Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Alarm went off with sufficient time to grab a quick breakfast and then check-in for our two hour flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong. 

Arrived in Hong Kong around noon and checked into the Intercontinental Hotel with its wonderful views of the waterfront. Decided to take the Star Ferry over to Hong Kong Island and then the bus up to Victoria Peak. We did the walk around the peak, tracked down two geocaches and then headed back to our hotel for our last dinner in Asia.

Tomorrow, we head back home to Calgary via San Francisco. A really good trip but it’s time to come home.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
A lazy day as we prepared to leave Laos for Bangkok. Had a final Amantaka breakfast of pancakes and crispy bacon outside by the pool and then took a quick walk into town to buy a thank-you card for the Amantaka staff and to visit the morning market one more time to buy some sticky rice in case we can’t find any in Canada. We bought 1kg for about 70 cents!

Back at Amantaka, we spent some time by our pool enjoying our last bit of sunbathing before the reality of a return to cold and snowy Calgary. We settled our bill, dropped off the staff thank-you card and headed to the airport. We were sad to leave. We really loved our stay and will miss the great staff we interacted with each day. 

We arrived at the tiny Luang Prabang airport and after a very efficient check-in and security screening process, our plane to Bangkok left early. We landed in Bangkok for the third time this trip and made our way to the Novotel airport hotel. This is a good hotel right at the airport. After having a few snacks in the business lounge, we went to our room and rested for an hour or so before heading down to enjoy a decent buffet dinner in the restaurant.

Tomorrow, it is back to setting an alarm clock to make sure we wake up for our flight to Hong Kong.

Monday, March 7, 2011
A gentle wake up today - no alarm clocks at all. Another relaxing breakfast of the famous pancakes with cinnamon butter, but alas there was no syrup today - more had been ordered yesterday but it did not arrive in time for breakfast. 

After breakfast, we drove for about 45 minutes to the Kuang Si Falls. What a lovely area - lots of big, shady trees and pathways leading into the forest. Before we arrived at the waterfalls, we stopped in at the bear rescue sanctuary run by the Free the Bears Fund. There are over 20 Asiatic black bears here and one sun bear that have been freed from captivity. Most of these bears were rescued from Asian bile farms, where the bears live a miserable existence in tiny cages while their bile ducts are “farmed” for so-called medicinal purposes - there is no scientific evidence of such medicinal benefits. Thankfully, all the bears at the sanctuary are doing well and are recovering from their terrible experiences.

Amantaka has a special relationship with the bear sanctuary that allowed us to go inside the bear enclosure and hide food for them in various nooks and crannies. This was a lot of fun. After hiding the food, we were taken inside their den, where we got to see the bears up close and feed a couple of them by hand. This was a great experience and we were grateful for the opportunity to learn so much about the good work that is being done here. We would encourage anyone reading this to visit more information.

We continued on our way to the waterfalls and were impressed with the beauty of the whole area. There are waterfalls and cascade pools all over the place. We hiked up to the top of the falls and waded through the river to come back down the other side. It was fantastic! After we had climbed down, we went for a cool-down swim in one of the pools - a great thing to do to escape the heat.

Following our swim, we made our way back to the bear sanctuary in search of the only other geocache here in the Luang Prabang area. We had to ask the local folks for the “kong”. After much amusement, the “kongkeeper” was located and we made the find.

Before heading back to Amantaka, we went looking for some bamboo-woven sticky rice cooking and serving containers. We found what we were looking for and bought them. Hopefully, we can find sticky rice when we get back to Canada! 

As we drove back to Luang Prabang, we stopped from time to time to hand out the last of the toys and candies we had brought from Canada to give to various young children we came across. The look of joy and appreciation on their faces was a delight to see.

Back at Amantaka, we had lunch by our pool. The red curry chicken was spectacular as was the mushroom puff pastry appetizer. A quiet evening is in store as we enjoy our last night here. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The alarm woke us up shortly after 5.00 am so we could get ready to participate in the offering of alms to the monks. Every morning before sunrise hundreds of monks from all the temples in Luang Prabang receive food from the people living in the town. This is their primary source of food each day.

