A Staff Postcard from the Field: Clean Water Brought To You By Asia Transpacific Foundation

Clean Water Initiative

I LOVE  Burma. LOVE LOVE LOVE it. If you’ve never been you HAVE GOT to go. There are many wonderful places in Asia, but Burma is special. It’s amazing! The people are so kind and gentle.

The last time I visited in 2011 I dropped by the factory that makes ceramic filters that produce clean water for locals. It’s funded by our very own Asia Transpacific Foundation and I highly recommend a visit to any of our travelers! It’s located in the village of Twante which has been a pottery center in Burma (Myanmar) for centuries.  It is a two hour drive from Yangon, along the red mud banks of the Irrawaddy River. It was a thrill to finally get to visit this village. It has been functioning like a well oiled machine for over four years.

As I arrived the local supervisor, wearing his best shirt and the traditional longyi (men’s sarong), flashed a huge grin in my direction and came to meet my vehicle.  He and his crew had been anxiously awaiting my arrival. I clasped my palms together in the traditional greeting and they all did the same. Then they presented me with tea and snacks. After this warm welcome I was invited to see the progress at the plant and meet the workers, who take great pride in their jobs.  The kiln was precisely built, and had been used to fire many loads of filters. As a matter of fact, filters were everywhere, in various states of finish.  Some were being pressed from raw clay that had been mixed with rice husk to create the required post-firing porosity, some were being dried in preparation for firing, some were being unloaded from the kiln and being tested for flow rates, others were being painted with colloidal silver and being packed for shipping to surrounding villages.  There were at least 30 people working diligently at all this.

All this is a huge success story for the people of this area! Clean water is virtually non-existant in many parts of rural Burma. Asia Transpacific Foundation and donations from our travelers have generously funded this effort. I was happy to see the diligence and dedication that the workers bring to their jobs, the clean drinking water that each filter provides and the income that this project provides for the workers and their families.

Later that day as my driver and I headed down the dusty red dirt road, I looked back to see all thirty of the employees smiling and waiving a warm good bye. The warmth of the Burmese people once again touched my heart.

~Rebecca Mazzaro, Asia Travel Specialist

Rebecca in Burma

The normally non-smoking Rebecca Mazzaro, Asia Transpacific Journeys Travel Specialist Extraordinaire, throwing caution to the wind in an effort to connect with locals in Mandalay, Burma


Rebecca became hooked on travel after spending a year of high school in a small Spanish province bordering Morocco. She studied Environmental Biology earning her degree at CU Boulder. A musical streak culminated in a performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and a penchant for travel manifested itself in years spent guiding around the U.S.

She fell for Asia during extensive travels in the region, where she expertly captures its people and places in photos. She revels in sharing her deep first-hand knowledge and was named a Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist for 2007. Rebecca was also named one of the World’s Top Travel Agents by Travel + Leisure magazine in 2011.

Journey Beyond the Ordinary–Ideas for Custom Travel To Myanmar (Burma)

The Taunggyi Festival–Myanmar

The Taunggyi (pronounced Tawn-gee) Balloon Festival takes place on the full moon in November in Myanmar’s Shan State. Tribal villagers come from all over the area with their handmade paper balloons in the shapes of animals like elephants and roosters, releasing them into the sky during the day. They range in size from that of a car to a house. Music and traditional dancing go on all day and late into the night.

As the night progresses more balloons are released, these often resembling a normal hot-air balloon and decorated with thousands of votive style candles. Most impressive, the balloons carry a payload of fireworks. The candles are lit and the balloon releases to cheers and dancing. At some point the paper catches fire, and the balloon incinerates in flaming ball. The fireworks are lit in the inferno, and the air explodes in a massive pyrotechnic display.

Postcard from Our Traveler: Travel to Burma

February 28, 2011

Dear Rebecca,

You are right – the Burmese people are lovely, and it is like going back in time to visit Myanmar.

