Flashback Friday: Summer in the CO Mountains!

Flashback Friday is a picture series where we “flashback” to some of our memories – from either from our prior travel or from home. We hope you’ll enjoy some of our remembrances! 

Recently, we wrote about our time home for the holidays in Denver. We managed to take a wintery trip to our cabin in the mountains which was beautiful, but somehow we still prefer the summer! We love spending time in the beautiful CO mountains when there is less snow =)

This picture was taken on our first and last summer trip to the mountains before we left on our RTW trip in summer 2014!

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Della views James Peak

 

Enchanting Inle Lake, Myanmar

After exploring a billion pagodas at Bagan, we were ready to try something a little different. We headed to Inle Lake!

Getting There

We booked a bus to Inle Lake through our hostel in Bagan. They sold us a ticket, assigned us seats, and then told us the bus would pick us up at 7:00 am. We had dealt with a few other early pickups (ah the joys of dorm living) and so knew the drill. It seemed as if minibuses picked people up and whisked them away almost every morning. We were content, feeling like everything would be easy. Our first inkling that something was a little weird was when a roommate from our dorm came in explaining that she was doing the exact same trip the following morning. She had a different colored ticket, and her shuttle was coming to pick her up at 7:30 am. So after comparing our tickets and departure time, we just figured we’d all go with what we had been told. Secretly, we thought she must have misunderstood and was going to get left.

To us, this bus ticket implies that we will be riding on a real bus...

To us, this bus ticket implies that we will be riding on a bus…

We caught our shuttle the following morning with several other people from our hostel and we were off! We were crammed in the back and we saw that we were clearly picking other people up, though there seemed to be some confusion about where. We went to another hotel in New Bagan (the town where we were staying) but no one showed up. So, we drove all the way toward Nyuang U (30 min away and where we thought were going to catch the main bus). We went to another hotel and no one showed up… So the minibus promptly turned around and headed all the way back to New Bagan where we went to another hotel and did finally pick up another couple. By this point it was about 7:45. We saw on our ticket that pickup had been at 7 am but the bus departure time was at 8. We were starting to worry about making the bus. Our minibus headed back toward Nyuang U again! We stopped and picked up another couple. By this point, it is 8 and we are really concerned about making the bus! All of us in the minibus discuss and assume that our drivers have to be in communication with the bus and that it will wait. Then we toodle to a final place where we pick up a final person. We now have a completely full mini bus with 12 people crammed in.

We figure we must be ready to head for the bus! We arrive in a dusty parking lot where we see a couple of large buses, so as soon as our driver stops, we all start to tumble out of the minibus. Our driver runs back and gestures no no to get back on the bus! Finally, we were able to communicate a little that the small minibus was indeed the bus we were to take the 8 hours to Inle Lake. This is where the dread set in for us… We had been ushered into the very back in the corner. It was hot and stuffy back there and we could hardly move as our knees were shoved into the seats in front of us. And that’s how we rode…. all the way. Ugh.

Luckily, when we did finally arrive in Inle, the minibus dropped us off directly at our new accommodations and by some great luck, we were the first ones off! Phew!

Where We Stayed

Remember Inn – We had picked this place based on a recommendation by another traveler and from the Lonely Planet. We had also found it on agoda.com. We booked one night using that site as we kept hearing how everywhere would be full, but we were unhappy because we felt like were paying way more than we should. Luckily, when we arrived they said that if we wanted to stay extra days and pay for those in cash, we would get the more normal rate of $25. We were happy enough as our room was quite large. Though, there were some ants in the room and the Wi-Fi was extremely slow and only sometimes would let us connect (and only from near reception, not up in the room). This made it difficult when we were trying to book our accommodation in our next stop, Yangon.

The best part of our stay here was the included breakfast. It was served on the roof top with nice views of the surrounding area, and it included a menu where you could choose a variety of things. There were western style options like eggs and pancakes, but also two delicious local options, a Shan Noodle Soup (which Della had every day) and a Mohinga (a traditional fish soup breakfast here in Myanmar).

Shan Noodle soup in the front with Mohinga in front of Eric

Shan Noodle soup in the front with Mohinga in front of Eric

 

What We Did

Bike to the Red Mountain Winery – On our first full day in Inle, we rented bikes and headed out of town toward a winery! The Red Mountain Winery is about 5 miles outside of Nyuang Shwe (the main town for Inle which we were staying in). It was a glorious day and we really enjoyed the ride. It was quite a push up the hill to get to the winery, but it was so worth it. You can get a taste of 4 wines for about $2. The wine was OK though not fabulous. We each found one we liked well enough to enjoy a glass of while we nibbled on an appetizer and took in the view. We waited around for the free tour and ended up being the only 2 on it for a little while. It was a short tour and we learned how the winery is quite new, imports most of its plants from France, and has mostly broken machines so they do things like label by hand. We also ended up eating lunch there. The food was pricey (by Myanmar standards) but good and the view was hard to beat.

The Aung Traditional Puppet Show – We were excited because we got to meet up with some new friends from Mandalay again in Inle. We met them (and another couple from Switzerland that they also knew) for the traditional puppet show. The show was only 30 min but was thoroughly enjoyable. It was run by one man and his son. They have been in the puppet business for years (the man showed us a picture of his grandfather doing the same). It was quite amazing to watch the intricate movements the puppets made and to see some of the puppeteering action. The man was dancing as much as his puppets were! We definitely enjoyed this and recommend it!

Boat Tour of Inle Lake – We organized through our hotel for a boat trip on the lake. We asked then to pair us up with some other travelers to share the cost, plus it is always nice to meet new people as well. The 5 of us met our boat driver at 8 am and headed to the water. We entered a long, sort-of canoe like boat. Our driver make sure we each had a wooden chair with a cushion, a life jacket, and a blanket.

We then headed out down the canal! Watching the life on the water was just amazing. It was a major thoroughfare and we saw tourist boats along with boats transporting produce and many other goods. After stopping for quick gas up, we make our way out onto the big part of the lake where we got to observe the fisherman rowing their boats in the traditional fashion, using their leg to move the oar. We rode all the way down to the far south end of the lake and then through a village floating on the water. It was interesting to see how the people who lived in these houses used the water as a kitchen sink, washing machine and shower.

Past the village we found the floating market. The market rotates around to different locations. We understand that there are 5 locations. The day we went, it was near Thaung Thut. We didn’t shop much, but we were very happy to find a bathroom after a few hours on the boat. Luckily, if you keep walking through the market and up the hill, you end up at a fabulous pagoda. We enjoyed the views at the top before heading back down!

We hopped back on the boat and drove back through the floating village and then to a place that did traditional hand weaving. None of us was interested in buying anything, but felt pressured to get out. Watching the weavers at work was actually quite fascinating, as they use these old machines with hand cranks and foot pedals. After this we paused for lunch at a restaurant over the lake.

After that, we headed to the big event: Indein. We had heard that this was best stop on the whole lake. To get there we drove upstream on a river – even up over a few waterfalls! Once at the village, we spent time walking through the very long tourist market, through some old pagoda ruins, and up to a beautiful pagoda at the top. It was quite lovely but we weren’t sure if it was that much better than the pagoda at Thaung Thut.

Back on the boat, we rode through the floating gardens, where it was fascinating to see how produce is grown and cared for in the middle of the lake. Our final stop was the Npa Hpe Kyaung Monastery, also known as the Jumping Cat Monastery because a monk once trained cats to jump through hoops on command! But that monk died and the tradition died with him. So now the main thing to see is the large wooden hall with many different Buddha images. There was a large clowder of cats that we watched for a while, but none of them ever jumped through hoops.

Explore the Market and Town – On our final day in Inle, we checked out of our hotel but had several hours to kill before our overnight bus for Yangon left. We decided to go out and stroll around the market and town. The market was great, with almost everything you can imagine. It was bustling with people, mostly locals. There were tons of fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, and clothes. Of course there was the occasional tourist trinket booth as well! Della was particularly excited because she found a seamstress in the market. After buying some “banana pants” (this is not a real term at all… just what Eric calls them) the day before, she had been disappointed when the elastic in one leg broke immediately. It was awesome though, because for $0.50 the woman in the market fixed the elastic, re-hemmed the leg, and did some additional strengthening of all the seams! The pants are now fixed and even fit better! On the rest of our wanderings through town we also found the old sports field and slightly dilapidated independence monument.

 

Where We Ate

We’ve already mentioned two of the places: lunch at the winery and lunch on our boat tour. We did also eat out in Nyaung Shwe two nights. Our first night in town we ate at the Lotus Restaurant, which had been recommended by Lonely Planet. Eric’s meal here was a little bit different in that it was a multi-course set meal which came with a soup (with maybe some pumpkin in it), a tomato and cucumber salad, and a pork and potato curry. He also got a fruit plate for dessert to share. Della went with her standard noodle plate.

