Another Day in Yangon

Emily and I returned to Yangon for a day before our next place. Our original guide joined us for this day.

Our morning started out with a visit to the Bogyoke Market, aka Scott Market. This market was established in 1926. The bazaar is HUGE, and home to many stalls. Goods are organized by areas; for example, the fabric and clothing are in one section, jewelry in another. Emily and I strolled through the different alleyways looking for good bargains and possible souvenirs. We came to a gallery of local artists. The shop was located on the outskirts of the actual market. It was a hot day, so any chance to get out of the heat was welcomed. However, most places didn’t believe in air conditioning. This gallery was no exception. As I was wandering around the small art displays, I whipped out my mini battery-operated fan. It was heavenly. I sat down next to a Buddhist nun. She smiled at me as she fanned herself with some stiff paper. I held my fan up so she could get some relief from my mini fan. When we were ready to depart and go meet our guide, I handed my new friend the mini fan. She accepted with a smile of gratitude and kindness. I figured I wouldn’t need the fan too much longer so she would enjoy it more than me.

IMG_6055One of our stops was the Kandawgi Garden, which houses a replica of the Royal Barge. It is a beautiful and majestic boat. Surrounding the lake the barge resides in is a long boardwalk. Be careful for where you step, though…some of the boards are loose (which adds an element of adventure). Lots of locals were out walking around enjoying the peacefulness of the area.

We also had a chance to visit an Armenian Church. The church was quiet when we walked in. The steeple stood tall, pointing towards the blue skies. This is a nice stop if you want something different amid all of the temples, pagodas, and stupas.

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We visited one more temple near the City Hall, before heading to a local teashop for a cup of milk tea with our guide. Once again, we were the only foreigners in the shop, which I enjoyed. I always prefer local places.

 

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The next morning we would head out early on a journey to the remote area of MraukU.

In Love With Inle

IMG_5971After the ever-long day on the ferry, I was thankful that we booked a flight to Heho from Mandalay. Our guide met us at the airport and escorted us to Inle Lake, which was an hour away and our home for a couple of days. On the way, we stopped at a place that made paper from mulberry trees. It was pretty cool to see how they made the decorative paper with the little flower touches. And it also helped to break up some of the traveling.

 

Upon arriving at the lake, we were ushered into a not-so-wide, but super long boat. It was me, Emily, our guide, and boat driver. We sped along the lake. The first thing I noticed was that it was hot! The second thing I noticed was that the lake is massive!

Fishermen dotted the lake, slapping the water’s surface with paddles, rowing with one leg, and using huge cone like nets. It was unusual, but fascinating.

Our first stop was at a place for lunch. One thing about Inle Lake is amazing food. The food is fresh and probably some of the best in the country. While we were there, we stopped at a local, stilt restaurant. I ordered the avocado salad, and I’m still having dreams about it. Most of the vegetables are grown in floating gardens, and perhaps that is why the food is so outstanding.

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Black bean cakes and spring rolls

One place we saw while touring the lake was a little “street” of silk weavers, in the Inpawkhone area of Lake Inle. The place we stopped at was famous for its lotus weaving. Our guide brought us inside a room where a few tourists were already watching ladies work, so our guide took us to one lady that didn’t have any bystanders watching and she showed us how she got the lotus silk. Minutes later, we were the only two tourists left in the room. I guess it was time for a snack break because the ladies circled around and invited us over to join in. They even offered us some of their snack (again, delicious food) and allowed us to sit for a few minutes.

And of course, we had time to visit some temples, pagodas, and stupas. The first temple we saw was Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, where five small images of Buddha call home. These images are gilded in gold leaf, so much so that their shapes can no longer be determined. One thing to point out is that only men are allowed to touch Buddha and/or to place the gold leaf on the Buddha. This was a common theme throughout Myanmar, but I was more disappointed by this here since I had purchased some gold leaf from Mandalay.

Another area we visited was in Indein. This area is in the southwestern part of the lake. Along the way, we saw people moving their floating gardens with rafts and even bathing in the river. It offered a peaceful view of the lake life. We had to have the boat take us, but once we arrived we were allowed out to walk around. We focused on the ancient stupas of Alaung Sitthou. Now, I will admit that by this point, I had seen quite a few stupas so I wasn’t as focused on these as I should have been. I allowed a puppy to distract me as I wandered around. But I will say, puppy or not, the area is worth a visit.

