Bagan, Myanmar – Part One

Bagan is one of those unique places, a place unlike anywhere else I have visited, although it is often likened to Angkor Wak in Cambodia. The Bagan archaeological zone, which an 100 square kilometre area and home to more than 2000 temples and pagodas, comprises of Nyang-U, New Bagan and Old Bagan. Each town is very different, Nyang-U being the tourist hub, New Bagan being the ‘new’ town which locals now live after being forced out of Old Bagan in the 1990s when the military government hoped to make the area into a international tourist destination (which also resulted in some bad restoration works), and Old Bagan where most of the largest and most exquisite temples can be found.

We spent our first afternoon meandering around the temples near Old Bagan, being amazed at the size and complexity of them. We were pleasantly surprised not to find too many tourists around, especially since it was the ‘peak’ season for tourism in Myanmar. However, there were many Myanmar people from places other than Bagan, who had camped there, along with their cattle, to celebrate the annual three week Ananda Pagoda Festival.

We finished our first day in Bagan with a sunset view over the Ayeyarwady River from Bu Phaya temple.
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Getting There:
We chose to fly to Bagan rather than taking a bus. We flew from Heho airport to Nyaung-U, from where we took a taxi to Old Bagan. The taxi should cost about 8000 kyat. We flew with Air KBZ and found their service quite good. Although we were quite relieved to complete each flight unscathed, as all the aircraft, ATR 72-500s, appeared to be quite old and being Myanmar, we were not sure how well or how regularly they were serviced.

We stayed at the Hotel @ Tharabar Gate and thoroughly enjoyed it. Located just outside the gates to the archeological site of Old Bagan, it is conveniently located close to many of the major temples. The entire Bagan area is rather compact, so it’s not difficult to ride a bike to New Bagan or Nyaung-U either. This was our little accommodation splurg during our trip and it was well worth while – beautiful bed linen, a large sleek room and stunning bathroom, lush gardens, a stunning pool area and not forgetting the delicious breakfasts – I couldn’t get enough of the bircher museli, nor the waffles and pancakes. Everyone needs a bit of pampering once in a while, right? Deluxe rooms are US$240 per night, and suites are US$400 (we obviously got a deluxe room).

The only pitfall of staying in Old Bagan is that there aren’t many dining options near by, unlike in New Bagan and Nyaung-U. However, we did enjoy the meals we had at our hotel (although a bit pricey by Myanmar standards – a pasta dish was about 6,000 kyat and woodfired pizzas 12,000 kyat), as well as a couple of meals we had at The Moon Vegetarian Restaurant. The Moon does an excellent guacamole served with papadums (2500 kyat) and great fresh fruit lassis (1500 kyat). They also have an array of interesting salads.

Inle Lake, Myanmar – Part Two

We spent our second day at Inle Lake cycling around the northern part of the lake (hence we don’t have many photos from day 2 – it’s a bit difficult to cycle and take photos at the same time). We hired bicycles in Nyaungshwe for $2 and went towards the western side of the lake, towards the village of Khaung Daing, and stopping at the hot springs along the way. From Khaung Daing we took a boat to the other side of the lake, to Maing Thauk village. Here we visited the hilltop monastery, before heading back north. Along the way we stopped at Red Mountain Estate Vineyard for some lunch and wine tasting, before making our way back to hustle and bustle of Nyaungshwe.

Our final day on Inle Lake was spent exploring Samkar, which is located at the southern end of Inle Lake, and a lot less touristed than the main lake. The few people who  visit Samkar make the trip to see the old Buddhist ruins located in and around the village, as well as to experience the local village life of the Shan, Intha and Pa-O people, which has been left virtually undisturbed by tourism. Getting to and from Samkar is part of the experience – even through it is a long trip, about 2.5 to 3 hours in each direction, along the way you get to see many beautiful lakeside villages, as well as the stunning landscapes which hug the narrow straight leading from the main part of Inle Lake to Samkar.

You no longer need to pay an entrance fee to visit Samkar, nor are you required to hire a Pa-O guide (another aspect of the opening up of Myanmar to tourism).
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Food in the Shan State (where Inle Lake is located), because of its proximity to China, is greatly influenced by Chinese cuisine. Staying on the lake, we were unfortunately limited to our hotel restaurant for dinner options. However, one dining suggestion for Inle Lake would be to visit Red Mountain Estate Vineyards and Winery. We stopped there for a late lunch one day. Here you can sample the local wines as well as enjoying a simple meal with a great view over the winery and the lake below. They have some well presented European options on the menu, including burgers and pastas, for those who are getting a little weary of the local cuisine. To get there, hire a push-bike in Nyaungshwe and cycle around the eastern side of the lake, towards Mine Thauk Village. There is a sign at the turn-off to the estate.

