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!

5 Reasons Why I Could Live in the Philippines

What did I like most about the Philippines? Well, a lot of things! Beautiful beaches, quiet islands, fresh fruits, friendly people, to name a few. Each day, I thought about what it would be like to live here and thought about the five most compelling reasons I would want to move to the Philippines.

Mangoes Grow Year Round – Mangoes, undoubtedly, are my favorite fruit. I have been known to eat a lot (record 15 in one sitting)! Growing up in India, I use to anxiously wait for summers when mangoes were available. In the Philippines, there is no one season for growing mangoes. The tropical weather allows good quality production year-round. As a result, you can get fresh mango juice, fruit, yogurt, desserts and anything else you can think of. Dried mangoes from Cebu are world famous and even available in grocery stores across the US.

Coconuts Are Everywhere – Philippines is the largest producer of coconuts in the world. It is a spectacular sight from an airplane to see rolling hills full of coconut trees on many of the islands. Whether you are driving, walking or visiting a home, there’s a pretty good chance you can find a fresh sweet coconut readily available. Coconut water is good for circulation, blood circulation, skin, provides energy, healthy for the heart and helps with weight loss. Where else in the world can you find a superfood for only $0.20?

coconuts in philippinesFilipinos Have The Fountain of Youth – Well, not a fountain as such, but most Filipino look at least 10-20 years younger than they actually are. I asked a few people I met about the reason for their young appearance, and they replied that it was staying happy, always smiling and not stressing too much. “You must exercise your face muscles a lot” one lady told me. In fact, all of the Filipinos I met were very friendly and smiling all the time.

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Freshness in Seafood is Redefined – I have turned into a pescetarian over the years and when I walk into a restaurant, my eyes go straight to the seafood section of the menu. In the Philippines, many of the restaurants would display your choices of fish, lobster, crab, shrimp, sea shells, etc. (live in tanks or on ice). You simply pick out what you want and how much of it, and the chef does the rest. I ate the biggest king crab of my life (at 4 pounds), which was still alive when I placed my order.

seafood in manilaBudget Friendly Spas – Self care in the Philippines is a priority. Every mall, hotel and street corner has a spa, and most of them are no frills but offer really good service. Skilled professionals can do deep tissue, Swedish, or a local version of head to toe massage, leaving you totally relaxed. At $20 a massage, you can definitely afford to hit the spa a few times a week.

philippines spasPhilippines is an English speaking country. Even in the most remote places, people speak very good English, which makes it relatively easy to get around and interact with the locals. Other factors that make Philippines an attract place to live include – affordable cost of living, ease of finding domestic help, and year-round tropical weather. There’s also option to live in the bustling western capital of Manila with beautiful waterfront high risers, golf courses, international restaurants, and some of the biggest malls in the world; or at some of the isolated islands where you can enjoy quiet beaches, surf, swim, snorkel, and karaoke with the islanders at night.

 

Bonaire – The Dutch Caribbean Paradise

Located south of Aruba and 50 miles East of Venezuela, Bonaire is a small island in the Dutch Caribbean. It is part of the ABC islands – Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao. Bonaire is the smallest of the three, and the least developed when it comes to tourism, which is why it makes for a perfect travel destination for those who enjoy getting away from crowds.

WHY GO THERE

Turquoise blue water, picture perfect sunsets, Dutch Caribbean architecture, landscapes that vary from lush green hills to barren desserts doted with giant cactus, and not to forget some of the best dive sites in the world. If you enjoy nature, this is the place to be.

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WHERE TO GO

Kralendijk is the capital and the main city in Bonaire. It is located less than 10 minutes from Flamingo International Airport. With colorful buildings, downtown Kralendijk is a charming area with a cruise port (operating 6 months of the year), gift shops, restaurants and central amenities like tourist office, post office, police station, city hall. Surrounding residential neighborhoods and streets have theme names after musical instruments, names of countries, etc. making the city easy to navigate without many signs or even traffic lights.

