Myanmar – Every day is a highlight!

Since I’ve returned from South East Asia, people are continually asking me what was my highlight, where was my favorite spot. The best answer I can come up with is ‘All of Myanmar’. It amazes me to think back about my trip that was only a couple of months ago and think about this beautiful, largely undiscovered country.

Take for example the morning that a small group of us did a little photo tour to an area just outside the downtown area of Yangon. We walked for about 15 minutes and were outside of the business district, watching the city wake up and begin bustling with locals preparing a small market. We were there before sunrise and saw the monks lining up for their morning rounds and collection. I’m really not sure who was more curious, them or us. It is so incredibly interesting to go to an area where tourists are so rare that they actually become an attraction in the place they’ve gone to visit. I’ll admit, I was a bit shy, not knowing how to approach or talk to the monks, but soon enough I came to understand that they were happy to see us and happy to practice their English skills.

I wandered around taking a few photographs and then one of the locals invited us in to the monastery to enjoy a local breakfast. A few minutes later the group of us were taking off our socks and shoes and following the kind man into a large dining area filled with locals. Barely with our bums in the seats, local men and women were coming out of the kitchen area with various dishes in hand and filling the table with typical breakfast consisting of rice, noodles, fish soup and then sweet sticky rice came along a little later. They filled our bowls and when we were done, they immediately appeared to fill them up again. They certainly didn’t want us to leave hungry. These were the community members who came together to cook food for the monks at this monastery, but the monks were all out on collection at the time. After we finished our meal, we were surprised as the locals gathered around and wanted their photos taken with us. It was only my second day in Myanmar and I was already learning that tourists were as much of an attraction as the attractions were to the tourists.

Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon, Myanmar

With an open mind, even the simplest of pleasures can turn out to be a highlight of the trip. Similar to most, I expected extreme poverty. After all it is one of the poorest countries in Asia. To my surprise, our overnight bus from Yangon to Mandalay was beautiful, high end and even had a hostess on board. It was comfortable, with reclining seats to a much better decline than standard buses. Each of us was given a thick warm, fuzzy blanket and a hostess was available for questions and assistance throughout the night. On top of that, the recently built divided highway was mostly smooth sailing and despite the rain, I didn’t feel fearful or uncomfortable at all throughout the night. I just laid back and slept.

Most of the tours that are offered to Burma / Myanmar, range from 12 – 17 days. Sadly, I was on a shortened version and had to pack as much as possible into only 10 spectacular days. Because of the shortened itinerary, we had only one full day to explore that wonders of beautiful Mandalay. Although the core of the city itself isn’t really a highlight, there are lots of beauties to enjoy on the outskirts. A few hours to half a day can be spent enjoying the beauty, history and culture of the ancient U Bein bridge in Amarapura. Just simply watching the way of life, traveling by boat across the lake and then returning by walking across the 1.2 km ancient teak wood bridge. Along the way you can stop and taste local delicacies, take in the spectacular views and meet a few new local friends selling souvenirs.

Snacks along the U Bein teak wood bridge

Snacks along the U Bein teak wood bridge

Don’t be put off though, despite the fact that they are there to make a living and sell their wares, I found the local kids particularly respectful, friendly and interesting. We only had about an hour to spend, which was far too rushed for this beautiful spot, but in that hour I managed to take a boat ride to the middle of the lake and then return on foot across the bridge. I met a young girl who walked back to the main land with me. We chatted about her family, her schooling and life on the lake. Her English was excellent, she was friendly and she didn’t ask me to buy anything until we were nearly back to the main land. It was at this time that I bargained with her a little and purchased two necklaces … one with jade elephants and the other with amber.