Inle Lake, Myanmar – Part One

We arrived at Inle Lake in the late afternoon, just in time to watch the sunset from our lake side bungalow. If there is anytime of day which Inle Lake looks utterly amazing, it is this!

We had a jam-packed itinerary the following day, being sped around the lake from place to place. First stop was the tribal market, which is part of the five-day market circuit around the lake. Here many of the Pa-O women from surrounding villages, distinguishable by their black clothing and coloured head scarves, come to sell their produce. Myamnar is a multi-national country, full different tribal and ethnic groups. The Pa-O people, which live in the areas surrounding Inle Lake, are just one of these tribal groups.

Next stop was to visit the weaving workshops of the Kayan women, known for their brass neck rings. These women are indigenous to the southern part of the Shan State (south of Inle Lake). Scarves created from lotus steam fibres, an extremely time consuming process to create threads from these fibres, can be purchased at various workshops on the lake. Because of the shear work involved in creating scarves from lotus threads, they are not cheap.

We took a bit of a detour on our ‘tour’ of the lake and headed to Inn Thein, a large historic temple complex on the western side of the lake. Here you can find crumbling stupas, overgrown with vegetation. If you follow the long covered corridor which leads uphill, you will find another complex of stupas, many of which are well maintained and shine bright white and gold in the Myanmar sun.

Our final stop for the day was a visit to the floating gardens of Inle Lake. This was by far the highlight of our day. The late afternoon light brought out the deepness of the blue lake and the rich greens of the vegetation. It was incredible to see local people working on these floating gardens from their boats – tending their crops and collecting vegetables.

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Getting There:
Inle Lake is most easily accessed by air (unless you’re keen for a long and bumpy bus trip). Flights from major cities and tourist hubs arrive in Heho, the nearest airport to Inle Lake. From the airport a taxi takes about 45 minutes to an hour (depending on the driver) and costs about 20,000 kyat (or US$20). Taxis drop you off in Nyaungshwe. There are many accommodation options in this bustling canal-side town. If you are staying at one of the bungalow-style hotels on the lake, head to the canal where you will find a boat to take you to your hotel. It should take about 30-60 minutes, depending on where your hotel is located, and cost between 10,000-15,000 kyat.

We stayed on the lake, at Paradise Inle Resort. Although the resort is looking a bit tired and in need of a little TLC, being on the lake was fantastic and our room was comfortable. After experiencing the ‘chaos’ of Nyaungshwe, we were happy to be paying that bit extra to spend our nights on the lake. Generally speaking, more budget accommodation options can be found in Nyaungshwe, but if you can spend that bit extra, I would recommend staying on the lake. But the downside is that you are stuck at your hotel after sunset, as the boats don’t ferry people back and forth after dark. At about US$100 per night for a double room, Paradise Inle Resort is one of the cheaper hotels on the lake.

Yangon, Myanmar – Part 2

Our second day in Yangon was short, as we were flying to Heho at around midday to explore Inle Lake and its surrounds. However, we had an interesting morning exploring the fresh produce markets along 26th Street in downtown Yangon. I have been to many fresh produce markets around the world and I have to say that the morning market on 26th Street is probably my favourite. And perhaps one of the most photogenic I have visited. It as a distinct local and authentic feel – with dirt and all. I think we were the only tourist there. But, if you like exploring markets, it is worthwhile taking a morning out to see the local trade.

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Although much more tourist orientated than the morning markets on 26th Street, if you want to purchase a souvenir or two from Myanmar, Bogyoke Aung San Markets in Yangon is the place to go for souvenirs from all around Myanmar under one roof. From lacquerware, to weavings, marionettes, teak carvings and parasols, it can all be found here. It is a rather difficult to sort through the hundreds of stalls and be confident that you’re buying authentic items, but if you didn’t have time to shop for souvenirs during your travels, this is the perfect last resort to get a piece of Myanmar. Some stores are better than others, so it’s worth having a good look around. My favourite store was Yoyamay Textile Gallery, which is the place to go for ethnographic textiles, particularly from the Chin and Kachina tribes from the north and north-west of Myanmar.

Did you know?:
Prior to 2010 independent travel was not allowed in Myanmar. If you wanted to visit the country, you had to do so on an organised and approved tour. There are still many parts of the country where tourists are not allowed to venture, or require a special government permit to visit.

