Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Of Sunrises and Sunsets

In February, Adrienne and I were lucky enough to be able to visit the wonderful country Myanmar, or as some people know it as, Burma.

I'd not really thought much about going to Myanmar before, it definitely wasn't at the top of my "Asia Travel Bucketlist", but after several of our friends visited the country, I started looking into it and was instantly convinced. "We need to go before it is overrun with tourism." I said to Adrienne. It didn't take much convincing, she jumped on board.

We began our trip in Yangon, taking in the sights and smells and sounds. The buildings really are quite beautiful, and such interesting architecture and colors. Of course, we had to start off right with a trip to the market in search for some authentic Myanmar skirts, and our trip was a success! Little did we know our traditional wear would be such a hit later in our trip!

Yangon Market 

Yangon Streets

After our first night bus, we arrived in Mandalay. The first thing I noticed (other than the sun rising) was the hustle and bustle. Everyone was moving quickly and everywhere you turned was under construction. They really are preparing for the tourism industry. We borrowed bicycles from our hotel and decided to see the city at a slower pace. First stop, the palace.

Mandalay Palace

The architecture was beautiful and the colors were vibrant. I quickly noticed the style of the buildings here was different than any other place I had visited before. After making our way around the city at a leisurely pace, and of course stopping for several photo shoots, we made our way to Mandalay hill where we hopped on the back of two local boys' motorbikes and were sped up the hill to see the amazing sunset, where we had the opportunity to speak with a few monks about their life, the quickly changing city and the need to quickly learn English. When finished, we zipped back down on the back of the motorbikes and couldn't crawl into bed fast enough after such a long and tiring day.

Kuthodaw Pagoda

Mandalay Hill

The next day we had planned a taxi tour of some of the outlying areas around Mandalay. Our driver picked us up early and we began the day with a trip to another temple, strolled around some buddha carvers (it takes 1 month to carve a buddha the size of your hand! I also found it interesting that only a vegetarian can carve the face) then made our way to the monastery where people gather to watch the monks as they line up for their lunch. This was actually quite a circus show and I felt slightly ashamed that we had been suckered into going. It was interesting to see some of their temperaments and attitudes, but it was unfortunate that they were being paraded around to make some money. To be honest, the verdict is out on whether I'd recommend going to see the ritual or not. I suggest reading up on some reviews and making the choice for yourself. But always remember to be polite and respectful.

Mahargandaryone Monastery

The rest of our tour was amazing as well. We ate one of the best meals on our entire trip (OMG delicious pineapple pork and orange chicken) and also got to see how the intricate detail it takes for weaving material. Our trip also included a stop at the famous U-Bein Bridge. We arranged for a boat to take us out onto the water after being rushed across it (we were running a little behind), but it was neither here nor there as the sunset was pretty non-existent. We took it in stride though and still had an amazing time people watching and enjoying our small boat ride.

Mandalay Taxi Tour

Silk Workshop

Hsinbyume Pagoda in Mingun

U Bein Bridge

The next day we were  out of bed before sunrise again to catch a boat ride down the river to Bagan. Yes, it took the entire day, but it actually turned out to be one of our favorite days during vacation. It gave us a chance to slow down, take in the beautiful scenery and catch up on some reading. After reading some reviews and tips, we boarded and quickly staked out some chairs on the upper deck that were under the roof, and were thankful we did nearly immediately after the sun rose. I still don't know how the people without cover survived the sun and heat. The trip was mostly uneventful, aside from a pair of ripped pants and an incident with bananas being tossed onto our boat (bananas can fly quite well, money for the bananas however, can not). When we disembarked, we were in the beautiful city of Bagan, giving us just enough time to grab some food before heading to bed in preparation for the next morning.

Mandalay to Bagan River Boat

February 12th. A day I'll never forget. We woke up to pitch darkness and quickly dressed to meet our old style hippie bus ride before being taken to a huge dark field where we were greeted with a table of hot tea and coffee. You would've thought we were out in a deserted field getting ready to tell ghost stories, that is until the sun started rising and we could see the outline of the huge balloons. We were quickly debriefed then split into our groups and taken to our balloons. Adrienne and I had sprung for an experience of a lifetime for this trip. A hot air balloon ride with Balloons Over Bagan. But not only that, we chose the premium service, and I wouldn't do it any other way. Watching the balloons being inflated and seeing them rise above the treetops was amazing. After we climbed in and listened to the safety instructions, it was time for lift off! And WOW it was HOT. Think about how much heat it takes to get one of those balloons off the ground. Then think about being right under those flames. But we quickly turned our attention to the beautiful site in front of us.

Balloons Over Bagan

While flying, we cruised at an average of 100 feet above ground, so we could see everything extremely well. Temples, homes and locals waving excitedly at us. It was such a serene experience, something I will never forget. After our (less than graceful) landing, what else do you do other than TOAST! The premium package not only includes a smaller basket for passengers, but it also includes a nice spread of champagne and pastries upon landing. After we had celebrated such a wonderful morning, we headed back to the hotel to freshen up before heading back out on a horse cart tour.