Joel (Kyaw Thu), our guide, is an incredible person.  He is smart, passionate about his country’s heritage and artistic traditions and their current political plight, thoughtful and compassionate.  He was flexible with our program, sent meds to Inle Princess when P was under the weather, was gracious with carrying extra bags to lighten our load—excellent in all ways!! We loved the casual lunches under a thatched roof, sitting by the river and enjoying Burmese curry and stir-fried veggies.  It was great having Joel with us the whole time. I’m not feeling articulate at conveying how special I think Joel is, but we were very fortunate to have him lead us through his country. He tutored me in understanding and analyzing lacquer, antique and new. He also helped me begin to understand Buddhism. The graciousness and kindness of the Burmese people are all the more lovely and poignant in light of their political climate. They are all building good karma by being so gracious to foreigners now!

Loved the ruins, but my heart breaks for the want of preservation and help from Unesco. One of my best memories was in the 12th-century temple in Bagan with the amazing frescoes.  When Joel showed them to me with the electric torch, I felt like Juliette Binoche in the Italian chapel in The English Patient.  Also loved the musicians at the Gitameit, and got a kick out of their big “Aaron Meyer” poster.

I especially enjoyed the visits to the monasteries and Buddhist schools. We had a lovely interaction with kids in the village near Inle Princess. Hit lunch break at the school, so had fun teaching them to blow bubbles, then giving out lots of Matchbox cars and little animal finger puppets.

The time travel aspect was fascinating. In those tiny villages I kept thinking of Orwell’s John Flory, and how he identified with the native people, and how isolated and frustrated he felt among the narrow-minded Brit colonials. When I saw the wheelwrights, the ox carts, the clay water vessels, and one-room bamboo huts, I could empathize with the isolation those Brits must have suffered among the medieval way of life of the natives, though.

Inle Princess was wonderful.  Best spa I’ve ever indulged in!  Loved the silk weaving factories, especially the ikat fabric.  P had some gorgeous outfits made, but my splurges were a painting in Yangon and lacquer in Bagan.  Joel deciphered a date on a betel box that turned out to be the year I was born!  Auspicious sign, so I had to get it, of course—sort of like seeing Burmese Lessons in the new books at the library the day we first discussed the possibility of this trip. The box was made in that 4-generation shop and I got to meet the daughter and great grandson of the maker.

Loved the Gov Residence and Inle Princess.  We didn’t get the ocean front cottages at Sandoway, which was a disappointment, but still loved being there.  I took some amazing beach walks by the light of the full moon, and loved walking on the beach at dawn and sunset.  That beach is gorgeous and so unspoiled!

Thank you for the note regarding my brother Chuck’s trip with you, and the 1000 Places book.  Those were nice surprises to find in the mail pile, as were your two catalogs.  Almost addictive, like travel crack. Vietnam or India?  Turkey or Laos?

I loved the Arun Residence in Bangkok, too.  Wonderful food at “The Deck,” their restaurant.  Turns out it was written up in an article in the NY Times that I had with me. The extra amenities at the Royal Orchid Sheraton were good for P, and we enjoyed it as a place to recoup at end of day.  Our guide, Wow, was very good with the logistics of our shopping.  We flipped at the big Jim Thompson outlet!   Turns out they print for big English fabric houses such as Colefax and Fowler and Zoffany.  I loved the Jim Thompson house, too, and touring Ayuthaya.  Bangkok traffic was the pits.  Four Seasons could get addictive.  I’d consider a return trip to Bangkok on way to Laos or back to Inle Lake.

As always, you thought of every detail and left us eagerly anticipating our next trip with Asia Transpacific Journeys.

Many, many thanks for creating a magical experience for Penny and me.


Postcard from Our Traveler: The Reluctant Traveler in Burma by S. Jay Keyser

The author on one of his many reluctantly taken journeys, with his wife and friends.

The Train from Maymyo, Burma

George Orwell spent a year in Mandalay as a police officer, including time in Maymyo (42 miles east of Mandalay) where he trained with the Burmese army. Even today a large military presence permeates the town thanks to its being the home of the Defense Services Academy. Oddly, Orwell’s Burmese Days doesn’t mention Maymyo, although the town appears briefly in Homage to Catalonia:

Mentally you are still in Mandalay when the train stops at Maymyo, four thousand feet above sea level. But in stepping out of the carriage you step into a different hemisphere. Suddenly you are breathing cool sweet air that might be that of England, and all round you are green grass, bracken, fir-trees, and hill-women with pink cheeks selling baskets of strawberries.

