Bagan or bust!

In November, we had a four day weekend for Full Moon Day. We traveled with our neighbors Amy and Okkar to Bagan, Myanmar. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 temples stood in Bagan. Now just 2,200 exist.

In the months leading up to our move to Myanmar, Bagan was an obvious “must do.” Bagan seemed unattainable and the idea of thousands of golden temples against a lush green background seemed surreal.  After months of fantasizing about the reality of standing amongst those ancient stupas, the reality felt no different than the fantasy. Bagan truly is magical.

While we all admire the courage of Anthony Bourdain’s 18 hour plus train ride to Bagan  in the Myanmar, Parts Unknown episode, an 8 hour bus ride seemed like the more logical option.

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Scott, Okkar and Amy as we start our bus ride to Bagan – 8 hours later, we arrived.

 

Our guide explained the structure of the pagoda and how it relates to the teachings of the Buddha.

Our guide explained the structure of the pagoda and how it relates to the teachings of the Buddha.

As we walked around one of the pagodas, we found this precious little one sitting by herself.

As we walked around one of the pagodas, we found this precious little one sitting by herself.

Each pagoda is more beautiful than the next. Each has a striking contrast of moss against  deep red bricks.

Each pagoda is more beautiful than the next. Each has a striking contrast of moss against deep red bricks.

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They keep going and going…

So excited to finally be standing on the top of a pagoda looking over the plains with thousands more.

So excited to finally be standing on the top of a pagoda looking over the plains with thousands more.

Scott found his happy place.

Scott found his happy place.

Did you know where Sesame seeds came from?

Did you know where Sesame seeds came from?

Approaching a temple with beautiful and ornate details.

Approaching a temple with beautiful and ornate details.

Local women organizing lotus flowers that they will eventually manipulate the flowers to create thread. They use the lotus thread to  weave fabrics.

Local women organizing lotus flowers that they will eventually manipulate the flowers to create thread. They use the lotus thread to weave fabrics.

This ancient pagoda was built by a father for his youngest son who would eventually become king.

This ancient pagoda was built by a father for his youngest son who would eventually become king.

Thrilled to be in Bagan.

Every pagoda has a stunning Buddha hiding behind red bricked walls.

Every Pagoda has a stunning Buddha hiding behind red bricked walls.

Amy is courageous to try the water leading into a pagoda.

Amy was courageous to try the water leading into a pagoda.

This Buddha figure was so large that it was difficult to fit into a photograph.

This Buddha figure was so large that it was difficult to fit into a photograph.

The view from the Bagan Observation Tower.

The view from the Bagan Observation Tower.

This guy blew my mind!

This guy blew my mind!

The Tourist Lounge at the Bagan train station. The staff at the train station insisted that we sit inside. The Tourist Lounge at the Bagan train station. The staff insisted that we sit inside this room and wait for the train… no thanks!

Scott getting situated on the train.Scott getting situated on the train, quite an ordeal.

The "Ordinary Class."

The “Ordinary Class.”

Smiling and clean! My look was much different as we got off the train 21 hours later.

Smiling and clean! My look was much different as we got off the train 21 hours later.

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Just like The Darjeeling Limited.

Just like The Darjeeling Limited.

And we're off!

And we’re off!

Leaving the Bagan train station.

Leaving the Bagan train station.

I fell in love with these sweet kids instantly. They ran over to the window of the train when they saw us pull up.

I fell in love with these sweet kids instantly. They ran over to the window of the train right when they saw us pull up.

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Watching the sunrise.

Watching the sunrise.

 

The 16 hour ride slowly turned into a 21 hour trip.

The 16 hour ride slowly turned into a 21 hour trip.

 

 

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Sawasdee Ka Thailand!

The first day of school to Thanksgiving break feels like an eternity. But Myanmar’s Festival of Lights, Thadingyut, gives you the break that you so desperately need during the full moon in October.

Thadingyut is a three day festival honoring the Buddha’s return from heaven. Locals hang lights and lanterns welcoming Buddha and his disciples.

The view of the Thadingyut lights  from our balcony.

The view of the Thadingyut lights from our balcony.

Since we had the week off, we made our way down to Phuket, Thailand to celebrate our Honeymoon.

