Reflections on Religion, Racism and Judgements

Preface: Education by Travel
I am not a religious person. I very rarely discuss religion as, quite honestly, it frustrates me. When there are wars being fought based on what ‘power’ you believe in and people being killed in the name of religion, my heart aches over the irony. How ever you choose to believe in a God, or whether you believe in science, we are all here on this same big planet together. Although this blog discusses religion, it is not about trying to change your belief (or non-belief) in a higher power, simply a reminder of how to live as a good person. For me, it is a testament (pardon the pun) to my love of travel and the education that I earn every day by opening my mind to new cultures.

I hope you’ll take time to comment and discuss after you’ve read the following.

Reflections on Religion, Racism and Judgements

It was late afternoon when I was standing in the doorway to my private room-rental in the local community of Fatih in Istanbul with the sea breeze wafting past me into the kitchen. I was engulfed in a conversation with Babek, the building owner, who I had met only a few short hours earlier.

What started out as me asking questions about the week-long Bayram festival to understand more of the culture, as well as arming myself with knowledge about closures over the next week, turned into exactly the type of conversation that drives me to continue traveling.

Although my correspondence leading up to my stay in Fatih had been with Sourena, the son, Babek was the one to greet me at the un-numbered wooden doors. My transfer driver from the airport had chatted with Sourena only minutes before, so I was (fairly) confident I was at the right place despite not seeing a number on the building.

I was welcomed with Babek’s warm smile and then Sourena quickly peeked down from upstairs to say hello. Then the two men carried my heavy suitcase up the narrow staircase to their second floor home. I immediately noted that both of them had really good English. Of course, there is an accent and words here and there get confused or lost in translation, but overall, I was surprised at the level of their conversation skills.

Sourena showed me around the small apartment and then led me to the roof top to see a spectacular view over the Balat area and toward Emininou. Indeed, the view is worth seeing and was a great way for him to point out the attractions of the area, along with giving me directions. He welcomed me and offered me a Iyran (mixture of yogurt and sparkling water) to drink, which I promptly devoured in the heat of the midday sun.

I spent only 15 – 20 minutes with Sourena gathering information for my stay and then I settled in, cleaned up and took off for a meeting in another part of town.

After a busy afternoon I walked back home surprisingly, without getting lost. Babek came to offer tea, which is a staple of the Turkish diet and hospitality. Although I was too hot to drink tea, a conversation arose.

I asked Babek about the Bayram festival that I had been hearing so much about. My local contacts are expats, so I thought I would ask a local for the inside scoop. He explained that Bayram is a sacrificing festival, often celebrated twice per year for families. Many people who live in the city go to the countryside to be with their family for this week-long government holiday. Families buy (or raise) an animal to be sacrificed and then they share the meat with friends and relatives. Traditionally the meat was divided into thirds; one part for the poor, one part for friends and one part for family. The festival is all about sharing what you have with others.

Although I can’t say I agree with the practice of sacrificing a live animal, I do try my best to respect other cultural and religious beliefs. I was interested in seeing the ceremony and photographing it, as I had heard that it may take place in the streets or backyards in the communities. However, now-a-days, law requires the slaughterings to be done by a butcher, rather than just by anyone. In all honesty, it is likely more humane than many of our practices in North America with the way animals are treated before going to slaughter. And, it seems, that at the root of this festival, at least from my understanding, is the kindness of sharing with those you love and those less fortunate.

As I chatted away with Babek about what stores may or may not be opened and closed over the next few days and if there was an area that I could watch a sacrifice (horrified, but with camera in hand), he ended up telling me that he wasn’t really sure because he is not Muslim and it is a Muslim festival. I tried to hold back my surprise. Not Muslim in a Muslim society?

Many questions begged to be asked, but where to start!

