Posted on March 30, 2015
With flocks of friends currently flitting around the world on holidays, it was inevitable that I’d return to take a look at our time spent exploring Burma. After Bagan, Inle Lake was most definitely another favourite destination of ours. It wasn’t just the endlessly serene and entirely unique waterscape that enthralled us, but also the chance to see the people, known as the Intha (literally, “sons of the lake”) living in and around the enormous body of water itself. Living in bamboo houses propped up high out of the water on stilts, the Intha have historically depended on the lake for everything. And this lifestyle is still evident this present day – you’ll see fishermen in tiny boats, some still employing the unmistakable leg rowing style found nowhere else in the world (some are legit, some just do it when tourists are whisked by), you’ll see rows of tomatoes and vegetables being cultivated atop beds of floating reeds as if on land, and people living life so naturally entwined with that of the lake, hopping blithely in and out of boats, going shopping, brushing their teeth, washing their clothes, and I dare not think what else.
Where to stay and how to get around:
Long story short, don’t stay on Inle Lake itself unless you’ve got stacks of cash to burn. We stayed in Nyaung Shwe, the township to which Inle Lake technically belongs, which is a mere 30 to 40 minute motorboat ride away from where the main action is on the lake.The majority of the hotels in Nyaung Shwe are strategically placed along waterways which makes hiring a boat and driver exceedingly easy, in fact the hotelier will generally organise this for you.
To get around the town and to nearby places it’s simple! Get on ya bike! Again, the hotel staff can sort you out with hiring one, and it’s super cheap.
What to do and see:
Spend as much time in and around the lake as possible, obviously! It’s pretty impossible for Inle to look bad, but the incredible light and reflections off the still water you get at sunset are unbeatable, don’t miss that. During the day, you must check out the local market. This was not the Thai-esque floating market I initially thought it would be and I’ll admit I’m not proud of the minor hissy fit I threw at first. Little did I know that this market was also frequented by all the locals buying their vegetables, spices, rice, pots and pans, and betel nut of course. Persevere and wade through the touristy dross that gets presented to you right front and centre to where the people gather around rickety wooden tables to buy and eat their lunch. Best tohu-thoke I have ever eaten in my life (Sorry, even better than yours Mum!). My advice regarding the food? Follow your nose. Follow the locals. Eat stuff that’s freshly cooked and hot if possible. Or just be like me and chance catching gastro it because it’s that good. (FYI I did not catch gastro!)
The other place I loved exploring whilst out on the water were the workshops that still practise the art of handloom weaving and the highly labour intensive craft of spinning lotus root fibres into threads. These exceedingly fine threads are used to make a fabric a little like coarse silk but much rarer and quite a bit more expensive, but for good reason!. It reportedly takes 32 000 lotus stems to make just one metre of this soft and unique fabric.
If you’ve got a tiny bit of time to spare and/or feel like doing something on land, hire a bike and cycle to the nearby Shwe Yan Pyay monastery, a beautiful 19th century structure built completely from teak. Walk around quietly and respectfully as this is still a fully functioning monastery. Go very early in the morning as the young monks are just stirring and congregating to have breakfast and beat the usual tourist rush.
How to get here:
There are a number of ways to get to Nyaung Shwe and Inle to meet any budget. I would recommend flying into Heho airport first (as the roads are pretty crappy and extremely tortuous due to the area being on an elevation) then making your way to the town of your choice by road. What I’d love to do next time is head to a nearby town named Kalaw first then trek to Nyaung Shwe, which typically takes two to three days, staying overnight in local villages along the way. Yet another reason to head back to this incredibly lush countryside.
Posted on February 13, 2015
It’s no secret – I love clothes. So much so that at one stage of my life it wasn’t uncommon to be asked point blank, “So how much time do you spend shopping?” (Honestly, not that much, I’m a targeted shopper, I know what I wants and I gots to have it!). But certainly over the last two years, my views towards the all-hallowed, all-hated, and much-debated word fashion (or fashuuuurn if you must) has changed, back-tracked and evolved.
What things have changed the most? I’ve come to realise that more and more a few key principles are informing my choices, almost subconsciously, emerging from life experiences, travels and integral encounters with amazingly selfless and foresighted people. Travelling through Burma and wandering through a number of textile stores and factories got me asking questions and cemented my views even more.
In essence, less is more. And simplicity is king.
And why? Well, not only does this reflect a maturing sense of style which flits around less and less with the tides of trend and seasonality, but more importantly a desire to live more responsibly and knowledgeably, being aware of where my clothes come from to where they will end up.
