OFF THE BEATEN TRACK-PART 2: Plunging into waterfalls at Litchfield National Park

At a mere 116 kms from Darwin, many prefer to take a day trip to this picturesque national park in Batchelor, a small town located south of Darwin. But we had done our research and seen some spectacular shots of this sprawling park (extending over 1500 square kms and original home of the Wagait Aboriginal people) and knew instantly that it well deserved more than just a day. From Kakadu, we reached Batchelor around early noon and our first stop was at a nearby convenience store to stock up on some basic supplies like eggs, bread, cereal, some instant noodles and frozen ready-to-eat food packets. There are no fancy restaurants or luxurious hotels in Litchfield and accommodations are minimalistic though comfortable. Since we were a rather spoilt Indian lot and not used to the basic outdoor campsites that were in plenty at Litchfield, we opted for a basic yet fully equipped cabin accommodation, a mere 30 minute drive to the famous park.

As there was nothing too exciting to the rooms and there was no point lounging around; after a quick meal of some instant noodles, we immediately headed out to explore Litchfield, renowned for its tranquil waterfalls, scenic landscapes and romantic picnic spots.

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Our first stop was the Magnetic and Cathedral Termite Mounds, considered to be one of the most fascinating sights at the park. Here, you can witness over hundreds of perfectly aligned termite mounds, each extending up to almost 2 meters in height. We didn’t have to pay any fees to witness this marvel, got to take some fantastic shots and my seven year old had a ball of a time pretending to be an alien in some strange planet. The mounds were no doubt anything short of spectacular but nothing would have prepared me for what I was about to experience next.

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Now many a times especially in some crazy teen movie or chick flicks, have I seen crazy teenagers dive into plunge pools and push each other off from rocky ledges into the crystal waters. Never had I expected 30-something responsible parents like my husband and I or 60-something in-laws to act the same. We arrived at the Bully water-hole, one of the many places you are allowed to take a dip. (Many waterholes are considered unsafe due to crocodile sightings especially during rainy season).

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Though we had no bathing-suits on and was completely unprepared, it did not stop us from plunging into the blue and experiencing the strong gush of its forceful waters against our skin, push each other off from rocky platforms, all while enjoying the brilliant view of the stoney ledges and plush green forests surrounding the series of cascading water-falls and rock-holes. We were grateful that the campsite offered good toilet facilities and changing rooms to dry ourselves off before walking upstream to a next equally picturesque picnic spot, the Florence Falls.

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It was just a 3km walk from the Buley Rockhole to the viewing platform at Florence falls that offered panoramic views of the double falls surrounded by the tranquil monsoon forest. As my in-laws and my daughter decided to stay put and enjoy the view from above, my husband and I slowly made our way down the 160 steps to get up close to the falls. The walk was not only highly romantic, considering we were the only ones there and my husband had out of the blue decided to pull me closer for a quick kiss, we were also lucky to have spotted a wallaby that had stopped by to say hello.

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After a meal of Chicken Schnitzel and fries at the popular Wangi Cafe located beside the famous Wangi Falls, another great location to get some wonderful shots, we headed back to our accommodation. We knew we needed a good night’s sleep that night. After all, our adventure had only just begun…

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK: Into the wild at Kakadu National Park

Join me as I take you on our ultimate Australian Outback Extravaganza
By Aswathy Kumar
“South Africa…perfect for wildlife?”
“How about Europe…so romantic.”
“I think we should do Philippines…heard their beaches are absolutely spectacular.”

It was my mother-in-law’s big 60th and we were finding it hard to choose a destination for our annual family vacation. After all we were a rather extraordinary group with extremely different ideas of what a holiday should be like. There was my mother-in-law a complete wild life enthusiast, my husband: the adrenaline junkie, my father-in-law, a devout food fanatic, an inquisitive seven year old, my daughter and finally me, a die-hard romantic whose idea of fun was sauntering barefoot on an isolated beach or enjoying a candle-light dinner under a star-studded sky. In short, an interesting mix of people with rather distinct tastes.
“How about Australia then?” Suggested my husband. “It’s pretty massive and I am sure we can find something that each one of us like.” And boy was as he right! Be it getting up, close and personal with the gigantic salt water crocodiles at Kakadu National Park and plunging into the scenic water falls at Litchfield to taking a romantic hike under the rainforest canopy at Daintree to snorkeling with some of the most exotic marine life at The Great Barrier Reef, this monstrous continent did have it all.

Part 1

Into the wild at Kakadu National Park

The sun had slowly started to set as we arrived at our very first stop, Kakadu National park, a 20,000 square km sprawling park declared a World Heritage Site.  A mere four hour drive from the closest International airport in Darwin, we were almost certain that we had finally arrived in the famous Park when the colorless highways and drive-in restaurants started to give way to scenic landscapes splattered with hues of green, scarlet and tangerine and the shrill sounds of thousands of birds soaring in the evening sky started to echo in the background replacing the annoying sounds of sneering vehicles.
Picturesque wetlands, embellished with white and purple lilies, characteristic of Kakadu told us that we were close to our destination. Home to over 2000 species of flora and fauna, I immediately knew that Kakadu was definitely going to be the perfect concoction of wilderness and beauty.

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One of the first things that welcomed us here, were the ’Beware of crocodiles’ and danger signs that were splattered all across the seemingly harmless wetlands, all deceiving us from the danger that lurked right beneath its calm waters. Northern Australia is home to two species, the estuarine (saltwater) and the freshwater crocodiles that are seen in plenty in this region to the extent that any water body that is not mentioned safe for swimming, is better left untouched.
But then again we had travelled this far and that too with my fauna fanatic mother-in-law, so there was no way we were going to leave without getting a sneak-peek. A quick meal and rest later we were walking on top of a wooden bridge, leading us straight towards the Jim Jim Creek, where we boarded our boat that would take us around the Yellow Water Billabong, probably the best and safest way to get up close to these monstrous beasts and experience wilderness at its very best.
Now I have seen crocodiles in plenty at the zoo and even gotten pretty close to a rather humongous one at Crocosorous Cove, in Darwin. But nothing would have prepared me for what I was about to experience in the next one hour. I still remember the feeling as we spotted our very first crocodile. It was about 4.2 meters and could have been easily mistaken for a floating log. But this one was in no way going to let us pass without letting us know its presence or establish its territory, choosing to move as close as it can get to our boat and slowly cruising along with it. “They like to taunt you and the crocodiles know no fear,” our guide said warning us not to put our heads or hands outside. Apparently they can jump up to a height almost twice its own length and cases of crocodile attacking humans were definitely not unknown in this wilderness.

