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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IMG_1147_ShariTucker

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.

South East Asia – Chapter 16B – Astrology Reading

At the Shwedagon Pagoda, our local guide took us to see a lovely old man who did an astrology reading for us based solely on our date and year of birth. He did his math on an old-school chalk board and spoke only the local language.

Astrology Reading at Shwedagon Pagoda
Astrology Reading at Shwedagon Pagoda

As each one of us went in, our local guide took notes and then translated the reading for us. Some of the group were amazed by how accurate he was. I, however, felt that it didn’t work for me. You make your own judgement. Here’s what my date and year of birth had to say about me.

South East Asia – Chapter 17 – Overnight Bus

One of the things that I was worried about before arriving in Myanmar was the fact that it was monsoon season. I hadn’t read very much on the internet, but enough to know that I’d likely see some heavy rains and those heavy rains could affect the road conditions, sometimes making them impassable. I was a little concerned about this … until I got on the bus.

Even at the bus station, I was impressed. Although it was a tiny little room and the squatter toilet wasn’t the best, the staff were dressed in nice uniforms and even served us a complimentary beverage while we were waiting. Really? At the bus station?

Our overnight bus from Yangon to Mandalay was the nicest coach that I have ever been on. Now, I wouldn’t call it luxury, but it sure was nothing like what I expected. We climbed up the stairs to the upper level and got comfy in over sized seats that had an unusual amount of reclining ability. Considerably more spacious than flying Air Asia and still more spacious than Thai Airways! It was clean and air conditioned. One of my favourite parts was that they gave us each a fuzzy pink polar fleece blanket to cover up with through the night. Generally speaking, they kept the air conditioning at 18 or 19 degrees. Through the night, that’s pretty chilly.

We took off on time and after navigating through the streets for only a few minutes, we set out on the highway. I didn’t even know that a highway existed! Here I thought we would be driving along back roads, getting washed away by mud slides.

Sure enough, it rained pretty much the entire time we were on the bus, but the roads were good and the driver seemed to be very careful. Not only was it a highway, but it was a four lane highway with a median in the middle pretty much the entire way. Apparently it has only just been completed in the past couple of years. It was in really good condition and only a few big bumps when crossing over bridges.

Throughout the night, the bus had pulled over a couple of times because of accidents on the highway and to switch drivers. After all, it is a really long drive, late at night on a straight, boring highway in the rain. I slept through most of the stops, but one long one (about 45 minutes), they served everyone snacks (a piece of cake and a cinnamon bun type thing). Can you imagine? I didn’t wake up for that either! I got mine early the next morning.

We left late in the evening and arrived in Mandalay the next morning around 6:30am. Apparently that was an hour or so later than normal.

The bus tickets were included in our tour, but I think the overnight bus was $20 US or less. If you are considering the trip between Yangon and Mandalay, I think the bus is a great cost effective way to go. Much cheaper than flying and you save on a night’s hotel room.

All in all, the bus ride was uneventful and a pleasant experience. Who would have thought that in Myanmar I would have a better public bus than anywhere else I’ve ever been!

South East Asia – Chapter 14 – Toys!

After our wonderful morning at the monastery for breakfast, I was absolutely in love with Yangon. What a perfect morning, being welcomed in like family, by strangers. I knew the early morning would be hard to top, but I also knew that Yangon had so much more to offer. Besides, so far, all of my activities had been people related and don’t tourists come to Myanmar for the temples / monasteries and pagodas?

Around 8:30am our group gathered and travelled by private bus to the markets surrounding the Shwedagon Pagoda.

We quickly went into a small street restaurant and went upstairs to where our table was already set. Local food was on the way for our local breakfast. In the end, it was the same breakfast that we had induldged in at the monastery, so the four of us didn’t eat a whole lot. However, I did try out the coconut rice and coconut soup instead of the fish soup. Yum!