One unique experience we had was the opportunity to tour a vineyard/winery. Yes, you read that right. Near the lake, there is Red Mountain Estate, a vineyard that produces award-winning wines. Emily and I decided a nice wine break was exactly what we needed. My favorite was the moscato, but that is not surprising. It was also pretty fantastic to be able to sip on some wine and enjoy some cheese as we gazed upon the Shan Mountains and Lake Inle.

As with Bagan, I would totally return to Lake Inle. The people and the food were simply amazing. And I know I use that word a lot—amazing—but there really aren’t many words that truly relay how I felt about this trip or these places.

A Day in Mandalay

IMG_5875After the amazing time in Bagan, we spent one day sailing on a local ferry up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay. In all fairness, when we signed up for this trip, we (and I fully admit the “we” should say “I”) didn’t notice that this ferry ride was 10 hours long. If I had to do it again, and I’m pretty sure Emily would agree with this, I would not take the same mode of transportation. I would have spent the extra money to take a car, which would have taken less than 5 hours. Sidenote: Boarding a boat at 5am in the morning on a long wood board (it couldn’t have been wider than six inches) is not my cup of tea I decided.

So, we only spent two nights/one day in Mandalay. The night we arrived via ferry, we went directly to the hotel since it was about 6pm. We ate dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant and called it an early night. The next morning, our guide and driver picked us up. We drove to the area of Sagaing.

Our first stop in Sagaing was at the U Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge. There is a local market and a monastery near one end of the bridge. We were given some time to wander around, either shop around the market or stroll along the bridge. Emily walked the entire bridge, while I opted to walk just a small amount of the bridge. After a little bit, I decided to sit a bit and simply observe those enjoying the bridge and water. Families walked hand in hand, monks in red glided past, and young ladies tried to sell their crafts. My favorite moment was when a monk, he must have been a teenager, walked by with his family (I assume it was his family). On one side was a young girl (under the age of 10) and on the other side was an old women. The old woman gave me a look and smiled. The young girl waved. I smiled and waved back. The monk nodded and kept walking with this family. To me, it was a magical moment. Because it reminded me about one of the reasons I like to travel…it doesn’t matter our backgrounds or skin color or language or gender, we are all humans and respond to kindness.

After our bridge time, we were taken to the monastery. First, we were shown some the area where the food is prepared for the monks. It was quite the operation in the large open air space. Every morning, the monks go out in the village/town to accept offerings of food. The food is brought back to this space and prepared. As we wondered around the complex, our guide pointed out certain areas…the rooms monks stayed or studied in. We were able to look through window slats to see where they ate as well. Soon, we heard some bells ringing.

The bells signaled the morning breakfast time. We joined the other tourists to view the morning ritual. The monks were in line, and a family (this is usually quite the high honor) served as the monks came through. They were given rice and fruit, plus reading material. The guide walked Emily and I to the back of the area where the monks would sometime take the food back to their bunks. We saw a few young children begging the monks for anything. And sometimes a monk would stop and give the child a book or apple.

Next, we did the local goods circuit…we stopped at a silversmith’s workshop and saw some silkweaving. My favorite out of the three stops was to watch the gold-leaf being made. It was such hard and physically demanding work—I had no idea and now I have a much higher appreciation of it. The gold is pounded into impossibly thin sheets that flutter with just a tinge of a breeze. If ever in Mandalay, make sure to at least see this one trade.

Our second to last stop of the day was at the world’s largest book, Kuthodaw Pagoda. This pagoda houses 729 stone slabs, each being about the same height as me. Each side of the stone provides text.

The last stop was at the Shwenandaw Monastery. First, if you do go to this monastery, go either near sunrise or sunset. The mirrored mosaic tiles are simply amazing and sparkle with every touch of light, which provides a glow around the monastery. But I will warn you…to get to the monastery, there is an elevator or escalator. You have to go barefoot since it’s a monastery. The escalator is not the most comfortable to soles of feet (or at least my sensitive feet).

Our day ended when our guide offered to take us to a local tea shop. We kindly accepted. We ordered some milk tea and sat watching the bustle. The waiters looked like they were younger than 14. Not only were we the only foreigners in the place, we were also the only women. I loved it. The tea was delicious (I’ve always enjoyed milktea). Mandalay wasn’t necessarily my favorite part of Myanmar, but this tea shop was certainly one of my favorite places in the city.

