Myanmar Week Fourteen: Yangon and Bagan

Myanmar definitely wasn’t in my travel plan. I started thinking about going while I was in Vietnam. I kept seeing photos on Instagram — ancient cities, amazing landscapes, lakes, beaches. Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is one of the least visited countries in South East Asia, and that is why in my opinion, the lifestyle has remained relatively unchanged there.

Bathing in Inle Lake - Myanmar

Bathing in Inle Lake - Myanmar

Myanmar for me was probably one of my favourite parts of this textile research trip. The fact that I wasn’t supposed to go, the people, the food, the art, the temples, the landscapes — everything made the experience wonderful. However, I had a lot of people disagree with my decision to go there.  Of course the ethnic and religious violence, the oppressive political policies and the human rights abuses can’t and shouldn’t be ignored while thinking about travelling to Myanmar and I understand why my decision to visit was a controversial one. A lot of travellers are boycotting Myanmar and I went against that.  So even though the main aim of this blog is to share my textile research, I think it should go beyond that.

I had friends and family tell me they are worried about me when I told them I am going, that it’s “unsafe” and “dangerous”, trying to make me change my mind. I don’t think that individual people should be defined by their governments. The people I got to meet everywhere in South East Asia, were exceptionally kind and peaceful. This definitely includes Myanmar. People were always happy to help, to practice their English, to smile, to show you around, to explain things about their culture and involve you in their everyday lives.

I also had people tell me I am “ignorant” and “morally wrong” for choosing to go there. Instead of boycotting the whole country, I chose to make sure I am supporting locally-run and privately-owned restaurants and guest houses as well as transportation companies. I believe that withholding money from a country altogether will have little effect on the country’s government, whereas it will play a huge role on its local citizens. Most people in this country rely on the tourism industry in order to provide food, a home and safety to their families. There has been a really big reduction in tourism and everyone told me that from hotel staff, to local people I met in markets, temples or restaurants.

One of the things I learnt while in Myanmar was that there is a big line between a corrupt and violent government and it’s local people who want nothing more than peace, or that due to the lack of education, are not informed about political issues. Also, except from suspending a flow of income to the locals that need it, a boycott also cuts off the country’s access to more progressive social, political and environmental ideas and thoughts. Finally, the border violence and human rights abuses have been going on in Myanmar for the past fifty years. However, the violent attacks against the Rohingya have been put in a spotlight the past few years and I think that’s due to an increase in tourism. With an increase in international tourism, comes an increased demand for information and therefore an increased awareness about the issues within this country.

While flying from Mandalay to Yangon I met a lovely person on the plane. She was Australian but had been living in Myanmar at the Shan state for the past 6 (if I remember correctly) years. She works for an NGO and she told me so many horrible stories and stuff that she has seen concerning the Rohingya people. Talking to her about it opened my eyes, because it’s obviously much worse than reading the news when you have a person in front of you giving you details and names of the people that have been affected by what is happening. I admire her for her courage and for leaving Australia to move in the Shan region and live in very different conditions, spending all her time and energy helping out these people.

I am so happy I got to see Myanmar, to meet Burmese people, to meet people like Natasha who give so much and help so much, to see amazing architecture, to see free elephants while on a bus, to eat delicious food, to feel at home, outside of home. It also helped me understand what is happening, to do research and to realise how to help in some way. Now that I am back home I talk about what I saw and experienced in Myanmar, I celebrate the people I met and the organisations that meant something to me. Myanmar is a beautiful country and I really hope you all get a chance to visit it.

Yangon

Yangon is the biggest city in Myanmar and it’s where I flew into from Chiang Mai. It’s chaotic, lots of cars everywhere and it’s quite dirty. Yangon is the perfect beginning in order for you to meet the kind, calm and welcoming people of Burma while also getting introduced to the religious culture, the amazing cuisine and also the village life (some areas even though in the centre of the city feel like villages). It was different to other more developed cities in South East Asia like KL or Bangkok, and it had a kind of uniqueness that I loved. I stayed there for two days.

I stayed at the Merchant Hotel in Yangon. I recommend it, the staff is really friendly, it’s right next to the Shwedagon Pagoda and it also has an amazing view from its terrace. For transportation, I used the Grab app to go everywhere, I got a sim card for my phone from the airport and I recommend doing that, it’s very cheap and that way you have data everywhere you are. Yangon actually doesn’t have any scooters, which I found very weird since they are everywhere in South East Asia. I really liked not having to worry about scooters running me over (which I did in Vietnam).

My first stop was the National Museum of Yangon. It’s a really big museum with five floors. You aren’t allowed to take your camera or any bags inside. There are lockers, however I recommend not taking anything valuable with you since they won’t let you take it inside with you.

On the ground floor what stands out is the Lion Throne Showroom which is over 150 years old, it is the only throne left intact as the other 8 were destroyed during World War II. The first floor contains royal regalia (however not only are they in glass cabinets, inside the glass cabinet the object is also in a cage — making it very difficult to actually see the objects…) as well as objects from the prehistoric period. The third floor consisted of Myanmar art as well as more jewellery pieces.

My favourites were the second floor which consisted of the Arts and Crafts Gallery and Myanmar Performance Arts Showroom and the fourth floor which displayed costumes from all the different hill-tribes found in Myanmar. Some of these hill-tribes are only found in Myanmar and not in other South East Asian countries. Here are some photos:

The next morning I visited the most famous landmark in Yangon, the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s almost a hundred metres tall decorated with thousands of diamonds and rubies. It is the most sacred Buddhist Pagoda in Myanmar and it is believed that it is the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. I went there during sunrise, mostly to avoid the heat. I was lucky enough to see a wedding while I was there! Yes, a wedding at six in the morning. The pagoda has four entrances, and I entered from the one closest to my hotel (less than a ten minute walk). I stayed for a good hour and a half in there, it was great seeing the pagoda but also to people watch. Here are some photos:

Myanmar was colonised by the British from 1824 to 1948 and Yangon has the highest concentration of colonial buildings in the world. Most of the buildings are still there even though not in the best condition. I definitely recommend exploring some of these colonial buildings such as the Bogyoke Aung San Market, the Secretariat and the Strand Hotel.