Rincon is the only other city on the island. Once a town inhabited by the salt slaves who worked on the island, now Rincon is mostly a quiet residential area.

WHERE TO STAY

While there are a few dive resorts and small hotels in the area, you will not find any brand-name chain hotels or upscale all-inclusive resorts. The most beautiful hotel is Harbor Village Beach Club. Nestled on a private, four-acre peninsula, the charming Caribbean Bohemian style retreat feels more like a private estate than a hotel. Private villas and suites are surrounded by a burst of colorful flowers, yellow stucco facade, red terra cotta roofs, and golden tiled floors. Palm trees draw shade on to hammocks and beach lounges, while guests swim in the turquoise warm waters of the Caribbean. On the other side of the resort is a small harbor with a few dozen yachts and sailboats that would marvel any spot in the Italian Riviera.

At Harbour Village Beach Club, diving adventures are just steps away with Great Adventures Bonaire, the PADI five-star Instructor Development Center offering instruction courses for all levels, retail shop, a full range of services and daily boat dives from the Harbour Village dock. On site amenities include swimming pools, gym, spa and restaurant. Designed in the style of an antique Spanish ship with a dining deck located on a jetty extending over the water, La Balandra Restaurant and Bar offers diners a feeling of cruising while they enjoy daily fresh catch cooked with fusion flavors, paired with an extensive wine list.

Bonaire food

WHAT TO EAT

The restaurant scene in Bonaire is very eclectic. You can find authentic Italian, French, Indonesia, Cuban and Senegalese restaurants within walking distance of each other. Since immigrants from all over the world populate the island, there is a strong “international” culture blended in with Dutch and Caribbean. Here are some highly recommended restaurants:

At Sea – Rated #1 few years in a row, this cozy 1912 Bonairian house turned restaurant is run by a young French couple that share a passion for quality ingredients and breathtaking presentation. Each element of the plate is cooked to perfection and brought out as edible pieces of art. Enjoy daily changing menu served al fresco or inside the house.

Ingridients – Located at Buddy Dive Resort, Ingredients is a place to really treat oneself. Cool ocean breeze passes through the entire restaurant, as diners enjoy picture perfect sunsets. Diners can nibble on small plates of marinated olives, ham crostini, tuna tartare and tasty flatbread pizzas. Order the “pasta with cheese special” not listed on the menu and the server will cook tagliatelle tableside inside a 2 feet block of Italian cheese. It is a must try!

Bistro de Paris – The French food at this happening bistro located next to the harbor is some of the best you will find outside of Europe. Delicacies such as bouillabaisse Provençal, grilled tartine of snails, Foie gras, and frog legs are cooked to order by the French owner/ chef. Adjacent is an open air bar where locals hang out throughout the week.

Spice Beach Club – After a relaxing time at the beach, soak your feet in the sand, as you enjoy cocktails, typical Dutch snacks, and fresh salads. Spice Beach is a place where people come to enjoy the view, take a swim and chill through the afternoon.

Bonaire spice beach

Capriccio – This Italian restaurant in city center offers the largest wine selection on the island. It is go-to spot for homemade pasta, pizza and gelato in a relatively formal setting. Capriccio is also one of the handful of restaurants open on Sundays.

WHERE TO HAVE FUN

Twizy Tours – The coolest way to explore the tiny island of Bonaire is aboard a self-driven electric vehicle. Road Runner Bonaire offers tours of the North and South, which begin in the capital Kralendijk. South tour proceeds along the coast passing by famous diver spots, Cargill salt hills, slave houses, Atlantic Beach and Jibe City. On the way, you can stop to take photos, swim, dive, windsurf or kite board.

roadrunner bonaire

Washington Slagbaai National Park – A fifth of the island of Bonaire is a nationally protected nature sanctuary where visitors can spend an entire day hiking, walking, snorkeling, diving, swimming and bird watching. Expect to see more secluded beaches, caves, tall cactuses, giant windmills, goats, iguanas and hundreds of elegant pink flamingo parties. The geology of the coral island is also very visible inside the park, forming interesting patterns and colors, making it a photographer’s paradise.