We spent the remainder of our day in Mandalay crossing the Irrawaddy river to Mingun, a small community with some big claims to fame. The tiny community hosts the world’s largest bell (over two tonnes of iron), the unfinished, Pahtodawgyi pagoda and the beautiful Hsinbyume pagoda. We spent a couple of hours wandering around, visiting the sites and dodging rain, which came and went in fits and spurts. Although the rain slowed us down a little as we waited for it to stop under the cover of a big leafy tree, it certainly didn’t ruin the experience and I wouldn’t change it for a second and replace it with a mass of tourists. I’d much rather travel in green season dodging a bit of rain than dodging hundreds of tourists. Having said that, it’ll be quite some time before Mingun sees hundreds of tourists at one time.

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Possibly the largest and best known attraction in Burma is the community of Bagan where they boast over 2100 pagodas, temples and structures in 42 square kilometers. The desert landscape dotted with structures of all shapes and sizes is absolutely spectacular. Take the time to see it at sunrise and sunset; it is truly spectacular. You can spend hours biking amongst the structures on dirt roads winding through ancient old Bagan. But, beware of the heat. Make sure you have sunscreen, lots of water and a hat to keep the sun off your face. Although the land is nearly flat, the heat adds it’s own challenges to your physical abilities. Stop often and discover as many of the structures as you can. Each one is unique and the art and architecture will amaze you time and time again.

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After enjoying the beauty of Bagan for a couple of days, we were off for a short visit to the Mt. Popa area. Mt. Popa is a volcano and an area that you can hike, but we simply passed over and twisted around the big mountain with a stop in the community to hear about the spiritual nats that are worshiped at the pagoda atop a mountain. Oh yes, and to meet the cheeky little Macque monkeys that scatter the town. If you have time, you can climb the 777 steps to the beautiful monastery at the top of the mountain, but beware as the monkeys live and play along the way, so I hear it is dirty and smelly.

Our next stop was a lovely lunch and visit to an elephant conservation camp. Hearing the story of how the organization started and how they have retired five or six elephants from the lumber industry to live peacefully and well taken care of until the end of their lives was inspirational. This organization has purchased these elephants, each of their handlers (Mahoot) and the Mahoot’s family. Not only have they given the elephants a respectful home, but also have created a community and schooling for the Mahoots and their families. We had the amazing opportunity to feed the elephants banana snacks and then help bathe them in the river. They are so large, yet so quiet and gentle. I stood mere inches from their mouths, which were big enough to swallow me whole, and I grinned ear to ear with excitement the entire time.

Last, but not least, we visited beautiful Inle Lake, which had different, yet incredible feel. As you can imagine, life on a lake is quite different from life on land. From the local market that we visited to the leg-rowing fisherman balancing on one leg on their flat boats, to the craft industry workshops – seeing the local way of life was eye-opening and incredible. Again, we were a bit rushed as our trip was a condensed version, but we managed to see the highlights and even take in the largely undiscovered and quiet Indein where there was not another tourist to be seen amongst the many hundreds of stupas and structures. Magical is not a word strong enough to describe the experience.

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At the end of the trip we asked if it was possible to visit an orphanage or monastery and arrangements were made for our last evening in Yangon. We made a donation to the orphanage and had a tour of where schooling takes place, where the children sleep and the communal areas. Then we had the amazing opportunity to dish out food as the young monks gathered for supper. Young boys as little as four years old walked up to the serving area perfectly mannered. If we gave them too much of something, they politely put a portion back. It was a great lesson in humility and understanding to only take what you need and leave the rest for someone else. Of course, the monks were allowed to come back for seconds, so no need to waste food! Take only what is needed and if they are still hungry come back for more.

It’s simple, every single activity, every single day was a highlight. There was something new, exciting and simply beautiful around every corner and I just couldn’t get enough. 10 days was a great overview and a taste for the amazing destination, but easily I could spend a month exploring just the nooks and crannies of the ‘tourist’ areas, not to mention the lesser visited areas. And, as tourism begins to grow, more and more areas will be open for exploration by foreigners. In my opinion, Myanmar is a destination to be visited now, before it explodes in popularity, and then visited again and again as the economy gets stronger and new areas open up. There’s nothing quite like seeing a destination that isn’t used to tourists and getting an authentic feel for the people, the culture, the food and the beauty without the corruption of the tourist traps. Go see this destination soon to get an authentic feeling for the country. Then, explore it again later as more destinations open up. You won’t be disappointed.