I really wanted to join a street food tour while I was in Yangon but unfortunately I didn’t have time. Some friends recommended the Sa Ba Street Food Tour, they do two food tours per day. My friends had taken the morning tour which included tea, pastries, salads, coffee, noodles and many other traditional Yangon dishes. The tour guide spoke great english and explained how everything is prepared as well as the dishes cultural and historic significance. I wish I had managed to book this tour and I definitely will next time I am in Yangon.

My last day in Yangon I went on the circular train. This train ride isn’t that popular among tourists, and I only met a couple of people that weren’t locals while I was there. It is a commuter route that services all the little villages around Yangon. It stops regularly going through many towns, chaotic markets (there are markets on the tracks), jungles, and unfortunately parts where all you can see is trash. Still it’s probably my favourite and definitely most authentic experience in Yangon. The entire loop takes about three hours to complete, and you can also hop off if you see a place you would like to explore. I was catching a bus afterwards so I didn’t have time to hop off but still it was a wonderful experience to have. Here are some photos:

To get a ticket (less than 1 euro) you have to go to the platform, and there you will find a small kiosk, that’s where they are sold, not at the entrance of the station! I loved being on the train, seeing families hop on and off even when the train was moving, seeing people put bags of potatoes, fruits and all sorts of food on the train to take to some other village to sell, even seeing a lady with a massive disk on her head full of all the ingredients she needed to make noodles, which she prepared right in front of you on a moving train. I managed to sit by a door, in order to not miss anything that was happening outside. I met two lovely German girls and we sat together admiring the locals and their everyday lives. Here are some videos:

The food in Myanmar was a very pleasant surprise. It was very different to other South East Asian countries food and I loved everything about it. Here is a list of my favourite restaurants in Yangon:

Burma Bistro: Great traditional food with a modern twist. The restaurant is located in an old colonial building and the decoration is amazing - old antique furniture, brick walls and beautiful tiled floors. I loved the food here.
Gekko Restaurant: Japanese restaurant, very cheap, very big choice and really tasty! Very nice atmosphere and friendly staff.
Rangoon Tea House: This is one of Yangon’s most famous restaurants. There is a mix of locals, tourists and people from Europe or Australia that live and work in Yangon. I loved the decoration here as well, and the food was amazing. Similarly to Burma Bistro, traditional with a modern twist. I especially loved the salads. You can also have coffee, tea and great cocktails!

Before coming to Yangon, I did some research trying to find some textile workshops. Unfortunately, educational tourism doesn’t really exist in Myanmar. However, I found some amazing shops for handmade items and textiles. Here is my list:

Pomelo for Myanmar: This shop is a fair trade marketplace supporting social businesses throughout Myanmar. Every purchase made contributes to social and economic change in some of Myanmar's most marginalised communities and helps to support unique skills and craftsmanship. All items have a story and I loved this shop and the staff. I got a lot of presents for loved ones from here and I definitely recommend you visit.
Scott Market (Bogyoke Aung San Market): A colonial building that houses a market selling antiques, paintings, handicrafts, textiles, herbs, jewellery and all kinds of souvenirs. There is also a food market in here.
Sunflowers Organic Dye Textiles & Crafts Shop: Probably my favourite shop. The people that worked there didn’t speak english and there was a power outage so there was no light! But they were so friendly turning on their phones to shine light on all the fabrics for me to choose. It’s a bit hard to find this shop and I actually went there twice before realising where it is and that it’s open. There is a sign but the shop is actually upstairs which isn’t clear by the sign. I got lots of naturally dyed and un-dyed fabrics from here.
Yangoods: There are a few Yangoods shops in Myanmar. They sell lots of different items, taking inspiration from traditional Burmese art and translating them into bags and homeware. I wasn’t a big fan of their textiles, but I loved the jewellery — simple, yet elegant. I got a lot of souvenirs from this shop.

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Bagan

Next stop was Bagan. I travelled around Myanmar mostly by bus. The company I used was JJ Express, I highly recommend them, they offered water and some snacks, there were two bathroom stops, the seats were very comfortable and you also have your own personal tv with movies and series — and all this for 20 US dollars.

Bagan is probably the most famous tourist destination in Myanmar, probably because of the hot air ballon and sunrise photos. There are over 2000 pagodas in Bagan. I loved Bagan and it is as magical as it appears to be in the photos. I stayed there for two nights and I wish I stayed for more. I stayed at the Areindmar hotel in New Bagan. The room was really spacious and I loved the decor. They also have a pool and really nice breakfast as well as lunch and dinner. The staff were super nice and helpful. I arrived at three in the morning and even though I was supposed to check in at 10 in the morning, they gave me my room at three with no extra charge.

The main thing to do in Bagan (except from riding a hot air balloon which I couldn’t do — it costs around 300 US dollars) is temple hopping. There are almost no cars in Bagan, and the way to go temple hopping is to rent an electric bike. Even though everyone there kept telling me to try and that it’s not hard I chose to not rent one since I’ve never driven anything before. After talking to the receptionist she arranged for a tuk tuk driver to take me around. It was really nice because he also told me historical and cultural facts about the temples and Myanmar in general.

Between the 9th and 13th century over 10,000 temples were built in Bagan. However, a series of earthquakes destroyed most of these temples. Today, around 2,200 are standing. Bagan is actually not a UNESCO World Heritage Site yet, which I found very surprising. A few years ago you were allowed to climb up most of these pagodas but due to earthquakes and lots of accidents you aren’t allowed to climb to most of them anymore. However, I actually climbed on two thanks to my driver! I told him I really wanted to do this and he showed me two temples where it’s still allowed. So firstly here are some photos from one of the two climbing pagodas, the sunrise and the hot air balloons:

A magical and unforgettable experience. Next I am going to make a list of some of the pagodas I visited however I recommend just stopping wherever you can! Each pagoda is unique and beautiful. Here is the list of most of the ones I visited, however there are lots of small ones that don’t have names:

Ananda Temple: Probably one of my favourite temples. I almost lost my sandals here, so make sure you remember where you entered from! The Buddhist temple consists of four standing Buddhas.
Bu Paya: This temple is right next to the Ayeyarwady River. The original pagoda was completely destroyed in the 1975. As result of this earthquake, the pagoda broke into pieces and fell into the river. It was, however, fully reconstructed using modern materials. The view is really nice and there are lots of locals here coming by boat to pray.
Gawdawpalin: The Gawdawpalin Temple is the second tallest temple in Bagan. The temple was heavily damaged during the 1975 earthquake but was reconstructed in following years.
Htilominlo
Khaymingha Pagoda
Lawka Nanda
Maha Bodhi Phaya
Pyathetgyi Pagoda
Shwegu Gyi Phaya
Shwesandaw Pagoda
Sulamani Temple
Tha Beik Hmauk Gu Hpaya
Thatbyinnyu

Here are some photos:

Bagan has lots of restaurants. I really recommend trying different curries while you are there. There lots of family run restaurants in old Bagan and food is really cheap. One of my favourite restaurants was Royal Restaurant which had amazing Indian food.