 

The night we went with our friends to the puppet show, they suggested going to a Nepali place. We had already eaten some snacks so we just shared two small plates: fried vegetables and avocado salad (which turned out to be more like guacamole).

Nice dinner with new friends!

Nice dinner with new friends!

The last day, we ate lunch at the Unique Superb Foodhouse (yes, that was really the name!) Della stuck with her delicious friends vermicelli and Eric tried fried rice.

Fried vermicelli- YUM!

Fried vermicelli- YUM!

Final Thoughts

Inle Lake was a great place to visit with a lot of things to do in the surrounding area. The lake had a great laid-back vibe that we really enjoyed. The town of Nyuang Shwe was hectic, but enjoyable, but it was easy to get out on to the lake or up to the winery for some instant relaxation.

E-Biking Through the Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

The area of Bagan in central Myanmar is a large plain next to the Ayerawaddy River that is covered with over 3000 Buddist temples built from 11th to 13th century. After years of neglect, many of the temples have been restored and Bagan is one of the highlights of any itinerary in Myanmar. Given how many other ruins we have seen along our trip, we were especially excited to see these and compare.

Getting There

Since Bagan is such a big tourist destination, we had quite a few options to get there from Mandalay. Based on recommendations from fellow travelers, we decided to go via boat down the Ayerawaddy River. It was much more expensive than the bus would have been, and slower (even though this was the “fast” boat, it was scheduled to take 10 hours) as well, we decided to splurge and see what life was like along this wide and slow-moving river.

The boat left bright and early from the dock in Mandalay at 7 AM. We had an assigned seat in a lower-level area with airplane-style seats, but as soon as the boat pulled away from the dock we were free to roam around the three different levels. There were a few different open-air decks where we could grab a chair and look out. Unfortunately the day was overcast, so the scenery wasn’t as beautiful as it could have been. Also, there wasn’t quite as much activity on the river as we expected. Nevertheless, this meant that we had plenty of time to catch up on some reading and just relax, so we still were glad we chose this method.

Where We Stayed

The first choice one has to make when visiting Bagan is which area to stay in: Old Bagan – the easiest access to the temples but the most expensive, New Bagan – further away from the temples with midrange options, or Nyaung U – furthest away from the temples, but the biggest town and with the cheapest options. We chose to go for the midrange option in New Bagan.

We had read that booking ahead was preferable, so we used agoda.com to find a place to stay a few days in advance. Here we found the At Bagan Hostel, which seemed new and had good reviews. There were only dorm rooms available, but we figured we could rough it for a bit and booked two beds in a six-bed dorm.

Getting to the At Bagan from the boat dock proved to be a challenge for one big reason: the name on the building it is in and the name the taxi drivers know it as is NOT “At Bagan!” The building is still called the Thiri Sandar, for unknown reasons. If we hadn’t been warned about this by fellow travelers we happened to meet we would have been even more confused.

For this and other reasons, we had mixed feelings about the At Bagan. The facilities were definitely new; it almost seemed like you could smell the fresh paint drying, the beds were quite nice and the Internet was by far the fastest we have had in Myanmar. Breakfast was also nice, in a restaurant across the street, with a local fried rice option. But, the staff was a little hard to get an answer out of sometimes. They certainly weren’t mean, but there were a few times where we felt like we were slightly misled or just couldn’t communicate well with them. So we enjoyed our stay but it won’t get as strong of a recommendation as the other places that we have stayed in Myanmar.

What We Did

We took our two full days that we had in Bagan to try and fit in a good selection of the thousands of temples in the area. We decided to follow the basic path laid out in a sample itinerary in Lonely Planet, which we felt worked out pretty well.

There are a variety of ways to get around Bagan, but we had heard good things about renting an e-bike so we decided to give it a go. For $6 a day each, we were able to rent nice e-bikes from a place just across the street from At Bagan. We were expecting them to look more like bicycles, but we felt they looked and behaved more like scooters. At first we were nervous, but it was very easy to operate and pretty quickly we got used to zooming around on paved and dirt roads like pros. We would highly recommend them as a way to get around!

We could list out all of the temples we visited, but you might get “temple fatigue” just from reading about them all! So, we’ll try to stick to some highlights.

Top Choices

Our favorite was the Sulamani Pahto, which we found to be beautiful both inside and out. It was built in 1181, so it is one of the later ones built and seems to be a little more refined than some of the earlier ones. We enjoyed the stucco ornamentation on the exterior and the extensive murals found in the interior. We also kept wanting to call it the Suleiman, since the name sounded so much like that of the famous mosque we visited in Istanbul :-).

Another favorite was the mysterious Dhammayangyi Pahto. From afar, we felt like this one was reminiscent of an ancient Mayan temple since its spire at the top is no longer there. Inside, this one felt much more abandoned than the others as well. It had very high ceilings, and you could hear birds flying around between the chambers. The interior part of the temple is blocked off with bricks that were supposedly added after the king who built the temple died, as payback to dishonor his memory. All of these factors made this one a spooky one to walk through.

Others of Note

Ananda Pahto felt like the most actively used one – Della was happy that she was allowed to place gold leaf on a statue (not like in Mandalay). Thatbyinnyu Pahto looks impressive from a distance since it is the tallest in Bagan (especially from atop the old city walls which are climbable nearby) but is not very interesting inside. Nathlaung Kyaung was interesting because it is actually a Hindu temple – the people of the area have not always been Buddhists.

Shwesandaw Paya and Pythada Paya have excellent terraces for views over the temples, which mean they are great for sunset viewing – but it also means they get pretty crowded so we avoided them. The first day we saw some other people atop a small temple south of Shwesandaw, so we went to check it out. A local attendant showed us the narrow staircase up to the top. Unfortunately it was almost completely overcast so we didn’t see much and ended up leaving early. The second day we intended to watch the sunset at Dhammayazika Paya. It was a nice and serene area, but under renovation. A friendly local pointed us to a neighboring small temple with a terrace, so we went there thinking we had found a hidden gem. When the first of three tour buses pulled up we realized we were mistaken! The colors were nice but we ended up watching the last parts of the sunset from below because we couldn’t stand the crowds of tourists.

We also enjoyed a few moments where we ventured into areas with only smaller temples. Many of the popular temples felt overwhelmed with crowds of tourists, locals, and vendors, so it was nice to find some spaces to just wander around and feel like we had the place to ourselves.

Where We Ate

There was a stretch of restaurants just across the road from our hostel which we visited for a quick easy dinner on two of the nights. They were all about the same, serving your standard curries and noodle dishes. Della got her favorites fried vermicelli at both places. Eric tried the curry at one and was disappointed that it didn’t come with any sides like we thought was standard!

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One of the days we were out visiting the temples we decided to eat at a restaurant that we had been given multiple recommendations for called Be Kind to Animals the Moon (no, that is not a typo). It is a vegetarian restaurant, so a bit different from what we had been eating so far. We shared an appetizer of spring rolls, and then each got a curry with special rice: Della a coconut curry with brown sticky rice and Eric a garden vegetable curry with coconut rice.

Final Thoughts

Bagan was an interesting place to visit, but two days was probably sufficient for us at least. We definitely recommend using the e-bikes to get around, both for the amount of ground you can cover and for the fun factor! We wish the weather had been a little less gloomy while we were there, but we still were able to find a bunch of different places with great views.

Traveling Then and Now Part 2

Hope you enjoyed the first part of our interview with Della’s parents about what it was like when they traveled around the world back in 1979-80. Here we will continue to hear more about their life on the road then and compare it with ours on the road now!

How hard was it to communicate with the local population at every stop?

Peggy and Wayne (P&W): In some countries like Egypt, Turkey, Taiwan, Greece and even, Germany, there was not much English spoken or understood (and needless to say, we didn’t speak their language). Taiwan was especially rough because we didn’t understand the weights, measures, or street signs because they were in a different script. Even if someone wrote the street name on a paper, we found it impossible to compare the two different renderings of the same name. A lot of countries were easier because they were former British colonies. That meant there were English speakers and even English language newspapers. We found more English spoken in India 35 years ago than during our 2008 visit.

Chatting with a local in Burma

Chatting with a local in Burma

Della and Eric (D&E): For the most part, it has been incredibly easy. English is the universal language and there have only been a very few times where others didn’t speak it. We feel quite lucky (and lazy) that we never have to work very hard to communicate.

How did you get money?