This isn’t always easy. I mean, there are so many righteous pillars to uphold. Buying local vs abroad. Supporting the artisan over the multimillion dollar megacompany. Is the cotton organically farmed? Is the way in which the natural fibres of my favourite chambray shirt sustainably farmed? Is the clothing made by children or underpaid individuals? And while we’re at it, let’s talk about ethics and fair trade?
There is much smoke and many mirrors that confuse and hardly help us make our decisions. Companies and labels can easily masquerade as seemingly smaller ones and portray an image of “organic-ness” and wholesomeness, but may not always display transparency in the sourcing of materials or making of their products. And, let’s just be honest, sometimes you just need something and you need it quick, like it’s a lot easier to buy a flat-packed coffee table from Ikea than bang one out of upcycled wood in your own backyard, isn’t it?
So, one of my personal endeavours this year is to scout out local companies that think beyond their money-making capabilities and actively make the principles of fair trade a core part of their business ethic, partly because it’s sometimes really hard to ask all those questions yourself when searching for that new shirt for work, but mostly because their example should lead the way for all businesses out there. Fair trade should be a requirement and the norm, so let’s get behind and support the companies that uphold it.
These photos capture traditional handloom weavers at work in a small workshop on Inle Lake, Burma. They use cotton, silk and even lotus root fibres, which is itself a waning craft as it is highly labour intensive.
Posted on February 3, 2015
Once home to over 10 000 temples, the otherworldly historical city of Bagan is not to be missed and definitely the favourite destination of our recent travels to Burma. More than 2000 of these ancient and unmistakable pagodas still stand, and walking amongst them truly transports you back to the 11th century when Bagan was the thriving capital of the Pagan Empire. The temples, mostly dedicated to Buddha although dotted with the odd Hindu shrine, range vastly in size from imperious monuments several storeys high to tiny stupas that can only allow one or two people inside at a time. The smoky atmosphere (attributable to the numerous household cooking fires in the area) and entirely unique landscape make every single sunrise and sunset a breathtakingly different experience. It goes without saying, our cameras got an insanely good workout during the few days we had here.
Where to stay and how to get around:
Present day Bagan is separated into three distinct regions – Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung Oo. Old Bagan is the heart of the old city where you’ll find most of temples. There are a number of hotels and resorts but they tend to be pretty pricey. New Bagan was essentially created by the government to prevent locals for living in and among the temples and is honestly fairly bland and characterless. We chose to stay in Nyaung Oo. There are many very affordable places to stay and the town is a fun 20 minute bike ride from Old Bagan. It is also home to F.I.T. Street where you will find a number of great restaurants to eat.
You can get to and around Old Bagan by foot, bicycle, electrical bicycle (E-bike), car and even horse cart if that so tickles your fancy. We hugely enjoyed cycling around although that can get pretty hot and gross during the middle of the day. We ended up generally doing most things around sunrise and sunset to get around this (and of course to experience that magical light), but we did hire a car on one day and smashed out a huge number of pagodas.
What to do:
Did I mention there are over 2000 temples to explore? Okay, so it’s pretty unlikely you’re going to be able to see them all, but here are our highlights. Number one experience if you can spare the time and the moolah is a hot air balloon ride that takes you on a once-in-a-lifetime, peaceful sunrise glide over the heart of Old Bagan, just high enough that you feel like you could graze the very top of the Dhammayangi temple. There are three ballooning companies, all of whom cost roughly the same, setting you back a hefty but totally worth it $350 USD per person. We went with Oriental Ballooning and would most definitely recommend them to anyone planning a trip to Bagan.
For another magical sunrise experience (but completely free!), cycle to Bulethi pagoda at the break of dawn to catch the balloons wafting by. This is still a relatively unknown sight, and definitely worth becoming a morning person for.
Go to as many as you can but some must-see pagodas include sunset from Shwesandaw (expect crowds and tour buses but a sunset that will make you forget about them all), Dhammayangi, Ananda, Htilominlo, Sulamani, and Manuha Paya (for its giant reclining Buddha). The best thing to do is just generally get lost in and amongst these ancient structures and just go wherever your exploring feet take you.
If you have extra time and you can’t resist a good market (like me!) then the Nyaung Oo market is worth a gander. I love discovering local produce and cuisine that I’ve never seen, smelt or tasted before. If you’re game to try the food, generally go for stuff that’s piping hot to avoid a nice case of gastro (poor Jinn didn’t escape!). Beyond the food market, there are many beautiful fabric stores and I bought more than ten metres of gorgeous linen for just forty dollars!