Yangon, Myanmar – Part One

We arrived in Yangon mid-morning and after checking into our guesthouse we caught a taxi into the city. Lunch of byrani rice satisfied our hunger and we embarked on a walking tour of the city (following our trusty Lonely Planet guidebook) to discover some of the city’s colonial heritage. Yangon is considered to be one of the better preserved colonial cities in Asia, as many of the colonial town buildings, such as the court house, customs house, town hall and the like are still standing, since they have not been knocked down to make way for modern office buildings and apartment blocks (western countries officially dropped sanctions on Myanmar in 2012, so foreign investment is yet to alter the landscape of the city).

The heat and chaos of the city became a bit much for us, so we headed the the beauty and serenity of Shwedagon Pagoda. This pagoda really is a site to see. It is enormous and can be seen from most parts of the city. Surprisingly it is not overrun by tourists, unlike major attractions in other world capitals, but rather is full of local worshippers. Unfortunately, during our visit the main stupa was covered due to restoration work, so its brilliant gold was not visible. However, we visited the nearby Maha Wizaya Pagoda to get an indication of what the main stupa would look like if it was not covered in sheeting and bamboo scaffolding. An hour or two can be easily spent meandering around Shwedagon Pagoda and taking in the atmosphere.

We ended our first day with a dust walk around the peaceful Kandawgi Lake – which also has beautiful sunset views towards Shwedagon Pagoda.

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Getting There:
We flew Singapore Airlines from Sydney to Yangon, via Singapore. Upon arriving at Yangon International Airport, take a taxi to your accommodation. The approximate taxi fair to ‘downtown’ is about 8,000 kyat, or US$8.

We stayed at Classique Inn, located in the leafy upmarket suburb of Bahan. A home conversion, this guesthouse offers warm service and presentable rooms. Although the interiors are a little dark, many of the rooms have teak furnishings and private balconies or courtyards. Breakfast is served in the pleasant front courtyard. Although the guesthouse is located about a 20 minute taxi drive north of the downtown area, the surrounding streets are clean and quiet, and the city can be easily navigated by taxi. We were very impressed with Classique Inn and would recommend it to anyone staying in Yangon. Rooms range from US$100-$150 per night.

Like any big city, there are so many places to eat in Yangon. From street stalls, to tea houses, small restaurants and fine dining. I have to say we sampled all of these, with some notable meals enjoyed. Do sample some Myanmar food whilst you’re there, but there are plenty of other cuisines to chose from, notably Indian, Chinese, and Thai, as well as others. Look out for Indian rotis on street corners, which sell for about 100 kyat (or 10 cents) each. A great little snack on the go. Or even sample some Shan noodles. We ate lunch on our first day at a tea house serving biryani rice dishes near the corner of Sule Pagoda Road and Anawratha Road. A vegetarian biryani rice was 800 kyat (80 cents). Restaurant eating in Yangon isn’t much cheaper than in western countries. We ate dinner on night at Alamanda Inn (in the Bahan district) and enjoyed a delicious Moroccan tagine ($12). And another night at The Strand Hotel with a group of Australian ex-pats, where meals range from $15-$25 (but this could be considered high end dining in Yangon).

Sydney Walks

A little aside from the usually travel post until we head to Burma over the Christmas/New Year period. Over the past few months we have been enjoying the great outdoors and doing a bit of exploring a little closer to home. Benefiting from the beautiful Spring weather, we have been spending our weekends doing a series of walks around Sydney. Here are a few of our favourite (and some of the Instagram photos I took along the way).

Royal National Park

Located south of Sydney, this National Park has a plethora of walking tracks to explore. The coastal walk, starting at Bundeena, takes you along weather beaten coastal vegetation and spectacular rugged cliffs. Depending on how long you want to walk,  you can walk for about 1.5-2 hours and turn back in the same direction, or you can complete a loop, going all the way to Wattamolla Beach.  Stop at the information centre at Audley when entering the National Park and ask for a map. 10404249_10152281427530544_7336009455081714731_n

West Head, Kur-ring-gai Chase National Park

Again, this is another National Parks which is dotted with spectacular walks. Ask for a list of the walks from the information booth upon entering the park. This guide explains each walk, its duration and level of difficulty. All the walks are clearly sign posted along the road, so they are not difficult to locate. Don’t miss West Head Lookout, with it’s spectacular views onto Pittwater and Palm Beach Lighthouse. 10003988_10152293879745544_8810428419472530380_n 10423750_10152293950215544_6420437849163333322_n

Spit Bridge to Manly

Start at either Manly or the Spit for this stunning coastal walk. Walking between The Spit and Manly is about 10km and takes about 3 hours to complete. Download the Manly Scenic Walkway map from the Manly Council website before you go. Buses connect Manly and The Spit if you’re too exhausted to return the same way. 10484509_10152108524760544_1408797141693708907_n