Flamingos Bonaire

Rancho Washikemba – Horseback ride through a private ranch passing through cactus trees, dessert landscapes, open fields, and along the coast. Take a break at a secluded lagoon where you can go swimming with your horse. Rancho Washikemba offers horseback riding lessons, tours and parties and since horses are not native to the island, this is the only official, fully licensed and certified horseback riding ranch on Bonaire.

The Windsurf Place – Take a windsurfing lesson with one of the oldest companies on the island. Here you can rent gear and lockers, eat lunch, and practice on your own or with an instructor. The waters are warm, shallow and picturesque, resembling a vast swimming pool.

dive city Bonaire

Buddy Dive Resort – Beginner and expert snorkelers and divers will enjoy watching the underwater Coral Restoration project at Buddy Diver. Help plant, cut, and clean the coral farm, while enjoying a swim in the Caribbean waters. The dive shop offers classroom training, certifications and personal instructors. It’s a great way to give back your time and skills while on vacation.

Bonaire coral

Klein Bonaire – An undeveloped little island makes for a perfect day out. Pack your picnic and beach gear for trip to Bonaire’s west coast. Water taxis and dive boats transport passengers who want to swim, snorkel, or explore the beautiful beaches and clear blue waters. Some natives claim this is their favorite spot to getaway.

Mangazina di Rei – Visit this cultural center in Rincon to get a feel for Bonaire’s history. Aside from the nice views of the valley, you will also find a museum, gift shop, live music and interactive tours.

Bonaire culture

WHAT TO BUY

Sea Salt Bonaire – After driving around for a few minutes you know the island relies heavily on the production of salt as one of its exports. Run by a Dutch guy nicknamed “The Saltman”, this tiny shop off the main square sells everything made of salt. Boxes, tubs, salt mills, grinders, loose salt and bags of colored bath salt are available for personal consumption, gifts and souvenirs. You will also find Bonaire Sea Salt at most local restaurants.

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Elements – Here you will find handmade dichroic glass jewelry designed by South African, Charlene Bosch while her Italian husband, Gabriele Tixi manages the store. Shop from a vast collection of glass bracelets, earrings, pendants and household gifts. Themes of designs included Africa collection, Ocean collection Sunset collection and many more. Each piece is beautifully done and no two pieces looked alike.

elements Bonaire

Trinidad: Small but Diverse

The country of Trinidad, sometimes called the “rainbow island,” has a reputation of incredible diversity in regards to its music, food, and population. Located just eleven kilometers off the coast of Venezuela, Trinidad has a total population of 1.3 million. The makeup of its people ranges from African and East Indian, to European, and a variety of overlap of all of these. The main religion of the island is Roman Catholic, with Protestantism, Islam, and Hinduism also practiced.

Location of Trinidad
Location of Trinidad

History:

The original name for the island was “Iëre,” or Land of the Humming Bird, but Christopher Columbus changed it upon his arrival in 1498 to “La Isla de la Trinidad,” or The Island of the Holy Trinity. Today, Trinidad is a thriving Caribbean nation that bases much of its economy on gas-based export.

Although native Amerindians originally populated the island, Spanish, British, and French forces came to colonize it. They shipped the native Amerindians off to other colonies in the Caribbean to work and over time imported mass amounts of African slaves to labor on sugar plantations. After the British abolished slavery, indentured laborers were imported from India, China, and the Middle East. In 1889, England joined Trinidad to the nearby Tobago as an administrative ward, with which it stayed connected even after its independence from England in 1962. Over time, the descendants of the many non-native groups came together and fused their cultures, creating a melting pot that is the status quo in Trinidad today.

