Began, Burma

The Dinner Guest – Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)

Kipling said, “Burma is like no place you have ever seen.” He was talking about Bagan. A huge temple complex at the bend of the Irriwaddy River where there are over 3000 temples, some as high as a ten story building.These temples date back to the twelfth century, and cover many square miles. They poke up above the plain, some gold, some white, some a red stone. Most are completely abandoned and open.
I arrived in Bagan by steamer. It was my intention to climb one of the taller temples and go out a high window and then climb up the outside to get a good view of the plain to photograph the setting sun slapping just the temple tops.
I rented a bicycle and rode with great difficulty along the dirt paths which crisscrossed the entire plain. It was vert hot. I was sweating a good bit. I was alone, I saw no one else. There was a tall red stone temple which stood above all the others and that’s the one I headed for.

Began, Burma

Burmese Temple – Began

All the temples were surrounded by a square wall, about eight feet high. Each one had four gates. North, South East, and West. I leaned my bike against the wall near a gate. I had about 100 yards to cover before reaching the temple. The ground was hot and parched and full of dead prickly grass and plants. It is an important custom among Buddhists to remove your shoes when ever you enter the temple grounds. I am not a Buddhist, But, I respect their traditions. I removed my sneakers and ran across the hot ground, trying to not step on the thorny plants. I reached the temple right at one of the large ornately carved doors.
It was wide open and just inside was a large seated Buddha, eight feet high. He was covered in dust. I passed him and I could just see a stairway before it became pitch black. I found the stairway and groped up it feeling each step as I climbed upwards. I was very afraid that I might find a snake. I’m afraid of snakes. Especially the poisonous ones in Burma.
I probably climbed five stories before I saw light up ahead. I came to a large doorway that lead out to a stone ledge. I Looked around and decided that I could go higher climbing the outside of the temple.
I figured I had about a half hour before the sun set. So, I climbed as fast as I could. I found a good spot. The Irriwaddi was just in back of me and in front were scores of temples, large and small. Two large white ones glistened in the distance. I decided then that I would see them tomorrow.

Began, Burma

Buddha at Burmese Temple – Bagan

I looked around. Below me was a lean-to hut with a young couple busying themselves around the hut. The woman was gathering small sticks. She took them around to the front of the lean-to and started to build a fire. I watched the small puffs of white smoke rise slowly towards the trees. The husband looked on expectantly. It was dinner time. I started taking pictures of them. When all of a sudden the husband looked up and saw me and waved. I waved back and took his picture. At this point I felt a little embarrassed having been caught. So I raised my gaze to the horizon. Their were yellow parched fields with temples dotted around. In one distant field I could see goats grazing.
A noise startled me. I looked around and here came the husband with a big smile climbing up the outside of the temple. He greeted me with the Burmese word,”Mingalaba” Which means something like “Hey, How ya doing?”. I smiled back, said,”Mingalaba,” and motioned for him to sit down opposite me.
With a big red toothed grin he held up a bag of beetle nuts and offered me some. I took one and popped it in my mouth. He spoke no English and I spoke no Burmese. He pointed to himself and said “Zarni”. I told him my name was “Bill”. I then showed him my camera and pointed to the setting sun and the temples spreading out across the plain. He nodded rapidly several times that he understood my intension. He turned and looked at the sunset and pointed to the beginning of a rising bank of clouds. “Oh Shit” I said aloud. It wasn’t looking good for my sunset shot.
I heard a squeal, and his wife came around the ledge. Her dark eyes were creased in a broad smile. She came directly to her husband and sat up close. He put his arms around her and they both looked at me. So, I took their picture. She said her name was Nanda.
They talked to each other for a few seconds and smiling started to pantomime that they wanted me to have dinner with them. I Glanced at the clouds blocking the sun. I realized that I wouldn’t get my shot, so I happily agreed to dinner.
The climb down was effortless. I kept one hand on the wall to keep my balance in the dark. We popped out into the fading light of day, We went to the nearest gate where I gladly put my sneakers back on. They really felt good. Then we walked towards their lean-to. The fire was just red coals and Nanda immediately left us to gather some more wood.
Zarni motioned for me to go inside and sit down on the bench / bed which ran the full width of the lean-to. There was nothing else in the room except the small fire and a metal grill propped up over the coals. There was no chair. The floor was dirt and the walls were open. A light breeze moved through the room giving some relief to the hot dead air. Underneath the bed was the pantry.