After breakfast, we all started winding our way through the markets toward the back entrance of the Shwedagon Pagoda. The markets were incredible! So colorful with all of the local longyis, fresh produce and brightly colored flowers, material and scarves. Not to mention the massive amount of gold everywhere. Gold Buddas, gold plated souvenirs of all sizes. Everywhere you looked you could nearly be blinded by gold.

About ½ way down the street, our local guide, Ekayi (pronounced Ekery) showed us through a tiny alleyway into a shop. A little spot that you would never know existed if you weren’t with a local. There was no signage and it honestly looked like an alleyway to someone’s small home.

As we lowered our heads for the low roof and stepped inside, a couple at a time we realized that it was a kids toy shop. All around were handmade animals of all different shapes and sizes. We spent a few minutes looking around and by that I mean turning in a circle because it was so small. Interesting little shop and nice place to buy a few kids souvenirs. Unfortunately, I didn’t want to carry them for the next three weeks, so I passed on the opportunity.

I don’t even have photos to show as the place was literally too small for me to take any photos.

Definitely a great reason to be on a group tour and hanging out with a local. Locals always know about the nooks & crannies of their city. Pretty sure Lonely Planet doesn’t mention this little gem of a place!

South East Asia – Chapter 13 – Morning Photo Walk

At our welcome meeting on day 1 I had been pleasantly surprised to learn that our tour leader, JP, had a growing interest and a great eye for photography.

He mentioned getting up early the next morning to do a morning wander and photo walk. I was interested, but so tired! I was still adjusting to jet lag. Several of the other travelers were considering it, but no one really wanted to commit to getting up at 5am. In the end, we told JP not to come as none of us could commit. Eventually, he decided he was going regardless and would be at the hotel to see if anyone wanted to join him.

Well, I couldn’t stand him up!

Myself, Iris and Kiley woke up extra early that morning and joined JP for a walk to an even less touristy district of the city. It wasn’t even that hard to wake up. Afterall, the roosters started crowing sometime between 4:30am and 5am and in that time you’d also hear loud speaker announcements or music throughout the streets as the monks wound their way through town taking offerings.

Being low season and an up and coming destination, Yangon wasn’t very touristy to begin with. In the first two days I had seen no more than a dozen tourists (not a word of a lie).

We strolled along Strand road for about 15 minutes until we came to a pagoda. We entered through the gates and wandered through a small local market while it was still quite dark. It’s quite amazing how the city wakes up so early and is on the move before the crack of dawn.

By 6:00am the sky was starting to get a bit lighter and more people were up and moving around. The market stalls were beginning to open and in the distance, we could see monks beginning to line up for their walk through the streets to collect food and money.

We headed toward the monks and after double checking with JP, he assured me that it would be fine to take photos and interact with them. In fact, they didn’t have nearly as many rules and restrictions as I thought.

For some reason, I thought that monks were not ever allowed to speak. Is this the way it is in other cultures, or just during certain times? I’m still yet to find that out. But, these monks were allowed to speak and many of them knew English quite well. They were a mixture of shy and curious, confident and awkward. Some of them were happy to have their photo taken, others politely turned away.

I tried not to be too intrusive, not getting too close and only photographing them if I had made eye contact or asked their permission. Most of them were happy to have their photo taken, but didn’t freely smile.

This is where JP came in extra handy. He had seen all of this a million times, so he was happy to make funny faces and get the monks laughing so that we could get great photos.

I chatted a little bit in English with a few of them. Honestly, they are really friendly and often want to practice their English, but I think I was more shy than they were as I felt like somehow I was still being disrespectful by photographing them.

After about 20 minutes of wandering around, starring at and taking photos of monks a man came over to JP and invited us in to the monastery for breakfast. Of course we joined them! What a lovely opportunity … the kind that you can’t recreate or find in a guide book, the kind that is local and just happens.

