor – pounded by hand by men with wooden hammers and muscles like rope, and finished by women into the small squares for fixing onto statues, gilded bodhi leaves or other items for sale in the shop.

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Pounding gold wrapped in leather

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This boy worked in the workshop. He looked about 11 or 12 years old, 13 max. Note the hard core tattoos.

We got a ride outside of the city to visit the U Bien bridge and watch the sun go down. It was a bit touristy (shops and tour buses just outside of the best camera shots 😉 ) but still beautiful and we enjoyed just hanging out watching people fishing the river next to the bridge.

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Fishermen wading in the shallow waters by the bridge

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Monks commuting across the bridge

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Buses before the bridge

Dinner with Elmer and Ohmar was great. It felt so fun to have friends to meet in the city, and we caught up over everything we’d all done since Bahmo over beer and a tasty meal expertly ordered by Ohmar. We had a lovely night stroll back to our respective hotels, walking along the moat of the old city palace, before saying our good nights. The next morning, Roman and I would be flying off to our next stop – Bagan. Elmer and Ohmar would be heading there too, but wanted to spend a bit more time in Mandalay, so we arranged, again, to meet up when we were all back in Yangon.

Other Mandalay photo impressions

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On the bus

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This particular blue was everywhere in Myanmar but specifically in Mandalay. Once I noticed it that day, I couldn’t help but see it where ever I cast my gaze. Here it is on a wall carved with text in the monk’s district.

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Laundry line

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Tea break

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Typical cabs in Mandalay – these gorgeous, old school Mazda trucks

Myanmar: First notes from Yangon

Arriving in Yangon

Flying into Myanmar from Thailand was magical. As I mentioned earlier, I knew next to nothing about the place, and with the little information that I did have, my imagination could run wild.

I felt we were alighting in a land forgotten by time, tropical, mysterious and unknown, conflicted but yet somehow unspoiled, rife with untold, shadowy cultural riches.

We had a late afternoon flight. The landscape scrolling beneath the plane was a rich green: broad sweeps of flat lands covered in countless rice paddies and other farm lands, punctuated only occasionally by low buildings or, more spectacularly, by the spires of gold-painted Buddhist pagodas, aflame in the last sun rays of the day.

The plane landed just as the sun was beginning to melt into the tree-lined horizon. Time after time during our stay there I would have the same realization – the sun is just bigger in Myanmar than in other countries I’ve been to in this world. I couldn’t stop watching it as the plane taxied on the runway. I tried to capture it with my iPhone – this image does nothing to convey how huge it seemed but here it is anyway. 🙂

IMG 0308 The setting sun above the plane’s wing

After waiting in massive lines in the bustling and huge Bangkok airport, Yangon International was small, simple and above all peaceful by comparison. The airport staff was dressed in drab brown uniforms; women in unflattering skirts and tired socks pooling around their ankles. There was definitely a feeling of depressing government influence in the attire, but everyone we dealt with was cordial and quiet – the vibe was surprisingly tranquil.

We got a taxi from the airport to our hotel – a battered Nissan Bluebird, a model I’d never heard of before. Taxis in Myanmar are pretty impressive. New cars and proper replacement parts must be really hard to come by. We did see some modern, western-style cars in the former capital, but most people and certainly no taxi driver can afford them. Every taxi we took during our stay was a well-loved but totally dilapidated rust bucket with exposed inner workings and improvised upholstery held together by scraps of metal, duct tape and hope. I really got a kick out of them! 🙂

A taste of home

There was another aspect of driving in Myanmar that I enjoyed. Thailand certainly felt more western after India. Myanmar was definitely a whole different flavor, but there were a few little things that were distinctly reminiscent of home – and specifically the States.