Balloons Over Bagan

Balloons Over Bagan

Balloons Over Bagan

Balloons Over Bagan

Balloons Over Bagan

The horse cart tour was extremely helpful. Not only were we protected from the sun, but we had the chance to speak with our driver about the history of the pagodas and the city of Bagan. He told us stories of his childhood and what it was like growing up in Myanmar, which was extremely interesting. So he took us around to most of the "important" temples, before taking us to a small temple to enjoy sunset with a smaller crowd than at one of the huge temples. Some fun memories of the day included getting swarmed by a group of around 20 locals for pictures (they literally SPRINTED from inside the temple to where we were in order to take pictures with us- it had to be the skirts) and arriving to a temple only to see a baby calf that had been born a mere 30 minutes before we arrived. Watching the sun set over the beautiful landscape of Bagan was beautiful, and completely worth the long day.

Our Horse Cart


The group that sprinted to take photos with us



Sunset over Bagan

Sunset over Bagan

Our next day we awoke early once again and met our horse cart driver to take us to the Shwesandaw Pagoda for another beautiful sunrise. This sunrise was unlike any other because we could see the hot air balloons sweep across the city. It was so interesting to see them dancing along the landscape, some soaring high and some hovering low. It was great to see it from a different perspective, having gotten to experience it the day before ourselves. Then it was back to our hotel for breakfast and a day of e-biking our way around the city to pagodas we had missed the day before. Don't let the e-bikes fool you though, they are easy to crash in the loose sand. Just ask Adrienne. After a long day, we of course ended with watching the sunset from another secluded temple.

Sunrise over Bagan



Our last day in Bagan we took it slow. We rented the e-bikes for a half day and made it to some lesser known temples, where we spent a lot of time relaxing, enjoying the view, and reflecting. This was until Adrienne cut her foot on some rocks and we headed back to the hotel to get patched up just before our night bus to Inle Lake where we arrived in the middle of the night. Bagan is a city with over 2,000 temples, pagodas, whatever you want to call them. But it was really interesting to see what each one had to offer. No matter how many pagodas we saw, each one had something unique to offer that made it different from the others.

After a grueling bus ride, we finally made it to Inle. We lucked out and the hotel let us stay in one of the open rooms for a few hours instead of sleeping on the floor in the middle of the reception with the other travelers.




Our first day in Inle was a relaxed one. We headed to a phenomenal Dim Sum restaurant that just so happened to be directly across from our hotel before renting bikes and heading to the Red Mountain Winery (which is aptly named and therefore difficult to ride a bike to). But the view was completely worth it, and so was the wine! We had a sampler each, then chose our favorite wine before grabbing a salad for dinner (so fresh and crispy!). We finished off the day with quick massages (note to anyone ever visiting Inle, do NOT try to go to the massage place that Lonely Planet recommends. It looked like a place that turns into a horror film).

Red Mountain Winery, Inle Lake

The next day was yet another sunrise, but this time it was on the lake! We hired a boat tour for the day that that took us around to several parts of the lake. It was quite chilly in the morning, but seeing the fog roll over the water and the reflection of the sunrise over the mountains really was majestic. We saw a beautiful weaving factory on the water that women use sap from lotus root to make thread (let me tell you, it seems like a very long and tedious process... it takes 8,000 lotus stems to make 1 scarf!) as well as a cigar factory and a floating pagoda. We also went to the "Jumping Cat" Monastery, however the cats aren't that jumpy these days. We were able to see some absolutely beautiful hanging gardens as well as the iconic fishermen that fish with huge nets and steer their boats with their legs.

Inle Lake

Inle Lake

The next day we took it easy, grabbing dim sum for lunch again before heading to the hot springs to soak away some of the dirt and grime that had accumulated. There, a group of guys told us about a delicious hot pot restaurant that we later tried for dinner.

Our final morning in Inle we spent getting absolutely wonderful massages and eating lunch at a cute little French restaurant. We then hopped back onto a night bus to return to Yangon.

There is one word that can summarize our last few days in Yangon. FOOD. We indulged ourselves in delicious Indian food (more than once) and found avocados the size of our heads (well not really, but almost) that we made delicious guacamole from, and a super fun cooking class with Harmoneat. We spent some time trying to chase down some festival performances, only to find out that they were a different day, spent the day wandering around a park, then we topped off our visit to Myanmar with none other than an evening at Shwedagon Pagoda.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Harmoneat Cooking Class, Yangon

Harmoneat Cooking Class, Yangon

Our trip to Myanmar was absolutely amazing, the food was a little disappointing but the wonderful people and amazing scenery definitely made up for it!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Let's get muddy...

A few weekends ago I finally checked off one of the first things that I had put on my "Korea Bucket List".... the Boryeong Mud Festival!

 I had been going back and forth between wanting to go and not wanting to go for 2 years. I'd heard great things and not so great things about it. Finally Adrienne decided to drag me along by force. I have to say, I'm extremely happy she did. Some of my friends had said it wasn't that fun. "There's a little mud puddle with a long line to roll in, and that's it," they said. "It's a big, drunken mess," they said. "It's all foreigners," they said.