Come to find out, Babek and his family are Iranian, not Turkish. Six years ago they moved to Turkey to escape punishment in their own country for their choice of religion. Three years ago, they relocated to Istanbul. They were Christians in a dominantly Muslim society in Iran. For this, they had been persecuted and they could have been killed. In Istanbul, although dominantly Muslim, they are more tolerant and accepting of Christianity with the religions existing side by side with little conflict.

Immediately, my heart sank for them, knowing that they had left their home because of fear.

Immediately, I also asked myself ‘If I had known the family I was about to live with was Iranian, how would I have reacted? Would I have made a different choice?’

I like to think that I am not prejudiced or racist. I like to think that I am open-minded. And, I truly believe that good people come from every country of the world. But, that belief was challenged when I found out that this family was not what I had ‘expected’. If I had known they were from Iran, would I have chosen another place to stay? I am sure that many people would have. For me, I also asked myself, if I knew they were from Iran, wouldn’t I have assumed that they were Muslim? And, if that were the case, what would be the difference between staying with a Turkish Muslim family and an Iranian Muslim family?

If my friends and family knew this (which now they do!), what would have been their reaction? It is so easy to say ‘Nothing would be different’, but I am positive that some of them would have a heightened concern for my well-being based on the fact that I am staying with Iranians and all we know about Iranians is the bad news that the media shares about war, terrorism and death. We never hear about their caring side, their hospitality or that they aren’t all the same! Imagine for a moment thinking that all Canadians were terrorists. Doesn’t that seem more than just a little ridiculous?

Luckily, in asking myself these questions, I also realized that in booking my stay with this family, religion never once crossed my mind and for that I am thankful. I try to be open to religions and cultures around the world and I try not to pass judgements, but treat it as an opportunity to learn about other beliefs. Having said that, it is not something that determines my comfort or happiness. Whether I stay with a Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Jewish family, for me, I will look for the opportunity to learn from the experience. Will I agree with all of their practices and beliefs? No, but I will be respectful as I understand that is what they believe.

Learning of their background led to a particularly deep conversation with a man I had only met a couple of hours earlier, sharing our thoughts on religion. He thoughtfully explained to me that at the heart of everything, his core belief is to not judge others. “Judgement can only be handed out by God. It is your job to live and love under God and not to act as God by judging other people.”

Seems simple enough.

In Canada, we hear about refugees in the news. We see them in our communities, some Canadians more accepting than others. We (as a society) often pass judgements on these people without knowing anything about them.

Now, let’s take God out of the equation for a moment, as not everyone believes in ‘a God’. One of my core beliefs is to treat others with kindness. And really, isn’t this similar to not judging? Who am I to pass judgement on someone else. I don’t know their story. I don’t know their struggles. I don’t know their beliefs. It is not my business to judge them based on their beliefs and upbringing, as I would hope that they do not judge me for mine.

I think what makes our world so beautiful is the differences in opinions, the million ways that people can do the same thing but in different fashions, our different religious beliefs that really all come from the same core, yet they are interpreted and taught differently.

Be kind.

In any religion that I can think of, at the core of that religion is a message about love and being kind. So, why, if all religions want the same thing, can’t we all get along?

Isn’t that the big question?!

For Babek and his family, like millions of others, believing in kindness and love has led to persecution. Since moving to Turkey, he and his family can never return to Iran for a very real fear of being killed, as they have chosen to believe in a different teacher than the mainstream of that country.

Regardless of my religious beliefs, I applaud these people for standing up for their beliefs. Regardless of our religious similarities and differences, Babek and I were able to have great conversation about religion and the world as we both try our best to ‘not judge’ one another.

At no time did I feel that Babek was trying to convince or convert me to believing in God, or ‘his God’, but yet it was clear that he is a religious man. It was in this, that we discussed how backwards it is in many cultures that you are forced to believe in any one thing. In Iran, his government and the community were busy trying to force people to all believe in the same thing. This force came through fear and persecution. For Babek and his family, this was not acceptable. Babek expressed his frustration that the leaders in his community were trying to forcefully get people to follow their religion.

Believe or die.