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As our cruise continued, we sat, clad in our plastic ponchos, in a rather unimpressive boat with strangers, soaking wet as the heavens had decided to open up just then, imbibing the several stories of this original Aboriginal lands, our guide was narrating with much enthusiasm. There was the one of the rainbow serpent, considered to be the protector, source of life and creation among the Aborigines, believed to have created the hills, valleys and the rivers along the way it moved. Then there was another and my personal favorite of Ginga or crocodile man who once got badly burnt and jumped into the river to save himself and later changed into the sandstone escarpments seen at Kakadu.
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The less eerier part of our trip was seeing the innumerable birds that swarmed the water body. Be it the large number of magpies, egrets, jacanas and whistling ducks that had gathered around the tributary for our warm welcome. Kakadu hosts almost one-third of the total bird species found in this massive continent, not to forget the 2000 unique species of plants that make up for the fantastic scenery that unfolded in front of us. If still not exhausted from the boat ride and all the hiking and bush-walking that’s probably the best way to truly imbibe the spectacular, that is Kakadu, you can also experience true aboriginal culture and witness some outstanding rock art, dating almost upto 20,000 years old at the galleries in the Nourlangie Rock region.

Caught in a different kind of claustrophobia

From high end designer haute couture and quaint boutique stores to traditional eateries and budget street shops, the Causeway Bay, is rightfully termed the shopping Mecca of Hong Kong

A shopoholics paradise, a one-stop shopping destination, a must-visit and what not! These where a few cliches I had heard before I decided to head out to the highly recommended and popular Causeway Bay. It was my first day in Hong Kong and my husband was busy attending a work meeting. I was left with a fussy 6 year old, a wallet stuffed with Hong Kong dollars and a view of a fabulous city skyline waiting to be explored. I was a writer (or so I’d like to say just cos it sounds so much cooler than a stay-at-home mom) and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to tread the jam packed and pleasantly claustrophobic streets of Hong Kong.

As always, this time too I hadn’t done my homework. I was in a city I knew nothing about; only seen pictures of it in fancy postcards and heard stories from globe trotting friends and there was now way I was going to spoil any element of surprise that came along with it. So you can imagine my astonishment when i mentioned Causeway Bay and my driver replied in two terms, ‘Sogo’ or ‘Times Square.’ I had no idea what he was talking about? ‘Times square,’ I hesitated. They name sounded familiar, option, a little safer.

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Now I had expected jam packed crowds, haphazard traffic and monstrous skyscrapers. My husband had prepared me well. What I did not expect was to walk into an enormous confusing and never ending maze of shopping malls, street bazaars, food markets and boutique stores. If you ever wondered how a shopoholics idea of heaven would look like? This was it, all stretched out mockingly in front of me. It was overwhelming, even for a pro like me. ‘Hold onto mommy” I told my daughter. ‘We can do this.’
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Though for a hassle free shopping experience, I could have stuck to Times Square (but I was in no mood to empty my bank account) or the more budget friendly Japanese departmental store Sogo, I decided to stick to the streets. ‘Thats where all the city charm lies’ I convinced my six year old as I dragged her little frame through the less crowded Paterson street that housed a few expensive, yet quaint and definitely worth exploring boutique stores in the city.

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One of the highlights of my trip to Causeway Bay was finding a hidden treasure called Jardine’s Crescent, an array of cheap street shops lying hidden amidst the snootiness, glitz and glamour of the surrounding fancy malls. I had just finished a sumptuous Singaporean meal of Char Kway Teow at a food court in the nearby Hysan Place. I was a couple of hundreds down and was about to hail a taxi back to the hotel when I treaded upon this hidden wonder. ‘Just what I needed,’ I thought as I entered into the neatly packed roadside bazaar selling a variety of goods ranging from women’s clothing, accessories to electronics and household items at incredibly low prices. Even though I hardly bought anything, it was sheer fun watching the enthusiasm in the shop owners faces as they displayed their products with great élan or watch a buyer trying his best to strike a good bargain. The market also had some decent street eats and an inexpensive flower market at the end of the road.

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One of my other favorite part of my entire visit was when I finally managed to land up in the Causeway Bay food market. I was a tourist here, my stay limited to just three days but being a homemaker, a food enthusiast and an expat wife who could shift base and land up in a home kitchen of any new country at any point in time, I get a strange sense of joy in seeing a food bazaar packed with different kinds of seafood, meats, spices and fresh veggies.
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It was my first time at Causeway Bay and it was everything I had imagined it to be? Crazy, crowded and absolutely chaotic. But with all it’s hidden treasures and charm, this was a kind of claustrophobia, I didn’t mind getting trapped in over and over again.

Bedecked in gold: The Shwedagon Pagoda

Came an atheist, left a believer

It was probably the first thing I saw as I exited the Yangon International Airport. I was nervous. I had bid farewell to my friends and my home back in DC and was stepping now into a mysterious land that I knew nothing about. But something about the 325 foot golden stupa that towered over the entire skyline of Yangon told me that I was going to be just fine. And as long as this gilded shrine stood watch, no harm was ever going to come to me in its land.

In the days that passed, I saw the Shwedagon Pagoda several times; from the glass window of my hotel room, every time I drove past it to reach downtown and even when I shifted into my new house, almost an hour away away from the Ar Za Nir street, where the pagoda was located. I saw it every single day and I could sense the strange feeling of guilt starting to rise within me. After all, it had been more than a month since I treaded it’s very streets, a month since it welcomed me, embraced me and yet I had still not found time to pay homage to the shrine that epotimised the very warmth and serenity that defined the city of Yangon. I knew it was time, time for the much awaited divine rendezvous.