Nanda returned with an armload of small sticks. She got the fire going again. Zarni and I sat on the bed and watched her. He was so excited at having me as a guest that he didn’t know what to do. Everyone was laughing. The two of them talked excitedly back and forth and a decision was made to show me something. Zarni quickly reached under the bed and pulled out a beautiful bone handled carving knife.
He held it out to me with both hands for me to examine. I took it gently and looked at it carefully and told him in english what a fine knife it was, all the while turning it over in my hands. They were obviously pleased at my reaction. I smiled and said excitedly, “Wait until you see what I have.” I reached behind me and pulled out my buck knife. Not just any old buck, this one I bought twenty years ago in Santa Fe. I was just another tourist walking by the indian vendors at the Palace when I saw this knife laid out next to a bunch of silver necklaces. The handle was made of turquoise, mother of pearl and silver. I bought it right then and have rarely been without it.
I handed it to Zarni and he held it up for Nanda to see. She came over and the two of them admired the knife. They were chattering back an forth while pointing to the different stones. I reached over and opened up the blade. What a great reaction, It would have been a superb commercial for Buck.
Nanda reached under the bed and pulled out their one pan and several rather used looking cans. She put the pan on the grate and dug rice out of one can and brown stew looking stuff out of the other and put them into the pan. Then she brought out the dinner ware. There only two plates and their two forks. She set them down in the sand next to the grate and used one of the forks to stir.
Zarni and I sat there carefully watching her. She squatted next to the grate and very confidently watched over our dinner.
It was dark out side now. I am always amazed how quickly it gets dark the nearer you get to the equator. Dinner was ready. Nanda had put the food on the plates. She handed me my plate first, with the clean fork. After she handed Zarni his plate she squatted on the floor facing us.
Here’s the test, they both sat motionless watching as I took my first bite. Dam, it was good! I let out a woop and laughed and told them how really good it was. Far better than I was expecting. They were so pleased. I felt a real feeling of Love for these two. They had nothing and they shared it. They were pure, uncorrupted. Lao Zu would refer to them as the Uncarved Block.
After a very quiet dinner Nanda took the plates and put them into the pan. Then turned and spoke to me. I think she was thanking me for being their dinner guest. I smiled and put my hands together in front of me and gave her a polite bow.

Began, Burma

Bye bye – Bagan, Burma

I had to think about leaving. But, first I had to find two gifts. I dug around in my camera bag and pulled out a beautiful fan I had been carrying around since China. It was a medium size fan made of white plastic, but moulded to look just like an ancient ivory fan. It was quite beautiful.
When I handed it to her, her eyes got real big and she squealed with delight. Wow, that was a home run. Now what did I have for Zarni? I dug back in to the bag and couldn’t find anything that seemed special. Then I found two very nice ball point pens. I pulled them out and handed them to Zarni. He seemed very pleased. Then he got down and looked on the shelf under the bed and came up with a giant grin and handed me a roll of film. Not in a box but with the tab sticking out the end. I was flabbergasted. And I let him know how pleased I was.
I pointed outside and indicated it was time for me to go. The three of us walked outside. I was glad to see the moon was full. I have to ride about two miles, and I didn’t pay much attention on the way here. They gathered around me and pressed me to come back for another visit. I said I would. We shook hands vigorously, lots of smiles. I felt really good. It was an unforgettable dinner.
I got on my bike and wobbled off into the dark.

— Bill Stanhope

farang guard wat pho

Then and Now: Wat Pho – Farang Guard

During a recent trip to Thailand we “retook” some pictures that we had taken about 10 years earlier. Great fun!

Farang Guard at Wat Pho (Temple in Bangkok, Thailand). Wat Pho has lots of archways guarded by statues of different people around the complex. Mostly they have Chinese or other Asian features. But one set of them are “farang” (caucasian), basically an exaggerated caricature of what caucasian features were thought of at the time. Big nose, round eyes, top hat, long coat and cane.

