• As my flight took off from Laos to bring me to Yangon I was filled with anticipation and daydreaming of the different sites and people I would meet. Myanmar, being much larger than Laos, had peaked my interest ever since I was a little girl and read stories of the country once known as Burma. This mystical  and very spiritual country with it’s grand temples and stupas.The flight was quite pleasant- I connected through Bangkok – and was in Myanmar in no time. I was met at the airport by my guide who would be with me for my entire stay. It was pretty late by then so I went straight to my hotel – The Strand. The hotel reminded me of Old World charm with it’s high ceilings and regal entranceway. My room was very spacious and comfortable. I slept very well.  The next morning, as I sat by the window of the hotel restaurant,  I was able to capture the vibrancy of the city as it was waking up. I was here! I still couldn’t believe it. I almost pinched myself.

    The city of Yangon has over four million people and filled with so much history. I met my guide and we began my adventure. As I walked down streets I felt the presence of the country’s faded colonial past. The former Post Office  – a wonderful structure –  was now  the playground for children.  Next my guide had a special treat for me. I was taken to a ceremony for the young boys who were to be initiated as monks. The food, music and people were welcoming and filled with joy for this special event.

    Afterwards I visited the Sule Pagoda, walked among locals at the Mahabandoola Park , wondered at the Kyaukhtatgyu pagoda – known for the reclining Buddha that measures 70 meters in length, continued to the National Museum  and Bogyoke Market. I ended my day with a visit to the stunning Shwedagon Pagoda where many locals and Buddhists come to pray. This was truly spectacular! With it’s gold spire reaching so high – it is said this was built  2500 years ago.

    Ok, so I had my first taste of Myanmar and loved it and now I ready for more. After an early breakfast I was taken to the airport for my next city to visit –  Bagan. Bagan, formerly Pagan, was the capital of several ancient Burmese Kingdoms. There are approximately 2200 temples remaining in Bagan. It is truly an amazing sight. You could walk for hours and  never tire of these beautiful structures. The temples interspersed with stupas was amazing.  That evening I climbed on top of a Stupa to see the sunset. The views were magnificent! As far as my eyes could see I saw the sun setting over numerous temples and stupas creating quite a vista of colors and shadows. I put away my camera knowing that I could never capture the beauty in front of me. It was indeed a spiritual experience!

    My next day in Bagan I was taken to Mount Popa – about 1.5 hour drive from Bagan. Rising 1,518 meters from the plains of the surroundings of Bagan this is considered the sacred home of the spirits. A visit to Taung Kalat temple, which sits atop like a plug in a volcano is home to 37 nats (spirits) of Myanmar, which are displayed at the base of the temple. Once I climbed to the top of  this temple the views were incredible ! They say on a clear day you can see the city of Bagan.  That afternoon a visit to Yoke-Sone-Kyaung is a must. Built in 1882 on the eastern banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River, this monastery is famous for its spectacular wood carvings.

    Well, always ready for more, after another early breakfast I was on a short flight to Mandalay. This city remains the economic, cultural and religious heart of upper Myanmar. A visit to Mandalay Hill, home to many religious sites and the memorable views from the 230m high summit then onto the Golden Palace Monastery famous for its teak carvings of Buddhist myths. Ending the afternoon with a stop at the Kuthodaw pagoda built in 1857 and home to the world’s largest book  and Maha Muni pagoda which is regarded as the holiest site in Mandalay.

    The next day was truly an experience. Amarpura , Ava and Sagaing are all former capitals of the old kingdom of Myanmar. I started in Amarpura, where the country’s largest monastery is located – Maha Ghandayon.  As I continued to walk I crossed the magnificent teak bridge of U Bein which is over 200 years old. It is the longest teak bridge in the world. Crossing the Ayeyarwaddy River I then headed for the picturesque Sagaing Hill.  This area houses an incredible amount of pagodas and monasteries and is home to over 3,000 monks and 100 meditation centers. It was so very interesting to see the monks and how they lived – their daily lives in all its simplicity. I watched as the monks cooked huge vats of food for their daily communal lunch and gathered together for the breaking of bread and prayer. It was like nothing I had ever seen before.

    That afternoon I boarded a horse carriage in Ava and took a ride to the wooden Bagaya Monastery and the remains of the Royal Palace.

    What a day!