A Divine Intervention

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Though the pagoda is open for tourists from 6 am to 10pm, it is best recommended to see the Shwedagon during sunrise and sunset. Because it is at these times one can see the golden pagoda glimmer in all it’s glory, thanks to the 1800 carat (76 being the largest) diamond orb located at the top, comprising 4351 diamonds that captures the rays of the sun, reflecting it beautifully and making the entire stupa glisten in the light. So following my friend’s advice and to save myself from Yangon’s scorching heat, I arrived at its footsteps at 5.00 pm, almost an hour before sunset. I had waited too long and I wasn’t going to miss seeing the shrine at it’s very best; just before, during and after sunset.

Just like most temples back in India, here too, the very first thing we had to do was remove our slippers before entering. But unlike temples back home, here there were no angry guards to yell at me or discard me as a mere sinner when I accidently treaded into its premises with my slippers on. (Even after living here a whole month, the locals’ lack of aggression and plentiful amount of patience still seem to amaze me). There was no shouting and no angry stares, but just a polite gesture to remove my slipper and place it in my handbag before I went in through security.

Despite the lack of aggression, it must be noted that this place is sacred and must be approached with utmost respect. Though it is absolutely fine to wear jeans and t shirts, one is expected to dress modestly keeping their arms and legs covered and nothing short or disrespectful is permitted. The entry for locals was free, but we had to pay an entry fee of $5 (8000 kyat) each. What was amazing was that despite being one the most visited attractions in Myanmar, seeing over 1000 tourists every day, there were no long queues, unecessary security check points or chaotic traffic jams at the entrance, making the entry as peaceful as the tiled premises encircling the pagoda.

There are several entrances to the shwedagon pagoda. If you don’t mind a bit of a climb, you can chose between the over hundreds of steps on the south, west, north or eastern entrance (south being the most preferred and having the least number of steps). Though the shopoholic in me, would have preferred to take the eastern entrance that houses a number of souvenir shops, tea stalls and interesting bazaars, the mommy in me decided to stick to the easiest option of taking the elevators at the southern entrance. And though I was a bit disappointed that I missed out on all the shopping, I was glad to find myself right at the footstep of the 150 year old Bodhi tree.

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A total of five Bodhi trees planted all around as early as in the 1926 is regarded with utmost respect and reverence by the locals and the monks alike. And I couldn’t help but consider myself lucky when one of the locals handed me a leaf from the Bodhi tree. It was only once I was handed the leaf did I realise that there were hardly any fallen leaf to be found lying around. Thankfully I was able to get just about three more for my friend, my daughter and my husband and couldn’t help but think of it as a sign acknowledging and accepting my arrival.

Though one might need a guided tour to completely understand the significance and the story behind each of the innumerable gilded Buddha statues and hundreds of temples spread across the sprawling 114 acre sacred land, our little group of three chose to simply walk around to absorb the sanctity of this architectural wonder and grandeur of the several Buddha idols. But despite having a detailed map of the the Shewdagon and the entire evening, it was still not enough to offer our respects to the various Buddha images (The Padashin Buddha, Saetawmu Buddha, Sun-Moon Buddha, Shin Saw Pu’s Buddha, Chan-Thar-Gyi Buddha, Dhamazedi Buddha, Shin Ma Htee’s Buddha, and my personal favorite the Jade Buddha carved out of one piece jade and weighing a total of 324 kgs, to name a few) housed in the different prayer halls.

However what we did have time for, was to simply marvel the sight of the thousands of oil lamps circling the shrine glimmering to life, hear the silent whispers of the hundreds of monks praying in the the gigantic shadows cast by the golden pagoda that towered over them and listen to the bustling of devotees as they offered flowers and washed the statues asking for forgiveness for their past sins and wishes for a prospective future.

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I was no devotee, my knowledge of the spiritual world rather limited to a few chants and rituals passed on from my grandmother and great grandmother, yet I couldn’t help notice the feeling that had begin to well-up within me as I washed the planetary post that represented the day, my daughter was born. I wasn’t sure how many times I was to wash the Buddha idol, the image of the guardian angel and the image of the animal that represented the day (I was only told much later that I was to do it 9 times). I wasn’t sure which mantra I was to chant. All I did know was that something changed within me as I sat cross legged engrossed in the sheer beauty that stood in front of me. I knew right away…I may have treaded into its premises an atheist, but was leaving a believer.

One day to spare

From tasting the rich vietnamese coffee and its exquisite cuisine to experiencing Hanoi’s heritage and french colonial architecture. From shop-hopping in the numerous street bazaars to taking a leisurely stroll around the scenic Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi has a lot to offer, even if you have just one day to spare…

In a matter of few months after settling in, I realized that one of the key tricks to survive a city like Yangon, Myanmar was to make as many trips to its interesting neighbors as possible, be it getting lost in the claustrophobic streets of Hong Kong, shop-hopping in the innumerable malls of Bangkok or enjoying the vibrant night life of Singapore. It didn’t matter if the trip was just for a day, when you are living in a city void of shopping malls, cineplexes or just plain traffic rules, causing you to spend hours in your car to reach a cafe, any opportunity that comes your way to get away from the madness and the chaos, you simply got to grab. Even if its just in the hope of staying in a lavish five star or sipping hazelnut latte at the nearby Starbucks. It is not that I did not love Yangon anymore. I did. But she had now become my home and all the shimmery, shiny Pagodas that awed me a few months ago and the thanaka smeared faces of the locals that brought me immense joy, had all become somewhat of the mundane. I had gone from being a tourist to a local and I was desperate for a change.

‘I must warn you. You’ll just have a day in Hanoi and you’ll be on your own,’ my husband warned me as he agreed to let me tag on one of his official trips, I didn’t care. I was ecstatic and it didn’t matter that I just had one day to spare.

Now normally, I hate planning out my trips in advance and prefer the city to unfold in itself as I tread its streets, but this time, I knew was going to be a little different and a certain amount of planning would be essential if I wanted to make the best use of my one day here. So I kept my notepad and pen ready as I exited the Hanoi airport. My stay here was going to be brief and their was no part of her, I wanted to miss. 

