Tag Archives: Travel

Getting Quirkyi with Indu Sathyendran

Ashwrites in conversation with the creative genius behind Quirkyi; a bright, colorful and cheerful collection of home decor goods ranging from trays, coasters & jewelry boxes, all inspired by the artist’s love for art, travel, photography and most importantly her love for her hometown, Kerala

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Indu with her favorite Aana collection inspired by her pet elephant Vaijaynti

A sneak-peek into Indu’s Facebook page and you are sure to be greeted by a serious explosion of vivid colors. Vibrant hues of greens, yellows and reds stare right back at you, reeling you into a state of visual wonder. Being a malayali myself, I tend to be trapped in a strange kind of nostalgia every time I see Indu’s Instagram page or see a latest FB post. Be it the familiar sight of a mustachioed mundu-clad malayali lazing outside the road-side tea-stall, the hullabaloo from a nearby temple procession making its way through the verdant green-fields, the concoction of colors from the hanging garlands at a flower market and local pullikali performers with their faces painted in bright strokes of yellow and black to imitate that of a tiger or leopard, have all found their way into several of Indu’s designs.

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“It all began with my two major loves: my love for photography and everything Kerala. Quirkyi is not just a home-decor product for me. It is a reflection of my love for art, architecture, photography, elephants and more than anything, a way to project the colorful splendor that’s my homeland. It is what I call, a celebration of the true spirit of Kerala.”

Talking about her work, Indu says that she didn’t have to look long for an inspiration. “It was right there in front of me, all around me. Be it the flowers in my home-garden or the vibrant designs on my mother’s sari. Even Shibu, my painter served as my inspiration and became a key factor in my designs behind the Theyyam collection.

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The artist and her inspiration

And is there any collection, she holds close to he heart? “Of course, she says. My personal favorite is the Aana series inspired by my dear pet elephant Vaijayanti.” Though she lost her last year, Indu intends to keep her true spirit alive through her collections and designs inspired by her favorite pet.

And why Quirkyi? “I had always loved to travel and have a passion for photography. Seeing my pictures, a friend once told me that I had a Quirky eye. And that name just stuck. I first started my blog titled myquirkyeye, then my instagram account, quirkyeye, so when it came to choosing a name for my products, there was no better. Just that I had to quirky it up a bit by messing with the spelling.”

Within a short time post launch, Quirkyi has already travelled far, finding a place in the homes of Malayali’s settled in Dubai, London, Toronto to name just a few. “Quirkyi is my little way of giving every Malayali a little piece of Kerala to take back with them.” Though currently Quirkyi only ships within India, Indu says plans are already underway to further expand her business. “We are already working on a new website and also plan to add some more products like cushions and a few decoupage products, that I am really excited about. And as far as the Quirky me is concerned, I continue my quest to find new inspiration and ideas for Quirkyi.”

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For more information on Quirkyi, please like them on https://www.facebook.com/quirkyi/

 

INCREDIBLE INLE

Ever wondered how it would be to live the simple life? If yes, then pack up and head out to the pristine and picturesque Inle Lake, a fresh water lake located in the Nyaung Shwe township of Shan State, Myanmar. Here you can experience rural life at its very best and enjoy a kind of peace and calm, probably never experienced before.

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Despite being one of the top tourist destinations in Myanmar and attracting over hundred thousand tourists every year, Inle continues to remain raw, exotic and untouched. DSC_0438_Fotor

The locals, called Inthas who live in the neighboring villages and also in stilted-houses built right on the lake, seem to remain almost oblivious to the world beyond it, depending primarily on farming or fishing as the main source of livelihood.

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One of the most fantastic sights on Inle is seeing the local fisherman, practicing a completely unique style of rowing that involves them standing on one foot at the edge of the boat and rowing with the other, firmly wrapped around the paddle. Other produce like fruits and veggies are grown in plenty on the large floating gardens. Apparently the high nutrient-level in the water makes it possible to grow almost anything on the lake. Other source of income come from the sale of hand-made goods made in the several small-scale cottage industries also set along the lake.
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One particular product that is completely unique to Inle and found in no other part of the world is the Lotus Silk. During the monsoons, lotus stems are cut and twisted to reveal a thin fiber. Thousands of this fiber are then spun together and handwoven to make this luxurious fabric. DSC_0511

The fact that the locals are devout Buddhists are obvious from the vision of the numerous pagodas and Buddhist temples cropping up on various parts of the lake, some new and some like the Shwe Indein Pagoda located on the Indein Village, dating all the way back to the 17th century. A trip to the village, located on the western banks of the lake is an absolute-must to see the ancient ruins of over 100 stupas and also catch a panoramic view of the village atop the hill that houses the pagodas.
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Another major temple that is a must-stop at Inle is the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. No visit to the lake is considered complete or auspicious` without paying your respects here. The pagoda houses 5 Buddha stupas, completely covered in gold to the extend that it is impossible to recognize its original form. Only men are allowed to place the gold leaf on the shrine that is believed to have magical powers. In the 1960’s during the festival procession, the royal barge carrying the stupas had capsized. The search party were only able to retrieve four of the five idols. But when they returned, they were simply amazed to find the fifth statue back in its place.
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Simple is beautiful and Inle stand proof of it. So come and fall in love to what can only be described best as the perfect synthesis of beauty, peace, divinity and harmony. A place like no other.

OFF THE BEATEN TRACK-Part 4: Under the sea fun at Port Douglas

After departing Daintree we made our way through Mossman, the gateway to the famous Mossman Gorge. On reaching the main Mossman Gorge Center, we had to take a ticket to get on board a shuttle that took us to the various hiking trails that led to walking platforms and scenic viewpoints, all surrounded by lush green tropical rainforests and over looking the Mossman River.