Rather than conforming to the beliefs of the people around them, they fled. Had they conformed, they would have been doing themselves an injustice, as they would have been living a lie. Sure, they would have been able to stay in their country, but if they stood up against anything they believed to be wrong, they would have been killed. If they in any way rebelled against or questioned Islam, they would have been persecuted or killed. Can you imagine living with this fear? Not just a fear of being outcast by your community, but a real fear of you and your family being killed for having a mind of your own.

The problem with the world and religion is not religion itself. The problem is the leaders of the religion who have manipulated the teachings of the religion to benefit themselves in the form of power and / or money. If you read the ‘book’ of most religions, they talk about kindness, love and being brotherly to your neighbours. This message is not the problem. I think everyone can agree that this is a good rule to live by. The problem is those who manipulate this message to gain power and then use their influence to teach people differently. Funny how religion and politics seem so much alike at the moment … or is it just me?

For me, on my first day in Istanbul, regardless of my religious beliefs (or non-beliefs), ‘Don’t Judge’ is a reminder of how travel has opened my mind in the last few years. It is a reminder that people do things differently and that is ok. It is a reminder that there are more good people in the world than bad. It is a reminder that we are human-kind and should not be defined by our color, country or religion.

Despite having fled his own country for fear of being killed for his religious beliefs, Babek did not speak ill of the community that did not accept him and his family. He simply spoke of judgement and that it was not his place or right to place judgement on others.

A lesson that we should all live by, starting with the smallest of things in our lives. You only know your own story. Leave your judgements behind and ensure that you are living your life with kindness and love.

I hope that next time you meet someone from Iran, that you let go of your hesitation, put your secret, media-driven, prejudices behind you and see these beautiful people for who they are as humans and all they have to offer.

La Boca, Buenos Aires – Photo Essay

La Boca Patio, Buenos Aires

One of Buenos Aires best known barrios is that of La Boca. One of the poorest barrios in the city, sadly, riddled with crime and poverty. However, amongst the difficulties, there is an area of several streets showcasing some of the most amazing art of the city.

Buildings were constructed with whatever materials were available and often painted with left-over paint from the boats coming through the harbour, hence the variety of colours and materials used for the buildings.

Although, still struggling and not a safe area alone or at night, the tourist district of three or four main streets is a big tourist attraction for the colours, the history, the tango and milonga shows, food, and most of all the art. You can also find great food, museums and markets for all of your touristy spending pleasure.

Please enjoy this little photo essay of the area:

Love at first sight Photo Essay: Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana Castle, Slovenia

In September 2014 I went on a spectacular tall ship sailing with Starclippers. We were scheduled for six ports of call and I was least excited about Slovenia as I knew nothing about it and knew no one who had been there. I decided that I would do the day tour to the capital of Ljubljana without really knowing anything about it. It’s actually one of my favourite things about traveling solo … you can do as much or as little research as you wish. I had done very little (none actually) on Slovenia. I like doing zero research because then I have zero expectations. Now, it doesn’t always work out for the best, as sometimes research can be a good thing, but this time, it was perfect.

After a couple of hours by coach from the seaside town of Porec, in land to Ljubljana, our group hopped out and started walking toward city centre. It was a crisp, sunny autumn day. The sun was shining, everyone was a little chilly but the fresh air made me feel alive. I can’t quite pin-point it, but every once in awhile I fall in love with a city and this one was love at first site. Immediately I noticed the beauty of the old buildings – a mix of various periods of famous architecture. I’m not a history buff so knowing the difference between Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque architectures is not my strong point, but whatever the mix is that presents itself in Ljubljana is undisputedly beautiful. Take a look for yourself from the Ljubljana Castle to the city’s dragon bridge, the detail, history and strength show through. The streets were old, steeped in history but wide and open, interchanging with newer style architecture. A large section of the main core is pedestrian only and the streets were impeccably clean. I had 2 – 3 hours on a group tour to learn about this lovely city, along with taking in a local lunch of sausages, wine and potatoes. The quick overview didn’t even begin to scratch the surface. It did, however give me the yearning to go back, not just to Ljubljana, but to Slovenia in general. Check out some of my favourite photos of Ljubljana below.