    Ok now for the finale!! And what a phenomenal finale –  Inle Lake. This freshwater lake is Myanmar’s second largest and measures about 70km. Located at an altitude of 880 meters, the lake is also the highest in the country with a wonderful climate and fabulous flora and fauna.

    Beautiful homes on stilts, farmers in  their boats cultivating small above water crops , fisherman doing one leg rowing  were a few of the sites I marveled. As my boat came closer to  the hotel I was to stay, I noticed we were actually floating through lotus blossoms  before docking. The hotel-which was  surrounded by a cluster of  cabin like suites on the lake (which I stayed in one) had spectacular views of the rice paddies , sunset and sunrise.  That evening, as I sat on my deck, overlooking the rice paddies, I was so relaxed experiencing such an idyllic setting.

    My last day in Inle Lake was a full day trekking tour in the hills surrounding the Lake. My trekking guide, a young man ,who, when he smiled had teeth stained red from chewing betel , was an excellent guide. We started the trek through a village open air market  where we picked up some local fruits &vegetables(among other food items I hadn’t a clue) for our lunch . They we began our ascent. It was truly amazing! Once we were about halfway up (about 7 miles) we stopped at a small hut. The monk who lived here  took care of the small temple located not far from the hut. He offered us water and a place to rest – never speaking a word! The view of the lake was spectacular from this vantage point!

    After we filled put hearts and eyes with such beauty we then proceeded on our journey. Upon reaching the top of the hill  I was invited to eat at my guides friends’ family home. I must say I was very cautious climbing up the ramp to the home (the house was on stilts). The family had a very simple lifestyle  and was extremely  friendly to me. We shared a wonderful home cooked meal. I must admit I didn’t know what  I ate but I do know it was scrumptious!

    So my journey ended the next morning as I woke up at dawn to take the small boat from Inle Lake , which was about 20 minutes from where the car was waiting for me to whisk me off to the airport. Four changes of planes and approximately 24 hours later I was home, in New York, but I was still in Myanmar.

    It was the absolute best!!!!

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India. I had planned to take this trip once I retired since this vast country had so much I wanted to see but soon realized that this elusive word – retirement – would be a long time in coming. So when I was invited a couple of months ago to join a tour visiting Southern India I decided – quite quickly – this is my opportunity – to go with the flow. Wow, what an experience!

The flight over was very comfortable – I took British Airways – but oh what a journey. I went nonstop to London then connected to a flight into Delhi where I then connected once again to a smaller commuter flight to Kolkata – but it was so worth it. When I stepped off the flight it was on a Monday morning and as I was driven from the airport to my hotel I caught a glimpse of this bustling city. The colors, the people and the sounds were overwhelming as well as exhilarating. I couldn’t wait to start exploring this vibrant country. Once I arrived at my hotel – The Oberoi Grand – I considered how fatigued I was and realized I should rest for the remainder of the day since the tour officially started the following day. I wanted to be bright eyed and bushy tail for what was to come.

The next day I woke very early and looked out my window to see the city waking. I couldn’t wait to be in it. I quickly dressed, had a sumptuous breakfast of Indian delights and joined my small group. We started by driving along the filled streets of Chitpur Street in North Kolkata. Once we left the car we walked around the potter’s village where we saw the like size replicas of the various deities. The narrow streets and the many faces of India greeted us with smiles and warm welcomes. Then continuing to the College Street where we experienced the second hand bookshops and the history of the many student movements before stopping at the Coffee House – a local hangout for students. The coffee was strong and inviting and the atmosphere charged with the electricity of verbal rhetoric. I loved it! That afternoon we visited the Kali Temple – the Patron Goddess of Kolkata and the Victoria Memorial. What a contrast of the old and new!

The next morning we boarded a short flight to Bhubaneswar. This city boasts a history going back 2000 years. The next two days we explored the various architectures of the temples and scenery of this eastern state of Orissa. There are tribes that live in the remote and inaccessible forest hills which afforded them to preserve their tribal culture and religious customs. Visiting caves – we were able to visualize the ascetic and Spartan life of the monks. This region was truly interesting on its own.

After an amazing two days we were off to the city of Puri – the capital of Orissa. This city is known as the Temple City of India and is an important Hindu pilgrimage center. There are thousands of temples interspersed within the city dating back from the 3rd to century B.C. to the 16th century A.D. We visited the Puri beach which stretches along the Bay of Bengal where pilgrims gather to sell their goods and take a refreshing dip. We were able to visit the area’s Crematorium which was quite a sight to see. Two days in this remarkable city and we were off again.

