Myanmar is the only country to which I’ve ever been refused entry. Arriving at 1am, pre-arranged visa documents in hand, I was told that I was missing a key document and could not enter. The words “You’ll need to go back madam” were uttered. An hour later, after much cajoling, encouragement and searching, it emerged that immigration actually did have all my documents. Once found, these were presented with a triumphant flourish and everyone chorused, as if practiced, “Welcome to Myanmar”. Fortunately things became much easier after this. Traveling with my friend Marijana (my host in Serbia and on many of my London trips) we were flabbergasted that, for a country that has only been officially “open” since 2010, the tourist trail has so quickly and intensely been created. Myanmar is booming – in tourism and construction alike.
And there are plenty of hot spots to visit. Yangon’s Schwedagon Pagoda is a sparkling gold jewel but our favorite day there involved being swept up in the local lives of a couple of Burmese women. Morning grocery shopping at the local market, visiting a local monastery/nunnery/meditation centre to see if they will accept a young Vietnamese nun for an extended stay, a local street festival (complete with manually powered ferris wheel) and seafood dinner at the lakeside.
From there, it was off to the rest of the country – starting with a boat trip down the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Bagan. Dotted with thousands of temples, stupas and pagodas built by a succession of kings in the heyday of the Burmese Empire from 1050-1350, Bagan is a world-class destination. An early morning run to see the sun rise behind the temples (and the hot air balloons soar over them) was a highlight as was the view from the infinity pool at our hotel. The tacky Christmas decorations not so much – non-Christian countries should not do Xmas! Lake Inle was also magical, with 70,000 people living in stilt villages and using the waterways to grow floating vegetable gardens. The unique one-legged rowing style of the fishermen added to the charm. With a spa to start the day and a surprisingly ok Burmese winery to finish it (Red Mountain), a cycling trip around the lake is a must.
Desiring a break from the tourist trail, we then jumped on a plane to Kyaing Tong in the heart of the Golden Triangle near the Thai and Chinese borders, and landed in the middle of a New Years Festival by the Akha tribe…a very colorful Christian group. The next two days were spent trekking into hill tribe territory – featuring lunch in the chief’s house in a gorgeously perched village and tea, moonshine, betel and dancing with the local shaman (priest and traditional healer) in another. Our time came to an end as we celebrated New Years in Yangon with thousands of young, singing, drinking, guitar playing and dancing Burmese parading the Lake promenade. Let’s just say that two blonde girls were the photo stars of many people’s New Years!
But some of my most enduring memories will be of thanaka, massages and food. Thanaka is a paste made from ground bark that is considered to protect the face from the sun. Most women and some men and children wear it daily, in a variety of patterns and it’s very beautiful and elegant. This same grace is applied to a culture of massage and spa treatments – a great Asian tradition continued in Myanmar. I probably had more massages in two weeks than in the past two years combined (cost $4 each). While restaurant food had some novelties such as fermented tea leaf salad, we generally found it to be unremarkable. So we turned to that other great Asian food tradition – the streets. I absolutely love street food (as does Marijana luckily) and Myanmar didn’t disappoint – sweet and savory pancakes, noodle soup, fried tofu, and vegetable skewers. We had some very satisfying and delicious meals for $2 – for both of us!
Great to share another great trip with you Marijana!
The street food obsession continued with my next stop in India. Although here the restaurants also redeemed themselves. Travelling in Kerala – literally “land of coconuts” – I couldn’t get enough of coconut curry, dosas, tree tomato juice and paratha bread. Kerala itself is quite the marvel state of India – 95% literacy, lowest birth rate in India etc. And it is stunningly beautiful – green, green, green and studded with coffee, tea and spice plantations everywhere complimented by cruising houseboats winding their way down palm tree studded backwater rivers.
I was in India with 7 other girls to celebrate Amee’s 40th birthday – which we did in style at the Taj Palace in Mumbai (yes – the one bombed a few years back) – a gorgeous property that still provided a few laughs on the service front. With professional photo shoots and a chance to experience Mumbai’s energetic nightlife and dining scene at Seven Kitchens at The Palladium (probably the best buffet in the world!), Mumbai more than delivered for the occasion.