P&W: Except in Europe, almost no place we stayed, ate, or shopped accepted credit cards and the only card of any value at all abroad, was American Express. Each of us had an American Express card and it was important to be one of their customers. Once every 30 days you could use the card to cash a check by going in person to the American Express office. Not many places had such offices however. We carried some US cash and $4800 in American Express travelers checks in relatively small denominations. We would carry these in our money belt or in pockets we had sewn inside our pants both at our waist and near the cuffs. Halfway through the trip, we had American Express re-issue some travelers checks, since they were so sweaty and worn out. At airports and near border crossings there were always currency exchanges They usually took large commissions so we would only use these to get a minimal amount of local currency, sufficient to tide us over until we could get to a bank. Exchange rates were better there, but foreign banks often kept short and sometimes erratic hours and the money exchange process was tedious and time consuming. Most countries had established exchange rates (rather than market driven ones). You could almost always get a much better rate on  the “black” market, on the street. Doing so, however, was illegal. As part of your entry and exit, you were supposed to declare all your cash and then show official receipts demonstrating official exchange for the difference in dollars between the amount you came in with and the amount you left with. Some countries required that you exchanged at least a minimum amount. We never ran out of money, but other travelers did. And that was a big deal. They had to send home for money to be wire transferred to a bank. It cost a lot to do and could take a long time.

At the beach in India

At the beach in India

D&E: We almost exclusively get money from ATMs along the way. It has been easy to find them at almost every stop. We make sure to use debit cards from accounts that charge no foreign transaction fees. Eric uses Charles Schwab and Della uses Fidelity. Many places also accept credit cards and we use those as often as we can. Again, we have ones that have no extra foreign transaction fees.

How did you budget / find inexpensive options?

P&W: We didn’t have a budget, we just tried to be as cheap as we could be. We had enough in savings that we knew we wouldn’t run out before the end of the trip. The bigger worry was always having access to cash if we should need it and not having our cash and/or airline tickets stolen.

We wrote down all of our expenses in the back of our journal. We would keep tabs by category of spending for each country and divide by the number of days. Our records show that  it cost $12 a day for two people in Nepal (and about half that while trekking).

We spent almost $13,000 overall during the nine months we traveled. Airfare figured prominently in our budget – costing almost $3500. We spent about $1600 on things – souvenirs and gifts. Excluding airfare and these purchases, we spent about $30 per night. That includes $1700 spent on internal transport. We had relatively high costs in Europe and in Hong Kong. We also had high daily costs in Burma because the visa there was very restrictive and required that internal transportation be done by air, rather than by boat, train or bus. When looking for lodging, we usually started by looking at recommendations from Lonely Planet or other travelers. We would go to the area where the recommended guest house was located. If the recommended place was full or was no longer cheap, we could usually find other cheap places nearby. Booking ahead really wasn’t an option since there weren’t many phones. Sometimes we would follow touts. Perhaps most important to keeping costs down was that Wayne loved bargaining with everyone and about everything. Even when he didn’t want to buy, Wayne would bargain just to get a sense of what things really cost.

Negotiating over something in Greece

Negotiating over something in Greece

D&E: We try to say we have a general budget on average of about $100/day. However, that is a pretty arbitrary number that we have chosen for ourselves. Our general rule is to be as cheap as possible. It is often easy to pick affordable accommodation because you can compare all prices in one sitting on the computer before you book. Sometimes it is even the same with restaurants, though we count more on fellow travelers and outside menus generally. We try to eat out only as much as is necessary, cook for ourselves occasionally, take public transit as much as possible, and stay in dorm rooms when we feel like we’re spending too much! Check out our budget posts to see how much we’ve been spending in each location.

Were there opportunities to work or volunteer abroad?

P&W: In Greece, we think we picked oranges for one day for $5.

We worked as volunteers for about two weeks in South India and it was an incredible experience. A graduate school friend had prior experience working with NGOs in India and he arranged the experience for us. It was at a clinic/farm, run by an elderly British lady and a Hindu couple.  They provided health care services in a rural area. Often patients had to travel hours to get to the clinic, so if they had an injury that needed ongoing care, they would stay and if able, work on the farm in exchange for their room and board. We did a building project for them and it was quite an experience to take the oxen cart to get our supplies. This place was so off-the-tourist track that locals would surround us and just stare.

D&E: We haven’t volunteered or worked yet, but we see a lot of other travelers who do. Many travelers use a site called workaway.com where you can find opportunities abroad. There are also a ton of volunteer opportunities through different non-profit organizations. We hope to do some volunteering with elephants in Thailand!

How did you record the memories from your trip? Pictures? Text?

P&W: We took about 2000 pictures during our trip. Wayne’s walk-around day bag was the camera case with a 35 mm SLR camera and two big lenses: a wide angle and telephoto lens. We bought an additional zoom lens in Hong Kong. Peggy had the original “spy camera,” a small 35 mm Minox. We had to ration our picture taking because we brought all of our film from home and because film and processing were relatively expensive. We shipped our film home whenever we sent a package and had it developed there. As a result, we didn’t know whether any of the pictures we took were any good. Going through airport security was tough because the old x-ray type machines used for security could ruin film, so we carried a  lead bag to protect it. We kept index cards for each roll of film to take notes on where pictures were taken.

We also kept a journal. We wrote our experiences down every couple of days. Peggy used carbon paper to make a copy as she wrote each page in the journal, and then send those pages in lieu of letters to our families. They were to keep the letters just in case our journals got lost. We remember having to be really careful using the carbon paper. Sometimes it would end up folded and you’d lose half a page, or worse yet if you put it in the wrong way, you ended up with backwards script on the back side of the journal page and nothing on the paper to be sent home! We also bought souvenirs, which contributed to our memories. We shipped items home from several of the countries we visited. Shipping was a little difficult. We varied who we sent packages to because you would have to pay tariffs if you sent too much to the same address . It sometimes took several days to put together a package. Finding boxes was quite hard, especially in Africa. Also every country had a different process. In India, you had to find a tailor to sew a cloth around the entire box and put wax seals on seams. We shipped 13 boxes in total, including a small marble table top from Agra and Tibetan rugs from Nepal. Despite dire warning that stuff would be stolen or lost in transit, every one of our  boxes made it home eventually! We waited over a year for the Agra marble. We had a friend going to Agra and we asked him to visit the  shop where we bought it. The guy told him he had only recently completed the inlay of the semi precious stones (it was a special order) and it was in the back room ready for shipping. To be on the safe side, our friend accompanied the craftsman to the post office just to make sure that it was sent!

Peggy as the Pied Piper in rural India

Peggy as the Pied Piper in rural India

D&E: Obviously our biggest tool is this blog! However, we also keep a more personal more detailed log of every day travel. We have taken thousands and thousands of pictures – sometimes more than we know what to do with! Keeping everything digitally makes it easy to have way more than you really need. We have also sent quite a few postcards home. We have purchased a few souvenirs which we have sent home with family members when they have visited and we took some home ourselves on our break over the holidays.

How did you keep in contact with home?

P&W: We sent letters and postcards to family and friends fairly often. We would send things called airgrams. They were pretty affordable. The paper was really lightweight, almost like tissues. We had to be careful, as they could get ruined easily!

We made one or two phone calls. You would go to the center of town where there was a bank of phones for international calls. You would wait for them to get set up and then they would assign you a booth. We called our families around Christmas. We would generally call collect. It was difficult though, because there was no way to prearrange the call, so we just hoped people would be around.

We had given people a general itinerary of where we expected to be, each time we bought a batch of air tickets. We asked them to send us letters “post restante” or general delivery to the larger cities. They could also send things to the American Express offices or the American embassies. People would send us letters fairly often. When we arrived in major cities, we would check in all three of those places to make sure we didn’t miss a letter.

We traveled with Peggy’s parents in Italy at the start of our trip. Other travelers in Europe seemed quite a bit younger than we were. Later on, in Africa and Asia, we connected with quite a few other travelers and most were our age. We also managed to see some friends from home along the route. In Kenya we celebrated Christmas with a friend from the US who was working as a teacher in a small village near the Uganda border. In Delhi we stayed twice, for a week each time, with graduate school friends who had a real house, with a guest bedroom and servants who offered us “bed tea” each morning.

We  would try to stay abreast of what was happening at home through newspapers or radio. In larger cities, we we could find the International edition of the Herald Tribune and sometimes Time or Newsweek Magazine. Back then, US embassies weren’t quite so barricaded and some had reading rooms you could visit. Occasionally we would hear English speaking radio stations. We remember staying in an old hotel in Rangoon and hearing a radio playing The Voice of America in the room next door. We heard about the failed attempt to rescue the hostages held in Iran.

Peg holding up the wall in Mycenae

Peg holding up the wall in Mycenae

D&E: It has been quite easy to keep in contact with home. We have email of course. We also use some other internet sites like facebook, Instagram, and this blog to stay in touch. In addition, our cell phone plan allows us free texting and data in many countries so we have been able to text home often. We have also called using online tools like Skype and Viber. We are in touch so much it is like we have hardly left! =p

What kind of contingency plans did you have for when/if you got separated?

