Welcome to Myanmar

 

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Myanmar, still affectionately called Burma by many local people, is a land of great beauty and contrast, home to myriad temples and pagodas, stunning scenery, traditional crafts, peaceful lakes and crowded bustling markets.   We spent 7 days exploring the country using internal flights starting in the capital Yangon, admiring the  faded colonial charm of its historic buildings and Mahabandoola Gardens. We visited the 70 metre long reclining Buddha, the Karaweik Hall floating barge and marvelled at the sheer splendour of the Schedagon Pagoda with its glittering gold stupa.

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An early morning flight brought us from Yangon to the beautiful heart of the 11th Century Bagan dynasty. The region boasts over 3,000 temples and pagodas: we didn’t visit them all but we spent time exploring  some of the most impressive architectural masterpieces of the area before heading to our hotel on the Irrawaddy River. After shopping in the colourful, bustling local markets we travelled to some of the outlying villages of Old Bagan before ending the day with a sunset cruise on a traditional wooden boat. 

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Arriving in Mandalay we visited some of Myanmar’s most sacred sites including the  Golden Palace Monastery famous for its well-preserved, all-teak structure and the Kuthodaw Pagoda, known as the world’s largest book due to the Buddhist scripture carved on 729 marble slabs. The following day we took a boat trip up the Ayeyarwady River to the island of Mingun visiting the Mingun Bell, one of the largest and oldest hung bells in the world with a diameter of over 16′, and the Hisnbyume Pagoda, a white-washed temple built to resemble Mount Meru. We then explored the small neighborhoods where traditional basketry and other artistic items are crafted. After returning to Mandalay we visited the restored ruins of the Royal Palace before enjoying a sunset boat ride to the iconic 200 year old, 1.2km long teak bridge spanning the Taungthaman Lake.

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A short flight from Mandalay brought us to Shan State for the start of 2 days cruising on Inle Lake by longboat. The mountains and lakes of the region form a beautifully dramatic landscape, at times reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. One of the most unusual sights to be seen on the lake is local fishermen who navigate their boats standing up with one leg wrapped around an oar as they manipulate their nets with both hands.

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Continuing our journey by longboat on Inle Lake, we visited the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda before experiencing the chaotic hustle & bustle of the local market where villagers haggle with each other for all kinds of fruits, meat and vegetables.  Our boat weaved in and out of Shan and Intha villages where we visited local weavers who make thread and cloth from lotus plants, silversmiths, blacksmiths, cigar makers and boat builders. Tomorrow we fly back to Yangon for the last day of our trip. Myanmar has been truly magical.

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Steve O’Donnell is a Travel Consultant with Serene Journeys, an independent travel company specializing in meeting the needs of LGBTI travelers to India. He is also a freelance travel writer and photographer. Contact Steve on steve@serenejourneys.co

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Pondicherry: Where India Meets France

Yesterday my driver Sathish took me to Pondicherry, a 3 hour coastal drive from Chennai, where I’ll spend the last two days of this sojourn in South India. On the way we stopped at the UNESCO World Heritage site at Mahabalipuram, a group of beautifully preserved temples and sanctuaries carved out of rock along the Coromandel coast dating from the 7th and 8th Centuries. Of particular interest are the 3 Rathas (temples in the form of chariots), the cavernous cave sanctuaries, the imposing Shore Temple and giant monuments with thousands of sculptures to the glory of Lord Shiva.

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Pondicherry, known locally as Pondy, remained under French rule until 1954 and retains much of its colonial heritage particularly in terms of architecture, cuisine and French street names with some people here still speaking French. My heritage hotel is situated in the heart of the French Quarter (White Town) full of quiet, clean streets, lined with colonial-style townhouses and offering an impressive sea-front and fabulous shopping with French food and wine in abundance.

