Category Archives: Travel

Myanmar: Mandalay

From Heho airport we headed to Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar and another old bygone Burmese capital.  It is the economic hub of upper Myanmar with a population of over 1 million and on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River.  It is a relatively young city being founded in 1857 by King Mindon, from 1885-1948 it was under British Colonial control and it was devastated during World War II and invaded by the Japenese.  Subsequently it deteriorated and indeed destroyed by extensive fires in the 1980s which significantly changed the physical and ethnic make up of the city with a large Chinese influx. So it has a quite modern if run down feel to its architecture.

There was still some great sights for us to visit.  We visited a nunnery where we were served lunch by the nuns, some amazing pagodas, monasteries, markets, lacquer and other workshops and small local villages.  One interesting trip involved a very short boat trip across a river where we were met by a few horse and small carriages to take us through the country side. While we sat waiting on the carriage to take off a little girl came up to us and tried to sell us some local trinkets.  She was a lovely little girl, quite insistent and with her few words of English would say “you remember me, I remember you!” which sounded very funny and nearly like a threat.

But we thought “aw well we will be on our way soon, and she will be gone, and can’t pester us again!”.  Eventually the drivers mount up and we head off and we wave bye-bye to our little selling girl.  Only for about 2 minutes later we hear a bicycle bell and the now familiar chant “Hi, you remember me, I remember you!”, and she followed us all the way to the wooden Bagaya Monastery.  Fortunately, she wasn’t allowed in the grounds of the monastery, but after our visit and we mounted up, and each carriage was again chaperoned by our own personal persistent trinket sellers!

While we were in Mandalay there was one of the regular religious lunar festivals.  The Buddhist religious communities rely on alms and during these festivals thousands of monks come to some of the more religious pagodas and the local communities give alms and gifts which can vary from small amounts of food, to money to electrical appliances and in one case we saw a decorated car being driven for donation at one of the festivals.  Mike and Keith got up very early and our guide brought them along and it apparently it was an amazing sight to see.

One of the greatest sights of Mandalay is the legendary U Bein bridge, built in 1782, and it spans for 1.2 km across he shallow Taungthaman Lake and it is said to be the longest teak bridge in the world.  We were taken out by boat on the water at sunset and it is an amazing sight to see as the son sets down behind it.

Our final destination was Bagan, but this time it was a minibus drive of 250km to our next destination.

Myanmar: Inle Lake

From Yangon we headed to the airport for our internal flight to Heho in Shan State and part of the Shan Hill, an hours drive from Nyaung Shwe gateway to Inle Lake.  At the small domestic airport we met Min Min our next guide for Inle Lake.

Our plane to Heho
Our plane to Heho

However, before arriving at Inle Lake we first stopped at a teak monastery of Shweyanpyay.  We were supposed to have a quick stop here for about 15 minutes, but poor Min Min had a hard time getting us out after two hours.  It was a great start to our trip to Inle Lake.  The monastery made of teak was lit just beautifully, there were plenty of monks both young and old and it also happened to be a local festival where there were many local tribes present for the procession around the main monastery.  We had a great afternoon photographing the monastery, monks and the locals.  Min Min was just brilliant he asked locals and the monks if we could photograph them and also helped with getting them to pose for us. Although we only met him less than an hour before hand we could already tell he was going to be a great help but also great fun.

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Min Min our Guide at Inle Lake

Eventually we moved on and headed to the lake.  Inle lake is 45 square miles, with an average depth of 2.1m which increases by 1.5m in the rainy season.  We boarded our two boats for our 1 hour trip across the lake to our hotel on the lake.  It was a beautiful day and headed out across the lake.  It was amazing to see the local fishermen using their unusual rowing and fishing techniques.  Others were removing weeds from the bottom of the lake which is used as fertiliser.  The houses and little villages are built on stills in the lake and vegetables  like tomatoes are grown on the lake as floating gardens held in place by bamboo sticks.  Around the lake are small towns, pagodas, stupas and monasteries.  Here is a short video of us arriving and some time on the lake.

