Hong Kong and Macau: March 30- April 4, 2015

We felt like a visit to China would not be complete without seeing Hong Kong, so on Monday we flew from Taipei to HK, a quick two hour flight. So quick, in fact, that I didn’t even get to see the ending of the in-flight movie, The Judge. So now I don’t know how that ends. 

We arrived, took the metro, and easily found our hotel. I had heard HK would be really expensive, but actually our hotel was quite reasonably priced- cheaper than Taipei or Macau.  And a really big room- a triple! It was located right on the 111-year-old historic tramway, which costs 2.3 Hong Kong dollars- about 30 US cents. Pretty sweet ride around Hong Kong. 


Besides shopping, there isn’t much to do in the city. We rode the tram from one end of the city to the other- slow going, it takes about 90 minutes. You get to see all the different flavors of the city as you go. We also took the cable car up to Victoria Peak, which features fabulous views of the city.  And a terrifying ride- going up and down this mountain, using a hundred year old system, at an angle of 27 degrees, which might not sound like a lot, but I assure you, it is. 

We ate dim sum in Hong Kong- high on Chris’s list- and sushi- high on my list in any country.  We also had hot milk tea, cold milk tea, and a Hong Kong specialty, coffee tea.  Which is weird.  

Our favorite outing was the Hong Kong Museum of History, which is actually in Kowloon.  The museum itself is fantastic, and tells the story of HK from prehistoric times, up through modern upheavals such as British colonization, the Opium Wars, occupation by the Japanese, and the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.  A fascinating history.  

We took the ferry to Macau, which was a Portuguese colony up until 1999. Seeing the old-style European buildings, mixed in with loads of huge casinos, is a bit jarring. We wandered around the historic center, looking at the sights such as the ruins of St Paul’s church, built in 1604. Looking closely at the only remaining wall (the rest burned in 1885), you can see statues of the Jesuits, the Virgin Mary,…. And chinese lions and dragons.  

We visited the casinos on the island of Macau- the casinos here bring in more money than Vegas.  Eight times more. One of the ones we visited features priceless art on loan from a Chinese billionaire. Fancy stuff. 

Macau, old and new

Food specialties here include the pork bun, which is a pork chop stuck inside a crusty bun, Portuguese egg tarts (super delicious egg custard on a pie crust base), and bacalao com nata, a Portuguese dish of salted cod mixed with cream and potatoes. Really good, and one of my favorite dishes from when we lived in Angola, another former Portuguese colony. 

The main reason we went to Macau was to say hi to a friend of mine, Chad, that I haven’t seen since we were teens.  Back then we were both involved in CATS, Creative Arts Theater and School, in Texas.  Chad is now the Resident Artistic Director for The House of Dancing Water, the most expensive theater show in the world ($250 million), produced by the same producer of La Reve and Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas.  The show’s stage holds five Olympic swimming pools worth of water.  The show itself was amazing!! We sat in the 7th row, just far back enough to avoid getting soaking wet from all the diving into the water and all the splashing from the water jets and fountains. I can’t even begin to describe the show…… Only to say that it was a combination of a ballet, a water puppet show, Asian theater, tumbling, and a pirates of penzance kind of thing.  Seriously amazing. I was in awe the whole time. Chad told us later that several of their Aqua-batics go on to compete as divers at tournaments such as Red Bull, and several of their gymnasts have competed in the Olympics. 

The House of Dancing Water, City of Dreams Casino, Macau

After, we got a tour of the backstage, from the pool area itself- how would  you like to be a stage hand that actually works in scuba gear?- up to the 8th floor above the stage, 75 feet high, where the pulleys and winches and wires are located that guide the sets and actors to their places- to the sixth floor, where the highest divers jump from.  Wow.  

It was great to cach up with my friend, meet his wife, and get some valuable advice on traveling in China.  I think this is going  to be a hard country to get through, but we start tomorrow! 


Taiwan: March 20-30, 2015

We really enjoyed our ten days in Taiwan. It’s the perfect introduction to East Asia, like a bite-sized piece of China. The terrain is beautiful, the weather was cool and refreshing, the transportation was for the most part easy, and the people were helpful and friendly. Taiwan makes a great vacation spot. 