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Today I visited some of the architectural and spiritual gems of the coastal city. Christians account for 20% of the population and there are many fine churches in the city including the magnificent Basilica of the Sacred Heart, a fine example of Gothic architecture, the 300 year old Immaculate Conception Cathedral and Notre Dame de Anges that looks out to sea past a statue of Joan of Arc. There are also several mosques and temples of great architectural interest.

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The promenade along the seafront which was built following the destruction caused by the tsunami in 2004 features a prominent bronze statue of Gandhi, built at the same time. Other prominent monuments include the Old Lighthouse, the French War Memorial and the Aayi Mandapam built by order of Napoleon lll and located in the tranquil Bharathi Park.

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A highlight of my trip to Pondy was a visit to Sri Aurobindo Ashram established in 1926 and based on the teachings of  Sri Aurobindo and Mira Alfassa. It is an extremely peaceful, spiritual place where silence is observed and meditation encouraged. As this is my last night in South India on this trip, I decided to round off my stay with a four-hand, full-body Ayurvedic massage followed by a steam-bath and herbal shower. I now feel totally rejuvenated and ready for all that New Delhi has to throw at me tomorrow.

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Steve O’Donnell is UK Director of Serene Journeys, an independent travel company specializing in meeting the needs of LGBTI travelers to India. He is also a freelance travel writer and photographer. Contact Steve on steve@serenejourneys.co

Chennai – India’s 4th City

Today I arrived in Chennai (formerly known as Madras) and often referred to as The Soul of South India. Tamil Nadu’s capital situated on the Bay of Bengal is really a collection of urban villages and diverse neighbourhoods rich in South Indian artistic, religious and culinary traditions.

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I began my exploration of the city by visiting some of its architectural gems starting with Kapaleeswarar Temple in Mylapore, one of Chennai’s most colourful and traditional neighbourhoods. The Temple was particularly colourful today and thronged with worshippers offering gifts of flowers and fruit as we had the good fortune to visit on Pradosham, a Hindu festival observed to seek the blessings of Lord Shiva.

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Other architectural highlights include the Roman Catholic San Thome Basilica, that is said to be the final resting place of St Thomas the Apostle (although there may be some doubt surrounding this); the Government Museum that contains an outstanding collection of bronze icons some of which date back to the 10th Century, and Saint George Fort, completed in 1653 by the British East India Company.

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After a visit to the bustling, colourful street markets of George Town and avoiding the queues of 50+ people trying to withdraw a maximum RS 2,000 (approx £24) from ATMs following demonetisation, I took an evening stroll along Marina Beach, the longest beach in Asia stretching over 13km. Visiting after sunset allows you to enjoy the cool sea breeze while having your fortune told, watching a cricket match or kite flying display, or visiting the many fish markets that spring up on the beach.

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Despite having a reputation as the dowdiest of India’s 4 largest cities, Chennai is a thriving modern coastal city that manages to retain much of its architectural and cultural heritage. Well worth a visit on a trip to South India.

 

THREE DAYS ON THE BACKWATERS OF KERALA

Today we began our 4 day cruise of the Kerala Backwaters, a network of interconnected canals, rivers, lakes and inlets formed by more than 900 km of waterway stretching almost the full length of the southern Indian state. Our boat has 4 en suite cabins and all meals are provided on board leaving us to relax and enjoy the cool breeze as we cruise through glorious landscapes. Having set out from Alleppey this morning we will cross Punnamada Lake visiting the Buddha Statue at Karumadi and on through Karuvatta, Kandankary and Thakazhy before reaching our final destination for today at Padaharam.

Day 2 of our cruise finds us settling into the hectic pace of life here on the backwaters. After breakfast we cruise gently through beautiful verdant countryside stopping off occasionally to experience local culture and visit places of historic interest or outstanding natural beauty. Today we had the good fortune to see local fishermen catching fish with special archery equipment, a once common practice in Kumarakom and the Kuttanad areas of Kerala. We also visited St Mary’s Basilica at Kalloorkad and went shopping in the vibrant local markets. After lunch, a little more relaxation with a good book before enjoying more of our lush surroundings. Later we’ll watch the Indian sunset sipping sundowner cocktails and after a leisurely dinner enjoy some card games while savouring a good single malt. This is definitely one the most relaxing trips I have ever taken.