We arrived at our hotel which was stunning, 6 chalets again built on stilts on the lake, but each beautiful appointed our best hotel on the entire trip.  It was also a training hotel, the Thahara Inle Heritage, the staff were very friendly the chalets fantastic and the food at the restaurant there just amazing, again the best food of the tour.

Chalet at the Thahara Inle Heritage hotel.
Chalet at the Thahara Inle Heritage hotel.

Without a doubt I would revisit this magnificent Lake, although I do hear that tourism is having a detrimental impact on the Lake itself.

Over the next couple of days we visited many of the sights on and around the lake.  The people were really nice and didn’t mind at all being photographed and they were good fun.  One trip in particular I recall where we visited the village of Maing Tauk on the lake which on that day was holding the travelling market, called such because it rotates between five different villages around the lake.  From here we travelled up the surrounding hill to a Holy Retreat.  It was extremely hot and getting close to mid day.  On the way we met local tribes people who were returning home from the market.  The had left there village which was many miles further up in the mountain at about 4am and carried down with them the produces they had grown and were selling.  They were now returning home with what they had bought at the market.  It was a very strenuous trip for them that they took weekly.  But they were very good natured referring to the three males amongst us as 1 baby, 2 baby and 3 baby due to our portly statures. I won’t be saying who was whom!

When we eventually reached the retreat/monastery, exhausted and  boiling hot, it was another photographer’s dream, where we spent hours taking photographs. Min Min had taken two younger guides with him to help us along and who cooked us a great meal at the retreat.  What was amazing about these young guys was their knowledge with regard to British soccer.  Apparently most Myanmar men spent much of their nights watching soccer from Europe.

The following morning we headed out for sunrise on the lake and although photographically speaking it was a little disappointing with the cloudy skies.  Still we stopped in the middle of the lake to take photographs.  After a little while the same young guides came along in their own boats with our morning breakfast which was a lovely touch and we enjoyed a quite morning drinking tea and biscuits on the lake, very sophisticated indeed!

Heading back to the airport when we left was also interesting.  Min Min had suggested that we eat at a restaurant a couple of minutes from the airport, the receptionist would take our baggage and passports and check us in and instead of sitting at the airport for two hours we could enjoy a good meal.   Which we did, however, we took a little longer than we have.  When we arrived at the airport the airline staff were at the door rushing us in to the airport we were rushed through security with all sort of alarms going off which were ignored, then I was asked for a boarding card at the door to the tarmac, which I didn’t have but they said “just go on”.  We raced across the tarmac ran up the steps and found ourselves seats.  I would say that from the time we got out of the minibus to the time the plane took of it was only about 7 minutes. As Mike said better than any private plane service you would get.  So now we were off to Mandalay!

Myanmar: Yangon

Yangon the beginning and the end! Our trip started and finished in Yangon a former capital of Burma. However, before I start, one of the dilemmas I had before even leaving home was deciding what photography gear to bring. I had recently changed to Fuji X series (an X-E1 my first purchase and also an X-T1 which I love). But I still have a Nikon D800 and some good lenses another system I love. At the time the Fuji system didn’t have the great array of really good lenses it now has. I had tried a few other “small” size cameras including the Nikon 1, but they just didn’t do it for me the way the Fuji X series does. I wanted the smaller form factor that the mirrorless offered with the same functionality of a DSLR, which is ideal for travel. In the end I went with the two Fujis and a few lenses. The XF56mm 1.2 is a brilliant portrait lens and I was very happy with the Fujis and lenses. 

 

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Michael Lin our guide in Yangon

So back to Yangon, it was the capital and it is still the largest city with a population of 5 million people. We arrived in the afternoon to be met by our guide Michael Lin and driver. He was a lovely guy and very helpful, we were so keen to get out and about that after checking in he agreed to meet us on his own time that evening to show us around the city centre and to go for a meal.

So we headed to the port on the river to take some photos.  It was time for people to head home and the port was full of boats laden with people.  There were stalls there too for people to buy some groceries and other items on their way.  It was our first view of the culture and people of this huge city and I felt it was a great start for taking photographs.

To me the city came across as a bit run down and a bit Soviet looking and not very Asian or oriental in style, but very functional. There is a lot of colonial style buildings reflecting its past British influence. It was a busy city with plenty of cars, taxis and buses. More modern than I expected but run down.

