The date is 8 March 2008 and newspaper the headline in front of me reads: “66,500 dead and 40,000 missing”. I don’t have the heart to pick it up, despite the fact it would be the first source of English news in days.
I know what happened. I was there…
6 days earlier Myanmar was hit by cyclone Nargis which killed more than 138,000 people and flooded most of the southern part of the country. It resulted in electricity, water and telephone line cuts, separating this secluded southeast Asian nation ever further from its neighbours. The thought of this country being further crippled by forces of nature, on top of everything it’s already gone through brings tears to my eyes and makes me upset that in case nature disasters, there is no one to blame. Nevertheless this trip had taught me more about the country and more about travel than any other.
1st May holidays were closing in and Myanmar was still on my list of countries to visit. It was one of the less touristy destinations on our bucket list, making it automatically more fascinating. Despite being eminent travelers, none of our friends had visited this part of the world before, which was why we had to read up on everything well in advance and prepare well for what awaited us in land once known as Burma.
We landed in Yangoon, Myanmar’s largest city and decided to spend the day exploring what the city has to offer. We were disappointed to find out that it wasn’t much. Other than a complex of huge golden pagodas, several smaller temples and the local market there wasn’t much to see. We were caught in heavy traffic and were followed by stray dogs, passing large open air markets where meat was sold in the hot summer sun. It didn’t seem different from most of the Asian countries we visited before, but the regular power cuts, lack of ATMs and Coca Cola ads as well as the fact that our phones were not working reminded us, continuously, that we were not just in any Southeast Asian country.
After some preplanning in the hotel we befriended a local who was running the facilities we were staying in. I spent some time chatting about the must-visit spots of Yangoon, the hot weather and local fashion. He eventually told me about the special yellow thanaka wooden bricks women mix with
water to create a paste-like substance and put on their face as as cream which serves as sunscreen protecting the skin from the harsh sun and make up at the same time. In no time he was mashing up a paste, showing me how it’s done and dabbing it onto my cheeks, carefully drawing large yellow circles across my face. I ended up putting thanaka on my face every day during this trip.
This is probably the most vivid memory I have of Yangoon which had not fascinated us much. We quickly purchased tickets to visit the northern territory and natural spots which were both UNESCO heritage sites as well as sacred spots for locals.
Bagan is probably the most well known and most visited town in Burma. It is comprised of 3000 Buddhist pagodas built between 11 and 13 century AD. Our hotel was the only one located in the very middle with a 360 degree view of all the temples. As we would sit on the patio, watching the
sunset over the perfectly flat land, we would observe the thousands of temple tops of various shapes and sizes and I remember thinking that we were in heaven.
It was one of those moments in time when everything stops, everything is tranquil and you can only hear yourself breathe and try not to, so you don’t disturb the perfect stillness.
We spent several days and numerous sunrises on top of different pagodas watching this ancient city, observing the ruins and learning more about their significance.
I don’t know whether it was because it was out of season or if Myanmar was just not the spot of choice for tourists, but we were the only people around and we seemed to have all the time in the world. Everything seemed too good to be true.
As we were sitting on the patio one night the local hotel manager who joined us observed that there was a slight breeze. I clearly remember him commenting that the breeze was not good and that they
wouldn’t get the wind so high up North during May. The following day we found out that our flight to Inle Lake, further southeast of the country, was cancelled and that there was a “big storm” in Yangoon which landed all the flights.
We had a few more days until our departure from Myanmar but we were desperate for more information. The last thing you want to do is be find yourself trapped in a land of no internet, lack of phone lines and political instability. Our minds were working fast, we needed to find a way to get back to Yangoon. It was the only way to get more information.
After a grueling 20-hour ride south to Yangoon, we finally entered the southern territories at 6am. The sun was creeping up, waking us from the flimsy sleep in the car. Everything was perfectly still and at one point in time I raised my head only to notice we were moving through water. The wheels of the car were submerged and we were passing behind other vehicles trying to enter the city.