We waited on the side of the road outside Amantaka for the first procession of monks to appear. As the procession came closer, we knelt down and put a small amount of sticky rice in each monk’s alm bowl as   he walked by. We did this for about 70 monks. It was a very surreal and peaceful experience. At the end of it all, we felt a little guilty that we still had some sticky rice left over!

Once the sun was up we headed over to the morning market - a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds and smells. From colourful fruits and vegetables to hideous looking bugs and insects to bats, rats, rice and spices - just about everything imaginable could be found here. We picked up some sticky rice roasted in banana leaves and headed over to the local “Starbucks” to enjoy our snack with a cup of Lao coffee. It was brilliant. Strong Lao coffee mixed with condensed milk was the drink of choice.

With the market winding down, we headed back to Amantaka to get ready for our Lao cooking class just before lunch. We were taken to an organic vegetable farm just outside of town and given a quick tour of the farm. Then the fun began! We were set to make chicken soup, green papaya salad, pork curry, sticky rice and fresh spring rolls under the watchful eye of one of Amantaka’s local chefs. We chopped the various vegetables and spices required and got to cook each dish on open fires in a cooking hut. This was a magical experience - the various tastes and aromas were out of this world.

With the cooking done, we sat down to eat our freshly cooked lunch Amantaka style. We were set up in a beautiful tent overlooking a pond and the food we had cooked earlier was served to us complete with red wine and sparkling water. The meal was delicious and we convinced ourselves that we were actually pretty good cooks.

We headed back to Amantaka after lunch to soak up some sun and have an afternoon nap before going out again to walk through the night market and find our first geocache in Asia. The night market was impressive - lots of local people selling their wares. The colourful fabrics were amazing. Just as the sun was starting to set, we made the 300 stair climb to the top of Phou Si Hill to enjoy the view, then it was back to Amantaka for some snacks and desserts, and to call it a day.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

We woke up well rested and refreshed and headed outside for a wonderful breakfast by the pool. Catherine ordered pancakes with cinnamon butter that were amazing. We met up with our guide and drove down to the Mekong River for a quick boat ride over the river to the village (Xieng Men) and temples on the other side. As usual, Aman delivered big time. While the boat that took us across the river looked like all the other boats, it was very well appointed inside with a huge, cushy lounger and nice upholstery. There was even a washroom on board!

The trip across the river only took a few minutes and then we made our way across makeshift bamboo bridges to the river bank. We were surprised to have to pay a small toll to use the bridge system.

Once on dry land, we walked over to a locked cave. Our guide picked up a key from one of the villagers, grabbed some flashlights and took us inside. There were a number of buddha statues inside but the highlight was the impromptu cave tour that one of the village kids took us on. He took us deep into the cave through a series of passageways and up and down several slippery steps showing us various rock and stalactite formations along the way. It was awesome.

With the cave tour over, we went to visit Vat Long Khouan. The wall murals inside depicting the life of buddha were impressive. We then took a small walk through Xieng Men to get a sense of village life. It was fascinating!

At the end of the walk, we crossed back over the river and made our way back to Amantaka for a swim, some sun and lunch. We couldn’t resist ordering the fresh spring rolls again and followed this up with a mushroom puff pastry dish and chocolate croissants. It was all delicious.

Well rested and with our bellies full, we headed back out on the Mekong for a trip up to the Pak Ou caves. It took just under two hours to get there. The boat trip was fascinating, scenic and very relaxing. We arrived at the Pak Ou caves and climbed the two hundred steps to the upper cave. Inside this cave were hundreds of broken buddhas relocated here from old temples. This is their final resting place. We both selected bamboo sticks with numbers on them that corresponded to our fortunes and were pleased to hear that our futures were bright!

