A Travellerspoint blog

Sri Lanka

The final stop on our Asia tour!

sunny 35 °C

Click here to view our photos from site-seeing in Sri Lanka.

Like India, experiencing Sri Lanka can be somewhat of a sensory overload. The cities are alive with with tuk-tuks and buses, horns ablaze, whizzing down streets crowded with women in vibrantly-colored saris and men and school children in bright white robes and uniforms. The tantalizing smells of savory pastries and rich curries escape from roadside cafeterias, tempting even the most restrained passersby. Outside the bustling, polluted cities, the sights, sounds, and smells of the lush inland hills and the pristine, white sand beaches of the coast are equally, but refreshingly stimulating. Overall, the nation has that "island feel," the kind of peaceful, carefree atmosphere that only an island can generate, and one cannot help but feel immediately at ease even in the most active of city centers.

We began our tour of Sri Lanka in Kandy, a city surrounded by beautiful hills. Because Sri Lanka was the last stop of our Asia tour and also the site of our wedding, we decided to experience the country with a bit more luxury and style than we were accustomed to while traveling. As such, for our week in Kandy, we rented a cozy villa about 3 km from the city center on a scenic mountainside. The house provided a great opportunity for us to relax, prepare some home cooked dinners and barbecues (something we'd really missed since traveling), and enjoy the beauty of the Kandy plateau from the deck.

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We were tired from traveling and enjoying the villa, so we wound up spending more time in than site-seeing. However, we did visit the Royal Botanic Gardens, a perfectly-manicured, 147-acre site featuring over 300 varieties of flowers, spices, medicinal plants, and trees. We spent the whole of a beautiful, sunny day exploring the grounds, admiring the countless varieties of orchids and palm trees for which the gardens is known, inspecting the numerous unfamiliar species of plants, and picnicking on the lawn.

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The family that had rented the villa the week prior to our arrival left notes of their site-seeing ventures, and under their remarks about the gardens they wrote, "look up!" We didn't know what this meant, of course, so when we arrived at the gardens, we looked up. To our astonishment, the trees overhead were covered in bats. All throughout the gardens, we could see these little winged creatures clinging to the trees, and in some areas, our conversation was drowned out completely by the their piercing cries. Although it was mildly uncomfortable to be surrounded by swooping, shrieking bats, it didn't detract overall from our pleasant day in the gardens.

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Kandy is at the heart of Sri Lanka's "cultural triangle," an area that includes several World Heritage cultural sites. Kandy itself is famous for Sri Dalada Maligawa or Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. We weren't interested in seeing the temple per se, but we did time our travels to Sri Lanka to match with the beginning of the Esala Perahera or Festival of the Tooth, an annual event, which celebrates this treasured relic. Though we could only attend one day of festivities, this incredible Buddhist festival actually spans 10 days in total.

The Perahera wound up being one of the best cultural experiences of the whole of our time in Asia. It consists of nightly parades that include dozens of elaborately-decorated elephants, some of which are even covered in lights. The largest and most impressive elephant of course carries the tooth relic. Thousands of local people are dressed in ornate costumes, most of whom are dancing and singing or playing instruments as they parade through the city streets. There are also fire dancers, who put on an impressive performance of fire-throwing and acrobatics. We attended the first night of the festival and were shocked at how long the parade of people and elephants continued; it must have lasted close to two hours. There was so much excitement and energy from the performers, as well as spectators, that we couldn't help but get caught up in the thrill. It truly was an incredible experience.

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The only downside of our time in Kandy was an encounter with the cheeky monkeys that lingered in the trees outside the villa. We were forewarned that they could be a nuisance but would not enter the house despite a six inch gap between the wall and ceiling. However, when Colin went running one day, leaving Leah alone in the house to do her writing, the quietness of the house coupled with Colin's rapid departure created the illusion that no one was home. Apparently aware that there was a bowl of fruit on the kitchen counter, three little monkeys climbed into the house, startling Leah, who was sitting nearby. The monkeys, too, we're startled, obviously unaware that someone was home. The monkey that had climbed down closest to the fruit, furry arm outstretched toward a banana, met Leah face-to-face with a look of shock, horror, and guilt. Leah reacted the way any person that discovers monkeys in her house would: she screamed. The monkeys subsequently turned and scrambled toward the gap in the wall. From that moment on, Leah insisted on never being alone in the house.

From Kandy, we continued our tour of the cultural triangle in Anuradhapura, a famous site of well-preserved ruins of ancient Sri Lankan civilization. We spent the day wandering from site to site, inspecting the stone remains of what were once impressive temples, a palace, and a monastery. We were completely in awe of two massive pagodas, which were easily more impressive than those of Bagan, Burma. Some of the stone relief work on the ruins was incredible, far surpassing even the artistry of Prambanan and Borobudur in Indonesia. Artifacts from these excavated sites are displayed in a nearby museum, which is definitely worth a look.

The greatest site of Anuradhapura, however, is one massive stone boulder that was carved to display five Buddhas in various positions. Although we've seen countless stone Buddhas throughout Asia, never before had we seen something as unique as this. The sheer magnitude of the boulder was awe-inspiring, never mind the craftsmanship of its many carvings.

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Our next stop on the triangle was Sigiriya, famous for the ruins of an ancient palace and fortress built atop a massive rock. This singular rock juts some 400 meters out of an otherwise flat landscape and as such, can be seen from miles around. We even had the luxury of viewing the rock from our hotel pool.

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We explored the network of gardens and reservoirs surrounding the rock before beginning our ascent. Although metal stairs have been built to accommodate tourists, one can still see the old, narrow steps carved into the rock face that would have been a normal, albeit terrifying, ascent for the ancient king and his court.

About halfway up the rock there is a cave featuring a handful of frescos that remain from some 500 original. These incredible paintings, depicting female figures, have inspired visitors for centuries to inscribe poems and verses in the adjacent Mirror Wall. Although most of the wall's inscriptions have since weathered away, the local museum offers translations of the original text. The content of the writings ranges from romantic to spiritual to comical.

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The final ascent up the rock is at the Lion's mouth. Although it was once a massive lion carving, now only the paws remain. At the top of the rock, in addition to stunning 360 degree views of Sigiriya, it is fascinating to see the ruins of the palace. The king's stone throne remains, but our particular favorite was the massive swimming pool carved into the rock.

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From Sigiriya, we traveled to Negombo. We checked into the amazing Ranweli Holiday Village in Waikkal where we were married on July 31, 2012. Click here to see our wedding photos.

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Although we didn't do much site-seeing in Negombo, we did enjoy some hotel entertainment in the style of the Perahera (complete with fire dancers!), performed by the same group of dancers and singers that conducted our traditional wedding ceremony. We also took a boat ride on the river that separated our island resort from the mainland and had quite a few relaxing days poolside and on the beach.

Overall, Sri Lanka is an incredible country, rich with culture and history. Although it was the perfect end to our six months of travels between Korea and the West, we do look forward to a return visit when we can further explore all the country has to offer.

Thanks for reading our blog! We are currently in the process of deciding our next move, so stay tuned for a record of our adventures in another continent!

Click here to view Sri Lanka site-seeing photos.
Click here to view wedding photos.

Posted by colinandleah 04:22 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

India

sunny 40 °C

To view all the photos from India, click here.

India was one of the most fascinating countries we've visited. It was unbelievably rich with culture, the sights were literally awe-inspiring, the people were incredibly friendly and accommodating, and of course the food was delicious. Initially we weren't sure if we would go to India because of horror stories, mostly involving scams and stealing, we heard from fellow travelers a few years back. However, since we left Korea we've met so many people that love India and highly recommended it that we couldn't resist.