The picture on the left was taken in 2005 and the one on the right was taken almost 10 years later in 2014. The same people are in the same positions in the picture. The black mold/mildew/or pollution stains seem to be getting darker and darker.

Wat Pho (วัดโพธิ์) is my favorite Wat to visit in Bangkok. It is very close to Khao San Road, just on the far side of the Grand Palace/Wat Pra Kaew complex. It is a bit more casual, less expensive, and less crowded than the Grand Palace and Wat Pra Kaew complex next door. The major feature is a giant reclining Buddha (initially built in 1832) that is 15 meters tall and 46 meters long (45 feet tall and 150 feet long).

Visit Thailand now! Khao San Road Area Hotel Recommendations

Meditation in Bangkok

Meditation in Bangkok
Meditation in Bangkok
Meditation in Bangkok
Meditation in Bangkok
Meditation in Bangkok
Meditation in Bangkok
Meditation in Bangkok
Meditation in Bangkok
Meditation in Bangkok

There’s no doubt about it, Thailand is a genuine draw for the spiritually inclined. Every year, thousands of people visit the kingdom to step away from the material and gain an insight into themselves and the world around them. While many “spiritual tourists” might envisage gaining enlightenment through fasting and sitting cross-legged under the torrents of one of Thailand’s many crystal-clear waterfalls, few might consider a trip to Bangkok’s main business/entertainment area a step down a spiritual path. And that just might be a shame… because it just might be what they are looking for.

Sukhumvit Road in the center of Bangkok is more recognized as street of excess than a place of retreat. It’s where people work hard, play hard and enjoy the bounty of riding the back of one of Asia’s more successful tigers. Yet, like elsewhere in the capital, pockets of spiritual resistance exist providing a ongoing reminder of just what is important in life. Fortunately, for visitors and expats wishing to learn more about the spiritual elements that forge this kingdom’s unique identity, there are people around that are willing and able to offer tutelage and guidance in a language many foreigners understand – plain English.

I recently visited a one-day meditation workshop held at Ariyasom Villa Boutique Hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 1 in Bangkok. Unlike many of the hotels in the area, Ariyasom is genuinely fetching – built in 1942 as a family home it is still owned by the family that built it, and they really have made the most out of everything they’ve got. The hotel grounds are not huge, yet their design gives the impression of a vast area that you can wonder through and get lost in. Ariyasom’s gardens offer various nooks and crannies that you can walk around and find yourself a bit of personal space – probably one of the reasons this is an ideal location for a mediation workshop.

As a Brit, and a northerner at that, I haven’t made too many sorties into the world of the spiritual. Although it’s got a few Thai restaurants and Chinese takeaways, there aren’t that many temples or the like in mid-Cheshire. So, although I didn’t know what to expect from this workshop, I did, to some extent, expect to be a fish out of water. It was then very reassuring then to find out that Pandit Bhikkhu, owner of Littlebang and one of the organizers of the workshop, was in fact not Thai like I thought, but from Altrincham, a small town only a few miles from my home. In addition, David Lees, the broadminded owner of Ariyasom, proved to be a foreigner from Mere, which is even closer to my home than Altrincham! At that point in time, the three of us standing there was probably the only incidence of three Cheshire Cats being in the same room at the same time in the whole of Southeast Asia… well, at least I thought so.

Aside from its splendor, Ariyasom has even more surprises. Whereas most hotels in the area push restaurants and “discos” into every spare inch available, Ariyasom offers a spacious, dedicated meditation area replete with a bedroom for visiting monks… That certainly is a first for me.

“My wife is Thai and has been involved in meditation for a number of years,” suggested David Lees. “In fact she runs a blog about meditation. We rebuilt Ariyasom with meditation in mind. With a dedicated facility it’s easy for us to run events on a regular basis. There’s a decent-sized community of English-speaking Buddhists in Bangkok, and we help cater for them. Our events also extend to visitors to Thailand looking to learn more about Thai-style meditation. We get a good mix of people and I think people enjoy our workshops and benefit from them.”