At that point in time we looked out into the horizon and saw that the city was flooded. Houses seemed to be floating and by passing through this river we seemed to be disturbing the peace, causing ripples around the car.
An hour later, following a very slow ride to the city, we finally entered Yangoon to see that the city was fully awake and mobilised. The army was engaged moving the trees which were in the middle of the roads. People were clearing glass from the streets and moving lamp posts, billboards as well as collecting food and scraps to make shelter.
Most of the buildings were severely damaged and it wasn’t until we saw trees laying horizontally, ripped out from the ground together with their roots that we gasped in disbelief. We were witnessing the aftermath of what was one of the biggest tragedy Myanmar has ever had.
Over the next few days, we desperately tried to get in touch with loved ones, using the only satellite phone in the city, gathering the spare US dollars we had and dealing with a huge rise in food, hotel and transportation prices. The cost of petrol jumped 10 times following the disaster and suddenly we could no longer afford the regular trips to the airport to enquire what was happening with our flight and when the airport was due to open.
We learned that the cyclone washed up various debris onto the runway and damaged some of the communication equipment. This resulted in a general airport shut down and thousands of tourists stranded in Yangoon. All those tourists we couldn’t find during the first few days suddenly appeared at the airport – desperately trying to get out. People were trapped with no money and no way to get cash. They were refused to stay at the airport and couldn’t even afford a trip back to the city. All this however was not even close to what the locals were experiencing.
The villages surrounding Yangoon were flooded, with poor sewage systems, drowning thousands who couldn’t swim and trapping many more inside their houses without food or fresh water.
It was incredible to watch so many people get together and everyone working on a rescue mission or towards obtaining food and other supplies. The army we heard so much about was utilising equipment to remove trees and enable traffic, working in teams spread around the city. It felt like a war zone.
Cyclone Nargis had cut off Myanmar even further from the rest of the world.
Within a few days we were able to get on the first flight out to Singapore and officially became the first foreigners to leave Myanmar. We were extremely lucky! Having landed in Singapore we only then started getting information and reading what the international media was reporting. We were interviewed by various media houses and our photos and stories made it around the world. It turns out everyone wanted to find a way into Myanmar and international press was not allowed to enter without the appropriate visas. We found out the people were desperate for help but due to sanctions agains Myanmar international agencies couldn’t get their act together to deliver aid by air for quite a while. And while the politics played their usual role, people were suffering, dying.
It was the only time I was truly grateful to be a foreigner and have a safe haven to escape to but at the same time my heart went out to the locals, their families, loved ones who were suffering so much. There was nothing we could do. The feeling of helplessness is the worse.
Myanmar will always remain in my thoughts as one of the most naturally pristine countries visited and one I ought to go back to. Despite the political instability and years of suppression and isolation the people we met were lovely, helpful and joyful individuals who had that same Southeast Asian gentle charm I adore.
Maybe one days things change, people stop hating and nature stops punishing the already vulnerable.
I sit still, my fingers tightly grasping the steering wheel of the rented SUV, slowly watching the zooming traffic from the corner of my eye. If it wasn’t for my co-pilot, my dear husband reading maps and trying to understand where the GPS machine is trying to lead us, I would be completely lost and even more terrified.
The buzzing sound, the huge array of colours speeding past me is both stressful and exhilarating. It’s my first time on an LA seven-lane freeway and I can almost see my life flashing before my eyes, trying hard to concentrate on where I am driving and at the same time keep my speed constant at 65 miles per hour. That would definitely be a reason for a ticket where I come from, but in LA it seems to be normal.
We eventually get off the freeway and I start driving up the steep Beverly Hills neighbourhood streets. They don’t call is Hills for nothing. And as the car climbs, round and round in circles, we pass by some beautiful homes and tree-lined roads eager to reach our destination before the sun sets.
Finally, we get to the top of the hill and drive through a park before reaching the large gates of the Griffith Observatory. I stepped out of the car, mouth half opened gasping at the magnificent sight. The City of Angels is spread out in front of me, stretching far into the horizon and is merged with the sky’s pink, blue and orange shades. The sunset is mesmerizing, shining straight onto the large Hollywood sign mounted into the hills, overlooking the city.
