Beach, Buddha and Pagoda – How To Spend 5 Days in Myanmar

Myanmar (aka Burma) has only recently opened to tourism after lifting an embargo on foreign visitors. Tucked away in the South Asian peninsula, the country is unknown to most western tourists, except for it’s communist politics followed by a fight for democracy led by female activist Aung San Suu Kyi. A deeper dive into Myanmar’s history opens up a rich pandora of culture, religion and architecture spanning thousands of years. The country is biodiverse with beaches, mountains, lakes, rivers and forests. While it is difficult to see Myanmar in just a few days, I managed to capture a few highlights through my lens.

Yangon, the capital, is where I spent most of my time as our ship was docked there was three days. Sailing into the Irrawaddy River Delta gave way to views of muddy brown waters with nomadic fisherman on traditional boats, followed by golden domes popping out from bare villages. The city, itself is pretty small, with business buildings, hotels, tea shops, gardens and lots of pagodas. Having been cut off from the rest of the world, you won’t find any name brands or chain restaurants here. People still dress traditionally in sarongs (called longyi) and put bright creamy paste (thanaka) on their faces, while crouching on low stools on the street side cafes eating fish curry and steamed rice. It is easy to walk around, taxis are cheap, though traffic can be bad at times.

Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple houses one of the most revered reclining Buddha statues in the country. Though the original statue was built in 1899, it has been modified and reconstructed few times until the 1970s.

Dominating the Yangon skyline, Shwedagon Pagoda is spectacular by day and night. Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, and perhaps the oldest Buddha stupa in the world, built between 6-10 centuries CE. Allow yourself at least a couple of hours to wander around the complex of temples to absorb their splendid beauty, and maybe you would feel like spending a few minutes in silence or meditation.

In the evening, head over for dinner to Karaweik Royal Barge. Karaweik Palace was constructed in the shape of a barge as a symbol of Burmese culture and arts. It serves international buffet with cultural performances. Other restaurants I tried were Yangon Tea House, a casual and hip Burmese/ Indian restaurant, and Feel Myanmar, a traditional place where you can pick and choose your food and quantity. This is a great venue to safely try a lot of Burmese dishes that you may have seen on the streets as well.

On the other side of Yangon’s cosmopolitan city, is the township of Dala. This is the place to go if you want to see daily life of the locals – where they live, shop, study and pray. Most people cross the river on ferry boat to work in the city. Walk through the wet markets, visit a monastery, stop by an orphanage, and ride on a trishaw.


From Yangon, take a short flight to the city of Bagan, in the eastern province. It is said there were over 10,000 religious structures built in Bagan between 9-13 centuries, though only 2,000 of them still remain today. Shwesardaw offers a great lookout to many of these temples spread across the archeological area.

Though there are dozens of other temples in the area worth visiting if you have the time, Shwezigon Pagoda built by the Mon Dynasty, is covered with more than 30,000 copper plates (originally gold). The pagoda houses four huge bronze statues of Buddha, and contain his original footprints.

Lampi Island is the only marine national park in Myanmar, home to over 1000 species of animals, plants and marine life, as well as occasional sea gypsies. Here you can take a private zodiac cruise to visit the mangroves.

Further south is Shark Island, a secluded natural island perfect for snorkeling, swimming, and relaxing on the white sandy beach. There are a number of beaches and exclusive beach resorts in Myanmar, that offer opportunities to see the rich coral formations and marine life.

Located at the Myanmar-Thailand border, is the charming town of Kawthoung. With strong Indian and Muslim influences, it is a town on a hill where you can walk around and explore within a day. Kawthaung is also the starting point for Myanmar-based cruises to the vast Myeik Archipelago.

My trip to Myanmar was possible through Silverseas Discoverer Andaman Sea Expedition cruise. I was on their inaugural sailing to Myanmar, a country that should be added to your travel bucket list!