We only had three weeks to explore India, which was unfortunate since the country is so large. However, it is monsoon season in much of the country, and the rest is suffocatingly hot. So, our options for places to visit (comfortably) were limited anyway.

We crossed the border from Nepal at Sonauli. We were fortunate to get train tickets to Varanasi, though we did not have assigned seats and were forced to share a bench designed for four with a family of seven. However, we managed to score seats by the window, which made the otherwise hot, long, and uncomfortable journey slightly more manageable.

We arrived in Varanasi too late to do any exploring, which would have been impossible to do after dark anyway. Much of the town is a maze of narrow streets lined on either side by trinket and silk shops and restaurants. (For the entire time we were in Varanasi, we had to constantly ask for directions to and from our guesthouse, which was at the center of the maze.)

We settled into our guesthouse and went for dinner at its rooftop restaurant. We met several friendly travelers all of whom were ecstatic about being in India. Still weary of our decision to go, Leah asked one man why he likes India so much. His reply was that the country is full of surprises. "Every time I leave the guesthouse," he explained, "something crazy and unpredictable happens." Several people offered examples of such experiences, including one girl that had been randomly stopped on the street and offered a free lesson in how to milk a cow.

The next morning we set out hoping for a similar surprise adventure and were immediately befriended by two guys that offered to show us around. We were aware that they were probably touts, but we were willing to follow them nonetheless. They showed us around the cremation site, which Varanasi is famous for, explaining all of the meaning and history behind the site itself, the cremation ritual, and nearby temples and monuments.

Varanasi is the city in India where deceased Hindus are brought to be cremated. Shrouded bodies are carried through the streets (we saw several) in a procession of mourning family and friends, laid on a pile of logs alongside the river, then set afire by the eldest living son or father. The body burns until only one piece remains, which is subsequently placed in the river. Hindus believe that the river water is holy and generates good karma. As such, people pilgrimage to this site to bathe in the water, despite the presence of human remains. Locals also use the river for cooking, drinking, laundry, bathing animals, and depositing trash. It was a strange and surreal sight, but we were fascinated.

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After our tour, as expected, our newfound friends asked if we wanted to go to their place to meet a family member, a herbalist that dabbles in spices and oils. This is probably the point where we would've said no if our touting friends were wanting to sell silk or gems, but we were interested in learning about different herbs and spices used in Indian medicines and cooking.

The experience wound up being very rewarding. We learned a lot from the medicine man about oils and their medicinal purposes, sampled some chai made with seven different spices, and even learned a little about Indian cuisine. Overall, the time we spent with our local guides lived up to India's reputation amongst our guesthouse companions for being full of surprises.

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Also in Varanasi we took a boat ride along the river, which offered a fascinating new perspective of life (and death) along the ghats. The boat ride concluded just after sunset with a river view of a Hindu prayer ceremony that is conducted nightly. It consisted mostly of several men offering incense and candles in a kind of ceremonial dance, set to the sound of drums. This was equally as interesting.

Because it was the high traveling season in India, we had difficulty getting tickets out of Varanasi. We weren't in a hurry to leave per se, but with limited time, we knew we needed to keep moving. Our only option for traveling directly to Agra was the swanky 2AC class of the train. This was a completely different experience than our first journey had been, complete with sizable beds, and linens and pillows in an icy cold cabin. Albeit expensive, this truly is the way to travel in India.

We only stuck around Agra long enough to see the Taj Mahal, which is basically all this otherwise dirty city has to offer. The Taj was absolutely awe-inspiring and far exceeded our expectations (especially having visited so many amazing sites over the course of this journey). The architecture is stunning, but we were most impressed by the marble inlays that created beautiful, sometimes colorful patterns and floral designs in the buildings.

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The only downside to our visit to the Taj was that everyone and their brother wanted to take photos with us. Although we're used to this to some extent, having lived in Asia for so long, it was pretty out of control at the Taj, and we made some enemies by turning quite a few people away. Several people didn't even bother to ask if they could take photos, and just shoved their cameras in our faces. Overall, this soiled the experience, but we loved the Taj nevertheless.

After Agra, we took a surprisingly comfortable non-a/c sleeper bus to Jaipur. The people on our bus were so friendly, and when we made the mandatory dinner stop, one man insisted on purchasing our food.

Jaipur was a great little city, and a perfect example of where old meets new in India. Much of the city was surprisingly clean and well-developed, a noticeable change from most of the places we've traveled. Even though we had been loving Indian food, we checked into the only cheap guesthouse in town and went straight for the McDonald's (don't judge until you've lived in Asia for five years). Not surprisingly, the menu did not offer the usual beef options, so we settled in with some comfort food of Western-style spicy chicken burgers and a side of chili fries that can only be found in an India McDonald's.

Our guesthouse was located close to the old city, so our first day of sightseeing on-foot was mostly of old city gates and palaces. Part of the region we explored, the aptly named "Pink City," consists of several old buildings all of which have been painted pink. This region is also famous for its many rows of bustling markets, specializing in shoes and jewelry.

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Another day in Jaipur was spent exploring the nearby Amber Fort, which is actually a centuries-old former palace lived in by maharajas and their families. It was absolutely incredible and we spent hours exploring the many old rooms, courtyards, and a seemingly endless maze of hallways that never seemed to lead anywhere. We were amused by the old sauna room and Colin immediately jumped into an empty stone pool for a pretend scrubbing. Leah was shocked to see toilets inside the 400 year-old building since indoor plumbing is still not common throughout the region today (or at least that's our assumption based on our experiences in Nepal, as well as seeing several Indian men using the streets as toilets). Just when we thought we'd seen the entire palace, we stumbled upon a second, equally-large and impressive palace, which was apparently the original (the second one built later). Surrounding both palaces high in the mountains, there are several actual forts as well.

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Overall, we spent several days in Jaipur, admiring its many beautiful, old buildings, dodging traffic along the bustling new city streets, and indulging in some excellent curries and kebabs. Although chaotic, it is a must-see on the list of impressive Indian cities.

Following Jaipur, we headed to Amritsar, home to a beautiful golden Sikh temple that bustles 24-hours a day with pilgrims that travel from all over the country to hear the teachings of the gurus. Although we did not indulge, food and accommodation on the marble floors is free, so hundreds of people stay there for long periods of time, meditating, praying, listening to the teachings that blare from loud speakers across the temple grounds, and bathing in the waters surrounding the temple that are believed to be holy. All throughout the temple grounds are gurus, bearded men in turbans that study the teachings of Sikhism from behind glass walls. The religious fervor of the temple patrons is felt everywhere, and on many occasions we were approached by people who were excited and even insistent on speaking to us about the temple. We found it interesting and visited during the day and at night when it was almost gaudily lit up like a Christmas tree.

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Down the road from the temple is the site of a British massacre that occurred during the occupation when a couple hundred people were brutally gunned down in the courtyard outside their homes. Although the site is currently a well-manicured memorial park, several of the brick walls of the old buildings still remain and one can see the bullet holes. Also still standing is an old well where several people jumped to their deaths while attempting to avoid getting shot. Although the museum itself is unimpressive and fails to really explain the events surrounding the massacre, the park is nice and offers an interesting slice of history.