Culture:

All throughout the year, festivals take place that represent a variety of Trinidadian culture. Many of these festivals celebrate religious holidays, while others celebrate the traditions, customs, and music of Trinidad. The more popular religious festivals include Santa Rosa Festival, Christmas, Easter, Divali, and the Muslim celebration Eid Ul Fitr. There are multiple festivals that are based around the music of the Caribbean, such as Carnivale, J’ouvert and the national steel pan competition Panorama. In addition, the people of Trinidad also celebrate festivals pertaining to their history and customs, such as Emancipation Day and Arrival Day. No matter what time of year, there is sure to be a celebration happening in the streets of Trinidad.

Diwali in Trinidad
Diwali in Trinidad

Food:

The food of Trinidad is just as diverse as its population. Its history of colonization and labor importation led to a cuisine that contains a vast array of influences, including East Indian, Spanish, African, Chinese, and Middle Eastern. The most well known is Creole, a cuisine developed from robust stews and one pot comfort foods brought to the island by African slaves. Signature Creole dishes include pelau (a spicy dish consisting of meat, rice, and pigeon peas), macaroni pie (baked macaroni and cheese), and callaloo (a stew made with leaf vegetable, coconut milk, crab, chili pepper, lobster and many more). Another popular form of cuisine is street food, such as barbecue and jerk meats, homemade ice cream and coconut water.

Famous doubles with chickpeas
Famous doubles with chickpeas

Music:

Like much of the Caribbean, Trinidad has a lively music scene. Many varieties of music in Trinidad are a result of its historical influences, such as African and Indian based folk and classical forms. However, the mixing of cultures has led to the development of several indigenous forms of music as well, including soca, rapso, parang, chutney, and other derivative and fusion styles. The steelpan drum , a chromatically pitched percussion instrument made from  55 gallon drums that formerly contained oil and similar substances, also originated on the island. Oftentimes, local communities fuse the steelpan with international classical and pop music. The music of Trinidad provides something for every taste, once again illustrating the diversity of the culture of Trinidad.

Trinidad can be characterized as a beautiful Caribbean nation with a population whose spirit is just as impressive. The people are friendly and upbeat, and filled with a pride so strong that they celebrate almost constantly. The music, food, and ethnicity of the small island combine to create a culture that gives anyone visiting a vast amount to experience. I know I would love to see firsthand the diversity of this small Caribbean nation. On July 19, Go Eat Give is hosting Destination Trinidad at Tassa Roti Shop in metro Atlanta, where the public can witness live music, speakers and an authentic Trinidad buffet. For more information about this event, click here.

~ By Allie Williams, a recent graduate of the University of Georgia. Allie explores her passion for food, travel, and learning about different cultures though her internship with Go Eat Give.

The Lovely Laos Lifestyle

I enter Laos (pronounced Lao) at one of the less frequented border crossings from Thailand and arrive at the town of Pakse. With just one strip of hotels and restaurants, Pakse usually serves as a launching pad to other destinations in southern Laos. I immediately decide to take a bus to the 4000 islands. In an hours time, I find myself on a “minibus”, or rather, a large enclosed wooden crate on the back of a truck packed with 26 Laotians and me. Over the course of 3 hours we travel down a two-lane dirt road. The driver stops sporadically to let some passengers off, as others get on. Sometimes, the stop is merely to pass packages, food and animals through the crate. We are held up often because of traffic jams caused by cow crossings and pigs napping. Finally, we arrive at the “port” for the islands, which is a muddy pit with a rickety wooden boat attached by rope.

Workers planting seeds in the rice fields after the monsoon rains.

The islands get their nickname “4000” due to the innumerable sand islets that appear and disappear with the water levels, according to rainy and dry seasons. At one time, they served as an important link for supply lines between Saigon and Laos during the French Colonial Era. I settle on the north side of Don Det in one of the many guest houses offering hammocks that swing over the water. The Mekong isn’t swimmable, but that’s not why the islands attract visitors. It is the laid back atmosphere, the authentic view of Laos culture and the beautiful scenery that make the most southern destination in Laos desirable.