NOTE: My fabulous tour was with Tucan Travel. The are a small group adventure company with hundreds of tours to choose from. However, I highly recommend them for their Spiritual Burma Tour. I was on a condensed version, but the full trip would be amazing!

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South East Asia – Chapter 20 – One day in Mandalay – U Bein

Next up was a short, but sweet visit to U Bein Bridge in Amarapura. This bridge connects an island to the main land, spanning the Taungthaman lake at 1.2kms long and is made from salvaged teak wood posts (or columns) from an old palace that was being moved from Amarapura to Mandalay. It was constructed in the 1850’s. It is the world’s longest teak bridge. The surprisingly sturdy teak-wood bridge is beautiful to look at and is of daily importance to the locals as they walk to and from the main land for work, school and markets.

It is best known to tourist for it’s beauty at sunset and is one of Mandalay’s most photographed destinations. Unfortunately, it was only a short stop for us, so I did not get to see it’s beauty in the setting evening sun, but none-the-less, it was still amazing and full of life, functional and very active with locals. It was one area where we did see a couple of dozen other tourists, which is still incredibly miniscule.

Several of us opted to take a boat ride to the halfway point and then we walked back along the bridge (4000 kyat for 3 – 4 people). The heat was nearly unbearable, but the breeze on the water was refreshing. Along the way we saw people fishing from the bridge and from the water, as well as people swimming / bathing in the water.

On our way back each of us was approached by a child selling items. These children have been trained to ‘make friends’ with one tourist each rather than surrounding and bombarding all of the tourists at once. They love to practice their English with you and I found that the girls who ‘friended’ me were very polite and not pushy. They certainly told you about the items they had for sale, but they weren’t demanding that you buy them. They were hoping if they had a chat with you, that you would be nice enough to buy them. I suppose this likely makes it harder for tourists to bargain as hard as well. At least for me, once I feel like I know someone a little, know about their family, their schooling etc, it is harder for me to offer them only half price.

I chatted with a young girl named Ehtoo for the walk back along the teak bridge. She spoke really good English, told me about her family and that she goes to school in the mornings, but has to work in the afternoons. She showed me the jewelry that she was selling. I wasn’t interested and try really hard not to buy things if I’m not interested. But, the simple fact that she was trying to have a discussion and offering her items, but not pushing them on me … in the end I bought two necklaces from her for 12 000 kyat. She tried to get me to buy three for 15 000 but I simply wasn’t interested. Sometimes I can just walk away, especially when I’m being swarmed and hounded. But, when I’ve had one-on-one time with someone, I find it much harder to say no.

I asked her if she made the jewelry herself, but she did not. She simply buys (or borrows) it from one of the larger stores on the teak bridge and then she gets a cut of what she sells. Although I would have much rather bought something that she actually made, or known that the money was going directly to her, but in the end, I guess she was making some money rather than no money and she was a really sweet kid.

South East Asia – Chapter 18 – One Day in Mandalay – Working Hands

After our overnight bus ride, we had a short time to freshen up and then we were back on the bus for our one-day adventure in Mandalay. Our guide told us that often tourists don’t like Mandalay because the city is spread out with no real ‘centre’ district. All of the attractions seem to be in different directions. It isn’t really a great city just to have a stroll in. Having said that, the attractions in the area are fantastic and I wouldn’t want to have missed Mandalay. In fact, if you are open minded and want to explore, I’m sure that 3-4 days would be time well spent in the city and surrounding area.

We headed off for a quick stop at a gold leaf workshop where the process was demonstrated and explained. On one side of the workshop, the men were hard at work pounding the materials to flatten them and increase their size. The methodical and melodic steady pounding of the metal would likely drive me crazy after any amount of time, but these folks work and sweat through it for hours every single day. On the other side of the workshop there were women busy laying gold leaf over various items that were for sale. This gold leaf is also used in most of the temples and pagodas throughout Myanmar.