There is a Haunted Island in India

As the sun was setting over the Andaman Sea, an old ferry packed with people made the ten minute journey across from Port Blair to Ross Island. Given that no one lived on Ross Island, I was confused why so many people were going there, that too as it was getting dark.
As I approached Ross Island, I saw the Indian tricolor flag waiving through a thick canopy of tall coconut trees. My guide told me about the Japanese bunker off the dock. The island was occupied by the Japanese during World War 2, as they fought against the British.
Soon enough, we were surrounded by wild animals – deer, rabbits, and peacocks, who are the only residents on the island. A lady wearing white salwar kameez (Indian attire) with a bright orange scarf started feeding the deers, addressing them as “Baba Baba…” The deers came running to her as if they heard a familiar voice, and ate sliced bread right from her hands. My guide informed me that this lady goes to Ross Island everyday only to feed the deers, so they are familiar with her. She hands me a piece of bread and asks me to feed the deer. I do as instructed. The deer’s wet lips touch my fingers and soon a group of them surround me.
There is nothing but ruins on Ross Island now, but up until India received it’s independent, it was the Administrative Headquarters of the British East India Company, and a good spot to keep a watchful eye on the Central Jail in Port Blair. Remains of a church, bakery, clubhouse, printing press, water reservoir, etc. can still be seen on the island, mostly covered by overgrown tropical plants and algae. At it’s peak, the British general enjoyed the opulence and pristine environment offered by the island and called it “The Paris of the East.” Now, it looks like a scene from a scary movie.
The island has seen its share of bad fortune as well. In the 1700’s the settlement was nearly wiped out due to high mortality rate, then turned into a hospital, a sanatorium and a penal settlements. And a terrible earthquake shattered all structures in 1941. There was a deadly fire at some point too.
So why were all those people on the ferry going to Ross Island? Though there is not much to see (unless you like a stroll through scary ruins), there is a nicely done sound and light show in the evening that shows the history of the island. Just make sure to bring a flashlight, plenty of mosquito spray, and enjoy the show!
What is scariest place you have ever been to? 

A Fresh Look at The Alcatraz of India

Growing up in northern India, I had some familiarity with Andaman and Nicobar Islands only through my history and geography books. These group of islands are a part of India and located 1200 kilometers south east of the country, almost halfway between Indian and Thailand. Actually, the only other thing we were taught in school about the islands was that it was also called Kaala Pani (meaning black water) or the point of no return. More on that later.
Point is, no one I knew went to the islands. I had never met anyone from there and though I was Indian, I couldn’t have told you 5 facts about the Andaman and Nicobar Islands until recently.
In November 2016, I went on a 11-day “Andaman Sea Expedition” aboard Silver Discoverer, an adventure cruise ship. Departing from Phuket, Thailand, our first port of call was Port Blair, India.
The 36 group of islands have been inhabited by Africans, Asians, Danish, Austrians and the British for the past 60,000 years. They have a population of 450,000, most of whom are Indian descendants of the political prisoners, and refugees from Bangladesh. A few dozen native tribes also remain, and are heavily protected by the Indian government to ensure their survival.
When I arrived in Port Blair, it appeared like any other small city in India. There were crowded streets with people and animals manipulating traffic around bikes, rickshaws, and street hawkers. Shops at Aberdeen Market sold everything from colorful India saris, pearls and gold jewelry, to batteries and cheap tupperware. There was a church, mosque, Hindu and Sikh temples, all within a few blocks from each other. The aroma of Indian spices frying in hot ghee (the process is called tadka), milky spiced chai served in small glasses, made to order dosas (lentil and rice crepes) for $1, and mithai (sweets) shops selling colorful squares and balls made with milk powder, brown sugar and dried fruits…all were too familiar to me.

70 Indian Rupees = 1 USD 
Only if you paid attention to the scenery driving along the Sea Shore Road, you would know that you are on an island surrounded by the Andaman Sea. A canopy of coconut and palm trees marked the coastline against the blue waters. At the Water Sports Complex, there was a small children’s park, swimming pool, water sports center and not much of a beach, though ferries took passengers to other islands which were more apt for leisurely beaching and sunbathing.
The unique thing about Silverseas cruise line is that they offer in-depth itineraries that include culture, history, sightseeing and leisure activities built into the tour costs. There were only 75 passengers on my ship and we were bused off to see the local sights.
 
The main site in Port Blair is Cellular Jail, a solitary confinement prison that was built by and for Indian political prisoners under the rule of British East India Army. The generals decided that this is as far and remote they could send away any individuals threatening to raise their voice for independence from the British and freedom for India. Due to its location and inhospitable environment, it was believed that no prisoner sent to Cellular Jail would ever return alive. This was the Alcatraz of India.
Visiting the jail’s campus felt morbid and emotional. There were names of my forefathers and people from all over India who had sacrificed their lives to make India the largest free democratic country in the world. There were tiny cells with nothing but   bare walls. In the center of the garden was a podium where the prisoners received their punishments, and eventually were hanged. Needless to say, food, healthcare and hygiene were luxuries they were awarded at rare occasions.
It was later discovered that there were two brothers at the jail during the same time, but never saw each other.
The Zonal Anthropological Museum had a good collection of photos of tribal people, depicting their culture, dwelling, clothing, and festivals. The four main tribes in the area had no contact with the outside world (even humans from mainland India) until the 1960s. Even now, visitors to the islands are not allowed to go to the reservations.
After almost 70 years of freedom, Port Blair remains an island populated by forced immigrants and refugees. They look, talk, dress and act like any other mainland Indians, yet many of them carry a sad past in their recently family history, with a reminder in their backyards. For me, Port Blair was not just another port of call, it was an educational journey into my own country’s past, one that’s memory is fading away over the years.
Have you returned to your homeland to discover a part of history that you did not know about? Share your story below in the comments section and inspire our readers….

