All posts by duckie

Project Beans is taking shape and the countdown is on!

Today is exactly 3 months from my departure date… eep, excitement!!

At this point, stage two of Project Beans is well under way and as you may expect the plans have morphed a little and now has three phases.

Travel Phase 1

All booked, paid and locked in!!

I felt like I wasn’t quite ok to travel South America solo, so I booked two tours. The first tour explores the West Coast (Peru and Bolivia) and the other the East Coast (Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil). Some of the highlights of these tours include: The Amazon, hiking the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, visiting the Salt Flats of Bolivia, mountain biking Death Road in Bolivia (not yet included but I will find a way to make it fit), staying on a ranch in Uruguay, visiting the Iguassu Falls and visiting Rio de Janeiro!!!
My friend CD and his friend Jen will also be coming along for the ride, which will be pretty awesome.

From South America I will hightail it to Istanbul, Turkey. I have a few days to myself before I will be joined by my mum and together we will do a quick whip around Turkey, the highlights of which will be Istanbul, Cappadocia and Pamukkale.

From there, we need to head straight to The Netherlands, to the beautiful little town of Sliedrecht for the wedding of my cousin. Apart from the obvious wedding excitement, it will be a great, but short, time to just chill out and enjoy my family’s company.

Travel Phase 2

P1080240 (Large)Together with a group of four others from the Department of Education Tasmania, I have been awarded a Hardie Fellowship to investigate best practices in STEM education. This means that we are paid to go on a study tour of the US. This includes visits to schools who are leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), a tour of Silicon Valley (OMG – nerd heaven!!!), a technology in education conference and then we each need to actually study at a university. I have to wait for the dates and course costs to be released, but at this stage I am hoping to do a course at MIT and another one at Stanford (double OMG – more nerd heaven!!!!)

The study tour is about 5-6 weeks, after which I hope to bump out my return dates so I can explore New York and Chicago; maybe even squish in a quick trip to Central America, before heading back to Europe. There’s also a few people I hope to catch up with while in the US.

Travel Phase 3

Once I am back in Europe my plan still includes exploring as much of Spain as humanly possible, walking El Camino de Santiago, learning Spanish, exploring Portugal and also Morocco. Lately I have also been thinking about throwing in a trip to Iceland, as I have heard great stories and seen amazing pictures.

Despite having some ideas of what I would like to do, phase 3 is currently completely unplanned and this is exciting!!!

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P2P Success!!

IMG_6062In preparation for the point to pinnacle, I did the Tasman Trail run – and boy did I struggle!! It was 18km of single track through the bush in the drizzle and a large chunk of it was up a big hill! I walked a large proportion of the course and held my team mate back (though he didn’t complain at all), but after about 3 hours we crossed the finish line! At which point I could barely stand up and almost passed out. This didn’t feel like a positive precursor to the point to pinnacle, but I remained positive.

IMG_6344Continuing with training but also in need of some time out, my running buddy (Mark) and I decided to have a weekend away. We headed up to the East Coast, drank delicious wines, ate loads, relaxed and crammed in an 11km trail run of the Hazards – Wineglass Bay Circuit. It was a gorgeous day and we thoroughly enjoyed the amazing scenery.

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Soon enough it was time to pound the pavement and head up ..to the pinnacle of course!

It was an overcast day, but not too cold, perfect for the Project Beans Running Team (Mark, Anna, Sue and I, and we were joined at the last minute by Klaas) to tackle the challenge.

We paced ourselves and slowly made our way up the mountain, Mark and I ran fairly consistently until the Springs (roughly 13km), after that we ran on and off for a few kilometres, before walking the last 5-6 kms, we made it over the finish line in just under 3 hours.

A year ago I had never even run 4km, yet 12 months later I ran the majority (and walked the rest) of the worlds toughest half marathon. It shows you what you can achieve when you set your mind to it.

I am very proud of myself and my team for achieving this goal, and for everyone who supported me along the way. I’d also like to say thanks to everyone who contributed to my fundraising efforts – together we raised almost $1000 for the Fight Cancer Foundation.

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Time to get fit!

IMG_4874Something I committed to this year, if you remember, is the Point to Pinnacle half marathon. It’s starting to get very close, in fact it’s only four weeks away!

In preparation for this epic undertaking, I have been training, doing loads of barrecode classes to build up strength and trying to run regularly. I ran 10 km’s for the first time in my life when I entered the Ross Marathon (the 10km run) a few weeks ago; and in two weeks time I will attempt the Tasman Arch Run, it’s an 18km trail run, which I expect to have amazing scenery!

Considering 10km’s is the longest I have ever run – I certainly don’t expect to run the full Tasman Arch Run or Point to Pinnacle. However I have set myself the realistic goal of running at least 10km and finishing within the allowed time.

While I am generally not the person who jumps at the chance to do exercise, pushing myself to get fit and active has certainly had a positive impact on my mental health – so I continue to get my runners on and head out the door on a regular basis.

Those who know me, know I have struggled with mental health in the last few years and one factor that contributed to that was the loss of my dad to cancer. So I have been using the Point to Pinnacle as an opportunity to fundraise for Cancer Research, my charity is the Fight Cancer Foundation. I would appreciate any support you would like to give, to try and end this problem that affects too many people. I have had loads of support already and am very close to reaching my fundraising target – to exceed that target would be amazing!

Support the Fight Cancer Foundation via Cat Stam’s attempt at the Point to Pinnacle

Photo taken from the start location of the P2P, finish is the peak of the mountain.
Photo taken from the start location of the P2P, the finish line is on the peak of the mountain.
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Numinous

NUMINOUS (adj.)
Origin: Latin. Describing an experience that makes you fearful yet fascinated, awed yet attracted- the powerful, personal feeling of being overwhelmed and inspired.

I love to travel and have travelled regularly since I was 3 months old.
Why is it that every time I arrive in a new place I have a moment of terror, almost bursting into tears, doubting my choices and my travelling ability?

Whenever I have time and money, the first thing I do is figure out which country I can visit for the money and time frame I have to work with. I book my ticket and am all excited.

I pack my bag and just before I jump on the plane, there’s a little bit of doubt creeping in.

I land at my destination, all confident, I grab my bag, pass through customs and then it hits me, racing through my mind are a series of questions:

  • How will I communicate with people?
  • How will I be able to organize transport, where will I find the information I need?
  • What if the accommodation is horrible and cockroach infested?
  • What if I can’t figure out what is in the food, and don’t find anything edible?
  • What if I get harassed?
  • What if my stuff gets stolen?
  • I don’t remember ever having done these things before, did someone do them for me, was I just the tag-along?

Then my reasoning brain starts to kick in with answers like:

  • You have common sense and experience
  • You did some research already
  • You have a lonely planet guide
  • You have wifi
  • If the accommodation is rubbish, just check out and go elsewhere (and leave an honest review on tripadvisor)
  • You can eat vegetarian food if you are that worried
  • You can use drawings and hand signals if language is an issue (this was how I figured out I had eaten cows testicles in china)
  • You have never lost anything ever, have never had things stolen and besides, you have travel insurance
  • You are the driving force and decision maker in almost every holiday you have been on
  • You have done this before, countless times – deal with it already!

Having this experience you look around and think everyone else looks so confident and that you are the only person feeling this way. But in fact, chances are that most people are feeling the same way you do and to them you probably look like the confident one.

To grow in life and have meaningful experiences we must continually challenge ourselves, and not give in to doubts. “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave (wo)man is not (s)he who does not feel afraid but who conquers that fear” Nelson Mandela.
So after the moment of panic you just say to yourself “I got this!”