David and his wife obviously talk the talk and walk the walk. While other hotels in the area might squeeze every cent out of their visitors, arriving at 08:30 before the start of the meditation workshop, I was greeted by hot coffee, Pa Thong Ko (the deep fried doughnuts that are a traditional Thai breakfast) and juice – all free of charge. As the day progressed, hot coffee was on tap and a vegetarian lunch was provided, again, free of charge. At the end of the day a variety of Thai fruit was on offer. Alongside offering a huge air-conditioned room for the comfort of meditators, catering for around 30 people in this way was not likely to be a cheap affair.

The workshop itself was also free of charge, and like David said, attracted a mix of backpackers, tourists and well-healed expats, although as the bulk of people seem to know each other, the latter did appear to dominate. The workshop was, not surprisingly, insightful – the Vipassana meditation being taught is better known as “Insight Meditation”. The instruction was provided by Aussie Mike Sansom and German Helge Sansom. Both are trainers at Wat Kow Tahm (Mountain Cave Monastery) International Meditation Center on Koh Phangan in southern Thailand. Mike and Helge walked beginners and veterans alike through the techniques and methodology of Vipassana meditation and the instruction proved both accessible and pragmatic.

Basically, mediation offers the opportunity to reflect. We were told to sit, eyes closed and consider the in and out of our breathing. Directing my awareness towards my breathing proved both easy and difficult at the same time. Becoming aware of my breathing generated a stillness that was immediately accessible, but it was also very easy to drift off into a reverie of thought without really noticing where my mind was going. It’s was sometimes very hard to pull myself away from thoughts of bills, work, commitments, family, and curiously, the theme music to 1980’s British TV program, “Black Beauty” – quite where that came from I dread to think. Obviously some deep and dark place. However, as Mike pointed out, any awareness was beneficial, and as Helge suggested, making a mental note of the mental distractions put them in their place and allowed you to revert to concentrating on breathing. In fact, this for me was the most valuable thing I took away from the day… Just sitting quietly like this, acknowledging the thoughts that entered my head allowed me to really understand exactly what was on my mind. 
    
Later, we were introduced to walking meditation. Although I followed the instruction and understood the technique, the sight of people walking around and meditating at the same time was a little spooky I thought. The technique is intended to be used while you are in motion and with your eyes open. It requires full awareness of your body, its movement, and even the ground beneath your feet and the feeling pressure stepping on the ground creates. I honestly couldn’t do it in front of people, not for fear how I looked, but genuine fear of how others looked. To practice this I needed to find a bit of space well away from others, and fortunately this was possible at Ariyasom.

We were also introduced to guided meditation leading to compassion and understanding. Helge introduced the meditation using an everyday scenario: You are in a shop; the check out desk is slow and you are being inconvenienced. This causes anxiety and perhaps even rage. You might even be moved to complain. However, although these emotions appear to be driven by external events, they are, in fact, only your reaction to external events. Changing your perception, through an injection of compassion, will help alleviate YOUR anxiety. Perhaps the checkout girl is having a bad day; perhaps she has financial problems or other problems at home; perhaps even she has just found out she has lost her job and today is her last day. Each of these possible scenarios would account for today, and each, with compassion, would be fully understandable.

At the end of the day’s workshop, I can honestly say I felt very refreshed – a similar feeling to that you get after having a weekend away, and yet it was really only a few hours. I really did feel I had been given some tools that would help and enrich my daily life. I felt better for the workshop. Our introduction to compassion and understanding was though immediately put to the test. During the latter stages of the workshop, a freak thunderstorm dumped what appeared to be thousands of tons of water into Soi 1. Not surprisingly, given the downfall, the Soi was completely flooded… and just to be fair – this really is the exception rather than the rule in Bangkok these days.

Even if you are only Bangkok for a couple of days, likelihood is there will be something happening that will provide you with the type of experience I had on Sukhumvit Road. Key places at look for events have already been mentioned – the Littlebang website gives broad details on what’s happening in Bangkok while mind.matters.at.ariyasom will provide you with specific details of what’s happening at Ariyasom.

I really recommend that you get involved in something while you are here. At the very least, you’ll take home with you a greater understanding into what Thais find commonplace, and that in itself, will be much more of an understanding of Thailand than some take home with them.