Next stop was a silk weaving workshop where women were hard at work on their weaving looms. The amount of physical labour that these people do for mere dollars a day is absolutely astounding.

I believe in supporting not for profit organizations and the people that they assist, so I bought souvenir items at both of these locations, knowing that the money was going back into the community rather than being handed through several channels, such as a kid selling something at a market, to their parents, to their boss etc.

I enjoy buying items that I’ve seen the process behind and paying for an artisans work rather than buying souvenir items from a market where they have likely been mass-produced for pennies a day rather than dollars a day. I support fair labour where I can.

We also visited a weaving and marionette shop. I really wanted to bring marionettes home for my nieces, but they were large and made of wood, so I decided not to. I didn’t want to take the chance that they would be confiscated at the border. And they would be difficult to carry for the next two and a half weeks.

Besides the vast array of unique marionettes, the shop had all kinds of interesting ironworks, weaving and decorative wall art. Even such things as opium weights, animal skulls, and statues.

South East Asia – Chapter 16B – Astrology Reading

At the Shwedagon Pagoda, our local guide took us to see a lovely old man who did an astrology reading for us based solely on our date and year of birth. He did his math on an old-school chalk board and spoke only the local language.

Astrology Reading at Shwedagon Pagoda

Astrology Reading at Shwedagon Pagoda

As each one of us went in, our local guide took notes and then translated the reading for us. Some of the group were amazed by how accurate he was. I, however, felt that it didn’t work for me. You make your own judgement. Here’s what my date and year of birth had to say about me.

South East Asia – Chapter 17 – Overnight Bus

One of the things that I was worried about before arriving in Myanmar was the fact that it was monsoon season. I hadn’t read very much on the internet, but enough to know that I’d likely see some heavy rains and those heavy rains could affect the road conditions, sometimes making them impassable. I was a little concerned about this … until I got on the bus.

Even at the bus station, I was impressed. Although it was a tiny little room and the squatter toilet wasn’t the best, the staff were dressed in nice uniforms and even served us a complimentary beverage while we were waiting. Really? At the bus station?

Our overnight bus from Yangon to Mandalay was the nicest coach that I have ever been on. Now, I wouldn’t call it luxury, but it sure was nothing like what I expected. We climbed up the stairs to the upper level and got comfy in over sized seats that had an unusual amount of reclining ability. Considerably more spacious than flying Air Asia and still more spacious than Thai Airways! It was clean and air conditioned. One of my favourite parts was that they gave us each a fuzzy pink polar fleece blanket to cover up with through the night. Generally speaking, they kept the air conditioning at 18 or 19 degrees. Through the night, that’s pretty chilly.

We took off on time and after navigating through the streets for only a few minutes, we set out on the highway. I didn’t even know that a highway existed! Here I thought we would be driving along back roads, getting washed away by mud slides.

Sure enough, it rained pretty much the entire time we were on the bus, but the roads were good and the driver seemed to be very careful. Not only was it a highway, but it was a four lane highway with a median in the middle pretty much the entire way. Apparently it has only just been completed in the past couple of years. It was in really good condition and only a few big bumps when crossing over bridges.

Throughout the night, the bus had pulled over a couple of times because of accidents on the highway and to switch drivers. After all, it is a really long drive, late at night on a straight, boring highway in the rain. I slept through most of the stops, but one long one (about 45 minutes), they served everyone snacks (a piece of cake and a cinnamon bun type thing). Can you imagine? I didn’t wake up for that either! I got mine early the next morning.

We left late in the evening and arrived in Mandalay the next morning around 6:30am. Apparently that was an hour or so later than normal.

The bus tickets were included in our tour, but I think the overnight bus was $20 US or less. If you are considering the trip between Yangon and Mandalay, I think the bus is a great cost effective way to go. Much cheaper than flying and you save on a night’s hotel room.