The people of Bagan are so friendly and Myanmar was actually the only place where no one followed me around trying to convince me to buy stuff. Artisans are happy to explain how they make things and they are usually making things like puppets, jewellery and lacquerware while at their stands.

In the following photos you can see that a lot of people have a yellow paste on their cheeks. This is called Thanaka and it is a yellowish-white paste made from ground bark. It is a distinctive feature of the culture of Myanmar, usually women and girls (sometimes boys too) apply it to their face and sometimes the arms. Thanaka cream has been used by Burmese for more than 2000 years. Thanaka gives a cooling sensation and provides protection from sunburn and it is also believed to help remove acne and promote smooth skin.

I am so happy I got to visit Myanmar, it’s a wonderful place. After Bagan I went to Inle Lake and Mandalay. More about my trip there next week.

Have a nice week,

xx
Christiana

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Vietnam and Thailand Week Thirteen: Ho Chi Minh City and Chiang Mai

After Hoi An my next stop was Ho Chi Minh City. I stayed there for four nights, before taking another plane back to Chiang Mai to meet a friend I met in Laos. We met during my weaving course in Houey Hong (more about this on my Laos blog post). She was working in Bangkok and was going to Chiang Mai for a long weekend to see the Loy Krathong and Yi Peng festivals so we decided to go there together.

Ho Chi Minh City

HCMC or otherwise known as Saigon is the most populous city in Vietnam. It’s located in the southeast of Vietnam. It is a city with skyscrapers, shopping malls and lots of national and international banks and companies. The current name of the city was given after the fall of Saigon in 1975 honouring Ho Chi Minh, the first leader of North Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh is chaotic, with millions of scooters everywhere. It’s not a city I would visit again, I don’t think it is as unique as other places or cities in South East Asia.

However, I enjoyed my time there and there are wonderful places to visit and explore. I stayed in an AirBnB that I definitely DON’T recommend so I’m not going to include it. The gist of why I didn’t like it is because I didn’t really feel safe, the area was weird, the way I got in and out of the flat was weird and difficult and I had neighbours knocking on my door multiple times… Anyway. I’m sure you can find nice places to stay in HCMC, I just wasn’t lucky — which was going to happen at some point in my trip.

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Saigon is a city of many architectural influences such as France, China, Japan, the Soviet Union and the US as well. There are loads of nice cafes, restaurants, shops and museums to visit while in Ho Chi Minh. Here is a list of places I visited:

Ao Dai Museum: Small collection of Ao Dai dresses but still worth a visit. (More about this further down)
Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts: This museum was established in 1987. The building is a perfect example of Indochina’s architecture, with a combination of both French and Chinese styles. In 2012, the museum was recognised as an architectural monument. It displays a collection of over 20,000 artefacts. (More about the museum further down)
Jade Emperor Pagoda: It was built by the Chinese in 1909. It is a Taoist temple decorated with divinities.
Loft Cafe: Food, coffee and drinks are great and it’s a really nice co-working space!
Oromia Coffee and Lounge (photo above): Nice cafe with nice snacks, breakfasts, juices and coffees.
Poke Saigon Ly Tu Trong: I ate here twice while in Saigon. I loved the staff, and it was probably the best poke I’ve had in my life. You choose everything — what kind of rice you want, if you want some salad with your rice, the fish, the sauce, and you have a choice of around 25 toppings too. It’s super cheap. Definitely recommend this place!
Poke House Vietnam: Another place with amazing poke. Apparently there are tons of poke restaurants however this and Poke Saigon were the ones I went to and loved.
Ralf’s Artisan Gelato: If you are craving ice-cream — this is the place to go!
Reunification Palace: Home of the former president of South of Vietnam and has an amazing Art Deco interior.
Saigon Grill Restaurant: Rooftop restaurant with a really nice view.
Saigon Oi Coffee: Meeting hub for lots of creative freelancers working in the city.
Shamoki Robata Yaki: There are two restaurants here. The main one, and one on your right as you enter the main one. Just go at the small door and you will find a bar and around 10 small tables. All the food will be prepared in front of you. Great Japanese food, sake and beer. Definitely recommend.
Secret Garden Restaurant: Hoi An style lanterns everywhere and delicious traditional Vietnamese home cooking.
So Nice. Shop: Loved, loved, loved this shop! It’s in the same building as the Poke Saigon Ly Tu Trong. I recommend visiting both!
South-Vietnamese Women Museum: This museum is dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments of Vietnamese women. There are signs with explanations in both English and French as well as a lot of displays of traditional Ao Dai dresses, photos, textiles, and stories of Vietnamese women in history. (More about this museum further down.)
Temple Goddess Mariamma: This temple is a sacred Hindu Temple dedicated to the goddess of the Rain. It was built in the late 19th century by traders coming from India. It is the only Hindu temple in Saigon and is believed to have miraculous powers giving luck to its visitors. The outer wall of the Temple has a collection of interesting statues of different gods and goddesses like Mariamman, Vishnu and Ganesha. I enjoyed seeing this temple, it’s very different to other temples I saw around Vietnam.
The Open Space: Another really nice cafe, friendly staff, nice coffee and breakfasts.
The Workshop Coffee: My favourite cafe in Saigon. Loved the atmosphere (full of freelancers and people that work remotely) amazing food, great music, and really good wifi.
Thuy Design House: A fine artist who became a fashion designer (self-taught) — colourful and fun collections inspired by Vietnamese culture. Loved her clothes and accessories.

Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts:

The Fine Arts Museum once belonged to one of the city’s richest men and is one of the largest galleries in the city. The three floors are dedicated to contemporary Vietnamese and international art. It is very nicely curated with displays arranged in a way that allows you to walk through the evolution of Vietnamese art through modern history.

Here are some of my favourite pieces:

The museum is housed in a beautiful yellow and white colonial mansion. Here are a few photos of the building’s interior:

Ao Dai Museum:

This museum opened in 2014 and displays the story of Vietnamese Ao Dai throughout the history of the country. The Ao Dai is the national costume and a prominent symbol of the country. The designer Le Si Hoang was the one that funded this museum, exhibiting Ao Dais from the 17th century all the way to modern adaptations, achieving to show the evolution of the dress.

Here are some photos:

South Vietnamese Women Museum:

The South Vietnamese Women Museum was constructed to honour Vietnamese women for their contribution to the country’s development but also to celebrate the role of women in the war as mothers, wives and fighters. There are three floors that depict historical figures, highlighting women’s roles during the revolution: serving as politicians and administrators of the country. There are also textiles, clothes, Ao Dais and other crafts and items of their every day lives.

Here are some photos:

My last day in Ho Chi Minh I decided to go for a Mekong Delta tour. I had already seen everything I wanted at the city and that’s why I decided to go on this tour. I wasn’t that impressed, however it was a nice thing to do instead of just going to the same places again.

It was a guided tour (around 14 of us), and I was picked up from the AirBnB I was staying at. We drove in a minivan and it was about an hour to get to the first stop which was the Buddhist Vinh Trang Pagoda. After around half an hour there we went on a boat for the cruise. It was nice, however there were loads of other tours going on, lots of boats everywhere, and way too many people. The scenery was nice, but the tour as a whole was quite touristic. We stopped in a Mekong village to see how coconut candy is made and then we tried some honeybee tea and listened to some Vietnamese folk music. I must say it was a very touristic experience and definitely not unique. Before going back to HCMC we also had lunch which was very tasty. I don’t really recommend this tour and that is why I haven’t mentioned the tour operator. Still, it was a different experience to HCMC and I love being on boats so can’t complain.

Here are some photos:

Chiang Mai:

Short trip back to Chiang Mai for three days for the  Loy Krathong and Yi Peng festivals. As mentioned above, I went to Chiang Mai to meet a friend I met while I was travelling in Laos. Since I was back in Chiang Mai, I did some research and booked a weaving workshop.

If you want to read more about Chiang Mai you can find more information here, here and here. (I think it’s pretty obvious I love Chiang Mai)

First day in Chiang Mai I went to Rada  Loom. Rada Loom is a weaving shop. They make modern looms and sell weaving equipment and they also produce Eri Silk which they give to women who live in villages around Chiang Mai to naturally dye for them. 

The eri silk cocoon can be harvested by cutting and removing the pupa from the cocoon without any harm. They leave the pupa in ‘a safe place’ in order for it to transform into an adult moth which can reproduce. I find it amazing that the pupa doesn’t have to be killed in order for the silk to be produced. It’s a vegan alternative to regular silk. (More about silk production on my Laos blog post) Eri silk has some unique characteristics. The silk produced from the Eri cocoon is shiny and but it’s texture is very soft, similarly to wool. Eri silk is breathable, and it can be both hand and machine washed. Apparently it gets softer every time it’s washed

Rada Loom is located in the Jing Jai Market and even though it’s a bit far from the old town of Chiang Mai it’s definitely worth the visit. There are many nice shops there and some cute cafes too. I don’t think it’s that well known, there aren’t many tourists there. 

The weaving workshop was really nice even though not really traditional but rather modern. I made a fabric using eri silk dyed with indigo and ebony. I learnt how to create a twill (diagonal lines pattern). After finishing my fabric (I think it took around four hours) I left and the lady there sewed it in a bag for me! I loved the finished piece, but I also really liked the feel of the Eri silk and weaving with it. I definitely recommend booking a workshop with them, you can make scarves, wall hangings, pillow cases, wall hangings and coasters. It’s also worth a visit, even if you don’t want to weave, their items are really pretty, handmade and eco-friendly

After my weaving class in Rada Loom I decided to go to the Thai Tribal Crafts Fair Trade shop. I hadn’t been there before so I was excited to visit. This place was founded in 1973. The aim of the business is to improve the quality of life of the tribal people living in mountain villages of Northern Thailand by providing them a vital and fair income. In 2002, the Thai Tribal Crafts became a member of the World Fair Trade Organisation.

On the ground floor there is a shop with items produced by artisans from the seven different tribes: Mien, Lahu, Lawa, Lisu, Karen, Hmong and Akha. Each hill tribe is skilled in specific designs and methods that make each item unique. The Thai Tribal Crafts purchases these items from the artisans, and either sales them as they are or make them into new products. The items are entirely handcrafted, hand-woven and hand-stitched. Some of the techniques used are back-strap loom weaving, batik, basketry, appliqué and embroidery. All of their products explain the technique and talk about the woman who made it as well as the hill-tribe she is part of. It’s a really nice organisation, the products are all beautiful and the staff there are wonderful as well.

I talked to Elias, the manager and told him about my studies and about my textile research trip. He suggested I do a weaving class, which takes place in the second floor of the building. I explained that I could only do it the next day because the following I’d be leaving for Myanmar. Even though I arrived in the shop a few minutes before they closed, he called different artisan teachers and arranged the workshop for the next day straight away!

I had two different teachers while I did the class and they were both very smiley and helpful, showing me how to set up a loom, weave and make a traditional Lahu pattern. They offered me water, tea and many different traditional snacks. They explained both setting up a Karen loom (like I learnt at studio Naenna, more about this here) and a Lahu loom. While weaving in the Lahu style, the right side of the fabric is the top, whereas weaving the Karen way, the right side of the fabric is the one you can’t see while weaving. Another difference is that the Karen create the pattern while setting up their back-strap loom, whereas the Lahu count threads and create patterns while weaving. I just made a tiny sample but it was a really nice experience and I understood a lot. The yarn they use (cotton and silk) are naturally dyed as well.

