Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Myanmar has proved to be unlike any of the other SE Asian countries I've visited. There are many things I've noticed that seem to make this country unique.


Most people in Myanmar, both men and women, wear what they call a longyi, a skirt that goes down to the ankles. The men knot theirs in a special way at the front, whereas women tie theirs to the side. They come in every colour and pattern imaginable.

Men in longyis

Women in longyis (can you spot the foreigner?)

My all-time favourite: COUPLES in longyis!


I'd seen a bit of this in Thailand but nowhere near as much as in Myanmar. Thanaka is made from the sandalwood tree and is used primarily by women and children as sunscreen. Some people use it solely on their cheeks, others cover their entire faces and some even put it on their arms.

Thanaka, waiting to be purchased at the market

How it looks once applied (once again, can you spot the foreigner?)


One of the first things you will notice upon arriving in Myanmar is the red-stained teeth many people have. Their teeth get this way from chewing betel, a kind of nut (with narcotic effects) wrapped in a vine leaf. It's definitely a more common habit amongst men but some women chew it too.  So many people do it that walking around town becomes somewhat of a hazard - watch for spitters!

Rolling the leaves

A monk with reddish teeth

Is there anything more fascinating than seeing and learning about the customs and cultural differences around the world?!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Defying Gravity

After Hpa-An, Rachel and I decided to pay a short visit to the town of Kyaikto, home of the Golden Rock, one of Myanmar’s most sacred sites. It's more or less what it sounds like: A huge, gravity-defying golden rock located on the top of a very high mountain. But before we could bask in the glory of this sacred boulder we had to get to the top of the mountain, which was easier said than done.

The Golden Rock

To get to the top you have two choices: hike for about four hours or ride in the back of a large pickup truck. As it was over 35 degrees that day we opted for the latter, but calling the ride uncomfortable would be putting it extremely mildly. Rachel, myself and at least 40 Burmese people were crammed into the back of the truck, packed like sardines on narrow benches so that the knees of the person behind you were digging into your back. To add further discomfort to the situation, every time the driver changed gears the truck would lurch forward, which meant I slammed into the poor woman in front of me multiple times.

One very crowded truck

The better part of an hour later we reached the top of the mountain, and after a further short walk we had reached The Rock. Legend has it the precariously placed rock is able to balance in such a way because it's sitting on one of Buddha's hairs. I'm more inclined to think it's been somehow glued there, but either way its placement was certainly no small feat! I hadn't seen anything quite like the rock and while it was certainly impressive, what I found even more interesting was how special it clearly was for the locals to be there. As an added bonus, the breeze from that high up was heavenly; it was certainly the coolest I'd felt (apart from the few times I've been somewhere here with aircon!) in a long time. Honestly the trip was worth it for that aspect alone! (Can you tell I'm struggling with the heat?!)

Where they keep all the good air

I wasn't sure Myanmar's 'southern circuit' (Mawlamyine, Hpa-An and Kyaikto) would be worth it but I’m definitely glad I included these cities in my trip. They are well worth a stop if you have the time and want to see some less-visited places. That being said, I'm looking forward to seeing some of Myanmar's more popular destinations. Next up, trekking at Inle Lake!

It's definitely unique, I'll give it that!

Locals praying

I'm no feminist but this seemed rather sexist to me

Posing with one of the many monks

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Rivers and Roads

Originally written April 27

After spending several days in Mawlamyine, my Swiss travel mate and I decided our next stop would be the small town of Hpa-An, located just a couple of hours north. It seemed wrong to leave SE Asia without having traveled by slow boat, so that's how I decided to get to Hpa-An. It took much longer than a bus would have, but sailing up the Irrawady River proved to not only be scenic but so relaxing that I fell asleep. Twice.

Rolling on the river

Gorgeous scenery

We spent most of the boat ride waving to people on shore

Rachel the Swiss!

Countless boats and pagodas

Upon arriving in Hpa-An we quickly realized that while it was pleasant enough, the town itself didn't seem to have much to offer in terms of things to see and do. The countryside surrounding it, however, turned out to be quite impressive as Rachel and I discovered when we hired a tuk-tuk the following day.

Our first stop was Kyauk Kan Latt, an oddly-shaped karst rock upon which a small pagoda was built. I've seen a lot of pagodas but none quite like this one!

Pretty unique as far as pagodas go

Fantastic views of surrounding mountains

Adorable young monks

A cheeky chicken

Next, we stopped in a park scattered with 1,121 Buddha statues. Suffice to say it was the most Buddhas I had ever seen at once - and that's really saying something for SE Asia!