We started off with two full days in Taipei. We visited the Longshan Temple, the Confucious Temple, and the Baoan Temple.  Relaxing places to spend some time, and full of Chinese people praying, meditating, and asking for auspicious signs. We went to the National Palace Museum- 500,000 bronze, jade, writings, and paintings from all eras of China’s history- and the National Museum of Miniatures- dozens and dozens of models, miniatures, and dioramas.  The Chiang Kai-Shek memorial is beautiful, a white and cobalt blue building set in a spacious plaza, and the Taipei 101 building is tall and stunning. Until 2009 it was the tallest building in the world.  Meeting up with the son of a friend of mine, Zak and his friend Kate took us on a hike up Elephant Mountain to see Taipei from above, and then to a night market to try some tasty street food such as grilled squid and a really yummy peanut- brittle and ice cream kind of burrito.  Mm mm. 


Night Market with Zak; National Palace Museum; Taipei 101


visiting the temples in Taipei

 Taking a bus/train combo to Hualien on the east coast, we spent a day hiking and busing around Taroka Gorge, a beautiful gorge that cuts through the mountains dividing the east of Taiwan from the west.  The eastern side has some stunning scenery, tree covered volcanic cliffs ending in black sand beaches, but this side of the island also suffers more from typhoons, so there are fewer cities.  

Taroka Gorge


Continuing our train journey, we headed south to the bottom of the island and then looped back up, this time on the southwest side. In the city of Tainan, we sensed a tiny bit of the old Dutch and Portuguese history of the island (Taiwan used to be known as Formosa, from the Portuguese “Ilha Formosa”- “beautiful island”). We visited the old Dutch fort, Fort Zeelandia, built in1604, as well as the “tree house”- which I thought would be a house up in a tree, but is actually an old salt warehouse from the 1800s that has been completely overtaken by the roots and tendrils of a giant banyan tree.  Nature at work. 


 Heading north, we took a bus up to the Alishan Mountain Forest, home of Taiwan’s tallest mountains. It was cold and misty up there, but it made hiking around the old cypress forest kind of spooky and interesting. We found a tree that’s over 2300 years old! It was cherry blossom season, so lots- I mean hundreds- of mainland Chinese tourists were up there visiting for the day, but we spent the night up on the mountain, and after the day trip buses departed around 4 pm, the area quieted down.  A beautiful sunset, when the clouds cleared up a bit and sank below the mountains, and a clear sunrise the next morning. By 10 am, over 150 tour buses had arrived- I counted- so we took the century-old, historic logging train down the mountain.  A picturesque ride, as the red train wound down the mountains, through the green bamboo, cypress, and cedar tree forests. 

Alishan Mountain Forest


And then back to Taipei. I love train travel.  We walked into the train station and discovered the next train to Taipei was leaving in six minutes.  Twenty dollars and three hours later, we were there.  You just can’t do that with air travel.  And I love how on Asian trains there’s always a boiling hot water faucet, so you just bring your ramen noodles, or cup-O-soup, or your 3-in-1 coffee mix with you, and snack your way along the journey.  So cheap and easy! 

We are learning so much about other cultures on this trip.  For example, Asians have a very different idea of personal space than us.  We might, when waiting to ask a question from a tour guide, step back and wait for that person to finish the conversation they are having with someone else, and then approach.  An Asian person, however, would see that space as an empty space, and step past us into it.  This happened to us many times, waiting to buy bus tickets, stepping into an elevator, or waiting in a buffet line.  I guess when you live in such a populated country, you learn to grab your spot while you can. Although they are also very orderly, such as when lining up to get on the subway.  For us, it’s all part of the process, learning to adapt to new countries and their ways! 


Philippines: March 8-20, 2015

We arrived in the Philippines, without a real plan. We kept meaning to choose which islands we wanted to visit, but with over 7,000, we just got overwhelmed. So we landed in Manila early in the morning, dropped our stuff at our hotel, and looked around a bit. On the first day, we were accosted by more beggars and street children than anywhere else on our trip. Two kids cursed at us, and threw something at us when we wouldn’t give them coins. So, that night, we booked a flight for the island of Palawan, to spend a week there. 

Palawan, a beautiful island. The ending scenes from the last Bourne movie were filmed there, and supposedly the book The Beach is set there, but the author changed the location to Thailand to preserve his secret hideout. Actually, the geologic formations- karst limestone mountains set in white sand islands- are the same geology as both Krabi/Phuket, Thailand, and Halon Bay, Vietnam, on the same tectonic plate. Seriously pretty.  