The people were friendly and didn’t mind being photographed. In fact at the port I thought I was being briefly followed when I realised the guy only wanted me to take his photo! Michael showed us around the street and brought us to a street full of restaurants where we ate a nice meal sitting on the street side.

The next day our tour began in earnest. We visited the Schwedagon Pagoda one of the most sacred in Myanmar. It was truly an amazing site to see with all its ornate structures and gilded stupa which is 99 metres high. It is a part of the tradition for worshippers to adorn their statues and pagodas with gold leaf and these grow considerably over the years and decades and the original statues to be unrecognisable.

Part of the tour was a short trip on the circular railway that runs around Yangon and can take up to 3 hours to compete the circuit. We were looking forward to getting photos of the locals on these old run down carriages, but were the disappointed to end up on a relatively modern carriage with no real photo opportunities. We visited a market which we were taken to on bicycles with side cars. We also visited the 65 metre long reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda where the Buddha statue is the size of a blue whale.

The amazing sights of the pagodas were in stark contrast to the city. They were bright colours, beautiful buildings highly revered by the people, ornate and well looked after.

 

 

Next we head off to Inle Lake in the interior of the country.

Myanmar: introduction

It has been a long time since I last posted here, but I’m now relaxing on holidays and it’s a good chance to catch up. I’m going to start with a few blogs about our trip late last year to Myanmar the former Burma.

Five of us from our local camera club decided it was time to get away again, following our previous trips to South Africa and Cuba. So after a lot of research we settled on Myanmar and headed out late October 2014 into November. We were concerned about the political situation but many more people are travelling to Myanmar these days. Lack of good medical facilities are also a concern, the best advice being to have good insurance and get to Thailand as quick as possible for any serious issues. Given we would be taking 3 internal flights this too was a worry. As it happened we need not have worried. We had excellent travel agents looking after us. Here in Ireland we made all our arrangements with a really good agency from Cork, Discover Travel. They looked after us very well, helping with visas, accommodation, transport, guides, internal flights and they were very reasonably priced. The agents that looked after us there was Exotic Voyages and they were excellent. Great guides, a good itinerary, good accommodation and they looked after us very well. On a daily basis the guides made sure the food and water we had was safe and we got regular calls from their head office to make contact with us to make sure we were happy with everything. This is not anything we had experienced before and it made us feel very safe and well looked after.

So for the trip itself, it was for 11 days in four different parts of the country and previously mentioned it required 3 internal/domestic flights between regions and one drive for 250km. We had four different guides and drivers as we had a minibus or boats at our disposal in each location. Each day we had an itinerary of sights to see and visit although this was very flexible.

We began with a couple of days in the old capital of Yangon to where we flew via Amsterdam. A flight took us to Heho in the centre of the country and a drive of an hour or so to our final destination of Inle Lake, which for me was probably the highlight of the tour. After a few days here another flight from Heho to Mandalay before a bus trip of 250km to our final destination of Bagan. Our last internal flight was back to Yangon before flying home.

Each destination had its own highlights with some amazing places to see. Our guides knew we were here for a photographic holiday and they were really helpful in getting us photographs of places and people. They were also very patient as a group of photographers can get very intense once they start taking shots and getting them to move on can be a challenge.

So before I cover each place we visited, just a few thoughts on my overall impressions. The people were very friendly, quite laid back and they appeared to have no problems with being photographed apart from one tribe in Inle Lake who were returning from a market, but more on that later. We were prepared for the fact that as a country that had only recently been opened up to tourists that it would not be very advanced from a technology point of view. But we were surprised to see that many people had mobile phones, some cars looked quite modern and new, there were a few “technology” stores, the Internet service although not brilliant was quite useable in the hotels. We stayed in some really nice hotels but it was also clear that with growing tourism more hotels are needed. The little airports we visited were small serviced by smaller planes but although somewhat chaotic they were well enough run. We were surprised that with such a politically troubled background we saw very little presence of either military or police. Having said that we were aware that certain destinations were off limits and our guides were really good at managing this. The food was reasonable with influences from India, Thailand and many of the hugely diverse ethnicities of Myanmar. Buddhism is a huge influence on the country with monks and nuns in abundance, so too temples, monasteries, pagodas, and other religious structures and monuments. The people have a very gentle and friendly way partly due to their religious background. Nearly all Buddhist males spend some short time as monks even at very young ages from six or seven years of age, although some will only spend weeks at a time as monks. They rise early for their breakfast, spend the morning looking for alms before their last meal of the day which is at noon. They may take drinks or some sweets during the rest of the day. They are not allowed cook for themselves and the afternoons are periods of religious reading or learning.