If you are interested in a Slovenian adventure, drop me a message. I’d be happy to set you up with an interesting small group tour, a tall ship sailing that has a Slovenian stop or help you with your own custom itinerary!

Buenos Aires Botanical Gardens

Botanical Garden Buenos Aires

November 25, 2014

I’m staying in a mostly local area of Buenos Aires called Almagro. It is the district beside Palermo, which is better known for tourists. Within Palermo, there is a lot of green space, including the Buenos Aires Botanical Gardens. Today, I took a walk from my apartment to the gardens and planned on taking a taxi home, however the day was so nice that I decided to walk both ways. The streets are a bit difficult to navigate because many of them run at an angle and quite a few have three-way intersections, but somehow I managed without getting too far off the route! I left at 3pm and returned home around 6:30pm. That gave me time for a sit down lunch and yummy dulce de leche ice cream on the way home!

My biggest challenge was finding the entrance to the gardens! I walked ALL the way around the perimeter and every gate was closed, but I could see people inside! How did they get there? Finally, on my last 300 meters, I found the ‘unica entrada’ … the ‘only entrance’.

Here’s a quick iPhone photo essay of the botanical gardens and my ice cream treat on my way home! Enjoy.

Venice Photo Essay

Despite how busy Venice was on the last weekend in September 2014 when I visited, I really enjoyed wandering the streets and canals. A bit frustrated with the overflowing vaporettos, I spent most of my time exploring by foot. I arrived on a Friday afternoon and left on Monday morning, so I had two full days to explore, plus time to work. Looking back, I could have spent another day or two there exploring. I didn’t go into any of the museums or churches and I did not make it to Burano. Although I feel like two full days is enough for most people, there is certainly enough to keep you busy for a few days if you like to explore at a slower pace.

I’ll forever remember Venice as the fist place that I ate a waffle with a mountain of nutella and then walked through the dark winding streets back to my hotel to find out that despite having used a napkin, I had a nutella goatee on my chin. Oh the benefits of traveling alone and not having anyone to tell you when you have something embarrassing on your face or in your teeth. On the bright side, it was dark … I didn’t talk to anyone on the way home and even if I did, they would never see me again!

And don’t forget, if you are planning a trip to Italy, I’d love to help you out! Just drop me a message.

Travel with your heart, not just your camera.

Hot air ballon, Cappadocia, Turkey
Hot air balloon ride over Love Valley in Cappadocia, Turkey

The above photo was taken on an amazing hot air balloon experience in Cappadocia, Turkey, thanks to Experta and The Gallipoli Artist. It captures perfectly what my heart was feeling … The appreciation of wide open spaces, the beauty of autumn in Love Valley and yet a few other balloons off in the distance to remind me that I was not alone.

Your camera is an object.
It is devoid of feelings.
It only works when connected to a human hand, which is connected to a human brain and human heart.
It is not the camera that takes amazing photos, it is the person behind the camera.
It is the person behind the camera whose eyes you are seeing through.
It is not just the emotions of the subject that you see, you are feeling the emotions of the photographer and how they saw the subject. You are connected to the photographer’s heart.

When you are traveling the world, it is exciting to capture everything with your camera. It’s wonderful to be able to share what you see with your friends, family and social media followers. Everyone loves photos and stories of far away places.

When you travel though, I urge you to go first with your heart and second with your camera.

When I travel, I go first with my heart.
I travel for the love of other cultures and for the open mindedness it has instilled in me. I travel to understand other people, their struggles, their way of life and their joys. I travel with my heart because no matter where I go, I still care about people, about humans.

I don’t travel to take amazing photographs, those are simply the byproduct of what my heart feels and my eyes see while I am there. I travel to have experiences that change my life, and hopefully change others’ lives for the better.