El Nido, on Palawan Island

Chris diving


So we stayed there a week, went diving a couple of times, hopping from island to island. The town, El Nido, is a small Spanish-influenced settlement, and has accommodations and restaurants to suit any taste. Basically we just relaxed and enjoyed ourselves, not much else to do. On one day there was a parade for Women’s Day, and some boat races that were fun to watch. 

We returned to Manila and managed a few touristy activities. We visited the National museum, which was pretty good, and Intramuros, the walled city inside the old fortress.  We took a ferry out to Corregidor and did a day tour of the World War II sites out there. We visited a large mall and took care of some admin details like getting new glasses for Chris and new pants for me. We tried some unique Philippine foods, like the shaved ice concoction halo-halo, and some chicken adobo. And we got to try the street transport, including the bicycle- or motorized-tricycle and the extended, modified jeepney. 

National Museum of the Philippines

Old Spanish church in Manila

Deah at the lighthouse on Corrigedor Island


Street Jeepney

All in all, a fun time, but we probably could have planned better.  I really would have liked to visit the terraced rice fields in the north, but with an aching back for several days, I couldn’t face the nine hour bus rides.  Today we leave for Taiwan, where hopefully getting around will be a little easier. 


Vietnam: February 17- March 7, 2015

We arrived in Saigon, from Pnom Penh, just in time for the Lunar New Year.  The streets and parks were full of sweets being sold for the holiday, gift baskets, hanging red lanterns and balloons, and flowers everywhere. Yellow blooms for long life, and orange trees for good luck. It’s funny to see motorbikes zipping around town with a medium-sized orange tree tied to the back!

But by 5 pm on the actual New Year’s Eve, all the sellers had packed up to go spend three days with their families, and the city’s main park was transformed from a flower market to a concert pavilion. At ten that night, thousands of people came to the park, watched a live singing and dancing show, and then fireworks at midnight. Pretty cool.

Also in Saigon, we went to the Cu Chi Tunnels, and the War Remembrance Museum. Both of the places, and all throughout Vietnam, were pretty heavily into the propaganda about the “American Imperialist invaders”, the “puppet government of the south”, and the “brave revolutionaries of communist Vietnam”. But they did also highlight just how much both sides suffered during the war, especially in regards to chemical agents such as Agent Orange.  

From Saigon, we hopped back on our Stray bus and went to Dalat, a picturesque and temperate city in the highlands. We visited a waterfall, got to steer our own roller coaster car (so fun!), visited one of the weirdest architectural hotels I’ve ever seen, and rode a cable car up to a monastery. A nice city. Our guide, Luong, introduced us to some new street food, one of which was pretty good and one that was disgusting. You pretty much have to try them all to find one you’ll like. 

Next up was a trip to a small fishing village where we were definitely the only farangs (foreigners) around. We met a local family, had dinner with them, and the next day they took us to their family island out in the bay, where they showed us how they fish for crabs, snails, squid, shrimp, and fish. And then we threw them all on the grill and ate them. Yum! 

Bai Xep, hardly even a village, was next. There was nothing there except white sand beaches, a bay, a five star hotel, and a simple but lovely hostel (actually both owned by the same man). So for $10 each, this paradise was ours for a night. And did I mention the two abandoned kittens we got to feed with a straw? 

After a visit to the My Lai memorial, we arrived in Hoi An. We stayed at a beautiful hotel right next to the Old Quarter, full of homes that date back hundreds of years, incorporating Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese styles.  Some of our group from our bus had suits or dresses made by the renowned and yet cheap tailors that inundate the city. Walking around the motor-bike free Quarter in the evenings was really nice. There is a river that runs through the quarter, and for a dollar (21,000 dong), you can buy a floating paper lantern to set in the river and watch it drift off to sea. 

From Hoi An we went to Hue, arriving in time to do a motorbike tour of various villages, temples, the Perfume River, a French war bunker, the citadel and Emperor’s palace and a coliseum where tigers and elephants used to be pitted against each other. 12 of us from our bus did the tour, so we were quite the sight, zooming along on the back of our guides’ bikes. We had a blast.  We even watched a woman making incense sticks and one making the bamboo conical hats all the Vietnamese wear. 