Are we really about to take a vacation?

Are we really about to take a vacation?

Yeah, I think so.

Yeah, I think so.

And Scott is especially excited.

And Scott is especially excited.

We have arrived to Nai Harn Beach.

We have arrived to Nai Harn Beach.

A honeymoon welcome snack. Congratulations Viktoriia Levchenko!

A honeymoon welcome snack. Congratulations Viktoriia Levchenko!

Cheers to a stormy honeymoon!

Cheers to a stormy honeymoon!

We were hopeful that it would stop raining.

We were hopeful that it would stop raining.

But the rain didn't stop for five days.

But the rain didn’t stop for five days.

So we spent time watching  the Giants win the NLDS.

So we spent time watching the Giants win the NLDS.

And we tried to do activities during the few breaks in the rain.

And we tried to do activities during the few breaks in the rain.

Patong + storm = CRAZY

Patong + storm = CRAZY

Phang Nga Bay off the coast of Phuket.

We booked a day trip to Phang Nga Bay off the coast of Phuket.

On our way to the Bat Cave.

On our way to the Bat Cave.

Our guide was great! Mostly because his English was excellent and he wore a plastic bag on his head to protect his hair from the rain.

We paddled our way through a 200 meter long cave. The top of the cave was covered with thousands of bats. They kept reminding us to keep our mouths closed while in the Bath Cave. We just excited the cave and ended up in this beautiful  and serene lagoon. Our guide was great! Mostly because he wore a plastic bag on his head to protect his hair from the rain.

Scott was in heaven looking at all the stalagmites.

Scott was in heaven looking at all the stalagmites.

Exiting the lagoon back towards the bat cave.

Exiting one lagoon on our way to the next.

Leaving the Bat Cave.

Leaving the Bat Cave.

Heading through a smaller cave back to the bay.

Heading through a smaller cave back to the bay.

The last day of the week, the rain finally stopped.

The last day of the week, the rain finally stopped.

Exploring Yangon

Being in a new city and in a new country is thrilling, overwhelming and often hilarious. Here are a few shots and moments from a day on the town.

Scott trying to get a shot of Sule Pagoda as we take a taxi ride through downtown Yangon.

Scott trying to get a shot of Sule Pagoda as we take a taxi ride through downtown Yangon.

The buildings may be old and moldy, but they are stunning to look at. It is fascinating to compare the old buildings against the new foreground of people driving Lexus SUVs and monks holding smartphones.

The buildings may be old and moldy, but they are stunning to look at. It is fascinating to compare the old buildings against the new foreground of people driving Lexus SUVs and monks holding smartphones.

We found a Western bakery to the left of Bogyoke Market. It was the perfect place to enjoy coffee and a croissant while watching life pour into the market.

We found a Western bakery to the left of Bogyoke Market. Bar Boon was the perfect place to enjoy coffee and a croissant while watching life pour into the market.

The view from the cafe.

The view from the cafe.

On our way into the market these two sales women got us when they said "Mango, no wah-tah, no sug-ah."

On our way into the market these two sales women got us when they said “Mango, no water, no sugar.”

Boy, they were good!

Boy, they were good!

This woman was so beautiful, I had to capture her with her stack of rice and noodles.

This woman was so beautiful, I had to capture her with her stack of rice and noodles.

A street market near Shwedagon Pagoda.

A street market near Shwedagon Pagoda.

This is a common scene on the streets of Yangon. People are always eating, drinking tea and sharing stories.

This is a common scene on the streets of Yangon. People are always eating, drinking tea and sharing stories.

Just taking a taxi ride around the city is an adventure itself. We took this picture from a taxi on our way to Shwedagon Pagoda.

Just taking a taxi ride around the city is an adventure itself. We took this picture from a taxi on our way to Shwedagon Pagoda.

Walking down the street following a ground of teenage nuns.

Walking down the street following a group of teenage nuns.

Circle Train

The Circle Train is a “must do” for Yangon novices and veterans alike. The train leaves from the downtown train station (seen in the Anthony Bourdain Myanmar episode) and takes about three hours to circle the entire city. The train we intended to take transports locals from one township to the next.