There are days when I am on the road that I leave my camera behind. It is so easy to get caught up in taking photos of all of the new and amazing things that you see everywhere in a new city or country. It is normal for a photographer to want to document them because that is what we do. But, sometimes I make a decided effort to leave my camera behind so that I am fully present in the moment and spend time learning, feeling and seeing the country, the people and the history without trying to ‘capture’ it.

If you are in a country for seven days and you spend all of your time wrapped up in taking photos so that you can ‘remember’ it, what is it that you are remembering? Simply the photos that you took. Instead, what if you took time to enjoy the country you are visiting and let the photos help remind you of the amazing people you met and things you did instead of missing out on the real country just to capture the outer layer.

If you just can’t bear to leave your camera behind, here are a few tips on how to travel with your heart, not just your camera, but still have your camera in hand.

1. If you are photographing people in another country, remember that YOU are the invader of their privacy. It is not your right to take their photo. If you approach people with your heart, with a true interest in them, they will be more relaxed and more willing to let you photograph them. If you stick a camera in their face without even saying hello, you are invading their space and intimidating them.

2. Get to know the people who you are photographing so that you don’t just have photos of random people, you have stories and experiences to share.

3. If you are traveling with a tour guide, I know this is hard, but try listening to what the guide has to say about his / her country and the location you are at rather than snapping away. Once you hear the history and stories behind the location you will look deeper for photos with meaning rather than snap shots of ‘interesting things’. You will photograph from the heart because you will understand the history, the struggles, the achievements of the place you are standing in. Listen and learn, then photograph to tell a story, not just to have photos.

4. Take days (or hours) off from photography. Choose to do something of interest and enjoy it fully without your camera. Maybe this is going for dinner in the evenings. Do you really NEED a picture of every meal? Will you do anything with the photo of that restaurant? Do you know how to properly take night photos so they are not blurry? Don’t take your camera with you because you feel you have to. Leave it behind you so can be present. It will give your brain (and neck) a break and you’ll be more refreshed for shooting the next day.

Your camera is an extension of your heart. You have the power to capture both your emotions and the emotions of your subject in one single moment in time. Make the most of it. Shoot from your heart.

Rovinj, Croatia Photo Essay

Boats in the harbour, Rovinj, Croatia

On our fifth day at sea on the beautiful Star Clippers Mediterranean sailing, we arrived in Rovinj, Croatia. Prior to booking this sailing trip, I had never heard of Rovinj and I had done no research on it, so I had no expectations.

I decided to explore the small community on my own rather than taking a tour. Despite the rain early in the day, I thoroughly enjoyed my solo walk through the narrow streets exploring and wondering what I would find around each corner or down the next alleyway. I wandered aimlessly, without a map, for a couple of hours throughout the community, stopping at several galleries and boutique stores along the way to the Church. I headed up the hill toward the church and then down the hill on the other side to the harbour.

The rain came and went, but only softly, no downpours, so it simply added to the charm of the town. Walking on the well trodden stones, that are rubbed smooth, was a challenge in the rain; even in sneakers, it was slippery.

One of my favourite memories of Rovinj was a saxophone busker near the main square. I could hear the beautiful sound of the saxophone from several streets away and followed my ears until I found a single man playing near a cafe. He happened to be playing ‘Happy’, which of course, made me happy! I stood in the small crowd and listened to him for a few minutes, then I decided to take a short video and of course throw a few dollars in his case. Who knew that the acoustics in this small little town would be delightful for street musicians. And who knew I’d hear the beautiful haunting sounds of a saxophone during my short little visit to Rovinj.

While I wandered, I stopped at the tourist market and bought a necklace, one of the few things I purchased on my travels. The market was full of jewelry, scarves, souvenirs … your regular ‘tourist’ market. I looked at a lot of jewelry and found only one necklace that really stood out, so I returned to the stall and haggled to get it for 140 Kuna (about $25 CAD which was probably still too much!) I also wandered through the local outdoor food market which was full of fresh fruits and vegetables, spices and fish.