Volunteers, or families donate their time regularly to cook food for the monks. This morning, the family was inviting us in to join them. We took off our shoes and headed in through a couple of rooms to a spot where about 40 or so locals were seated and filling their bellies with hot delicious food.

We were quickly seated and several of the men kept us busy chatting in English while they served up rice and fish soup. For garnish, there were fried crunchy bits, cilantro, chili flakes and …

And then came the sticky rice. OH sweet sticky rice. I could have eaten an entire plate full of this deliciousness. Sticky and cut into small ½ inch squares, it was sweet and absolutely divine.

After we had nearly finished our typical, local breakfast, Iris wanted a photo with a couple of the locals. Moments after that, locals were rushing over to get photos of all of us with them for their own keepsakes with their cameras.

Breakfast at a monastery in Yangon, Myanmar
Breakfast at a monastery in Yangon, Myanmar

Such an interesting turn of events, being on the other end of the lens. What can you do though? You go to another country and take tones of pictures of them, you can’t say no when they want to photograph you because you are equally foreign and beautiful to them!

It was really such a special morning when we all really got a feel for the warmth and generosity of the local Myanmar people. We were complete strangers, invading their space and they wanted to give to us, treat us well, feed us and do good deeds.

I’ve learned that the Buddist way of life is far beyond the generosity and caring even of a little old East coast – Canadian. Everything they do in Myanmar comes from the heart with a warm smile and no material alterior motive. Simply the motive to do good, be better and eventually reach a state of nirvana where they have done good deeds all of their life.

It certainly takes you back to a simplistic thought process and reminds you of what’s important in life. Friends, family, experiences, your happiness, health and well-being … not material items. It reminds you to be kind to others, no matter what your situation and that money doesn’t buy happiness.

South East Asia – Chapter 12 – The Streets of Yangon – Part 2

On August 17 our group met as a whole for the first time. Travel agents from Australia, New Zealand, England and Canada along with our tour leader from Norway and our local Myanmar guide.

We set out for a walking tour of the city of Yangon. For the next four hours we wandered around the outside of many historic buildings in the city.

We got to visit the beautiful old rail station, a couple of churches, markets and beautiful, old abandoned buildings that were scheduled to be renovated into five star hotels.

We also got our first glimpse at the process of making the ‘Myanmar-style’ of chewing tobacco (bitter leaves) at a street vendor. They are also known to turn your teeth red. Mainly men chew the leaves of different strengths and then spit the red saliva on the ground or in garbage cans at restaurants.

Sounds gross, right?
It is.

Spitting everywhere is definitely something that I will never get used to in any city. Regularly I found myself avoiding red spots on the ground where men had spit, but after awhile, the spots became impossible to dodge.

Bitter leaves
Bitter leaves

We also stopped at a local tea-shop for snacks and drinks. I was incredibly surprised at the prevailance of Coke throughout the country, but many in our group drank the local Myanmar beer and a few gave the tea a go.

We also got to try local sweet and savory pastries of various kinds. I was the brave one to try small bites of many of them first. I’m actually not normally that brave with new foods, but pastries … well, how could you not like a pastry?

Tea Shop pastries
Tea Shop pastries

I’ll tell you how … if it is made from Durian fruit.

Having never travelled to Asia before, this was a new smell and flavor for me, but most of the others were familiar with it. It is known for it’s particularly pungent odor that quite reminds me of a public bathroom.

The other travelers encouraged me to try it, but no one else would. They told me that it is known to smell horrible but taste wonderful. I compared it to Buckley’s cough syrup. “Tastes awful, but works great!”

I took a whiff …

*scrunched up face*

Then I took a little nibble.

Unfortunately, it tasted just like it smelled. A little like the smell of a public bathroom.

And, that was the end of that! No more Durian fruit for me.

We sat for another 10 minutes or so nibbling on the other pastries and treats, but there was no mistaking that I had cut into the durian pastry. For the next 10 minutes, the undeniable smell wafted over everyone, until we were ready to move along.