Another beautiful day in Bagan

One thing I saw when reading travel articles about Myanmar was hot air balloon rides during sunrise. Well, I knew no matter what, that I would be doing the same should I ever find myself in Bagan. Lucky for me, my travel partner, Emily, was cool with the idea. I was super excited about it, but also curious as to how this ride would compare to my last hot air balloonride in Tanzania.

Our wake up call was around 4am. Usually this is not a time I ever see, but I did not mind for this morning’s activity. We were picked up and taken to the launching site. This site was home to three different balloon companies. Depending on the package you paid for, you may be in a basket that holds 16, 12, or 8 people. Emily and I had sprung for the lesser price basket, which meant we would be crowded with 14 other people. But again, I didn’t care because I was EXCITED! Well, we were gathering around with the other passengers in the dark, barely able to see the plethora of balloons being filled with hot air, when our names were called. I had a slight moment of panic, thinking maybe we were going to be told it wouldn’t work out for us this morning, but that wasn’t it at all! We were being upgraded. UPGRADED! We were taken to the 8-person basket. I couldn’t believe our luck. The pilot, Christopher, allowed us to walk inside the balloon while it was on its side being filled. Soon it was time for us to board the basket. I was expecting to have to lay on the ground like we had to in Tanzania, but no, we got to climb into the basket; I’d like to report I was extremely graceful as I jumped in, but I wasn’t.

Once we were all in and prepped, we took off. We rose as the sun did…lighting the thousands of temples, pagodas, and stupas under us as we floated above. I’m sure I over use this word, but I cannot think of another one that can describe the moment: it was simply magical. It is moments like that, when I’m experiencing something so out of my usual routine that I remember how huge this world is and how much it has to offer.

An hour later after soaring, it was time for us to land. The landing was smooth and the 9 of us (8 passengers and the pilot) celebrated with a champagne breakfast in a field.

After our very exciting morning, our guide took us to a market. The bright color of the vegetables and fruits stood out in the dark stalls. All looked tasty, but there was one thing that caught my eye…a long stick of fried dough covered in powdered sugar. The dough was from chickpeas. Sadly, I don’t have a picture to share of any because I ate them all before I even thought of taking a picture.

One thing Myanmar is known for is Burmese rubies. Now, I am a big jewelry person. I love jewelry. Not costume jewelry. I’m talking about genuine gemstones. Since arriving in Bagan, I had been asking our guide about rubies. I read somewhere that only government certified places could sell rubies. If you buy one, you need to make sure you also get an certificate of authenticity; if you don’t, and you are caught with a ruby, you could get in trouble. Well, our guide came through and took me to a place that sold these gorgeous stones. Like with any gemstone, price depends on carat size, cut, and quality. I did buy a small one, and as the cashier was ringing me up, another sales associate allowed me to try one some of the most expensive rings they had on display. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

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Which one came home with me?

Following the ruby time, we drove to the area of Myinkbar village for a short temple stop, and then continued on to Mount Popa. A resort does reside on the mountain and we ate lunch overlooking Myingyan Plain. We enjoyed a nice peaceful lunch at the resort before heading to the village to view a shrine dedicated to the 37 Nats (Burmese animist spirits). First, tons of monkeys populated the area. They were fighting and begging for food. There was an option to hike up to the Nats area, but I decided to stay at a local restaurant (enjoying a local coke) while Emily braved the path. She told me that half way up, she was told to take her shoes off…the path had looked dirty. I was glad I chose not to go.

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View from lunch

 

Bagan

On our second day in Myanmar, we took a morning flight to Bagan, a city full of thousands of temples and pagodas. The flight was relatively short and comfortable.

Our first stop was an old stupa with about four levels. On the outside, people can climb up the very narrow, very steep stairs. So, I tossed on my pants (over my shorts) and kicked off my shoes (signs of respect) so I could attempt to go up. Well, not only are the stairs narrow and steep, they are also tall. My poor knee and feet (the stairs were rocky and rough on my poor sensitive feet) just couldn’t take much more than three flights. So, I let Emily and others pass me and I hung out wandering around the acceptable third story. The views were amazing. Temples, stupas, and pagodas were scattered around in open fields. It was hard for me to grasp that the structures were thousands of years old as I tried to imagine the tales of history they could share if they were able to.

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The next stop was to Ananda Temple, a beautiful temple with four Buddha statues facing the four cardinal directions. The nickname of this temple is the Westminster Abbey of Myanmar, and it was built in 1105AD. Talk about history. The temple is also home to a Buddha whose expression changes depending on where you stand.