But the true story of India was 8 girls on tour in a disco bus….through Wayanad, Alleppey, Thekkady, Munnar and Cochin – best summarized through this hilarious press release. You won’t get all the jokes but it deserves to be immortalized here for posterity….thanks Anna and Rakhi!
Press Release: for immediate and widespread distribution
Thursday 9th January, 2014
Somewhere at the end of a long winding potholed single track road in India
Spice Girls like you have never seen them before visit India
Formally known as Amee, Emma, Deb, Rakhi, Navida, Tina, Nikki and Anna, the newly formed Masala Ni Dhabi (Spice Girls) are touring India in the Angel Bus, recognised locally because of its distinctive disco lighting.
The tour has been organised by Royal Spice to celebrate her birthday. The experienced NRI (Non-Resident Indian) is hoping that by arranging a marathon shopping weekend in Mumbai at the start of the tour she will receive at least some half-decent birthday presents.
The tour has already taken in some of the highlights of Southern India including a lucky escape from ‘forest’ people, front row seats to a hotel lobby brawl that would not have looked out of place in a Bollywood movie, the world’s shortest elephant trek, tiger hunting and a shopping marathon spanning two states and every town or village selling chai, limca, banana chips and anything flavoured with masala.
Local wildlife has been in abundance. Confirmed sightings include wild elephants, monkeys, fruit bats and the lessor spotted lunatic driver – seen in numbers reaching epidemic levels.
Joining Royal Spice on the tour are the rest of the girls.
Distraught with the lack of wifi and opportunities to wear the carefully selected wardrobe she has in tow, acclaimed social networker and fashionista Yolo Spice is attempting to distract herself by planning a return shopping spree.
After years of rejecting her heritage, fellow NRI Chai Spice has bought enough Indian inspired bling that her home town of North Vancouver is likely to be mistaken for an Ismaili shrine rather than the home of a proud Canuck.
80’s Spice and PIO (Person of Indian Origin) drives a hard bargain and is proving very unpopular with the shop keepers trying to pull a fast one on the NIW’s (Not Indian Whatsoever’s). She has also had the opportunity to refresh her unique talent for tracking elephants from the appearance of their poop, a little rusty due to the inconvenient absence of elephants in North London.
The easily excitable champion photo poser Turmi Spice has had to call off an entrepreneurial plan to rescue elephants from captivity. Although she put her medical skills to good use rescuing a number of Spice Girls from potential sickness. The shopping marathon has resulted in the number of suitcases being carried by the party exceeding even legendary traveller Coco Spice’s Gold status baggage allowance, leaving little room for a PBE (Pretty Big Elephant). A regular traveller to India, Coco Spice’s love for Masala has no bounds and we may see her giving up her day job to start importing Magic Masala Lays.
The tour will culminate in a photo shoot by award winning Indian photographer, Uncle Ramachandra Shri Chillipaneerdaipapdichaatdosapanipuriparatha.
A full trip synopsis by Chilli Spice will be published on her world renowned blog. However, dedicated readers may have to wait as she is about to commence a farewell tour of North America before travelling to West Africa where she can continue seeing the world in peace. A full portfolio of accompanying images will be released when someone gets round to it.
No Interviews will be conducted on the tour. However for anyone interested, PR Guru Chocolate Ji Spice will happily try to embellish a couple of stories to make them news worthy. However, she may be hard to find, unrecognisable with her new henna tattoos and uncharacteristically colourful pashminas.
My fellow Spice Girls – thank you for a truly memorable trip! And to Amee – big congratulations – so happy to spend your 40th with you in such style!
I ended my Asian celebrations with a quick catch-up with Robyn, Keir and Zoe in Delhi – who are always welcoming despite flying in from the US only hours before. Then it was off on my “farewell tour” of North America – watch for my next blog post.
Click on any picture to launch a slideshow of the images…