7 Reasons to Sail on Anthem of The Seas This Winter

Anthem of the Seas is the third largest cruise ship in the world and after months of sailing in the Pacific and Mediterranean, the ship has finally arrived in the Atlantic.

As I approach the docks, my complete attention draws towards a majestic 18-story building. It is longer than seven Boeing jetliners and there’s a giant glass capsule jetting out of its top. Anthem of the Seas by Royal Caribbean is the biggest ship I have ever seen and most spectators at the port feel the same.  Along with 4,179 other passengers, I walk into this floating island with pure astonishment. In the next two weeks, I was about to experience over thirty dining establishments, nightly entertainment in four venues, adventures like skydiving at sea, my first Robotic bar, and nine amazing ports of call across five countries. From where I sit, this is the best cruise in the world.

With each passing year, the cruising industry is getting more innovative with high tech infrastructure, modern architecture, and upscale culinary experiences. For this winter, Anthem of the Seas promises the best travel experience in cruising to those looking for luxury at affordable prices. Here’s my review of Anthem of the Seas. 

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1. Largest floating bedrooms

The interior of Anthem of the Seas is modern and elegant, reminding me of some of the classy hotels you would see in Las Vegas. Intricate flooring and ceiling work are specifically chosen to set a different tone on each floor, so you can feel the change in ambiance going from one part of the ship to the other.

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With 2,090 staterooms Anthem has more guest accommodations than the tallest hotel in the world. It also has more balcony rooms than any other cruise ship. The most fascinating accommodations are the spacious two-story lofts and three-bedroom family suites that come with a living/dining room, a TV room, a balcony Jacuzzi, and panoramic views. Say goodbye to claustrophobia!

2. Widest culinary selection at sea

If you are used to the one or two dining options presented on most cruise ships, be blown away by the culinary selection here. On the Anthem, there are 18 restaurant concepts to choose from. Themed restaurants include Japanese, Italian, French, Asian Pacific, American, British pub, cafe, buffet, and much more. Each one has a unique ambiance and creative cocktail menu.

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While just the design of the restaurants is worth checking out, the food is comparable to any upscale restaurant on land. Where else can you taste creations by world-renowned chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Michael Schwartz, and Devin Alexander on a floating island!

Furthermore, you are not restricted to sitting at round banquet tables along with other guests you don’t know. Couples can easily have a date night while families can reserve larger tables for privacy. Did I mention that a server is assigned to you for the entire cruise, who travels with you from restaurant to restaurant?

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3. Nonstop adrenaline rush

The activities on the Anthem accommodate not only families but adventurers as well. Choose more relaxed bingo, guess the tunes, or jeopardy game time, but then you can also go skydiving with RipCord by iFLY, go-carting, rock climbing, and skating at SeaPlex, surfing at FlowRider, and be lifted 300 feet above sea level in a pod on the iconic North Star.

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4. Serious fitness solutions

Sure, most cruise ships have a little gym and nice spa services, but on the Anthem, they take physical health seriously. There are fitness classes – yoga, stretch, Pilates, spin, even a boot camp, for those who want to stay healthy. You can get a personal instructor who will train with you, a nutritionist to consult with, and can select from several anti-aging solutions.

5. The best of Broadway

Anthem of the Seas offers an extraordinary lineup of multidimensional entertainment in state-of-the-art venues with mind-blowing technology. Shows such as Spectra’s Cabaret, We Will Rock You, and The Gift are huge hits, while international artists from around the world fly in to perform live music throughout the cruise.

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6. Entertaining for kids and teens

On no other cruise will you find two entire floors dedicated to teens and kids. SeaPlex is the largest indoor active space onboard offering tons of activities to stay active, from basketball and ping pong tournaments during the day, to a floating DJ booth at night. Kids’ favorite characters from Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda entertain the young ones. There is also a state-of-the-art video arcade and 3D movie room, and a Johnny Rockets diner for when hunger strikes.