P&W: Our contingency plan was to go back to the place we had last seen each other, or if that failed, to go to the place where we were staying. Our big fear was getting separated when we were in transit or first arriving in a new place. Our fall back plan was to go to the main post office in our destination city at noon and to do so for repetitive days. Fortunately we never lost each other for long, but we each had some nightmares in which even our fallback plan didn’t work.

Our friends almost got separated on a flight. There was room for 3 of us but not all 4 to fly from Kenya to Bombay. The ticket agent saw no issue with a couple being separated. All 4 of us stood at the counter refusing to move until the manager figured out a solution that would allow a couple to either stay together or leave together.

Didn't want to get too separated!

Didn’t want to get too separated!

D&E: When we head into a very crowded place, we typically set a point like the entrance or exit. The general rule is to go back to where you last found a person. However, we don’t really worry too much given that we both carry cellphones and have the option to call or text if need be.

Who else did you meet while traveling?

P&W: We met a lot of Germans traveling, usually in a slightly fancier style and heading to beach destinations. There were also a lot of Aussies, spending a year getting to England, then working, then travelling for another year returning home. There were fewer Americans overall but it was usually Americans that we hooked up, sometimes travelling for several days together. There were no large Asian tour groups except in Japan.

While we enjoyed the time spent with the people we met while on the road, we didn’t really maintain contact with anyone. On a visit to Alaska, Wayne did see some folks we had spent time with in Nepal.

Peggy hanging out with a travel friend... and a car that crashed into their bus!

Peggy hanging out with a travel friend… and a car that crashed into their bus!

D&E: We meet a lot of travelers from Europe – specifically Germany, the UK, and Belgium. There are also a lot of Australians on the road! We meet people from the US fairly regularly, though it depends a bit on the place. We also meet lots of Canadians. Facebook has made it quite easy to stay in touch with our new friends from the road!

What (besides friends and family) did you miss from home?

P&W: We really missed our morning coffee. Even places that said they had coffee were actually serving instant Nescafe . . .Yuck. We also missed beer and wine. Adding a drink (if available) doubled the cost of any meal, so we usually refrained.

Peggy and a monkey

Peggy and a monkey

D&E: Good Tex-Mex/New Mex-Mex food and craft beer!

What advice do you have for the travelers of today?

P&W: Go and travel the world! Appreciate how easy it is to do in an age where there is modern communications, an international monetary system and ways to get points for cheap airfare. Despite it being logistically easier, there will still be challenges and in overcoming them, you will increase your self confidence. You need to prepare and to plan, but you also need to be flexible and to change your course as you go. You’ll develop and enhance your appreciation of different cultures and of diverse people. You’ll take home images and impressions that will make world events that occur later more meaningful, though not always more understandable. And you will have memories that will last a life time! (And may even inspire the future generations to travel as much as you did through your awesome stories! – Added by Della)

Family jelfie in Greece - seeing a place for the first time (Della, Eric, and Dana) and for the 2nd 35 years after the first (Peg and Wayne)

Family jelfie in Greece – seeing a place for the first time (Della, Eric, and Dana) and for the 2nd 35 years after the first (Peg and Wayne)

Exploring the Past in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar

Most people visit the town of Pyin Oo Lwin in the hills to the north of Mandalay to revisit its past history as Maymyo, a “hill station” founded by the British to escape the heat of the lower elevations and later the location of the colonial summer capital. While we were interested in visiting the sights associated with this history, we were also interested to visit because Della’s parents had visited Maymyo on their RTW trip as well. When home for the holidays, we had come across a few pictures of their time in town and wanted to try and see how they had changed in 15 years.

Getting There

On the advice of our guesthouse, we took a shared taxi to get to Pyin Oo Lwin from Mandalay. This is basically the same thing as a normal taxi, in that it picked us up at our guesthouse and dropped us off at our new one, with the only difference being that there were two other passengers that were in the car at the same time. It wasn’t too expensive ($10) so we were happy with the service. The road to Pyin Oo Lwin is narrow and windy, so we definitely held on tight as our driver passed the slower-moving trucks.

The road with no lanes, passing the slow trucks up the hill!

The road with no lanes, passing the slow trucks up the hill!

We also took a shared taxi to get back down to Mandalay after our stay was over. This time we noticed something interesting: halfway down, the driver pulled over to the side of the road and poured buckets of water over the brakes, which produced a good amount of steam. Guess the brakes were in danger of overheating!

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Can hardly see, but the driver is pouring water over the back brakes!

 

Where We Stayed

We found the Royal Flower Guest House on tripadvisor and called them from our place in Mandalay to make a booking. We got a double room with an ensuite bathroom for $30 a night (breakfast included). The room was nice, and the staff was very friendly and helpful. Also, it had a very nice patio on the roof where we could watch the sunset.

What We Did

Most of the activities we chose to do were driven by our desire to try and see how the places had changed since Della’s parents had visited them. But, these were also the most popular activities so we didn’t go too far off the beaten track.

Pwe Kauk Falls – Our first day in town we rented bicycles from our guesthouse and rode in the direction of these small waterfalls that we thought Della’s parents had visited. This was about a 5 mile ride along a highway, which was a little scary but we were able to hear big trucks coming and get over in time. We had gotten general directions from our guesthouse for the turn-off to the falls, but almost missed it because there is no English sign. If you are trying to find the falls, make sure to take this road:

Turn down here off the main road!

Turn down here off the main road!

Once there, we paid our entry fee and camera fee and then explored the different small falls. The infrastructure around the falls makes it feel like it is a nice local getaway, with different restaurants and souvenir stands, and concrete paths and bridges between the different parts. We were the only foreign tourists there for a while as well. We wandered through both the lower and upper part. We think we found the area in the upper part where Wayne swam, but aren’t sure. We also purchased some local wine: both strawberry and something we had never heard of called damson.

Candacraig Hotel – This former British guesthouse is actually where Della’s parents stayed when they visited Pyin Oo Lwin. Our guesthouse listed it more as a local attraction than as a place to find accommodations, but the Lonely Planet does say it’s possible to stay there. We again rented bikes and set out to find it and see how much it had changed. A word of warning to anyone else trying to do this: make sure you know where you are headed! We trusted a map given to us by the guesthouse, and where that map put the Candacraig was wrong and where the owner told us to go was wrong. We investigated multiple old colonial houses in the general area before finally asking a few locals who pointed us in the right direction. (Looks like the location on the Lonely Planet map is correct but we didn’t have that along…).

Finally found it! Phew!

Finally found it! Phew!

The hotel had a very mysterious and slightly abandoned air about it. There didn’t seem to be anyone else around and the garden was somewhat overgrown. It definitely feels like something that would have been built during the colonial era. We took a few pictures of the outside and then headed on.

National Kandawgyi Gardens – This large botanic gardens surrounding a lake also dates from the colonial era and is the main highlight to be seen in Pyin Oo Lwin. After finding the Candacraig, we rode our bikes down to the park and spent the rest of the day exploring the different areas and just relaxing. There are quite a few different areas to visit, so we followed the map to make sure we didn’t miss anything. The highlights included the town name spelled out in flowers, a petrified wood and fossil display, an elevated walkway through a swamp, a bamboo garden, a pine forest, an aviary, an elevated walkway through a forest, an orchid garden and a butterfly museum. There was also an observation tower, where we climbed 201 steps to an observation deck for views back over the park.

Also in the middle of the lake was an island with a pagoda which we think was in one of Della’s parents’ pictures. It doesn’t look exactly the same as before, but we think it has to be it. We were disappointed that we didn’t see anyone strolling around the lake with a parasol either like there was before.

Where We Ate

Our first night in town, we ate at a place on the main road very close to our accommodations called the Seezar Bistro. They had a huge menu so it took us a while to figure out what we wanted. Della got her standard fried noodle plate and Eric ordered a “Seezar” fried rice which ended up coming with an omelet wrapped around the fried rice – pretty neat!

Our second night in town we decided to branch out from Myanmar food and check out a South Indian restaurant called Aung Padamayar that had been recommended in the Lonely Planet. There was no menu, just a choice between chicken or mutton for a curry. The meat (we both chose chicken) in the spicy sauce came with rice, a lentil soup, curried vegetables and freshly made papadum. We were plenty full by end! It was a little more expensive than the previous night, but not so outrageous, so we were pretty annoyed to hear the tourists at the next table over loudly complaining to the waitress about “how expensive” it was (the meal cost $4 each).

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Our expensive meal!

 

Final Thoughts

Pyin Oo Lwin was a pleasant place to spend a couple of days! We had a lot of fun on our “scavenger hunt” for items from Wayne and Peggy’s trip, but even beyond that enjoyed the vibe of what this former colonial town had to offer.