In the main square and surrounding the harbour were endless cafes and restaurants waiting to invite you in. Some were fancy, some just little mom and pop shops. A little something for everyone.

Take a look at a few of my favourite photos of the community. Isn’t it a pretty little seaside town?

I love to hear from my readers, so don’t be shy! Drop me a note!

Montenegro – Photo Essay

Perast, Montenegro

Early in the morning on our third day of sailing, a strong cold breeze ushered us in through the mountains to the beautiful Bay of Kotor. From the warm summer breezes on the Mediterranean to a brisk, fresh wind winding through the crooked mountain maze, it was definitely a change in scenery and temperature. The water was a choppy, deep blue and the mountains towered above us in every direction.

I headed in on the first tender to explore the old walled city of Kotor.

After an hour exploring Kotor, I headed back to the ship on the tender to have lunch and then back in to Kotor for our group tour to Perast. It is a beautiful little sea-side town, lazy and sleepy but full of charm. It is best known for being featured in movies such as November Man with Pearce Brosnan. Too bad he wasn’t there when I was!

Aside from the little town of Perast which I got to explore for about 30 minutes or so, there are two islands in the middle of the sea near the most narrow part of the passage. One of the islands is natural, the other was man-made, built on top of a large rock. Each island is home to an interesting Chapel. We had the opportunity to visit Our Lady of the Rock and the Chapel. The art inside was quite interesting and a couple of beautiful paintings are shown the the photo essay below.

Interested in visiting beautiful Montenegro or taking an amazing Star Clippers sailing of the Mediterranean? Get in touch. I’d love to help you out and I am working while I’m traveling, so I’m always happy to assist with your travel needs.

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Thanks for reading.

Dubrovnik, Croatia – Photo Essay

Walled city of Dubrovnik

On September 22nd, 2014 Dubrovnik, Croatia was the port of call from my Star Clippers Mediterranean sailing. It was our first stop and the one that I was most anticipating.

The old city of Dubrovnik is a Unesco World Heritage site. It is surrounded by approximately two kilometres of  walls protecting it from intruders in all directions. From the moment I saw the city from the sun deck of my ship, I knew why people were amazed at the beauty.

We anchored off shore and tendered in to the lagoon which is hidden by a portion of the city walls. I spent an hour or so wandering the flat part of the internal city and meandering through the very crowded, tiny streets. When I was tired of the crowds, I bought a ticket ($10 US approx) and headed up, up, up to the city wall and started slowly making my way around the entire city from above.

There are over 1000 steps along the two kilometre stretch of city walls, and I decided to hike it in the hot mid-afternoon sun. Phew! Luckily there are a few small shops / cafes along the wall with water and snacks. You could likely walk the walls in about an hour if you moved along at a good pace without stopping, but what would be the point? You should plan for 2 – 3 hours, stop and take in the stunning views in every direction. It is absolutely breathtaking.

Even at the end of September, Dubrovnik is a busy spot for tourists. My small ship was able to anchor nearby and we tendered in to the city, but several cruise ships dock each day as well and send bus-loads of passengers into the old city. Upwards of 6000 people a day visit inside the city walls, usually between 10am and 4pm. Be prepared for crowded streets and chaos during the day. If you have the opportunity to stay around after 4pm, the crowds thin out and you get a better feel for the city rather than the tourism. There are some great restaurants and nightlife spots.

Myanmar Highlights

Fishing on Inle Lake, Myanmar

In 2013 I visited South East Asia for the first time. I remember people asking what were my Myanmar highlights and it was impossible to narrow it down to one specific thing! The best answer I could come up with was ‘All of Myanmar’. It amazes me to realize that I have visited this beautiful, largely undiscovered country before the rest of the world got to it. The experiences and wonderment still feel fresh in my mind.