ZOOM ON!

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It was a rather short drive to our hotel, The Sofitel Metropole, situated in the old quarter of Hanoi and close to the famous and scenic Hoan Kiem Lake. But the drive was definitely far more adventurous than I had expected it to be, thanks to the hundreds of scooters and bicycles swarming towards our car from all sides. ‘Crossing these streets where going to be impossible especially with my 7 year old,’ I thought nervously chewing onto the ends of my pen. ‘Don’t worry Madam,’ smiled our driver as he swerved the car amidst the spool of two wheelers. ‘They know how to avoid you.’

And boy was I glad that he was right! Though they seemed intimidating at first, I soon realized that just the sheer concentration of vehicles on the road makes it almost impossible for any of them to gain a high speed, giving us enough time to make our way across the road, safely. And like my driver said, they were well used to the numerous pedestrians and had developed a strategy to coexist, swerving right around them. ‘We’ll be fine,’ I assured my daughter as we crossed the road to reach our very first stop of the day, an old non glamorous coffee shop in Nguyen Huu Huan Street to savor the famous Vietnamese coffee.

A COFFEE LOVER’S DREAM
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There were plenty of international coffee chains and boutique style cafes all around the posh locality surrounding the hotel but I was told, that this particular shop was special and famous for its unique blend of coffee made with egg yolk, cheese, butter and yogurt. As I had just a day, a flight back the very next and a seven year old to look after, I decided not to play too adventurous and stuck to the traditional coffee blended with sweetened condensed milk. Coffee is to the Vietnamese as chai is to us Indians and no trip to the country is complete without savoring the intrinsically brewed coffee. And as soon as I took my first sip of the strong concoction diluted by the sweetness of the rich creamy condensed milk, I felt no guilt that I had passed off on my favorite brand of international coffee that I had been craving for so long.

TEMPLE OF LITERATURE
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Our next stop was the Temple of literature, a temple dedicated to the great Chinese philosopher and scholar, Confucius. A mere ten minute drive from our current location at Hoan Kiem Lake, this historical site also houses the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first ever university. Though there was quite a fair number of tourists, visiting that day, we could almost immediately sense the sanctity of the place as we exited the taxi and slowly made way through, ‘The Great Portico,’ or the first entrance into the temple. 

Despite the sanctity of the place, touring around was neither intimidating nor overwhelming. It felt extremely calming as I walked hand in hand with my daughter amidst the picturesque gardens bordering the different courtyards (There are a total of five courtyards, one leading to the other), quite a relief from the chaos and congestion of motorcyclists aligning outside. There were three paths leading to the main temple and we were told that the middle path was reserved for the king, while the other two were for the officials. ‘Middle path it is,’ I joked to my little one as I pulled her delicate frame to further explore what lay ahead.

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The third courtyard was our personal favorite, thanks to a walled pond, named the Well of Heavenly Clarity situated right in the centre of the Temple. Surrounding the well are stone plaques with names of all those who cleared the exams and received their doctorates at the University. The plaques have been mounted on tortoises also carved in stone. After paying a quick homage at the lacquered statue of Confucius, housed at the end of the courtyard  and a few quick photo sessions, it was time for our little gang of two to delve into the chaotic streets of Hanoi yet again. We still had a lot to do and not much time to waste. 

IN A WORLD OF PUPPETS
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My research had suggested one more monument, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, one of the largest memorial in Hanoi. But time was scarce and after all the walking around, I was doubtful if my seven year old could handle yet another historical site. I also knew I wasn’t leaving without exploring the innumerable shops surrounding the Hoan Kiem lake and if she was ever going to let me do that, I had to throw in a little kiddy bribe. ‘How about a little puppet show my doll?’ 

I have always been extremely critical when it comes to puppetry and coming from a a country like India, where I have grown up watching some exquisite shows, like the shadow puppetry (Tholpavakoothu) of Kerala or the string puppetry (Kathputli) of Rajasthan, it would have had to be spectacular for me to take notice. And spectacular it definitely was!

Beautiful and colorful hand carved wooden lacquered puppets (including fire blowing dragons, flip flopping fish and turtles) are shown farming, fighting, dancing or simply rejoicing in the festivities in a pool of water, all while being dragged around with the help of bamboo rods or strings by puppeteers from behind a screen. The performance divided as little skits show life in rural Vietnam and is explained with the help of a live orchestra through songs and dialogues. The language was traditional Vietnamese, but the sheer acts by the puppets were enough for us to understand it’s comical nature and interpret the folktales that formed the very essence of the play.   

IN & AROUND HOAN KIEM LAKE
The next part was obviously my personal favorite and the whole reason for me tagging along with my husband to any destination in the first place, shopping! Markets were a plenty in Hanoi, but there wasn’t much time left to wrap up and so I decided to simply walk across from the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre to further explore the innumerable shops. Traditional Vietnamese Lacquer, wooden, hand-painted handicrafts, silk scarfs, tablecloths, interesting fake goods, souvenirs, bags, shoes, jewelry, paintings by local artists and what not. You think of it and you were sure to find it here. 

I would have hardly been to four shops, a lacquerware one, a silk shop, a souvenir shop and an art gallery and my hands were already full. I could feel the weight of the shopping bags beginning to take a toll on my shoulders and my daughter was slowly starting to lose her patience. And it’s at that point, a friendly rickshaw or cyclo as the Vietnamese call it, offered to take us around the lake.

Although we could just about catch glimpses of the famous turtle tower and the Huc Bridge, the ride was enough to truly absorb the beauty of the lake and the sheer vibrancy and character of Hanoi.

CHA CA LA VONG
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My jeans were all dusty and hair messed up. The shimmery bronzer and foundation that I had generously smeared on my face was long gone. We were exhausted and I felt so glad as I walked into this tiny restaurant that we had not chosen anything fancy for our last and most important pit stop, our dinner!

The place was crowded and I couldn’t help but wonder if the small wooden shop would be able to take all the weight. There was no menu and no questions. People went there for one dish and as soon as we sat down it was served to us in great élan. It was obvious the Cha Ca Thang Long, was definitely going to be a dish the Vietnamese was proud about.