 

Packing Update: Eric

We were happy to spend some time at home during the holidays in part because it gave us a chance to reevaluate what was in our packs and change some things up.

This post will focus on Eric’s pack. See our previous posts about packing to learn what he brought before. You can also see Della’s packing update here!

On the first half off the trip, Eric didn’t have any major issues with how his packing list worked out. There were a few things he decided that he hadn’t used much, so he took advantage of being home and dropped some items off. The main things he left out this time were a merino wool sweater (which had shrunk in a laundry and hadn’t really been used since Africa), a wide-brimmed hat that had only been used on safari and a belt which he never used.

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Eric’s pack, a Go-Lite 65 Liter pack, has one big section and a small detachable top section.

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In the main section:

  • A cotton sleeping sheet. This was hardly used in Europe, but Eric thinks it may come in more handy in potentially seedier Asian accommodations. The fabric was originally off-white, but after washing with other fabrics is no more of an off-blue.

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  • Two swimsuits and two miniature microfiber towels, stored in a Ziploc bag
  • Two fleece tops (a thinner gray one and thicker brown one), two long underwear tops, one long underwear bottoms and a workout shirt. Stored in a soft-sided packing cube.

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  • A large toiletry kit containing overflow items from the daily one that Della carries. Items include extra floss, extra soap and shampoo, extra razor heads, extra anti-malarial drugs, other extra drugs such as probiotics, and a pair of small scissors.
  • Utility items – rope for a clothesline, an over-the-door hook, duct tape, gorilla tape, wine/bottle opener (bought in Greece), super glue, tape measure (also bought in Greece), extra dirty clothes bags – stored in a Ziploc bag

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  • Extra computer items, stored in one of the bags the travel underwear came in:
    • Flash drives
    • Camera charger
    • Old camera and its charger to be used as backup
    • SD card
    • Cord to connect camera to computer
  • Everyday tops and bottoms, stored in a packing cube:
    • two long-sleeved collared shirts -one Ex-Officio travel shirt as a gift, another a generic polyester shirt from the thrift store
    • three short-sleeve collared shirts – all found at the thirft store
    • one t-shirt – poly-cotton blend, a gift from our friends at The Real Dill
    • one pair zip-off pants from the thrift store
    • two pair of polyester slacks, one khaki and the other gray, both from the thrift store
  • Underwear and socks, stored in a small packing cube:
    • Five pair of travel underwear, all received as gifts
    • Two pair of SmartWool ultralight socks bought on Sierra Trading Post
    • Two pair of SmartWool medium socks received as gifts
    • One pair thick merino wool socks
    • Two pair polyester socks from the dollar store

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  • Pajamas, stored in a random stuff sack that a promotional blanket came in:
    • Poly-cotton blend shirt from kickball league
    • Workout shorts
    • One pair thick merino wool socks
  • Extra books
  • Pair of strap sandals from the thrift store
  • Black flip-flops for the shower

In the top section:

  • Two bandanas
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  • Swiss Army knife
  • Flashlight and headlamp, stored in an underwear bag

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  • Cover for bag, which Della’s family created out of a gate check cover for strollers
  • Extra water bottles

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In his day pack (a Go-Lite pack as well):

  • Raincoat borrowed from Eric’s dad, plus a dollar store poncho
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  • Rice University hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen and bug spray

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  • Primary reading material
  • Primary water bottles
  • Steripen (UV-based water purification tool)

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  • Computer (ASUS Transformer Book T100TA)
  • Computer accessories – power cord, USB connection cord, small mouse, stylus – in a Ziploc bag
  • Cell phone charger plus car charger
  • Zipper bag with a deck of playing cards and a notepad and pen

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  • Headphones
  • Tupperware (usually filled with granola bars)
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In his pockets:

  • Unlocked GSM cellphone with T-Mobile Simple Choice International plan (the included texting and data in most countries is awesome)
  • Wallet
  • Camera (Canon Powershot ELPH 115 IS) in case

Eric’s large backpack weighs only 27 lbs! However, like Della, he also carries a day bag. His day bag is slightly heavier due to its bigger size and the computer. The weight of the day bag depends on how much water he is carrying!

Flashback Friday: Holidays in Houston, TX

Flashback Friday is a picture series where we “flashback” to some of our memories – from either from our prior travel or from home. We hope you’ll enjoy some of our remembrances! 

When we were home for the holidays, we had a chance to visit Houston and reconnect with some great old friends! This picture was taken during a secret Santa gift exchange back when we were seniors in college. Also, we want to give a shout out to some dedicated blog readers who are in this photo! (Thanks guys!)

Secret Santa eric jon cait jenny

Traveling RTW – Then and Now

One of the many things that inspired us to go on our RTW trip was that Della’s parents, Peggy and Wayne, did a RTW trip of their own. They traveled for about 9 months in the years 1979-80. The trip was in many ways similar to ours; they visited Europe, Africa, and Asia. One of the things that has been really fun as they have met up with us a few times on our trip is discussing what is the same and what is different from when they traveled 35 years ago!

Their trip took them from Italy (where they visited Peggy’s father’s old home), to Eastern Africa, and finally to Southeast Asia. We decided to ask them some questions about their trip to see how it compares with traveling RTW now! Read their answers and our own and draw your own conclusions!

This is part 1 of this interview series. Stay tuned for part 2!

Before you left the US, how did you plan where you were going to go?

Peggy and Wayne (P&W): We planned to follow in the footsteps of a friend of Wayne’s who had done world travel. He wrote to Wayne with the details of what he was doing. What stuck in Wayne’s mind was that he said he had been gone for 11 months, had traveled overland by bus from London to India, had kept detailed records of his budget and had spent only $530. This overland route had become a somewhat standard backpacker’s route. We hoped to do that. We did a little planning using a single Lonely Planet guidebook for Asia Overland travel. Part of our planning was to attend a series of travel lectures sponsored by National Geographic. We also talked to people we knew in DC who had taken world trips. Both before and during the trip, much of our planning was based on word of mouth information from other travelers.

We also had been invited by our friend who was an Assistant to the  ambassador in India to visit with for a while. We hoped to arrive there by Republic Day in January.

Wayne in Greece

Wayne in Italy

Della and Eric (D&E): We wrote a more expansive blog post about this awhile back, but in short: We talked to Wayne and Peggy about where they went, we read a lot of travel blogs to get inspiration, we checked out a lot of Lonely Planet (and other) guide books from our local library, and we did research on climates in each locale to figure out the best times to visit.

How did people react to your plans to travel?

P&W: People thought we were a little weird. Most of the people we knew in DC were on a professional path and they thought it was strange  that anyone would risk the consequences of getting off that path. They thought the trip was less crazy in terms of a money perspective, but we would miss out on professional advancement.

Wayne had traveled a lot prior and had even gone to Israel for 7 months while in college. His parents, therefore, were accustomed to his wanderlust, but they always worried, especially his mother. His dad was confident he knew what to do. The typical advice his parents gave was “I know you know that you’re doing, but be careful!” Peggy’s parents, who rarely left New York, thought we were crazy, period. They had given up  on understanding our choices, but never sought to influence to change our plans. In both cases, since we were already living far away from home, it wasn’t a huge change for them having us gone. Our parents ultimately were both supportive and helpful, especially because they both took on responsibility for managing affairs back in the US. Peggy’s parents even joined us for the beginning part of our trip in Italy!

Peggy's parents during the trip in Italy

Peggy’s parents during the trip in Italy

D&E: We got a variety of reactions –some jealousy, some wondering how we could possibly afford it, and some just blown away at the thought of leaving home for so long. For the most part, people have seemed quite excited for us. We did write a blog post about why we chose to do this trip which addressed many of the questions and reactions we had received from people.

Not surprisingly, Peggy and Wayne were super supportive and excited for us. They were pleased that we were going to set out on such an adventure, but also started to understand some of the worry that their parents felt when they left. Eric’s parents were also supportive and made plans to meet us along the way. Peggy and Wayne have been very helpful from a logistics perspective in managing our affairs back home and they, as well as Della’s sister, have made it a priority to join us for parts of the trip as well.

What did you do with your possessions from home while abroad?

P&W: We owned a house in DC which we rented out to an existing roommate. We didn’t get rid of anything. We left the house furnished so most of our stuff stayed in place in the house. We did worry a lot about who would handle repairs on our very old house. Just before we left, it rained heavily and a skylight started leaking. We knew we couldn’t leave until we had it repaired. We were trying to clean the roof tar off some clothing using gasoline. Then in a rush we put the clothing in the washer and proceeded to cause a small explosion. Dealing with the consequences of that delayed our departure a couple of days (to New York which was an interim step prior to our international departure). A friend agreed to keep our cat, but only after he had been declawed. Gus didn’t talk to us for days after the operation. We owned two cars. We left one in New York and one in Colorado in the garage of the cabin.