Last night was our friend’s birthday heralding party time on the boat with much cake-feeding, singing, dancing and champagne flowing. Time for some detox today as we make our first stop at the Ayurvedic Health Spa at Kainakary before cruising up the Muttel Canal to Vembanadu Lake.

Kerala truly is a haven of physical and spiritual renewal. It is little wonder that it features high on many travellers’ ‘bucket lists’ and is featured by National Geographic as one of the “50 Places of a Lifetime”

Five Days In Denmark

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Our first stop in our adveture through Denmark was Aarhus, the country’s second city and home to the impressive Aros Art Museum offering a ‘walk in a rainbow’, Mueck’s 5-metre Tall Boy Squatting and art from the Golden Age as well as modern day works. On our visit we had the opportunity to enjoy a beautifully hung exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography.

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On day 2 we headed to Odense, birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, which is nestled on the island of Funen, home to many stately homes and castles.

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Montengarden is a cultural oasis comprising idyllic courtyards from 16th Century. Some of the renaissance buildings have been moved here from their original locations providing an insight into the building traditions of the late Middle Ages in Funen. Hans Christian Andersen’s house and museum are also located in the picturesque old town.

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We spent the following night in Roskilde: well worth a visit for its magnificent Cathedral, beautiful parks and interactive Viking museum.

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The cathedral is the first Gothic church to be built of brick dating back to 1170 and is the burial place of many Danish monarchs. It houses many beautiful chapels and the finely crafted clock lets out a frightful wail every hour as its mechanical figures re-enact the slaying of the dragon by St George. Its twin spires dominate the skyline of the town.

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We rounded off our hugely enjoyable time in Denmark with a weekend in the capital, Copenhagen. A city of spires and magnificent architecture, Copenhagen is also home to Tivoli, the world famous theme park and gardens and the iconic Little Mermaid. A boat trip along its charming canals is a great way to see the city.

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Thank you to the Danish people for your outstanding friendliness, helpfulness and welcome.

Steve O’Donnell is a travel consultant with Serene Journeys and a freelance travel writer and photographer.  www.serenejourneys.co

2 Days in Mumbai – Day 2

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Last night we visited many of Mumbai’s famous landmarks which were very impressively floodlit. On this occasion the imposing Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus was floodlit in the colours of the French Tricoleur showing respect for the French people in the light of recent terrorist attacks in the city of Paris.
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Mumbai is a shoppers paradise from designer outlets to street shopping. Spend an evening in Colaba to experience street shopping at its best with sellers purveying everything from food to clothes to jewellery to leather goods and perfumes. When you’re ready to drop visit one of Mumbai’s iconic cafe / bistro for some delicious Indian or Continental food.For delicious food and fun atmosphere you might try Leopold’s Cafe in Colaba Causeway.
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Today we are heading out to the sprawling slum area of Dharavi. Although the people who live in the slums are poor and sanitation and facilities are basic, there are thriving cottage industries based in the slums where local people produce goods to sell in their own shops and stalls or to companies across Maharashtra and neighbouring states. Among the cottage industries based in the slums are potteries, bakeries, leather goods (often goat skin), tailoring and traditional popadom making. The government have introduced schemes to rehouse slum dwellers in nearby blocks of flats which run as co-operatives but many slum dwellers opt to keep their traditional way of life.
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Another cheap form of housing in Mumbai are the old, usually dilapidated colonial buildings that at one time housed the thousands of cotton mill workers in the city. In the 1990s a strike among the cotton workers resulted in the mill owners closing down the mills and relocating their business to neighbouring Gujarat. The court, after decades of deliberation have at last decided the mill workers should be compensated for losing their jobs but some cases re still ongoing. The government also decided the workiers have a right to stay in the accommodation once provided by the mill owners at a nominal rent. There flats are called Chawls and often comprise just one room with many residents sharing a toilet.
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One of the totally unique traditions that survive in Mumbai today is the personalised delivery of lunch boxes known as ‘Tiffin’ from homes in outlying districts to the family’s breadwinner working in Mumbai. The service is provided by Dabba Wallas who operate a 3-stage operation to get the food, packed in travel bags, rucksacks, cool-bags etc, from households on to the train and from the train to their specified destination via a central distribution point in Mumbai. The service costs about £6 per month for daily deliveries and an extra £1 to have the empty bag delivered back home the same day. You may ask why the breadwinner does not simply take the food with them to work and take the empty bag back but if you have ever travelled on a rush hour train in Mumbai you will know the answer to that question.
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On our way back from Dharvi we visited Mount Mary Church, a famous place of worship of the Christian community in Mumbai and the Jain Temple which is still a central point of prayer for the Jain community. The Jain tradition of disposing of their dead is not buried or cremation but to leave the bodies to be devoured by vultures this maintaining the cycle of life. In Mumbai the bodies repacked in a well on top of a hill known as the Tower of Silence although today decomposition is aided by technology.
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Finally we headed to Land’s End and the Bandra Fort where remnants of the original walled fortress built by the Portuguese can still be seen. A beautiful sunset over the Arabian Sea brought our visit to Mumbai to a picturesque finish.