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First came a steaming frying pan mounted on a flaming stove with tiny pieces of fish marinated in turmeric, ginger, garlic and fish sauce. This was followed by  a big bowl of freshly boiled vermicelli noodles, dill and smaller bowls of fish oil and nuts. I was asked to add the Dill into the hot oil while the fish cooked which was later mixed into the bowl of noodles along with extra fish oil and garnished with peanuts. 

Considered to be one amongst the top 1000 things to eat before you die, it was definitely not the best restaurant I had ever been. It was hot, crowded and noisy, but the infusion of flavors that burst inside my mouth, definitely made it one of the best meals I had ever eaten and also the most memorable part of my day in Hanoi.

Eat, pray, love Yangon

From devouring its exquisite cuisine to treading the holy grounds of the innumerable pagodas and falling in love with the simplicity and humility, its streets have to offer, here are my top 5 reasons why Yangon should be on your list of places to visit

By Aswathy Kumar

‘What about Macau?’ Bali? Fine at least let’s do Bangkok.’
These were probably the constant suggestions we got from our friends every time we insisted that they visit us in Yangon. You see, there are plenty of perks of living the expatriate life here, but the distance from your loved ones can really take its toll sometimes. Though we have been extremely successful in convincing our family and friends to visit us in our previous two postings, DC & Nairobi, we haven’t had much luck when it came to Yangon.
‘There is nothing to do there.’
‘We have heard, that there aren’t even any shopping malls or multiplexes,’ our friends would say.
And I agree… Yangon has no fancy shopping malls like in Bangkok, strong cultural scene like in China nor any family friendly hot-spots like in Singapore. But Yangon is a place like no other and here’s what makes it unique and truly exceptional.

The Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon

It would be almost wrong or even to an extend inauspicious to talk about Yangon, without mentioning the Shwedagon Pagoda that epitomizes the very warmth and serenity that defines the city of Yangon. Probably the very first thing that you will see as you enter the city, the Shwedagon Pagoda is a shrine you need to see to believe. Towering at a 325 feet, no visit to the city is considered complete without paying your respects here. Housed in a sprawling area, extending up to 114 acres, not only is the Shwedagon a complete architectural wonder, it is also the symbol of hope, divinity and reverence. Watching it glimmer in all its glory during sunrise or sunset, courtesy the 1800 carat diamond orb at the very top, is something beyond spectacular. During sunset you can also marvel at the sight of over 1000’s of oil lamps encircling the pagoda shimmering to life, hear the silent whispers of hundreds of monks chanting or listen to the bustle of devotees as they offer their prayers at the several shrines and temples in gold, housed all around its premises.

Markets

Market scene

Agreed Yangon definitely lacks glitzy shopping malls and finding your favorite brands here can almost be next to impossible. As expats, we even struggle with finding basic stuff like socks, shoes or decent clothes for our little ones, often making us run to nearby Bangkok to fulfill all our shopping needs. But that being said, Yangon’s markets are truly a class apart. Take the famous Bogyoke market. Visiting this market is almost like exploring a
hidden treasure chest, offering a new surprise every time you dig a little deeper. I still remember the first time I visited Bogyoke. It reminded me of the local markets I had explored back home in Delhi… though a stroll around quickly ensured that the riches that adorned its streets was something I had never experienced before in any part of the world.

Sparkly jewels in possibly every color lay scattered all over the little glass cases in the innumerable shops aligning every nook and corner of the market. I had carried $100 with me, thinking it was way sufficient to return with a bag-load of goodies. Little did I know that, these sparkly stones that lay around in these unguarded unimpressive cases where in fact real precious stones, some costing even upto a $60,000.
From blue sapphires to pigeon blood rubies to amethyst, blue topaz, citron, garnet to what not; glitterred in the dull orange light. Forget jewels and semi precious stones, there is a lot the market has to offer if you are on a budget and looking for some retail therapy at a lot less, like hand woven longyis, accessories, colorful flip flops, paintings by local artists, wood carvings, exquisite lacquerware, silverware and religious artifacts to name just a few.

To also experience Yangon in its true self and understand more about how the locals live, head out to the various wet markets like the ones in China town or the popular Thiri Minglar Zei. Witness a burst of colors as you see hoards and hoards of vegetables, fruits and flowers being sold in plenty at these local markets. What I call, Yangon’s own version of a farmer’s market, here you can find fresh produce for as cheap as 300-1000Kyat. Believe it or not a whole bunch of orchids cost a mere 3000Kyat (Less than $3) and who wouldn’t love a brilliant bargain?

Food

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When I was in DC, my idea of the Burmese cuisine would begin and end with Khow Suey (Curried egg noodles in coconut milk). One visit to the innumerable local tea shops and road-side restaurants in Yangon, proved how ignorant I had been all these years.
When it comes to Burmese food, the choices are simply unlimited comprising a large number of noodle based dishes like the famous breakfast dish of rice noodles in a fish based soup and topped with fried fritters called the Mohinga, Kyah oh, vermicelli noodles in a pork based soup; salads dishes like the popular pickled tea leaf salad, Lahpet and Htamin thoke, a popular rice salad with tomato puree, potato and dried shrimp to several Chinese influenced dishes like the steamed pork buns or Pauk see, Htamin gyaw (Fried rice with egg) and Kaw yay khauk swè (curried noodles with duck or pork and eggs) and Indian-inspired dishes like the palatas (similar to our layered paratha) and Dan bauk (biryani).

Food Yangon

Though there is new restaurant cropping up in the city every week offering a variety of international cuisine ranging from Mexican, Indian to Thai, Italian and French, to experience the real flavor of Yangon, head to these tiny tea shops embellished by their neatly aligned colorful miniature plastic chairs selling chai, fried local savories and dishes. For a complete Myanmar barbecue & beer experience, you can also head to the famous 19th street aka China town where you can see glass cabinets displaying a variety of fish, meats and veggies in skewers. A glass of chilled local Myanmar beer and you are ready to rock the night, Yangon style


People…

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…one of the many reasons, I fell head over heels in love with this city. Though I loved DC and truly cherish the friendships I made during my stay there, I wont be lying if I said that I was grateful to be finally free from the suited bureaucrats I encountered everyday in the metro, their faces permanently glued to their iPhones, appointment-only playdates and the oh-so-artificial hellos and greetings in the elevators.