We walked back down to the lower cave and went inside. This cave contains over 4,000 buddhas, many of which are very small. It was amazing how the buddhas had found their way into all the nooks and crannies. With our cave tour over, we re-boarded our boat for the trip back to Luang Prabang and were treated to some fabulous snacks (including fresh spring rolls and river weed) and some red wine. What a great and special way to enjoy the sun setting on the Mekong!

With all the food consumed today, dinner comprised a selection of desserts with homemade creamy ice cream being the clear favourite. We are set to wake up early tomorrow (5.00 am) to offer alms to the monks so early bed tonight. Might be a challenge to get to sleep given the wedding party that is happening on the school basketball court behind us!

Friday, March 4, 2011

A wrong number phone call from China woke us up early to get ready for our flight into Laos. We spent the night at the Novotel Hotel at the Bangkok Airport and had a quick breakfast before dashing off to check in for our flight. We were very impressed with the hotel - a good thing because we have another night here when we return to Bangkok in about five days time.

Our flight on Bangkok Airways left on time and the two-hour journey to Luang Prabang went by quickly. The first thing that struck me as we were coming in to land was how green and hilly this whole area is.

We applied for our visa on arrival at the airport and were quite surprised to note that our visa fee was the most expensive of over 190 countries on the  fee list. Canadians have to pay US$42 each for a visa compared to US$35 for Americans and Brits. Not sure what Canada has done to warrant us having to pay the most.

The entry process was extremely efficient and within minutes we were greeted by our driver from Amantaka. Instantly, we knew we were back in the good hands of the Aman Resort group. There were cold towels waiting for us in the car as well as ice cold water. The driver even knew our first names. These guys are resort industry equivalent of Apple computers!

The drive from the airport to the hotel took about ten minutes and as soon as we reached Amantaka we could feel the ambience that Aman is famous for. We were greeted by the management team as our car pulled up and we really enjoyed the glass of tamarind juice we were given as we checked in. Our room here is superb. We have a private pool and garden area, and within minutes we were soaking up the sun.

We shared a delicious lunch of fresh spring rolls. For a main course, Catherine had the chicken fried rice while I had beef red curry with sticky rice. After lunch, we went out to explore the town of Luang Prabang. The whole town is designated as a world heritage site. It is a delight to walk around and quite hard to describe. The best description we could come up with is to take the oid French quarter of New Orleans, make the buildings older and then clean some of them up! The whole place is absolutely charming. We were impressed with the overall cleanliness of the town and the fact that no-one asks you for anything even though the country is one of the poorest in south-east Asia.

Following a stop for a cup of tea, we took a tuk-tuk back to Amantaka and then decided to try the spa. We both opted for a foot and leg massage/pedicure - it was to die to for! Dinner consisted of more fresh spring rolls and apple fritters with ice cream. We were also happy to find a gift of a dragon fly made from straw which was left on our bed by the turn-down person. 

Tomorrow, we have organized a temple and village hike for the morning with a Mekong River cruise in the afternoon.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Today is our last day in Myanmar. We woke up to another hot and sunny day. We will miss spending time at our hotel - the place really does grow on you. We had breakfast on the patio as usual and a number of the waiters came by to say goodbye.

At 9.00 am we met up with U Bo Ni for some last minute sightseeing. He took us to see Ananda Pahto - this was the most impressive of all the temples we visited in Bagan. Four giant golden buddhas stand facing outwards in the direction of north, west, south and east. The exterior of the temple is also impressive.

After walking around the temple, we visited some nearby souvenir stands and met one of Myanmar’s most celebrated photographers - Bagan Mg Mg. His work is outstanding. We bought one of his photographs and one of his books. He signed them for us and posed for the obligatory photograph.

We then took a short walk to view the ancient wall murals inside Ananda Ok Kyaung and finished our visit here with a look inside the monastery nearby. It was neat to see where the monks lived and the sleeping mats covering the floor.

Following the temple tour, U Bo Ni took us to the town of Nyaung U, where we confirmed our Air Bagan flight for later in the day and paid a visit to the local marketplace to buy some of the groundnuts and tea that we really enjoyed on our travels around here. 