Buddhist Temple in Laos

Don Det is a fascinating place, I discover, as I ride my bike around the island. The path leads me along the river through small village communities where naked children run around in the mud with chickens clucking about. Buddhist temples are scattered through the villages, spotted by their brightly tiled images on white plastered walls. And all of a sudden, I find that I am completely surrounded by bright green rice fields for miles on either side. The monsoons have arrived, flooding the fields and filling the rice paddies with water. Workers bend over planting seeds or plowing oxen through the mud.

Guesthouses that line Don Det

I cross over a bridge linking Don Det with Don Khon. I end my bike ride at the Tat Somphamit and Khone Phapheng, the largest (by volume) waterfall in southeast Asia. The incredible sheer force of the water over large boulders and the expansive size of the river is breathtaking. If you continue on down Don Khon to the southern tip, there will be a view of Cambodia in the distance. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see the rare Irrawaddy Dolphin, unique to the Mekong, swimming through the water.

On my way back, I am stopped by a group of villagers. An older man explains to me, in French, that several trees have fallen over the road and no one will be able to pass until they gather enough men to lift them. They invite me to come sit with them and drink Laos Laos, an illegal rice whiskey used in small villages to welcome outsiders. So I sit on this fallen tree, on an island in the Mekong, with a group of Laos villagers, drinking whiskey, and marveling at my long day.

Tat Somphamit, largest waterfall, by volume, in Southeast Asia.

~ A San Francisco native at heart, Tess developed wanderlust at a very young age. Although she’s traveled extensively through America, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand, she continues to look for new adventures to blog about and now resides back in San Francisco. Follow her musings at http://tess-murphy.com and on Twitter at @Tesstravels.  

Read more posts by Tess Murphy

Galapagos Sea Lions

I was so impressed by the sea lions on the Galapagos Islands, that I decided to post a photo blog just about them. The first time I saw a sea lion in the wild was when we set out to board our Ecoventura cruise “The Letty” on San Cristobal island. All the passengers got very excited and started taking photos of the handful of sea lions resting on one of the abandoned boats.

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Little did we know that over the course of the next one week, we will be spotting more sea lions than humans.

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The Galápagos sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki) is a species of sea lion that exclusively breeds on the Galapagos Islands and – in smaller numbers – on Isla de la Plata, also in Ecuador. Being fairly social, and one of the most populous species in the Galápagos archipelago, they are often spotted sun-bathing on sandy shores or rock groups or gliding gracefully through the surf. (Source: Wikipedia)

sea lions1Both male and female sea lions have a pointy, whiskered nose and somewhat long, narrow muzzle. The young pups are almost dog-like in profile. Another characteristic that defines the sea lion are their external ear-like pinnae flaps which distinguish them from their close relative with which they are often confused, the seal.

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Breeding in sea lions takes place from May through January. The cow will nurture a pup for up to three years. In that time, the mom (known as cow) and the pup will recognize each other’s bark from the rest of the colony.We were able to see lots of pups chasing their moms, making demanding sounds and sucking on milk. The age of maturity for Galápagos sea lions is estimated at about 4–5 years. The total life span of Galapagos Sea Lions is estimated to be at 15–24 years.

When wet, sea lions are a shade of dark brown, but once dry, their color varies greatly. The females tend to be a lighter shade than the males and the pups a chestnut brown. Born with a longer, brownish-black fur, a pup’s coat gradually fades to brown within the first five months of life. At this time, they get their adult coat.

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Majority of the 20,000-50,000 Galápagos sea lion population is protected, as the islands are a part of the Ecuadorian National Park surrounded by a marine resources reserve. Although the Galápagos Islands are a popular tourist destination, strict rules protect all wildlife from disturbance. Their main threats come from el Niño weather events, sharks and killer whales.

Galapagos sea lions in front of light house

With a life that revolves around swimming in crystal blue waters, sun basking on white sand beaches, an occasional neck stretch and harmonious mates, what more can a Galapagos sea lion ask for?

World’s first four sustainable tourism destinations

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) has put together a brand-new set of criteria that will help put travel destinations, not just hotels, restaurants or airlines, on the path toward social, cultural, and environmental sustainability. Continue reading “World’s first four sustainable tourism destinations”