When we arrived at platform 7, the man in the ticket window gave us each a ticket for 1,500 kyat (about $1.50). He was very worried about us as we waited for the train and every five minutes or so would come out of his booth and tell us to “please wait” – a common phrase Myanmar people say to foreigners. A few minutes before the train pulled up, he brought us a new ticket that said “foreigner.” We had been warned that they might make us take the “foreigner train” which is less desirable because it has aircon and they make you keep the windows closed. We wanted the local experience where you sit on hard wooden seats and are in the mix of locals bringing their goods to sell at the markets. Now we know and next time we hope to ride the local train.

However, I would not call our experience anything less than “interesting.” The time spent waiting for the train was a highlight of the day. We saw handmade chairs balanced on a stick carried on and off trains. We saw a little boy take his pants off and poop on the platform to be followed by his mom picking it up in a bag and throwing the bag in the train tracks. We even made a friend!

Chairs being taken off the train to be sold in the markets downtown Yangon.

Chairs being taken off the train to be sold in the markets downtown Yangon.

While waiting for the train, we found a friend. Well actually, she found us!

While waiting for the train, we found a friend. Well actually, she found us!

When you are that little, crawling through legs is hilarious!

When you are that little, crawling through legs is hilarious!

Then she friended Lane.

Then she friended Lane.

Someone wanted to play! Here she is swinging from my legs. She was fascinated by my camera. She was elated when I showed her the pictures of herself.

Someone wanted to play! Here she is swinging from my legs. She was fascinated by my camera. She was elated when I showed her the pictures of herself.

Myanmar beauty is easily found in all ages.

Myanmar beauty is easily found in all ages.

Locals use this train to travel around the city for about 30 cents.

Locals use this train to travel around the city for about 30 cents.

Each person we saw was more stunning then the next.

Each person we saw was more stunning then the next.

Little boy and mom wait at one of the many stops.

Little boy and mom wait at one of the many stops.

The train stopped about every 1-3 minutes. This is one of the markets we stopped at.

The train stopped about every 1-3 minutes. This is one of the markets we stopped at.

It looked like the market kept going and going.

It looked like the market kept going and going.

There aren't many westerners who hop aboard this train. Seeing us was the cause of many giggles and big red toothed grins.

There aren’t many westerners who hop aboard this train. Seeing us was the cause of many giggles and big red toothed grins.

This guy spotted us right when the train stopped.

This guy spotted us right when the train stopped.

He was selling hot tea which we knew we had to try.

He was selling hot tea which we knew we had to try.

It was very hot and served in a small plastic cup that felt like it slowly melted in our hands.

It was very hot and served in a small plastic cup that felt like it slowly melted in our hands.

This was a great chance for Scott to practice his "chezu tim ba deh", thank you in Myanmar.

This was a great chance for Scott to practice his “chezu tim ba deh”, thank you in Myanmar.

Hopefully next time we’ll get on the local train.

“One for Buddha, one for father, one for mother, one for Wednesday and one for good luck.”

Someone recently told me, “Shwedagon Pagoda isn’t technically one of the 7 wonders of the world, but it should be!” Agreed.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

Our second visit to Shwedagon Pagoda.

Our second visit to Shwedagon Pagoda.

Shwedagon Pagoda is an icon of SE Asia and the Buddhist religion. It has also been symbolic of our move to Myanmar. When I would daydream about life in Asia, Shwedagon was the place I envisioned exploring. It was the place I expected  to fall in love with.

The size alone is striking. You can enter the pagoda from four entrances; North, South, East and West. Each offers a different perspective of the enormous structure and each has a different feeling of grandeur.

Every column at Shwedagon is more beautiful than the next. A lot of them are made out of pure jade, this one is glass mosaic.

Every column at Shwedagon is more beautiful than the next. A lot of them are made out of pure jade, this one is glass mosaic.

Bells like these hang from the umbrella (the top of the stupa). These bells surround the grounds and provide enchanting tunes.

Bells like these hang from the umbrella (the top of the stupa). These bells surround the grounds and provide enchanting tunes.

Entering through the South Gate offers a massive marble staircase with teak ceilings. Vendors line the steps selling flowers,  mala beads, Buddha posters, paper umbrellas, fruit, incense and anything else that could be considered an offering to the thousands of Buddhas and shrines.