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Though swimming was not recommended in the river due to the rocky granite boulders that are in plenty, we were told it was okay to soak our feet in its cool waters. My personal favorite and I bet my dare-devil daughter’s as well was walking over the suspension bridge over the river. It was a lot of fun and a bit scary trying to balance ourselves on the dangling bridge and pretending as though we had magically found our way into some Indiana Jones movie. DSC_0683

It was almost noon by the time we reached our last and most highly anticipated destinations, Port Douglas. I will be honest and admit that this was the part of the trip I was the most nervous about. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing scary about this cute little town with its boutique style shops, pristine beaches, breathtakingly beautiful coastline and sea-side cafes. Here I had even gotten the part I had been so eagerly waiting for, the romance element of our entire trip. But even while walking hand in hand with my husband, enjoying the beauty of the pacific ocean, I couldn’t help but the think of the big adventure that we were about to embark on the very next morning, an adventure that drove almost all adrenaline junkies to this part of the world. An adventure called The Great Barrier Reef.
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I could almost hear the sound of my heart beat amidst the splashing of rough waves as I boarded the monstrous catamaran that was going to take us to the Agincourt Reef, a ribbon-like reef located on the edge of what is best referred to as the ultimate underwater playground. Pronounced a world heritage site, The Great Barrier Reef is considered to host the largest coral reef systems in the world. On board we were given a number of safety instructions to a few easy ones like don’t throw food in the water or stand on the coral to more eerie ones that drove my anxiety to a whole new level like to not touch any marine animals as many have the ability to sting or disable a person to learning hand signals viz. we see a shark.

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Each one of us was given a lycra suit and also given a number of optional tours that we could sign up while we were there. For the non-swimmers and the less adventurous there was the underwater observatory, a mini submarine drive and a helmet dive to explore all the reef had to offer. For the extravagant and those wanting to enjoy the beauty from a distance there was the scenic helicopter drive and for the rest there was diving, snorkeling and guided marine biologist tours to get up close and personal to pretty coral gardens and exotic marine life ranging from sting rays, clown fish, parrot fish turtles and for the few lucky ones you may even spot a Minke whale.

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It was a full day tour and I must admit, snorkeling in the middle of the deep blue sea and amidst choppy waters was definitely a lot harder than I taught. There were moments I ran out of breath and moments I felt my arms could no longer move, moments I wished I was back in the comfort of my hotel. The chilled salads and cold cuts served on board did nothing to my Indian palette but I was here, right in the midst of the largest and the most spectacular reef systems in the world. I had embraced, survived and conquered this majestic reef in my own little way and that was a feeling I would never forget…
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OFF THE BEATEN TRACK-Part 3: Nature at its best at Daintree Rainforest

To reach our next destination in Daintree, located in the north east coast of Queensland, a destination that could only be best termed as a tropical paradise, we had to fly into Cairns and drive an hour and a half through the picturesque coastline of Port Douglas. It was slowly starting to get dark and we couldn’t see much but hear we did, in plenty, making it certain that we had finally arrived in what was the world’s oldest surviving rainforest. Be it eerie screeches of the spotted catbird, fluttering noises of the Victoria’s rifle bird, a species only found here to the croaking of the white lipped tree frogs and the gurgling sounds of the Daintree River close by, I could tell that this forest had only started to come alive in the darkness of the night.

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One of the major highlights of our trip was the place we had chosen to spent the next two nights. A quaint yet luxurious eco lodge; each of its rooms strategically positioned on top of stilts to capture the beauty of the dense canopy surrounding us. Imagine witnessing the sight of over hundred butterflies flittering to life in the early hours of the morning (almost 2/3rds of Australia’s butterfly species are found here) or simply marveling at the awe-inspiring King Fern, Australia’s largest fern with fronds extending up to 5m long, all while sipping a hot cappuccino in the comfort of your tree-top verandah?

Following our customized made-to-order breakfast, it was time to explore what more this nature paradise had to offer. And if we had assumed that we had seen and absorbed the beauty of Daintree all by sitting in our aerial accommodation, we were instantly proven wrong as we stepped out of the lodge and made way to start our morning cruise across the Daintree River.
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Now what can I say about the beauty that had started to unfold in front of us. Except the cliched yet honest line, ‘If there was a heaven then this must be it! And that this was probably the way God intended Earth to be. Crystal waters so clear that if you took clicked an image, you would probably not be able to tell if it was the blue skies you were looking at or simply its reflection in the cool waters. Lush rainforest and mangroves surrounded the Daintree River, which is one of the longest rivers on the Australian East Coast (extending upto 140 kms). Here you can see pre-historic crocodiles, view innumerable species of birds like the Macleay”s honeyeater, comb-crested Jacana and the Forest Kingfisher amongst many others or simply imbibe the true beauty of this wet tropics. If you are feeling even more adventurous, you can also join one of the fishing boats and try you luck at catching the famous Baramundi, Australia is so famous for.
Having no such desires yet unsatiated with what this magnificent forest had to offer, we chose to head out to the next highly recommended attractions in Daintree, the Cassowary Falls. Located in a private farmland, you need to rent a 4 wheel drive and pay a fee at a local convenience store to reach this scenic location and the drive itself through the bumpy rugged mushy pathway is enough to excite the adrenaline junkie in you, not to forget the grand finale, which is the view of the magnificent waterfall. Here it’s one of the few spots in Daintree where it’s safe to jump in though watch out for the humongous fish, eels and turtles that might want to get a little more cosy than desired.

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.