The show is over, the night has come and everything is still. For a moment I think ‘the angels have gone to sleep’.
Yoga has played a large role in my life and has taught me many valuable lessons over the years. By having a yogi sister-in-law who teaches in Mexico and a very close friend who is a yogi in Singapore, I was naturally ‘sucked into’ the life of yoga, the ultimate pre-meditative training state.
I am still not very good at meditation, sitting still or focusing on one thought for longer than 20 seconds but I am a strong believer that I will get there – eventually.
The weeks spent in India, across South East Asia, doing yoga in Bali or on the beaches in Sri Lanka, and the mountains in Nepal and Tibet have all taught me more about spirituality, the purpose of focusing, opening up, smiling, creating harmony and sharing positive energy with everyone around you. As you travel this becomes even more important.
While on the road, not many people will have a chance to actively practice yoga but I believe it’s just as important doing your practice off the mat as it is on the mat.
Here are some examples on how yoga has helped me become a better traveler:
1) Never stop breathing: I have learned that breathing is indeed the source of all power, the inner energy or our inner chi. It ignites the chakras and awakes the body. For this purpose it is important to actively breathe out (breathing in is an semi-involuntary action our body does anyways)! The importance breath plays in our lives can be clearly seen in moments of stress, doubt or anxiety where we can calm our bodies down by steady intake and releasing of air. Next time when you miss that train or get rained on try it out – it really works!
2) After each pose always do a counter-pose: In yoga when doing difficult poses (e.g. back bends) one always offsets the somewhat uneasy effects of the pose by doing a counter-pose (e.g. forward bends). It puts the body back in balance and neutralizes any discomforts. The same is with life. In order to maintain a healthy balance you should always try balance out the effects to put things back into order. The same is with doing too much of something – always be cautious of pushing yourself past your limits and try not to force your body. When traveling, try and be mindful of your actions, interaction and the footprint you are leaving behind. Try neutralize it and be kind to yourself and to others around you – let’s keep things in balance.
3) Start the day with a single thought: ‘What am I grateful for today?’: A close friend of mine always starts her yoga practice with this thought and I have slowly started including it in all aspects of my life. By being consciously grateful you not only become more aware of what you have but you also become happier and mentally healthier individual.
4) Be positive and smile, even during the toughest poses: When the poses would get tougher my yoga teachers would always tell people to smile. This would not only make people laugh (because smiling is the last thing you want to do when you have been in a downward facing dog for the last 20 minutes and your arms are shaking) but it also relaxes your muscles, making your body less tense and the pose easier. When the going gets tough – just smile.
5) Focus your mind (or at least try to): disciplining the mind is one of the toughest things people are challenged to do. We have an average of 60,000 thoughts every day and given the distractions around us tend to find focusing extremely difficult. The exercise of focusing is nothing but mentally training the brain to think single thoughts at any given time and silence the noise pollution around us as well as inside our own minds. This takes practice but is immensely important – especially when you travel. Being focused and alert, conscious about things in your surrounding can make you a better traveler – sensing dangers and seeing things clearly. This can make all the difference.
6) Relax: After an intense session of movements and rapid breaths it is important to take the only counter-pose to all yoga poses – Shavasana (the corpse pose) and just lay on the ground with your eyes closes, your lips slightly apart, your arm stretched by your side with your fingers naturally curled, palms facing upwards and breathe. Remember the tough poses and just try sink into your own body. Traveling can be hard work and sometimes, after hours on the road, tough and painful. Remember to relax and enjoy the ride!!
My 2012 resolution is to discipline myself to practice yoga on a daily basis but even if I don’t, I won’t kick myself over it because I know that the basic principles of yoga are imbedded within me and that I carry them with me everywhere, just as I do my passport.
