Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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The sprite of a girl stood half hidden behind the bamboo gate leading to her family home. “Bye bye,” she said, waving and giggling. “Mingalaba,” I replied, using one of only two Burmese words I learned during my tour of Myanmar.

This was not the first time I had felt welcomed during my two week Viking River Myanmar Explorer Cruise and tour. We were repeatedly invited into local homes; made an impromptu stop at a wedding reception, where the bride’s mother invited us to enjoy pink ice cream; and descended unannounced upon a temple in a tiny village, where a new golden umbrella was being installed on the top of a pagoda. Though we were the subject of some curiosity, we were always met with a combination of sweet shyness and broad smiles.

Viking River Mandalay Explorer Cruise boat on the Irrawaddy River near Mandalay

Viking River Mandalay Explorer Cruise boat on the Irrawaddy River near Mandalay

Undoubtedly, I would have come away with the same impression of the people of Myanmar had I been on my own, especially since I spent an additional 10 days traveling independently following the Viking River tour. However the depth of knowledge I gained with Viking was nothing less than astounding. Having been raised in Bagan, the cultural and artistic center of Myanmar, and endowed with a degree in English, our guide Mu Mu was well equipped to answer our questions. And question we did. Every few minutes, someone would call out, “Mu Mu, can you tell us…” Whether she was eating lunch, giving directions to our bus driver, or taking notes about tasks to do for guests, she stopped, listened, and then provided us with deep background about the culture and customs of Myanmar. Read More

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Interior of Shwenandaw Monastery Palace in Mandalay, Myanmar is covered in real gold foil

Click on title to view photo in large format: Interior of Shwenandaw Monastery, also known as Golden Palace Monastery, in Mandalay, Myanmar. The structure was originally part of the royal palace at Amarapura, before it was moved to Mandalay, where it became part of the king’s royal apartments. Both the exterior and the interior were once heavily gilded. Although the interior is still covered with gilt, most of the gold has worn off the exterior surfaces. The outside, however, Read More

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Women from Yandabo pottery making village near Mandalay, Myanmar, carry freshly fired pots down to the riverbank in preparation for shipping

Click on title to view photo in large format: Women from Yandabo pottery making village near Mandalay, Myanmar. The entire village is involved in the business of making clay pots, from throwing them on the wheel, to decorating the outside with various designs, to firing thousands in giant piles of ash and straw. After cooling, the final product is carried down to the riverbank in preparation for shipping to locations all over Myanmar. Though it initially appeared that women were doing the bulk of the work while the men sat around gossiping, we later realized Read More

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Child Carried on Mother's Back in Myinkaba Village, Myanmar

Click on title to view photo in large format: After my Viking River Myanmar Explorer Cruise/Tour ended, I returned to Bagan for an additional five days to explore more of the thousands of temples in the area. During a stop at Soe Min Gyi Monastery, a local girl who spoke excellent English excitedly told me about a funeral for a high ranking monk from the area that was happening in Myinkaba Village, just a few minutes away. Her description was something like, “Movie stars are screaming and crying, you will never see anything like it again.” Of course I had to go. Hundreds, Read More

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“There are only 54 steps to the top,” said my guide, Mu Mu. Easy-peasy, I thought. I can do that without even breathing hard. Halfway up the face of Shwesandaw Temple, I realized I must have tuned out the part where she’d said each step was at least two feet high and the climb was nearly vertical. I grasped the thick iron railings and pulled myself up one excruciating step at a time, taking comfort in the fact that people one-third my age were finding the climb just as difficult.

Crowds climb Shwesandaw Pagoda to watch the sun set over a plain dotted with scores of ancient temples

Crowds climb Shwesandaw Pagoda to watch the sun set over a plain dotted with scores of ancient temples

Huffing and puffing, I finally scrambled up onto the walkway that surrounded the pagoda’s pinnacle. Spectators were already standing three deep, jockeying for position to watch the sun set over the famous temples of Bagan, but more and more people kept shoving in. Just when I was sure the walkway couldn’t accommodate one more person, a group of women loaded down with shopping bags and gigantic purses pushed their way up from the terrace below. They barreled through the crowd, pushing me perilously close to the edge, where the only barrier against a fatal fall was a low brick wall. Terrified, I backtracked to the stairway and sat down, putting my head down on my knees and breathing deeply to regain my composure. Read More

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Betel nut vendor at the Nyung Shwe market near Inle Lake, Myanmar. His teeth are stained from chewing the betel nut concoction.n

Click on title to view photo in large format: Betel nut vendor at the Nyung Shwe market near Inle Lake, Myanmar. His teeth are stained from chewing betel nut, which is shredded and wrapped in a slake lime coated-betel leaf, along with spices and alcohol-marinated tobacco. Over time, the concoction eats the enamel off teeth. Many in Myanmar, especially men, are so addicted to the substance that that their teeth are little more than red-black stubs. Though I tried to take photos Read More