Yes, there were lines. Yes, there was a mud "pool" place to get muddy. And "yes" it was full of drunk foreigners. But it was still a ton of fun. Luckily, the weekend we went was the last weekend and most of the groups had attended the weekend before, so that really helped with the lines and crowds. 

But the festival was more than just a mud pool. They had slides, games, staff throwing mud at you and hosing you down with cool water. But there were other festivities as well like live music and mud painting. I knew as soon as I walked up, it was definitely not the "tiny little mud puddle on the beach" I had painted it in my head to be. No, this was going to be fun. 

We ran in blow up obstacle courses. We climbed slides and enjoyed a mud "hot tub". We wrestled. We played mud soccer (well, it might have been more like we fell on our butts on the soccer field as the ball when wizzing by). We had a wonderful time. 

Oh, and the other great part.... the food.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Quick trip to Tokyo

I knew everyone always talks about Tokyo and the craziness it can bring. But I never expected the type of crazy that I encountered.

Before going, I had made a list of things to do and a general itinerary for each day since I only had a few days to see everything. Once I arrived, those itineraries promptly went out the window. Our trip centered around 3 things that were on our "must do" lists: seeing the tuna auction at the Tsukiji Market, visiting the Studio Ghibli Museum and taking a teriyaki chicken cooking class.Getting up at 2:30 am the morning after I arrived in Tokyo was difficult to say the least. I had tried to go to sleep early, but I had one of those "I know I have to get up early and should to go to sleep right now, so naturally I'm wide awake" nights that you have in college before a huge test. But I got up and drug myself out the door to meet Lolly to get a taxi half way across the city. 15 minutes later, we were running around trying to find the ticket line. Several of our friends had gotten up and tried to get tickets but failed, so Lolly and I got up extra extra early to ensure tickets. We finally found the ticket room, at at 3 am, 70 of the 120 tickets had already been given away. But we could rejoice! We were in!

 At 3:15 am, the tickets (aka vests) are nearly gone!

After waiting another 2 and a half hours, our group was guided through the parking lot full of fork lifts whizzing around to the auction rooms. The auction lasted for a short 20 minutes, but it was quite interesting. These buyers took the business seriously. Walking around with notebooks, flashlights and ice picks, they carefully inspected each slice of tuna under their flashlights and poked around the tender meat before scribbling notes then going to inspect the matching fish, chipping a piece off of the tail with their ice pick for a taste test.


After watching the auctioneer quickly sell off the huge, and expensive fish (the first fish of the year sold for $35,000) Lolly and I decided to follow the crowds to enjoy a sushi breakfast. An hour later, we were sitting in a tiny sushi restaurant in front of a sushi chef that spoke a little of at least 4 languages. We ate the most divine tuna, along with many other delicious types of fish.

Overall, it was an early morning, but totally worth it. I highly suggest ignoring the Lonely Planet's and all the other official online suggestions of arriving by 4 am, our friends took that advice and they woke up so early for no reason. The day we arrived, tickets were gone by 3:35.Our second (well my first) priority was going to the Studio Ghibli Museum. A few months ago, Adrienne, Marcelle and I made plans to go to the exhibit in Seoul. Having never heard of Ghibli, I had to binge watch his movies, and I instantly fell in love. The stories hold a lot of troubled issues, but also great lessons in life, along with wonderful relationships between characters. The story lines, along with the breathtaking art, had me instantly hooked. So when I got a chance to go to the studio and be able to see original works, I couldn't pass it up. Getting tickets though the Korean travel agent was a pain, but totally worth it. We had a chance to see interesting ways of making their artwork come to life, a 20 original short that was adorably cute and the intricate work that goes into making the perfect shade of each and every detailed color. Our two hour time block was a perfect amount of time to get lost in the beauty of the stories, and was a great escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Another travel activity that has become quite a tradition in my trips is taking a cooking class. Lolly and I had found a lovely woman that offers several different cooking classes from her home. Originally, we wanted to take a sushi class, but they were fully booked, so instead we signed up for the teriyaki chicken course, which ended up being really fun and delicious. We learned to cook Japanese traditional soup, chicken, noodles and dessert. It was amazing, and I can't wait to cook it again!


A pleasant surprise activity added to our trip was a night at the Robot Restaurant. Lolly suggested we go after a recommendation from a friend. At first, I wasn't on board to pay a $70 entrance fee to a restaurant (where you then have to pay more money for food and drinks) but after a little research I realized the "entrance fee" was for the show. And it was totally worth it. The show was absolutely the WEIRDEST thing I've ever seen. From Japanese girls dressed in weird clothes drumming in wigs to a gorilla hanging from a machine butterfly blowing up a warlord riding a dragon, it was an hour and a half of insane, craziness. But a craziness that I would recommend to everyone visiting Tokyo.


Aside from my favorite memories from Tokyo, we had other great memories too. Visiting the SkyTree and enjoying the beautiful view of the city over a glass of champagne, watching the insane amount of people cross Shibuya Crossing from the window at Starbucks, eating delicious ramen and sushi, taking in the beauty of temples and enjoying great people-watching in the park.

I have to admit, Tokyo might be one of my favorite cities yet!