We boarded a flight to our next city – Hyderabad. We were then taken to our hotel – or rather palace –for the next two days. The palace – Taj Falukmuma – was over the top! This 60 room palace – restored to its original grandeur – was exquisite! A blend of Italian and Tudor architecture this palace is shaped as a scorpion made entirely of Italian marble with furniture from Kashmir. French tapestries, Venetian chandeliers and grand frescoes abound. The gardens and views were exceptional. My room was almost as big as my house in the States. Wow factor big time!!! We explored the city where the highlight for me was the most incredible fort – Golconda – which is 400 feet above the plain. I climbed to the top which boasted an amazing view of the city. As we exited the fort there was a ceremony for one of the deities and we were caught up in the celebration with singing, dancing and foods prepared on the street. Laughter of the children and the excitement of the people was an experience I will always remember.

The flight to Chennai was the culmination of this wonderful trip. Chennai was the economic and political capital of the East India Company from the 17TH century onwards. Suffice to say this city was an important center for trade. We then drove one and a half hours to Covelong -a coastal village – where we stayed in a wonderful resort – Fisherman’s Cove. The sound of the ocean filtering into my room was so very relaxing. The grounds were peaceful and inviting. What a magnificent way to end a magnificent trip.

Did I forget to mention that the various foods throughout India were the best ever!!! Oh my – I had the most amazing culinary experience!!

 

Vietnam & Cambodia

This was definitely on my “Bucket List”. I had longed to go to Vietnam & Cambodia for years. What was stopping me? I had the time … what was I waiting for…so off I went.

What an experience!  I’m not going to sugarcoat the flight time- it was long – approximately 22 hours . After seeing numerous movies and eating many courses of exotic food I finally landed in Hanoi. As I stepped off the flight, the biggest smile on my face, I realized a dream come true. The bustling airport, followed by my transfer to the Sofitel Metropole in the city of Hanoi, I was astounded by the many motorbikes on the road. It was magical. The city zooming past me with the merging of the old and new.

My tour started in the North. The route I took included Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An , Saigon and ended in Siem Reap Cambodia. Each city with its certain flavor.  The Tour Company I used, Trails of Indochina, was the best in this part of the world. The tour guides were knowledgeable and engaging and made the trip a most memorable experience.   

We made the trip from Hanoi to Halong Bay (approximately 3.5 hours) by motor coach. Once we arrived we boarded a boat, a deluxe junk – Jasmine – for a night’s stay. What a treat! The bay was magical with thousands of limestone islands rising from the waters. Our cabins were comfortable and the service was outstanding. Once I was settled a group of us went for a kayak trip through caves which brought us to a grotto so serene and peaceful- I was in heaven on earth. The sounds of the various birds and monkeys were such a delight. The next morning, rising very early, I went to the deck where I saw a dramatic sunrise amidst the mountains. Little fisherman boats were already on the bay for the morning hauls. Ahhhh!

  That afternoon we boarded a flight to Hue. Hue served as an imperial capital to the Nguyen Lords, a feudal dynasty which reigned from the 17th century to 19th century. The splendid emperor’s tombs, ancient pagodas and the remains of the Citadel, the city retains its Royal Charm. Our hotel, La Residence, was astounding. The massages that are offered are a bargain and the grounds superb. Again, service was outstanding.

Then on to Hoi An. We took a motor coach via Danang. The countryside was so beautiful and interesting as we passed through rice paddies and small villages. Hoi An was a prosperous trading port between the 17th and 19th century.  Today, this World Heritage listed ancient town has well-preserved buildings, pedestrianized streets and unique cuisine. One can also have custom-made clothes made for terrific prices and high quality in 24 hours.   I stayed at the Nam Hai located on the China Seas. The décor and landscape were magnificent with villas boasting their own private endless pools.

We boarded a flight to Saigon , a bustling town where a 2 hour drive will take you t the CuChi tunnels. I attempted the crawl through these tunnels but beware, it’s not for the faint of heart – but extremely interesting part of history. That evening, back in Saigon City, we had dinner at the former Ambassador to Vietnam Mr. Henry Cabot-Lodge home. Our Hotel, Park Hyatt, was again, superb and the service – amazing.