The real treat in Amritsar, however, is the border closing ceremony at Attari/Wagah. This is the border that India shares with Pakistan, and everyday the two countries put on a spectacular display of chauvinism. On the Indian side, the performance begins as several spectators are chosen from the crowd to run the length of the ceremony site holding the nation's flag. Following that about 100 people are allowed out of their seats to dance, and for awhile the ceremony resembles a scene from a Bollywood movie. Meanwhile, the crowd of several hundred more hoot and holler, and repeat various nationalistic chants that are amplified through loud speakers. A similar display of nationalism can be heard from the Pakistan side, although the views are obstructed by the fence, and the two countries seem to be in competition for who can be the most patriotic and spirited. The final people to cross the border from India to Pakistan that day are then ushered through the gate to welcoming cheers. On the day we attended, several more people then arrived to greet the newcomers. These people seemed to be of special rank or significance, though we're not sure who they were. As the cheering and chanting continues, one by one, the soldiers march, moving with bravado but kicking their legs so high it's almost painful to watch. With the border between the two countries still open, the soldiers from both sides meet at the gate, posturing toward one another in staged unison. It really is an astonishing display. When the grandiose bullying finally dies down, soldiers from both sides slowly lower their respective flags and, just as the sun is disappearing behind the Pakistan bleachers, the two flags cross one another in a symbol of harmony. The flags are folded, the gates closed and locked, and the ceremony ends. It is incredible.

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From Amritsar, we took a bus to McLeod Ganj, the site of the Dalai Lama's government in exile. It is a small mountain village but a strong political and spiritual center, and the place that several Tibetan refugees now call home; it is truly a special town. While we were there, we visited the temple of the Dalai Lama, though we were unable to see his living quarters. We were hoping for the opportunity to see him speak, but apparently he was away while we were there. Instead, we attended a lecture from a Tibetan refugee that suffered two gunshot wounds at the hands of Chinese soldiers while protesting the Chinese occupation of Tibet. On the run from soldiers, this man lived with untreated wounds in the mountains for almost fourteen months before escaping to India. His story was fascinating and heart-wrenching. Equally so, the local museum offered a detailed account of the events surrounding the occupation and the Dalai Lama's self-exile, as well as memorializing the several protestors that have self-immolated. It also gave a glimpse of Tibet pre-occupation, showing actual money, passports, and postage stamps, as well as several beautiful photos. McLeod Ganj was a wonderful place and should not be overlooked by travelers to India.

Our final stop before Delhi was Bir, a tiny little mountain village comprised mostly of Buddhist monasteries. We went because it is a famous site for paragliding, which we are anxious to try, but unfortunately the weather and newly-enforced restrictions made that impossible. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our time in the mountains, exploring the monasteries, and taking walks through the nearby forests.

We decided to head to Delhi with only a day to spare before our flight to Sri Lanka. Neither of us wanted to spend much time there, as we hadn't heard good things and are generally pretty burnt out on big, dirty Asian cities anyway. We didn't do much sightseeing, but we did attend an evening performance by a 10-member Sufis music group that played some instruments we've never seen nor heard before. Their music was great, despite that it was constantly interrupted by sermon-like talking, which we of course did not understand. Nevertheless, it was a final cultural treat on top of an incredibly rich three weeks in India, a country that is definitely full of surprises.

To view all the photos from India, click here.

Posted by colinandleah 23:06 Archived in India Comments (0)

The Annapurna Circuit

20 Days in the Himalayas

sunny 35 °C

To view all the photos from the Annapurna Circuit, click here.

The Annapurna Circuit is an amazing trek, one that should not go unconsidered by visitors to Nepal. The ever-changing landscape was endlessly beautiful and serene, and walking for days among some of the world's highest peaks (and climbing to one of its highest passes) was exhilarating. The route is connected by several small villages that we spent our afternoons exploring, getting a taste of mountain life, meeting several interesting locals, and learning about Nepali and Tibetan cultures. At night, we slept in village guesthouses where accommodation was cheap (sometimes even free) provided we ate dinner in the adjacent tea house. As such, we got to try a lot of delicious local foods and had a fair share of tea as well.

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Although it can certainly be conquered by anyone willing, the Annapurna Circuit is not without its challenges. There were times when it seemed impossible to continue, if for no other reason than because we were so worn out from previous days of walking and hiking 15 - 20 kilometers. Nevertheless, over the course of our 20 days in the Himalayas, we conquered the Thorung La pass, took the "death-defying" side trip to Tilicho Lake, and completed a fair amount of the trek on foot. We did it without a guide, a decidedly unnecessary added expense as the path is well-marked (thanks to an overly enthusiastic German trekker, who also wrote a small book -available in PDF- on the trek). We also did the trek without a porter, strengthening our bodies as well as our resolve.

We kept notes of our adventures, particularly any unusual or special sights and experiences, which are outlined below. We hope this will give our readers a taste of our experiences, as well as serve to inform any future Annapurna Trekkers of what to expect, where to stay, how much to spend, what to try, etc.


Day 1: Kathmandu to Besisahar (bus)
Besisahar (820 m) - Bhulbhule (840 m); 9 km (walk)

As per our usual style, we opted to take a local bus. This proved futile, as we were charged almost twice as much as the locals, and probably about the same amount as what the tourist buses charge. When we tried to argue with the ticket seller, he said he charges foreigners more because "they have big bags." Of course, given that we were embarking on a 20-day trek in the mountains, our bags were not exactly oversized, but that didn't seem to matter. Getting ripped off soured the bus ride, though it would've been pretty terrible either way (save an overeager and amusing young bus attendant whom Colin described as a "keen young lad").

The trip took around five hours including the multiple stops which are characteristic for this region. Our first stop was a "bathroom break," though the toilet was actually just a slab of concrete which drained into a ditch and was partitioned off by a thin plastic sheet. Open-air "toilets" are not uncommon in Nepal, but we opted not to go just the same. To our dismay, the next town we passed through (but didn't stop) had a large sign proudly thanking visitors for stopping at the "open defecation-free model sanitation zone."

Unlike most other Trekkers we met along the way, we decided to start our journey on foot in Besisahar as opposed to taking a bus or jeep to Bhulbhule. Although the walk was along the infamous road (hence why most people hop on a bus), we enjoyed the warm-up, as well as the numerous friendly locals we met along the way. To our annoyance, every child we passed asked for candy or chocolate, so many thanks to the early Annapurna pioneers that set the precedent by showering the locals with sweets (that was sarcasm). Needless to say, we did not hand out goodies, which is strongly discouraged by ACAP anyway.

Though the first day's trek didn't last too long, we happily settled in Bhulbhule for a quiet dinner with lovely river views and an early night's sleep.

Guesthouse: Heaven Guest House, 150 r (dbl room)
Features: friendly owner; overlooks river/valley; old wooden structure with charming halls/rooms; decent shared shower
Recommendation: mint tea with homegrown mint

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Day 2: Bhulbhule (840 m) - Syange (1100 m); 13.5 km
Highest Point: Bahundanda (1310 m)

A lovely hike with an ever-changing landscape, the highlight of day two was a walk through numerous corn fields and charming villages. We also saw lots of waterfalls, which were the most beautiful in Ghermu. We had an excellent lunch at "Top of the Town" restaurant in Bahundanda, which boasts proudly, "not recommended by Lonely Planet." Following Bahundanda, there is a steep descent with epic walls of rice paddies on either side.

Guesthouse: Anju Guest House, 150 r (dbl room)
Features: hot shower; friendly staff with cute kids; clean sheets and comfortable beds
Recommendation: fried macaroni and yak cheese

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Day 3: Syange (1100 m) - Tal (1700 m); 11.5 km

We awoke in Syange with clear morning skies and stunning mountain views. To our amusement, during our trek we passed multiple herds of donkeys that were being used to transport various goods through the mountains. We also passed other Trekkers for the first time. We deviated from the main route, following a NATT trail up and over a small mountain along a stream. In his summary of the circuit, the German described this as a "romantic forest walk"; Colin and Leah disagree about this description, which basically just solidifies Leah's point that the alternate route was not romantic. :-)

Much of the afternoon was spent going up and down a long, steep, rocky path, and walking along the edge of a dusty cliff. This was actually quite a difficult climb, mostly because of the blistering heat. It was also discouraging, because every time it seemed like we were making progress, having climbed 400-500 meters, we dropped back down again. The final ascent to Tal was up a steep, rocky path that was created as the result of a landslide. Tal was unimpressive, a village comprised mostly of guesthouses, save a massive waterfall that provided a nice backdrop, but we were tired so we stayed.