Take for example the morning that a small group of us did a little photo tour to an area just outside the downtown area of Yangon. We walked for about 15 minutes and were outside of the business district, watching the city wake up and begin bustling with locals preparing a small market. We were there before sunrise and saw the monks lining up for their morning rounds and collection. I’m really not sure who was more curious, them or us. It is so incredibly interesting to go to an area where tourists are so rare that they actually become an attraction in the place they’ve gone to visit. I’ll admit, I was a bit shy, not knowing how to approach or talk to the monks, but soon enough I came to understand that they were happy to see us and happy to practice their English skills.

I wandered around taking a few photographs and then one of the locals invited us in to the monastery to enjoy a local breakfast. A few minutes later the group of us were taking off our socks and shoes and following the kind man into a large dining area filled with locals. Barely with our bums in the seats, local men and women were coming out of the kitchen area with various dishes in hand and filling the table with typical breakfast consisting of rice, noodles, fish soup and then sweet sticky rice came along a little later. They filled our bowls and when we were done, they immediately appeared to fill them up again. They certainly didn’t want us to leave hungry. These were the community members who came together to cook food for the monks at this monastery, but the monks were all out on collection at the time. After we finished our meal, we were surprised as the locals gathered around and wanted their photos taken with us. It was only my second day in Myanmar and I was already learning that tourists were as much of an attraction as the attractions were to the tourists.

Yangon, Myanmar
Yangon, Myanmar

With an open mind, even the simplest of pleasures can turn out to be a highlight of the trip. I expected extreme poverty. After all it is one of the poorest countries in Asia. To my surprise, our overnight bus from Yangon to Mandalay was beautiful, high end and even had a hostess on board. It was comfortable, with reclining seats to a much better decline than standard buses. Each of us was given a thick warm, fuzzy blanket and a hostess was available for questions and assistance throughout the night. On top of that, the recently built divided highway was mostly smooth sailing and despite the rain, I didn’t feel fearful or uncomfortable at all throughout the night. I just laid back and slept.

Most of the tours that are offered to Burma / Myanmar, range from 12 – 17 days. Sadly, I was on a shortened version and had to pack as much as possible into only 10 spectacular days. Because of the shortened itinerary, we had only one full day to explore that wonders of beautiful Mandalay. Although the core of the city itself isn’t really a highlight, there are lots of beauties to enjoy on the outskirts. A few hours to half a day can be spent enjoying the beauty, history and culture of the ancient U Bein bridge in Amarapura. Just simply watching the way of life, traveling by boat across the lake and then returning by walking across the 1.2 km ancient teak wood bridge. Along the way you can stop and taste local delicacies, take in the spectacular views and meet a few new local friends selling souvenirs.

Snacks along the U Bein teak wood bridge
Snacks along the U Bein teak wood bridge

Don’t be put off though, despite the fact that they are there to make a living and sell their wares, I found the local kids particularly respectful, friendly and interesting. We only had about an hour to spend, which was far too rushed for this beautiful spot, but in that hour I managed to take a boat ride to the middle of the lake and then return on foot across the bridge. I met a young girl who walked back to the main land with me. We chatted about her family, her schooling and life on the lake. Her English was excellent, she was friendly and she didn’t ask me to buy anything until we were nearly back to the main land. It was at this time that I bargained with her a little and purchased two necklaces … one with jade elephants and the other with amber.

We spent the remainder of our day in Mandalay crossing the Irrawaddy river to Mingun, a small community with some big claims to fame. The tiny community hosts the world’s largest bell (over two tonnes of iron), the unfinished, Pahtodawgyi pagoda and the beautiful Hsinbyume pagoda. We spent a couple of hours wandering around, visiting the sites and dodging rain, which came and went in fits and spurts. Although the rain slowed us down a little as we waited for it to stop under the cover of a big leafy tree, it certainly didn’t ruin the experience and I wouldn’t change it for a second and replace it with a mass of tourists. I’d much rather travel in green season dodging a bit of rain than dodging hundreds of tourists. Having said that, it’ll be quite some time before Mingun sees hundreds of tourists at one time.