At a market in Thailand

At a market in Thailand

D&E: We also rented out our house, but to a friend who wasn’t already living there. We were able to keep it partially furnished and leave the rest of our possessions in the house in the attic and basement. We asked Eric’s parents to take care of our cat while we were gone. Our two cars currently reside and Peggy and Wayne’s house.

How did you get your appropriate Visas?

P&W: We had to get all of our visas and information from consulates or embassies. We did that while we were in New York and it took almost a week of walking around the city to get it all done.

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D&E: Most of the time, we are able to get our Visas on arrival. There have been a few that we had to apply for in advance. However, luckily, so far we have been able to get this quickly and easily online! We do think we will have to get our Vietnam visa in person before we go there.

What was in your pack? What kind of clothes did you pack?

P&W: We each had a large internal frame backpack. We had one big camera bag, and Peg’s pack had detachable zip pockets that we carried as day bags. We don’t remember exactly what we had in our packs. We know we took one down sleeping bag and made a light weight, quasi sleeping sheet that zipped on. If it was hot we put the sheet side up and if it was cold, we put the sheet down. Peggy had sandals and hiking boots, 2 pairs of pants, and a dress. She bought a great wraparound akle length skirt in India. She loved skirts because they were cooler in the heat and also facilitated peeing somewhat more discretely out of doors in places where there were no facilities. Wayne brought jeans. He remembers that he bought his first GoreTex coat for the trip. It actually leaked like crazy. He went back to the store in DC a year later and returned it for a replacement! We remember buying replacement black cloth Chinese slippers in Hong Kong and some clothes in Sri Lanka (but those didn’t last).

We had repairs and medicine kits. We also made big zippered nylon bags to wrap around our big packs when we flew, in order to protect the straps. These turned out to be really useful because we were often able to establish a home base in some guest house in a country and then leave extra gear in those bags while we traveled to other places. We did this when we trekked in Nepal.

We had a coil to heat water in a cup. We also used Iodine to purify water. We started with pills but then used a dropper.  We had a hell of a time communicating with pharmacists when we needed to replace the iodine. We had to treat the water pretty much everywhere we traveled, even for brushing our teeth.

We always remember spending days in New York packing and repacking our bags. We weighed everything! The problem was that no one item weighed very much, but put together they weighed an awful lot. We finally made our decisions, went to the airport, decided we were too heavy, shed stuff at the gate sending it back home with Peg’s parents. Then after travelling in Italy with Peg’s parents, we sent even more stuff home! Mostly we parted with some sweaters and fancier clothes that we figured we wouldn’t need after leaving Europe.

D&E: We focused on packing things that were lightweight, quick dry, and wouldn’t hold smell. We talk extensively about our packing lists here and here.

How did you buy plane tickets?

P&W: We considered buying an around the world place ticket, but they were expensive and had confusing rules regarding stops and direction of travel. That posed a dilemma because back then one-way tickets generally sold at a large premium. We finally decided to buy our initial ticket from New York to Frankfurt from a travel consolidator for $175. You had to send him money via mail and then he met you at the airport with the actual ticket on the day of the flight.

Remember our original plan was to travel overland, mostly by bus, from Europe to India. Once we were in Italy we had to revise our entire travel plan. It was then that the Iranians took the American hostages. That foreclosed travel there and the Russians had recently invaded Afghanistan. So that wasn’t an option either. As a result, we ended up having to take many more flights than we originally anticipated. During our re-plan of the trip, the key was to find big cities with travel agents or flight consolidators who would bundle tickets at discounted prices. Athens and Bangkok were those cities. We spent a lot of time in Athens going between different agents trying to find routings that made sense. We decided at that point to buy blocks of tickets that took us to Egypt, Kenya, and then, India. We did the same thing in Bangkok, trying to figure out a route that would take us home. We had to choose between one that would take us through Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia or a route that would take us via Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Honolulu, and then home. We chose the latter.

When we booked these big chunks of tickets, we would have to carry the paper tickets all with us! It was as important as your passport and money. Sometimes people would even steal tickets. You didn’t need a picture ID to fly on tickets then. We also learned the hard way, that having a ticket didn’t necessarily mean we had a confirmed seat on a flight. From that point on, we checked flight codes very, very carefully.

We figured out our travel as we went from arrival in Bombay through to Bankgok. Mostly we traveled by train, bus, or boat. But some stretches required air travel. In India, we learned that there was a narrow window in which you could buy tickets.  “Control” over ticketing would shift location depending on how much in advance you tried to get tickets. We tried to book a flight from Kathmandu to Calcutta a couple of months out. The ticket agent in Delhi, sent us to the main computer center on the other side of town for the airline. When we got to Kathmandu (still several weeks before the scheduled flight out) we stopped at the airline office to confirm the ticket. Not only did we not have a confirmed seat, it turned out there was no such flight. The man was actually mad at us for having a ticket! We had to explain that it was their system who had given it to us in the first place. He told us, “I didn’t do this! The computer people did this!” We were at an impasse until we were able to talk to the manager. He understood and told his underling to book us on a different flight. We waited a long time. It turned out that he was filling out a lot of paperwork to cancel the original flight. We always laugh when we remember the manager informing the underling “It is not necessary to cancel a ticket for a flight that does not exist!”

Spending time in Athens

Spending time in Athens

D&E: Buying plane tickets is easy! We buy them online of course. The only challenge is figuring out how to use miles to fly more cheaply. We worked hard to gain credit card “miles” so that we wouldn’t have to pay full price on any of our long plane rides. Thus far, we have succeeded! We flew from the US to Africa, South Africa to Europe, Turkey to home, and Denver to Bangkok all using miles. We search for the best deal using a lot of different airline search sites, but one of our favorites is Kayak.com.

While you were traveling, how did you figure out what to do within cities? How did you choose accommodations?

P&W: We carried the Asia Overland guidebook and that helped with some of the planning. We would visit the Tourist Information (TI) center and get a lot of information from them at the beginning. Peg read everything really carefully. Wayne relied more on talking to people, he asked everyone he met, whether it was the guy hawking his wares or other travelers, what to do and how to get there. We would also always try to find out what things should cost, so we knew how to approach bargaining. We also would stop by travel agents selling tours. That gave us an idea of what was worth seeing. If we could figure out how to do it on our own, we would. Other times, we might buy the mini-bus tour.

D&E: We access a lot of tools to figure out what to do in a city. We use our Lonely Planet guide books which we can carry a lot of thanks to Kindle Unlimited and our tablet. We use websites like tripadvisor to help us decide what to do. One of our biggest resources is other travelers- but instead of talking in person (we do sometimes of course!), we use travel blogs. There are so many travelers out there who share their experiences in blogs, and we use those a lot to figure out how to get places and decide what to do. For accommodation, we use Lonely Planet and travel blogs (and other travelers in person), but we also do extensive research online. We use sites like hostelworld, booking.com, and airbnb. In Asia, we have started to use agoda.com as well.

What kind of places did you stay?

P&W: Where we stayed varied by country. We didn’t stay in a lot of hostels and didn’t prefer them. Most hostels locked you out during the daytime hours. We usually stayed in guesthouses where we had our own room. We did stay in hostels in Japan and Bangkok. In India, we stayed in places where the Indian middle class might have stayed, or places that catered to the Peace Corps crowd. These guesthouses often had common area or associated restaurant.

In India and other places where we traveled by train, we would often book sleeper trains, thereby reducing our need to find lodging. We also enjoyed staying in government guest houses some of which were in the train stations themselves. These were holdovers from the days of the British Raj. In Japan, we also stayed with Servas hosts. This was an international peace through friendship organization. In general, Servas worked best for a trip highly planned and with long lead times. Staying with real people in real homes was a treat – really interesting and informative, but a bit exhausting.

Staying on a roof!

Staying on a roof!

 

D&E: For the most part we have stayed in hostels and guest houses. Every now and then we stay in a hotel. We have also stayed in several apartments using sites like Airbnb. Our favorite places have a communal vibe so we can meet other travelers to make connections and a kitchen so we can cook some of our own food.

How did you get around?

P&W: We took flights for large distances. In Egypt, India and Sri Lanka we took a lot of trains. They were great. We also took a lot of buses, although we liked them less well. Schedules and routes were much harder to figure out and they were always very crowded (with animals as well as people). Some of our best rides were on the roofs of the buses. Some transport was in the back of pickup trucks (that had wood seats along the edges) or in mini vans. The hard part about these was that even if they told you they were leaving at a given time, you usually had to wait for however long (sometimes hours) that it took for them to fill all their seats (and then some). Within cities, transport was often by bicycle rickshaw. There were still many rickshaws pulled by men, but we felt too big and heavy to want to ride these.