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7. Inclusive to LGBT community

The daily cruise planner delivered to the stateroom lists all the activities happening throughout the ship. There are lunches for singles travelers and mixers for the LGBT community, offering a chance to make new friends onboard.

Anthem of the Seas sails around the world, and is now making its course around The Bahamas, Jamaica, Haiti, Grand Cayman, Mexico, Honduras, Puerto Rico, St. Kitts, Barbados, Martinique, and St. Maarten, offering guests the opportunity to truly immerse themselves in the destinations they visit.

How not to get fat on your next cruise vacation

Rough estimates by fitness instructors show that most cruisers gain an average of 1-2 pounds a day. If this statement scares you from taking your next cruise vacation, read this article first. On my recent 2-weeks cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of The Seas, I interviewed Maurice Van Rijthoven, a 30-year old fitness instructor from Netherlands. He oversees the VitalitySM Spa and Fitness center, the largest floating fitness area ever built. This 6,000 passenger vessel also boasts 30 restaurants and bars. Clearly, this is not your destination for weight-loss, but its possible.anthem of the seas

Located at the middle of deck 15, the SeaPlex is a large indoor gym with a full-size basketball court that can be converted into a dance floor, a flying trapeze school, a roller-skating arena, that converts to a bumper cars playground. The “SeaPlex” also features the SeaPlex Dog House food truck and table tennisair hockey and foosball tables on a second-level mezzanine.

bumper cars on Anthem of the Seas

The Spa and Fitness Center are located on decks 15 and 16, offering beautiful views of the surrounding seas. On embarkation day, Rijthoven gives a tour of the gym and spa. This is the best time to sign up for classes as they tend to fill up. Daily class offerings start at 7am and include yoga, pilates, stretching, spinning, body sculpt and more. The spin class emulates a Tour de France type of challenge for the 16 bikers participating. Some of the classes require a fee to attend.

For those who like to freestyle it,  the gym is well stocked with TechnoGym equipment, and includes practically everything one may need for a total body workout, including cardio, weights and a stretching area. The outdoor jogging track is 1/3 of a mile, with an uphill feature, and a great way to get your daily run. But you need to go early morning or late in the evening, as it gets crowded with sunbathers during the day. gym at anthem of the seas

There is also a bootcamp you can sign up for if you need a little group motivation. Generally, 8-10 guests participate in a daily regiment with a personal trainer that keeps them in shape. Rijthoven tells me that on an average, 20-30 people sign up for one on one personal training sessions during the cruise. Roughly 10% of cruisers use the gym facilities, which is tragic for Rijthoven to witness as he overlooks some of the finest equipment on sea.

“The biggest mistake people make is overindulging,” he says. Vacationers think its ok to eat and drink whatever they like, because they are on holiday. They wouldn’t ordinarily pack in these many calories in their normal diet. Rijthoven offers workshops throughout the trip educating travelers on how to properly balance having fun and keeping fit. A personal consultation – Eat more to weight less measure your metabolism rate and advises a diet plan accordingly.

For those who want to make a drastic change in their physical wellbeing, he advises a Detox program that travelers can do once they get back. This helps them remove toxins from within the body, and allow it to better absorb nutrients.

One of the ship’s restaurants, Devinly Decadence at Solarium Bistro offers spa cuisine created by author of The Biggest Loser Cookbook series, Devin Alexander. The menu boasts dishes that are under 500 calories for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is a wide selection of salads, sandwiches, seafood, pasta, as well as dessert.

For those who forget to check in with the fitness regime regularly, you may get messages delivered to your door or your tv screen reminding you about the special classes being offered each day. Rijthoven advises that if all cruisers found it in their schedule to exercise one hour daily, whether it is running, attending a class, or training on your own, they won’t end up gaining weight from their vacation.

The Best Adventures on Sea

A cruise vacation doesn’t have to be only about eating, drinking, and hanging out by the pool. Travelers can choose to participate in high adrenaline activities offered on board, that are safe for all ages. Here are some of the coolest adventures one can experience on the new Royal Caribbean ship, Anthem of the Seas

Skydive – Afraid of heights? Kids and adults can experience what it feels like to fly, within the confined wind capsule on board. RipCord by iFly® has introduced a groundbreaking simulator that gives a free fall skydive experience for an entire minute. The trainers show you proper posture for flying and also guide you through your flight.

skydive on Anthem of the Seas
Photo courtesy of Ana Loza from Argentina

Lift off – As we approach each port, the first thing locals notice is this giant capsule lifting off from the top deck of the ship. North Star is like a London eye that takes 14 passengers at a time, ascending gently 300 feet above sea level, and giving breathtaking 360° views. There are high power binoculars available inside the capsule so you see the surrounding areas. This is really fun while departing a port, so you can get a great view of the city.