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Possibly the largest and best known attraction in Burma is the community of Bagan where they boast over 2100 pagodas, temples and structures in 42 square kilometers. The desert landscape dotted with structures of all shapes and sizes is absolutely spectacular. Take the time to see it at sunrise and sunset; it is truly spectacular. You can spend hours biking amongst the structures on dirt roads winding through ancient old Bagan. But, beware of the heat. Make sure you have sunscreen, lots of water and a hat to keep the sun off your face. Although the land is nearly flat, the heat adds it’s own challenges to your physical abilities. Stop often and discover as many of the structures as you can. Each one is unique and the art and architecture will amaze you time and time again.

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After enjoying the beauty of Bagan for a couple of days, we were off for a short visit to the Mt. Popa area. Mt. Popa is a volcano and an area that you can hike, but we simply passed over and twisted around the big mountain with a stop in the community to hear about the spiritual nats that are worshiped at the pagoda atop a mountain. Oh yes, and to meet the cheeky little Macque monkeys that scatter the town. If you have time, you can climb the 777 steps to the beautiful monastery at the top of the mountain, but beware as the monkeys live and play along the way, so I hear it is dirty and smelly.

Our next stop was a lovely lunch and visit to an elephant conservation camp. Hearing the story of how the organization started and how they have retired five or six elephants from the lumber industry to live peacefully and well taken care of until the end of their lives was inspirational. This organization has purchased these elephants, each of their handlers (Mahoot) and the Mahoot’s family. Not only have they given the elephants a respectful home, but also have created a community and schooling for the Mahoots and their families. We had the amazing opportunity to feed the elephants banana snacks and then help bathe them in the river. They are so large, yet so quiet and gentle. I stood mere inches from their mouths, which were big enough to swallow me whole, and I grinned ear to ear with excitement the entire time.

Last, but not least, we visited beautiful Inle Lake, which had different, yet incredible feel. As you can imagine, life on a lake is quite different from life on land. From the local market that we visited to the leg-rowing fisherman balancing on one leg on their flat boats, to the craft industry workshops – seeing the local way of life was eye-opening and incredible. And I bought two of the most beautiful hand-made fine silk scarves! We were a bit rushed as our trip was a condensed version, but we managed to see the highlights and even take in the largely undiscovered and quiet Indein where there was not another tourist to be seen amongst the many hundreds of stupas and structures. Magical is not a word strong enough to describe the experience.

Fishing on Inle Lake, Myanmar

At the end of the trip we asked if it was possible to visit an orphanage or monastery and arrangements were made for our last evening in Yangon. We made a donation to the orphanage and had a tour of where schooling takes place, where the children sleep and the communal areas. Then we had the amazing opportunity to dish out food as the young monks gathered for supper. Young boys as little as four years old walked up to the serving area perfectly mannered. If we gave them too much of something, they politely put a portion back. It was a great lesson in humility and understanding to only take what you need and leave the rest for someone else. Of course, the monks were allowed to come back for seconds, so no need to waste food! Take only what is needed and if they are still hungry come back for more.

It’s simple, every single activity, every single day was a highlight. There was something new, exciting and simply beautiful around every corner and I just couldn’t get enough. 10 days was a great overview and a taste for the amazing destination, but easily I could spend a month exploring just the nooks and crannies of the ‘tourist’ areas, not to mention the lesser visited areas. And, as tourism begins to grow, more and more areas will be open for exploration by foreigners. In my opinion, Myanmar is a destination to be visited now, before it explodes in popularity, and then visited again and again as the economy gets stronger and new areas open up. There’s nothing quite like seeing a destination that isn’t used to tourists and getting an authentic feel for the people, the culture, the food and the beauty without the corruption of the tourist traps. Go see this destination soon to get an authentic feeling for the country. Then, explore it again later as more destinations open up. You won’t be disappointed.

If you are interested in visiting Myanmar, please get in touch. I would love to help you plan your next adventure.