Steve O’Donnell is Director (UK & Ireland) with Serene Journeys and a freelance travel writer and photographer.

2 Days in Mumbai – Day 1

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We arrived in Mumbai last night to be welcomed by the panoramic night time skyline of the city and the sparkling lights of Marine Drive or the ‘Queen’s Necklace’ so called because of its horseshoe shape looking on to the Arabian Sea encasing Back Bay from Worli in the south to Bandra in the north.
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Today Abhi will be our guide as we explore some of the landmarks of India’s commercial capital. What is today the City of Mumbai was once a cluster of seven islands that formed part of the kingdom of Ashoka, the famed Buddhist emperor of India. The islands were subsequently colonised by a number of different rulers including the Portuguese in 1543 and the British from 1661 until Indian Independence in 1947. Through a number of land reclamation projects and bridge building, the islands are now all interconnected to form the state of Maharashtra.
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Mumbai is a city of contrasts and is home to many majestic buildings from colonial times alongside modern skyscrapers, sprawling slums and some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Some fine examples of colonial buildings can be seen at the University of Mumbai and some of its many colleges, the Rajabai Clock Tower which is almost a replica of Big Ben in London, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Rail Terminus (Victoria Station) and the Bombay High Court.
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Many very old traditions survive today in Mumbai one of these being the work of the Washermen at Dhobi Ghat where clothes are washed in huge tubs of water and bashed against rocks to remove dirt, stains and soap. The washers, known as Dhobis are all men and most of their work nowadays comes from Mumbai’s hotels and hospitals. The traditional way of washing is still used although some modern additions have been incorporated in the Ghat including electric dryers and irons.
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Another serving tradition is the wholesale market or Crawford Market which sells all manner of fruits, veg and household goods. Once the only place one could buy imported goods it still provides a lot of imported produce at wholesale for resale by local businesses in Mumbai or further afield. personal shoppers are also welcome.
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Driving along Marine Drive southwards we head up a steep hill to reach the Hanging Gardens first built in 1880 and renovated in 1921. The gardens are built over a reservoir that provides drinking water to Mumbai and affords magnificent views of the Mumbai Skyline and the Arabian Sea.
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Close-by to the Hanging Gardens is Malabar Hill, one of the most expensive areas of Mumbai and home to many Bollywood stars. The area also contains the most expensive private residence in the world, built by local businessman Mukesh Ambani at a cost of upwards of 1 billion US dollars.IMG_6294.jpg