We wandered through several street markets filled with food, fresh produce and local treats.

As we headed back toward our hotel, and approached the historic Catholic Church, the rain started and we understood the meaning of monsoon season!

After a couple of hours of walking in the streets in the rain, we were off to the Strand Hotel for our welcome drinks.

Overall, a great afternoon of learning about Yangon’s beautiful buildings, architectural history, and trying new foods.

South East Asia – Chapter 11 – Monsoon Season

Ever since I booked the trip to Asia back in April, I’ve known that I would be traveling in monsoon season. I tried not to research too many things before I came so I could experience things through my own eyes, but I did do a little research on the weather so I would know how to pack.

Throughout the southern part of Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, there would be heavy rains most days for short periods of time and drizzle throughout the day. In the more northern parts of the countries, it would be just showers, not really heavy rainfall.

Just to be safe I packed two plastic ponchos, my good quality rain jacket that I never travel without and a small umbrella. To be honest, I’m glad I packed them all!

In Yangon, while out on our city walking tour we got caught in an afternoon downpour. Now, when I say downpour, it is actually quite unlike anything that we usually get in Canada. Although I suppose the freak rains / floods in Calgary and Toronto this summer likely compare. The rain comes on so fast and furious that you are nearly drenched before you can even open your umbrella. The rain comes down sideways and with a little wind, the umbrella isn’t really helping you stay very dry at all. If you are lucky you can find a building to duck into, but who knows if the rains will last for minutes or hours.

In our case, on this particular day we took short cover in the Catholic Church while we were admiring the beauty. When it was time to go, we all gritted our teeth, put up our umbrellas and went along for the adventure!

None of us were dressed particularly appropriate for what we were about to encounter.
Long skirts, see-through shirts, sneakers … you name it and someone was wearing something inappropriate for the rain. Some of us had umbrellas, others were without.

We were soaked by the time we got to the street corner, regardless of umbrella size. Just around the street corner the rain had started to gather and it was impossible for it to drain away as quickly as it was falling. Soon enough, cars driving by were spraying us with water. There was no hiding and most drivers aren’t considerate enough to slow down.

What seemed like an hour later (but likely only five minutes), we were crossing the already dangerous and busy streets on Yangon through rivers of rain flowing so heavy that they actually had current. Did I mention those rivers were knee-high in some areas? Most people (local and foreigners) were wearing flip flops (or thongs as the Aussies call them). So, on top of being in water up to our knees, the uneven ground was slippery and flip flops easily got lost in the water.

One of the travelers had been wearing sneakers and decided to go bare-foot, like many of the locals. Our local tour leader’s flip flop broke and we had to stop at a store for her to buy a new pair. Luckily, I was wearing my favorite Merrill sports sandals, the type with straps so they don’t fall off.

The day prior I had been wandering around Yangon on my own in my flip flops and in my short one hour stroll I managed to get two huge horrible blisters under the toe beside my big toe. Not only did they blister, but the skin tore off and they were left open and raw.

So, here I was on my second day in Yangon walking around in the dirty streets, with water to my knees. My feet were sore and all I could think about was that they were likely getting infected. Afterall, I would worry about that in Canada. Now, here in Asia, with the extra garbage and feces in the street, I was sure my feet would be black with infection the next day. Sounds gross, I know!

At the end of our walking tour, we finished at the beautiful Strand Hotel for a welcome drink. All of us sopping wet and embarrassed to even be entering such a beautiful hotel. None-the-less, we were welcomed with open arms, appetizers and a gin and tonic.

Despite being cold, wet and dirty, honestly, had we come in monsoon season and not experienced the torrential downpours, I think I might have been a little disappointed. I want to be able to tell people what to expect and that is all part of the experience.

Throughout the remainder of the tour we ran into a lot of showers, but rarely a downpour and after the first couple of days in Yangon, we were all prepared with rain gear and umbrellas no matter what the weather at the beginning of the day.