Offerings made by locals in a large meditation room.

Offerings made by locals in a large meditation room.

At the top of the stairs awaits many middle aged men in Longyis eager to take you on a tour. For 10,000 kyat (pronounced “chat”) they will show you “all important places” and “all beautiful Buddha.” We decided that seeing “all beautiful Buddha” was very important.

"All beautiful Buddha."

“All beautiful Buddha.”

Myanmar is famous for its Teak. This Buddha is about 4.5 feet tall and made from one solid piece of Teak.

Myanmar is famous for its Teak. This Buddha is about 4.5 feet tall and made from one solid piece of Teak.

The first thing our tour guide wanted to show us was one of the seven shrines that surrounded the golden stupa. He took us to “Wednesday Corner” and asked “What day you born?” Hmmm, well frankly, we weren’t sure so he said, “Okay okay. Wednesday is okay.” He showed us how to take the small tin cup on the edge of the fountain, fill it up with water and then pour it over the head of the Buddha. Each cup full of water that is poured over the shrine has a different meaning, “one for Buddha, one for father, one for mother, one for Wednesday and one for good luck.”

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“One for Buddha, one for father, one for mother, one for Wednesday and one for good luck.”

The structure itself sits on the top of a hill surrounded by hundreds of smaller buildings. Each smaller building is the home to shrines, Buddhas and offerings. In every building, you will find locals meditating, eating,  socializing and texting. The people watching is spectacular.

A monk taking a nap. Lots of naps happen here.

A monk taking a nap. Lots of naps happen here.

Smaller stupas frame the large pagoda.

Smaller stupas frame the large pagoda.

A local man meditating in one of the many rooms at Shwedagon.

A local man meditating in one of the many rooms at Shwedagon.

A little boy squats into prayer position below four golden Buddhas.

A little boy squats into prayer position below four golden Buddhas.

A young couple prays together in front of the Bodhi tree.

A young couple prays together in front of the Banyan tree.

This is a typical contrast. Person praying and person on their smart phone.

This is a typical contrast. Person praying and person on smart phone.

Each time you visit Shwedagon, you will discover something new. It is so large and has  so many nooks and crannies to be discovered. I love finding new rooms that I have not visited and new perspectives that I have not yet discovered.

One of many rooms filled with 15-20 foot tall Buddhas.

One of many rooms filled with 15-20 foot tall Buddhas.

Mala beads and flowers hang in front of many statues.

Mala beads and flowers hang in front of many statues.

A large meditation room. The monk in front is  about to kneel down in front of the LED lit Buddha in the center.

A large meditation room. The monk in front is about to kneel down in front of the LED lit Buddha in the center.

There is so much to learn about this true world wonder. I will continue to go back again and again and open my heart to this incredible place.

Layers of mold, fish sauce, gasoline and scented soap

In 20 years when we look back on the time that we lived in Myanmar, it will be the smells will bring us back to thrill, the frustration and the excitement of this adventure. The layers of mold, fish sauce, gasoline and scented soap have transformed from striking new stenches to shockingly familiar scents in just one week.

The buildings in Yangon are either very old or very new. They tell the story of these people and this culture. They provide the framework for the luxury, the turmoil and the change this city has gone through. The ubiquity of  vibrant moss and trees growing from the side of six story buildings makes it seem like this city was plopped down in the middle of a jungle. When the city stopped growing, the jungle didn’t. Both the jungle and the people are seeking light through cracks of opportunity.

A vibrant mossy building downtown Yangon.

A vibrant mossy, wet and moldy building, downtown Yangon.

A mossy and moldy building, downtown Yangon.

Inside an old Colonial building. We just happened to walk into this building. There are probably 10 more just like this; old, beautiful, abandoned and in disrepair. The Yangon Heritage Trust is working tirelessly to find gems such as these and restore them to their original beauty.

We wrapped up our first week in Yangon with a day exploring the city. After 3 hours of walking around downtown, we left Bogyoke Aung San Market in a down pour and spent the next 40 minutes in a cab asking ourselves common questions in Myanmar; why do our hands smell like fish sauce? Is the four foot long gas tank behind my head in the trunk totally necessary? Does the cab driver understand where we wanted to be taken? How does every car in this city avoid hitting one another? Where is the closest hospital just in case? Am I going to get sick from all the delicious street food we just ate?