Colin Fights a Monkey
When we first arrived at our guesthouse in Tal, we decided to have dinner at a picnic table in the garden. Just as we sat down, a monkey came walking up the path. The guesthouse owner and several of her neighbors smiled in amusement at the monkey, so we had no reason to believe it was hostile. Leah, like everyone else, smiled and watched the monkey as it meandered toward the guesthouse gate. All of a sudden, the monkey locked eyes with Leah, it's expression turned sour, and it began running toward her. As it jumped onto the picnic table, Leah jumped up and ran toward the guesthouse owner. Meanwhile, Colin stepped in between the monkey and Leah, and tried to intimidate the monkey so that it would go away. He did this by waving around a Nalgene water bottle that was secured to a strap. The monkey definitely did not like this posturing, and he lunged at Colin. Everyone watched in horror as Colin stepped back several times, still swinging the bottle, with the monkey jumping at him in an effort to bite or scratch. Finally, Colin took aim and smacked the bottle, which still had about 400 ml of water in it, square in the monkey's head. The sound was loud, and the monkey jumped back, stunned. It then shook its head vigorously and ran off. In shock and horror, we turned to the guesthouse owner, who shrugged and in broken English said, "I don't know this monkey. This monkey new to me." Colin was the hero of the hour.

Guesthouse: Potala Guesthouse, 100 r (dbl room)
Features: nice, clean room; friendly staff; cheap local beer; good food; great views of waterfalls from corner room
Recommendation: pumpkin curry with corn bread (as advertised on the sign)

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Day 4: Tal (1700 m) - Danagyu (2200 m); 10.5 km

This was a nice, easy day of trekking. The ascent was steady, though we opted to bypass other steeper, off-the-path trails, enjoying the smooth gradient of the road. We also passed under a couple of waterfalls, which offered a cool respite from the heat. We passed several porters carrying stacks of chicken cages on their backs, and were amused by all the birds poking their heads out of the holes of their wired cells. We discovered the ease of trekking with the aide of walking sticks (just in time for Leah's knees!), and are not ashamed of our continued reliance on them.

When we went in pursuit of lunch, we were amused to see how many tea houses cater to Koreans, with signs that advertise kimchi. With lunch, we got a show. We sat in the garden of a restaurant, and watched one of the owners chase and capture a chicken. He disappeared for a minute, and when he came back, the bird was headless. He then proceeded to feather and clean it in a nearby sink.

Guesthouse: Potala Guesthouse, 100 r (dbl room)
Features: amazing, HOT solar shower; beautiful rose garden; guitar for free use
Recommendation: yak curry

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Day 5: Danagyu (2200 m) - Bhratang (2850 m); 19 km

We awoke on day five to our first clear view of the Annapurna Himalayas. We followed the trail a steep 350 m ascent through a lovely forest. When we emerged in the quaint hilltop village of Timang, we were rewarded with breathtaking 360-degree snow-capped mountain views. We were truly in awe.

We decided to push for a long trekking day, enjoying the steady up and down hike. We saw a goat stuck high in a hillside tree, listening to its heart-wrenching cries for several steps. Leah got a fright when a herd of goats emerged from seemingly nowhere, charging straight at her. And we saw what is decidedly the world's most beautiful football pitch with the Himalayas providing a nice backdrop to the field.

We stopped in Chame, debating whether to stay or push on. Despite that this is the first major village between the start of the trek and Manang and offers many conveniences, we thought it was too big, dirty, and the people were rude. Old Chame, on the other hand, was a charming village, and we enjoyed walking through it en route to Bhratang.

Again we deviated from the circuit, following NATT trail signs along a 3 km walk through a shaded forest with a soft bed of pine needles under our feet. On our left, we enjoyed views of the Annapurnas the whole way, as well as several gushing waterfalls.

Guesthouse: Raju Hotel, 200 r (dbl room) ... If you arrive at dusk, like we did, she won't negotiate the room cost because she knows you're not going anywhere else. Also, it's the only tea house in town.
Features: great, old farmhouse-style stone building; bucket shower (probably with cold water... We don't know because we didn't use it); very, very nice host and hostess; wood burning stove in comfortable common room, which provides nice heat throughout the night
Recommendation: cheese fried macaroni, mint tea with enormous tea leaves

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Day 6: Bhratang (2850 m) - Ghyaru (3730 m); 12 km

We awoke in Bhratang to a clear view of Annapurna II, which we followed for much of the day. We also walked along the "soup bowl," which is basically a massive, smooth, bowl-shaped slice through the mountains created by a glacier. The views of the soup bowl were especially stunning from the valley below.

We stopped in Lower Pisang to look at some interesting houses and talk to a man that was selling jewelry and metal works outside his home. From there, we followed a forested path toward Ghyaru, passing Emerald Lake and with the views of Annapurna II ever-expanding around us. We crossed an unusually long suspension bridge, then began our final ascent, a steep 470 m climb. We were greeted at the top with the best views yet.

Guesthouse: Yak RU, 100 r (dbl room)
Features: very welcoming, kind people; adorable old woman cook/hostess; great food; hot bucket shower (our first experience!); interesting old 2-story stone and wood building with rooms that look down on a wood stove; menu with local food
Recommendation: cheese fried potatoes, local noodle dish

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Day 7: Ghyaru (3730 m) - Manang (3540 m); 15 km

We awoke to the same stunning views of Annapurna II and III, though the clouds quickly moved in. We enjoyed a cliffside walk to the small village of Ngwal, where we stopped for breakfast, passing multiple prayer walls and stupas. From Ngwal, we descended along a steep, cliffside path that was scary, sleek and dusty. We continued through a valley with many unusual rock formations on one side and views of the Himalayas on the other. The landscape was surreal, though hot, dusty, and windy. We rested in a park with views of Braha, a beautiful cliffside village with old stone buildings. We watched a horse family graze, and we were amused by several local toddlers who managed to create their own slide out of a stair railing.

We arrived in Manang in the early afternoon. We had been following signs to this town since day one, as it is a main hub and the recommended place to spend a day acclimatizing. Although we expected a more bustling city center (not unlike Chame), we were pleased to see that it is actually quite a small village. We settled in for our day of rest, washed our clothes, and washed down yak burgers with some local wine, which is basically like soju or sake.

Guesthouse: Mountain Lake, 100 r (dbl room)
Features: adorable baby kitten; big room with warm blankets; good facilities for washing clothes (laundry service is also available if you prefer)
Recommendation: salad!

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Day 8: Acclimatization Day in Manang (3540 m)

This was a fairly uneventful day. We mostly just wandered around the village, rested, and tried some new, interesting foods.

Recommendation: bean cheese burritos at Yak Motel (not your ordinary burrito)

Days 9 - 11: Side Trip to Tilicho Lake

Along with four new friends, we decided to take a recommended side trip to Tilicho Lake, which is allegedly the highest lake in the world, though a later Internet search seemed to dispute that claim. Our trek, which deviated from the main circuit, spanned three days and was a very challenging but rewarding experience. We're not sure how many additional kilometers this added to the overall trek, but our estimate is that it was about 30-40. It took three days, because at such high elevations, it was so difficult to breathe that we were moving slowly and sluggishly. Additionally, we both had difficulty acclimatizing despite the extra day in Manang. Tilicho Lake is a large, beautiful, crystal blue icy lake that sits at an elevation of 4900 meters, but we climbed to over 5000 to view it from above.