Double Bay to Watsons Bay

I’m not sure if we’re crazy or not, but we spent one Sunday walking from Double Bay to Watsons Bay and back, and arrived home utterly exhausted. Walking along New South Head Road, follow the promenade at Rose Bay continuing until you get to Kincoppal School. Go along Vaucluse Road/Wentworth Road/Fitzwilliam Road, stopping at Nielsen Park and Parsley Bay. Continue along Hopetoun Avenue until you get to Watsons Bay. This walk takes you through some of the exclusive eastern suburbs – we spent the day admiring the houses and gardens we passed. 10527298_10152409464925544_781127559665545944_n

Bradleys Head Walk – Taronga Zoo to Chowder Bay

Another must do walk when you’re in Sydney is the Bradleys Head Walk from Taronga Zoo to Chowder Bay through Sydney Harbour National Park. This well maintained walkway gives up spectacular views of Sydney city and its world renowned harbour. If you still feel energetic after your ice-cream stop at Chowder Bay, you can continue the walk to Balmoral Beach for some fish and chips. 10580016_10152269360020544_6687051038959203806_n

Bondi Beach to Clovelly Beach

This popular walk is popular for a reason – the walkway is fantastic and the scenery even better. Try going in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds. The crowds usually thin out by the time you get to Bronte Beach. If you have time, spend a while exploring the historic graves at Waverley Cemetery (an incredible location for a cemetery!). For a few weeks, usually in October/November, this walk is also the site of the fabulous Sculptures by the Sea exhibition. 10644671_10152224908520544_2387103584722432799_n

Newport Beach to Avalon

This is my local – walking from Newport Beach, over South Bigola Headland, along The Serpentine to AJ Small Lookout and then on to Avalon. When in Avalon stop for a bite to eat at Nourish Cafe (serving fantastic healthy food. A great place if you’re on a vegan, gluten free, sugar free or raw diet). 10670246_10152342513800544_932375545179395327_n

La Perouse

I’ve lived in Sydney almost my entire life, and I think this was the first time I had ever been to La Perouse. I was so impressed with Little Bay Beach and Frenchmans Beach – it’s almost like a little world unto its own (other then the airport/port botany eye sore). There are a few short walks you can do to Congwong Bay and Cruwee Bay. photo

Palm Beach Lighthouse

From the carpark at the base of the headland, take a short walk along the beach on the Pittwater side of the Peninsular until you reach to path to the light house. There are two routes you can take, the narrow path, or the paved fire track. From the top, you have a 360 degree view over Palm Beach, Pittwater and the Central Coast. Stop at The Boathouse for a coffee overlooking Pittwater for an afternoon snack on your return, or a couple of drinks at Cranky Fins.

The Fleurieu Peninsula, Australia

After a day exploring the Adelaide Hills, we went south of Adelaide to explore the stunning Fleurieu Peninsula – it stunning coastline, beautiful national parks and the fantastic wineries of McLaren Vale.

First stop was Newland Head Conservation Park, stopping at Parsons Beach to take a hike along the coastal track, which forms part of the Heysen Trail. The coastline was absolutely stunning and the ocean so turquoise and clear. We walked over headlands and along beaches, before heading north-west to Port Willunga for lunch.

At Port Willunga we stopped at the Star of Greece restaurant and bistro for some fish and chips (not minding the calories). We were so impressed with Port Willunga Beach – it reminded me of somewhere in the south of Spain. The yellow cliffs which hug the beach are spectacular – the place was stunning! After lunch, wandered along the beach, which was busy with weekend holiday makers.

Next stop was Mclaren Vale for some wine tasting. We were overwhelmed by the vast number of wineries located in such a small space. McLaren Vale was not quite as scenic as the Adelaide Hills, but we were in some luck and visited some quaint little wineries on beautiful estates.

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The Star of Greece restaurant at Port Willunga. Fantastically situated about the beach, with a sunkissed view of the expansive ocean below, it’s difficult to drive past without stopping for lunch and taking in the view. If you’re after something a bit kinder to the wallet, there is a take-away fish and chips stand just outside the restaurant entrance – there really isn’t anything better than sitting on the beach enjoying a delicious lunch.

Our favourite winery in McLaren Vale was by far Dogridge Wine. Located in a little tin shed, beside a creek, you can sit outside in the shade of the guntrees, take in the scenery and enjoy the fine wine. Our favourites were their Wylpena Chardonnay and the PUP Sauvignon Blanc.