Maymyo was to be the British home away from home. You can see this when you visit the Maymyo Botanical Garden. It is both lovely and pathetic.   It is beautifully laid out and is surely a pleasant promenade on Sunday afternoons. The pathos lies in its having been created on the advice of a Kew Gardens landscaper brought over for the express purpose of making Maymyo more like England. It never quite works, of course; hence, the overwhelming sense of loss that hangs over the garden. It must have been like spending holidays in a waxwork museum.

There is a train that travels northeast from Maymyo to Naung Hkio. It is a ride worth taking. If you stay on it long enough, you cross a 109-year-old bridge, the so-called Gokteik Viaduct, just outside of Naung Hkio. When it was completed in 1901, the bridge was the largest of its kind. Sir Arthur Rendel, an engineer with the Burma Railway Company, supervised the construction. The Pennsylvania Steel Company manufactured the parts. The point of the train ride is to cross this ancient trestle—all 2,260 feet long and 1,200 feet high of it. When the train reaches the bridge, you can stand at the end of the car and with the outer doors open look down into the gorge. You could never do that on an American train. This is the train that Paul Theroux writes about in The Great Railway Bazaar. Composed of fifty-year-old Japanese rolling stock, its appointments are old, worn out and for the most part no longer working.

At every stop vendors walk up and down selling things to eat and drink; noodles, bananas, sweet cakes, even cups of water. Over the years the window ledges have become encrusted with the detritus of these transactions. This has its attractions for, for example, a mouse that scampered up and down the carriage like a cartoon conductor.  It stopped every so often, looked around as if it wanted to gather an audience, then scurried on. He reminded me of Mr. Jingles in the Stephen King novel, The Green Mile.

Someone asked if it was a trained mouse.

“Well, of course, it is,” I said. “After all, we’re not riding on a bus.”

Since retiring from his prestigious post at MIT, Dr. Keyser has been following his wife around the world and documenting his experiences on his blog, The Reluctant Traveler. As he says: “The blog came about when I realized that I was married to an inveterate traveler and that I, an inveterate risk avoider, was psychologically unable to let her travel without me.”

An excerpt from his travel journals appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, May, 2000 under the title “Faint of Heart in the Heart of Darkness.”  His latest travel book, I Married a Travel Junkie (2010), is available online at the Harvard Book Store or at Amazon.com as a Kindle book. We’ve read this book—and his witty commentary has sent a round of chuckles through the office.

We’ve had the honor of arranging travel for Dr. Keyser and his wife to Burma, Laos, Thailand, Australia, Bhutan, and Burma, and hope to have them travel with us again soon!

Mekong River Trip

One of the most majestic waterways in the world is the Mekong River. It begins on the Tibetan Plateau in China and flows to the coast of Vietnam, where its estuaries, the “nine dragons,” fan out to form a fertile delta that meets the South China Sea. The Mekong River is over 2,600 miles long, and supports an expansive river basin comparable to the Amazon River in its biological diversity. The beauty of the basin’s mysterious jungles, soaring mountain peaks, and countless species of wildlife will captivate you as you visit the Mekong River delta for your next travel destination.

As you explore the Mekong River, evidence of the alluring Southeast Asian culture abounds in the form of floating villages and markets, thriving shoreline cities, and stunning coastal architecture, such as the royal Four Rivers Palace in Phnom Penh. Journey by longboat as the river winds through the Laotian jungle, take a river cruise on the Mekong Delta, or opt for a longer, leisurely cruise between coastal cities of your choice, including the bustling capital cities of Vientiane, Laos, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Your group and custom travel options are limitless, and our expertise is unmatched.

Travel along the Mekong River is most enjoyable between November and February, when the river is full and navigable, the weather is mostly dry, and the temperatures are moderate. The Mekong River is a worthy destination for part of your journey or for an entire getaway.