A young woman walking through Bogyoke Aung San Market.

A young woman walking through Bogyoke Aung San Market.

Nuns collect their daily offerings in Bogyoke Aung San Market.

Sule Pagoda.

Sule Pagoda. Yangon is setup around this pagoda. Things will be referred to as “7 mile” or  “6 mile” referring to how far away the destination is from Sule Pagoda.

Street food. They crack a quail egg into a sizzling little hole and then fry it up. 10 for K1000 (about $1.00).

Street food. A quail egg gets cracked into a sizzling little hole and then gets fried up. 10 for K1000 (about $1.00).

Shan Noodle Soup. A traditional dish from the Shan State; vermicelli in a broth with tomatoes, bok choy and meat with varied toppings. Our favorite meal so far!

Shan Noodle Soup. A traditional dish from the Shan State; vermicelli in a broth with tomatoes, bok choy and meat with varied toppings. Our favorite meal so far!

Don't buy the food in the middle of the markets. They are put there so cars can drive down the alley way. Only in Asia!

Don’t buy the food in the middle of the markets. They are put there so cars can drive down the alley way. Only in Asia!

Yangon is so unique. It is exactly what you imagine; old, colonial, moldy, mossy and colorful. It is also so much more than I imagined; there are contemporary and thriving businesses, there is a fast paced beat and it is quickly being built up more and more. There are many new cars on the streets, traffic is abundant, people are holding smart phones everywhere you look and serviced apartments for Westerners are spreading like wildfire. You can go to a licensed Apple retailer in the mall or buy whatever Timberland attire your heart desires.

Yangon has adopted many cranes to complete the skyline.

Yangon has adopted many cranes to complete the skyline.

Rain or shine, light or dark, nothing stops workers from  building.

Rain or shine, light or dark, nothing stops workers from building.

Street life in downtown Yangon.

Street life in downtown Yangon.

A Yangon book store. There was a whole shelf dedicated to Orwell novels.

A Yangon book store. There was a whole shelf dedicated to Orwell novels and a shelf dedicated to Myanmar travel books (outdated ones of course).

A talent show in the middle of Junction Square mall hosted by a skin care line. This mall is fancier than most malls in the States.

A talent show in the middle of Junction Square mall hosted by a skin care line. This mall is fancier than most malls in the States.

It is fascinating to watch this place transform from a society stuck in time to a modern day thriving city. It has a long way to go, but we feel so lucky to be here to watch these people and this country embrace the old, welcome the new and thrive.

We made it!

We left San Francisco at 1 am on Sunday morning, stopped in Hong Kong, then to Singapore and finally landed in Yangon on Monday afternoon. The view from the Hong Kong airport is incredible. The airport sits on a man made island surrounded by brilliant jagged green mountains and beautiful blue water. The Singapore airport is a destination in itself. During our three hour layover, we visited the sunflower garden, the tropical indoor gardens, Koi ponds, movie theater and LAN gaming room. If we had about 30 more minutes, we would have gone for a dip on the rooftop swimming pool. The bathrooms at the Singapore airport were the cleanest we had ever seen. They even have touch screen surveys to “Rate this toilet.”

Indoor garden in the Singapore airport

Indoor garden in the Singapore airport.

Standing over a Koi pond in the middle of the terminal.

Standing over a Koi pond in the middle of the terminal.

The Sunflower Garden on top of the Singapore airport.

The Sunflower Garden on top of the Singapore airport.

Three hours later we were in the air and could spot land from above. There was a moment on the airplane as we got closer to landing that reminded me that the past nine months of planning this move were about to become our reality. As we hovered golden stupas that stood out against the lush green jungle, I had this overwhelming feeling and said to myself, “we made it!”

Flying into Yangon. There is a golden stupa just left of the wing.

Flying into Yangon. There is a golden stupa just left of the wing.

A grand golden entrance on the tarmac.

A grand golden entrance on the tarmac.