The girls, unlike the boys are not required to become nuns but many do. Because for the girls it is a choice it is more likely that they will stay as nuns. They similarly live lives dedicated to Buddhism, although unlike the men they do cook for themselves.  They too have shaved heads but wear a pink shroud.

We had a marvellous trip and a great time. It is a truly amazing country and well worth a visit, I hope you enjoy the other postings and images here. I’ll next cover each destination separately. See also a quick summary here in the Adobe Slate feature.

Finally here is the gang: Viv, Lynn, Keith and Mike

 

Las Vegas

After a weeks holiday in San Francisco we then spent a week in Las Vegas.  I have to admit that I am not a gambler but I had heard that you have to visit Las Vegas at least once.  So after San Fran we flew to Las Vegas.  We stayed in a resort just off the strip called the Tahiti Village.  I was very happy that we were not staying on the strip because the strip seemed to be manic all the time, whereas our resort was very peaceful and quiet with lovely swimming pools and a lazy river.  It was a lovely place to relax and enjoy the sunshine and there was a nice bar and restaurant.  In fact one of the waitresses was from Raheny in Dublin. The only problem was that it was next door to an outlet mall!  They provided a free shuttle service every half our to the strip.  Although the hotels on the strip look magnificent they are always very busy and huge, and if you stayed there, to get to the pool you have to walk through the maddening crowds, and the restaurants were packed.

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We went to a couple of amazing shows, the first Penn and Teller, fantastic magicians and then the absolutely amazing show Ka, which is part of the Cirque de Soleil.  This is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, the acrobatics, the music, the amazing moving stage was mesmerising and I highly recommend it if you ever get the chance.

We also took the opportunity to fly to the Grand Canyon, I’ve never been in a helicopter before and it was a great experience.  We took an evening flight and flew down to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.  On the way back the sun was setting and it was great to see Las Vegas as the lights came on and the sun set.  The landing in the canyon itself was just OK you really only get to see a small part of the river and the canyon from the ground.  A boat ride on the Colorado would probably be a better way to see and experience more and I also hear that a trip to the South Rim is very good although you can’t land in it.

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Walking up the strip at night and visiting many of the famous hotels at the MGM, the Bellagio, New York New York was great fun but to be honest all of the casinos look the same and really held no interest for me.  We spent a week there but in fact three or four days would do.  The next time, if I go again, I would like to see more of the natural wonders like the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Antelope Canyon and some of the desert.

Still we had a great week and I enjoyed it immensely.

The following Timelapse is from the revolving restaurant at the top of the Stratosphere Hotel.

 

A week in San Francisco

We had a great week in San Francisco and the Bay area it was as good as I remembered it from 18 years ago and a place I definitely want to return to.  A couple of things struck me, first the number of homeless is very high everywhere, even around Union Square where we were staying.  They was no sense of danger but a little surprising for such a rich country showing the great contrasts of this huge country.  The weather in San Francisco, due to its location next to the Pacific Ocean is always a surprise.  The cold from the ocean meeting the heat over the land causes enormous rolling banks of fog.  So early in the morning there is a chill as the fog rolls in and then dissipates as the heat gets up returning again in the late afternoon or evening, meaning you have to be ready for all types of weather.

The city itself is only about 7 miles long but is very diverse and hilly.  On our first day we took a day tour with Dylan tours, Dylan himself was our guide and driver and we had a very enjoyable and leisurely day visiting all the different quarters of the city as well as the Golden Gate Bridge, Sausalito and Muir Woods. Dylan is very knowledgeable about his native city and gives a great commentary with plenty of stops for photos and a bite to eat.  A great way to get to know the city.