Postcard from Our Traveler: Violinist Aaron Meyer’s Musical Trip to Myanmar

By Aaron Meyer, Asia Transpacific Journeys' Traveler

I returned to Myanmar, 14 years after my last trip to Myanmar when I spent 6 weeks there in Dec 1995/Jan 1996 as a backpacker. Big changes had occurred in this isolated and amazing country. I joined my parents on a very well organized tour by Asia Transpacific Journeys; in fact my sister and Asia Travel Specialist, Rebecca Mazzaro, planned our entire trip, which was amazing!  I am a violinist by profession and specialize in combining world music with my contemporary/progressive original music. I bill myself as a Concert Rock Violinist, whatever that is…(www.aaronmeyer.com). I mentioned to my sister that I would like to visit any schools and reach out to students and share my music with them and also learn about any local music. My sister suggested that I visit a local music school in Yangon where students were learning to play western instruments.

I arrived in Yangon a few days after my parents and visited the music school. I performed for students at a very unique makeshift music school. Instruments were limited but there were approximately 10 violinist, 3 violists, 4 cellists, and 2 bass players. The quality of the instruments was very poor and the students lacked strings and other supplies but they played nicely and seemed to enjoy performing. Most importantly they lacked regular teachers to teach the students. I had an instant connection with the students. They wanted to learn as much as they could. It is not very often that they get to meet a professional musician from anywhere outside of Myanmar. It was really exciting to share music with the students and hopefully inspire them. I know the students were very interested in my style of music and how I incorporated the violin in a band with drums, percussion, and electric guitar. All I could think about was, I need to come back here and spend a month with these students. I plan to do this in the future. The people in Myanmar are amazing—so friendly and inviting.

Off I went to Bagan, the land of many temples, to connect with my parents and start our journey together exploring Myanmar. On my second full day of travel in Bagan, our guide, Golden, told me that they had organized an opportunity for me to perform for some children in an orphanage. The children were bussed into the town of Bagan and I played several songs for the children. These are the opportunities that really get me excited. I love connecting with local people wherever I go and music is a bridge between cultures. Music has no barriers and certainly crosses the language barrier. The children were bopping their heads to the music and looking at the violin as they had never seen a real violin before. I learned later, that one of the older orphans, 14 years old, was learning to play the guitar. When I heard this, I was again inspired to return and work with students who want to learn more about music in Myanmar.

Our next stop was a trip to Inle Lake, one of the most magical places in the world, where villages of people live out in the middle of a huge lake in the Shan State surrounded by beautiful mountains. The easiest way to get around here is by boat. We pulled up to a school over the water in our water taxi where I would perform for about 200 young Inle students in a small classroom on stilts over the lake. None of these kids had ever heard or seen a violin before. When I pulled out my violin, they had no idea what this unidentified object was. I played 3 songs for the kids and their favorite part was clapping at the end of each song. All I could think about was this is history in the making—for me a National Geographic moment. The most exciting part of the program was when I gave the violin to my father, a very accomplished violin teacher for young students in Philadelphia, PA. My Dad played Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and as he played all the children started singing the alphabet song. It was so neat hearing the children from Inle Lake sing along with an American violinist. And this song and the English alphabet was something that the children had already learned in their classroom. Then he played a classical introductory violin song, at first very boring with no emotion. He then played the same song, where he added more character to the music by changing the volume and adding crescendos.

He told the children he was going to try to scare them with the music by playing very soft, then really loud. As he proceeded to play, the children totally picked up on what he was doing and started laughing hysterically. We had so much fun with these students through music. It was a total magical experience. We really didn’t need any words to communicate with the students because we had the music. No matter where one goes in this world, music is the universal language.

I have performed several times in Southeast Asia including 2 solo appearances with the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra in Thailand. I do plan to travel to Myanmar this coming December and January and spend some time working with violin students. I would encourage anyone to visit Myanmar for the people and the natural beauty. Asia Transpacific Journeys was a tremendous help in setting up our trip and these amazing magical musical opportunities.

To learn more about trips to Myanmar, visit Asia Transpacific Journeys’ website or contact one of our Asia Travel Specialists.

Tour Leader Postcard from the Field: Myanmar (Burma)

On Sunsets and temples
By Steve Merchant, Asia Transpacific Journeys Tour Leader who regularly leads our Burma: Land of the Golden Pagoda Small Group Trip


On Sunsets and Temples, Myanmar (Burma)

Arriving in Mandalay mid-morning it was obvious that a heavy rainstorm had occurred during the night. The air was clean and crisp and there was a vividness about the colors that follow sudden downpours. Our small group of travelers were in good mood after 5 days in Burma (now called Myanmar) and despite frequent thunderstorms were enjoying mixing with the locals in the street markets and observing their reverence as they prostrated themselves before Buddha in the incensed fumed temples. Careful to observe the rituals we had also bought perfume scented flowers from the street sellers and carefully hung them from the alter in the hope of improving our karma while the last of the rainy season storms filled the ricefields and we dodged under cover to continue our sightseeing.