In the moments where you once again feel the doubt creeping in, then it’s worth remembering the Irish proverb: “A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.”

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Inle Lake, Myanmar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAArriving at Inle Lake was a bit of a rude shock: at 2am someone got on our bus demanded money and then told us to get off the bus – all legit but entirely unexpected. It took us a moment to start moving, we paid our $2 entry fee to the Inle Lake region, stumbled off the bus and grabbed our bag. We had expected to arrive at Inle around 5am during daylight hours but were evidently mistaken. A trio of travellers from Peru had booked a hotel, so the rest of us just jumped in the taxi with them and we all headed to the same hotel. Six of us turned up at this hotel at 2:30am, they didn’t ask questions but just gave us each keys and showed us where our rooms were. We were most grateful!

Inle Lake is 22km long and 11km wide. At the very northern top of the lake and up a canal is where the town of Nyuangshwe can be found. This is the main traveller centre for the Inle Lake area.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe stayed at the May Guest House and while I found the bed uncomfortable and for many reasons had the worst sleep here (I’m generally a bad sleeper to start with) – the staff more than made up for it. They were friendly and helpful, they booked tours and transport for us, gave good, helpful advice and their prices were very good. May was located just off the main road, as was basically every hotel since Nyuangshwe essentially only seemed to have one main road. This small town is fairly sleepy and small, and it is easily explored on foot.

 

Boat Tour on the Lake

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA must-do activity at Inle Lake is a boat tour. There are usually a few slight variations to pick from, but they all have the same core activities and essentially the longer tours go further down the lake and visit different villages.  You do feel a little bit like a cash cow on these tours; they take you to silver smiths, blacksmiths, umbrella makers, cigar makers, boat builders, lotus fabric weavers and local markets. While they are hopeful that you buy what they are making, don’t feel that you have to. It is a good opportunity to see how some things are made and interesting to see how the people live. It is also good to know that if you do buy directly from the person who made it, more of the money is likely to go to the community rather than to the government.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI really enjoyed the boat cruising between all the stilt houses so we could see the lifestyle of the people living on the lake. The particular boat tour we chose included a visit to the jumping cat monastery, which I found a real disappointment. Most of the cats seemed unwell, were skinny and had gunky eyes and I most certainly did not see any cats jumping through hoops. I call this ‘false advertising’. The monastery itself was quite lovely though, in the lake surrounded by floating tomato crops. Yes, that’s what I said, floating tomato crops – really quite amazing to see.

The tour had two main highlights for me: Inn Daing and the fishermen.

Inn Daing was a little village along the lakes western shore. We stopped here to wander around one of the five day markets and the village itself. Up on the hill behind the center of this tiny village were a number of abandoned stupas, all in various states of disrepair. They were really quite eerie and beautiful; broken down, trees growing in and on them, but still standing majestic on the hillside.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe fishermen were all around the lake in their long shallow boats. Some had nets to throw, others had the small cages to drop into the water, with their nets in the water they were often seen splashing the water with their paddle to scare fish into the nets. If they weren’t busy with their nets, the men would mostly stand at the bow of their boat and somehow wrap their foot around the paddle and paddle with one foot while standing, balanced, on the other. I never saw any fishermen catch fish, but they were pretty cool to watch.

Hot tip for boat tours, you spend the entire day fully exposed to the elements. Bring hats, sunscreen, sunglasses, raincoats etc. We experienced a light drizzle, some glaring sun but thankfully it was an overcast day. Unfortunately for them, our Peruvian friends had a full day in the glaring sun.

 

Red Mountain Vineyard

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn afternoon excursion worth doing is renting a bicycle and riding east  and then south roughly parallel to the lake, to Red Mountain Vineyard. It is approximately an 8km ride through some farm areas and smaller towns. As you head up into the hills the jungle-like surrounds are a lush green and the earth beneath is such a deep red colour, which is incredibly striking to see. The vineyard, aptly named red mountain, is on a hillside overlooking the lake.  A perfect spot to relax with a glass of wine and watch the sun set. We had a wine tasting for 2000kyats (US$2) each,  and this gave us four half glasses of wine to try; Sauvignon Blanc, Rose, Shiraz and a Late Harvest. I’m not particularly a wine snob, though I do appreciate a nice wine but I didn’t love these wines. The Late Harvest wasn’t too bad so after my tasting I ordered a glass of that and my friend ordered a Pinot Noir to try (which was better than the Shiraz) and we enjoyed the amazing view  and the warmth of the sun as it sank into slowly into the hills.

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Day Trip to Pindaya

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApproximately 2.5hours drive (our driver was an absolute hoon!) north-north-west of Nyaungshwe is a town called Pindaya. The road between Nyuangshwe and Pindaya passed through many small towns and farmland. Along the way people would stop to wave at the car as it passed by. People could be seen plowing the fields, weeding their crops, crushing rocks and constructing roads. The highlight of the drive for me was the fields of sunflowers, they are such happy flowers.

Pindaya is quite a small town, with not a whole lot to offer. It’s main attraction is the Shwe OO Min Natural Cave Pagoda. Up on the hillside above Pone Taloke Lake, you enter the cave via a covered staircase. Inside the cave are winding tunnels and Buddha’s as far as the eye can see. The caves contain more than 8700 Buddha’s. It was quite enchanting to wander the maze of Buddha’s seeing the different designs and also who had donated (or funded them).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADeeper into the cave were some funny signs “Mythical horse’s tethering pole” and “Fairy bathing”, and funky smells. At the very end of the cave was the sign “Terilinus of Cave” (I assume they meant Terminus) below which was a man sized hole dropping deeper into the cave. The way the path led straight to the hole made you question whether you were supposed to follow it into the hole, until you had a closer look!

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After our cave expedition, we made a quick stop at the market in the center of Pindaya. We got caught in a downpour, but still wandered around. The Pindaya market wasn’t overly exciting, but we did see a more bizarre variety of foods to be purchased, including small eels and things that look like silk worms or maggots. We also almost got stuck in the middle of a dog fight where one dog had thieved a bag of offal from a  stall and another dog tried to snatch it. There were many bared teeth to be seen and deep growls to be heard – we even almost got splattered with the ‘goodies’ in the bag as the dogs fought over it!

 

Cycle to Kaung Daing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA really enjoyable half day was spent cycling from Nyuangshwe to Kaung Daing, and back, along the western side of the lake (I would like to say along the ‘shore’ of the lake, but honestly the road is nowhere near the water). Given that the days get so hot and with very little shade, we made an early start to our 26km return trip (13km and 1.5hrs each way). Life in Myanmar starts very early in the day, so by starting our own day early we got to see the local people going about their morning routines, washing themselves and their clothes in the river (I think I have mentioned previously, the Burmese wash fully clothed), fishing, getting into the fields to plow and weed and plant.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt one point along the road I stopped to take a photo of a group of farmers working the field together. As soon as they saw me, they all turned and waved excitedly, called out “Mingalaba” and some even did a little dance for me. They were very excited to have seen us stop on our way past. I thought it was fantastic to see such happy people and it certainly put a smile on my face.