All in all, the bus ride was uneventful and a pleasant experience. Who would have thought that in Myanmar I would have a better public bus than anywhere else I’ve ever been!

South East Asia – Chapter 15 – Set Free

Next up, we followed Ekayi to one of the lesser-used entrances to Shwedagon Pagoda. We entered, took our shoes off and were handed plastic bags to carry our shoes in.

Note: This is very useful! Hang on to your plastic bag between monasteries / pagodas and temples. You always have to take your shoes off and you don’t always want to come out the same way that you entered, so having your shoes with you is easier than back-tracking to get them!

Amanda, our Tucan Travel Rep also stopped to buy us all cool wooden bead necklaces. She bought a crazy amount of them and nearly cleared the vendor’s store out! Not joking!

We walked through the beginning of the temple with Ekayi explaining different customs along the way. When we came to the really large golden Budda in a glass room, it was explained that only men were allowed to enter.

Paul, our token male, from London went in to have a look and was kind enough to take all of our cameras. Traveling with 8 women must have been tough on him, but he was a true sport!

After a little exploring and a few photos, we headed across a bridge to an exit / entrance. It was here that we learned about freedom.

Freedom of the animals that is.

At this gate there were two vendors; one selling caged birds to be released and the other selling fish to be released into the pond.

It was really quite an interesting concept to pay a few cents or a dollar to free caged animals into the wild.

First, several of the girls were handed over tiny little birds, which they cooed over before opening their hands and with a quick flutter of their wings they were gone. Would they go home? Would they fly far? Would they be captured, just to be sold again? Regardless of their fate, whether for a few moments or the rest of their life, they were being given the chance to be free from their cage. Fitting metaphor for travelers.

After the birds had fluttered away, Amanda, our Tucan representative bought nine little fishies (one for each of us), which were put in a bowl for us to carry over and release into the pond. They were little black fish that looked a bit like catfish. Three of our group made a ceremonial release of the fish to their freedom in the pond of the temple.

Seems like we had done our good deeds for the animals today.

South East Asia – Chapter 14 – Toys!

After our wonderful morning at the monastery for breakfast, I was absolutely in love with Yangon. What a perfect morning, being welcomed in like family, by strangers. I knew the early morning would be hard to top, but I also knew that Yangon had so much more to offer. Besides, so far, all of my activities had been people related and don’t tourists come to Myanmar for the temples / monasteries and pagodas?

Around 8:30am our group gathered and travelled by private bus to the markets surrounding the Shwedagon Pagoda.

We quickly went into a small street restaurant and went upstairs to where our table was already set. Local food was on the way for our local breakfast. In the end, it was the same breakfast that we had induldged in at the monastery, so the four of us didn’t eat a whole lot. However, I did try out the coconut rice and coconut soup instead of the fish soup. Yum!

After breakfast, we all started winding our way through the markets toward the back entrance of the Shwedagon Pagoda. The markets were incredible! So colorful with all of the local longyis, fresh produce and brightly colored flowers, material and scarves. Not to mention the massive amount of gold everywhere. Gold Buddas, gold plated souvenirs of all sizes. Everywhere you looked you could nearly be blinded by gold.

About ½ way down the street, our local guide, Ekayi (pronounced Ekery) showed us through a tiny alleyway into a shop. A little spot that you would never know existed if you weren’t with a local. There was no signage and it honestly looked like an alleyway to someone’s small home.

As we lowered our heads for the low roof and stepped inside, a couple at a time we realized that it was a kids toy shop. All around were handmade animals of all different shapes and sizes. We spent a few minutes looking around and by that I mean turning in a circle because it was so small. Interesting little shop and nice place to buy a few kids souvenirs. Unfortunately, I didn’t want to carry them for the next three weeks, so I passed on the opportunity.

I don’t even have photos to show as the place was literally too small for me to take any photos.