Crossing through the DMZ, we arrived in the north of Vietnam, finishing the day with the Vinh Moc tunnels. We stayed at a lakeside resort that night and enjoyed their pool and the view, and a pretty good bottle of Vietnamese wine. We stayed there two nights, and visited the nearby Phong Nga cave.  It’s huge. Massive. In fact, the largest cave in the world is in that same national park, but it takes a day and a half hiking to get to,  and costs $3000 to explore.  No thanks.  I don’t like caves that much. 

Almost done with our bus tour, we wound our way through the karst mountains and rice fields of the north, the weather getting cooler and mistier.  We stayed just one night in Ninh Binh, and visited the primate center to see rescued lengurs, gibbons, and macaque monkeys.  It’s sad to see them in cages but they have all been rescued from poachers, and the ones that can be rehabbed and released in the wild are set free. And they are trying a breeding program, as some of the primate populations have fallen below 100 in some areas.  

And finally we arrived in Hanoi. Our Straycation at an end, we said goodbye to our bus mates and settled into a hotel in Hanoi’s old quarter, where we spent the next six days working on our Chinese visa application, eating delicious street food, getting lost in the alleys and back streets, and drinking 5,000 dong beer (about 25 cents). We did a tiny bit of sightseeing, such as the “Hanoi Hilton” prison, a water puppet show, and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, but for the most part we just took a break.  I think some of our best Vietnamese food was in Hanoi, such as grilled eggplant, caramel pork, and cashew chicken.  And rice. rice. more rice.  And noodles! 

So now we are refreshed, recharged, and ready to take on the Philippines and then Taiwan.

Thanks to Vera, Jess, Fee, Nat, Sam, Carol, Olly, Clare, Bethun, and even Ryan and Lisa for making our Stray bus a trip to remember! 


Cambodia: February 6-17, 2015

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Tearing ourselves away from the 4000 Islands area of Laos, we headed to Cambodia. A long travel day got us to Siem Reap, where luckily our hotel was just off the very fun and very diverse Pub Street- where the draft beers are re 50 cents, all day and all night. I’m not ashamed to say we ate at a Mexican restaurant. In Cambodia. And it was pretty good.

The next day, we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us to the Angkor Wat temple, as well as two others, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm (yes, that’s the one from Tomb Raider). We tried to stay out of the way of the huge Chinese tour groups, and avoided getting scammed by the “free” guides and guidebook sellers. The huge, falling down temples are really beautiful…..and big. Truly, a sight to see.

After a couple of days in Siem Reap on our own, we rejoined our Stray bus compatriots and went to Battambang, where we rode the Bamboo Train. It used to go from Cambodia to Bangkok, but is no longer in use except for a few kilometers used for tourism. The locals make these square bamboo pallets, and place them on top of two axels and add a small motor. If two pallets “collide”, one party simply gets off the tracks and picks up their “train”, letting the other party pass. At the end of the track we stopped in a small village for a cold beer and some barbecued mouse, which really doesn’t have all that much meat on i

After the train, six of us wanted to go see the bats leave their cave at dusk, while the others went to a local market. It was pretty cool seeing 3+ million vats streaming out of their cave. They fly up to 200 km away and then return about 8 hours later. They eat a lot of insects every night!

Later we rejoined our group at a homestay, where we had the best fish amok! It’s fish pieces baked in a bamboo leaf, in a coconut milk and Khmer spice broth. Really good. We learned a little about the family who own the house, and what life is like for them in the village, and how they got started in tourism and turning their barn into a homestay area. It’s nice to think that we are helping many members of local families with our tourism dollars.

Then it was two nights in Sihanoukville, a beach town, pretty much catering to mass tourism (not too much local culture there). Good food, a decent bottle of wine, some beach time.

We went to Kampot, and hopped off the bus there for three days, to see our old friend Dave, who I used to teach with. Kampot is a nice little river town, not too overrun with tourists, with a small but growing expat community of people who have found the perfect place to run out their senior years on less than $700 a month. Hmmm, good chance we’ll be back to Kampot one day.

After Kampot, we spent one night on the tiny island of Koh Tansay, in a bungalow that only had electricity from 6pm to 9 pm. 13 bungalows, one restaurant, one massage pavilion with five pallets…. Well that’s all I needed for the 20 hours we were there. A very relaxing and romantic way to spend Valentine’s with my sweetheart (and ten other Stray bussers).