Roughly 1km past the village of Kaung Daing is the Kaung Daing Hotel, inside the grounds is a hilltop pagoda. After parking our bikes in the shade, we walked up the steps to see two things: an adorable pagoda and an amazing view of the lake. The pagoda was very low key, a few monks and locals milling about chatting, preparing the meal of the day or simply relaxing. The décor was all pastels and the columns supporting the roof had beautifully coloured and interestingly design mosaics.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom the pagoda terrace you could see the fishermen in the lake throwing their nets and splashing water with their oars, you could see the floating villages and crops. It was just a stunning spot to be.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKaung Daing is known predominantly for two things: the Hot Springs and Tofu. We cycled straight past the hot springs, but cycling through the narrow lanes of the village was thoroughly fascinating. It seemed that every second house had reed matting outside drying something different. Some yards were full of tofu, while others had corn or sunflower seeds, mango fruit leather, rice cakes, fish cakes and more. In the yard of one house we also got to see a lady mixing up a batch of tofu in a big steel bowl over an open fire. It was such a pleasant place to cycle through and there were so many interesting things to look at.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt this point many people hire a boat to take them and their bikes back to Nyuangshwe, but we opted to cycle back. It got towards the middle of the day and we ended up getting rather sunburned, but it was such a pleasant trip, one that I would highly recommend.

Just a heads up, doctors advise that you take malaria medication when travelling to Myanmar, and one of the side effects is a sensitivity to the sun. I rarely get sunburned normally, and I got fried in Burma – I expect as a result of the malaria pills and obviously spending so much time in the full sun. So my friendly advice is sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat.

 Check out all my Inle Lake pictures on Flickr

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Bagan, Myanmar

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Beautiful Bagan – I have so much and so little to say about it. It is such beautiful place, so amazing that I haven’t the words to adequately describe it. But of course I will try (I will give some general info to start and a more detailed personal account further down).

To be honest we actually went to Bagan twice. We headed there from Yangon and after seeing a bunch of temples, I was like ”yeah I have seen it, we can move on” but after a few days at Lake Inle, I felt that I had actually been a bit rash in that decision and we booked a flight back to Bagan for another few days. The best decision ever!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom the 11th to the 13th century Bagan’s kings commissioned over 4000 Buddhist temples covering an area greater than 20 square miles. The temples have suffered damage from earthquakes, as well as neglect and some questionable restoration, yet they are still breathtaking to behold. From anywhere in Bagan you can look out across the plains and see hundreds of temples. Many of the temples look similar at first glance, but they all have slight variations and features that make each one unique and interesting.

Arriving in Bagan:

To enter the Bagan region you must buy a ticket for $15USD, there is a booth at the airport where this ticket can be purchased. If you arrive by train (and I assume bus station) your taxi driver will stop at the ticket booth by the roadside.
These tickets may be checked, ours were checked twice, both times at popular sunset spots.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHowever you arrive, you will be approached by a myriad of taxi drivers asking you which hotel you want to stay in and to come with them. The airport, train station and bus station are all quite a distance from both towns, so I would recommend a taxi.
Riding in the back of a pickup we paid $10USD (10,000kyat) to get from the train station to Nyuang U and $7USD (7000kyat) to travel from the airport to New Bagan. When some fellow travellers hopped in a proper car as opposed to a pickup they were charged more money for travelling the same distance as us. It may or may not a correct assumption, but I feel that cars may be more expensive.
When our hotel in Nyaung U booked our bus trip for us the ride to the bus station was included in the ticket cost, and when our New Bagan hotel organised a taxi back to the airport I think we paid $20USD (20,000kyat).
So basically, in low season I think you can expect to pay anywhere between 7000 and 20,000 – but I recommend bartering a bit for a good deal.

Where to stay:

Having been to Bagan twice in the one holiday, we stayed in Nyuang U and New Bagan.
I feel that Nyuang U had a few more budget accommodation options and perhaps a few more restaurants. It was a bit further from the temples than New Bagan, and when returning in the middle of the day or in the evening, it was a slight uphill ride the whole way. There were also fewer random temples by the roadside.

In New Bagan we stayed on the outskirts of town, there certainly were fewer restaurants than Nyaung U, but it had a more chilled out feel to it. There were fewer people around which I didn’t see as a negative. Between New Bagan and Old Bagan, the distance was shorter and there were more things to see along the way.

Purely based on distance to the temples and things to see along the way, I would recommend staying in New Bagan.

If you aren’t on a backpacker budget, then I would highly recommend finding a hotel with a pool!


Tours and Transport:

All the hotels have the facilities to book any kind of transport for you, both locally and in helping you reach your next destination. Their prices are competitive and the staff are very helpful, we got some great advice this way! We rented bikes, e-bikes and booked tours, cars, buses and flights through our hotels and they were great.

For a half day trip to Mt Popa we needed a minimum of two people and I think it was going to be 8000kyat each, then once more people joined the group it was reduced to 6000Kyat per person. (I didn’t write down the prices, so I am going from memory on this one)

Climate:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABagan is hot! I really mean that, it’s crazy hot. We travelled to Bagan in July, rainy season, though we felt humidity but no rain. The days were 30 degrees Celsius by 7am, and temperatures increased to 36, with a heat index of 41. There were a few (ok multiple) occasions where I got so swept up in “I want to look at that temple and that temple and that temple” that it got to the middle of the day and we were stuck out in the baking heat with no respite. I don’t advise this. Restaurants don’t have air conditioners for a start, and if you are looking at temples there is often no shade to hide in. In being respectful to the culture and taking off your shoes before entering a temple complex you very quickly burn your poor little feet! If you absolutely must visit temples in the middle of the day, I strongly advise sticking to the white tiles.

My hot tip for visiting Bagan: get up crazy early and start sightseeing around 6:30am. Head back to your hotel for a siesta around 11, then head back out in the late afternoon and stay out for a sunset.

Cultural Respect:

It is appropriate to dress modestly, try to have your shoulders and knees covered, take off your shoes and socks when entering temples. I recommend keeping a scarf or sarong in your bag so you can cover up when entering temples, if you aren’t already wearing the right clothing.

If you are sitting on the ground, be mindful not to point the soles of your feet at anyone, a buddha image or a pagoda. Also do not offer to shake hands with a monk or nun, and don’t touch their robes.

How to plan your day:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI think Bagan is a little overwhelming to start with, there are so many temples, how do you choose which ones to visit?

My initial plan was to seek out a combination of “One day in Bagan” and the “Temples of Bagan Highlights” listed in my Lonely Planet, but visit them in the order that was closest to the hotel and work my way out from there.

After a few days of exploring the temples, I think the best advice is to take your time, don’t try to visit too many temples in one go. Be smart about what time of the day you go sightseeing.

A plan that worked for us was to head to the furthest most temple on our ‘to see’ list in the morning and work our way backwards, that way we cycled the longest distance before it got too hot. In the afternoon we did the opposite, cycle short distances and work our way out towards the furthest point. So by the time we cycled back it was cooling down.

While it is probably obvious, decide what order you want to see things in based on their proximity to each other and their location ie. don’t ping backwards and forwards.

My top temples list:

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North Guni
  • North Guni
  • Pyathada  (We had our tickets checked here at sunset)
  • Sulamani Pahto
  • Gu byauk gyi: The temple looks quite lovely from the outside, but has no stand-out aspects. Inside however, it has well preserved paintings and is quite amazing.
  • Thabeik Hmauk: I thought it was fabulous but possibly more for the gorgeous people who were looking after it, than for the temple itself
  • The cluster of temples on the opposite side of the road to Upali Thein: Hti lo min lo, Paya nga zu group of temples and Khay min ga

This list is based more on my personal experiences at these temples, rather than the temple architecture or artwork. Most of my favourites were less popular temples and I enjoyed them because they didn’t have many tourists or hawkers.