 

D&E: We’ve gotten around almost every way you can think of. Planes for big distances (and some small when we were in a rush). We’ve used a lot of buses and trains. Within cities, we are always happy if there is a subway or rail equivalent. We have even traveled by boat, horse cart, and electric bicycle! Occasionally we have used taxis as well.

Read Part 2 of our interview with Peg and Wayne here!

Our First Taste of Myanmar in Mandalay

Out first stop in the country of Myanmar was the city of Mandalay. When originally planning this part of our trip, we had assumed that we would start in Yangon, but when we found out it was possible to get to Mandalay we figured it would be better to start up top and do a one-way trip down to Yangon. The guidebooks and fellow travelers didn’t rave about Mandalay itself, so we wondered a little bit if it was going to be that much fun to visit.

Getting There

The key to our decision to start in Mandalay was figuring out that there was a cheap flight from Bangkok to Mandalay every day on AirAsia (technically the same airline as the one that just crashed, but there are different subsidiaries in each country and this one on the Thai version). The flight left from Bangkok’s secondary airport, Don Mueang, which we had to take a taxi to get to. The flight itself was delayed for an hour because of a military airshow, so we were there in plenty of time and were able to enjoy a bowl of noodles at the gate.

The Mandalay airport itself was a bit small but getting in and getting our bags went smoothly. It is located 45 minutes outside of the city, but AirAsia provides a free shuttle to the city center. We caught the shuttle and then at the dropoff point were able to get a taxi to our guesthouse.

Where We Stayed

We can’t rave enough about the Yoe Yoe Lay Guesthouse. If you are going to Mandalay, you should stay there, no question. The level of service is amazing: everything is done with a smile, the provided breakfast is large and you have to fight to keep from getting extras and the facilities are nice, clean and commodious. The owner, who everyone calls “Mama,” is amazingly kind and generous, and will go out of her way to make you feel at home. Also, this place seems to attract a nice crowd of like-minded travelers, and we made a lot of fun connections just hanging out in the common area each night. Yoe Yoe Lay set a very high bar for the level of accommodations we are going to expect in Myanmar.

We ended up staying at Yoe Yoe Lay for four nights, and in three separate private rooms. We only booked two nights in advance since we weren’t sure we would like Mandalay, but almost immediately we decided we wanted one more. But by the time we asked them, our room was already spoken for, so we had to switch to a different room. The new one had a private bathroom instead of using the shared facilities, so it wasn’t too much of a sacrifice. We also stayed one more night in a different room after spending two nights in the nearby town of Pyin Oo Lwin (separate blog post coming soon).

What We Did

Ancient Cities Tour

The taxi driver who took us to the Guesthouse on the first day also told us that he would offer his services for the day to drive us around to sights in the three “ancient cities” near Mandalay: Amarapura, Sagaing and Inwa. All three were the capital of a kingdom at some point in history and have remnants left over from their glory days in addition to active Buddhist sites. The cost for the day was $35, which our host told us was reasonable, so we decided to accept.

The day started out bright and early with our driver picking us up at 8:00 AM. Our first stop was actually within the city of Mandalay: the Mahamuni Paya, the main Buddhist temple in the city. He dropped us off at one of the lesser-used entrances. We put our shoes in lockers (everyone must be barefoot within the sacred area) and walked into the complex. The main attraction is a 13-foot tall seated Buddha, made of gold and believed to be 2000 years old. Male worshippers may approach this image and apply gold leaf, but women have to sit outside or watch on one of the TV monitors. There were quite a few people visiting this image on the day we were there. In the buildings surrounding the courtyard, we also went through a gallery of paintings describing how the Buddha was moved to Mandalay and a room with some bronze figures from Angkor Wat.

The next stop on our tour was at a shop that did traditional wood carving. It was pretty interesting to watch the male workers chisel away at the pieces of teak wood. We were tempted by a smaller piece but didn’t want to have to figure out how to get it home. Inside there were some ladies working on pieces of embroidery. We did buy a smaller piece of this which had an owl on it.

We then headed onto Amarpura and into the Maha Ganayon Kyuang Monastery there. Our driver instructed us on where to stand to watch them get their lunch at 10:25. We had a little bit of time before to wander around the grounds. We made it back to the spot by the road in time for them to line up. Unfortunately, there were a ton of other tourists there, so it was kind of a strange experience, with everyone snapping pictures of all of the monks as they stood in line. It was interesting to watch the process of how they got their food: volunteers were standing just outside the dining hall, and the monks would file past and get a large serving of rice, some cake and a drink.

We got back in the car and drove on south. We paused before crossing the big Ayerarwady River on the new bridge to take in the sight of the river and our next destination: Sagaing Hill. We could see the large hill with many sparkling pagodas covering it. This was the site of a capital of a Shan kingdom in the 14th century but now is mainly known as a big site for monasteries and temples.

We were dropped off at the base of the hill and shown the path to take to get to the top, through One Lion Gate. The path up took a while – Lonely Planet says it was 350 steps. Once we reached the top, we took off our shoes and explored the Pon Nya Shin Pya, with its shiny gold stupa and a big Buddha image. The platform surrounding gave nice views of the surrounding area. We stopped and sat for a while just to relax.

We headed back down the stairs and found our driver. We drove back over the river on the old bridge (much smaller) and went to the dock to head to the dock for Inwa. We found out that the driver doesn’t actually take you there – you have to take a boat across. Inwa has been the site of a royal capital four different times from 1364 to 1841. There are a few ruins and old temples spread about. The way they expect you to see the sites is by horse cart. We weren’t sure we wanted to pay for this, so we started walking past them, declining numerous offers. We had just turned the corner when we gave in to one persistent driver and took the cart. This caused some sort of argument between him and other drivers, which left us feeling a bit awkward.

The ride in the cart down the narrow dirt/sand paths was fun but quite bumpy. After a little while we were dropped off at our first stop, Maha Aungmye Bonzan, also called the “Brick Monastery” since it was built from brick covered in stucco (in 1822). It felt quite older than the other temples that we had thus far seen. There weren’t a lot of other people around. As we were first circling, a teenage boy came up and started talking with us in English. We think he just wanted to practice, because he never asked for anything. We had to pause where a Burmese family basically insisted that we take a picture with their infant. Della held it while the rest of the family tried to make the baby look at them. We then took off our shoes and entered inside the upper level, still accompanied by our conversation friend. He followed us until we left to head back out to the horse cart.

We then stopped at Nanmyin, the “leaning tower of Inwa”. This was a watchtower for the palace of King Bagyidaw. The staircase to go up into the tower was closed for safety reasons so we just briefly walked around one side of it.

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Back on the cart, our driver cut through a banana field and took us to the Bagaya Monastery. This temple is built out of dark teak wood, and definitely had a different feel to it. This was probably our favorite of the different things we saw in Inwa. It was also the most crowded with tourists. We took our time strolling around the buildings, making sure not to damage our bare foot with any nails.

Our final stop was a small complex called the Yadana Sinme Pagoda. The highlight of this area was the ruins of an old chamber (with columns arranged like a Christian church) with three Buddha statues at one end.

Our horse cart driver then returned us back to the dock. We hopped right on a boat and returned to the other side where our driver was waiting. He drove us back to Amarapura, this time to the U-Bein Bridge. This famous bridge is made out of teak wood and is over 1 km long, making it the longest teak bridge in the world. It also seems to be quite a popular destination in the evening, with many people strolling back and forth over it. We walked all the way over to the other end of it, then returned to about halfway and waited for the sunset. Eric went down off the bridge briefly to snap some pictures of the bridge from below on an island.

As it got dark we returned to our accommodations, arriving at about 6:30 PM. Quite a long day of sightseeing!

Sandamuni Paya and Kuthodaw Paya

The next day we decided to stick to sightseeing within the city limits. We rented bikes from the guesthouse and braved the Mandalay traffic (just stick your nose out there and people generally give you a wide berth), heading in the general direction of Mandalay Hill. We rode past the large fortress walls and moat but did not go inside.

This was one of the quieter streets we rode on. Otherwise we couldn't have taken this picture!

This was one of the quitter streets we rode on. Otherwise we couldn’t have taken this picture!

Our first stop was the serene Sandamuni Paya, which contains rows upon rows of white stupas (1774 to be exact), each of which holds a marble slab inscribed with a page of writings from one of the teachings of Buddha. There were few people here, and we enjoyed relaxing and listening to the tinkling of the bells attached to the tops of the stupas. While we were wandering, a monk approached us and struck up a conversation in order to practice his English.

He directed us towards the nearby Kuthodaw Paya, which has 729 inscribed marble slabs of its own. Its temple complex was more brightly colored that Sandamuni, and there were many more people visiting, so we didn’t prefer it quite as much.