On the way back to the hotel, we made one last temple stop but didn’t stay long as we were getting quite tired of all the vendors trying to palm off their wares. 

We had time for a swim at the hotel, a quick nap and some lunch and then it was time to leave for the airport. We settled our hotel bill in cash since they do not accept credit cards in Myanmar and paid U Bo Ni for his excellent guiding services. With all these bills paid, we realized we had very little cash left until we could replenish our stash in Thailand. We figured US$70 would be plenty to get us back to Bangkok.

We arrived at the Bagan airport, checked in and said our goodbyes to U Bo Ni. Our flight left on time and it was off to Yangon. When we arrived in Yangon, we had to transfer from the domestic terminal to the international terminal. This entailed a long walk on some dirt roadways and parts of the main road. Fortunately, we enlisted the help of an able-bodied young man to assist with the dragging of our suitcases. When we got to the international terminal, we paid our departure taxes and headed to the Thai Airlines check-in desk.

We checked-in and were asked to produce the credit card that we had used when we first made our booking. I handed over my Visa card and the agent advised that the last four digits did not match what was on the booking confirmation. It was then that I realized I had made this booking about eight months ago and that my credit card number from back then had since been changed. I explained this to the agent and was told that unless I produced the old credit card, the tickets could not be issued. Since there was no way I could produce a credit card that I had destroyed months ago, there was nothing we could do. The only way to get on the plane was for us to buy two new tickets for US$800. I reluctantly handed over my credit card only to be told that credit cards cannot be used in Myanmar - we have to pay cash! This was a problem, because now we only had less than US$50 after paying for our departure tax and tipping the luggage carrier from the domestic terminal.

After a great deal of discussion, Thai Airlines agreed to take us to Bangkok provided we paid for our tickets on arrival. However, we had to surrender our passports and credit card to one of the flight attendants as security! We got to our departure gate just in time to board the flight and we were finally on our way to Bangkok.

Upon landing in Bangkok, we were met at the plane door by a representative from Thai Airlines. The flight attendant handed over our passports to the Thai Airlines rep and he escorted us to one of the airport buggies. We were chaffeured off in the buggy to the dismay of several onlooking passengers and just as we arrived at the passport counters, Catherine realized she had left her purse on the plane! We drove all the way back to the plane and the purse was recovered.

We cleared immigration with our escort, picked up our bags and went to the Thai Airlines ticket office to pay for our tickets from Yangon. At this point, Catherine remembered she had left her ipad in the ladies washroom while we were waiting for our bags! We mentioned this to the Thai Airlines staff and they luckily recovered it for her. We paid for our tickets and were finally free to go. Funny thing is - I suspect the refund on the unused ticket may be more than we just paid.

A bank machine was the next stop to restock our cash supply for Laos and then I went to Bangkok Airways to check the credit card information they had on file for our flight tomorrow. Thank goodness I have that credit card in my wallet.

With everything back on track, we headed over to the Novotel Hotel at the airport and finally got an internet connection! All is well in the world again!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Turned out we didn’t need the alarm clock after all as I was up about an hour before with an upset stomach. Not sure what I ate that Catherine didn’t as she is quite fine. I decided to pop a couple Imodiums and hope for the best! There is no way I was going to miss out on this experience.

The Balloons over Bagan bus picked us up from our hotel and dropped us off in the dark at the balloon inflation site. We were offered tea and coffee while the balloons started to inflate just as the light of dawn started to make things brighter. We were amazed at the size of the balloons. 

Once they were inflated, we climbed into the basket and were good to go. Each balloon held twelve people plus the pilot. It was so peaceful floating over the pagodas and temples as the sun was starting to rise. The only sounds we heard were the occasional burst of hot air into the balloons and birds chirping in the trees below. It was amazing to see so many temples all over the place. It’s hard to describe just how many ancient temples there are here. Everywhere you look, there are hundreds.