The first day we walked slowly, enjoying the clear skies and beautiful views, and exploring a village and monastery along the way. We decided to stop early in the afternoon in Sri Kharka (4165 m), which turned out to be a wise decision since the rain and snow came shortly after our arrival.

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The following morning we set off for Tilicho Base Camp (4200 m). Both the German and the guide book warned that this portion of the trek was dangerous due to landslides. What we did not expect, however, was that much of the trek was on a very narrow, rocky path that cut straight through the massive landslides. The landslide area was very steep, so basically we had the threat of falling rocks above us and a horrifying 500+ meter drop below us. Although we did not encounter any heavy landslides, we had to be on constant alert. At times, when the rocks did start to fall, we had to run along the narrow path to avoid getting hurt. The path was sometimes only as wide as a shoe. At other times it disappeared altogether, and we had to create a new path in the soft rock bed or literally jump to the next visible section. It was a very surreal and terrifying experience, and not one that Leah cares to relive in words. We'll let the pictures do the talking. (Hint: That tiny little line that cuts through the landslides is our path.) Needless to say, we arrived at the base camp, alive and (physically, but not emotionally) well. Leah feels she owes her survival to our newfound friends, Enrico and Libby, who helped her through much of the trek.

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On the third day, we left our bags at the base camp and ascended to over 5000 meters to view the beautiful lake. Unfortunately, we could not enjoy it as much as we would've liked since the sudden 800 meter ascent and thin air brought on symptoms of elevation sickness. We refilled our bottles with freshly fallen snow, snapped a couple photos, and started the descent before the feelings of sickness became too unbearable. However, before we left, we had the extraordinary experience of witnessing a massive avalanche in the mountains that surrounded the lake.

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When we returned to the base camp, we learned that during the previous night, a snow leopard had visited the camp and killed one of the owner's yaks. Although this was a devastating blow to him, he happily fried up some fresh yak meat and we had a taste. Although we'd tried a minced yak and veg burger and curry made with dried yak meat already, tasting the fresh meat was definitely a treat.

We stayed a second night at the base camp and spent the rest of the evening recovering from the trauma of our ascent, drinking tea, enjoying the warmth of the wood stove, and watching the yaks, some of which were only a few days old, roam the grounds (on our trek to Tilicho we also saw numerous deer, field mice, and various species of birds, including vultures and falcons). We also mentally prepared ourselves for the return to the circuit... Back along the landslides.

Day 12: Tilicho Base Camp (4200 m) - Yak Kharka (4070 m); ?? km

Our return to the circuit meant crossing over the landslides again. This time it was less traumatizing, though still slightly nerve racking and potentially dangerous. Nevertheless, we survived. Having done this portion of the trek already, we felt slightly more comfortable and were therefore able to appreciate the views much more. Moreover, the sky, which had been overcast on the way to the base camp, was crystal clear, and we were able to see the Annapurna Himalayas once again. Jutting out of the mountain on our left were numerous massive rock structures that were absolutely stunning, and the river below sparkled majestically.

We retraced our route only as far as Sri Kharka, where we had stopped the first night. From there, we picked up a new trail that led us to Upper Kansar. This village was the highlight of the day, comprised mostly of small stone and mud houses that were eerily abandoned. In fact, it seemed like most of the houses had been converted into barns, because we could hear the cries of goats coming from within the structures. We wandered around the town looking for any residents, but found only a small stable with adorable baby cows and goats.

On the absence of residents, we developed two theories: First, we suspected that perhaps everyone had moved to (lower) Kansar, and converted the old village into stables. Because there were cows and horses grazing in the nearby fields and all of the animals looked healthy and well-cared for, we assumed that the farmers ascended the small mountain daily from Kansar to Upper Kansar to feed the animals. Our second theory was that all of the residents had left town, traveling to Yak Kharka to gather mushrooms for sale to the Chinese. These popular mushrooms, which are believed to be an aphrodisiac and are used in Chinese medicine, sell for as much as $100 per mushroom. As this was the season for mushrooms, we suspected that the residents had gone in pursuit of them. Either way, it was interesting to wander through this beautiful, old ghost town.

From there, we had to hike up and over a mountain that offered distant views of Manang from the top. Following the descent, we crossed the river again, and hiked up a much smaller mountain. When we arrived at the top, we were surprised to walk onto a wide, open field with a prayer wall and monastery in the distance. We crossed the field and were connected once again to the main Annapurna path. After almost four days off the path, we stepped onto the road with feelings of mixed enthusiasm and disinclination. Nevertheless, we set off toward Yak Kharka.

While walking, several local men in their early 20s passed us with a goat on a leash. They were friendly and seemed excited about their journey and the goat, which they were obviously pampering. Having already hiked over two mountains and what was probably about 15 km, we were moving slowly, and the boys quickly disappeared ahead. About an hour later, just outside the village limits, we saw a roaring bonfire. As we approached, we saw that it was the same group of boys gathered around the fire. To our horror and amusement, the goat was now headless and, as we passed by the fire, we saw one of the boys toss the entire carcass, fur and all, onto the fire. We would've stopped to further investigate, but it was getting dark and we needed to find a place to sleep in the bustling little village. The next day we inspected the bonfire site and found remnants of the dead animal, which the boys had obviously been excited about consuming.

Guesthouse: Gannapurna, 150 r (dbl room)
Features: strict owner (makes you eat all your meals at her tea house), but very good cook; standard rooms and toilets; blankets are not very warm!
Recommendation: yak steak, veg burger, salad, real bread and rolls

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Day 13: Rest Day in Yak Kharka (4070 m)

Worn out from our side trip to the lake, wishing we'd spent a second day in Manang acclimatizing, and enjoying the bustle of the mushroom village, as well as the company of our traveling companions, we decided to spend an extra day in Yak Kharka. The village was quiet during the day, with most people off gathering mushrooms in the nearby hills. However, they left their children roaming about, and we were amused by the tiny, filthy little babies that ran and played all around us. Leah had to resist the urge to throw them all under the community water tap and scrub them down, however, as it was obvious most of them had not been cleaned for weeks.

When the adults returned in the late afternoon, the town took on a very different energy. The people poured into local restaurants that had been preparing tibetan bread and lentils all day, washing down these cheap delights with local brew. Then the selling and trading began, as mushrooms were exchanged for big wads of cash or livestock. With their pockets freshly lined, the men then formed massive circles and the dice began to roll. The gambling and general excitement lasted for much of the evening.

Recommendation: Dhading Laxmi is a great little restaurant that serves cheap local food and booze up the street from Gannapurna GH

Day 14: Yak Kharka (4070 m) - Thorung Pedi (4450 m); 6 km

Back on the main circuit, we were shocked at how easy it was compared to the steep, high climbs and challenging landslide walks of our side trip to Tilicho. Our trek to Thorong Pedi was smooth and easy. We stopped once to rest at a small mountainside tea house with a friendly owner. We passed through a landslide area, which was a breeze compared to Tilicho. Overall, it was a nice, easy day.

Guesthouse: Base Camp Guesthouse, 150 r (dbl room) <-- not sure if this is the correct name, but it's the only guesthouse regardless
Features: the in-room toilet was the only real highlight
Recommendation: hard to recommend any one thing, since the food is pricey and not very good, and everything (even the sandwiches) is made with chapatti

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Day 15: Thorung Pedi (4450 m) - Thorung Pass (5416 m) - Muktinath (3800 m); 16 km

We awoke before sunrise, had a mediocre breakfast, then watched the first light appear across Annapurna II. The sky was crystal clear, which was exactly what we'd hoped for, and the views of the Himalayas stayed with us to the top.