Other temples worth seeing:

  • Ananda Pahto: While I didn’t love it, I think you’ve got to see it, but it doesn’t have the same charm as the smaller temples
  • Shwe san daw: It is a nice spot to view a sunset and as it is quite high it provides a really good view over the plains, but be prepared to deal with larger volumes of people and hawkers (We had our tickets checked here at sunset)
  • Na ga yon and Abe ya da na: on opposing sides of the road, were both really lovely to visit and not too busy.
  • That byin yu and Shwe gu gyi: These temples were very close to each other and were quite similar styles. Shwe gu gyi also had roof access and That byin yu had more interesting things to see inside the temple.

Getting around:

There are a few options: private car, horse and cart, bicycle, e-bike and walking; and it’s worth being aware that there are only two main sealed roads and a lot of time is spent on sandy paths.

Everything is very spread out and it’s crazy hot, so I would strongly advise against walking.

If you are very pressed for time then perhaps consider a private car.

Horse and cart, if this is your scene, go for it, but I felt that they were just for tourists and I wasn’t comfortable with the idea. I feel that the horses are poorly cared for and are not supposed to be in the area.

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So that leaves two options: bike or e-bike.
My personal choice was good old bicycle, I felt that an e-bike was a cop-out. Bike rentals were $2-$3 (2000-3000 kyat) per day. I really enjoyed cycling around and the slow pace allowed you to take in the surroundings, but I will say that it was exhausting!

After two full days cycling (I expect we did around 15km’s per day), we succumbed to the easier option of renting an e-bike. Rental was a bit more, $8 (8000 kyat) per day, but my goodness me it made getting around so much easier, you were also able to go faster which meant that you experienced a light breeze and had more time to explore the temples!

Child beggars / hawkers:

This is my own point of view, but it does stem from things I have seen in my travels as well as blog posts and articles I have read. While the children asking you to buy things from them or asking if you have any of your local currency are cute, “Do you have Australian dollars, I have never seen Australian dollars”, please don’t give them any. You are essentially paying them not be in school and it can make the problem worse.

My Personal Bagan Adventure

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe train ride from Yangon was rather epic. We had a small sleeper car with some seats, bunks and a teeny tiny bathroom, with a leaky roof (the 10+ hour torrential downpour posed a minor problem). The toilet in true Asian style, dropped straight onto the tracks, which meant I avoided using it for as long as possible! We had expected a 14 hour train trip and were a little cranky that it took closer to 20, with no access to the rest of the train and no real stops – food and water were a bit of a problem ie. there was none. A 4 minute train stop around 10pm gave us the opportunity to quickly buy a few samosas though the window, but we were otherwise on an involuntary hunger strike until early afternoon the following day. The train ride itself was “bumpy” and that is probably putting it mildly. The train was bouncing up and down or wobbling from side to side. I slept like a starfish, my arms and legs braced to keep me on the bunk. Numerous times I was convinced we were about to derail, and clearly the train driver agreed because each time it so bad I was starting to freak out, the brake was applied.

Small piece of advice for overnight/long haul train travel (and bus travel) – pack food, drinks, tissues and hand sanitizer!

As the train neared Bagan the red, dry savannah-esque landscape provided such a stark comparison to the damp, green Yangon. Few of the roads were sealed, most of the cars were pickup trucks that locals seemed to use as taxis, the tourists were riding bicycles and e-bikes with the occasional one being driven around with horse and cart. We suspect that the horse and carts we saw everywhere were specifically for tourists, and other than tethered to a cart we did not see any horses whatsoever in Myanmar. If locals were riding some kind of cart, it was usually being pulled by bullocks.

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Unknown Temple

With so much to see, we made a ‘plan of attack’ for sightseeing. Cycling down Bagan-Nyaung U Road I almost instantly diverted from our plan, as I saw a temple with people on the roof. It was a small temple, the name of which I don’t recall and can’t find on a map. Many of these smaller temples are managed and maintained by families. These smaller temples are often locked up and you have to find the “key holder” if you wish to go inside the temple. It is polite to give them some ‘tea money’ or buy one their souvenirs as a thank you. This particular temple is managed by a lovely young man and his brother, he explained how his family had managed the temple for years, by their father before them and their grandfather before him. He gave us a personal tour of the temple, pointing out the original structures and art work as well as showing where restorations had taken place. Something interesting that he shared about the construction was that the original plaster contained palm sugar or something similar, this meant that the bees would fly into the temples, eat the walls and also construct their hives on the them. You could still see the remnants of deserted hives. Atop this temple was our first real view of Bagan and we stood there mouths agape for a few moments just taking it in.

After the first diversion we continued on to the plan and we visited Ananda Pahto, after which we passed through Tharaba Gate into Old Bagan where we visited That byin yu and Shwe gu gyi.

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Anando Pahto

Ananda Pahto is Bagans “most popular temple” which means that it has the most hawkers selling things. According to the lonely planet it is the “largest, finest and best preserved” of the temples. Thankfully we weren’t too harassed by the hawkers, and we got the chance to appreciate the temple. I found it to be a visual contrast, the lower section was all block work, originally a light colour but stained with black streak from, I assume, rain. The centre spire of the temple was vivid gold and red, in great condition, seemingly belonging to a different temple. Inside were four large standing Buddha’s, one for each compass point, and some large hallways. The high ceilings housed some bats and birds, but overall the temple was in good condition.

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Looking at That Byin Yu from Shwe Gu Gyi

I’m not quite sure why Tharaba Gate is listed as something to see as it’s rather unimpressive, we headed through into Old Bagan. Just inside the gate and to the south were That byin yu and Shwe gu gyi. Both temples were pretty cool and had the same streaky white and black, square blocky look of Anando Pahto. That byin yu also had a golden spire but it was less elaborate than that of Anando. Pahto. We wandered the halls of That byin yu and checked out the different styles of Buddha’s. Comparatively, Shwe gu gyi was less about the inside and more about the roof, we headed on up and wandered around checking out the view and taking a few photos.

By this stage in our sightseeing adventure the sun was at its peak and we were rather exhausted, so we headed to a great vegetarian restaurant just near Anando Pahto, called Be kind to the animals The Moon. Fantastic place, the staff are really friendly, have good English, provide awesome service and they also put a cushion on your bike seat to protect it from the hot sun. When we ordered beer, we were advised that beer wasn’t on the menu as it was a bit too close to the temples and may be seen as disrespectful. Instead we were served ‘special juice’. This special juice was in glass bottles wrapped in black plastic bags and tasted remarkably like beer! As I said, great staff!

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Bu Paya

Post-lunch the explorations continued. We headed to a small golden temple by the river, called Bupaya and promptly burned our feet on the hot stone ground as the sun was still at its peak. Bupaya looks pretty, is in a great location with a lovely view of the Ayerwaddy River, but is otherwise not very exciting to see.

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Sitting at the top of North Guni looking towards South Guni

We cycled past Shwe san daw (the popular sunset temple) in search of Dhamma yan gyi, but got waylaid by another smaller temple called North Guni. There were a few people there when we turned up, but pretty soon we were there on our own, we had a look around and found our way up to the roof, we then found another stairway leading to a higher tier and then a third, we ended up at the spire of the temple. Sitting on the shady side we were able to look across the plains and see cattle herders, ploughed fields and of course temples as far as the eye could see. There was a light breeze and the sound of birds chirping in the distance, but it was otherwise completely still. Such a sense of tranquillity and peace as we sat there. I think we sat there for at least an hour just absorbing this amazing place.