The next day we took a tour of Alcatraz which is a great tour and one of the highlights really recommended in particular the audio guides which works really well and a pleasant way to spend a good few hours, since we were down at the Pier 33 we took the opportunity to visit pier 39 for lunch.  A bit kitsch but none the less enjoyable.  The 8 hour difference really begins to take its toll by the time the late afternoons when a siesta is called for.

We had decided to hire a car for two days on Wednesday and Thursday, our first surprise was the huge queues at the Alamo car hire desk it ran down the street fortunately we had picked the Dollar car rental company next door.  Things were a bit manic there particularly for those that wanted convertibles or SUVs, fortunately we only order a bog standard full size car, and we got a brand new one with only 17 miles on it.  So off we headed for Napa Valley.  We head towards the I80 and the Bay Bridge but the car sounded very funny like it was stuck in first gear.  We try all sorts of changes but no luck then just as get to the other side of the bridge and the 8 lane highway divides in two the car loses power and I have to let it coast to a stop at the side of the road where the highway divides! Now what do we do, well after 5 minutes we start her off again and she springs into life and all is well again, thankfully!

I was really looking forward to getting back to Napa Valley and visiting the wineries and I wasn’t disappointed.  Being away from the coast the weather was sublime and we visited a number of different wineries and had a great lunch.  Next time I think I would spend a couple of nights here to enjoy the place even more.  On the way home a quick stop in Sausalito to enjoy dinner but another place I’d like to visit again as everything was closed.

Next day a trip down south along the highway 1 to see the coast, unfortunately a few poor navigation decisions meant it took us longer to get out of the city than it should but anyway we eventually we get out and head towards Half Moon Bay.  But the fog isn’t lifting and we don’t really get to see the coast too well.  We then pass Half Moon Bay mainly because we thought it would be on the coast side of the road.  So we turn around and head back to it.  A nice sleepy village with plenty of crafts etc. Then it struck us why it was built away from the direct coast line.  It was lovely and sunny here while the coast was still covered in fog!  Next Santa Cruz for lunch and a stroll on the wharf.  We decide to head inland to San Jose, my wife deciding a little retail therapy was called for! The last time I was here I spent some time in Palo Alto and I decided to head there next.  This is as lovely as I remembered it.  A lovely University Town (Stanford) the home of Silicone Valley, and a very lively place with plenty of places to drink and eat.  Next we head home to the City and again we experience some navigation issues i.e. we get lost!  Parking is a big problem in San Francisco so we need to park in the large parking lots around the city but they were nearly as expensive at the car.

Our last three days were more easy going and reserved for visiting parts of the city.  The cable cars, China Town, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Embarcadero, commercial centre etc.  We stayed in a nice little boutique hotel off Union Square called the Hotel Rex.  Some nice touches link a free glass of wine from 5-6pm, free tea & coffee in the mornings, a singer or music on Friday evenings, movie projection and nice decent size rooms.

Then on Sunday off to Las Vegas.

 

 

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Off to San Francisco and Las Vegas

Today we head off across the Atlantic and most of the USA to the West Coast and San Francisco.  It was 18 years ago when I was here last for work and I loved it and always wanted to come back and see it again.  And now I have my chance with Sharon and a couple of friends.  This time we are staying in the city itself in Union Square in the Rex Hotel.  The last time we stayed south of San Francisco near Silicone Valley but we got to see a good deal of the City, Palo Alto, Silicone Valley and spent a day north of San Francisco in the Napa Valley.  I am really looking forward to seeing some of these great places again.

The following week it’s off to Las Vegas, I’ve never been there but I hear its a great place to go.  Looking forward to shows, the strip, the Grand Canyon, the sun shine and mucking about.

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Weekend in Dungarvan

We spent a lovely weekend in a friend’s home in Rinn, Dungarvan. Although the forecast was bad and we drove through some wild weather on the way we were very lucky and got great weather.  In particular in Ardmore a truly beautiful village which  I’ve never been to before but would highly recommend.

A few photos from the weekend.

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