After about 45 minutes of flying, our pilot took us down to land in a dusty field. The landing was quite entertaining. I’m not sure how these guys fly these balloons but they do seem to have quite a bit of control. We exited the basket and were invited to have a glass of champagne while the balloon was taken down, folded up and packed on to a truck. Overall, this was one of the highlights of our trip and an experience not to be missed. More importantly, the Imodium did its job!

Upon arriving back at our hotel, we took a few hours of downtime to relax and enjoy the pool. At about 4.00 pm, we met up with U Bo Ni to go out exploring. We made a quick stop at the Lawkananda Paya temple on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River and then made our way to see the amazing lacquerware artisans at Bagan House Lacquerware. Their work is incredible and takes months to complete. We purchased a few items and then it was off to take a sunset cruise on the Ayeyarwady River. This was a great way to end a day that started with a sunrise balloon ride.

The river is definitely a focal point of village life activity. There were people bathing, washing their clothes and fishing. Catherine was mobbed by all the kids as usual but the kids here seemed more grateful for the small toys and candies we gave them. Sunset on the water was amazing and the colours in the sky were spectacular. 

We booked a table for dinner on the deck at the hotel to enjoy our last night in Myanmar.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Finally had a chance to wake up without an alarm clock. Had breakfast on the main deck of the hotel and then met up with U Bo Ni for a drive out to Mount Popa, about 50 km east of Bagan.

First stop was the local gas station. Gasoline is in limited supply in Myanmar so it is rationed by the government. There was a long lineup of motorcycles and scooters but very few cars. We were advised not to take photographs because it is forbidden and could get us into serious trouble with the government. It looked like each scooter was given about a gallon - not sure how much gas we got for the car. 

With gas in the tank, we headed out into the countryside. Very dry and arid landscape. We stopped at a village stall where we got to see how the locals make sesame seed oil, palm sugar and palm tequila. We were then able to sample some locally grown peanuts and pickled green tea with sesame seeds along with a cup of tea. We really enjoyed the tea and were grateful when we were given some tea leaves to take home with us. Apparently, the tea we were drinking comes from Inle Lake.

We carried on with our trip and came across a village celebration. We had stumbled across a ceremony where a young boy was about to become a monk. The young boy looked to be about eight years old! Apparently, the religion here expects each family to offer up a child to become a monk. The ceremony was very colourful with a long line of pretty young girls bearing gifts shuffling to the sounds of celebratory music. At the end of the ceremony, the young boy has his head shaved and is taken away to the monastery. We didn’t stay for the end.

The drive to Mount Popa took about 45 minutes. Mount Popa is an extinct volcano with a variety of temples built on the top. Getting to the top entails a climb of some 700 steps (we were told by our guide it is a total of 777 steps but we never counted to verify this). The stairway is covered but very dirty. You are not allowed to wear shoes and there are hundreds of wild monkeys all over the place that poop on the stairway. We felt a better name for this place would have been Mount Poop-ee! In addition to the monkey poop, several vendor stalls line the walkway and the shrines at the top seem to be a little too gaudy and in some cases, quite tacky.

Before we climbed to the top, we visited the shrine of the 37 Nats at the base of the stairway. Nats are mannequin-like deity figures or saints in the Hindu religion that worshippers pray to for specific outcomes.

After we visited the top of Mount Popa, we thankfully put our shoes back on and headed over to Popa Mountain Resort for lunch. This turned out to be a heavenly resort in the middle of nowhere. Can’t quite figure out why it is here. The lunch was outstanding (especially the vegetable tempura, chicken and vegetable vermicelli and the spicy stir fry beef). We looked at one of the rooms and they looked very nice. The pool area was very scenic and we stole a few minutes to lie in the sun before our departure.

Following lunch we headed back to our hotel in Bagan and relaxed for the rest of the day. Still can’t get internet access! We decided to have a couples massage in the evening. We were hoping they would be quite gentle compared to the massages we had in Shanghai but yet again we had some deep muscle tissue worked on that we didn’t know existed. The part that we found quite odd was stripping to our underwear in front of our Myanmar massage ladies!