Everyone was very informed and I really enjoyed my time there - would definitely visit again and I really recommend doing a workshop with them!

Thailand has festivals almost every week, and the people of this country just love celebrating. Whether it is a new year or a new moon, Thai people will always find a reason to  have fun, get together, dance, share their amazing food, and party. Loy Krathong is one of the biggest celebrations of them all, and in Chiang Mai it coincides with a Lanna festival known as Yi Peng, which involves the launching of thousands of fire-powered paper lanterns into the air for good luck. The sky appears to be full of burning stars, the river is covered in Krathongs (banana leaves bowls with flowers and candles on them) and it’s an amazing view, like a dream come true.

There are many reasons why Loy Krathong festival is celebrated. First of all, this time of the year marks the end of the rainy season. It is believed that Loy Krathong, otherwise known as ‘the festival of light’ originated in the ancient city of Sukhothai, located about five hours north of Bangkok. It is not really a religious holiday, but you will see many Thai people praying to the water goddess, Mae Khongkha, as they send their decorated ‘boats’ down the river. 

Each candle placed on a boat has a prayer or a wish attached to it as it makes it way down the river.  I think that is the basic idea of the entire festival —it is a new beginning. Thai people and foreigners participating in the festival let go of whatever their misfortunes are and let the water carry them downstream.

Standing on a bridge in Chiang Mai during Loi Krathong and Yi Peng is truly unforgettable as both the Ping River and sky appear to be on fire at the same time.

The sky lanterns, known as khom loiare made from thin rice paper and are heated by a fuel disk. When done correctly, the large lanterns fly surprisingly high. Messages, prayers, and wishes for good luck are written on the lanterns before launch. Obviously, lots of accidents happen, trees catch fire etc, but it’s still a very unique experience and I am so happy I got to see this.

Thailand has a very special space in my heart, especially the north. I love the people, their way of life and how positive and optimistic they are. I will always have more places I’ll want to visit there, and places I’d like to return to. Vietnam is very different, and I think tourism has changed it a lot. I am very happy I visited and yes there are places like Sapa that I’d like to visit again, and places like Ninh Binh that I didn’t have time to visit however didn’t manage to. However, from all the countries I visited in South East Asia it’s the one I can’t see myself visiting soon.

Next, I visited Myanmar, a country I never planned on visiting but ended up in. Such a pleasant surprise, and probably one of my favourite countries in the world. More about it in next week’s blog post!

xx

Christiana

Vietnam Week Twelve: Hoi An

Last week I wrote about how I travelled from Hue to Hoi An via Hai Van Pass on a motorbike (you can read about it here). Hoi An was probably one of my favourite places in Vietnam. I loved it’s architecture, colourful streets and it’s food! The Old Town of Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hoi An was a trading port and it is still well-preserved, with it’s buildings reflecting a blend of native and foreign influences.

My airbnb hostess told me that Hoi An translates to “a peaceful meeting place” — which I could imagine, a few years ago. The city is very atmospheric, and it does give you a sense of calm, quiet and peace (especially now that I think back to my travels) however, it’s of course full of tourists today. Despite that, if you walk around and try to ‘get lost’ you will find some peaceful streets.

I stayed at this AirBnB. It was nice because it was between the Old Town and the beach. It was a 20 mins walk to both. They also had bicycles that guests could use for free. I walked to the town sometimes, and returned with a Grab motorbike. (I definitely recommend using this app. The fair is set and you don’t have to negotiate a price and they are always friendly people driving.)

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The Old Town has preserved its incredible heritage of Japanese merchant houses, Chinese temples and ancient tea warehouses — however, local residents and rice fields have been gradually replaced by tourist businesses. Cafes, bars, hotels, and a plethora of tailor shops are everywhere.

Still, like I already said, walking around streets, taking the wrong turn can prove to be magical. It is also nice to go down by the market and over to Cam Nam island, where things seem more calm and less westernised. There is amazing scenery to discover by bicycle or motorcycle and I definitely recommend travelling around Hoi An and experiencing it’s more authentic side.

Here are some photos I took while trying to get lost in less touristic streets in Hoi An:

Here is a list of places to visit in Hoi An:

Cua Dai Beach: I walked here and saw the sunset. It’s not an amazing beach, but it’s still nice to visit and see.
Handicraft Workshop: Housed in a 200-year-old Chinese trading house, the Handicraft Workshop has artisans making silk lanterns and practising traditional embroidery in the back.
Japanese Covered Bridge: This beautiful little bridge is a symbol of Hoi An. The bridge was first constructed in the 1590s by the Japanese community to link it with the Chinese quarters. Over the centuries the ornamentation has remained relatively faithful to the original Japanese design. The French flattened out the roadway for cars, but the original arched shape was restored in 1986.
Li Me Shop: Amazing shop in Hoi An. Everything is made with linen and is naturally dyed. I loved everything in this shop. The owner who is also the designer is happy to make alterations to clothes for you, she made special size indigo trousers for me which was really nice of her! (No extra cost) Definitely recommend visiting! Here is her instagram account.
Mango Mango: One of the most beautiful Hoi An restaurants, with an amazing view of the river. I really liked the food and I must say that the cocktails here were amazing as well.
Morning Glory: I ate here twice. There are three morning glory restaurants in Hoi An. They are all in historic buildings which create a very nice atmosphere. The food is traditionally prepared and reminds of street food. There is a great selection of vegetarian options as well, one of my favourites were the smoked aubergines.
Nu Eatery: One of my favourite places to eat in Hoi An. Seasonal small plates, perfect for someone travelling alone. I ate pork-belly buns and the classic Vietnamese salad with pineapple and pomelo. They also have amazing chilli and ginger ice cream!
Old House of Tan Ky: This House was built two centuries ago by a Vietnamese family. This house has been preserved through seven generations. Japanese and Chinese influences can be found in the architecture.
Precious Heritage Art Gallery Museum: My favourite stop in Hoi An. A cross between a museum and a gallery. A combination of amazing photos of Vietnam's hill tribes with artefacts and clothing collected from each group during the photographers wide-ranging travels in remote areas. More about this further down.
Reaching Out Teahouse: Great service from the staff here, fantastic quality tea, coffee and biscuits. A range of local blends of both coffee and tea as well as refreshing fruit juices. A charming atmosphere of an ancient, tastefully decorated house in the heart of the town. The staff is speech and hearing impaired and you are welcomed and treated with smiles and the friendliest gestures. I went here a few times, it’s the perfect place to relax and read.
Sunday Shop: Probably my favourite shop in Hoi An. Here is a quote from their website:  “The team at Sunday in Hoi An has sought to work with master artisans from various handicraft villages throughout Vietnam and Southeast Asia to create beautiful handmade products from natural materials such as bamboo, silk, linen, wood… We are passionate about curating a chic and sustainable experience and lifestyle using the exceptional creative skills that our artisans have to offer. And we hope that by doing so, we can deliver a little sunshine from Hoi An to enrich your life and the space you live in.”
Thanh Ha Terracotta Park: This is a place I really wanted to visit but unfortunately didn’t have time to… The museum presents an overview of the history of terracotta in different countries and cultures around the world. Often there are local craftspeople in residence in the museum's workshop and you can see them creating.
U Cafe: U Cafe is a hidden gem in Hoi An. Almost unknown by tourists, (a friend recommended it to me) and mostly visited by locals. It is owned by a Japanese lady. This cafe only uses organic products from local farmers and offers delicious coffees with a great view of the river. The facilities are very clean and nice, with beautiful fish ponds in two floors. It's a good spot to relax and sip a nice cup of coffee while enjoying the sunset.
White Marble Wine Bar: Hoi An’s only wine bar! It is located on the corner of Nguyen Thai Hoc and Le Loi Street, which makes it a great place for people-watching. It is a bit pricey for South East Asia, however I think its worth it. The food, wine and cocktails are all amazing and so is the staff. I loved everything about this place and I would definitely go there again next time I am in Hoi An.
The Espresso Station: My favourite cafe and coffee in Hoi An. It is tucked down a cute little alleyway, it has a really nice garden setting and it’s very chilled with a relaxed vibe and very friendly staff. I tried the dark soul latte which is an espresso blended with hot creamy milk and Activated Charcoal. I also tried the pink latte which consists of steam milk and beetroot and no caffeine. Both were really nice! They also have amazing granola that they prepare themselves.

It’s important to note that more than 800 historic buildings in Hoi An have been preserved and that is why the Old Town looks like it used to look several centuries ago. Eighteen of these buildings are open to visitors and requite a pass/ticket for admission. (The fee goes towards funding conservation work.) Each ticket allows you to visit five different heritage attractions from a total selection of 22 including museums, assembly halls, ancient houses etc. I didn’t get the ticket however a few people I met got it and said it was worth it.

One of the things I did while in Hoi An was a lantern making workshop. I found this on the AirBnB website under Hoi An experiences. Hoi An is well known for it’s lanterns, which decorate houses, streets and temples. Traditionally the lanterns were only made of silk and the shapes in which they were made were limited. However, with the passage of time, lantern makers have diversified not only the shapes of the lantern but also the fabric and structure which they use to make them. As a result now, a lot of the lanterns around Hoi An are shaped as lotuses, diamonds, triangles and garlics, and they are made from a cardboard structure (instead of bamboo) and nylon fabric (instead of silk). I made a lantern the traditional way, with bamboo sticks and silk. The lantern is foldable which made it a convenient hand made souvenir for me to carry home.

As I mentioned above, my favourite stop in Hoi An was the Precious Heritage Museum. The Precious Heritage Museum and Art Gallery is home to the permanent exhibition of Réhahn’s Precious Heritage Collection.

Rehahn is a photographer who travelled around Vietnam, taking photos and collecting traditional clothing from all the ethnic groups of Vietnam. “No one can deny that the Vietnamese are one of the most resilient nations in the world. Their ability to adapt to their environment and the ever-changing times is something to be admired. Vietnam is incredibly rich in diversity and celebrates it in many ways.”

The museum consists of five rooms, it presents hundreds of portraits and over 60 costumes. As you visit each room you can follow Rehahn’s 8 year journey documenting 51 out of the 54 ethnic tribes left in Vietnam.

One of my favourite Northern ethnic groups are the Lo Lo. This ethnic group is divided into three subgroups: the Flower (photos above), the Red and the Black. The latter get their names from the main colour of their traditional clothes, whereas the Flower Lo Lo get it from their colourful costumes. The Lo Lo flower still make their traditional costume today. It is considered one of the finest in Vietnam, and one of the most expensive ones. A costume costs around 1200$ which makes sense since it is covered with more than 4000 triangles sewn after the appliqué technique and it takes two hours to stitch five of them! A full costume might take a year to be created.

The flower H’mong is a subgroup of the H’mong ethnic group and are considered to be one of the most colourful. A lot of the cultural history can be found in the intricate symbolic textiles and patterns that these people produce. The costumes are filled with so many details, and take up to six months to be created.

According to Rehahn, the traditional costume above was one of the hardest to find. He visited 20 villages until finally meeting a woman who owned the original version. The Cor women traditionally wear it with necklaces made out of tiny beads following the same patterns of colours.

There are three Ta Oi subgroups. From these three, only one, the Kan Tua people know how to make the traditional costume. This weaving technique is called zeng and what’s special about it is that there are tiny glass beads woven in the brocade pattern. This local craftsmanship is slowly disappearing but thankfully local women have started workshops not only to manufacture the costume again but to teach this technique. I will definitely be doing a workshop like this next time I am in Vietnam.

The Dao have nine subgroups. Each has their own traditional costume, to distinguish you have to pay attention to the colours but also the way clothes and accessories are draped, tied and worn. The women use indigo to dye their costumes and the batik technique to create beautiful patterns.

This museum really celebrates craftsmanship, history, customs and makers! Through a collection of traditional costumes of 51 ethnic groups the museum shows the diversity, techniques and beauty of traditional dress. Hemp, indigo, batik, appliqué, embroidery — all these show the ancestral material and knowledge and how they are 100% handmade!