Extremely friendly, helpful and enchanting, people in Yangon always have a smile on their thanaka smeared faces, that can almost instantly relax anyone. And what’s more… they love taking pictures, so click away without having to worry that someone may call the cops. Go to any supermarket with a toddler and they are certain to fuss all over your little one and may even offer to baby sit while you shopped around.

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Always eager to help, I still remember the time I tripped on one of my market trips. A crowd had gathered almost instantly, and unlike in India where they would just stand around and enjoy the show or like in DC, where they would simply carry on with their affairs as if you were invisible, here each one of them were seriously concerned about my injury. While one boy ran and came back with a traditional ointment for my twisted angle, another grabbed a seat for me to rest and a third guy, quickly returned with a cold coffee from a nearby cafe.

That’s Yangon for you. Okay, maybe they dont speak a word of English or barely understand you…and maybe even the waiters at restaurants may not have received any formal training in the hospitality industry, but their constant friendly and dazzling smiles are more than enough to brighten up any day.

Travel back in time

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Ever wondered how life would have been in the good old days? Where people had time to sit around in front of little tea shops and discuss the daily news while sipping a cup of hot chai, or splash around in small rain water puddles in the middle of a hot summer afternoon. A time when people where not caught up in some mad rat race and actually had the time to say hello. A time of unreliable wifi connections, zero flyovers and nonexistent skyscrapers. A time when the only way to find out what’s on the menu in a restaurant was by actually going there and not by scrolling through any website.
If yes, then Yangon is probably your best bet to take you back to the past, where everything was a lot simpler and more beautiful. Travel back in time as you stroll amidst the colonial buildings in downtown Yangon, watch the local men play a game of Chinlon ( a traditional game where you are expected to keep a single rattan ball in the air by using a combination of knees, feet and heads) on an early Monday morning, take a slow ride on the famous circular train to absorb the wondrous sights this charming city has to offer or take a ferry or a trishaw ride to imbibe the true feeling of Yangon, a city that seem to have completely frozen in time.

 

Treading on Holy grounds

Brilliant, Blissful and breathtakingly beautiful…are probably the words that come to my mind as I think about Bagan, an ancient city in the Mandalay region of Myanmar, a mere four hour drive from its capital city of Naypyitaw and eight from its commercial capital, Yangon. Often compared to Angkorwat in Cambodia, Bagan is known for its numerous religious edifices built between the 11th and 13th centuries and ranks amongst the top tourist destinations of Myanmar.

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I have to be honest here and admit that I did have my doubts when it came to choosing Bagan as our next holiday destination. Not that I ever doubted its beauty or sheer splendor. I had heard raving reviews from fellow travelers and seen some spectacular photographs splattered all across social media posted by my expat friends. My only worry was if a temple town like Bagan known for its pagodas and holiness was really my cup of tea. After all I came from Kerala, Land of thousands of Gods and countless places of worship, where it is considered almost impossible to cross any road, street or even an alleyway without sighting a temple, church or a mosque clustered in every nook and corner and therefore rightfully termed God’s own country.
As we approached Bagan, many aspects did remind me of the home, I bid adieu to a while ago. Gorgeous plush fields aligning the sides of dusty roads, bullock carts trundling hay and other produce to sell at the nearby village market and children gleefully jumping into muddy puddles, quite unaware of the threatening clouds that had started to form in the sky; were all reminiscences of my home back in Kerala.

That being the case, will Bagan offer enough to satiate the tourist in me or will it stand to disappoint? I wondered.
I was proven wrong almost instantly as we entered the premises of this World Heritage Site and I was certain that this holiday was going to be quite extraordinary. Visions of hundreds and hundreds of pagodas began to unfold in front of us, some glittering golden in the heat of the scorching afternoon sun and others displaying a reddish hue, quite characteristic of the baked bricks and sandstone used in the construction of many of these ancient temples.
A total of 2300 well-preserved temples stand tall today in an area stretching over 40 square miles, having survived earthquakes, fire and the Mongol invasions. Once there had been 10,000, each temple built as a sign of devotion, faith, offering or simply as a symbol of economic and political standing.
After having absorbed the beauty of the river Irrawaddy that flowed lazily in front of us, it was time to explore the sacred pagodas and temples. We immediately knew that it would take us days if we ever wanted to cover a reasonable number of these awe-inspiring structures and months to truly imbibe each of its historical and religious significance. So like most of the other tourists we decided to make the best use of our short stay here and stick to the top major attractions of Bagan

Ananda Temple

Dhammayangyi

One can easily though expensively (costing $300 per person) catch the inexplicable beauty of Bagan on top of a balloon ride but no visit to this holy city is considered complete without paying your respects to this particular temple. Regarded the most important and amongst the most highly revered temples, a trip to Bagan without having visited its holy grounds is regarded incomplete and to an extend even inauspicious.
So it was no surprise that the Ananda temple resplendent in white and gold was our first obvious choice. We entered through the west entrance, quite crowded by pilgrims and vendors displaying a multitude of souvenirs, books on Bagan history and beautiful lacquer. But the setting within the temple was quite the opposite compared to the hustle and bustle that we just witnessed outside. A 31 feet tall image of Buddha awaited our arrival at the other end. Made in pure teak wood and adorned in glistening gold leaf, there were a total of four similar images each facing a particular direction, namely north, south, east and west.
The image that welcomed us at the west end had its hands stretched out in the form of abaya mudra, depicting a sign of fearlessness. The mudra in the north and south were the same, symbolizing Buddha’s first sermon while the one in the east was shown holding a herb, symbolizing dharma as the ultimate cure for misery and distress.