Our last stop in Cambodia is Pnom Penh. On the way into town, we visited the Killing Fields. Chris and I bought the audio guides, which were pretty interesting, although sad. Then we went to S21, one of the Khmer Rouge’s security prisons, where they tortured and killed thousands of intellectuals, teachers, doctors, dissidents, basically anyone who might challenge the 1975-1979 vision of a communist Cambodia. Horribly, the place used to be a school before the schools were shut down.

To end on a more positive note, we went to a cultural dance show in PP, sponsored by an organization called Cambodian Living Arts, which was really good! They performed about a dozen folk dances and blessing songs and had beautiful costumes.  They all seemed to be enjoying themselves and we were happy to see the arts thriving in Cambodia- a minor miracle, considering 90% of their artists were killed 35 years ago.

all in all, a very interesting country to come to, well worth a visit if you’re in the area.  And now we are crossing the border into Vietnam……..


Laos: January 20-Feb 6

We crossed the Thai/Laos border with our Stray bus group, and boarded a long flat covered boat for our two day sail down the Mekong River.  It was very cool looking at the scenery along the way, although after two eight hour days on the river we were definitely ready to be on land! The night between the two boat rides, we stopped in a small highland village and had a homestay.  The village had about 60 family houses, and we divided our group of 18 or so into five houses.  We had dinner and breakfast with our hosts, spent the night on their floor on mattresses and under mosquito nets, and tried the local “Lao Lao”, which is a homemade local rice whisky.  Pretty gross, but it’s cheap and a few shots of that will do the trick! 

When we finished our boat journey, we were in Luang Prabang, the ancient Siam  capital of the north.  A pretty and small city, perfect for some walking around and gazing at all the goods offered in the markets.  We visited the public library, and donated a book for their village outreach program, a “book boat” that travels to remote areas and gives kids there the chance to access a book.  And Luang Prabang is great place for baguette sandwiches: Laos, having once been part of French Indochina, retains the love of French bread that is so missing from Thailand and Malaysia.  

From Luang Prabang we headed south to Vang Vueng, a kind of grungy River town that basically centers on the backpackers coming through and tubing the river.  For five dollars we rented a tube, got dropped off a couple of miles upstream, and floated lazily down the river.  There are five or six bars along the way; if you want to get out, a young Laos boy throws a filled water bottle attached to a rope at you and reels you in, like a fish.  We tubed the river with most of the group from our Stray bus, so it wasn’t long before the Lao Lao was flowing and the beer pong was a-playing. 

The next morning we had the chance to go up in a hot air balloon for only $80 US, so we couldn’t pass that up.  We rose up to 1,000 meters and looked down at the river, the karst mountains, the mist, the rice fields… Really beautiful.  A bit of a scary “crash” landing, but we were all okay, if a little shaken. 

We headed to the Kong Lor area, too small to even really be called a village.  Just five or six guest houses, two restaurants, all a kilometer from the kong Lor cave, which we were there to explore.  We got a boat ride into the cave- 7 kilometers into the cave- had to portage three times- walked around inside the cave for a while. Pretty spooky feeling, being that far under a mountain.  At the end,when we returned to the starting point, we all swam in the cold, clear water in a natural swimming hole at the cave’s entrance. Back at our guesthouse, we all lazed the rest of the day away, nothing to do but look out over the green tobacco fields and the surrounding mountains. What beautiful scenery! 

Ventianne, the capital, was next.  We didn’t do much there except visit the Victory Arch, a temple, and COPE, an organization that helps bomb victims deal with their injuries and adjustment.  We learned about the millions of bombs dropped over Laos during Vietnam and the “Secret War”. Laos is the most bombed country, per capita! And there are still thousands of UXO here, in fields, rivers, jungles, and villages.  

After Ventianne we had another homestay, not with a family, but in a big farmhouse owned by a local and given over to Stray bus for their three times a weeks stop in the village of Xe Champhone. After dinner, the Lao Lao started flowing and the music started playing and the kids on our bus (because, yes, of course Chris and I are the oldest) started partying.  This time I wasn’t in the mood, and kind of felt that the loud partying was a bit disrespectful to the rest of the village, although several locals did stop by to meet us and have a drink.  

