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

A Staff Postcard: Elephant Hugs from Thailand

Simone Farbus, Air Travel Manager at Asia Transpacific Journeys was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and China Airlines recently.

I was hugged by an elephant in the Land of Smiles!

The Land of Smiles is a designation that the Tourism Authority of Thailand has adopted as its motto.  It’s a nickname the country has deservedly enjoyed unofficially for decades.

My first trip to Thailand was in 1978 with a couple of friends—taking a Spring break from our busy government jobs in Hong Kong.  For years I said it was the best vacation I had ever been on.  I had never before traveled to anywhere quite as captivating or welcoming as Thailand.

Almost exactly 30 years later I returned this year, happy to find that the people were still smiling, the food was even better than I recalled, and the country as diverse and unique as I remembered.

It’s easy to fully decompress in Thailand.  I watched elephants paint better pictures than I could, spent an afternoon with tigers, sampled a dozen different fruits in the orchards where they grew (including the famous odiferous durian fruit), and watched the sun set over a still ocean, all in one day.  Nowhere else can you get quite the variety of activity.

I traveled from the north to the south of an amazing country, captivated by its music and dance, its flora and fauna, its tastes and smells. When I returned with my many photographs my children asked me what the best thing was.  “Being hugged by an elephant,” I replied.

Photo of the Week :: Asia Transpacific Journeys’ India Travel Contest

This week’s photo was taken by Lindy Mendelson.

“This female tiger walked within 30 feet of our vehicle during our morning safari [at Bandhavgarh National Park] right after we saw her two cubs playing together.” — Lindy Mendelson

Lindy Mendelson © Asia Transpacific Journeys

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.

A Staff Postcard: Riding the Rails in India

India travel notes from Tom Lastick, Asia Transpacific Journeys’ Travel Specialist

Travel is my life and livelihood and my most recent trip to India was an adventure of a lifetime. I traveled on the maiden voyage of a new luxury train called the Maharajah’s Express. This is India’s first truly five-star train product and is comparable to rivals elsewhere such as the Eastern and Orient Express. They have a classic program linking Delhi and Bombay with stops at Agra for the Taj Mahal, the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and famous forts and outposts of Rajasthan like Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur. Their other program is a first-of-its-kind journey through the plains of central and eastern India linking Delhi and Calcutta with stops at Gwailor, Khajuraho, Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve and ancient Varanasi.

Tom Lastick

I was impressed with the train and the overall experience provided. There is also a romantic and nostalgic quality to India travel by rail. That said, I still prefer travel at a more leisurely pace and with more time to enjoy the destinations visited and the unique hotels and accommodation choices that abound in India. I feel the train is an excellent option for train buffs of course and also those that desire to cover a lot of ground and see a great deal in a relatively short amount of time. Both journeys on the Maharajah’s Express are one-week programs.

While in India I also had the chance to explore “off the rails” and search for the kind of new experiences we continually seek out as part of our mantra to provide “Journeys Beyond the Ordinary”. One such experience was an opportunity to wander the Dharavi Slum of Bombay, one of the largest slums in the world. This area was made famous as a filming site in the critically acclaimed “Slumdog Millionaire” and was also recently chronicled in National Geographic magazine. Wandering a slum might not sound so appealing, however the experience was one I will remember for a lifetime. In the company of my eager and friendly student guide who grew up in Dharavi, a new world was opened up to me. Looking in from outside at this sprawling shanty town, one may be off-put by the disheveled appearance and potential fear of venturing within. Inside is another world of thriving industry and sustainability. Everything imaginable is recycled and resold in these hidden alleys; cardboard, plastic, cable and wiring, basically anything that is disposed of and can possibly be salvaged for profit. Talk about eco-tourism! Another section of the slum is a thriving pottery production center while another handles wrapping and packaging foodstuffs that are re-labeled and sold in India’s most up-market shops and department stores. Dharavi is a world of industry and opportunity with a diverse makeup of residents from all over India.

One of the more difficult aspects of any trip to India is the sometimes intense poverty, and particularly the beggars that are so commonly found at sites affluent tourists are likely to frequent. In spite of perceptions and appearance, this is not the case in Dharavi where everyone works hard, has a purpose, and where they are not yet accustomed to seeing visitors from the outside world. I was warmly welcomed everywhere I went in the company of my resident guide and what was supposed to be a short one-hour visit quickly turned into five as I was absolutely enthralled and not ready to leave. When finally it was time to go I came away knowing this was something special and something to be shared.

It is unfortunately inevitable that this experience will not be possible for much longer. Bombay is a city of 20 million and India’s financial capital. Real estate is at a premium and already apartment blocks and office high-rises blot out the sun in every direction you look. The land occupied by Dharavi is under the eye of developers and sadly this true economic heart of the city will eventually be lost. India generally is poised on the brink of an economic explosion, much like China has already seen and I urge any of you that have been considering travel to India, or maybe have already been and yearn to return for more, do so before the landscape irrevocably changes for good. I am blessed I was still able experience the unique chaos, color and panorama that is India today and the India I know and love.

Did you capture that one-in-a-million shot on your recent trip to India? Do your friends and family ooh and aah when you show them your best India travel photos? Then enter your photos in our “Share Your Experience – India Travel Photo Contestand you could win an Apple iPad! (16 GB with Wi-Fi).

A Postcard from the Field: Mumbai Through New Eyes

India travel notes from Jarrod Hobson, one of Asia Transpacific Journeys’ Travel Specialists

Last month I returned from an interesting trip to India. Despite the exceptionally hot weather I once again fell in love with this country and its one billion residents.

A colleague and I were invited on the maiden voyage of the Maharaja’s Express. The train journey began in Delhi and ended in Mumbai (Bombay). Along the way we saw the Taj Mahal, opulent forts and palaces, took jeep safaris to remote villages and rode camels in the desert to a catered dinner. Oh yeah, I also mastered elephant polo!

Jarrod Hobson with a new found friend

Asia Transpacific Journeys‘ motto is “Journey Beyond the Ordinary™,” and I had the opportunity to check out an area few get to witness. Visiting the Dharavi slums of Mumbai—where Slumdog Millionaire was filmed—may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the day ended up being a highlight of my travels to India.

Once in the slums you realize what India was like before mass tourism. For example,one thing many people will notice when traveling in India is that there is constant begging. It’s a nuisance because many people want to help the poor but know it’s impossible to do by giving in to this practice. In the Dharavi slums the people have no concept of begging. The people here are from all walks of life and all religions. They live in harmony despite their religious outlooks and views. Indeed, this tour felt like a breath of fresh air because of the peaceful harmony.

The overall cleanliness was what stuck out the most. The residents support themselves by recycling everything in sight. Therefore it is very clean once you get inside the slums. From the outside it looks like a place you would really want to steer clear of. Once inside you cannot take pictures because the people would not know what to think of it. These people live in an area that has narrow lanes that cannot accommodate vehicles or motorcycles. Therefore, you also have relief from the continuous fear of being run over by a Bombay cab driver. The lanes are clean and well maintained. Children play and the people are industrious and happy.

The real estate where these slums are is very good property. Investors are buying up the land and starting to develop the land for the emerging Indian middle class. It’s a shame knowing that the experience I had will not be possible in the near future. National Geographic has also recently published a great article about the slums I visited.

I walked away from the experience thinking, “this is the type of tour that really makes me feel I’m taking a ‘journey beyond the ordinary™.’” There is a section of the slums where they produce pottery. It’s amazing quality that can be bought for a song. I ended up buying a couple of clay pots and unfinished candle holders. This weekend I’m going to help my 2-year-old son, Tucker, paint them with his little paint set. It’ll be nice to have a token from this experience. And all for about 5 cents!

We’d love to hear about your travel to India. Enter our photo contest—your photos of India could win an Apple iPad!

A Staff Postcard from the Field: Blissed Out in Bhutan

Bhutan travel notes about remote Eastern Bhutan from Marilyn Downing Staff, Asia Transpacific Journeys’ Founder & President

I have just come in from 7 days trekking for one night of ‘deluxe’ accommodations—at least as far as they offer in this remote area of Bhutan—then back out for another 4 days of exploration. I have had the adventure of a lifetime thus far and can’t wait to share some stories. It has been one of the most extraordinary trekking experiences of my traveling life.

We currently have 6 clients here in Bhutan—all very happy indeed. By the time you receive this message, I will be back on the trail with the yaks.

Marilyn Downing Staff

On this trip to Bhutan, Marilyn is trekking through the yet-to-be-opened-to-tourists Sakten Wildlife Sanctuary, the only reserve in the world that protects the habitat of endemic animals and the cryptid yeti (also known as the Abominable Snowman). She is also trekking from Tashi Yangtse to Lhuntshi, a road-less area inhabited with Himalayan mountain people living very traditional lives, with little exposure to the outside world. Speak to one of our Travel Specialists if you would like more informtion on trekkig in Bhutan.

A Staff Postcard from the Field: Discovery in China

China travel notes from Chris Dunham, Asia Travel Specialist


Ni hao from China!

I’m currently on a whirlwind visit to cover 9 cities in 17 days. It’s amazing to see all the changes that have occurred within China since my last visit. I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Yunnan Province, which is new for me and I would fully recommend you visit Kunming, Lijiang, Dali and Zhongdian if you are looking for something different from the traditional tourist track in China. Yunnan is very tribal and while many parts of China are predominantly of the Han majority, Yunnan’s population is comprised mainly of ethnic minorities such as Naxi, Tibetan and Yi Peoples, to name a few.