Definitely a great reason to be on a group tour and hanging out with a local. Locals always know about the nooks & crannies of their city. Pretty sure Lonely Planet doesn’t mention this little gem of a place!

South East Asia – Chapter 13 – Morning Photo Walk

At our welcome meeting on day 1 I had been pleasantly surprised to learn that our tour leader, JP, had a growing interest and a great eye for photography.

He mentioned getting up early the next morning to do a morning wander and photo walk. I was interested, but so tired! I was still adjusting to jet lag. Several of the other travelers were considering it, but no one really wanted to commit to getting up at 5am. In the end, we told JP not to come as none of us could commit. Eventually, he decided he was going regardless and would be at the hotel to see if anyone wanted to join him.

Well, I couldn’t stand him up!

Myself, Iris and Kiley woke up extra early that morning and joined JP for a walk to an even less touristy district of the city. It wasn’t even that hard to wake up. Afterall, the roosters started crowing sometime between 4:30am and 5am and in that time you’d also hear loud speaker announcements or music throughout the streets as the monks wound their way through town taking offerings.

Being low season and an up and coming destination, Yangon wasn’t very touristy to begin with. In the first two days I had seen no more than a dozen tourists (not a word of a lie).

We strolled along Strand road for about 15 minutes until we came to a pagoda. We entered through the gates and wandered through a small local market while it was still quite dark. It’s quite amazing how the city wakes up so early and is on the move before the crack of dawn.

By 6:00am the sky was starting to get a bit lighter and more people were up and moving around. The market stalls were beginning to open and in the distance, we could see monks beginning to line up for their walk through the streets to collect food and money.

We headed toward the monks and after double checking with JP, he assured me that it would be fine to take photos and interact with them. In fact, they didn’t have nearly as many rules and restrictions as I thought.

For some reason, I thought that monks were not ever allowed to speak. Is this the way it is in other cultures, or just during certain times? I’m still yet to find that out. But, these monks were allowed to speak and many of them knew English quite well. They were a mixture of shy and curious, confident and awkward. Some of them were happy to have their photo taken, others politely turned away.

I tried not to be too intrusive, not getting too close and only photographing them if I had made eye contact or asked their permission. Most of them were happy to have their photo taken, but didn’t freely smile.

This is where JP came in extra handy. He had seen all of this a million times, so he was happy to make funny faces and get the monks laughing so that we could get great photos.

I chatted a little bit in English with a few of them. Honestly, they are really friendly and often want to practice their English, but I think I was more shy than they were as I felt like somehow I was still being disrespectful by photographing them.

After about 20 minutes of wandering around, starring at and taking photos of monks a man came over to JP and invited us in to the monastery for breakfast. Of course we joined them! What a lovely opportunity … the kind that you can’t recreate or find in a guide book, the kind that is local and just happens.

Volunteers, or families donate their time regularly to cook food for the monks. This morning, the family was inviting us in to join them. We took off our shoes and headed in through a couple of rooms to a spot where about 40 or so locals were seated and filling their bellies with hot delicious food.

We were quickly seated and several of the men kept us busy chatting in English while they served up rice and fish soup. For garnish, there were fried crunchy bits, cilantro, chili flakes and …

And then came the sticky rice. OH sweet sticky rice. I could have eaten an entire plate full of this deliciousness. Sticky and cut into small ½ inch squares, it was sweet and absolutely divine.

After we had nearly finished our typical, local breakfast, Iris wanted a photo with a couple of the locals. Moments after that, locals were rushing over to get photos of all of us with them for their own keepsakes with their cameras.

Breakfast at a monastery in Yangon, Myanmar

Breakfast at a monastery in Yangon, Myanmar

Such an interesting turn of events, being on the other end of the lens. What can you do though? You go to another country and take tones of pictures of them, you can’t say no when they want to photograph you because you are equally foreign and beautiful to them!

It was really such a special morning when we all really got a feel for the warmth and generosity of the local Myanmar people. We were complete strangers, invading their space and they wanted to give to us, treat us well, feed us and do good deeds.