The airport was very small and surprisingly efficient. The director of the school picked us and our six enormous duffle bags up at the airport. Driving through Yangon was so much more vibrant than either of us thought. The contrast of golden arched entry ways against the lush green foliage is striking! The arches make you feel like each one is a palace, and the arches are your royal welcome. The streets are filled with vendors, beer stations, busy workers and busy dogs.

When we arrived to our apartment building we were greeted by many friendly ISM faces. It seems like most of the ISM staff live in our building. We were supposed to move into 906 but apparently there was a leak. So then they decided to move us into 704, but that apartment was leaking too. So after a lot of charades and going up and down on the elevator with everything we currently own, we spent the night in 1501 with a picturesque view of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Not too shabby!

The view from the front door walking into the apartment.

The view from the front door walking into the apartment.

The master bedroom with Scott getting stuck trying to open the wardrobe.

The master bedroom with Scott getting stuck trying to open the wardrobe.

The guest room.

The guest room.

The next morning, we got picked up by the ISM bus at 6:45 am and brought to orientation with the entire K-12 staff. We have now worked for three days and are really ready for a break and to see more of Yangon.

The road in front of the high school leading to the street market.

The road in front of the high school leading to the street market.

Mohinga for breakfast.

Mohinga for breakfast.

A beautiful Myanmar woman with her beautiful greens.

A beautiful Myanmar woman with her beautiful greens.

Birds.

Walking to the high school from the market.

Where do you find resources about living in Myanmar?

Since the borders to Myanmar were recently opened in 2011, there isn’t a lot of current information about life in Myanmar. Most travel books are outdated and there are very few blogs that are current and applicable to our new life in Yangon. Over the past few months we have collected a list of the best resources out there that are the most up to date!

Books:

Insight Guides, Myanmar

Published in April 2013. This book has fantastic photographs and goes into detail on many different aspects of life in Myanmar.

Published in April 2013. This book has fantastic photographs and goes into detail on many different aspects of life in Myanmar.

The Guardian’s Top 10 Best Books on Burma

Videos:

Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown – Myanmar

Bourdain travels through Myanmar exploring the good, the tasty and the ever-changing culture.

Bourdain travels through Myanmar exploring the good, the tasty and the ever-changing culture.

Myanmar in 4k

Blogs:

Becky In Burma 

Jessica’s Top Tips for Yangon

Websites:

Yangon Life

Myanmore

Mizzima

Go-Myanmar.com

Yangonite

Articles:

As Myanmar reopens, so does its universities

NY Times 36 Hours in Yangon, Myanmar

BBC Myanmar Profile

Language:

Free downloads: Burmese by Ear or Essential Myanmar

Free Online Burmese Lessons

Forums:

Mingalapar

Google Group: Yangon Expat Connection

Did we forget any essential Myamar resources? Add them here!

Let’s Do This!

In March of 2013, my husband Scott (my new husband as of 10 days ago!) and I decided that we were going to wholeheartedly pursue an adventure abroad and professions in international education. In August of 2013 we signed up with a consulting company,  Search Associates and began the emotional roller coaster of searching for the country, school, and positions that felt right.

We submitted 50 applications to international schools in over 40 countries and we landed a total of six interviews.  Preparing for a Skype interview took on a whole new meaning to the interview process. Sweatpants and a fancy button-down became our go-to interview outfit. We found the perfect blank wall in the house and strategically stacked books to lift the laptop to the right height. We got good at this!

Ready for a Skype interview.

Ready for a Skype interview.

Days before we left for the Cambridge Search Associates fair to interview with schools from all over the world, we had a Skype interview with the International School of Myanmar. A place that was as close to our first choice, Thailand as it gets, but a place that was so off our radar that we hadn’t yet considered.

The interview went well, the leadership was strong and the potential seemed limitless. Myanmar isn’t on the radar of most people and hasn’t been for over 50 years. But Myanmar had found us, and in every way this opportunity felt right. To be sure, we had a much needed sushi dinner, lots of sake and developed a long list of pros and cons. I don’t know if it was the sake or leap of faith, but  that night we made the decision to take the offer.

The Dinner That Decided it All.

The Dinner That Decided it All.

We signed a two year contract with ISM. Scott took a Kindergarten position and I took the position of high school counselor. With our hearts full, our spirits bold and our heads held high, we said “let’s do this!”