This was the first country we’ve been to in Asia where they drive on the right hand side of the road. What’s cool though is that they take what ever cars they can get – the driver’s seats seemed to be on the right side of the car as often as on the left. 🙂

It’s a small thing, but I also noticed American Standard brand toilets and sinks everywhere we went – a brand that I haven’t seen anywhere else but in America. Someone must have secured a good deal with the Burmese government…

The other thing that I hadn’t seen in ages and ages but was a huge part of our trip was the US currency. The Burmese currency, the kyat (pronounced chat) is so unstable, that tourists have to pay for larger purchases (hotels, transportation, etc) with dollars. It was funny to see those distinct and familiar bills again after such a long time. 🙂 Apparently there are issues with forgery; people will only accept spotless, creaseless bills of a certain age – there are even some serial numbers that get rejected. There are no international banks or ATM machines anywhere in Myanmar (apparently the local banks still operate with manual book-keeping – nothing is computerized) and only a handful of places in the entire country are equipped to accept credit cards, so the money you enter with is the money you have for the entire trip – that is if people accept it. We had a couple of bills that we just couldn’t get rid of because of slight bends or discolorations.

So we had to be cost conscious in a whole new way on this trip, which added an interesting dimension to the travel. Taking after my dad for a bit ;-), I ended up being the one who worried and worked over our budget again and again; in the end we had more than enough money, even with the imperfect bills. We stayed in budget hotels nearly everywhere we went and did what we could to keep costs down and our experiences were no less rich for spending less money.

Accommodation: The Classique Inn

The one place we did totally splurge was in Yangon, where we stayed in an incredible hotel. The Classique Inn was just gorgeous. Six elegant rooms in a quiet setting (north of the city center, so it’s a bit away from the action), run by a mother and daughter who live with their family in a house next door. The building, rooms and garden area were just beyond gorgeous and provided lots of inspiration for my dream house of the future. We paid less than USD 60 a night, a price which included really reliable in-room WiFi, high-quality breakfast in the gorgeous garden and most generously of all, tons of personal travel planning support from Kalya, the daughter. She gave us great suggestions, helped with logistics and let us monopolize her phone lines as we booked what ended up being a phenomenal trip around the country.

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Beautiful bedroom
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Foyer outside our bedroom leading to the ground floor

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Our outdoor breakfast spot

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Lovely Kalya and the shy but sweet young man working at the hotel

Discovering Myanmar

Our next destination after the down time in Chiang Mai was the country of Myanmar, also known as Burma.

It was a place I knew next to nothing about. I have vague associations in my mind for most of the countries on our wish list. Technicolored images from books or movies, travel stories from people I know, information snippets from news articles or just some sort of gut reaction will arise when I think of places like Cambodia, New Zealand, Peru… I had none of this for Myanmar.

The only thing I knew then was that Roman really wanted to go. Researching it while we were still in Thailand, I began to learn some about the complex political situation in the country. In reading I found there are compelling reasons on both sides of the debate about whether tourism benefits the people of Myanmar or condones and financially supports the dictatorial government there. A decent overview on this topic is provided in the Lonely Planet guide: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/shop_pickandmix/free_chapters/myanmar-10-should-you-go.pdf

I don’t feel like I know enough to have a fully informed opinion of tourism in Myanmar or the situation there in general. But speaking purely from my own experiences and feelings, I am so glad that we decided to go and I would encourage anyone who is interested to travel there – with the caveat that they do so as responsibly as possible.

That means avoiding package tours and informing yourself as best as possible about the places you are staying and how you get around. Putting at least some money into the government is pretty much unavoidable, but we made an effort to keep it to a minimum. Spending as much as possible with private hotels, shops and other businesses is a small way to support the Burmese people.

Beyond that, it’s hard for me to see how the side effect of the isolation of the Burmese people is worth the results achieved by boycotting the government (especially as Asian countries like China and India are investing substantial sums of money in the country).

What I do know is that our time there was magical. The landscape is stunning, the culture rich and the people we met were gentle, generous and just lovely. I have a feeling the three weeks we spent there will be one of the big highlights of our time traveling, and I’m so grateful we had the opportunity to get experience this incredible country.