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Dhamma Yan Gyi

As the sun started to sink we decided it was time to hop back on the bike, we made a quick visit to Dhamma yan gyi, I believe it is one of the largest temples in the region. While it did look impressive, we were actually rather disappointed with it, it was beautifully made but it didn’t have its own special charm. The other factor was that we were being hassled a bit by the locals to buy things. So we walked a quick loop and were happy to have said that we’d seen it. Back on the bikes we made a beeline for Shwe san daw. This was another sealed temple (At least I don’t recall it having entry points) with a big set of stairs on each side. The base of the temple was square and right up the top it had a conical spire. The lower levels were red brick while the upper levels were painted white, but cracked and chipping. Needless to say, as it was the ‘sunset temple’, this is where the hoards of tourists could be found (however after spending a sunset atop a popular temple in Cambodia a few years ago, this was comparatively quiet with hardly any tourists). Everyone was sitting at the top waiting patiently for the sun to set, each person trying to claim the best seat. The sun began to light the plains with an orange glow and then a huge, thick cloud blocked the sun. It was pleasant and certainly a fantastic spot to be for a sunset, but the sunset itself was not amazing, but we didn’t mind at all.

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Sunset from Shwe San Daw

Our second day of exploration started at Upali Thein and worked back towards New Bagan. Upali Thein is a cute, squat rectangular temple that apparently houses some beautiful art, but is often locked up, as it was on this occasion. We left our bikes here and crossed the road and had the most wonderful morning wandering in and around a cluster of temples including Hti lo min lo, Paya nga zu group of temples and Khay min ga.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFurther down the road we stopped at Min o chan tha where we were hassled by some pushy ladies who gave us a flower to give to Buddha for luck and then asked for money for it, which of course we refused. We had some more peace and quiet at a cute little white-yellow temple called Hsu taung pyi. We paid a visit to Gaw daw palin phaya and then a fleeting visit to Mingala zedi a gorgeous cute bell shaped temple surrounded by a beautiful lush garden. The visit really was fleeting because the sun was at its peak, there was no shade and we completely roasted our feet. I had of course pushed our exploration into the peak of the day and we were both completely cooked and exhausted, not to mention nursing sunburn, so we cycled as fast as we could (crazy slow!) the 5kms back to the hotel for a swim and a lie down.

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A temple in the cluster of Hti lo min lo, Paya nga zu group of temples and Khay min ga

We put a little less on the ‘to visit’ list for the afternoon and just went to two temples: Na ga yon and Abe ya da na, though we couldn’t find them and were very grateful to a local who pointed us in the right direction. At Na ga yon a very friendly lady gave us a tour of the temple and pointed out all the interesting things, she let us wander and take our time and wasn’t pushy in the least. Over at Abe ya da na the local who had helped us earlier was sitting trying to sell some of his artwork, but next to him was a woman doing the same who rudely kept speaking over the top of him. Thankfully they didn’t follow us into the temple and we were able to look around at our leisure.  This was also a gorgeous temple, and unless I got them muddled, had some great art work inside. All these temples were very well built to suit the climate, there is good airflow and somehow they are all nice and cool inside, while outside it is sweltering!

Pya Tha Da's modern arches
Pya Tha Da’s modern arches

Our second sunset in Bagan was spent at Pya tha da. After a day of cycling, we actually hired a driver to take us to this temple as it is quite a bit further out. I found the architecture of this temple to be quite different to the others and at the rear it had a series of interesting arches – arches that were decorative, seemingly modern. Most of the stairs in temples are internal, but this temple was half-half, also to roof had a very large flat area with a small spire, off centre at the top. It has also become known as a good sunset destination and there were a number of tourists, but far fewer than Shwe san daw. It isn’t as high as Shwe san daw, so it doesn’t have as good a view over the top of everything, but honestly any view in Bagan is stunning. The sunset here was also hampered by cloud cover, but we had the most fantastic time chilling out and taking photos, including some fun handstand pictures silhouetted against the sky.

Silhouettes in the sunset on Pya Tha Da
Silhouettes in the sunset on Pya Tha Da

On our last day exploring Bagan we had become a little wiser to the perils of the hot, long days and were a little more chilled in our approach. We saw a quiet little temple called Mya zedi which had a beautiful golden spire. We visited its neighbour Gu byauk gyi which had the best original paintings that we had seen, stunning to see the designs and work that was well preserved. We then headed further afield to Sulamani Pahto which I found to be gorgeous and very well maintained. By this stage it was probably only 8am so the hawkers hadn’t set up their stalls and there weren’t many tourists to be seen. Sulamani has an outer wall, you enter the temple complex through a large arch and walk down a tiled path to the main temple. The intricate block work was lovely to see and there were a number of art works inside to be seen. It was gorgeous to wander around such a beautiful temple at such a leisurely pace.

The family we met at Thabeik Hmauk
The family we met at Thabeik Hmauk

Hiding behind the Sulamani complex is another temple, it was on our list but quite challenging to find. We think it was Thabeik Hmauk. Inside the small outer wall were some reed huts where the family who managed the temple lived. We were welcomed to the temple by a woman and her young son. They pressed frangipani’s into our hands and put frangipanis in my hair (my favourite flower – these guys won me over instantly!) They showed us around their temple and while we weren’t able to communicate in any common language they were so welcoming and grateful to be able to share some time with us. Their friendly faces were so warming and we thoroughly enjoyed visiting this temple.

Having learned about the perils of midday we pre-empted the exhaustion by heading back to the hotel by around 11am. We booked some flights, a hotel, caught up on journal writing, swam and napped. We really took some time out to recharge.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur afternoon excursion was a simple one, we cycled out to Bupaya by the river, where we enjoyed a sunset cruise up and down a stretch of the Ayerwaddy River. The sunset was of course affected by clouds (monsoon season is probably not the best time to go if sunsets are your thing) but it was probably the best sunset we saw in Bagan. It was quite cool on the river, with a bit of a breeze. It was relaxing to sit still and just take in the surroundings, see the people by the river side, washing their clothes, bathing (they bathe fully clothed) and the children playing.

Mt Popa

One of the things we also did was a half day trip to Mt Popa. The drive was pleasant and it was great to see the countryside and also to be able to see how the locals lived, as we whizzed past. We made a brief stop at one point to see peanuts and sesame seeds being ground to oil by bullock. We saw palm sugar being made as well as a local whisky. It was quite interesting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMt Popa is an extinct volcano covered in lush forests. On the slopes of Mt Popa is another, smaller, mountain that just kind of pops up out of nowhere. On top of this mountain is a monastery, accessed by 777 steps. Mt Popa is apparently a very significant religious place for the people of Myanmar, and travelling there on the day of new moon was simply crazy. There were people everywhere, the entire road was blocked by vehicles and we had to walk a few kilometres to get there, leaving our driver behind. The walk up the stairs was long and hot but the view from the top was rather stunning, looking up towards the top of Mt Popa and back down across the green landscape. While it was kind of interesting to have been and seen it, I was appalled at how filthy the place was, rubbish everywhere, people spitting and throwing trash on the ground, throwing things at the monkeys and being generally loud, rude and obnoxious.

Check out all my Bagan and Mt Popa pictures on Flickr

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Yangon, Myanmar

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a sleepless night on a plane you step out of the airport and are hit by a wall of heat and humidity, you jump in your taxi and whizz by buildings with six foot walls topped with reels of razor wire or shards of broken glass, the car fumes and foreign, heady smells invade your nostrils and you wonder “Why am I doing this?”

I find the first few hours in almost any country a little overwhelming, but that initial culture shock gives way to excitement in a very short amount of time. By the time my friend Mark and I had checked into our hotel in Yangon and were out on the streets, map in hand, I was quite keen to get out there and see what the city had to offer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADowntown Yangon is a very busy place, there are loads of people walking the sidewalks and streets, the sidewalks are also filled with street stalls selling food and drinks, fruit and vegetables, books, clothes and other random items. The streets are jam packed with cars, trucks, buses and bicycles (motorcycles and scooters have been banned the authorities), not to mention the pedestrians dodging and weaving between the traffic in an attempt to cross the road. It is chaotic and fantastic.