Staff Writer

Kota Bharu, Malaysia

Kota Bharu, Malaysia
Kota Bharu, Malaysia

Although the city of Kota Bahru is often overlooked by visitors to the north of Malaysia, those who take the time to explore will find that there is plenty to see and do here. Kota Bahru is often referred to as the Islamic City, and this is the perfect place to get a feel for the rich history and culture of this part of the world.
Kota Bahru boasts a number of vibrant markets, which are ideal places to indulge in a spot of people watching, while those who are in search of something cheap and tasty will also find some of the best selections of eateries scattered in and around the city’s markets.

Wander around Independence Square – Padang Merdek – and you will find a large number of museums and the Balai Besar or Royal Palace. This elegant building is a great place to explore, while nearby is the interesting octagonal building of the Pesar Besar central market.

When it comes to seeing the sights, Kota Bahru features a number of interesting places of worship, and while most are devoted to the Muslim faith, there are also a few Buddhist temples to explore here. Sun worshippers will also be in their element, as a few pristine stretches of sand can be found on the outskirts of the city.

A great way to see the area around Kota Bharu is to embark on a two hour river cruise along Sungai Galas down to Dabong. Rafting along the river is also popular and trips can easily be arranged.

Another good excursion is the Stong Waterfall, which about 900 metres high and is said to be the highest waterfall in Southeast Asia. Combine a trip to the waterfall with a visit to the impressive collection of caves at Gua Ikan, before finishing the day with a delicious, cheap evening meal at the night market, known as Pasar Malam in the Malay language.

While the people of this conservative city are welcoming towards visitors, it is best to follow the example set by those who live here and cover up. Women in particular are advised to dress conservatively, and it is also best to avoid making public displays of affection, as this is likely to cause offense.

Tha Khaek, Laos

Tha Khaek, Laos
Tha Khaek, Laos
Tha Khaek, Laos
Tha Khaek, Laos

With a name that means “Guest landing” in the Lao language, visitors to Tha Khaek can be sure of receiving a warm welcome. This pretty town has managed to retain its unique feel and identity, making it a great place to visit to discover more about the traditional Lao spirit and way of life.

The village can be reached easily by crossing the Mekong by boat from the town of Nakhon Phanom in Thailand and the village receives a large number of travelers making their way across the border. Many people gather on the banks of the river to eat and drink and for the good views of Thailand that can be seen.

Walking around Tha Kaek is a rewarding experience as surprises wait around every corner. Explore the network of narrow lanes and you will soon come across the large open market, where it is literally eat or be eaten. Almost every type of animal seems to be on the menu here including snakes, squirrels, bats and frogs.

A good way to explore this interesting area is to hire a bicycle or moped and simply cycle away. The roads are not too bad around Tha Khaek and you can follow route 13 to the east and then cycle back up and around, returning to Tha Kheak on route 12.

There are many things to see and do along the way. One good stopping point is the Tham Nong Pafa cave, also known as Buddha cave, or you can continue further along the trail and you will come to Aen Cave.Many people visit this are in order to explore Konglor Cave, where you can take a boat ride along the 5 mile river that flows through the cave. 

Lush scenery surrounds Tha Khaek and as you cycle you will pass by paddy fields, dense jungle and fields full of rich brown or dark red earth.

If you need to cool down, pay a visit to Tha Falang, which is a swimming area in the river. Splash around here for a while before following the river to the small cave known as a Tham Xiengliab. 

There are a good variety of restaurants located along the river when it’s time to eat. Another lively eating spot is at the market, and amongst the assortment of crispy fried wildlife you will also find more familiar treats such as pancakes and stuffed French baguettes.

Khammouane, Laos

Khammouane, Laos
Khammouane, Laos
Khammouane, Laos

This very pretty Lao province is surrounded by amazing limestone formations, caves, rivers and dense jungle. The population of the province is around 260,000, with people coming from several different tribes such as Phuan, Tahoy, Kri and Katang. Most of the settlements in Khammouane province are small villages with collections of houses built from wood in the traditional Lao style. Everywhere you turn in Khammouane you are surrounded by intense natural beauty. Rich dark soil is covered with colourful plantations of rice, cabbage, sugar cane and bananas, while the Annamite mountain range is to the east and sparkling rivers, forests and caves are just waiting to be explored.