I’ve learned that the Buddist way of life is far beyond the generosity and caring even of a little old East coast – Canadian. Everything they do in Myanmar comes from the heart with a warm smile and no material alterior motive. Simply the motive to do good, be better and eventually reach a state of nirvana where they have done good deeds all of their life.

It certainly takes you back to a simplistic thought process and reminds you of what’s important in life. Friends, family, experiences, your happiness, health and well-being … not material items. It reminds you to be kind to others, no matter what your situation and that money doesn’t buy happiness.

South East Asia – Chapter 12 – The Streets of Yangon – Part 2

On August 17 our group met as a whole for the first time. Travel agents from Australia, New Zealand, England and Canada along with our tour leader from Norway and our local Myanmar guide.

We set out for a walking tour of the city of Yangon. For the next four hours we wandered around the outside of many historic buildings in the city.

We got to visit the beautiful old rail station, a couple of churches, markets and beautiful, old abandoned buildings that were scheduled to be renovated into five star hotels.

We also got our first glimpse at the process of making the ‘Myanmar-style’ of chewing tobacco (bitter leaves) at a street vendor. They are also known to turn your teeth red. Mainly men chew the leaves of different strengths and then spit the red saliva on the ground or in garbage cans at restaurants.

Sounds gross, right?
It is.

Spitting everywhere is definitely something that I will never get used to in any city. Regularly I found myself avoiding red spots on the ground where men had spit, but after awhile, the spots became impossible to dodge.

Bitter leaves

Bitter leaves

We also stopped at a local tea-shop for snacks and drinks. I was incredibly surprised at the prevailance of Coke throughout the country, but many in our group drank the local Myanmar beer and a few gave the tea a go.

We also got to try local sweet and savory pastries of various kinds. I was the brave one to try small bites of many of them first. I’m actually not normally that brave with new foods, but pastries … well, how could you not like a pastry?

Tea Shop pastries

Tea Shop pastries

I’ll tell you how … if it is made from Durian fruit.

Having never travelled to Asia before, this was a new smell and flavor for me, but most of the others were familiar with it. It is known for it’s particularly pungent odor that quite reminds me of a public bathroom.

The other travelers encouraged me to try it, but no one else would. They told me that it is known to smell horrible but taste wonderful. I compared it to Buckley’s cough syrup. “Tastes awful, but works great!”

I took a whiff …

*scrunched up face*

Then I took a little nibble.

Unfortunately, it tasted just like it smelled. A little like the smell of a public bathroom.

And, that was the end of that! No more Durian fruit for me.

We sat for another 10 minutes or so nibbling on the other pastries and treats, but there was no mistaking that I had cut into the durian pastry. For the next 10 minutes, the undeniable smell wafted over everyone, until we were ready to move along.

We wandered through several street markets filled with food, fresh produce and local treats.

As we headed back toward our hotel, and approached the historic Catholic Church, the rain started and we understood the meaning of monsoon season!

After a couple of hours of walking in the streets in the rain, we were off to the Strand Hotel for our welcome drinks.

Overall, a great afternoon of learning about Yangon’s beautiful buildings, architectural history, and trying new foods.

South East Asia – Chapter 11 – Monsoon Season

Ever since I booked the trip to Asia back in April, I’ve known that I would be traveling in monsoon season. I tried not to research too many things before I came so I could experience things through my own eyes, but I did do a little research on the weather so I would know how to pack.

Throughout the southern part of Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, there would be heavy rains most days for short periods of time and drizzle throughout the day. In the more northern parts of the countries, it would be just showers, not really heavy rainfall.

Just to be safe I packed two plastic ponchos, my good quality rain jacket that I never travel without and a small umbrella. To be honest, I’m glad I packed them all!