Much to our surprise we were informed that the famous Mandalay road is in fact its river, the Ayerwaddy, which we were due to get a glimpse of when we ascended Mandalay hill for the “glorious sunset”, as promised in our literature. But first we visited the Golden Palace Monastery and the “Largest book in the World” pagoda which consists of 729 marble tablets carved with the Buddhist sacred writings and then broke for lunch. Due to its geographical positioning between two of the world’s great culinary countries, India and China, Burmese food surprises visitors with its subtleness and variety and so far none of our group had succeeded in losing any of the pounds they’d hoped for on leaving home. With the heat back in renewed force we retreated to our rooms to coolly contemplate the chances of seeing a sunset instead of the aerial pyrotechnics witnessed the previous night. Continue reading

A Staff Postcard from the Field: Mergui Archipelago

Mergui-1I am sitting atop the Mermaid 1, somewhere in the Andaman Sea along the Mergui archipelago, watching the sun set after another incredible day of snorkeling and beach walking. The late day sky looks like a watercolor in muted shades of pink and orange.

We were all up by 6 a.m. today and instead of the morning beach walk we all opted to snorkel before breakfast. The Zodiacs took us to a fabulous spot where the water was calm and so clear, it was truly amazing. This morning we saw beautiful fields of table coral and so many colorful fish. It was like swimming in an aquarium.

Every time I go in the water I see something new. This morning I saw the biggest puffer fish ever, just hanging on the bottom. It was nearly three feet long, light blue with dark spots. It seemed quite oblivious to all the masked creatures hovering over the little guy, us! There was a countless school of large parrot fish, so vibrantly colored, and every time they munched on the coral you could actually hear them dining. After about an hour and a half we came back to the Mermaid and had a fabulous breakfast, then on to more snorkeling and island discoveries.

We were recently on Lampi Island, which is rumored to have wild elephants inhabiting it. And while we did not see any elephants, we did see their relatively fresh scat, so the rumors are a reality!

We always saw various birds on our beach walks, from sea eagles to bramminy kites and collared kingfish, which are a brilliant turquoise blue. We also saw a multitude of reef heron on Steward Rock.

Another day in paradise!


View Donna’s photos at our Flickr site >>

Donna is our Controller and joined our World Wildlife Fund trip, Snorkeling Thailand and the Mergui Archipelago. This trip sells out fast every year. Our 2010 departure is set for February 28. Learn more at our site.


Southeast Asia, Off the Beaten Path

An article in Forbes Traveler by Don Willmott.

“Where can you experience authentic Southeast Asia without sharing it with busloads of other travelers?

The answer is simple: Find the places that fewer people know about. Throughout Southeast Asia, it’s easy to find viable alternatives to the wonderful but overcrowded destinations to which throngs of travelers typically flock.”

To read the entire Forbes Traveler article, visit ForbesTraveler.com

To learn more about travel to Southeast Asia, visit our site.

Giving Back – Myanmar

Many travelers like to include an activity whereby they can give back to the communities they visit. Some travelers find that this is a way to deepen their connection to the people and culture of the area. Following are some examples of philanthropic activities we have incorporated into our clients’ itineraries in Myanmar (Burma):

  • Sponsor the daily meal for young Buddhist monks at a temple. Buy the ingredients and help dish out the food to the hundred or so novice monks. A special blessing will be said on your behalf.
  • Visit Twante, a village near Yangon that was built with funds from Asia Transpacific Foundation, the non-profit charitable arm of Asia Transpacific Journeys. There they produce simple clay filters from affordable, indigenous materials. The filters are distributed and health rates soar, particularly among children.
  • Interact with the gifted musicians at Gitameit, a conservatory of music in Yangon that is devoted to teaching and nurturing young talent. The school supports many youngsters from remote villages, offering scholarships and the chance to study abroad.