The Crumbling, Brilliant City of Yangon

My trip to Asia over New Year's was centered around sailing on the new Strand Cruise on the Irrawaddy River. But first, we spent two nights in Yangon (Rangoon). Myanmar (Burma) has been on my radar since it opened to the world in 2011 after decades of isolation under oppressive military rule. Visitors started pouring in to see stunning temples and unspoiled landscapes. But the tourism infrastructure has had trouble keeping up with the demand.

Our time in Yangon was utterly magical, because it was so unlike anywhere else I'd ever been. The Strand Cruise is the sister experience to the iconic Strand Hotel (built in 1901), where we stayed. It is one of those totally evocative hotels where the wood creaks a little bit when you walk and you're transported back to the height of what I picture as total British colonial glamour.

I was completely obsessed with the sign at the bar: "Please be informed that smoking is allowed in The STRAND bar for traditional reasons. Thank you for your kind understanding."

The sign in The Strand Lobby Bar

The sign in The Strand Lobby Bar

The Strand Lobby

The Strand Lobby

Lovely, comfortable suite at The Strand Hotel

Lovely, comfortable suite at The Strand Hotel

Some more highlights of our time in Yangon:

  • Booking an in-room massage at The Strand Hotel
  • Venturing out to the dark city of Yangon, with crumbling but beautiful buildings and people sitting on tiny tables on sidewalks eating street food
  • Visiting the Pomelo store, a bright and cheerful shop filled with cool products like jewelry, frames, bags, and blankets. But best of all, the proceeds directly benefit the local artisans that made the products, many of whom are struggling with poverty and illness. It's open late and makes a great stop before dinner at Monsoon next door.
  • Dinner at Monsoon, a charming restaurant with a huge menu - whether you feel like Western food or tasting Thai, Laotian, or Burmese cuisine, this menu has it.
  • The leisurely, delicious breakfast at The Strand Hotel
  • The kind concierge at The Strand who helped plan and map out our entire day and even booked Alex a haircut at La Source spa. I got a 30-minute shoulder massage here, which was incredible.
The best haircut of his life!

The best haircut of his life!

  • The shops at The Strand - you'll want to try on rings and buy artwork in the hotel's shops, one of the best shopping sources in the city.
Cool Buddhas in The Strand Hotel's River Gallery of art

Cool Buddhas in The Strand Hotel's River Gallery of art

  • Finding our amazing driver, Mr. T, outside The Strand. We hired him on a whim. I needed to see a lot in one day and for 8 hours, he drove around hitting everything on my list. Very reasonable and he speaks great English. (see my Myanmar guide for contact info)
  • Buying a birthstone ring at Emerald Gems (the main gem market was closed when we were there). Myanmar is known for peridots, and I wear my gold-and-green "August" ring every day. You'll get a 15% discount if you bring cash.
Emerald Gems

Emerald Gems

  • Stopping for a cold drink at Acacia Tea Salon - Yangon's British history means that afternoon tea is still popular. I loved this patisserie, which also serves lunch. The second floor has a small balcony with one table and if it's not too hot, this is the place to be.
Second floor balcony at Acacia Tea Salon

Second floor balcony at Acacia Tea Salon

  • Admiring the architecture - Much of the architecture in central Yangon dates from the period of British rule which lasted from 1824 to the creation of Burma in 1948. There is a struggle to save these historic buildings, and if preservation efforts succeed, it will only make the city more appealing. Without these buildings, the city would not be as fascinating.
  • Meeting a fortune teller who changed my life. Before I left for Myanmar, my friend, National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow, sent me the business card of a fortune teller in Yangon (written entirely in Burmese). A comedy of errors ensued, after calling the number on the card and finding out she had changed addresses. Depending on who we talked to, the new one either didn't exist or was "impossible" to find in a "maze" of streets. But with the help of the Strand Hotel staff, one amazing driver, and some locals on the street, we were able to find her, on a quiet residential street (most of Yangon's fortune tellers are clustered around the Shwedagon Pagoda). She spoke no English so our intrepid driver Mr. T also served as translator the best he could. I laughed so hard my stomach hurt, I cried because she just KNEW so many things. She is a true fortune teller in the most magical sense. But....she will only be at this address for another "year or so" so if I return, it will be another adventure to find her.
  • Rangoon Tea House - the hippest place in town for a drink and live music.
  • Reclining Buddha (Chauk Htat Gyi)
Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha

  • Sule Pagoda - You won't miss this beautiful temple if you're in downtown Yangon - it's in the center of everything.
  • The mind-bogglingly beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda. I could have stayed for several hours here. Come in the late afternoon and stay for sunset to watch the light change on the brilliant gold of the temples.
Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

The adventure continued at the Yangon airport, where we boarded a 6am flight to Bagan's Nyaung U Airport to board our ship.

Everything about the airport reminded me I was thousands of miles from home, and so far from everything that I knew to be normal. I LOVED it for those reasons. The building seemed stuck-in-time, with huge old-school scales where you could weigh your luggage (or yourself), one Western-style restaurant, and one local restaurant where people slurped down noodles. "Tickets" were different colored stickers that we stuck on our clothes. Then we nervously searched for fellow passengers wearing our color to group up with them so we wouldn't miss our flight. It was definitely organized chaos.