North Star on Anthem of the Seas

Rock Climb – On the Anthem, there is a 30 foot high rock climbing wall where beginners can practice along the colored coded rocks, and advanced climbers can create their own pathways.

rock climb on Anthem of the Seas

Surf – Taking surfing lessons right onboard with FlowRider®, a 40-foot-long surf simulator located at the back of the ship. You don’t have to worry about high tides or jelly fish here.

surfing on Anthem of the Seas

Sports and more – The SeaPlex on deck 15 is the largest indoor active space at sea. Here’s where you will find most kids and teens playing video games, table tennis, and munching on hot dogs. Even adults join in the fun enrolling in circus school, basketball and cricket tournaments, roller skating and bumping cars.

bumper cars on Anthem of the SeasAll of the adventures are free for the cruisers on board Anthem of the Seas, although some may require advance reservations.

A New Perspective on Cruising

My first cruise travel experience was about 10 years ago. I took a 4 nights/ 5 days cruise from Tampa to Cozumel, Mexico. Although it was a relaxing experience, I decided that the cruise travel experience was not for me. The main reason being that I love to explore the local cuisine and culture of a country, and spend as much time as possible with the locals. On the cruise, I spent majority of my time on the ship with other travelers. We had organized games, shows, activities, casino, shopping, dining, etc., but I felt it was geared towards families and older crowds. I felt a little too sedentary.

anthem of the seasBeing on Anthem of the Seas, a brand new ship by Royal Caribbean, has changed my perspective on cruising. This 2-weeks Mediterranean sailing took me to different ports across 5 countries – UK, Spain, Italy, France and Portugal. There were organized tours offered in each of the ports, from city tours to wine tastings, I got to know about the history, culture, nature and art of the areas, and I always had the option to walk around on your own. We visited some ports that I may not have been able to see otherwise – Gibraltar, Cartagena, Seville, Vigo, etc.

Being on board offered a very different experience as well this time around. Anthem of the Seas is one of the biggest ships in the world, with 2,090 staterooms and a capacity of 6400 people (guests and crew). Given that, the cabin sizes are huge. I had a superior room with a balcony and sitting area, but there are also 2-storied lofts and 3 bedroom suites available. I never felt claustrophobic during my two week sail.

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Walking around the ship’s 18 decks can be quite fun. It took me a couple of days to get oriented, and realize where everything was. I admired every architectural detail, the beautiful artwork adorning the promenade, intricate flooring and ceiling work set to match the tunes of different areas of the ship, contemporary style of the rooms, themed music halls and theaters – this was by far the most beautiful ship I have ever seen.

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In my previous cruising experiences, there were only 1 or 2 options for dining – generally a formal sit down and a casual fast food place. On the Anthem, there are 30 eateries to choose from! Themed restaurants include Japanese, Italian, French, Asian Pacific, American, British pub, cafes, buffet, and much more. Each one has a unique ambiance and creative cocktail menu. Just the design of the restaurants is worth checking out. The food is comparable to any upscale restaurant on land. Furthermore, you are not restricted to sitting at round banquet tables along with other guests you don’t know. Couples can easily have a date night, while families can reserve larger tables for privacy.

spice at anthem of the seas

Sure most cruise ships have a little gym and nice spa services. But on the Anthem, they take physical health seriously. There are fitness classes – yoga, stretch, pilates, spin, even a boot camp, for those who want to stay healthy. You can get a personal instructor who will train with you, a nutritionist to consult with, and several anti aging solutions.

The activities on the Anthem are geared not only to families, but adventures as well. I typically won’t sit for a bingo, guess the tunes, or jeopardy kind of sessions. But here, I can go skydiving, go-carting, rock climbing, skating, surfing and be lifted 300 feet above sea level.

wave rider anthem of the seas

Another fact I liked about Anthem is that you really don’t need to travel with your family or friends to enjoy this cruise vacation. On the daily calendar are scheduled lunch for singles on the ship and LGBT community mixers. Of course, there are tailored activities for teens, youth and couples too.

There are several options to choose from for evening entertainment. At any given time, there is live music at 4-5 venues across the ship. Depending on my mood, I can sit at the piano bar, listen to 80’s rock, watch Broadway style performances, cabaret shows, or get up close with world renowned musicians.

we will rock you anthem of the seas

I view cruising in a different light now. A ship like Anthem of the Seas is not just for the older generation, but can be a lot of fun for younger travelers too. If this is what the new age of cruising looks like, I will definitely be considering this option for my future travels.