Monday, February 22, 2010

Amazing Myanmar

Our spot in front of our villa
Many more people this year?!?
Our Welcome Back Dinner

John walks the beach to the mermaid
and the other way to the airport (fence is leftover pieces from WW II temporary airstrips)
The fishman comes home with the catch

Visiting the school
Hanging out at the Govenor's Residence in Yangon
Hanging out at Novotel pool at Bangkok airport
Many people think Yangon is the capital of Myanmar, formally known as Burma. Yangon was the capital for many years but the new capital is Naypyidaw, which is 200 miles north of Yangon. It is off limits and thought to be lavish. Myanmar is a fascinating destination and our visit this year was our third trip. Myanmar has a military government and many countries including the United States have placed sanctions on the country. The sanctions have little effect of the military leaders who it is rumored live a lavish lifestyle in the new capital. The sanctions do have a profound effect on ordinary people. The government has little interest in tourism as it does not produce enough money so we feel that our tourist dollars go directly to the people and our presence is a good advertisement for democracy. About 20,000 Americans visited Myanmar in 2009 and twice that number arrived from England.

The historical sites, beaches, and people are wonderful. The country is extremely safe. The one problem we have is with the Internet. The Internet is available in Myanmar but some sites are blocked so before we head to Myanmar we stay at the Novotel Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok to take care of anything we need to do on the Internet. Plus the budget flight on Air Asia departs for Yangon at seven in the morning. The Novotel Suvarnabhumi Airport is a lovely hotel with a beautiful pool. The hotel is more like a resort than the typical airport hotel.

We like to spend our money locally so we purchased our domestic Myanmar air tickets from May Thu who owns the Myanmar Wonders Travel agency in Yangon. May Thu met us at the airport with our tickets and her driver drove us to the domestic airport. Typical of Myanmar the service was always excellent.

From Yangon we flew to our favorite beach, Ngapali, for a week at Amazing Resorts. The week went by too fast. The sand is soft, the water is warm and gentle, and the sun shines every day. And we had the long sweeping beach pretty much to ourselves. There are no annoying vendors. Because we were returning guests the hotel prepared a special candlelight dinner for us on the terrace above the beach. At night the horizon looks star-studded but what looks like stars are actually the lights of the fishing boats. It is a beautiful sight. We were also given a free massage treatment.

I wanted to visit a school so a taxi driver who spoke English took us to the local public high school. They were very welcoming and the students were excited to have a break in their day. The cafeteria had food that looked great with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

On our return to Yangon we spent two nights at the Governor’s Residence in Yangon. It is a beautiful hotel built of teak in the traditional style. The hotel is part of the Orient Express and where guests stay before and after taking the “Road to Mandalay” Orient Express boat trip, the luxurious way to travel from the historical city of Bagan to Mandalay. We were pleased to see so many tourists this year, mainly from Europe.

Much of the lifestyle of Myanmar, because of the sanctions, is frozen in the 1960s but we have seen changes. Television, the Internet, and tourism make change inevitable.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Thailand: Always Something New to See and Do

Welcome to the Peninsula
Hanging around the Peninsula's pool
Spa Suite

Long Tail boat tour of the canal
Temple of Dawn
Royal Barge Museum

Holiday Inn Beach in Cha'am
Pool time
The Royal Summer Palace of Rama VI

We have been to Bangkok a dozen times and each time there is something new to experience. One of our all-time favorite hotels is the Peninsula. It is located right on the river and from our room and the pool we can watch the mesmerizing Chao Phraya River. The Peninsula hotels have a program called The Academy whereby tourists can experience the local culture. We have taken their cooking class in Bangkok and in Hong Kong. This time we decided on a cultural klong trip.

The long-tail boat picked us up at the Peninsula dock. Long-tail boats have a huge engine with a long shaft to the propeller hence the name but it is the James Bond movie that really added to the mystic of zipping around in a long-tail. Our first stop was Wat Arun, also known as the Temple of Dawn. Most guidebooks say it is called the Temple of Dawn because it faces East; but, Chakie, our guide, said it is because King Rama II landed there at dawn. One of the fascination aspects of the temple is that the mosaics and designs are made out of dishes that broke while being transported from China to Thailand. Also, the Chinese statues that are on either side of the steps were actually used as ballast in ships coming from China. Great recycling. The temple is beautiful and so are the views from the top.

We entered the nearby klong and discovered a fascinating world. Many people live along the klong. Elegant houses are next to very basic homes. Mosques are near churches which are near temples. It seems to be very harmonious. Everything people need living along the klong is delivered by boat. We saw boats vending noodles, coffee, meat, and even the mail. Fascinating.

Our last stop on the two-hour tour was at the Royal Barge Museum. Several years ago when we were in Bangkok we saw the royal rowers practicing on the river for an upcoming ceremony. The water parade must be incredibly beautiful based on the royal barges in the museum. The museum has eight of the country's most unique and stunning Royal Barges. They are reserved for auspicious ceremonies and state occasions. Chakie said he has only seen two such ceremonies. Each barge is carved from huge pieces of teak with prows carved into mythical creatures, gilded in gold and intricately decorated with pieces of glass. Each barge has up to 50 specially trained oarsmen.

From Bangkok we traveled south to the Holiday Inn Resort in Cha’am where we spent a week walking the beach and lazing by the pool. On the last day we started feeling a bit guilty about our life of leisure so we arranged for the hotel to transport us to the nearby Royal Summer Residence.

The beautiful expansive Summer Residence was built in 1923 by King Rama VI who had been advised by his doctors to spend time in a cool, dry place. Built on stilts, cool refreshing air reaches every room of the robin-egg blue and yellow teak residence. A series of open halls connects the various rooms. A long covered walkway leads to the king’s beach where, at 5 in the morning surrounded by 40 servants to make sure nothing happened to him, he took his morning swim. A similar walkway led to a swimming area for his wife.

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