Although my raw, open blisters were incredibly sore for the next week, I washed them well that night, put some antibiotic cream and band aids on them and limped on my way.

After reading all of this, I’m sure many of you think this would be an absolutely dreadful vacation. In fact, it was not and it wouldn’t stop me from doing it again in the ‘off season’.

I’ve traveled to Peru and Ecuador in rainy season, Dominican Republic and Bermuda during hurricane season and now, South East Asia during monsoon season.

In my mind, the benefits of the beautiful lush greenery, the fewer tourists, lower prices, fresh fruit, produce and afternoon refreshing rains, outweigh the negatives of being drenched one or two days, with showers the other days. Monsoon or rainy season really means fast heavy rains, but they rarely last for a long time. There is often cloud cover or sunshine for the majority of the day, with only a few hours of rain.

Oh yes, and a word of the wise … don’t try to dry your wet clothes in an air-conditioned room. You’ll only end up with wet, cold clothes. Close your bathroom door and hang them to dry with the fan on. Like magic, they are bone dry the next morning.

Next time you consider traveling, think about ‘monsoon’ or ‘rainy’ season as being more relaxed, less busy and beautiful lush vegetation. It’s all about the journey and your outlook on the situation dictates the outcome.

South East Asia – Chapter 10 – The Streets of Yangon

I woke up at 4:30am on August 17th and couldn’t seem to get back to sleep. I guess jet lag had me on weird hours. Could have been worse though. I dilly dallied around until about 6:00am when I decided to get out of bed and get my day pack ready to go exploring.

At 7am I headed down to the lobby for breakfast. While I was waiting for my food, we heard a bit of commotion outside and I could see a row of young monks walking by in their pink and orange robes, each carrying their silver container. I ran outside to see what was going on (typical tourist).

The row of monks stopped about two doors down from the hotel and stood in a line while someone from a nearby truck did some announcements. I really wasn’t sure if I should be photographing them or not, so I didn’t. When they didn’t leave right away, I went back inside my hotel to ask at the front desk if it was ok to photograph them and they told me yes. So, I walked to the front of the line of young monks and moments later, they started walking again. I turned my go-pro toward them and recorded them while they walked by. (or not, apparently I didn’t have it set on video so I got Nothing! boo me).

I went back into the lobby to eat my breakfast which consisted of three pieces of toast, two large slices of delicious watermelon and two barely cooked eggs.

Then, I headed out on a mission to find the Sule Pagoda which was only a few blocks away.

Here’s a quick video of what the streets in Yangon are like at around 8am on a Saturday morning. This was after I had gone to photograph the Pagoda and I was on my way back to the hotel.

South East Asia – Chapter 9 – Welcome!

I arrived safe and sound at the Myanmar International airport shortly after 5pm on August 16th. Originally scheduled to arrive at 8am, but a few hours later really wasn’t all that bad after all that mess!

Airport Welcome sign.
Airport Welcome sign.

It is a small, but clean and easy to navigate airport. There are no wrong turns to take. You follow the signs to passport control, straight through to get your baggage on the other side and then go through the green or red security depending if you have anything to declare.

My luggage had already nearly made it the full way around the conveyor belt when I got there, even though it was only a few minutes of waiting in the passport clearance line.

I quickly went and changed money at an exchange booth. We had been advised to bring new, crisp, US currency without tears, marks or bends. We had also been advised that changing money at the airport would be our best option. It can be done on the street, but the rate will not be as good.

I exchanged $400 US to last me my entire 10 days in Myanmar. When they handed me back 380 000 Kyat I think my jaw dropped. It’s a huge stack of cash. Hard to be inconspicuous with this hanging around!

Burmese Money
Burmese Money

Once I was through security (which took about 1 minute), I started looking through the handful of people with signs in hand with people’s names. It took me no time at all to find my sign and a petite young Burmese woman with a warm smile holding it.