We were still quite full form our lunch at Mount Popa, so dinner was pretty light and we headed to bed early to get some sleep ahead of our 5.00 am wake-up for the balloon sunrise trip.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The alarm went off early as seems to be the case most of the time these days. Quick shower and time to check out. Before leaving the Governor’s Residence we had time to grab a chocolate croissant and a cup of tea. Even though it was 4.30 am in the morning, the hotel already had its full breakfast set up for the morning - guess people are early risers here!

We arrived at the Yangon Airport domestic terminal and checked in for our flight. Things went smoothly enough even if it seemed a little unconventional. They did not bother to weigh our bags - a good thing since they are probably on the heavy side. The security screening was not a big deal. We took water through and no-one seemed to care. Once we were in the departure lounge it was a little confusing as to which gate the plane would leave from but everything fell into place when a guy walked around with a placard announcing the flight number and the fact that it was ready to board.

We took a bus to our plane and climbed on board. Our back packs would not fit in the overhead bins but this was not a big deal. Each bag was given its own seat and secured with the seatbelt! The flight was just over an hour and we were served an unexpected breakfast. Something you don’t get in North America these days.

We landed in Bagan and it was gloriously hot for 7.30 am. As we entered the terminal, we bought our passes for the Bagan Archaeological Zone and picked up a copy of George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” to read when we get a moment. Waiting for our bags was quite different. There was no signage as to where to go so we just stood around with all the other passengers. Eventually, various guys would bring out each passenger’s bag one by one. Once you identified your bag and the baggage tag matched, you could take it. We retrieved our two bags and then headed outside to find our driver.

The guy that met us turned out to be the guide we would use for our visit here. U Bo Ni was his name. Turns out he is a history buff from the University of Mandalay that makes a living as a tour guide. He led us to our car and then off we went to the hotel - the Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Hotel. On the way, U Bo Ni explained the services he could offer us as a guide and we decided to give him a try. Turned out to be a great decision.

We arrived at our hotel well before the scheduled check-in time and our room was not ready. The hotel was very accommodating and gave us a day room to use while we waited. We tried to get an internet connection but were not successful. It’s been a week now since we were last connected properly! We phoned home to say hi to Devon and Logan but at US$8 a minute, the call was pretty short! They called us back and we were able to chat a little bit longer.

While we waited for our room, we lay by the pool. The weather here is hot and the pool setting very scenic. We escaped the heat for some lunch - the spring rolls and the clear vegetable soup turned out to be the highlight. After lunch, we were informed that our room was ready. This turned out to be quite a big deal. We were escorted to our river side room in a procession with three hotel employees carrying our bags and two others escorting the two of us under umbrellas like the king and queen! Once we were cleaned out of small change for tips, we started to get settled in.

The room is very comfortable and split into three rooms - a living room, bedroom and bathroom. We also have a very nice patio overlooking the Ayeyarwady River. Catherine settled in for a nap and I went exploring. After leaving the hotel grounds to visit some temples, I was quickly befriended by a young man riding a bike. He took me to one of the temples and we climbed to the top where the views of the surrounding area with all the many temples was spectacular. This is definitely the New York City of temples. After taking in the sights, I tipped my “guide” and headed back to the hotel. It was time for the sunset pagoda tour we had arranged with U Bo Ni earlier in the day.

The first temple we visited was Dhammayangyi Pahto, Bagan’s biggest temple in terms of foundation size. While I listened to some impressive stories about the temple, Catherine was set upon by scores of little vendors eager to make a sale. A few things were purchased to oblige the crowd and then we made our escape. Next up was Sulamani Pahto temple, famous for its well preserved internal frescos. This temple was more relaxing to visit as the vendors largely kept to their stalls. We visited two young artists whose work was very impressive.

As the sun was starting to set, we headed off to watch the sunset from the Shwesandaw Paya temple along with hundreds of other tourists. Despite the large of number of people gathered on top of the temple, the experience was still magical and one of the highlights of our trip.

Once the sun had set, we headed back to the hotel for dinner and the best sleep we have had in days.