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The first part of our trek was a steep, zig-zag climb to the high camp. It was cold, but not too difficult. From there, we headed toward the pass and the higher we climbed, the more difficult it became to breathe. By the time we made it to the top, we were out of breath and moving slowly, but this of course did not deter our excitement. At the pass, we had views of the Annapurnas on one side and the Muktinath Himalayas on the other. It was exhilarating to be surrounded by so many of the world's highest peaks.

After some time of taking photos and enjoying the views, we began our descent. It was long, steep, dusty, and hot, and we had the misfortune of battling terrible headaches brought on by the steep ascent/descent and a lack of water. This was later remedied by friendly passers-by that happened to have headache medicine, as well as the cool refreshment of homemade apple juice at a tea house. Nevertheless, eventually we arrived in Muktinath, a surprisingly large, sprawling town. Accessible by the road, which we thankfully had not seen in several days, Muktinath is fairly developed. In dizzying awe and annoyance, we passed several motorbikes and jeeps, multi-story buildings, and shops and artisan stands. We were soon greeted by the welcoming cheers of all of the friends we had made along the way, who found each other at a local guesthouse. The "I conquered the Thorung Pass" party had already started on the rooftop, and we were soon swept into the excitement and celebration... This of course lasted for two days.

Guesthouse: Hotel Bob Marley; free with food purchase
Features: a backpacker's dream!; amazingly clean, comfortable, even decorated rooms with great blankets; hot, powerful shower; western toilets!; delicious food... This place cannot receive enough praise!
Recommendation: EVERYTHING (but the fajitas); chicken caesar salad was a personal favorite

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Day 16: Celebration Day in Muktinath (3800 m)

Along with our friends, we stayed another day and night in Muktinath. We spent a large part of the day exploring the town and surrounding area, and most of the evening celebrating with a Nepali favorite, Bagpiper's Whisky.

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Day 17: Muktinath (3800 m) - Kagbeni (2800); 10 km

Eager to get back on the path after so much downtime, we set off just the two of us. However, before we made it out of Muktinath, we witnessed what was most likely a funeral procession. There was a large group of women in traditional Tibetan dress, each of whom was crying or wailing loudly. We watched the group break apart and several monks emerged, each playing an instrument. The procession of monks disappeared down the street, and we moved on.

We took a trail to the nearby village of Jharkot, passing an adorable three-day old calf. Later we saw a newborn calf within minutes of its birth (literally... the afterbirth was still coming out of the mother cow while she stood nearby munching some grass, seemingly unfazed). Jharkot itself was really interesting with beautiful old stone buildings at the foot of a large monastery, and we spent a long time exploring and taking photos.

Following Jharkot we picked up the road once again. It was wide, open, and dusty, and the sun beat down as we moseyed along. Behind us we could still see the outline of the pass, which offered an incredible sense of accomplishment. However, in front of us the landscape started to change; the picturesque snow-capped scenery was replaced by endless barren, brown hills, a far less inspirational view. The tranquility of walking in the mountains, which we had grown so accustomed to, was shattered by the occasional jeep or motorbike that came barreling up the road, honking obsessively and covering us in dust. All around us were strange bugs that twirled like helicopters and were constantly flying into our faces. As we approached Kagbeni, we got caught up in a massive wind storm, literally unable to move as the force of the wind threw us about. We fought against it, seizing small windows of opportunity when the wind died down to descend the steep trail to Kagbeni. By the time we arrived, we knew we didn't want to walk on the road anymore.

Like Jharkot, Kagbeni was a great village for exploring, which we spent most of the afternoon doing. There was a seemingly endless maze of narrow streets, and we wandered through them, getting lost but enjoying the aesthetic of the buildings, homes, tunnels and bridges, and monasteries. Although Kagbeni is technically in Mustang, we stumbled upon the sign which forbids travelers without the necessary special permits from crossing any further into this otherwise forbidden Tibetan land.

Guesthouse: Asia Trekker's Home; 100 r (dbl)
Features: clean, comfortable, spacious rooms; attached bath with hot shower; be aware of the obnoxious dog that playfully bites and will muddy your clothes (the owner thinks this is hilarious)
Recommendation: honestly, the food was pretty bad

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Day 18: Kagbeni (2800) - Jomsom (2720 m); 9 km (walk)
Jomsom - Ghasa - Totaponi (1200 m); 34 km (bus/jeep)

Having decided not to continue the trek on the road, we decided just to walk a quick nine kilometers to Jomsom to pick up a bus. This basically just solidified our decision, since the walk along the road was just as miserable as the previous day despite a delicious early morning breakfast at a local Kagbeni favorite, Yak Donald's. Jomsom was even bigger, more developed, and more chaotic than Chame or Muktinath had been, and thankfully we caught a bus out quickly. The route to Ghasa didn't offer any change in landscape, as we followed the same brown, barren hills, thus further confirming that we weren't missing out on much by ending the trek early. The ride itself was long and bumpy, and the 30 km distance took several hours.

When we arrived in Ghasa we waited an hour and a half to take a second bus on to Totaponi. At the last minute, we were switched to a jeep and crammed in with fifteen other people. The remaining few kilometers, which took almost two hours, was in pouring rain, which just made the ride that much more uncomfortable (and at times, scary). Our driver, who could not have been more than seventeen, blared Hindi techno as he tore down the road, swerving to avoid massive potholes, and turning sharp corners without so much as a horn to warn oncoming traffic. We had to drive through two different waterfalls, the second of which created such a deep pool of water that we nearly got stuck. We arrived late in the evening in one piece but a little frazzled from our day on the road.

Guesthouse: Himalaya Hotel; 100 r (dbl)
Features: attached bathroom with hot shower; very big menu with good food; nice rooftop garden with beautiful views of river/mountain
Recommendation: chef's salad

Day 19: Hot Springs & Trekking Around Tatopani (1200 m)

We were pleased to see that the scenery had changed drastically on the road from Ghasa. At this lower elevation, we were once again surrounded by a lush, green landscape in an almost tropical climate. There was so much life in the surrounding hills and mountains, and we were eager to explore. We decided to spend the day trekking around Totaponi. We followed a NATT trail into the mountains, which led us to the small village of Narchyang. Here, the people were friendly and the village was charming, and we spent some time wandering around.

Tatopani is famous for its hot springs, and as such, a favorite place for Trekkers to unwind. Following our day hike, we took a dip in the springs. Although we were still debating whether to push on and over Poonhill, the final 37 km of the circuit, this felt like a befitting way to end the trek. In the end, the soothing hot water washed away 19 days of limited showers, dirty clothes, squatter toilets, and countless kilometers on our epic trek through the stunning Himalayas.

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On day 20 we took the bus to Pohkara.

Click here to view higher quality photos and more shots of the Himalayas!

Posted by colinandleah 20:17 Archived in Nepal Comments (1)

Burma: Land of Wonder

Plus information for travelers on the nuisance that is kyats vs. dollars...

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To view the photos from Myanmar (Burma), click here. Or continue reading!

Burma: Land of Wonder

Myanmar (Burma) is the least developed country we've traveled in with the exception of Kenya for Leah, and in many ways it is like taking a step back in time. Most of the people live in small villages or towns, many without electricity. Villagers cook over wood fires inside their homes made of woven bamboo. Outside the cities, indoor plumbing is nonexistent. Oxen-pulled plows are used for cultivating land and in rural areas horse and buggy is the main mode of transport. The major roads and highways, although significantly better than anticipated due to very recent improvements, are often unpaved and uneven, making travel through the country long and arduous. Even the cities, albeit more developed than the countryside, are not exactly thriving metropolises. Most of the low, stone buildings are dirty and decaying, although the architecture can be quite beautiful. Electricity flickers on and off. Cars from the 70's and 80's whiz down cracked roads with little regard for order, filling the air with dirty exhaust. Garbage fills the streets and sidewalks, spilling into the open sewers. Filthy, barefoot children wait tables in street side restaurants, which offer plastic tables and chairs for dining on slow-cooked curries that simmer over barrel fires. Mobile phones are rare, but for a fee, calls can be made from telephones that sit on folding tables at most major intersections. Even as I'm writing this, I'm watching from my hotel window in Yangon as a goat wanders aimlessly down the street, which doesn't seem to be an unusual occurrence to passersby on foot and bicycle. Despite this description, however, it should be stated outright that Myanmar is easily one of the most amazing countries we have had the pleasure of experiencing.