Our last stop of the day was at a swimming hole, where hoards of locals were enjoying what for them was probably a warm summer's day (whereas I was trying not to get heatstroke). The water looked a tad iffy so we decided not to swim but we took some pictures of the local kids jumping into the water.

Climbing up the mini-pagoda

Rachel showing the boys their photos

Best of friends

The last couple of days haven't been anything crazy or exciting but that's exactly what has made them so enjoyable.

Knock Knock

Originally written April 24, 2013

Picture a holiday where every household prepares a feast, and anybody is free to wander into anyone else's house, sit down and start eating - no knocking on the door or introducing yourself required. This would never fly in most developed countries (my own included) for a host of reasons, but in Myanmar this is standard behavior for the 'Pagoda Festival' (though what is has to do with pagodas I'm not entirely sure). It's like a pub crawl, but you eat rather than drink and visit people's homes instead of bars.

I was lucky enough to be included in the celebrations, which essentially entailed eating copious amounts of food, during a day trip I booked to a nearby island just off the coast of Mawlamyine. No one else signed up to go that day so I had my own private tour which was pretty cool!

My guide, a very sweet, elderly man named Mr. Anthony, and I headed over to Ogre Island some 10 kilometers away from the mainland. While it was pretty huge as far as islands go, it was still reasonably undeveloped in that there were no mini marts or large stores. The island's quaint villages and palm trees gave it a calm, stress-free atmosphere, and the festival made it all the more special.

Now as a Caucasian foreigner here in Myanmar I've been getting a lot of stares and attention since day one, even in Yangon, the country's biggest city. But as a Caucasian foreigner on an island that doesn't see too many tourists, during the Pagoda Festival, wearing a longhyi (a long skirt, typical Burmese apparel for men and women)... it was what I imagine being a celebrity to be like! Everybody wanted me to come into their house for food (which resulted in me eating multiple meals and becoming uncomfortably full) and take photos with me. I was extremely touched by how generous and genuine everybody was, not to mention fascinated by the whole concept of the Pagoda Festival. I think Canada needs to come up with a holiday where you can walk into a random person's house and start eating...

Just another day in the friendly land that is Myanmar!

View from one of the island's pagodas

Mr. Anthony & I

Some young girls at the pagoda

The first house I got invited in to

A couple of very fancy girls!

Another house I got invited in to

Trying so hard to be Burmese

Another lovely family!

P.S. I'm going to start referring to Burma as Myanmar in my posts from now on. Before coming here I had read that most locals call it Burma, its official name until 1989, but since being here I've found out that everyone refers to it as Myanmar!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Some Like It Hot

Thus far my experiences with trains in SE Asia have been pretty good. I took two night trains in Vietnam, one in third class (not super comfortable but a hilarious night nonetheless) and one in first class, which got me a bed with air conditioning. In Thailand, I opted for third class again which was just a seat, but there were fans. In both countries the trains traveled at pretty decent speeds and weren’t too bumpy.

Then I took a train in Burma. 

My "upper class" ticket (the highest class available) got me a seat in a car that looked like this:

The floors were filthy (I actually saw a guy spit like it was the most normal thing in the world) and the seats were falling apart but I could live with that. What I almost couldn’t live with (literally, at times I thought I was going to keel over) was that there was no air con, the ceiling fans were broken and it had to be pushing 40 degrees that day. Coming from Vancouver where it hits 30 degrees maybe two days a year if we’re lucky, the breeze from the windows just wasn’t cutting it for me. Especially considering the train was probably only moving about 50 km/hour at the best of times. When it made stops and there was no breeze at all, I got so hot I had to actively tell myself not to panic. I don’t want to sound overdramatic, but for me it was borderline unbearable.

Not only was the train stifling hot, it was one bumpy ride. You know when you're on a roller coaster and there's that moment when you're lifted out of your seat, held down only by the safety bar? Well at times the train was like that, minus the safety bar. It made using the train's squat toilet a real treat, let me tell you.

Aside from the maddening heat and almost falling out of my seat, the train ride was a wonderful cultural experience. I ate some local train snacks...

Made some new friends...

Took in some of Burma’s beautiful countryside (kids would run out from their houses excitedly towards the train, as if its passing was the highlight of their day, and every time we passed a pagoda the train passengers would place their hands together and bow their heads in a brief prayer)...

And I got to see the most beautiful sunset I’ve seen in a while.

The most uncomfortable train journey to date? Yep. Worth it? Absolutely.