My favorite experience so far was in Zhongdian, which is about as close to resembling Lhasa, Tibet as one can get without actually traveling to Lhasa. As a side note to this story, my fiancée, Ali, is back in the US and she is constantly on my mind as we are getting married in about two months, but she couldn’t take the time off to travel with me this time around. On this particular day in Zhongdian with my guide, I hiked up to the top of Dabao Monastery just on the outskirts of Zhongdian, where I lit Yak Butter Lamps for my future with Ali as well as all of my family. Then, I was blessed by the Chief Lama of the Monastery and given some lovely prayer beads, which I am still wearing. Finally, I purchased Tibetan prayer flags from a local woman and wrote down my wishes for a good life with Ali on the prayer flags and then hung them in the sea of prayer flags on the side of Dabao Mountain. Our names and wishes for a good life are still blowing in the wind on those prayer flags. I will always cherish the time I spent in Zhongdian and I look forward to my next opportunity to return to this gem nestled along majestic mountains and beautiful countryside.

My account above is just one of the amazing, beyond-the-ordinary experiences I’ve had while in China. Time is fleeting, so keep traveling!

Zai-jian,

Chris

A Staff Postcard from the Field: A Journey to Taksang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery

Travel to Bhutan

Taksang Monastery

Notes from Paro, Bhutan from Kirsten Louy Nasty, Asia Transpacific Journeys’ Operations Manager

We awoke early to a cool, still morning. The sun had not yet peered from behind the mountains.  After basic morning ablutions, we headed to the dining area where we had requested an early breakfast and more importantly, an early coffee.  We picked up a picnic lunch consisting of cheese momos, emma datse (cheese and chilies sauce) with rice and vegetables, grilled chicken and hot tea, from a local restaurant.  After parking our Land Cruiser at a monastery just above Paro town, we adjusted our pack straps, tightened our hiking shoes, checked our belongings and remembered to dab on sunscreen before the rays began to cut through the thin mountain air onto our skin.

Our posse of 5 intrepid hikers followed a windy one-lane hiking trail up, up, up through brush, branches and moss-covered trees. We quickly rose above the layers of incense and wood fire smoke from below, and above the townspeople preparing for their busy day in the fields, at the market or business. We could not hear them; the air was quiet. We ascended above daily life on a pilgrimage; a mission to find the famous Taksang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest) by a path less traveled, swooping in from behind and sneaking up on it, as if on the back of our very own winged tigress.

After ascending 3,000 ft in 3 hours we came upon a high meadow with views of the Himalayan peaks and the valleys below; the layers of valleys extending far beyond. Our picnic lunch was our body’s fuel and the breathtaking view, our soul’s reward. We paused to take it all in.  The furry-faced yaks with clanking neck bells turned to watch us.   Then onward down, down, down we continued until a turned corner revealed a gem of a structure clinging to the side of a cliff wrapped, as if a precious gift, in bands and strings of colorful prayer flags. Its gold paint glimmered in the morning light.  A Tiger’s Nest it was, and we had landed. It looked as if a strong wind or one move from the mountain and earth could hurtle it into the crevice below, but for over 300 years the monastery has strongly held its precarious position on the side of the mountain; a testament to the faith and vision of those who built it.

Our small group witnessed that day of the beauty of friendship, of the land, of humanity and of history. We stopped to say hi to the inquisitive yaks, to spin prayer wheels and to let peace soak in. We walked on the earth and shared stories while breathing the air deep into our lungs. We enjoyed food and drink together and we viewed an awe inspiring structure which continues to sacredly store spiritual stories and, which conveyed to us, the meaning of Bhutan.

Visit our site for information on group travel to Bhutan or creating a custom private trip to Bhutan for just you and your family or friends.

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

sunset-kyaw

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: Bollywood by the Beach

Bollywood by the Beach
Notes from South India from Marilyn Downing Staff, Asia Transpacific Journeys’ Founder and President

Bollywood, South India

Bollywood, South India

It doesn’t take much to draw a crowd in India, and when a gathering occurs, like a moth to a flame, I too am drawn.  Some of my best moments during my travels in India have come from joining in. What ever has captured their interest, usually captures mine as well. So I found the crowd gathered on the beach at Pondicherry irresistible. I was rewarded by a full Bollywood shoot.  A camera boom with full crew were filming male dancers, dressed in black in the sweltering midday tropical heat.  They were going through a dance routine with full athletic rigor, as only Bollywood can.  The non-dancing star, who they surrounded, was a portly middle aged man with a pouf-do that required constant attention from his stylist.  Music, action, cut.  Music, action, cut.  Time and again they filmed the scene. Time and again they ‘cut’ and shot again to achieve utter perfection in the dance moves.  The crowd grew and before long there were a coterie of vendors making the most of the opportunity – ice cream, snacks, toys for the children-a spontaneous happening that made our day.

Pondicherry, the old French colonial capital, is about 120 miles south of Chennai, India. Learn more about travel in South India.