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As soon as we arrived in Myanmar, a few things stood out. First, all of the men wear the traditional longyi, or sarongs. Women wear them, too, but it is especially unusual to see men wear them outside of Buddhist temples in Asia. Women and children wear beige face paint. It is applied as a kind of sunscreen to the whole face, but then more is added in big circles or other shapes on the cheeks and forehead because it is considered aesthetically pleasing. The men constantly chew "betel nut," which is actually an Areca nut rolled in a betel leaf. Chewing it is carcinogenic and stains teeth the color of blood; many Myanmar men have badly damaged or no front teeth at all from excessive chewing. Like chewing tobacco, you spit a lot, so we noticed it right away since men were taking turns spitting into airport garbage bins. Cars are outfitted with the steering wheels on the right, even though traffic moves on the right. Apparently, the government changed the driving side from left to right, but of course the cars haven't been updated to accommodate. Motorbikes were banned in Yangon, which is almost shocking compared to the whole of Asia, where they are absolutely everywhere. The streets are incredibly dirty. Although littering is a problem all throughout Southeast Asia, it was particularly bad in Yangon with massive piles of trash lining the sidewalks and spilling into the streets, inviting thumb-sized cockroaches and huge rats to thrive in the filth.

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Perhaps the most striking thing we noticed upon arriving in Myanmar, was the outrageous cost of petrol at an average of $4.75/liter (over $14/gallon)! As such, the country overall can be quite expensive, which also did not take us long to notice. Like anywhere, one can find ways to eat cheaply. Street food was as little as 12 cents for a piece of bread and a dollar for a decent meat curry. Clean, reliable restaurants, however, were much more expensive, averaging about $3 for a main. Beer was expensive everywhere at about $1.75/bottle. The real expense of traveling -transportation and accommodation- was unavoidably high. For obvious reasons, transportation costs were out of control. Taxis charged about a dollar per kilometer, and buses across country were about $15-20, which is expensive for Asia. Hotel rooms that would cost $8 or $10 for two people anywhere else in SE Asia, were anywhere between $15 and $25 in Myanmar. This is because the government either owns the "foreign-friendly" hotels or will only allow certain establishments to accommodate foreigners, taxing these places about 25% or more.

The money situation in Myanmar is strange and annoying. Any government good or service (hotels, tourist sights, etc.) can only be paid for in crisp, unfolded, uncreased US dollar bills, so for two weeks, we were forced to carry around a book to keep our bills flat and undamaged. Everything else (transportation, food, etc.) can be paid for in Myanmar kyats, which of course can only be purchased within the country itself in exchange for undamaged bills. (We planned to trade back our remaining kyats at the airport before we left, but the counter was conveniently closed... We donated it to the Red Cross instead.) Exchange rates seem arbitrary. Businesses collecting USD do so at a rate of anywhere between 750 and 820 kyats/dollar, which rarely reflects the current market rate.

  • *If you're planning to travel in Myanmar, despite what you've read or heard, make sure you carry more kyats than dollars, as you'll use them more. Change your money at the airport or banks and insist on the amount you'll need, despite their efforts at talking you out of exchanging what they consider to be "too much." Ignore Lonely Planet's advice of carrying small US bills and don't waste your time trying to track down crisp 5's and 1's (especially if you're in Bangkok, where it's basically impossible to track down dollars with so many people departing from there to Yangon). The bigger the bill, the better the exchange rate, so trade in your 100 dollar bills and keep a handful of 20's for hotel rooms.*

Despite some annoyances, we also noticed straight away how genuinely warm and friendly the people are. Also with the exception of Kenya, the Myanmar people were the nicest we've encountered on our travels throughout the world. People were always waving or shouting "hello" from passing bicycles or cars, or stopping us on the streets to chat or offer assistance. (Before anyone living in Korea makes comparisons, let me say that the Myanmar people were not pushy, and were less condescending in their approach, especially since it was obvious we were tourists and not fellow residents.) Even in hotels or other tourist spots, the people were unusually friendly and accommodating, a refreshing change from our experience with the tourism industry in Vietnam. Even those, mostly children, who watched us with skepticism, would break into bright, warm smiles if we smiled first. In many cases, we were invited into villages and homes, which gave us rare and precious glimpses of rural life.

This kind of warmth and hospitality is engrained in the culture. For example, while trekking, our guide stopped at random houses so we could cool off or use their facilities for cooking. When we asked what the homeowners were receiving in return, our guide looked confused and said, "nothing." He explained that it's just the way it is; if someone needs something, you give it to them. In our case, we needed a place to rest or cook, so naturally, the people opened their homes. It was a wonderful experience and a refreshing change from the self-centered mindset that dominates the West.

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Our travels in Myanmar were broken down into three major areas with a day on either side for sightseeing in Yangon (which, admittedly, we didn't do much of despite the interesting architecture and many massive golden stupas): Bagan, Mandalay, and Inlay Lake.

Bagan
Bagan was one of the most exhilarating places we have traveled in Asia, and an undeniable treat. The capital of the ancient kings, Bagan is home to some 2,200 Buddhist temples and pagodas which remain of the approximate 10,000 that were built between the 11th and 13th centuries. They dot the dusty, otherwise barren landscape as far as the eye can see, and we spent the better part of three days cycling amongst them, and exploring them in and out (sometimes even climbing them when permitted), in awe of the sheer number and in appreciation of their unique beauty. They are mostly made of stone, built in a similar, simple style. Almost all the temples house massive Buddhas, as per the usual Buddhist style, and the interior walls of many are filled with beautiful, centuries-old paintings, writings, or stone carvings. In our opinion, Bagan puts Angkor Wat to shame, made that much more enjoyable by the noticeable lack of tourists.

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Besides temple gazing and trying to catch the best sunrise/sunset views, we also had the pleasurable experience of privately touring a tiny, local village with one of its some 200 residents. We were even invited to attend the tail-end of a wedding reception, which consisted of the teenage bride and groom sitting at a wooden table while villagers presented modest cash gifts and ate creamy curried porridge and rice. We, too, were given bowls of this delicious local dish, and in turn, presented the newlyweds with a lucky US 2 dollar bill. Also in the village, we were introduced to a cigar maker, a woman easily in her 80s that sucked on a fat cigar rolled with tobacco, tamarin, and sugar cane in a banana leaf, while simultaneously producing smaller versions of this delicious treat for sale to locals (apparently the bigger cigars, about 10 inches in length and 2 in diameter are reserved only for old women).

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Mandalay
Following Bagan, we traveled to Mandalay, which, like Yangon, is a sprawling, dirty city that takes a great deal of patience and energy to navigate. The city is centered around a palace, which was unfortunately closed to foreigners. There is also an impressive number of temples and pagodas that fill the nearby hills, but aesthetically they didn't compare to Bagan. They were mostly white or gold, and were pretty dirty.