Sitting at the back of an old van, you are in for a long ride. It takes almost 12 hours from the Vientiane, the capital city, to the next destination in North Laos, but you are not tired. On the contrary! You don’t feel the bumps on the road or the sharp curves through the tiny villages in the middle of these pristine mountains along the way.
You are preoccupied by the exquisite scenery – stretches of large stones and never-ending hills covered with palm trees, the tiny palm-leaf huts, red earth covering the feet of children playing on the streets and colours, lots of exquisite and vivid colours.
Every once in a while an occasional snake or a cow crosses the road. You see a banana-selling stand on the side of the road and pass many schools where children play freely in huge open-air school playgrounds.
You are hypnotised by the serenity and calmness of The Kingdom of Laos, one of the most magical countries in Asia.
Despite tourism picking up and becoming an upcoming hotspot for European travelers, Laos is still fairly bound to its traditions not allowing the flowing tourists to disrupt the way of life. With behaviour instruction posters and tips on how to communicate with the Lao people, it seems very foreign and distant to the western world yet remains intriguing and attracts millions of tourists each year.
One place in particular is a spot you don’t want to miss if you visit the Kingdom of a Million Elephants – Luang Prabang. They call it the “Jewel of Indochina”.
It is a city trapped in time where the day starts at sunrise with the morning alms and offerings to the hundreds of monks who inhabit this precious 15-century city.
This city, flooded with tourists and agencies, tiny souvenir shops and massage/beauty parlours may come across as ‘nothing different’ from any other city in the region but when you realise how much history, charisma and charm this city has you instantly want to stay longer.
Each day ends with the opening of the buzzing night market covering several streets filled with crafts, art and silk in every shape and form.
Luang Prabang was the capital of Laos in the 14th century. The city was known as Muang Sawa but changed its name soon after Cambodian officials sent the great (Luang) gold Buddha (the Prabang) as a gift to the people of the city. The Prabang is the symbol of the city today and sits in the National Museum which used to be the King’s palace.
Luang Prabang is the point on the map, where the great brown Mekong River (flowing South) and the green Mae Kok River (flowing East) meet.
The exact point is a whirlpool not far away from the centre of the city where both the green and the brown river meet and build an incredible playground for the children (who otherwise cannot swim in either of the rivers at the currents are too strong). This is exactly where the UNESCO Heritage and Natural Site statue sits, in the shade of the palm trees, overlooking the merging of the two rivers.
Not far away from this location is the mini port where visitors rent long boats to take them for an incredible journey up the river towards some of the most amazing Buddha caves in Asia. This may as well be the most vivid memory of the trip: a 4 hour up and down trip listening to the sound of the boat engine slowly making its way through the brown-yellow water flowing all the way from China. Due to the fact that it was the dry season, several islands have emerged from the river and you could see the people watering rice on the river banks and fishing close to these islands.
Only the experienced can fish and sail through these rivers. The river seemed to be the only wild thing in the whole of Laos.
As we made our way to the caves, children are tugging at our clothes, selling tiny birds in small cages. One dollar, one dollar! They shout at us. The guide explains it is a tradition to release birds for good fortune and the children seemed to have picked up well on the tradition. We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting rice whiskey villages and drinking the traditional dark Lao beer by the river side in the cool February breeze.
We finish our boat trip and want more. The guide smiles at us and points us to an enormous golden roof-like structure peeking through a jungle of palm tree leafs. The shine of the building in the afternoon sun was surreal. It is the biggest, most beautiful Buddhist temple I have ever seen.
Built in the 16th century for the King himself, Wat Xieng Thong is certainly the most exquisite building of them all. Decorated with coloured glass and gold, it was built in the traditional Luang Prabang style which means low, wide and dark from the outside decorated with many details on the outer as well an inner part of the walls.
Its roof stretches rather low and is decorated with many images and Mother Earth sculptures. About 50 monks and students live in this temple. It is a complex of several buildings where Monks eat, sleep and pray. Once you enter the temple you are blown away by the massive golden sculptures of Buddha, shining down towards the entrance, sitting in various postures, spreading harmony and calmness all over the space expelling all negativity.