She welcomed me to Myanmar and told me her name is Ickery (spelling?). She was warm and friendly from the moment I saw her across the room. She took me out to the front of the airport where we waited for our transfer driver. I was extremely surprised to see that the car was in excellent condition, new-ish and perfectly clean. I had definitely expected to be driving in older vehicles that were questionable and in need of repair, but surprisingly not!

After loading my luggage in the back, we were off!

Ickery explained that it would be about an hour drive because of traffic at 6pm at night. Along the way she pointed out many of the main sights of Yangon. Her English was far beyond what I expected. She was well spoken, easy to understand and excited to tell me about her country.

We passed by Inya Lake, the Shwedagon Pagoda (AMAZING), The University of Myanmar and other things I can’t recall because I was busy taking it all in.

I learned how to say a couple of words in Burmese (spelled phonetically, not correctly!):
Hello = mingunlaBaa
Thank you = teezooBee

I also learned that there are four types of license plates to watch for:
Red = taxi
White = embassy or diplomat
Blue = tourist
Black = personal

We arrived at the Aung Tha Pyay Hotel at about 6:30pm. It was dusk out. Ickery helped me check in, made sure I had the hotel’s business card in case I got lost and needed a taxi and then I went to my room to check in.

Aung Tha Pyay Hotel Yangon
Aung Tha Pyay Hotel Yangon

Ickery explained to me that the city is very safe, even for walking at night. She suggested I go to a restaurant called Monsoon (about 6 or 8 blocks away) for supper, but I decided to stay closer to the hotel at another spot she recommended that is a little local beer bar.

Beer Bar Yangon
Beer Bar Yangon

After spending an hour or so settling in to my room, I headed two doors down to the beer bar. It was nearly full, mostly with local men. It smelled of beer, was filled with loud voices and laughter and there seemed to be about 20 staff running around in this tiny little place.

I sat down and a lovely waitress came over to bring me a bilingual menu (thank goodness for that!). She spoke very little English, but we managed! It appeared that some of the other staff spoke a little more English than she did.

Bilingual Menu at Beer Bar in Yangon
Bilingual Menu at Beer Bar in Yangon
Chicken & Fresh Pineapple
Chicken & Fresh Pineapple

I was at the beer bar for about an hour in total. While I was there, one other tourist couple came in, but everyone else was local men. As I sat and observed everything around me, I was amazed how happy everyone was, how much laughter there was … mind you, I was at a bar at the end of the work day.

It was interesting to see that young children (5-10 years old) were running around helping out at the bar. They may not have been doing the most important jobs, but they were working.

It is common place for men to chew something (not sure what yet) that is red and then spit it out. By each table was a spit bucket. That’s kind of gross to me, but I guess I’ll have to get over it. Not all of the men were doing it but a couple of them were hawking up whatever it was and spitting with force into the bucket.

Everywhere I looked, people had lovely smiles and horrible teeth!

I was also really interested to try and learn the traits of Burmese people versus other Asians. Most of the ones who were sitting at the bar last night looked almost Indian. Many of the people on the streets though have been a cross between various Asian cultures. It is a really interesting mixture.

My meal cost me 2900 kyat which is about the equivalent of $3 US. I left the girl the remainder of my 5000 kyat. I’m not sure what the policy on tipping is here, but she seemed genuinely thankful.

My summer adventure in Asia

Earlier this year on social media I spent some time talking about how much I wanted to do a cycling trip in Vietnam or Burma. I even joined the gym and started biking. Yay me! You know … until it wasn’t YAY me anymore and I fell off the work out train just like 75% of people who join in January.

Well, I’m still going once or twice a week … I guess that isn’t horrible. And, I’m trying really hard to get back in to it for the next 8 weeks before I head out on my first ever trip to Asia.

So, why Asia?

Initially it started with an interest in Vietnam. Funny enough, not the history which is what Vietnam is often noted for. I was interested in the amazing photo opportunities and I had heard that cycling through the countryside in Vietnam was breath taking. So, Vietnam went to the top of my wish list.