Khammouane province is easy to reach by bus from Vientiane in just five or six hours. There are plenty for visitors to do here such as kayaking, rafting, and caving. There are a large number of caves to explore and some of the highlights include the Buddha cave and Tham Nang Aen cave, while the Tham Xieng Lap caves are so pretty that they are worthy of a day trip by themselves.

Another great day trip destination is That Skihotabang, which is a large and interesting stupa commissioned by King Nanthasen in the 10th century.  The stupa was carefully restored in the 1950s and is an impressive sight.

The province’s capital is Tha Kek and this is a good place to stay for a night or two while you explore this lush and leafy area of Laos. While in Tha Khek take the time to explore the striking French colonial architecture in the city and sample the delicious range of Lao dishes, which is slightly different to those found in the rest of the country.

Nature lovers will want to explore the Nakai-Nam Theun Biodiversity Conservation Area, where you can spot a wonderful range of animals such as elephant, tigers, lemur and turtles. For excellent views over the jungle climb the Khammouane Limestone, which is a maze of limestone karst peaks.

Vientiane, Laos

Vientiane, Laos
Vientiane, Laos
Vientiane, Laos
Vientiane, Laos

Vientiane feels more like a large village than a capital city. Pigs and cattle ramble aimlessly beside the slowly flowing river, watched over by women chatting and washing clothes. Pavements are a futuristic concept as are cinemas, shopping malls, fast food and most other types of entertainment.

Yet for many travellers this is the perfect Asian city; there is plenty to see and do here and yet the city has an approachable, unassuming feel.

Pha That Luang is the symbol of Laos and this huge, unusually shaped gold stupa is definitely worth a visit. In the Laotian language, Pha That Luang means Great Scared Stupa. The most prominent part of the temple is a 45 meter tall central tower, surrounded by 30 smaller stupas. The stupas are covered with gold leaf and shimmer brilliantly in the sunlight.

Nearby the temple is the Sok Pa Luang Forest Temple. Here you will find a sauna and massage room in a traditional wooden two-story house, where robed monks relieve your my weary muscles as you relax and listen to the gentle sounds of wind chimes, birds, cicada beetles and breath in the scent of jasmine and lemongrass.

On the way to Pha That Luang you will probably pass the Patuxai, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Climb to the top of this 7th century gateway for a great view of the city. 

Not to be missed is the very unusual Buddha Park or Xieng Khuan, which is situated on the outskirts of the city. Here you will find a large garden full of weird and wonderful Hindu and Buddhist sculptures which need to be seen to be believed.

Vientiane has a huge collection of interesting buildings and temples in a range of styles and a great way to explore is simply by walking. Take a stroll along the river and you will view a interesting collection of buildings from across the road, then simply follow the shining golden roves to find the elaborately decorated temples.

This is a great place to satisfy your craving for Western food as there are a large number of excellent restaurants offering a range of international food, especially in the area near the river. You will even find restaurants serving gourmet French food, and this is the perfect time to indulge. For those looking for cheap traditional food, a number of small carts set up trade on the bank of the river in the evening.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang was formerly the capital of Laos and is situated at the meeting point of the Mekong and Mae Kok rivers in northern Laos. Most travellers in Laos make it to this large and inviting city at some point during their journey and this is a great place to spend a few days.

Luang Prabang Province is considered by many to be Laos’ cultural and heritage centre and here you will find a large collection of Buddhist monasteries, temples and monuments. The town itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site and offers some stunning examples of French architecture and traditional temple art.

Surrounded by dense jungle and sparkling rivers, Luang Prabang Province is extremely beautiful. The earth is a rich brown colour and to the north rocky mountains make an impressive backdrop. Trekking is popular here and there are a good range of activities available such as rock climbing and boat trips.

Among the largest and most impressive of Luang Prabang’s temples are Wat Xieng Thong, Wat Visoun and Wat Ou Tay, while the 24-metre high stupa of That Chomsi is an impressive sight. For spectacular views over the city climb to the top of Phu Si, which is also one of the best places to watch the sun set over the city.

There are plenty to see and do around the province. 30 miles north of Luang Prabang city is the cave of Tham Ting, which is filled with large Buddha images and is a prominent place of worship for the local people. The cave is situated right on the river and combined with the two hour boat trip to get there this is a great way to spend a day.