My final destination, Siem Reap , Cambodia. The flight time took about an hour from Saigon. When I first arrived at my hotel  – Amansara – the music that greeted (monks chanting) me was so peaceful I felt this was an appropriate place to end my stay. The ruins of Angkor Wat, Anghor Thom  and Ta Prom were so fascinating. It was unbelievable! I took and elephant ride through Angkor Thom and felt I was transported back in time. The last day of my trip I had a “Water Blessing” by a monk which was, by far, the highlight of my stay.

 My journey to Vietnam and Cambodia was everything I had dreamed it would be.  I will always remember and be thankful to  the people, their graciousness & hospitality that I experienced. This is truly a trip I would recommend highly

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Daily Morning Alms Giving to the Monks.

Daily Morning Alms Giving to the Monks

                  Wow Laos

                                                            The Beauty of Southeast Asia
 
 

 

 
Laos , a very small land locked country, filled with such a colorful and vibrant history and culture.
 
I’ve always had this fascination with Asia , specifically South East Asia, having traveled to Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. While planning my next foray into this region, the countries on my list were Laos and Myanmar – with their rich history of ancient grand Kingdoms and Buddhism widely practiced among the people . This culture has always piqued my interest. Ok, so it’s on the other side of the world…but here I go. I couldn’t find a traveling companion who shared my curiosity and enthusiasm– so – I go solo – and what an adventure it was! I did arrange my hotels and guides throughout the region (I’m not that bold ) beforehand-since I’m not the backpacker type of girl. I choose to go at the end of February through the first 2 weeks of March. This is actually the best time to go – weather is pleasant, balmy with plenty of sun.
 
The travel is intense…with connections and layovers the trip took 30 hours. I went from New York to China to Bangkok then onto Luang Prabang, Laos. I could’ve gone directly into Bangkok but I felt the need to stretch my legs and needless to say any way you slice it it’s a long journey. The weather was spectacular as I arrived into Laos – sunny and warm – with my guide right there waiting for me at baggage claim. My guide – Doua – would be with me throughout my sojourn in Laos. A soft spoken young man -his English understandable – we were off to a grand start. I later learned my Doua was originally from the Hill Tribe – his people a very integral part of Laos history. We then proceeded to my hotel – Villa Maly – a converted French home – which was small and quaint – beautifully appointed. As soon as I arrived I had a 2 hour massage (only $35!) , a wonderful meal of lightly curried vegetables and went to my room for a much needed sleep.
 
The next morning I woke about 5am to participate in offering alms to the hundreds of monks who walk down the streets. I arranged with my guide to prepare some food for me to give them as they did their morning ritual. I was among the many town people who do this every morning and was told this practice dates back many generations. It was an exhilarating experience. Afterwards, walking through the busy daily market ,I saw fresh produce, rice, fish, chicken, flowers , beans and a host of other foods being sold . I didn’t know which way to look first.
After breakfast Doua and I went to visit the many temples in the city. Lauang Prabang is a quiet little town with beautiful architecture. The small streets held the magic of the people. I enjoyed walking through town and seeing how the people lived – a culture so different from my own. That evening, after my guide left, I ventured into the center of town where a daily night market takes place as the soft melodious chanting of the monks filters from the temples nearby. The indigenous people from the smaller villages – artisans, wood carvers weavers and painters- offer beautifully crafted items for sale.
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The next morning was the full day tour of the Pak Ou Caves. Boarding a long tail boat the journey took approximately two hours upstream on the Mekong River. It was a gorgeous day and the water, so calm and serene, offered magnificent views. When I arrived at the caves I didn’t know quite what to expect but, as I walked inside, I was surrounded by over 4,000 Buddha statues. It was amazing! The statues had been assembled there for centuries. It is considered disrespectful to destroy a Buddha image so now this has become a sacred site.
On my last day in Laos I went to a Hill Tribe. Approximately a 3 hour drive from Luang Prabang ,the village is home to the Tai Lu minority who had migrated from China in the late 18TH century. The homes in the village are all built on stilts. I was honored to be invited to lunch in one of the villagers home. It was a’ Zimmerman’ moment for sure. The food – very tasty, my hosts – very gracious. It was truly a unique experience to be invited into their home and enjoy a home cooked meal.
 
Laos will always hold a special place in my heart. The people so gentle….Loved it…
 
Stay tuned for Part 2 – Myanmar!!
 

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Thinking beach today…..White sands..Sunny, warm…Of course with a cocktail!

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