My favorite airplane slogan ever is Yangon Airways' "You're safe with us." This mantra was plastered on the seat cushions, the snack boxes, and on the planes themselves. It was an easy and safe (of course!) journey to Bagan.

You're Safe With Us

You're Safe With Us

Embarking on a Viking River Cruise - Romantic Danube

I'm off to Europe and best of all, my longtime beau is coming with me! We are flying into Budapest, spending some time there, then boarding a brand new Viking Longship to cruise the Danube River. We'll celebrate Thanksgiving on the boat with turkey and pumpkin pie. At the end of the cruise, we're spending two extra nights in Prague.

I'm excited for magical Christmas markets in this part of the world and getting into the holiday spirit. Here's the cruise itinerary, called "Romantic Danube":

1. Days 1-2 in Budapest

2. Day 3 in Vienna

3. Day 4 in Melk and Austria's Wachau Valley

4. Day 5 in Passau

5. Day 6 in Regensburg

6. Days 7-8 in the Main-Danube Canal and Nuremberg

There is FREE WIFI on board so I'll be updating along the way. Happy Early Thanksgiving!

Sanctuary Retreats China Cruise: Three Gorges Dam

I wrote about my wonderful three-day cruise on the Yangzi River with Sanctuary Retreats here on National Geographic.  But I wanted to post up more photos, especially the room photos we all love! EVERY room had a balcony which I used throughout the day.

I love river cruising and how the M.S. Yangzi Explorer felt like the perfect floating hotel to take me through one of the world's greatest areas of natural beauty, and now, cultural significance due to the Three Gorges dam.

My room on board

Our departure point in Chongqing

View of Chongqing before leaving

Loved my balcony

Will never forget meeting this man who had been relocated due to the dam

Food market in Fengdu

How cute is this little boy?!

Sailing through the gorges

In a painting

Bridge being built

First glimpse of the Three Gorges dam at night

Hazy day on our visit to the Three Gorges dam

National Geographic: Great Trips: Sailing China's Three Gorges

Sailing the Three Gorges region of China should be on everyone's list to do in their lifetime.  I wrote more about my experience on National Geographic here. I'll be posting more photos from the ship, the M.S. Yangzi Explorer by Sanctuary Retreats, here tomorrow!

China plans to build more than 50 new airports in the next five years, and its population — with nearly 500 million Internet users and counting — is becoming more “global” each day. But to grasp what China meant and means today, you have to get out of the big cities and go rural. Nine hundred million of China’s 1.4 billion people live in the countryside.

China’s bucolic side will feel at once familiar and foreign. Want to step into a landscape painting? Sail through the Three Gorges region on the Yangtze River, famous for its recently constructed dam, the largest on Earth.
The dam, which is about 5 years old, has had an incredible impact on the region’s people and ecology (many villages had to be moved to make way for the new circuitry of the river, and water levels have risen, covering the bases of once-exposed mountains), but the potential for exploring the river valley by boat has made this area a new travel hot spot.
I booked a three-day cruise on the M.S. Yangzi Explorer by Sanctuary Retreats, departing from Chongqing, which is — with 33 million residents — arguably the world’s largest city (ever heard of it?). Okay, the people are spread out over an area the size of England and it takes eight hours to drive across with no traffic…but it can still claim the title. As an added bonus, you’ll set sail at night when the skyline is lit up.

For Western travelers, the Yangzi Explorer is far and away the most comfortable ship to travel on without a sticker-shock price tag. Every room has a balcony, which I took advantage of daily to gaze at the curved swallowtail Chinese roofs and white bloc-style architecture that characterize relocation towns near the dam. I loved the engaging lectures they offered on the cruise (such as “China, The West, & The Mao Years”) — and the early morning tai chi lessons, taught by the ship’s doctor.

Though I was anxious to see the colossal dam, my most memorable experiences happened on the ship, sailing through the Three Gorges, surrounded by thick, cool air and hearing the river water lap against the boat. Early morning brought us through the dramatic Qutang Gorge, followed by the Wu Gorge (or Witches’ Gorge), and finally the longest gorge of Xiling, where the dam is. Your first glimpse of the dam comes at night as the ship sails through five locks.

It was originally thought that the Three Gorges Dam would provide for 12% of China’s electricity needs, but due to a voracious appetite for energy, it can supply only 3%. Media accounts in the West have been decidedly negative, typically focusing on families that have been forced to leave their homes. But of course, nothing is black and white, and there is always another side. It was on a shore excursion to Fengdu where I met relocated families who were glad to move (payment from the government helped). I also learned about the intense flooding that has killed millions in the region, which the dam has alleviated.

The final shore excursion takes you to the best place to view the dam (and take photos of it) along with an exhibit about its construction. The hazy weather didn’t dampen the excitement of seeing something I had heard about for so long. As with most things both applauded and condemned, the dam is worth seeing in person. But it felt even more significant to see the unspoiled terrain of the Three Gorges.