Tribes in the north such as the H’mong are still cultivating hemp, a naturally coarse fibre that involves a very time-consuming process before being spun. The same way, Indigo which is derived from the plant is the result of a long series of steps: collecting, drying, fermenting, oxidising, making the powder and then dyeing. (more on the process of how indigo is made on my Thailand blog post)

Batik, which is drawing designs with bee wax on material (usually cotton or hemp) before dipping it into an indigo bath to dye and reveal the patterns. The H’mong usually dye their batiks up to 15 times. Between each bath they usually let it dry 1 or 2 days. The process is very time consuming. The Ta Oi costume which consists of thousands of beads handwoven on cloth take months to make and so does the flower Lo Lo embroidery and appliqué.

The museum really focuses and stresses the amount of work, time and effort put in each one of these costumes. It also really explains each technique with text and photos. This is really important, especially because tourists can understand the process of creating these textiles. I saw so many tourists bargaining and asking for lower prices for items that are 100% handmade and it made me so angry. People in South East Asia are already selling items for much lower prices than things are worth. Hopefully visiting this museum educates people to understand and value the makers of these handmade heirlooms.

One of the day trips I did while in Hoi An was to visit Mỹ Sơn ruins. Mỹ Sơn is a group of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples, constructed between the 4th and the 14th century by the kings of Champa. The temples are dedicated to the worship of the god Shiva. Mỹ Sơn is located near the village of Duy Phú, 69 km southwest of Da Nang.

From the 4th to the 14th century AD, the valley at Mỹ Sơn was a site of religious ceremony for kings of the ruling dynasties of Champa, as well as a burial place for Cham royalty and national heroes. Mỹ Sơn is perhaps the longest inhabited archaeological site in Asia, but a large majority of it's architecture was destroyed by US bombing during only a week of the Vietnam War. At 1999 Mỹ Sơn was recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Its definitely worth a visit, it reminded me of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. There is also a small museum close to the entrance which provides lots of information about the history of Vietnam, how the temples were built, the Vietnam War and more.

The other day trip I did was to visit the Ba Na Hills. I have mixed feelings about this place. First of all, it’s expensive for what it is I think. It’s also very touristy and not in a good way. Way too many people, everywhere, everything is packed… However, I wanted to see the Golden Bridge which opened in June 2018. It is a 150 metres long pedestrian bridge, which has two giant stone hands designed to appear to support the structure.

The Ba Na Hills complex is one of the newest projects in Vietnam. It’s a mountaintop resort complex that looks like a medieval castle (which felt weird to be honest, I arrived and felt like I was back in Europe). It’s apparently made to remind you of the French Alps. The buildings are all European-style. I understand this might be really cool in the eyes of some people, but I didn’t like it. The restaurants and cafes had European/Asian fusion menus with prices that were wayyyy to high. There is also a wax museum (which again I found really random) and an amusement park.

One of the things I liked the most was the Cable Car which opened in 2013 and is the longest non-stop single track cable car and is almost 6,000 metres in length. It was amazing to be in there and look beneath you. The view was amazing, waterfalls, lakes, rivers, nature in all its glory. You can see Da Nang and the coast in the distance. This I really loved, and I was lucky to get on a cable car all by myself on the way down.

Anyway, I am glad I visited and some of the things I saw were really nice and interesting. However, it’s not a place I would visit again.

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I enjoyed my time in Hoi An, it is a place I’d like to visit again if I am ever back in Vietnam. The food was great and there are definitely lots of shops, restaurants and cafes that I would go back to. I loved the colours of Hoi An they will definitely be a source of inspiration! For me, the most important place I visited was the Precious Heritage Museum and I hope that you will visit it if you are there.

Next week I will be writing about my time in Ho Chi Minh City as well as a very short trip back to Chiang Mai for the lantern festival (Loy Krathong), and two weaving workshops!

Have a lovely weekend,

xx

Christiana

Vietnam Week Eleven: Hue

After four days in Sapa and one night in Hanoi, I took a plane and went to the South of Vietnam. While planning my time in the South, I tried to find some workshops but unfortunately couldn’t. It seems that the south has lost it’s traditions and has become modernised. People seemed more westernised and the two places I visited —Hue and Hoi An were very touristic. They are both very picturesque, with wonderful colour palettes and colour inspiration in every corner. However, I didn’t feel like I was seeing the original or authentic Vietnam while I was there.

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I stayed in Hue, the former capital of Vietnam for four nights. I stayed in this Airbnb which was really nice. It was easy to walk to lots of places and the people that owned it were very helpful, recommending things for me to do and see as well as places to eat. They also booked a hiking excursion for me as well as a motorcycle tour. The Airbnb is not were most of the hostels are but it’s in a peaceful area, and you can walk around to lots of places. However, I was the only one walking — I literally saw NO ONE walking in this city. Everyone is on a scooter, or a grab, or a car or a tuk tuk. Men kept stopping and asking me if I need a ride and why am I walking. (Vietnam was the only place I didn’t feel very comfortable in while travelling alone). Men stopping me every two minutes to ask if I need a ride and then keep driving next to me until I had to say I’m married or something else like that was quite annoying. Especially because I like walking and that’s what I had been doing in all other places I visited, especially for short distances. Anyway, Hue has some really beautiful spots and it’s a shame not walking around the town to see them. Here are some photos:

The first day I only walked around in the afternoon and then went for dinner. Here is a list of places I visited throught my trip in Hue:

Dong Ba Market: I always try visit markets in all the places I go to and it was nice to see this one too. You can buy everything here from souvenirs to spices to food and clothes.
Gecko Pub: I went here for a drink one of the nights I was in Hue, it was nice, lots of young travellers visit this place.
Hope Centre: The Hope Centre focuses on assisting disabled and disadvantaged people by providing them with vocational training and work opportunities. The Centre also works with several Minority Groups living in the A-Luoi district situated in the mountainous region that’s near the Lao border. Artisans produce a variety of products from different materials and hand crafted jewellery. The A-Luoi weavers also contribute with their hand woven fabric, scarves and handbags.
Hue Museum of Royal Antiquities: This museum is really close to the Imperial City (you need to have the Imperial City ticket to enter) More about the museum further down the post.
Imperial City : The citadel within a citadel, or the old capital of Vietnam. Read more about this further down.
Le Ba Dang Art Museum: One of my favourite Museums, amazing work by a Vietnamese artist who lived in France for most of his life. Definitely recommend visiting it — more about the museum further down.
Lien Hoa Vegetarian: Very nice vegetarian food and friendly stuff.
Minh Mang Tomb: You need the Imperial City ++ ticket to get in here and you have to take a scooter or tuk tuk, it’s beautiful and definitely worth it. More further down the post.
Nam Giao Esplanade: If it’s on the way I recommend you visit this Heaven and Earth altar.
Nha Hang Ancient Hue: Traditional Hue food.
Nina’s Cafe: I really liked this cafe, it has breakfast, light lunch and dinner options as well as coffee and other drinks.
Nook Eatery: One of my favourite places in Hue, really cosy and small restaurant with tables at the very colourful terrace. Can be a bit expensive for South East Asia standards but it’s still nice for a drink and some snack. They also play really nice music and the atmosphere is great.
Royal Tomb of Khai Dinh King: You need the Imperial City ++ ticket to get in here and you have to take a scooter or tuk tuk, it’s beautiful and definitely worth it. More further down the post.
Ta.ke Japanese Restaurant: If you miss some sushi and other Japanese food here is the place to go.
Thien Mu Pagoda: A nice walk from the Imperial City, a lot of people go there with bikes as well. I would recommend you visit it (more further down).
Thuy Tien lake Abandoned Water Park: Slightly creepy but at the same time strangely photogenic and picturesque place to visit. Definitely recommend it and you can read more about it further down.
Tu Duc Tomb: You need the Imperial City ++ ticket to get in here and you have to take a scooter or tuk tuk, it’s beautiful and definitely worth it. More further down the post.
XQ Embroidery Museum: Very romantic art pieces all done with hand-embroidery. It’s a nice little stop if you are close it. (more further down)

The next day I visited the Imperial City. A citadel within a citadel, it housed the emperor’s residence, temples as well as palaces. Unfortunately, only a fraction of the original Imperial city is left, since it was heavily bombed during the French and the American Wars. Only 20 of the 148 original buildings have survived. I bought the ticket for the citadel as well as the two tombs (it’s worth it). I visited the tombs two days later.

It is quite difficult to navigate in the old citadel, they give you a map but its not clear where you are or where you are going. There are no signs or labels anywhere inside the citadel. That’s how I ended up bumping into Julia — asking her for directions. She was as lost as I was, so we ended up walking together. I loved all the colours, patterns and details found in every corner of the buildings.

I also visited the Hue Royal Antiquities Museum. The collection reflects the social, ritual, political and spiritual life of the aristocracy under the Nguyen dynasty. There are costumes, porcelains, furniture, daily life facilities and ritual items. It was interesting to see things made from different materials such as silver, gold bronze, bone, ivory, ceramics, wood, paper as well as fabrics. Unfortunately photos weren’t allowed.

After some light lunch, I went to the Le Ba Dang Art Museum. Le Ba Dang was born in 1921 in Vietnam, but moved to France in his late teens, he studied in Toulouse and graduated from Fine Art University there. He is quite famous and had exhibitions all over the world, France England, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the USA as well as Japan and India.

The museum is situated by the Perfume River. Over 300 pieces are exhibited. He combines Eastern with Western cultures and artistic styles. He works with a lot of different media, oil paints, watercolours, fabric, collage, wood and metal. I really liked his work and style. Here are some photos:

Next, I went to the XQ Embroidery Museum. They welcomed me with tea, and a lady took me around the museum, answering questions. It was nice to see artisans at work, embroidering. The embroidery here is more modern, and not as traditional as the embroidery I saw in the North of Vietnam. The pieces here were more romantic, with lots of colours (chemical threads) and flowery patterns. The work was beautiful.

The following day I went to the Bach Ma National Park. The owner of the Airbnb booked this hiking excursion for me and it was great. It was a full day of hiking, we saw tunnels from the wars, waterfalls, lots of different insects and bats. I didn’t take down the name of the company but I am sure that if you asked you would find something similar to what I did. The good thing was that we were the only group there (around 25 people). We had two guides which helped us. Some of the parts were difficult and slippery (it also rained while we were there — but they were very prepared, they even gave us raincoats). I really enjoyed it. I definitely recommend wearing trousers and hiking boots though. We had to cross some rivers, and there were loads of leeches. Definitely worth it though.

The next day in Hue (again with the help of my Airbnb host) I went on a motorcycle tour. Dung was my driver, he has been doing this job for around 20 years. He usually takes people from Hue to Hoi An. He has a proper motorcycle, not a scooter. In the beginning it was a bit scary but I quickly got over it and ended up loving every minute on that bike. First we went to the Thuy Tien lake Abandoned Water Park. It’s supposed to be closed however you can still go in if you pay a fee. I paid a dollar to the people that were at the entrance and then walked in. I was the only one there, and it was great — I imagined it a bit bigger but it was still a nice experience and I recommend it. Here are some photos:

Next we went to the Tu Duc Tomb, the Royal Tomb of Khai Dinh King and the Minh Mang Tomb. (To enter you have to have the ticket for with the Imperial City ++).

The Tomb of Tu Duc was built for the Nguyễn Emperor of the same name and took three years to build from 1864–1867. It is divided into a Temple Area and a Tomb Area. The emperor Tu Duc reigned the longest of any monarch of the Nguyen dynasty, ruling from 1848-1883. It is a shame that there is almost no information (labels or anything like that) to read next to these temples/tombs/buildings… However, it is amazing to see how elaborate the designs of these places were. The details are all so well thought through.

The Royal Tomb of Khai Dinh is located in Chau Chu mountain near Hue. It was built for the twelfth Emperor of the Nguyen dynasty. It was built from 1920 to 1931 taking 11 years to complete. The tomb is a blend of Western and Eastern architecture. This tomb is also interesting to see. I liked how dark all these buildings looked from outside and how colourful they were at the entrances and inside.

Finally, the Minh Mang Tomb. This King was the second ruler of the Nguyen Dynast. He governed the southern and central Vietnam from 1820 to 1840. He implemented an extensive building program, which included construction of his own funeral complex in the southwest corner of the city. Set along the Perfume River, the burial site comprises 40 structures, including a building for the emperor’s clothes, pavilions for mourners, and the tomb itself. The buildings are elaborate with lots of bright colours, detailed patterns, ornaments and finishes.

Here are some photos of all three sites: