Tag Archives: Myanmar

Princess Traveler #sol16 23 of 31

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The other day, over dinner, Mel and I were telling stories of our travels together (we’ve been to Egypt, Myanmar, and Thailand), and the story of our 12-hour overnight bus ride from Inle Lake to Bagan, Myanmar came up. In this story, I play the “princess traveler,” as she tells it.

Over the years, while living abroad, my friends have lovingly joked that I’m a “princess traveler.” Let me clarify this by saying that when compared to typical American travelers, I am far from princess-like, but when compared to backpackers and seasoned international travelers, I tend to fall further along the princess line. I admit that I tend to over pack, but that’s just because I like to be prepared and have options when it comes to fashion. I also admit to preferring (ok…demanding) that the place I stay have hot water. Furthermore, I admit to a minimum standard of food and food cleanliness, which means that I may not eat from that street vendor I saw cooking without washing his hands first. But, I am not sure that these things make me a “princess traveler.” I’ll let you decide.

Let me preface this story by saying that our trip to Myanmar was almost completely unplanned, as we got our visas a day before we were set to leave. That being said, we didn’t research much of the travel between places in Myanmar, nor did we book any accommodation beforehand. See…totally not princess-like! Now back to Mel’s story.

We had already been to Yangon, and had just finished up our stay in Inle Lake. Our last city in Myanmar would be Bagan, the city of a thousand of temples. Our 16-hour bus ride from Yangon to Inle Lake was pretty luxurious, by developing country standards, so we had high hopes for our 12-hour ride to Bagan. Mel got the window on the first bus ride, so this time it was my turn. Unbeknownst to me, Mel had just eaten something that would later disagree with her stomach big time, giving her food poisoning for days to come.

To say this bus was a disappointment would be an understatement. The VIP treatment we received on the Yangon bus was long gone, as were the comfy recliner seats. We were basically on a school bus. For 12 hours. Overnight. On the worst roads ever. But, determined to make the best of it, I settled into my window seat. Using my neck pillow, I nuzzled up next to the window, getting as comfortable as I could. I donned my eye mask to block out the light and my ear buds (playing soothing classical music of course) to block out the sound, and settled in for some sleep.

Mel, who was getting sicker and sicker as time went on, was not as cozy and comfy as me. Her stomach, which was already gurgling and flip flopping all over the place, thanks to the bout of food poisoning settling in, was made worse by the bumpy roads and, as you can imagine, poor quality shocks on our bus. Without a window to lean on, and no neck pillow to use, she was left to try and sleep by laying her head back against the non-reclining seat. Anyone who’s ever ridden a school bus knows this is not really the most conducive position for sleep. To make matters worse, Mel had the unfortunate experience, being on the aisle where a small seat folded down next to her, to be seated next to a Burmese man who thought her shoulder was perfect for sleeping on. So, here she is, sandwiched between two people, one of whom was encroaching on her space by sleeping on her shoulder, on a bumpy bus, with a gurgling stomach, unable to sleep, and she looks over at me, with my neck pillow and eye mask on, snoozing away, while she’s in utter pain, and she is struck by my utter princess-ness. The way she tells it, when we arrived in Bagan at just shy of 5:00 am, I pulled the eye mask off, scrunched up my face, and said in my most whiny voice, “Ugh! I am so tired! I had the worst sleep ever!” I can’t imagine I’d ever do that, but my memory fails me at the moment. 😉 Boiling over, she regales me with her trip, complete with sleeping-on-the-shoulder guy and the fact that she had to have the bus stop twice, in addition to the scheduled rest stops, so she could throw up on the side of the road. OK, she wins. Her ride was worse.

Once in Bagan, with the sun not yet out, we get into the only available taxi- a horse drawn carriage. In case you were wondering, this isn’t an ideal form of transportation for a sick and grumpy passenger. OK, remember when I told you that we were adventurous, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants travelers? Well, that means that here we are at 5:00 am with no place to stay, and no Internet on our phones to look up a place. Huge dilemma. We asked the driver to take us to a nearby hotel, and when he drove up, I was a little taken aback by the look of it. I asked the driver to go ask if they had hot water (yeah, yeah, I know…princess). It turns out they didn’t. Back to the bumpy road we went, in search of a bed and hot water. The next place didn’t have any either. Mel, by this point, had lost her patience with me, and said, in no uncertain terms, that I had one more shot. Remembering I had downloaded an app for Myanmar that worked offline, I found a hotel whose reviews were pretty good. It just so happened it was on the opposite end of town. Mel acquiesced, and off we went. Lucky for me, they had hot water and vacancy! We checked in, had a hot shower, and took a much-needed nap.

Upon waking, we spent the rest of the day in awe of the temples. I wish I could say that the bus ride was the worst thing that happened on our trip, but as it turns out, I was wrong about our return flight times, and we had another adventure!

I’m not that much of a princess, am I?

A Year in Photos- 2015 #sol16 20 of 31

Last year, I wrote a post sharing my favorite photos from 2014. This was a really great way to reflect on my year, and to relive some of my favorite moments. So here goes 2015’s year in photos (in chronological order). I hope you enjoy! 🙂

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All photos copyright of Jennifer Kesler. Please do not use without permission.

Things I’ve Collected in my Travels- SOL#26

As a traveler, I collect lots of things. Most of these are memories, stories, new friends, and photographs. But I also collect art. Whenever I visit somewhere new, I’m on the hunt for something that calls out to me, begging me to bring it home and be a constant reminder of my time in that special place. Here are some of my favorite pieces that I’ve collected over the past few years.

Walking barefoot through the temples of Bagan, Myanmar, I came across this unique piece of art, a sand painting of monks. Instantly I was drawn to the texture and uniqueness of the piece, and the monks were definitely a part of the Myanmar culture that I would remember long after I returned home.

I found this gem in Seoul, South Korea, as I sifted through some antiques in a little shop in Insadong. Initially looking for an antique Buddha or teapot, the shop owner showed me this 100-year-old writer’s notebook. While I can’t read a word in it, it’s such a treasure to have a piece of someone’s writing.

This picture captures a few pieces. The umbrella lamp was a recent purchase from my second trip to Myanmar. I was drawn to the brightly-colored umbrellas on display in the little shop in town. Shaggers and I stopped in for a look, but kept moving. Later that night, we saw the shop again, only this time, the umbrellas were lit up, casting a lovely glow. I wanted one! But again, I resisted. I didn’t need more stuff, I told myself. At dinner, Shaggers said I should just go get it; that I would regret it if I didn’t. She was right. I dashed down the street and picked it up, happy I did.

After living in Shanghai for two years, I realized I didn’t have any art from China yet. Jody, a friend of mine from back home, was visiting. As we walked around Tianzifang, we came across an art gallery. The artist was there, and he talked with us about his artwork and his techniques. The paper-cut doll was so beautiful, I had to take it. I love that I have a contemporary piece of traditional Chinese artwork.

Last summer, Melissa M. and I traveled to Greece, a beautiful place that I can’t wait to return to, and while we were there, we took a trip to Santorini. If you haven’t yet been, I highly recommend it. Its picturesque views, traditional blue and white domes, and unbelievable natural beauty make it so memorable. As we meandered through the tight pathways cut into the side of the mountainous island, we happened into a shop with paintings of Santorini. This one, with the vibrant colors and the peaceful view, called my name. I love remembering our special time every time I see it on the wall.

Also last summer, I visited Rome. I was on my way to Greece from London, and I was blessed with an 18-hour stopover in Rome. Making the most of it, I spent the day roaming around the city. Walking along the river at dusk, I came across a man selling his water color paintings of everyday Roman life. This one, of a doorway, caught my eye. I’m not sure what I loved about it, but it made me happy, so I supported this local artist and bought it up right away!

My trip to Egypt was one of the most amazing trips I have ever taken. As you can imagine, we saw loads of hieroglyphics while we were there. I loved the ancient artwork, and took countless photos of walls full of stories told through pictures. What I was most drawn to, though, were the ankhs, or keys of life. There was just something about them that displayed beauty and symmetry and life. While in Abu Simbel, we visited a shop that sold handmade pieces made of stone. I didn’t have any intention of purchasing anything, but when I laid eyes on this ankh, I knew I had to add it to my collection. Not only was it an ankh, but it was handmade and it was a beautiful color. I absolutely love it!

These last two pieces are also from Myanmar. While I generally stick to purchasing one piece per country, I simply couldn’t resist picking up more than that in Myanmar! The watercolor painting of sunset at U Bein Bridge was a gem I found on my most recent trip to Myanmar. Shaggers and I headed out on the back of some motorbikes from Mandalay to the bridge to catch the sunset. Missing it by a few minutes, we decided that we’d walk the length of it anyway, since we were already there. On our way across the bridge, we passed by a shop selling paintings. My eyes were instantly drawn to this piece, and while I stopped to gaze at it for a bit, I moved on. Reaching the end, the sun had completely set, and we turned around to head back. Mentioning to Shaggers that I should have bought that picture, she said we should stop by on our way. Noticing that most of the shops we had passed earlier were already closed up, I thought my window of opportunity had closed. Nearing the end of the bridge, we found them putting everything away, ready to head home for the day. Luckily they let me look through the paintings until I found the one I had wanted. Now it is mine! Once I frame it, I’ll display it in my home.

The other piece, the wooden carving of a long neck lady, was picked up on my first trip to Myanmar in Inle Lake. Stopping into a shop on the lake, I was taken aback by the native people who adorn themselves with gold plates around their neck, stretching them more and more each year. They were simply beautiful. As I walked around, this carving stood out out to me, and I loved the profile.

I love that I am brought back back to my travels as I look around my apartment at the beautiful pieces I have (and will continue to) collected over the years. When I’m old and grey, I will be able to share my stories with others and recall these wonderful memories.

The World Through My Eyes… SOL#25

IMG_0555The World Through My Eyes…

The United States is family, friends, good food, and home.

England is not sure the first time, but oh so much better the second.

Germany is meeting people in awkward places and my first taste of independence.

Fiji is adventure and pristine, so-beautiful-you-think-they’re-photoshopped beaches.

Australia is where my heart is happiest, oh and hot accents that make me weak in the knees.

China is weird smells, craziness, ‘The Bridge,’ and my second home.

Hong Kong is civilized China and home to my favorites Shaggers and Jeezy.

The Philippines is beautiful people and juicy mangoes.

Malaysia is lime juice and getting lost.

Vietnam is “beep! beep!” and night markets.

South Korea is my favorite salad, used bookstore love, and meeting my SOL friend.

Macau is long immigration lines, casinos, and Portuguese architecture.

Cambodia is explorations, biting fish, and begging children.

Thailand is tuk tuks, sketchy trains, and golden roofs.

Japan is confusion and sushi and where did my friends go?

Egypt is camel-exchange proposals, koshari, and the call to prayer.

Nepal is roaming cows, do-anything-to-help-you people, rice fields, and peace.

Italy is the kindness of strangers, gelato, and cobblestone streets.

Greece is baklava and feta, blue and white domes, and restful relaxation.

Scotland is rain and beautiful buildings and more rain.

Ireland is old castles, lush green, and Dirty Dancing.

Myanmar is long boats, temples, daily tea leaf salads, and love.

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I LOVE Myanmar…and You Will, Too!- SOL #5

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Have you ever heard of Myanmar? I hadn’t until I lived in Asia. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is located in Asia between Thailand and Bangladesh. Having been closed to tourism for a long time, it’s relatively untouched when compared to Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I recently returned from my second trip, and I absolutely LOVE Myanmar! Here are a few reasons why you should consider adding it to your list.

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The People

The people of Myanmar are extremely friendly and helpful. “Mingalaba” is called out to all, said with a smile on their face. When you’re in trouble, they help you out. Like the time I was scared of the stray dogs growling and barring their teeth and the hotel owner drove me around Inle Lake to find Shaggers. Or like the police who found my friend Aaron’s wallet, then called around to find out where he was staying, and upon realizing he had left for another town, traveled to the other town to hand deliver it to him with all the money and cards still in it. And you can’t forget the babies…they are just so darn cute! 🙂

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The Food

I have 4 words for you. Burmese. Tea. Leaf. Salad. Oh my goodness…amazingness! Once I tried it I was hooked, and I proceeded to have at least one each day. The mix of flavors and textures explodes in your mouth. And then there’s the fresh juice. Lime was my favorite, but pineapple and mango were a close second. The abundance of fresh vegetables and fruits made it a vegetarian’s dream (especially in Bagan)!

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The Vibrancy

Myanmar is vibrant, full of life, with splashes of color everywhere. Walking around, your eyes can’t help but be drawn to the bright, rich colors. The sounds and smells are vibrant, too. You’re inundated with the sounds of motorbikes whizzing by, cars honking, people shouting to one another, and the sound of hooves as the horses pull their carriages. The scent of spicy curries, manure, fresh flowers, and dust assault your nose.

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The Lake- Inle Lake to be exact

Inle Lake is one of my favorite places on earth. Seriously. There’s just something about it that I love. Maybe it’s the lake itself. Riding across the lake in a long boat, taking it all in- the villages, floating gardens, the mountains off in the distance, the fishermen- puts a smile on my face. All my cares in the world seem to disappear. Maybe it’s the simple way of life, the quaint little town, with it’s dirt roads, markets, and delicious restaurants. Maybe it’s the bike riding trails around the area, where you can ride around and get lost. I’m not sure exactly what it is that I love about Inle Lake, but I do know that my heart is happy when I’m there.

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The Sunsets

I cannot tell you how much I love a good sunset. And Myanmar has some great ones, especially on Inle Lake. Photographs can’t even begin to do them justice.

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The Temples

Awe-inspiring, full of history, beautiful temples abound in Myanmar, particularly in Bagan, where there are about 3,000 of them. While you can get “templed out” after looking at so many of them, they really are spectacular. I especially like them at night, the way they contrast against the night sky.

IMG_3044 There are many more reasons why I love Myanmar and think you will, too. Check it out, plan a trip, and discover it for yourself. You won’t regret it. 🙂

Unplanned Traveler- SOL #15

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As I’ve evolved as a traveler, my planning has become more minimalist. I often buy plane tickets at the last minute, even when traveling internationally. I rarely book accommodations past the first day or two of my trip. I don’t buy Lonely Planets, and my research is kept to a minimum. Do I need a visa? What are some of the must-see sites? What’s the weather going to be like? What currency is used, and what’s the exchange rate? Do they tip? How do I say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’? Beyond these basic questions, I choose not to know.

The excitement of traveling is discovery. I love feeling the heartbeat of the city. My less-planned philosophy allows me to experience, first-hand, the culture of my newest destination. With feet to the pavement, one of my favorite things is walking (or biking) around the local neighborhoods, getting a feel for the ‘real’ city, not what your typical tourist experiences. Mingling with the locals, observing everyday life, taking in the sights, smells, sounds of the city…now this is authentic. Anyone can be a tourist. I choose to avoid most of the tourist traps in favor of real experiences.

Last October when I traveled to Myanmar, I was unplanned. Completely last minute. Having purchased our tickets just two weeks prior to departure, we scrambled to complete the visa application in time. Receiving our visa confirmation just 24 hours before departing was stressful, but the lack of planning on our part gave way to spontaneity. Unburdened by an itinerary, we were free to roam untethered, time and location not a factor. Had we had an itinerary, we never would have met ‘Uncle K,’ the 67 year old Burmese man with unending energy, knowledge, and enthusiasm, who became our impromptu tour guide in Yangon, giving us a glimpse of life beyond what’s laid out in the travel books. I wouldn’t have arm wrestled an 85 year old medicine man on the floor of his home while the rain hit the roof, enveloping us in a symphony of calming sounds. I wouldn’t have joked around with the Inle Lake boat drivers, poking fun at the man with the smiley eyes, who later hailed down his friend’s tuk tuk at my request so that I could drive Mel around in the sidecar. I wouldn’t have had such a funny story to tell for years to come. These, and many more experiences, the memories that made me fall in love with Myanmar, wouldn’t have been possible had I come with an agenda, an itinerary jam-packed with somebody else’s must-see locations.

As I look forward to my next trip- Kathmandu, Nepal- in just two weeks, my itinerary includes loads and loads of unplanned time. Time that I hope to fill with taking in the scenery, writing, observing the idiosyncrasies of everyday life, chatting with the locals, tasting the local fare, and venturing into the unknown.

A Funny Story (at least I thought so)- SOL #9

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I had dinner tonight with my friend Marisa, who wanted to pick my brain about Myanmar. Having traveled to Myanmar last October, she wanted the low down on what to expect, where to stay, and must-see locations. As I was telling her about my new favorite place in the world, I remembered a funny story…

Our last stop in Myanmar was Bagan, the ancient city with over 4,000 temples. Being that we had traveled to 3 places in the country in a week, we were pressed for time. Having arrived at 5:00am on an overnight bus, we took a nap, and upon waking, set out to see as much as we could see in our day there. Our first stop was the bus company, where we booked our return trip to Yangon for our flight back to China the following day. Once there, we learned we have the option of taking (another) overnight bus or a day bus the next day. Melissa asked me, “When’s our flight tomorrow?” I found it funny that she’s asking me, the traveler with the lack of attention to detail, but I vaguely remembered and told her that our flight was at 9:00PM.
“Are you sure?” she questions.
“Pretty sure.” Given our previous night’s overnight bus experience (I’ll save that for another story), we were keen to take the day bus, which would get us back to Yangon by 6:00PM, in plenty of time for our 9:00PM flight.

We then proceeded to visit as many temples as possible in Old Bagan. The temples are their own story, so I’ll just leave you with a few pictures until I write that story on another day…

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At the end of a long day of temple-hopping, we arrived at the Star Beam Bistro, this adorable Euro-cafe in the heart of Old Bagan. Sitting on the terrace, we ordered a spectacular meal of grilled salmon, fresh veggies, and cream sauce. Including my drink, the total was a whopping $6.00! As we reflected on the day, reliving the excitement of the past 8 hours, we were pleased that we had decided on the day bus. A night of sleep in a comfy bed plus a day of seeing the country side seemed heavenly!
“Hey, what time do we get back to Shanghai tomorrow?” Melissa asked.
“Ummm…I think around midnight or 12:30.”
“That’s not possible.”
“Yes, I’m pretty sure that’s what the itinerary said.”
“Jennifer, if we leave Yangon at 9:00, and then have a layover in Kunming, we can’t possibly get back to Shanghai then. It took us 6 hours to get here.”
“Yeah, but what about the time change?”
“It’s only an hour and a half difference. That still doesn’t make sense.”
“Well, I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure it said 12 something as our arrival time.”
Determined to figure out the answer, Melissa looks through her inbox on her iPhone. We don’t have access to wifi (the case nearly everywhere in Myanmar), but she can access saved messages. A few seconds later, her face falls. “Jennifer, we fly out of Kunming at 9:00PM. We fly out of Yangon at 2:00.”
Uh-oh! Sheepishly I said, “Well, I knew we left at 9:00. I guess I just had the location wrong.”
Panic set in on Melissa’s face. “What are we going to do? Our bus arrives at 6:00PM tomorrow. We’re going to miss our flight!!!”
“We’ll figure something out. No worries,” I said, remaining calm.
Melissa did not mirror my calmness.

Well, there was a bus that left that night. I figured if we got our food to go, we could rush back to the hotel, throw our stuff in a bag, and catch the bus in time. Calling the manager over, I borrowed his phone to call the bus company to inquire about the switch. I was informed that the bus left in half an hour, so we couldn’t possibly make it. Melissa was not too happy with the situation (or me). “We’ll figure something out,” I reassured her. It’s not like we could be stuck in Myanmar forever, right?

My composure still intact, I asked the manager if he had wifi. My plan was to book us a way out by tomorrow. No dice. Hmmm…well, we could rent a taxi and drive there tonight, but that was likely to be expensive. And who knows if there are any taxis that drive 10 hours to Yangon? How about a flight? Sure, we’ve heard that Myanmar has the lowest domestic airline safety rating of pretty much anywhere in the world, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Unsure of the possibility of getting a last minute flight out of Bagan and scared to find out the cost of said flight, I again speak to the manager. “Do you know how I could get a flight to Yangon by tomorrow? I seem to have made a mistake about our flight time and we aren’t going to make it.” Serendipitously, his cousin happens to be a travel agent. In a moment, I’m on the line with him making a reservation for two. Not only can we get on a flight in the morning, but it only costs $112 per ticket. Now that’s a deal! The tickets were delivered to our hotel about a half hour later, and we were saved! I’m glad, too, or Melissa would have killed me!