Although we didn't enjoy it as much as other parts of the country, Mandalay offered a lot by way of culture and history. We spent the better part of a day exploring three nearby ancient cities: Sagaing, Inwa, and Amarapura. The first offered the unforgettable experience of seeing 1,000 monks in line to receive their lunch at a monastery. Because they don't eat after 12:00 noon, the monks each carried massive clay pots that were filled with rice by local volunteers. They were also given some other foods to eat, but we're not sure what exactly. Some locals also handed out gifts of juice or other treats, as well as some small knick-knacks, but we noticed that these, while received with gratitude, were left untouched. The latter of the three ancient cities offered another experience that made our visit to Mandalay worthwhile, a 1.2 km long teak wood bridge that we walked with several locals at sunset.

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Inlay Lake
Out final stop in Myanmar, Inlay Lake, was amazing. We stayed in a small town alongside a river, and spent the first day cycling to nearby villages and exploring local monasteries. We were invited for tea and fruit by one monk into a monastery where he has lived for some odd 60 years. He was adorable, and we regret not asking to take his photo, especially since he seemed to be hinting at it. He definitely had a peculiar fascination with technology.

The following day, we had to rent a boat/driver to access the lake. We began our day by crossing the lake, moving in and out of tomato fields and small villages that were built over the water on stilts. Seeing these villages remains one of the highlights of our journey to Burma. We then stopped along the shore, visiting a bustling early morning market where all the usual goods can be bought or sold. It was most interesting to see the nearby mountain village residents selling bundles of wood (the hills surrounding the lake are almost barren of trees, since most residents make their livings selling wood). We were then taken on a whirlwind tour of various shops and factories, all built over the water, including a blacksmith, cigar maker, and the like. Most were fairly interesting, and we even got to see several Kayan women, who have elongated their necks with many rings.

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Following our lakeside adventures, we decided to go into the mountains for a short two-day, one-night trek. The hills were pretty, despite the lack of trees, and we enjoyed the walk, despite the scorching 46/115 degree temperatures. We spent the night sleeping on the floor of a nursery school, which was adjacent to a monastery. We were meant to sleep in the monastery itself, but another group of trekkers beat us to it. This same group of people also did not hesitate to turn the monastery grounds into a party spot, complete with booze, drugs, and a blazing bonfire. Although it made us a little uncomfortable, especially as the monks were hanging about, all the trekking guides and even a few locals treated it like a usual occurrence, joining in the festivities with some traditional dancing and music (many bongos and guitars seemed to materialize from who knows where). Overall, it was an interesting experience, though next time we'd probably prefer a quieter night of communion with the monks. Nevertheless, the trek offered a unique glimpse into local village life, and the opportunity for communion with many locals.

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Myanmar is an incredible country, and should bypass all other SE Asian options on anyone's list of places to go. Although we liked that it is off the usual tourist circuit, thus remaining relatively "undiscovered," it was such an amazing country that it wouldn't be fair not to recommend it to everyone. Our only regret is not giving ourselves more time to travel there.

To view all the photos, click here.

Posted by colinandleah 05:56 Archived in Myanmar Comments (1)

5 Days in Thailand

Plus information for travelers on Myanmar visas in Vietnam & Thailand

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To view the photos from the Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya, Thailand, click here. Otherwise continue reading!
Scroll down for visa information.

5 Days in Thailand...

Although we would've loved to spend a little time in Laos en route to Thailand, we had to get to Bangkok early to arrange our visas for Myanmar. We had tried to get the visas in Hanoi, but with no such luck (see below for information on Myanmar visas). We were flying from Bangkok to Yangon, Myanmar on a Sunday, so we decided to fly to Thailand from Vietnam on a Tuesday. That way, if there was a problem with the visa, we would have three full business days to sort it out. We got to the Myanmar embassy early on Wednesday morning and, because there didn't seem to be any issue with the visa, we decided to apply for the same-day service so that we could escape the city for a few days of rest before Myanmar. Having both been in Thailand before, and because after Hanoi we were burnt out on dirty cities, we weren't really interested in hanging about. (Not to mention, of all the countries in Asia, Thailand is probably our least favorite.)

There are not many nice beaches close to Bangkok, but we didn't want to travel very far, so we selected the least scary-sounding, Jomtien. It is adjacent to the much rowdier, Pattaya Beach, about 2 hours from the city. We didn't read much about either beach, but we knew that Jomtien was meant to be quiet and more family-oriented, while Pattaya seemed to draw the kind of people who go to Thailand to fulfill some very strange fetishes. While it's possible that there were families somewhere in Jomtien, what we mostly saw were Thai "lady boys" and Russian, European, and North American men in their 60's, 70's, and 80's hanging out in bars (sometimes with the lady boys on their arms). There didn't seem to be any other young foreigners or backpackers anywhere, and Jomtien itself, like Muine, Vietnam, seemed to be a Russian tourist destination, since most of the signs and menus are in Russian.

Because we consider ourselves adventurous and open minded, we decided to make the most of our stint in Jomtien. However, the first time we ventured out of the hotel, Colin nearly had his pocket picked by a foul-mouthed toddler. The beach looked filthy and overcrowded and cackling transvestites made it impossible for Colin to enjoy himself. Despite her Facebook promises, Leah did not actually feel comfortable photographing the scene. Food and drinks in nearby restaurants were unusually expensive. Long story, short, we mostly just stayed close to our hotel.

One day, however, we rented a motorbike and rode around for awhile. One of the major reasons we chose Jomtien was because it is nearby the Sanctuary of Truth, a beautiful, massive seaside temple made entirely of wood. There aren't even metal nails! We spent several hours exploring the temple and its grounds, admiring the intricacies of the wood carvings. The temple is not finished, so we were able to see some of the artisans at work. We learned that there are 200 people working on the temple, carving all of the massive wooden panels by hand. At the temple, we also enjoyed some traditional Thai dancing (although the show took an ugly turn when a shirtless, drunken Russian decided to have a go at the dancing).

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The Sanctuary of Truth really is an impressive sight, not worthy of words, so we have taken the liberty of posting some photos that show its many details (unfortunately, the weather was terrible and the photos did not turn out as we'd hoped... But you'll get the idea). As it is easily one of the most impressive temples we've seen (and we've seen a lot!), we highly recommend it, especially as a day trip from Bangkok. Aside from it, there probably isn't any other reason to go to Pattaya or Jomtien unless of course you're looking for the kind of party only befitting an aging drunken Russian.

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To view all photos from the Sanctuary of Truth, click here.

Myanmar Visas in Hanoi:
There is no point trying to get your visa in Hanoi. The people are rude and unhelpful, and the requirements are ridiculous. However, should you find yourself needing to arrange your visa there, here are the actual requirements as of late April 2012 (other blogs and websites do not offer the complete list, and we wound up not able to fulfill all the requirements, and were therefore denied service).
-Passport
-Photocopy of passport
-2 passport photos
-Proof of all accommodation during travel in Myanmar (we were told only the first night, but we in fact needed every night)
-Itinerary
-Letter from employer saying you are a good candidate for travel in Myanmar -or- a letter of invitation from a citizen/company in Myanmar
-Application
-Fee (not sure how much)

Myanmar Visas in Bangkok:
The process in Bangkok is smooth and easy. However, because this is where most people get their visas, you should arrive early in the morning to avoid lines. The embassy opens at 9. We arrived just after 8, and were about 50th in line. For same day visas, you need proof of next-day departure; however, they gave it to us because we said we needed to catch a bus out of Bangkok that evening. I think it cost just over 1000 baht for same-day. The people at the embassy are very friendly and accommodating. There is a copy shop about 500 meters from the embassy that will provide the application form and assist you with the copies and photos if necessary.
-Passport
-Photocopy of passport
-2 passport photos
-Application
-Fee (varies depending on same-day, next day, or two-day service)

Posted by colinandleah 04:05 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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