The region is also known for their exceptional lacquerware, an ancient craft that originated from China. It involves a labour intensive process that consists of building up over 20 layers of various naturally occurring substances to create beautiful and very hardy pieces, that can range from very functional bowls and plates to purely ornamental art pieces. There are, as always, cheap knock-offs but I would recommend searching out a place called Lotus Collection in New Bagan to find a more artisanal studio versus a number of the larger factories that give off a “mass produced” feel.
How to get here:
Bagan is accessible by air, road, rail and boat, depending on where you’re coming from. Coaches are available and are a good way to see the countryside but can take a long time (around 10 hours from Rangoon/Yangon), so we opted to fly.
Be sure to bring along your camera, a pair of energetic legs for cycling and pagoda-climbing, a bit of extra cash for an unforgettable balloon ride, and your best “Mingalaba” to soak in and explore Bagan, a truly historical and spiritual centre of this country.
Mingalaba is a Burmese greeting and literally translated means “May your day be filled with auspiciousness!”
Posted on January 13, 2015
What started as a dream then a whisper that became a tentative plan that hung on the chance of everyone’s holidays aligning (less likely than all the stars and moons and planets pausing in their extraterrestrial paths to spell out OMG) finally became a reality as we travelled to Burma with my family last December, the country that my parents grew up in but left in 1971, barely in their twenties. As I’ve gotten older, for some reason seeing the place that my parents spent their early years in has seemed more and more important. Perhaps I felt that it would help me, for want of a less cliched phrase, figure out who I am or where I fit in.
Burma (also known as Myanmar) is a country that is deeply rich in history and culture. It has gone through many significant events over the last thousand years, including periods of prosperity and dominance, through British occupancy, and unfortunately many wars. It is also home to an incredible number of indigenous ethnic groups, that add to the colour, clamour and, of course, cuisine of Burma. With many places to explore and get lost in, both fast-paced and slow, Burma is a country that truly needs to be experienced, felt and tasted to really understand.
Over the next few posts, we’ll share with you the favourite parts of our three week long journey. We took along no less than five different cameras (granted one was a Fuji Instax), watched five sunrises from a variety of vantage points including a hot air balloon, the top of an ancient temple, and astride a bicycle, pedalling through golden mist. It’s no wonder we took around 6500 photos and whittling them down to just our favourite few has not been an easy job (thanks Jinn!).
Enjoy! If you’ve been to Burma before, we would love to hear about your experiences – for the next time we go, of course! If you’re planning or even dreaming about going and need some travel tips, please do drop us a line!
Posted on November 28, 2012
Most people I meet surmise that my folks hail from somewhere like Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong…
Then they go along the lines of Japan, Korea…? Still wrong! And then they get desperate and start flinging out random places like Africa, Scotland, Mongolia…? The survey says…? Beeeeh, wrong answer!
My parents moved to Australia in the mid-70s from Burma! You’re right in thinking that we’re of Chinese descent though. Our family tree is somewhat sketchy, but yes somewhere along the way we must have emerged from China. There are some interesting stories about some great-great-great-grandfather of my mother’s being the ophthalmologist to the emperor during one of those decadent dynasties. Well, this great man had multiple wives and concubines as you did back in the day, and we sprang forth from one of his Dutch wives! Fancy that!
Well the point to that rather convoluted and definitely accurate tale is that we have grown up eating a fine mix of Chinese and Western cuisines, admixed with all the other amazing cultures found in Australia (Greek, Italian, Japanese, Lebanese, I could go on forever…) but my favourite and most unique dishes come from Burma. Yes, I could eat noodles and dumplings until I pass out (just watch me) but give me one of my mum’s fine Burmese salads or curries and that char kuey teow is left to go cold.
Burmese food is somewhat best described as a marriage between Vietnamese, Thai and Indian cooking, with its quintessential combination of herbs and spices in a cuisine rich with salads, noodle dishes, curries and more. There’s interesting usage of essential ingredients such as dried prawns crushed into a powder to add an incredible depth of flavour to a dish, or tamarind for that perfect sour but sweet tartness that no lemon or lime can deliver. Adding fresh coriander and a drizzle of oil infused with fried shallots transforms a basic salad into something inexplicably more-ish. But to really get to know the food and its specific and delicious palate, you’ll have to come over to my mum’s place…or get cooking yourself!
Burmese people love their salads. And once you get the hang of the few staple ingredients generally used to make a “dressing” of sorts, you’ll start mixing and matching like a pro. These are tasty and quick to whip up, and perfect for our upcoming summer days. I still eat them in winter, but serve them with some fluffy white jasmine rice to ward off the cold and jack up the “comfort food” factor.
Burmese-style chicken salad (tick of approval from Mumsy)
Fried shallot oil
If you have any questions or suggestions, leave me a comment! I’ll get back to you… 🙂