Another good day trip destination pretty the Tad Sae waterfall and Kuang Si waterfall, while the National Museum is a good place to learn more about the local culture and history. Topped by an impressive golden-spired stupa, Luang Prabang’s former royal palace has been transformed into the Palace Museum, and here you will find an impressive collection of regal artefacts and royal portraits

There are a large number of cheap guesthouses available in Luang Prabang and plenty of restaurants serving international food. A great time to visit is during one of the country’s festivals, when the streets are filled with colourful and noisy processions.   

Getting around Luang Prabang is easy and this is a great place to take it easy before venturing into the more remote areas of Laos.

Sittwe, Burma

Sittwe, Burma
Sittwe, Burma
Sittwe, Burma

This pretty port in Rakhine State is located at the mouth of the Kaladan River. Those who have already spent some time travelling through Myanmar will notice that clothes tend to be brighter and food spicier here.

One of the focal points of Sittwe is the Atulamarazein Pyilonechanthar Payagyi, which is a large pagoda with a decorated Buddha statue inside. For those interested in Buddhism, the town’s Buddhist Museum is worth visiting.

There are some pretty places to visit around Sittwe. Take a boat trip and explore the three islands located nearby such as Bayonga Island where you will find a community of fishermen and coconut farmers.

Most people travel to Sittwe in order to visit the ancient temples at Mrauk-U. Take a boat trip about 50 miles along the Kaladan River and you will discover an impressive collection of more than 150 antique places of worship. Mrauk-U was a very affluent city between1430 to 1784 and the area was home to a number of kings, Japanese samurai and a fleet of 10,000 ships.

Mrauk-U’s riches were based on the fact that it was a successful trade city, with a large canal network running through it. The people of Mrauk-U traded with a number of nations including Holland, Portugal, Spain and the Middle East.

One of the charms of Mrauk-U is that despite being famous for its history the area is still a focal point for daily life. As you explore you will see shepherds leading their flocks and people cooking by camp fire. There are a number of interesting temples to explore such as the Shittthaung Pagodas, Ananda Sandra Pillar, Andaw Thein temple, Yadanarpon temple, Dukkanthein, Koe Thaung Pagodas, Pitakataik, and the Five Victory Pagodas.

Many people start their tour of Mrauk-U with a visit to the Royal Palace, which was built in 1430 and has largely been destroyed by the ravishes of time. Better preserved is the Shitthaung Pagoda, which was commissioned by King Minbin in 1535 and is intricately designed.

The best time to visit this area is in the middle of May when the pagoda festival is held. This area really comes alive during this festival, with traditional song and dance performances and the retelling of ancient legends.

Pyay, Burma

Pyay, Burma
Pyay, Burma
Pyay, Burma

Formerly known as Prome, the town of Pyay has plenty of places to look at for those who take the time to stop and explore. For many, this is simply a place to refuel on the way to places such as Yangon, Ngapali Beach and Bagan, but there is plenty of good food and comfortable accommodation here, making it a good place to stop for a while.

If you arrive in Pyay by bus you will first notice the statue of Aung San on horseback near the bus station and as you wander around the town you will come across a number of striking pagodas. The Bebegyi Pagoda is the town’s oldest religious structure, while the 45 meter high Bawbawgyi Pagoda is the oldest stupa and a pretty impressive sight.

Also worth visiting are the Payagyi and Payama Stupas, which predate the stupas of Bagan, and the famous Shwesandaw Pagoda, which is constructed in the Mon style. Nearby, the Se Htat Gyi is a magnificent 10 level Gigantic Buddha Image. This Buddha image was built in 1919 and people travel from all over the country to visit it.

This pretty town was a major trading town due to its excellent roads and also the capital of the Pyu Kingdom from the 5th to the 9th century. To find out more about the interesting history of this area pay a visit to the Hwa Za Archaeological Museum. Here you will discover a large number of Pyu artifacts such as terracotta pots and stone Buddha images.

For those wanting to sample the traditional food of this region, head to the night market, which opens around dusk. Here you will find a fantastic range of dishes served fresh and hot at a number of small stalls. This is also a good place to pick up a bargain or two and indulge in a little people watching.