Some of our side trips on these days have included Buddha caves, UNESCO temples, waterfalls, a turtle lake,  a coffee plantation, and a monkey forest where we hand fed dozens of macaque monkeys.  

Our last stop in Laos, and where 12 of the 15 of us hopped off the bus for three days, has been an area called “4000 islands” in southern Laos.  We are on an island called Don Dett, about 2 miles long and one mile wide. Just “beach” bungalows, bars, tubing, kayaking, and bicycle rentals.  It’s a nice place to explore and I even managed a run yesterday morning before breakfast.  Rice fields, water buffalo, sunsets, and relaxing. We really needed the break.  Tomorrow we head across the border to Cambodia, starting with Angkor Wat.

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Myanmar: January 8-19, 2015


“When I die I will be a Burman … and I will always walk about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and jest too, as a young maiden ought. She shall not pull a sari over her head when a man looks at her and glare suggestively from behind it, nor shall she tramp behind me when I walk: for these are the customs of India. She shall look all the world between the eyes, in honesty and good fellowship, and I will teach her not to defile her pretty mouth with chopped tobacco in a cabbage leaf, but to inhale good cigarettes of Egypt’s best brand. ” — Rudyard Kipling, “Mandalay” 




Myanmar, formerly Burma, is a country full of contradictions. Full of Buddhists, the country actually has a small minorities of Muslims, who are denied citizenship if they cannot prove their ancestors were in Burma before 1823.  The buildings in the capital city look as if they desperately need a wash and a paint job, while office buildings rent to NGOs and businesses for exorbitant rates such as $25,000 a month, increased from $4,000 a month just two years ago (click here for an article about the $90,000 monthly rent paid by UNICEF). The train station, a glorious architectural gem built in 1877 by the British, looks ready to fall down, while a 620 km train ride from Yangon to Bagan takes a stated 16 hours (more likely to be 20), while the bus ride takes only 8. 


Downtown Yangon


Yangon train station


From Bangkok, it was a simple matter of applying online for a Myanmar visa, and booking a cheap flight to Ÿangon on Air Asia. The flight was 90 minutes long, and we were met at the airport by a taxi driver sent by our friend Maia, whom we had worked with in Sudan. While visiting her in Ÿangon, we went to the Shwedagon Pagoda, a wonderful Buddhist Shrine that, according to local legend, began in 600 BC, and continually enlarged by a succession of kings to its present height of 99 meters. (Historians and archaeologists say it was more likely built between 600 and 900 AD. One of the difficulties of researching Myanmar history is a lack of many written historical accounts). We found the pagoda to be quite beautiful and a nice place to walk around and people watch, particularly all the monks and nuns (shaved heads all around). It’s very peaceful up there, away from the cars and traffic, and you can just sit and listen to the tinkling sound of the tiny brass bells atop each stupa. 


Shwedagon pagoda

We visited the National Museum, but unfortunately you can’t take photos there. I dont know why many developing nations won’t let you take photos. The museum was interesting, with a huge array of artifacts and cultural information. Definitely worth a visit. 

We do a lot of walking around cities, just looking at the buildings, the parks, the people. One of our favorite pastimes is to try street food or settle for a while at an alley cafe and watch the world go by. It’s a good way to chat with some locals and try new foods. Sometimes we’re pleasantly surprised, and other times we’re not. 


Beer stop in the city

Before we left Yangon, we walked by Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, where she was held under house arrest for several years, opposing the government. She has now been released and is head of the National League of Democracy. 




Rather than the scenic but very grimy and outdated train, we opted for the bus to Bagan, a northern plains area covered by literally three thousand stupas, temples, and shrines. We took a night bus and arrived at 5 am, so we decided to walk to the “archaeological zone” and watch the sun rise. In less than half an hour, we could start to see the faint outlines of temples…. And then the sun began to rise and we could see dozens. We began to hear a whooshing noise, and slowly a hot air balloon rose above the trees and temples….and then a dozen more. In all, we counted 14 balloons, and we lost count of the temples. We walked all over the area, including down to the banks of the Irrawaddy River, and just marveled. Eventually we wandered back to town, got some lunch, and took a nap. We got up at four and went back out to watch the sun set behind some other temples. Bagan, and other cities in Myanmar, has that acrid smell from burning trash and controlled-burning cultivation techniques. I remember Sudan and Egypt had the same smell. It’s not terrible, as long as it’s at a distance. 