In Yangon, while out on our city walking tour we got caught in an afternoon downpour. Now, when I say downpour, it is actually quite unlike anything that we usually get in Canada. Although I suppose the freak rains / floods in Calgary and Toronto this summer likely compare. The rain comes on so fast and furious that you are nearly drenched before you can even open your umbrella. The rain comes down sideways and with a little wind, the umbrella isn’t really helping you stay very dry at all. If you are lucky you can find a building to duck into, but who knows if the rains will last for minutes or hours.

In our case, on this particular day we took short cover in the Catholic Church while we were admiring the beauty. When it was time to go, we all gritted our teeth, put up our umbrellas and went along for the adventure!

None of us were dressed particularly appropriate for what we were about to encounter.
Long skirts, see-through shirts, sneakers … you name it and someone was wearing something inappropriate for the rain. Some of us had umbrellas, others were without.

We were soaked by the time we got to the street corner, regardless of umbrella size. Just around the street corner the rain had started to gather and it was impossible for it to drain away as quickly as it was falling. Soon enough, cars driving by were spraying us with water. There was no hiding and most drivers aren’t considerate enough to slow down.

What seemed like an hour later (but likely only five minutes), we were crossing the already dangerous and busy streets on Yangon through rivers of rain flowing so heavy that they actually had current. Did I mention those rivers were knee-high in some areas? Most people (local and foreigners) were wearing flip flops (or thongs as the Aussies call them). So, on top of being in water up to our knees, the uneven ground was slippery and flip flops easily got lost in the water.

One of the travelers had been wearing sneakers and decided to go bare-foot, like many of the locals. Our local tour leader’s flip flop broke and we had to stop at a store for her to buy a new pair. Luckily, I was wearing my favorite Merrill sports sandals, the type with straps so they don’t fall off.

The day prior I had been wandering around Yangon on my own in my flip flops and in my short one hour stroll I managed to get two huge horrible blisters under the toe beside my big toe. Not only did they blister, but the skin tore off and they were left open and raw.

So, here I was on my second day in Yangon walking around in the dirty streets, with water to my knees. My feet were sore and all I could think about was that they were likely getting infected. Afterall, I would worry about that in Canada. Now, here in Asia, with the extra garbage and feces in the street, I was sure my feet would be black with infection the next day. Sounds gross, I know!

At the end of our walking tour, we finished at the beautiful Strand Hotel for a welcome drink. All of us sopping wet and embarrassed to even be entering such a beautiful hotel. None-the-less, we were welcomed with open arms, appetizers and a gin and tonic.

Despite being cold, wet and dirty, honestly, had we come in monsoon season and not experienced the torrential downpours, I think I might have been a little disappointed. I want to be able to tell people what to expect and that is all part of the experience.

Throughout the remainder of the tour we ran into a lot of showers, but rarely a downpour and after the first couple of days in Yangon, we were all prepared with rain gear and umbrellas no matter what the weather at the beginning of the day.

Although my raw, open blisters were incredibly sore for the next week, I washed them well that night, put some antibiotic cream and band aids on them and limped on my way.

After reading all of this, I’m sure many of you think this would be an absolutely dreadful vacation. In fact, it was not and it wouldn’t stop me from doing it again in the ‘off season’.

I’ve traveled to Peru and Ecuador in rainy season, Dominican Republic and Bermuda during hurricane season and now, South East Asia during monsoon season.

In my mind, the benefits of the beautiful lush greenery, the fewer tourists, lower prices, fresh fruit, produce and afternoon refreshing rains, outweigh the negatives of being drenched one or two days, with showers the other days. Monsoon or rainy season really means fast heavy rains, but they rarely last for a long time. There is often cloud cover or sunshine for the majority of the day, with only a few hours of rain.

Oh yes, and a word of the wise … don’t try to dry your wet clothes in an air-conditioned room. You’ll only end up with wet, cold clothes. Close your bathroom door and hang them to dry with the fan on. Like magic, they are bone dry the next morning.

Next time you consider traveling, think about ‘monsoon’ or ‘rainy’ season as being more relaxed, less busy and beautiful lush vegetation. It’s all about the journey and your outlook on the situation dictates the outcome.