An interesting thing to note about traffic in Myanmar, or cars rather is that they drive on the right side of the road. By itself this is not so strange, except the vast majority of the cars are also right hand drive, except for the random smattering of cars which are left hand drive. Perhaps this is why only people with a Myanmar drivers licence are allowed to drive in Myanmar, last I read, no international driving permits are accepted.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe food and drink stalls all looked very interesting, some looking and smelling more enticing than others. There was a special type of barbecue which we saw several times where all the customers sit around a table which has pot of boiling broth in the center and skewers of uncooked meat surrounding it. You could sit, cook and eat the things you wanted. This looked like a fun experience and had it not been exclusively pork offal I might have been keen to try it! So I settled for trying the vegetarian options, like pancakes and samosas. The samosa ‘salad’, Samusa Thoke, was delicious!

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We also took the opportunity to enjoy various tropical fruits like Mangosteen, Rambutan and Dragons Eyes (otherwise known an Longan).

Yangon is known for its teahouse culture, so in amongst all these little snack foods I took the time to sit down for a cup of sweet tea, which is crazy strong tea topped up with sweetened condensed milk. The first few times I had it I struggled to drink it, but after a period of adjustment I actually found it rather tasty and began to enjoy our little tea breaks.

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A fun quirk about service in Yangon (we noticed it predominantly in Yangon, but it may apply everywhere in Myanmar) was that to get a waiters attention you make a loud, wet kissing noise.

With all this eating and drinking I would like to point out the weather situation in Yangon. It is crazy hot and humid, so you simply can’t race around and see everything, the pace is much slower with frequent rest and recharge stops. While you may not see as many different things with this approach, you do get more opportunity to soak up the culture and notice finer details in your environment. We found that Bank Street, off Lower Pansodan Street was a great spot to do this and the stalls offered a great variety of different food and drinks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASitting and observing the environment we noticed that everything was grubby, the buildings had grimy black streaks from the pollution filled water streaming down the sides of the buildings. Everything had a damp look and feel, not a surprise really since we were visiting during the monsoon season. All the damp that had seeped into the buildings allowed many to be growing mini forests. While this is structurally terrible, I found that it looked quite enchanting in a strange kind of way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe also had time to notice peoples faces, and had an opportunity to ask about it. Many people have their faces painted with circles or stripes of a light brown colour. Thanaka is a traditional ‘paint’ made from grinding sandalwood and mixing it into a paste with water. Many people continue to wear this traditional paint which is seen as beautiful, and indeed it is. I am not sure however, if it is simply for beauty or if it serves other purposes.

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The central point of downtown Yangon is Sule Paya, a golden pagoda that essentially functions as the center of a large roundabout intersecting all the main roads. While the peak of Sule Paya looks impressive at a distance, it is surrounded by small shops and has an entry fee. After what we read about it, we decided it wasn’t worth paying the entry fee to go into the complex and explore.

Myanmar seems to be the land of pagoda’s and temples, so while we chose not to visit Sule Paya we did however go to Chauk Htat Gyi Paya, home of a reclining Buddha, Nga Htat Gyi Paya, home of a seated Buddha and Shwedagon Pagoda – essentially the number one thing to see in Yangon. As these pagodas are a bit further out, we caught a taxi to the furthest one, Chauk Htat Gyi and slowly walked back towards the city via the other two.

Chauk Htat Gyi and Nga Htat Gyi are both more chilled than Shwedagon and we found there to be very few people visiting these temples. They were both beautiful in different ways. Chauk Htat Gyi houses a very placid looking reclining Buddha who wears a “crown encrusted with diamonds and other precious stones”. Across the road, Nga Htat Gyi houses a seated Buddha, apparently the one of the most impressive seated Buddha’s in southern Mynamar, though it was under renovation and blocked by bamboo scaffolding when we visited. The intricately carved timberwork backdrop was certainly stunning!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA further 15 minutes walk back towards downtown Yangon is Shwedagon Pagoda, which is actually visible from almost anywhere in Yangon. The hill on which Shwedagon stands in 190 feet above sea level  and the pagoda itself is 326 feet high. The complex is accessed by four stairways, one for each point of the compass. As with any temple, at the top of the stairway you are asked to take off your shoes so that you may enter the temple clean. You should also ensure your shoulders and knees are covered and that you take off your hat. While the entire pagoda appears golden, the very top of the pagoda has a genuine golden umbrella with other 4000 golden bells chiming in the breeze, a golden wind vane as well as a diamond orb encrusted with over 4300 diamonds. This is one pagoda that sparkles!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShwedagon pagoda is the central point of a larger complex with many other temples, shrines and bells. The main pagoda, has smaller shrines circling it, one for each day of the week including two for Wednesday. The Myanmar week has eight days, the two Wednesdays represent the morning and the afternoon, one of which is lucky and the other unlucky. If you were to pray at the temple you would pray at the day on which you were born, each day is also represented by an animal such a dragon, pig, rabbit. When asked by a local which day Mark and I were, neither of us were able to answer as our western culture is more about date than actual day of the week. We spent quite some time at Shwedagon, mostly just sitting in the shade observing the people going about their business, watching the sun sink in the sky and the temple light up. We noticed many monks in their maroon robes and nuns in pink; pink being a colour I had not previously seen in Buddhist robes.  By far the thing I appreciated most at Shwedagon was the sense of stillness, with the light breeze was chiming the bells atop each of the temples in the complex. It was just such a beautiful atmosphere and so calming.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn complete contrast to the calm of Shwedagon, we caught the ferry across to the delta region of Dala, across the Yangon River from Yangon. The ferry shuttles back and forth every twenty minutes, with people leaping on and off as soon as it is within jumping distance of the dock. People push and shove to get on and off as quickly as possible, though what that achieves I am not sure. Early in the morning the people of Dala bring their goods to Yangon to sell and they return home later in the day. The most interesting thing on the ferry when we crossed was the bicycle transporting chickens. A bicycle had a large bundle of live chickens on the front of the bike and one on the back. All the chickens were hung upside down and bound together by their feet. Surprisingly they did not flap or make a fuss, just dangled there waiting.

When we got off the ferry we were yelled at from all angles by trishaw-wallahs looking for business. We ended up agreeing on a price with a nice man and his buddy who then took us on a cycle tour of the delta region. We saw local villages, temples and markets. It is such a poor area, people live in bamboo and straw huts, the road are dirt and mud, yet the people are all busily and happily working. As we cycled by, we saw many people catch our attention with a smile and a wave as they called out “Mingalaba”.

At one point we got off the trishaws and wandered around a small village, the poverty extreme but the children were some of the happiest I have ever seen. They ran up to us big grins on their faces and keen for a high five. They joined us for a walk, held our hands and giggled when they saw pictures of themselves. Seeing how people live in such poverty is always an eye-opener, it makes you appreciate the life and opportunities that you have.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a few days it was time to leave Yangon and head north towards Bagan, the location in Myanmar I was most excited to see. We booked ourselves some seats in the sleeper car of a train headed to Bagan. We were mostly lucky with the weather in Yangon, monsoon season hadn’t seem to hit but as we packed up our things the skies opened up and we experienced a torrential downpour, as our train rattled past villages the houses were knee deep in water and roads were flooded.

 Check out all my Yangon pictures on Flickr

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Project Beans is go!