Then, through work at The Adventure Travel Company I began to take an interest in Burma. It’s a country that has only opened up it’s borders in the past few years to tourists and is just slowly gaining enough stability for people to want to travel there.

Near the end of March, I found out about a great opportunity to go Burma on an agent trip. It’s not free, but it is discounted and it sounded like an amazing adventure to a place that is little known and not well traveled. I put in my application and was immediately accepted and my place was held.

Then I took off to lead the Peru Through the Lens photo tour for two weeks and didn’t have time to think about my ‘next’ adventure because I was busy living an adventure. Tough problem to have don’t you think?

As soon as I returned from Peru, I confirmed my spot on the Agent trip to Burma with Tucan Travel and a few weeks later, booked my International flights. All the while, trying to figure out what else to do in Asia! There was NO WAY I was doing 24 hours of travel time in each direction just for a 9 day trip in Burma. Despite how fantastic those 9 days are going to be … I wanted to make the most out of my international air fare and excruciating travel time!

Since Vietnam was at the top of my list, I decided I would go there as well … and the hunt was on for the perfect trip that would fit within my dates.

I searched high and low … Tucan Travel, G Adventures, Intrepid, Travel Indochina … Nothing seemed to fit my dates and my desire for Vietnam. Through all of the searching, repeated trips including Cambodia came up and I started looking more closely at them because I wasn’t having much luck with just Vietnam. And then, I fell in love with the idea of visiting Angkor Wat. After a lot of searching through trips with different companies and trying to match them up with my dates, here is my itinerary for my super South East Asia trip this summer.

August 14 – Depart Halifax in the morning.
August 15 – Arrive Bangkok, Thailand close to midnight.
August 16 – Transfer from the International airport to the regional airport for my early morning flight to Yangon. Check into my hotel and sleep. Hopefully I’ll have enough energy to explore a little as well, but mostly, sleep.

August 17 – 25 – Blissful Burma – Tucan Travel – Agent Trip
August 17 – No planned activities – Explore at leisure.
August 18 – 19 – Shwedagon Pagoda / Overnight bus to Mandalay. Mingun / cruise up the river. Yadanabon market.
August 20 – 21 – Guided bike tour of the Temple ruins of Bagan. Optional hot air balloon ride at sunrise or sunset. (This is not optional for me … it is the part I am most excited about. I may even pay to do it at sunrise AND sunset!)
Aug 22 – Visit local villages and the Elephant Conservation Centre where I’ll get to wash and feed the elephants. EEEEEEEEKKKKKK! I’m super excited about this. There’s also opportunities to ride the elephants and trek into the jungle with them.
Aug 23 – Inle Lake visiting floating gardens and sampling local tea. Visit markets and a cheroot factory.
Aug 24 – We fly to Yangon and spend time exploring the markets, colonial buildings and the Yangon river. We also return to the Shwedagon Pagoda to see it illuminated at night.
Aug 25 – I will depart Yangon and fly to Bangkok. After several hours layover, I’ll be on my way to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam.

Aug 26 – 27 – Currently I have no specific plans. I suspect I will spend some time in my hotel blogging and catching up with friends and family back home as I expect to be without internet and cell service for most of my stay in Burma. Other than that, I might try to do a Mekong Delta home stay, a city tour or cycling tour in the countryside.

Aug 28 – Sept 5 – G Adventures – Cambodia Experience (this is for myself. I will simply be traveling with a group, not leading it, not responsible for anyone, just seeing the sites for me!)

Aug 28 – No planned activities. Sight seeing in Saigon.
Aug 29 – Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Aug 30 & 31 – Phnom Pen, Cambodia
Sept 1 – 3 – Siem Reap / Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Sept 4 – Bangkok, Thailand
Sept 5 – Departure day
Sept 5 – Arrive home in Halifax late at night.