Mandalay Hill

We rode to the base of Mandalay Hill, parking our bikes in a dedicated area next to the entrance with two big stone lions. We knew this would be a long hike up, so we were sad to see that we had to take our shoes off at the base! Reluctantly we followed the rules and started hiking up the hard concrete barefoot.

After long flights of stairs, we went through a few different small pagodas and one with a large statue. We made it to a landing with a pagoda with a large golden Buddha pointing back at the city. We thought this must be the top so we stopped and gulped some water.

But then we walked around the back and saw the stairs continued upwards. We kept going, and realized that it seemed like it would never end. We passed more small pagodas, a really steep staircase that led to what felt like an abandoned warehouse, and a flashy temple with a Buddha footprint. Then, we finally reached the top! We walked around the outside railing, enjoying the views in all directions of the area below. We also sat own and rested our aching bare feet.

But we knew we couldn’t pause for too long since it was almost 4:30, and we didn’t want to be riding bikes home too long after the sun set at 5:30. We started back down the hill at 4:50. Our feet were really killing us but we pushed on as fast as we could. It took us about 20 minutes to get down. We hopped back on our bikes and rode home as fast as we could, making it back just as it started to get dark.

Where We Ate

We had heard that Myanmar food left something to be desired, so we weren’t quite sure what to expect. As it turns out, we were pleasantly surprised by the meals we received.

Our first night in Mandalay, we headed with some fellow travelers to Win-Win 35, a restaurant/beer station/live music venue within walking distance of Yoe Yoe Lay. Each of us got a variation of an “iron plate”, which turned out to be an iron skillet with a meat of choice sizzling on top (kind of like fajitas). It was very tasty and filling – we probably could have shared one between the two of us.

Iron plates at the Win-Win

Iron plates at the Win-Win

On our Ancient Cities day trip, our driver directed us for lunch to a restaurant near the Inwa ferry landing. It felt pretty touristy but was a nice introduction to some of the traditional dishes. Della tried some of the fried noodles, which she enjoyed. Eric ordered a chicken curry, in which the meat itself was definitely mildly spiced, but the best part was that curries traditionally come with multiple side dishes, including a sour vegetable soup, noodles, and a few different sauces plus vegetables for dipping.

Eric's curry came with a lot of side dishes

Eric’s curry came with a lot of side dishes

The day we rode our bikes to Mandalay Hill, we stopped for lunch at Too Too Restaurant downtown, recommended by both our guesthouse and Lonely Planet. Here we each picked a curry from a selection of trays near the front. We enjoyed eating our selected meat with the similar spread of all-you-can-eat side dishes and rice.

Lunch at Too-Too

Lunch at Too-Too

 

The day we returned from Pyin Oo Lwin, we ate lunch at a simple noodle house next door to Yoe Yoe Lay. We thought our noodles were great, but that may have been because “Mama” came over and made sure the cooks knew not to make them too oily (a common complaint from tourists)!

Our noodles, as supervised by Mama

Our noodles, as supervised by Mama

Final Thoughts

As it turns out, we are really glad that we started our trip in Mandalay. We enjoyed the sites that we saw, and we got to experience a great guesthouse. If this is a destination that some people think is skippable, we can’t wait to see what the rest of Myanmar has in store for us!

Packing Update: Della

We were happy to spend some time at home during the holidays in part because it gave us a chance to reevaluate what was in our packs and change some things up.

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This post will focus on Della’s pack. See our previous posts about packing to learn what she brought before.

Della’s bag was significantly heavier than Eric’s which always irked her. She realized that she was carrying more clothing than he was. She ultimately decided to drop several of her long sleeved items with the assumption that it would be warmer in Asia on the second part of the trip. She also dropped one of her underwear (turns out it is easy to wash in the sink as you go), but added a pair of socks (expecting sweaty feet with her new waterproof shoes), dropped one of her tank tops thinking that it was unnecessary even though it will be hot (many places in Asia require covered shoulders anyway). She also had to go on a quest for new shoes, which was not fun… But she ultimately decided on a pair of waterproof New Balance.

Della carries an Osprey Ariel 65 L pack with three sections.

Without further ado, this is what is now in Della’s pack!

In the bottom section:

  1. Our first aid kit which includes: a variety of pills for gas, diarrhea, allergy, stuffy noses, and pain. We also have special antibiotics for really bad food poisoning or diarrhea prescribed from a travel clinic before we left. We have Band-Aids, moleskin, and other bandages. We have a thermometer, and various creams and ointments: antifungal, antibacterial, etc. We also carry several pills for relief of the common cold. This all fits in a bag which we found at the thrift store!
  2. Della carries extra batteries and a charger for her camera. In addition, she has an extra memory card and a screen cleaner.
  3. Campsuds and a drain plug for doing laundry in sinks on the road.
  4. Medication for malaria

    Della's portion of Malaria pills - Doxycycline

    Della’s portion of Malaria pills – Doxycycline

  5. Extra spices for any cooking we do on the road. These were mostly purchased while abroad in Africa during the self-drive safari.
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  6. Water sandals
  7. Some extra books for pleasure reading (much fewer than were carried on the first half of the trip!)

    Everything that goes in the bottom of the pack!

    Everything that goes in the bottom of the pack!

In the middle section:

  1. 6 pairs of socks (1 smartwool hiking, 2 lightweight, 3 ankle from the dollar store), 5 pairs of underwear (2 special Ex-Officio travel underwear, 1 cotton, 2 polyester blend), 4 bras (only 3 pictured) (1 normal, 1 sports bra that can double as a swim suit top, 2 stretchy comfortable bras that are relatively quick dry). All stored in a medium Eagle Creek packing cube.
  2. Sarong, towel, turbi-twist – stored in a zipper bag from Target
  3. Swimsuits – one bikini bottom, one athletic top, one swimsuit shorts – stored in a zip lock
  4. Sleeping sheet, extra laundry bags (from dollar store), extra straps/belts – stored in a zip lock
  5. Pajamas – one tank, one shorts, one pair of socks (all lightweight) – stored in a small Eagle Creek packing cube
  6. Cold Weather Gear – one Marmot rain jacket, one Mountain Hardwear jacket, leggings and long sleeve midlayer from target, a lightweight fleece from Sam’s Club. Hat, gloves, heavy socks (in a stuff sack) – stored in a large Eagle Creek packing cube
  7. General Clothing – 2 long pants, 1 zip off (Sierra Trading Post), both quick dry. Two shorts, one longer, one shorter (thrift store). 3 merino wool t-shirts (all from online). 3 tank tops, 2 with built in bras, one cotton, one Ex-Officio, one polyester. One Ex-Officio travel dress. All stored in a large Eagle Creek packing cube.
  8. Zip bag with important documents.
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  9. Plugs: 1 all-purpose plug adaptor, 2 mini power strips (one with 2 USB connections), extra USB charging cable. All stored in a random old zipper bag that was packaging for a set of sheets.
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  10. Toiletry kit for everyday use: Comb, foldable brush, 2 toothbrushes, toothpaste, floss (not pictured), soap bar, shampoo bar, extra conditioner, chapsticks, tweezers, nail clippers, small swiss army knife, nail polish, extra hair tie, deodorant (not pictured) – All stored in a toiletry kit from Sierra Trading Post
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  11. On the outside of the bag – new purple shower shoes/slippers
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    Everything for the middle part of the pack!

    Everything for the middle part of the pack!

In the top section:

  1. Bag covers: 1 for rain, 1 for checking on the airplane
  2. Extra wet wipes
  3. Extra tea
  4. Extra poncho
  5. Sun hat (until it gets into the day bag)
  6. Extra rubber bands and zip lock bags- always useful on the road!
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  7. 1 of the 2 tupperware containers (until it moves to the day bag)
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    Everything that goes in the top

    Everything that goes in the top

In the day bag:

  1. General Use: Poncho, sun hat, extra toilet paper, sunglasses, extra feminine products, headphones, extra water bottle bag, extra rags, tissues, eye cover, pain medicine, wet wipes, 1 of three bandanas.
  2. Electronic bag: Nexus 7 Tablet, Tablet keyboard, USB connector, extra mini hard drives, power plug, carrying bag for tablet, stylus, and travel sim card for phone – Stored in a wet bag from Target
  3. Notebook and pencil – Stored in a bag found at thrift store
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  4. Water bottles – 1 Nalgene, 1 foldable (dollar store)
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  5. Extra zip lock bags

Purse:

  1. Wallet
  2. Camera/mini tripod
  3. Phone
  4. Chapstick
  5. Extra tissues, wet wipes, pain meds, feminine products
  6. Compass
  7. pen

There you have it! Everything that goes in Della’s pack! In all, the large pack weighs 29 lbs… So, not light, but lighter than it was before and much more manageable! She has the day bag in addition which adds a couple of pounds, though this varies depending on the books she is carrying as well as how many full water bottles she has!