LeaveRequestStage one of Project Beans is complete. I applied for three school terms off (April to December) and after my anxious wait, checking my email multiple times per day every day for a month or so, my leave request was approved. As you may well imagine this had me bouncing off the walls with excitement!!

Since then I have been investigating what countries I want to go to and what I want to see – this is where my plans are still slowly taking form. The only definite plan (though not booked, so really not that definite I suppose) is to finish work on April 2nd and head straight to South America to spend just under two months seeing and experiencing as much as South America as possible (the current idea is to see some of Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil). From there it’s a mad dash to The Netherlands to celebrate the wedding of a cousin in June.

After that things are a bit up in the air at this point in time, but I certainly have loads of amazing ideas for places to go, things to do and see!

While I bide my time until this amazing adventure begins, I continue to turn up to work every day. I have some amazing students who each have unique talents and interests, which I love supporting. Even though these students are the highlight of each work day. The long, dark, cold days of winter have been getting to me. So rather than trudging down Struggle Street I took positive action and booked flights to somewhere warmer for the winter term break – Myanmar!

IMG_2937My amazingly supportive best man friend Mark, who coined ‘Project Beans’, will be joining me for a two week adventure. As Myanmar has only opened to tourists fairly recently we have heard that it is quite the challenge to get around, but that the people are lovely. We can’t wait to see this country, unspoiled by tourists, to soak up some cultural experiences and see the beautiful sights.

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Project Beans

I often get comments from people about my lifestyle, the fact that I leave the country at every given opportunity, sometimes they are really positive comments like “Good for you!” and “Fantastic!” and other times, the words that are strung together are nice but you can feel the judgement dripping off them.
Life is about choices, things you choose to do as well as the way you choose to deal with things in life.

Only a few close friends really know what’s been going on with me and why I leave whenever I can. It’s about finding myself and appreciating who I am, as well as regaining my independence and free will. I spent a large portion of my early adulthood in a relationship that was emotionally and psychologically abusive; it started off great but over the years it got worse and worse and when we finally broke up I realised I had no idea who I was. I no longer knew how to make decisions for myself and I didn’t know what I enjoyed doing because I wasn’t being told these things anymore. At around the same time as the breakup, I lost my father to cancer. My dad was always my best friend and my rock. My whole world crashed around me and suddenly I was at a loss, I spent the first three years functioning in survival mode. I ate, slept and worked according to routine. I lost weight. I lost motivation. I lost interest. I walked the dog whenever I could drag myself off the couch, but mostly spent a great deal of time staring at the walls. On top of the things going on in my personal life, I was struggling at work and had some really challenging students, it got to the point where I was fighting tears on the drive to work every day.

IMG_5300By mid-2012 I was miserable and barely functioning any more and realised something had to change. I spent about 12 months on a mental health plan and my psychologist was great in helping me regain some perspective. One of my best friends came up with a concept called ‘Project Beans’ which was about helping me get my ‘beans’ (energy) back, and he has been super supportive along every step of my journey. Also it sounds a bit silly, but the way my dog paid attention to me and loved me no matter what, was a great source of strength. While my life didn’t quite turn out the way I had hoped, I realised there was still plenty of enjoyment to be had and it was time to focus more on appreciating the small things in life and doing more things that made me happy.

So I travel, it makes me happy. I love seeing different places and experiencing different cultures, setting myself different challenges along the way – like hiking to the top of Mt Kinabalu in Borneo or skiing Whistler in Canada or even just going out to dinner by myself (a concept I used to find terrifying, I still find it scary, but not terrifying). When I am at home I work hard on maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regime, because they have a huge impact on my mental health. I place a lot of importance on appreciating and spending time with my family and friends, and I have no hesitation in telling them all how much I love them. I also try  to appreciate little things, like blue skies, white sand, a smile from someone I walk past as I am out walking my dog, noticing an architectural feature in a building I have walked past a million times but never really looked at.

As I have told a few people lately, my focus for this year, and in the years to come, is me. Finding enjoyment in little things, doing things that make me happy, and getting back to being the true, positive version of myself.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo I have a grand master plan, which I am calling Project Beans, though I have upped the ante on what the name traditionally referred to. While I am focusing on being a happier, healthier person physically and mentally, I am also going to be working my butt off and saving as much money as I possibly can so that I can take most of 2015 off work and explore the world.

The Project Beans adventure list currently includes: Africa to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, swim in the Devil’s Pool at the top of the Victoria Falls, do a safari and see the ‘big 5′; South America to hike the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, see the spectacular Iguazu Falls, as well as visit places like Buenos Aires and Rio De Janeiro; then a move to Europe, to spend most of the time living and travelling around Spain and Portugal, learning Spanish along the way and maybe even attempting the El Camino De Santiago; hopefully I’ll also fit in a visit to Legoland in Denmark.

While I am taking the brave step of planning a year long (realistically probably closer to 10 months) solo adventure, I’d love some travel buddies to share in the fun adventures along the way! If any of the things I plan to do are on your bucket list, feel free to join me! Or if you want to go to Europe, tell me when/where to meet you and we’ll hang out!

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Toronto

January 5th

I got up early, showered, had breakfast, packed my last few items and headed to central station. I arrived on time, grabbed a coffee and boarded my train for Toronto. Hopeful that the forecast snow storms wouldn’t actually affect my ability to get to my friend Nanette.

On the train I managed to get a window seat so I could watch the world go by. Unfortunately the world was not very exciting, snow-covered flat field after snow-covered flat field. Every now and then a little township poked up out of one of these flat snow-covered fields. It really makes you wonder why people live out there…it’s freezing cold and there’s nothing for miles around.

imageThankfully the five hour train trip was over quite quickly and a family friend, Nanette, picked me up from the station. Nanette has been a family friend since she and my parents were all in their teens. She has been out to visit us in Australia, and we have all caught up in The Netherlands but this is the first time I have visited her in Canada, so it’s very exciting to get the chance to catch up.

Once we got to Nanette’s place we had a good chatterbox and enjoyed some wine and cheese, while investigating the things to see and do in Toronto, before enjoying a delicious healthy dinner.

January 6th

After a fabulous sleep I had a bit of a sleep in, and then got up and put on my fluffy robe. Nanette and I spent the morning drinking coffee and eating fresh muffins, before eventually getting dressed, de-icing the car and heading out to the Ontario Science Center.

imageAt the Science Center we enjoyed and IMAX movie on the great white shark as well as learning loads about the human body and playing with few hands-on science experiments. It was so much fun, so interesting and such a well designed center with so many helpful staff! It was a great way to spend the day, with the added bonus of not freezing our butts off outdoors.

In the afternoon we headed back to the train station to pick up my friend Liv, who despite having lived in Canada for 18 months, hadn’t made it to Toronto yet. So she thought that it would be a great reason to visit and spend more time hanging out with a friend from home.

So Nanette, Liv and I spent the evening nibbling on tasty foods and chatting.

imageJanuary 7th

With my sightseeing buddy by my side, we got up early, rugged up super well against the weather described as ‘brutally cold’ (the forecast literally included the warning that it would be ‘brutally cold’, it also warned that frostbite could occur in as little as 10 minutes) and headed downtown Toronto. The short walk from the subway station to the CN Tower was torturous, I think that the pain in my face from the icy winds was the worst I had experienced so far, but I was determined to see Toronto, and forged ahead.

imageThe CN Tower is known for having queues of people with 2 hours wait time, but we strolled up to the ticket counter, and walked straight in. We zoofed up the outside of the tower in the glass elevator and were the only people on the observation deck. Though it was a freezing cold day, it was actually a very clear day with blue skies. The view across Toronto were fab! Particularly stunning was the view across Lake Ontario towards the Toronto Islands. The lake was almost entirely frozen and it looked brilliant to see the winds blowing the snow across the surface of the ice.

