Postcard from Our Traveler: Greetings from Vietnam & Cambodia

Hi Tom,

Vietnam VacationKara and Jim here – coming to you from Hoi An, Vietnam.  First, you must know that we are having a wonderful trip.  Our two guides – in Hanoi and Hoi An – have been fantastic.  In case you are interested, we are keeping a little blog of our trip so that our family and friends know we are perfectly fine.  It is http://kjea.blogspot.com.

We leave for Siam Reap, Cambodia tomorrow. Regards and thank you for arranging such a wonderful adventure!

Kara & Jim Macdonald
Chicago, Illinois

Postcard from Our Traveler: Travel to Vietnam

Hi Rebecca,

I wanted to drop you a note to tell you our trip to Vietnam went off without a hitch. We had a very nice time and a very unique experience, one which we will long remember.

A special thank you to you, Asia Transpacific Journeys and your local Vietnam agency. I can’t think of one thing that was not perfectly arranged, on time and on schedule.

Also I would like to mention that our guide in Hanoi, a young man (Mr. Phi), was just fantastic. He had great knowledge always upbeat and most important a lot of fun. Please pass on our favorable impression of him along with our recommendation for him for your other clients.

Sincerely,

Chris O’Brien
California

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.

LIZA GUSLER
Virginia

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!

Postcard from Our Traveler: Travel Through the Lens by Susan Cohen

I come from a family of travelers.  My dad hitchhiked across the United States (for fun) in the late 1920s.  My brother B explored the Amazon when trading in plastic containers was a monumental event!  My sister H rode horseback across Kenya and my brother J loves back roads in his 4WD vehicle.  I choose to take my camera to colorful places and explore exciting new cultures with an open mind and a smile.

Travel in India—just saying the name puts all five senses into overdrive!  But, my story is more about the people I saw, met, smiled with, and felt the bonds of our common humanity.

Varanasi, on the Ganges river, is the holiest of Holy cities.  Multitudes come to bathe in the sacred waters.  But, [above] is my photo of a young boy sullenly rolling a large green leaf for his family’s betel business.  Does he wish he were playing soccer with his friends?  Did he pray earlier that morning?  Does he question what his adult life will be like?  Is he there day after day?  What if I were his mother?  How I wish I had the ability to sit with him and share our stories.


Pushkar This portrait of a camel trader is one of my favorites.  Look at his eyes! Can’t you just see his pride and strength?  I imagine him as a leader in his tribe, the husband of a beautiful wife with a jeweled nose ring and a father to strong sons.  He later turned, smiled and invited us to share a smoke.


Deogarth Village
We spent a wonderful night in a palace converted for guests and had sundowners with the Maharani, a beautiful, gracious woman with perfect English.  She was so welcoming and eager to discuss motherhood across our cultures and the choices her daughters now have.  The next morning I strolled through the village by myself, greeting everyone who was up and about as early as I was.  I happened upon an elderly woman sitting against a turquoise door.  She saw my camera and shyly lifted her sari and smiled so I could capture her photo.  Her only wish was to see my LCD display.  I wanted to hug her and tell her how beautiful she was to me in her age and wisdom.

India is priceless!  You must go!

When Susan Cohen retired from early childhood education in 2001, her gift was a 1 megapixel camera. She has since plunged into photography, taking several years of Fine Art Photography classes to refine her craft. Her dedication has paid off—she was published in National Geographic Traveler in April, 2009; made the cover of Shutterbug magazine in July, 2009; and several of her pictures are displayed on Schmap.com. Susan also took 2nd Place in the Asia Transpacific Journeys Client Photo Contest 2009. Whether it’s spending time with her six grandchildren or traveling the globe, Susan and her camera are ready for the next adventure!

We’ve been honored to have Susan travel with us on two trips, Treasures of India and Bhutan: Inside the Dragon Kingdom, and hope to have her (and her camera) travel with us again soon!

Photo of the Week :: India Travel Photo Contest

This week’s photo was taken by Andrea Perullo.

“I had just walked out of the Taj Mahal and was greeted by these women in their colorful saris.  I think the colors of the saris with the Taj Mahal as the backdrop is absolutely breathaking.  It actually brought tears to my eyes!” – Andrea Perullo

Photo: Andrea Perullo (c) All rights reserved

If you’ve captured that one-in-a-million shot on a recent trip to India then enter your photos in our “Share Your Experience – India Travel Photo Contest” and you could win an Apple iPad! (16 GB with Wi-Fi).

See all the other wonderful India travel photos that have been submitted on our Online Photo Contest Album.

Deadline for submission is July 31, 2010. Winners will be announced by August 31, 2010.

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.

Interview with Traveler and Award-Winning Photographer Dimitra Stasinopoulou

Among the things that make our jobs so rewarding are the special people who travel with us. Dimitra Stasinopoulou has been to Asia four times with Asia Transpacific Journeys, and photography is her means of connecting with local cultures. She has traveled with us to India, Bhutan and Papua New Guinea and has published books about her travels. But the books are not for sale—Dimitra gives them away. She has given away nearly 10,000 books so far.

We called Dimitra in her native Athens to talk travel, photography, and how she finds joy in “giving the books away.”

ATJ: What drove you to begin photographing people and producing such beautiful books?

DS: “Five years ago I was 52, I quit my job at Chase Manhattan Bank in Athens, in order to be involved in the pharmaceutical business my husband has in Romania. This was a big change in my life. I was feeling depressed there until I bought a camera and began taking pictures, mainly of the local people and their life. I had never photographed anything before. This was like opening a door for me, to really see the people. I published a book called Romania of my Heart. In this book I tried to express my love for this country that has moved me with its genuine character, its beauty and its boundless hospitality. The 4,000 copies printed have been offered as a gift both in Greece and Romania. For this book they gave me the UNESCO prize, since, as they said, it has deepened the friendship between our two countries. The book was officially presented to Greece by the President of Romania. After distributing the book I received many letters, but what I cherish the most is the Romanian people, who, as they told me, felt again proud for their country. It was a labor of love and they understood it. It changed my life.”

ATJ: In your book, Bhutan—Smiling Faces From the Roof of the World you take many portraits and seem to have a gift for engaging people. Can you comment on that?

DS:  “Communicating with people for me is the most interesting and rewarding experience. In Bhutan my eyes opened to a completely different world. It is so peaceful and the people are so innocent and welcome you wherever you go. I believe they understood that I really liked them and that I wanted to communicate with them. It was very special.”

ATJ: How do you go about getting someone’s permission to take their photo?

DS: “I never ask. I just engage. If you ask, then they freeze, everything changes. With my photography I try to really see the person. I smile and they smile back. That’s the permission. My camera does not come between us, it helps me to really see their heart. They feel this too.

I don’t look for perfect light or position. I don’t know how to adjust the camera for this type of thing. I just try to communicate with people.  Even if I knew I wouldn’t have time enough to adjust the camera since it is only a second that you capture.”

Dimitra Stasinopolou © All rights reserved | Girl at Pushkar, India

ATJ: You also just published an amazing book of photographs called India—Unity In Diversity. Can you highlight some of the differences and similarities between photography in India and Bhutan?

DS: “Bhutan is unique. There are so few people living there. They have had very little contact with outsiders. India is quite different, India has a billion people, it can feel overwhelming at times. But, everywhere I went in India, I met an unparalleled cultural heritage and magnificent people, sometimes sad in their poverty, but always positive and peaceful within. Hindu people are the most compassionate, sweet and calm people anyone can come across. Violence is never part of their emotions. It is these people, with their disarming innocence, in reality, that represent the biggest treasure of the country. Take the slums—the people are smiling, beautiful, clean and hard working. I decided to attempt to capture with my lens the human dignity of the Indian people, their sweetness and their optimism. The qualities of these people are so strong that conditions of life are a secondary matter.  I am really exhausted after the India project but I will always remember Indian people and their smiles.”

ATJ: Do you have a favorite place or destination for your photography?

DS: “It’s very difficult to say. Every country has its own beauty. Bhutan is special, very quiet and calm. The people are smiling all the time. You must be there to feel the peace. It’s one of the happiest places on Earth.  India is also exceptional, Papua New Guinea is unique.  Every place has its own beauty.”

ATJ: Do you use all digital technology or also film?

DS: “I only use digital. That’s how I started and I think it is unique, if a person like me that knows absolutely nothing about cameras is able to take good pictures.”

ATJ: What type of camera do you use?

DS: “Canon. I started with a Canon EOS 30D, 50D and now I shoot with a Canon Mark II 5D. I am used with them and also very pleased. I don’t think I will ever change.”

ATJ: Can you give a tip or two to aspiring photographers?

DS: “Shoot from the heart. Don’t think about the quality of the picture. Engage emotionally.  Share with other people. Today’s technology is so huge, a picture can be fixed, but it should be as close to reality as possible. No Photoshop, don’t try to turn the sky blue. The technical things are not important to me.”

ATJ: Do you have any other books planned?

Dimitra Stasinopolou © All rights reserved | Boy in Mt. Hagan, Papua New Guinea

DS: “Maybe the next one will be for Papua New Guinea. I am also going to China’s Silk Road with Asia Transpacific Journeys in May. Maybe China will be the next one. I don’t know yet.”

ATJ: Where can someone buy your books?

DS: “They are not for sale. I give them away to people I love, to people I admire, to friends, so that they pass them on to their friends, and of course to people I meet while traveling—fellow travelers and local people. It’s the biggest gift to give myself, for me to be able to give to others. For example in Romania while I was at a diplomatic reception I gave a local woman who was attending the coat check the book Romania Of My Heart. She thanked me so sincerely, and said she had been working at that coat check for 30 years but no one had ever given her a gift before. When she said that to me she gave me a gift to remember and treasure for the rest of my life. She and I both made a friend that day.

It’s so personal. I put my soul in these books. I couldn’t sell them or connect them with money. I don’t think a professional photographer would spend thousands of hours putting a book with more than 950 pages together. It’s a huge effort, it takes months. It could never pay. A publisher is now asking me to reprint the Bhutan book and sell it to India. If that happens I will donate any money away to charity. I know I am very lucky I can do this and I also know that so many other much more talented photographers could have made an even better book if they had the means. I believe the most important things in our life are given free, so what I am doing is the minimum I can do. I am a happy person doing this now.”

ATJ: Thank you so much Dimitra, it has been our sincere pleasure to talk with you.

DS: “I want to make a comment about your company. I feel I am the luckiest person on earth to be able to discover Asia Transpacific Journeys out of so many companies existing. I really believe you are working in such an exceptional way that you are also the ones to be credited for the books, at least for Bhutan and India. You organize things in such a way that you made me discover the best of each country. The personnel is so friendly (especially Rebecca Mazzaro with whom I talk the most) and well informed and always understood what I am looking for and guide me accordingly. I am always traveling alone, and in the beginning I thought it wouldn’t be easy. Most of the times the rest of the group are Americans, but they all are so very kind with me, making me feel at home with them. These pictures are a wonderful keepsake of our trips together. I am honored to have traveled with them and feel so privileged to have them as my friends. I thank you from my heart for existing and enabling me to make my dreams come true.

Since English is not my native language it is not so easy for me to express what I feel but I hope you understand.”

Dimitra in Ladakh

Dimitra Stasinopoulou is the recipient of the International Aperture Award for her photography and the artist behind three books of photography. Her book on Romania was awarded a UNESCO prize. She picked up a camera for the first time five years ago.

Client’s Trip to Bhutan Marks Travel To 307 Countries

One of our most well traveled clients, Ray Woods, is nearing his goal of completing travel to all 319 countries as designated by the Travelers’ Century Club (TCC). Membership in this exclusive club is limited to those travelers who have visited 100 or more countries in the world. Well past that goal, Ray’s recent trip to Bhutan with us marked his 307th country.

So far, only ten members have finished the list. However, the club is formed on more than the basis of checking countries off a list. It’s a social club uniting passionate travelers worldwide. In fact, back in 1960, the club officers selected the slogan “World Travel…the passport to peace through understanding.”

Congratulations Ray! Enjoy your final 12 destinations.

“Asia Transpacific Journeys has been outstandingly good….going to remote places in Asia. I have learned to trust them…also knowing that they deal with airline changes and other obstacles well.”
- Ray Woods