You cannot help but close your eyes and let you mind be at peace.
There over 30 temples like this in Luang Prabang and you can see all of them from the hill top (Mount Phousi) overlooking the rivers, the town and beyond. It is a common spot for both locals and tourists to watch the sunset from.
They call Laos one of the poorest countries in the region and I call it one of the richest countries I’ve ever seen, flooded with culture and traditions, history and customs. It could surely be called a natural haven for the westerners.
Maintaining its tranquillity in every palm tree, every long boat and every silk scarf selling corner shop, Laos is most certainly the ideal get away from the bustling world.
Despite so many incredible locations, there are very few places on this planet that we would like to visit twice, even less that we would desperately die to return to, but there is only one place we all call home.
Growing up, we can have many homes, but it’s that one place we emotionally connect with and find peace within. A place we tend to dream of and return to in our moments of need. We picture the landscapes, the sights and sounds, hoping everything is as we had left it intending to return once we gained deeper insights into the world, hoping we are ready to face home again.
And when we do, after seeing the world and living through new adventures, we tend to see it in a completely different light. We think that things have changed when in fact, the only thing that changes is us.
It’s the real gain from travel – change of perspectives, a new dimension of thoughts and ideas. Reflecting back, it’s the experience that has opened my eyes and in one way taught me to appreciate my own home, my own country.
I remember the early morning mist, which sits still in the Bosnian valleys cooling the cities until sun shines through. The sound of morning prayers and the smell of freshly ground coffee as you walk along the cobblestone alleys. You stop along the way to have a drink at a fresh water fountain, so refreshing yet so cold it makes your teeth hurt. The scent of freshly baked bread travels along the streets and follows you until you give into temptation and buy a locally made salty bun, only to return for more pastry shortly after.
You watch out for trams as you cross the streets and smile as people downtown wish each other good morning. It seems so familiar yet so distant from the rest of the world.
After stopping in a local, smoke-filled cafe, you pause to take it all in and engage in some people watching. Everyone is dressed up, very focused yet relaxed as they make their way to their intended destinations. A gypsy woman holding a small child will approach you asking for money and curse you if you refuse (she will bless you if you give her a coin and continue on to the ask the next table).
An occasional stray dog will wonder by and pigeons will flutter looking for crumbs while hungry cats will observe them from the typical low shop-house rooftops.
Every morning the garbage truck collects the bags in front of the shops and the minivan with a hose will spray and wash the streets. You will think it has been raining.
One one such day, I was heading for my morning coffee. It was far too early for the shops to open but the shopkeeping felt pity and kindly prepared a typical Bosnian coffee served in copper pot and porcelain cups. It was thick and made me shiver, waking me up almost instantaneously. I smiled as I knew that nowhere outside of Bosnia would I be able to find the exact same coffee with that precise taste and aroma. It’s one of the many things I miss about home when traveling for longer periods of time.
The sensation brought back happy memories and I got thinking about the custom of drinking coffee.
Coffee was introduced to Bosnia in the early 15th century when the Ottoman Empire conquered the land. Over a period of 415 years they influenced everything from the language, food, religion, art and of course, the coffee drinking culture.
It was that time of the day when people would get together to experience the joy of drinking coffee and catching up. They would invite each other for over to enjoy the ritual of blending roasted beans, grinding them and preparing them only to savor the drink slowly and carefully. This was quality time spent in company of friends, relatives or even business partners and it was, and still remains a fundamental part of the culture.
It reminds me of the coffee sessions I would have with my family on a daily basis. We would all sit around a table and discuss our days, our plans, our dreams. This would take place several times per day and the focus was never on the coffee itself. It was merely an excuse.
At 16 I started having coffee for the first time (children are generally not allowed to and are told that they would grow tails or that their eyelashes would fall off if they drink coffee). It was a very grownup thing to do and since it was a ritual, we all took it very seriously.