After visiting the CN Tower, we asked about underground walkways linking parts of the city and thankfully these existed, so once we had directions Liv and I parted ways. I headed along the skywalk (covered walkway) back to the subway station, where I caught the subway up to Museum. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) had numerous good reviews, so even though I am not really into museums, this one was on my list.

imageThe ROM is an interesting building, it is a stunning old building, perhaps sandstone, which has a very modern diamond shape building essentially plopped into it. From the outside white, angular edges jut out of the old building; it is like this inside as well. It probably sounds horrible but it is really an amazing combination of old and new and works really well. In the scheme of things, I walked through the museum fairly quickly. The main attraction for me was the architecture of the new part, the old part and the intersection of the two. The other exhibits were all well designed and interesting, but weren’t the highlight for me.

imageAfter the ROM, I visited another place that would not normally be on my list, The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). Again, the exhibits and art left me yawning, but the architectural features in the building were just stunning. The staircase was beautifully curved timber, a beautiful honey colour set against white walls, exposed steel and a glass ceiling. The shape  is basically nearly impossible to describe, so check out the pictures. The espresso bar on the second floor also made effective use of timber, steel and was a great spot to sit down and enjoy a tasty coffee.

By this stage it was early afternoon and things would be closing soon, so I messaged Liv to see if she was keen to head to Steam Whistler Brewing Company to go on a brewery tour. Freakishly, she was also in the AGO at the time, so she popped up to the espresso bar and joined me for that coffee.

imageThe two of us hopped on the subway and headed towards the waterfront. We made it just in the nick of time to get on the 4:30 tour. Our guide started off by cracking open a beer for each of us, before starting the tour of the brewery. The brewery was started by three guys who had worked for other brewing companies, which had been bought out and then they had been made redundant or fired. So these three friends some time later decided that they still wanted to be in the brewing industry, and one night over a few beers (of course), they decided to start their own company and would call it ‘three fired guys’. The wife of one of the men said they shouldn’t have a negative name, they ended up calling it Steam Whistle Brewing Company instead, but still secretly label every bottle with ‘3FG’. So these guys started up their own brewery and decided to do just one beer very well, so they learned the recipes used in the Czech republic and Bavaria, tweaked it a little bit and came up with a super tasty Pilsener. The tour guide was great and the beer awesome, so it was a great way to finish up the day.

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January 8th

Our original plan for the day had been to go to Niagara Falls, but at the last minute the forecast for that area took a turn for the worst, with snow storms and closed roads, so we took the smart option and stuck around Toronto to enjoy a beautiful mild day!

imageNanette had the day off, and knowing Liv and I both love architecture, she took us on a driving tour of the city. We drove around The Beach (the beach is a popular, and expensive, area to live in because it is on the beach. The beach looked amazing covered in snow, with mini icebergs lapping against the shore!), Leslieville, Cabbage Town, Riverdale, Yorkville, Downtown Toronto and Chinatown. We say so many lovely houses!!!

In China town we stopped for lunch as a cute cafe and I tried a traditional pie, tourtière, which had ground pork, mashed potato, raisins and cinnamon. It didn’t sounds amazing, but it tasted pretty good.

imageAfter lunch Nanette dropped Liv and I off at the harbourfront area, as it is an arty district with loads of cute galleries, but since its January and the middle of winter, everything was closed. So, Liv headed off to find other art galleries and I headed off for a wander.

imageI had a look in the CBC Museum which was tiny but quite interesting, then I wandered around Queen Street West, the downtown shopping strip, over to St Lawrence Market, through the adorable old part of town over to the Distillery District.

imageThe Distillery District had lots of cute little shops and is such a beautiful old district. It was great just to wander around. As I concluded my wanderings, I headed to Tappo Wine Var to meet Nanette and Liv for dinner.

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It was a beautiful old building, lots of exposed brickwork, polished concrete floors, timber columns and exposed steel. Very industrial but made to feel warm and welcoming. We had an AMAZING dinner together and enjoyed a glass of wine. For anyone in the area, I would definitely recommend having dinner there. We shared a seafood entrée of Octopus, Calamari and Squid, followed by a first course of wild boar pappardelle, and then we had a main. I had a delicious, tender, beef strip-loin dish served on roasted potatoes, Liv had a lamb dish and Nanette had Mahi-Mahi. We were all very impressed with the quality and the food and the amazing flavours! In addition to that, our waiter Eric provided brilliant service and it was just a fabulous evening out!

January 9th

imageWith the weather forecast looking mild and clear, the three of us rugged up, grabbed our recently charged camera’s and hopped in the car. Traffic was pretty good and it took around 1.5 hours to reach Niagara-on-the-lake. An adorable little town with lots of cute little boutiques stores. We had a bit of a look around and stopped for a coffee at a cute English pub called the Prince of Wales. We sat in big leather arm chairs by the fire, it was so cosy! (Although considering the mild weather it wasn’t as necessary as on other days)

imageWe jumped back in the car and drove along the Niagara Parkway admiring the stunning view of the frozen river along the way. At Niagara Falls itself, it was just STUNNING! A lot of the falls were frozen, as was the river below, but there was still a large quantity of water falling, producing a huge plume of mist and highlighting a beautiful full rainbow arcing across the river. It was breathtaking!

imageWhile most of the standard Niagara attractions were closed, we were able to do the ‘journey behind the falls’ where you take an elevator down to near the base of the falls and look out portals at the falls from the side and down to the frozen river below.

The beauty of Niagara Falls in winter is hard to describe, but it really was simply breathtaking!

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Once we had taken hundreds of photos of this amazing sight, we jumped back in the car and headed for the US! Niagara is partly in Canada and partly in the US. So since we re so close to the border we had planned to head over so that Liv and I could do a little bit of shopping while Nanette visited a good friend of hers.

imageHeading across the border, our documents were taken from us and we had to head in to immigration. We had to wait half an hour or more before we were able to speak to the immigration officer (which was frustrating because the officers were sitting around doing nothing, while the people queued up), but the immigration officer we had was really pleasant and waved us through in no time. (Yay I have another stamp in my passport!)

So off we went, into New York State, headed for Buffalo. I tried to take a photo of the sign but an immigration officer got super cranky with me for getting out of the car, so I took a picture as we drove past the sign.

The shopping mall we visited was huge and there were so many great sales on! We were like kids in a candy store! But while it was loads of fun and we tried on lots of funky clothes, we both had our baggage restrictions for the flight home in mind and walked away with only a few funky items.

Soon enough it was time to head home. The man at the border was really condescending and treated us like rubbish, so that was a bit frustrating, but at least he let us back into Canada. So we got home around 9:30pm and soon after, headed to bed. It had been a very long, but amazing day!

January 10th

imageMy last day in Toronto. While you may expect I would be cramming my last day full of sightseeing, as I had almost every other day. I was exhausted, and instead opted to spend the day catching up on some sleep, packing my bag, blogging and reading. I also completed a standard daily Canadian chore…shovel snow and ice off the sidewalk!

In the afternoon Nanette and I ran a few errands and did some groceries. At home we chopped loads of veggies and Nanette made a big wok of Bami Goreng.

We had a little dinner party with a friend Tonny, Nanette, Liv and I – it was a fantastic evening with loads of delicious food and fantastic conversation. After dinner was some last minute packing and an alarm set for 4am.

So ended the amazing Canadian adventure!
Thanks to all the friends and family who shared in my adventures over the last month!

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