Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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View from U Min Thonze Cave Pagoda on Sagaing Hill, on the opposite side of the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay, Myanmar

Click on title to view photo in large format: View from U Min Thonze Cave Pagoda over Sagaing Hill, located on the opposite side of the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay, Myanmar. Only a handful of monasteries and pagodas existed when this area was the capital of Sagaing Kingdom, from 1315 to 1364. Today Sagaing Hill is part of Mandalay, and the entire area is covered in nunneries, monasteries, and pagodas. As the area developed Read More

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Weirawsana Jade Pagoda near Mandalay, Myanmar, is covered in jade pieces and slabs worth $15 million

Click on title to view photo in large format: Weirawsana Jade Pagoda near Mandalay, Myanmar, is covered in jade worth $15 million. Inside the pagoda, jade Buddha statues occupy niches facing the four cardinal directions. The government of Myanmar represents it as the largest jade pagoda in the world, and the only one in the world built entirely of the precious stone. The 75-foot high structure was begun in 2012 and only recently completed. Funds for Read More

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By mid-February, the lowlands of Myanmar were sweltering under an unforgiving sun. With temperatures in the mid-90’s and 60% humidity, I fled the crowded streets of Mandalay and headed for the hills. Rather than rely on slow, uncomfortable trains like the Circular Train in Yangon, I splurged a little and hired a “taxi.” Taxis in Myanmar are somewhat of a misnomer. In essence, they are rental cars, but since foreigners are not allowed to drive them, they come with a driver, and in my case, a translator as well.

Aung, my driver, spoke no English, but even if he could it would have been unintelligible. An ever-present chaw of betel nut tucked into his cheek made him look like a chipmunk hoarding too many acorns and rendered him mute. Whenever my translator, Win, asked him a question, Aung was forced to pull over and spew a stream of dark red liquid onto the side of the road before answering. Win’s English was somewhat limited, but we managed to understand one another well enough, and I left it to them to decide which sites to show me.

Truck traffic on the road to the Hill Stations of Myanmar

Truck traffic on the road to the Hill Stations of Myanmar

We left Mandalay early one morning, hoping to avoid the city’s horrid traffic, but just outside the city we slowed to a crawl. Before us stretched a long line of trucks and tankers, overloaded with rare teak wood, huge sacks of rice, raw rubber, fruits, oil, and gas, all bound for China. The only road leading to the northeastern hill stations of Myanmar, unfortunately, is also the main artery through which most exports travel to China. Read More

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Bridal couple at Kuthodaw Complex in Mandalay, Myanmar, celebrate their wedding day with a visit to the famous temple where each of 729 marble slabs inscribed with Buddhist teachings are housed in its own individual shrine

Click on title to view photo in large format: Bridal couple celebrate their wedding day with a visit to Kuthodaw Complex in Mandalay, Myanmar. This famous site is often described as containing the largest book in the world. After my first circuit of the site, I was mystified. I saw absolutely no evidence of a giant book. Further inquiry solved the mystery. Read More

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In Mandalay, Myanmar, sun sets behind U Bein Bridge, said to be the longest and oldest teak bridge in the world

Click on title to view photo in large format: In Mandalay, Myanmar, sun sets behind U Bein Bridge, which bisects Taungthaman Lake and is said to be the longest and oldest teak bridge in the world. The bridge was completed in 1851, using teak wood reclaimed from a former royal palace. Not only is the bridge popular with tourists, it is in constant use by locals who save a great deal of transit time by being able to walk across the lake rather than go around it. Unfortunately, many of the 1,086 pillars that support the bridge have begun to Read More

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During monsoon season, sailing the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar is easy, as the river is high and wide. In the dry season, however, the river shrinks and sailing becomes much more difficult. The captain on my Viking River Mandalay Explorer cruise explained that the portion of the river between Mandalay and Bagan is the shallowest, and that it is not uncommon for the boat to scrape bottom. As long we were moving slowly, he assured us there was no reason for concern, however we were advised to hold onto railings when climbing stairs or walking the deck. Indeed, we bumped bottom or scraped submerged rocks several times without causing damage to the boat.

To lessen the potential for damage and ensure safety of the crew and passengers, the depth is monitored continuously when sailing shallow stretches of the Irrawaddy River. Crew members thrust long bamboo poles into the water on both sides of the ship’s bow, calling out Read More