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One thing about tours is that there are always the prerequisite stops at traditional shops in an attempt to sale tourists goods we don’t need. But I have to admit, the places our tour company (Which, have I mentioned them yet? Backyard Travels rock. They worked with us, and helped us customize our itinerary.) really took us to some meaningful places. This particular place was a lacquer ware factory. It was actually quite fascinating how these artists created the intricate and fragile details in their goods. There are about 16 different steps the artist takes to get to the final product. And of course, begin the shopaholic I am, I bought a fair amount of goods to bring home as gifts; I even bought a one of a kind little table for myself.

After lunch along the Irrawaddy River, we headed to the fields of temples to take a closer look at several temples, pagodas, and stupas. In the fields were also peanuts and beans. Finally, to end our day, our guide took us to the perfect lookout point for the sunset. It was a perfect ending to another break taking day.

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Myanmar: The Land of Temples, Pagodas, and Lessons (Day 1)

Hi…remember me? The travel blogger that can’t keep up with her own blog? Yep, I’m back. I thought about it, and well, I’m not sure about you but in times of uncertainty, where the world is being torn apart by hurricanes and world leaders are comparing “rocket” sizes, I need a little escape. Hopefully this blog will offer some sort of escape for you.

This time, I’m talking about a country that left a huge impression on me…I’m talking about the country of Myanmar (aka Burma to some). For years I wanted to go to this country, not because of its history or political past, but because it wasn’t too known to the outside world—it wasn’t a huge tourist population. And right now, I feel for what the country and its people are going through. I often don’t have “favorite” places because I feel as though each place I am fortunate enough to experience offers its own unique qualities…but there was just something special about Myanmar. Alright…I’ll get off my mini soapbox and get to the point of this blog…

Now, I should warn you…its been almost a year since we went to Myanmar and I was horrible about taking notes of the people we met and the places we went. I will do my best to give you what information I have kept.

Day 1: Yangon

Emily and I flew into the capital of Yangon. We already had are visa approval letters and did not have to spend tons of time waiting to get through customs. Our guide met us and led us to our awaiting vehicle. Upon reflection, I’m glad we had customized this perfect itinerary, but I was even gladder we had hired private guides and especially drivers. Navigating the taxi lines outside of the airport would have been overwhelming for me.

Our driver whisked us to the city center in an hour long ride of almost bumper to bumper traffic. As we moseyed our way along the highway, I noticed the various architecture…I am not sure you can really define the style. It’s not quite British colonial or even French; not Asian either. Perhaps I can call it a distinctly Burmese architectural style. Locals wore the traditional clothing mostly with a mixture of some western t-shirts. I will admit the longyis did look comfy. The longyis, long pieces of cloth, were worn by men and women in various colors and patterns. Women had thanaka, a paste or cream of bark, along their faces to help protect their skin from the harsh, hot sun.

Our first stop was to Chaukhtakgyi Pagoda, home to a long reclining Buddha who had inscriptions on his feet. Murals surround the open-air structure to tell stories of Buddha’s life. Locals stretched out, resting and eating, with families while we wandered around the pagoda.

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The Strand Lobby

After our first (of many) pagodas, we went to the Strand, a historical and elegant colonial style hotel. This hotel was built in 1901 and is known for its high tea service. I wanted to experience this because 1) I love high tea, and 2) who else could say they had high tea in Yangon? Well, I know I don’t really review things on this blog, but I felt like it was highly overrated. The tiered platters offered savory sandwiches, muffins, madeleines, jam, fruit salad, and macarons…the usual high tea fare. The food was just okay, and the service lacked. Instead, I recommend just going to find somewhere to try some of the local fare…it is much better and fresher than the food at the Strand. Down the street from the Strand is a small gallery, offering a refreshing collection of contemporary art. The name of the gallery is River Gallery. If you have time and are in the area, definitely stop by…some of the art was breathtaking and I would have totally brought a piece home had Ihad room in the luggage.

 

Our final stop of the day was at the Shwedagon Pagoda. This is a highly loved structure of the locals and it is not difficult to see why. The center structure stands over 90 meters tall, and when the sun’s rays hit the stupa just right, the gold-leaf covering shimmers. Locals find their Buddha (based on the day of the week you’re born on) to pray and worship. Offerings are left at the shrines. Intricate carvings and super-detailed mosaic work can be found all throughout this pagoda. We went at dusk, and it was beautiful to see the crowds of locals being able to honor their deity as the gold reflected the setting sun.

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