The mother would prepare and serve the coffee, the father would drink first and the children were never allowed to come close to the table. The coffee drinking process would take longer periods of time, sometimes up to 30 minutes for people to drink one small shot of coffee before the host would refill and the process would be repeated. It was all about savoring the aroma and enjoying the conversation.
Everyone has their way of drinking coffee. Some like it with milk, some straight, some with sugar, but that’s where the variations stop. Even nowadays the coffee is very similar to the coffee served 500 years ago and the ritual has been preserved.
Even with the introduction of electric grinders and vacuum packed coffee, the main intent is always the social aspect behind it.
Traveling around the world I tasted some great coffees in Sri Lanka, in Vietnam, in Australia and Mexico but coffee has never tasted as good as it does back home.
Maybe it’s the ambiance, maybe it’s the aroma, it could be the nice conversations or it could just be the fact that it’s familiar and it’s home.
A few years ago we were looking for an ideal location to visit for Christmas holidays with friends. An ideal opportunity to get together (ironically, for the final time), be spoilt and enjoy in an exotic location, somewhere by the sea with good food and great company.
We found a private house on the beach in Tangalle in the Southern tip of Sri Lanka with 4 separate villas integrated into the single property with a swimming pool overlooking a beach. There was no one around us. No hotels, no tourists. A real paradise. Sounds exotic? It is!
After 6 hours of driving from Colombo to the most southern point of this huge country we arrived at this incredible destination. Not only was the house stunning but the service was excellent. The rental of the property came with its own butlers and cooks.
Wait, it gets better!
Each morning we could go to the market place in the town, visit the stalls and pick our own fresh seafood for the day… and boy, would they cook it well!
The holidays were spent indulging in some incredibly prepared lobsters and crabs, painfully flavorful cray fish and all varieties of squids and prawns. Every day was a feast.
The common room was in the open, surrounded with red sofas, Asian statues and lotus flowers overlooking the perfectly blue swimming pool. As you glance further, you see a backdrop of the Indian Ocean waves and tall palm trees swaying in the breeze.
Tangalle is a small village in the south which was completely destroyed by the 2004 Tsunami that swept away most of southeast Asian beaches and reached as far as eastern coast of Africa. The infrastructure of the village is poor but it’s sufficient. The people are friendly, life is slow, time is dispensable.
As we sipped our piña coladas by the pool and enjoyed our frangipani scented facilities we knew that there was more to Sri Lanka, and it was waiting to be discovered.
One morning we woke up at dawn and walked down to the sandy beaches below. There was noise, there were many men. Something was happening.
We came closer to see 20 men pulling at a very large fishing net out of the sea. Everyone was helping, it was fully coordinated. We stood a distance away and watched as they effortlessly pulled out a very large net. It was filled with small fish.
At once they began to sort them and separated them into smaller piles. Within minutes we concluded that they were giving the fish away to the men who were pulling the net. The food was their earning for the day. Some ran off to the market to sell it whilst others took it home to their families. The system seemed so fair and just.
The excitement quickly died down and we continued walking down the beach, taking a turn into a small bay which turned out to be a delta of a river. It was surrounded by lush greenery and palm trees along both sides. We spotted a few eagles, happily flying up in the patchy blue and white skies and then our eyes spotted something in the water. It was not a crocodile, it was not a snake, it was buffalo swimming in the river, cooling itself in preparation for a hot day ahead.
These are the moments you stop and think: there is probably no other place I’d rather be right now. We took a few breaths observing the buffalo then stepping back, leaving it in peace.
We spent that day on the beach, childishly playing with the waves, doing cartwheels on the sand and playing cricket with the locals. It was a day of fun and games, new discoveries and appreciation of nature.
Just when we thought it couldn’t get better we saw the most beautiful rainbow over the sea and were once again dazzled by beauties of our world. As we sat watching the rainbow, listening to the sounds of the waves and sipping our cold beer, we were all smiling, perfectly happy.
We didn’t need the villa, we didn’t need the swimming pool or the butlers and cooks. We had everything – right there and then.