Dhammayangyi Temple

Bagan

From the most prominent to the largest temple in Bagan, the Dhammayangyi Temple was our next stop. We were immediately welcomed by the sights of local artists skillfully replicating the splendor of Bagan in shabby canvases and friendly hawkers trying to make a sale by showing off their impressive yet limited knowledge of the English language.
The temple was built by King Narathu, when he came into power after killing his own father. The temple was a way to atone for his sins but call it Karma or simply fate, King Narathu was assassinated before it could have been completed. I wasn’t sure if it was the stories of murder and deceit, our guide eagerly elaborated or simply the dark claustrophobic passages within, I could definitely feel a sense of eeriness that had started to creep in. ‘Definitely need some fresh air,’ I joked to my husband.

Shwesandaw Pagoda

Shwezigon

And fresh air we got in plenty at our next stop and my personal favorite, Shwesandaw Pagoda. Probably Bagan is no place for adrenaline junkies but if you are still looking for some kind of a thrill amongst the sanctity and the calmness, Shwesandaw Paya is definitely the place for you. The Pagoda that has a total of five terraces and a set of rather steep 52 steps, leading to the top is considered to be one of the tallest pagodas and definitely the best place to catch a mind-blowing view of the sunset, when the entire scene turns color to a classic sepia tone.

Shwezigon Pagoda

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The sun had set when we reached our last stop for the evening, the Shwezigon Pagoda, a gold-covered pagoda that continued to glisten quite untouched by the darkness that surrounded its shrine. Believed to preserve the bone and tooth of Buddha, this pagoda definitely reminded me a lot of the Shwedagon Pagoda back in Yangon.
A total of six temples, a horse cart ride to devour the external beauty of the other lesser known pagodas and a crazy climb at the Shwesandaw Paya, I now sat at a local restaurant devouring a plate of freshly made hot chapatis and vegetable curry recollecting all the grandeur that I had just witnessed.

Yes Bagan was a temple town just like I expected, Yes there was a religious structure in every nook and corner just like I expected and yes a lot of it did remind of my home back in Kerala, including the spicy curry that now warmed my throat. But what I didn’t expect was this feeling I felt within me, the sheer sadness that I would soon have to bid farewell to the truly mystique structures that stood in front of me. I knew there was so much more and felt I was probably denied my fair share of this magnificent city.
“I want to come back, I told my husband as we slowly made our way back to the hotel. “Please bring me back,” I whispered as I turned to take one last look at the stupas that slowly started to fade in the background.

A walk in the wild

Exploring the grasslands of Masai Mara

The time was 7.00 p.m. We had just stepped back into our cream colored tent, our secret getaway for the next three days. Although the staff insisted that the furniture and the setting that surrounded me were truly African and quite characteristic of the Masai tribe, I felt more like an Arab princess amidst its high-rise fabric roofs, embroidered cushions, ornate carpets, leather trucks and antique lanterns that I often associated with tales straight out of Arabian Nights. I had just put on my little black dress and was all looking forward to a quiet romantic bonfire dinner with my husband. I was about to grab my jacket as the weather was slowly starting to get a bit chilly when I heard a knock on the door. It was a bit unusual because it was rather late for housekeeping and we definitely hadn’t ordered any room service. “Maybe we are getting a complimentary bottle of wine,” I joked to my husband.

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When I opened the door, I was surprised to see a lean old Masai standing outside, his expression almost unreadable yet somewhat menacing. He held a spear in one hand and with the other he supported the red-checked shuka (the Masai blanket) draping his boney frame. His skin was wrinkled with a huge scar that went straight from his lips all the way up to his cheekbones. He was unlike the Masai who had greeted us at the hotel lobby or unlike the pleasant English-speaking Masai who had acted as our guide a few hours ago. He didn’t even look like any of the Masais who had eagerly waved at us as we passed by them, signaling us to stop for a lift or simply to take a picture with them. This man at my door…was probably the oldest I had seen yet. With blood shot eyes, there was something ominous in the way he stood by my doorstep gesturing us to hurry.

He told us in his broken English that he was there to escort us to the restaurant which was just a few minutes’ walk from our tent that was cut off from the rest of the hotel that housed the restaurant and the main lobby. We had specially opted for this tented accommodation located right on the Savannah. The tents had no boundary walls surrounding it and one step outside and you could see the grasslands of Mara stretched out in all its glory right in front of you.

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We were a bit surprised and even a bit annoyed as we weren’t expecting company at the time and we definitely didn’t want anyone telling us what time to exit the room for dinner on our holiday. As we stood there staring at him, not budging a bit without having given an explanation for his strange appearance, he simply smiled at us and pointed his spear at something moving in the grass outside.

“Lioness,” he said… “Three of them…they are out on their hunt.”
I peeped outside to see what this strange old man was talking about.
And there right before my eyes, on the grass, at the point where the artificially laid lawn of the hotel met the tall golden grass of the Mara lay three lionesses…majestic, peaceful and extremely beautiful…her golden skin almost shimmering in the moonlit night.

That’s Masai Mara for you…raw, untouched and extremely wild. Known for being one of the finest and the most popular game reserves in Kenya, extending to an area of over 500 square miles, in the grasslands of Mara spotting a lioness relishing a wildebeest or hyenas dragging a kill to its den is nothing out of the ordinary. Vultures preying on a left-over gazelle or a pride of even 15 lions consisting of cubs and lionesses taking an afternoon siesta, quite oblivious of the safari vehicles surrounding them, are all common sights here.

tuskers

Situated at a mere 140kms from Nairobi, the best way to get to this game reserve is to rent a four-wheel drive from the capital city as the roads leading to the game park is far from smooth or welcoming. And there is no doubt that the best and the most sought after period to visit the magnificent Mara is during migration, also referred to as The Great Migration. From July through October, every year almost a million wildebeests, thompson gazelles and zebras cross over to the Mara from the Serengeti in search of sweeter grass that is specially found in this region during these months. Thousands of wildebeests and zebras grazing on the grasslands of Mara make for an absolutely breathtaking view if you travel to the National park during this time. Though the price you pay can be rather steep, having a packed lunch at a specified picnic spot amidst the countless wild animals makes it well worth it. If you are lucky and you make it at the right time when the animals cross the Mara River you may even see them fall prey to the large number of crocodiles and other predators that anxiously await their arrival this time of the year.