Sunrise in Bagan



We stayed in Bagan for two days, walking around and bicycling around, and trying different restaurants. Then we bought a bus ticket to head east, to the area around Lake Inle. Our bus turned out to be a minivan, and we were the only passengers. Weird. The ride was interesting, though, passing through villages, crossing a few rivers, and going over a small mountain range. Eventually- at 4:30 even though the driver said we would arrive at 2- we arrived in Nuangshwe, a small town on the edge of Lake Inle. We found a hotel for $25 with hot water, wifi (semi), and breakfast, and then walked around town for a bit. Like Bagan, the town consists of four paved roads, in a grid, with maybe six more dirt roads making up the entire main center of action. There’s probably a dozen small hotels/guesthouses here, a dozen restaurants, and a dozen tour services shops, helping travelers to organize boat rides, trekking, bus tickets, share taxis, bicycle rentals, or air tickets. It’s impossible to get lost and you really don’t need a map. 

On the western end of town is a canal, which feeds into the lake. Perhaps fifty boatmen await, hoping to entice you with a boat tour of the lake and the Shan and Karen villages that border it. They have very long- 15 meter- boats that are very narrow, and very shallow, because the lake is an average of three feet deep.  We negotiated a boat tour on our second day in town, and off we went to the southern end of the lake, 20 miles away.  We visited a lovely pagoda site,  rising up from the banks of the lake like a Disney castle, and then boated through a floating village, the houses all set up on stilts with their canoes parked underneath. We passed men catching fish, and women harvesting rice or washing laundry in the lake. We even saw a woman hanging bags of rice noodles in the sun to dry. We visited a Shan village to see a pottery worker, and got to try our hand at a candle holder and a vase. We also visited a boat building yard, where it takes four men one month to build the 15 meter boats by hand. We visited a cheroot rolling house, made with tobacco, cloves, honey, tamarind, and rice wine. And we saw a weaving workshop, where they made thread out of cotton, silk, and lotus stems to make clothing and scarves. The lotus stem part really blew me away- a very painstaking process. Those scarves are very expensive. If you’ve ever seen pictures of traditionally dressed Myanmar women, the way they wear their scarves wrapped around their heads show which tribe they belong to. The men all wear the longyii, which is a long piece of fabric around their waist, tied like a wrap around skirt. In the villages they wear the Burmese conical woven hats, but not in the city. 


Lake Inle fishermen

Pottery making

The boat  driver wanted to take us to the “long neck village”, but I said no. I think it’s really exploitive of girls to do that to them so young. If they take the rings off their necks they cannot even hold their heads up. And now they do it for tourist dollars, even busing them into Thailand and China to display. 

Also near the lake is a winery, one of two in Myanmar. We walked out to the vineyards and tried four of their wines, enjoying the views from their hilltop of the small villages nearby. A nice way to spend our last afternoon in Naungshwe. We left that evening on a night bus, arriving in Mandalay in the morning. 

Chris at Red Mountain Winery


In Mandalay, there wasn’t a whole lot to do. There’s an ancient walled Grand Palace, but it was destroyed in World War II, and rebuilt with forced labor and new materials, rather than the original teakwood. So instead we climbed Mandalay Hill, just outside of town, where you pass through pagodas, shrines, and temples as you ascend the hill.  Really nice views from the top, as well.  And at the bottom, we visited the Kuthodow Pagoda, which claims to be the largest book in the world, consisting of 1774 stupas, each one holding an inscribed tablet of the Tripitaka, a sacred Buddhist text. 

Kuthodow Pagoda



Tripitaka text


Uniquely Myanmar:

*Tea leaf salad. Now my favorite dish in Myanmar. 

Tea leaf salad


* the women in Myanmar all decorate their faces with a yellow paste made from tree bark. They wear this as decoration, and as sunscreen. It takes a little getting used to, but now I think it’s very pretty. 


Tree branch used for face paint


Myanmar girl with face painted


* There are no bicycles, scooters, or motorcycles allowed in Yangon. Very rare for an Asian city.  No one is quite sure why they are illegal in that one city.  

* The fishermen on lake Inle have developed a unique way of paddling.  They stand on one leg in the prow of their boats, and wrap their other leg around their paddle. They use that leg to steer and push themselves forwards, while keeping their hands free for their nets.