Though there are several game lodges and hotels to enjoy a perfect blend of luxury, elegance with a splash of adventure opt for the several tented options at Mara that offers a little something for those wanting to enjoy nature in all its rawness. If you are staying in one of these luxury tents or camps situated near a water hole and not protected by any boundary walls, you are sure to see a hippopotamus grazing in the night or even a herd of tuskers by simply peeking through the drapes of your tent. Here you are also sure to see a family of baboons fighting over a fallen fruit, watch a single tusker quench his thirst at the river or catch a glimpse of the Masai giraffe nibbling at the acacia while you lounged around in your king size bed, or while savoring a five course gourmet meal at their fancy restaurant or enjoying a rejuvenating massage at its tree-top spa.

zebras-mara

Apart from the big five, Masai Mara is so famous for that include lion, leopard, elephant, black rhino and the buffalo, it is also home to plenty of others like the hippopotamus, gazelles, topi, eland, giraffes, crocodiles, cheetah and zebras amongst many others. Mara also sees several birds mostly raptors like the vultures, long-crested eagles or migratory birds like the hornbills, crowned cranes and African pygmy-falcons.

A sneak-peek into heaven!

Exploring Ngwe Saung, a destination like no other

Sorry love, but we can’t go now?’ My husband sat beside me, a sense of sheer disappointment splattered all across his face. I lay half asleep and through our white curtains I could see that the sun had slowly started to rise. In a few hours from now we would be on a flight for our annual beach holiday. In a few hours from now we would be sun basking on the warm crystal sands of Pattaya sipping frozen margaritas out of fancy swirly straws. Our suitcases lay packed right next to us and we were ready to go.

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It was only when I awoke the second time, a few minutes later to the sound of my husband calling his office to cancel our flight tickets and hotel reservations did I finally absorb it fully that our trip to Thailand had actually been cancelled due to the recent military coup. There wasn’t going to be the holiday that I had so longed for. I felt sad, let down but most of all I didn’t not know what I would tell my 6 year old once she woke up. I was unsure if I had the courage to tell her that she wasn’t going to be able to cuddle up with her mommy in a fancy four poster bed of our lavish hotel or splurge at elaborate breakfast buffets or swim in a glitzy infinity pool overlooking the sea. I looked at my husband and immediately knew that we both couldn’t do it!

It was then that we decided to head out to Ngwe Saung, a popular holiday destination in Myanmar. It was just a four hour drive from Yangon and fairly popular among the expats. But most importantly it had a beach and right now, that’s all that we really needed.

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I did have my share of fears and doubts as I exited the comfort of my lush green housing estate and into the chaotic, jam-packed and almost non-existent roads of Hlaing Tharyar industrial township. ‘What if we get lost? What if our google maps don’t work? What if we run out of water? Will there be any rest stops? What if the drive was too risky? I was nervous and who could blame me. I had heard my share of horror stories of people getting lost and taking 8 hours to cover a mere 150 mile distance.

‘We will be fine love,’ reassured my husband. ‘If we could handle the vast stretches of Masai Mara and the treacherous roads of Sikkim and Raniketh, this was going to be easy!”

And I was so glad he was right. So there were no highways and all you get were narrow roads stretching all the way to Pathen, the next big city between Yangon and Ngwe Saung and you were bound to have your heart skip a beat every time a truck hurtled at you at full speed or lose your patience every time you got stuck behind a slow-moving cycle rickshaw or unruly motorcyclists. But there was no better way to truly absorb the country in all it’s rawness and charm, quite a change from the craziness of Yangon. Be it the lush green fields stretching on either side of the road, the innumerable little tea stalls embellished by their neatly aligned colorful plastic chairs selling chai and fried local savories or the quaint thatched roadside shops on stilts displaying an array of Myanmar snacks, baskets loaded with fried fish and luscious fruits like guava, papaya and mangoes, Myanmar was so famous for. The short 4 hour road trip offered plentiful for our curious eyes to feast upon.

As my little family of three kept making a long mental list of all the things we needed to pick up on our return journey including a hand woven hammock, a cane stool and a basket full of mangoes and guavas, we were amazed to see a procession of women clad in a traditional neon pink Longyi, children in colourful turbans on top of horses and men blowing trumpets aligning the sides of the road. It had slowed down the traffic significantly and definitely added a few extra minutes to our trip. But we did not mind. Such temple processions were not rare on the culturally vibrant and pious villages located on the outskirts of Yangon, but it was our first time and it was well worth the wait.

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We reached our resort at around noon. Though the last 30km to Ngwe Saung was a bit of downer, courtesy the long winding road, we were beyond ecstatic to see the Bay of Bengal stretched out in front of us, in all it’s glory. Be it the breathtakingly beautiful coastline, the crystal clear waters that almost seemed to coincide with the Azure sky above us or the gigantic waves that almost seemed to mock at the calmness surrounding it. There was something about this particular beach that made me feel almost certain that I had somehow magically found my way into some kind of scenic artwork during our short drive from home.

I will agree, Ngwe Saung is nothing like your clichéd beach destinations. There are no bikini clad waitresses to serve you margaritas, no fancy street shops or open bar restaurants playing loud music. Here the only sound you would hear are the sound of crashing waves and the only shopping option would be a handful of stores selling hand made baskets, wooden trays, cloth bags, flip flops and shell bracelets.

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But Ngwe Saung is a beach like no other, worth visiting to soak up the sheer beauty of the Bay of Bengal or devour the exquisite local cuisine served in the non-glamorous roadside restaurants in the village ranging from barbecued lobsters, grilled whole fish in garlic sauce and Shark-fin soup to crispy fried soft shell crabs and my personal favorite the steamed fish in chilli and lemon.

So what if it lacked glitz and the glamor of a Miami, a La Jolla or a Phuket. So what if it didn’t have the noise or the sheer life that had made these a dream holiday destination across the globe, Ngwe Saung was special. She was raw, untouched, almost like a virgin. And as I dipped my feet into its warm waters watching the sky turn into scarlet orange, I knew that I had just gotten a sneak-peek into heaven!