Six Ways to Prep for an Amazing Trip!

Whether it's a day-trip to Myanmar's ghost-town capital Naypyitaw for work or a weekend getaway to Bangkok, we travel a lot.  So much that I haven't been able to document all of our excursions here on this blog, and so much that I think you'd get bored with a million posts that said: we went to this place, we ate these things, we saw these sites- so should you!

But we have gained some useful experience with all of this travel that I'd be remiss not to pass on.  My friend in Rome recently put together an excellent "Packing List for All Sorts of Trips" post which you should definitely check out if you're someone who gets overwhelmed by packing.

Today, I'd like to share with you six ways to prep for an amazing trip other than packing that make it extra relaxing/enjoyable.  Some of them are obvious, but others I've learned the hard way (by not doing them and reaping the consequences).  

1. Do the laundry.  Before I even think about packing I try to do all of the laundry.  This is best done a week to three days before your trip so you're not staying up the night before your flight waiting on the dryer to finish (speaking from experience in a humid country with frequent power outages).  Not only do you have your pick of what clothes to bring on your trip, as long as you're not gone for weeks, you're also not desperate to do it when you come home because you still have some clean clothes around.  

2. Pick your soundtrack. When I travel I tend to imagine myself in the movies and the only thing that really solidifies that is a solid playlist.  If you have the time/energy to put one together before you leave, you're off to a great start.  I find the headphones are a must when navigating busy airports or riding around in taxis or trains.
hiking a volcano in Bali
3. Plan out your downtime.  Part of the beauty of vacation/travel is all the downtime.  Unplanned downtime is great, but I find I enjoy only so much of it.  So I try to plan out my downtime a little.  I figure out what part of scripture I'd like to focus on during my daily reflection time.  I make sure I have my journal with plenty of blank pages and several good pens.   Downloading movies to your tablet and books to your Kindle are also a good start.

Sure, you can do this on the go in a lot of places (not always in the places we travel), but if you have the chance to review it all before you leave, you have that much more to look forward to and you don't have to make as many decisions during travel.  Don't be afraid to grab a few magazines you haven't read yet (I purposefully save magazines for our trips) or bring a book with you.  And don't forget your travel guide (I hate the electronic versions of these and greatly prefer the hard copy).  
farmer in Shan State, Myanmar preps her field
4.  Ok, this is majorly boring, but ladies, clean out your purses! I hardly ever do this, but before I travel it's a must.  I need to make sure I'm just lugging around the essentials and not anything extra.  I absolutely hate it when I get to my destination and realize I'm carrying around a bunch of business cards I don't need or a smashed package of crackers with crumbs everywhere.  A pre-travel clean out will give you the chance to make sure you have a fresh bottle of hand lotion, plenty of tissues and other essentials, and it will leave space for all the things you inevitably pick up en route to your next destination.
room with a view in Bangkok, Thailand
5. Combine your itinerary into one document or one app so it's all in one place.  I've gotten into the habit of creating one document that has our frequent flyer numbers, our flight numbers, flight times of departure/landing, flight confirmation numbers, our hotel reservation numbers, hotel address and contact info and any other relevant itinerary-related information.  I print it out and slip it in a plastic sheet protector and take it with me.  There are several apps (trip it! and google inbox that I can think of off the top of my head) that will do basically the same thing (aggregating by date/place) but I still like to have a hard copy on hand to refer to and pass across the airline counter or to the taxi driver as needed.  I also send this document to our moms a day or so before we leave town so in case they needed to track us down, they could.  

6. Clean your home.  Because there is nothing that adds to the home-from-vacation blues after an awesome holiday more than coming home to a sink full of dirty dishes and an unmade bed.  This one I've tested!  It is seriously amazing to come home after being away and come back to best version of your home.  You were away.  You missed it.  And here it is just perfect.  Doing the work on the front end to make sure it's in order is definitely worth it.

So those are my pre-travel suggestions, but what are yours?  What do you suggest doing before you pack your bags and hit the road?  I'd love to know your secrets because it doesn't look like the travel will stop for us anytime soon! 


Living Restoration

There are so many wonderful things about life in Yangon that I wish to tell you.  Maybe too many wonderful things so I need to just pick one and start so I'll tell you about today's outing downtown.  Downtown Yangon is one of my favorite places.  It's so vibrant and full of life- both the life that is and the life that was.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Yangon was the third largest port in the British Empire and as such it must have been a gem of a city.  Many of the colonial buildings from the 1900s still stand, but are in terrible shape.  They've been abandoned and/or neglected.  Many have leaky roofs, mildewing and crumbling facades and faulty plumbing.

Until May of this year, none of them had been restored to international standards.  Thankfully, this amazing organization showed up a couple years ago to save a little piece of Yangon from itself.

Today we were able to have a tour (complete with local SNACKS and tea!) with the project engineer and watch a lovely documentary about the residents of this building and how they came together as a community for this restoration project.  It was this beautiful glimpse into the lives of locals coexisting despite different religions and backgrounds and professions.

artist's rendering which I love
The residents were quite skeptical of this promise of a restored building at first, and Ko Ko called a residents' meeting every Monday night during the project to answer questions and help the residents understand what they were prioritizing and what they were not in the project.

The before and after pictures in the documentary (called Under One Roof) were quite dramatic.  I'm not sure I would recognize the building if I walked past it in it's previous state.  Whereas now, it's hard to miss this beautiful building amidst all of the others literally falling apart.  

While the project was actually quite affordable ($300,000 USD) and backed by international aid, locally there were no laborers with the skills to restore a building like this to international standards. So what did Turquoise Mountain do?  They brought in skilled laborers to teach 250 locals how to work carefully with lime plaster, brick, and wood to preserve the building.  

I am so hopeful that little by little, downtown Yangon can be restored to its prior beauty and bring together communities in the process.  Below is a 2-minute clip that Radio Free Asia did on this project a month or so ago to give you an idea of the project and the residents involved.  

Here's hoping more and more of Yangon's buildings will be preserved for the future.  



Tonight the clouds are moving fast outside our picture windows and they remind me that this tour is moving right along.  We've been in Rangoon just a bit over eight months, and the days and weeks and months just slide right by here.  Maybe it's because our pace here is so much MORE.  Maybe it's because life here is a little warmer, a little greener, and a little more colorful than life at our last post.

If I had to sum this tour up in a single word for both of us, I think it would be: Hustle.  Because since day one, R's been out the door to Sittwe and the further reaches of Western Myanmar and since day one I've been diving in (okay maybe more like a running, jumping CANNON BALLLLL!)  to the CLO gig and we have not let up.

We've rested and we've hunkered down some, don't get me wrong.  That first weekend of monsoon season began with a cyclone and I happily went out for soup dumplings because they were the most perfect food you could eat in torrential downpours.  It was then that I found myself violently ill (AGAIN, mind you, this is my third time in eight months with Burma Belly)- and well, that was a low key weekend.
clouds rolling in
We have also had our chances to get away to sunny Thailand and delicious Malaysia and beautiful Bali, but when we come back there's more digging out of the inbox to do and more people we still haven't connected with and ohbytheway, R really thinks/hopes he can travel more (in country, for work, to places he won't take me) because how can he ever possibly learn all the things he wants to know?

So it continues.  We take pockets of rest when they come, but mostly as a means to keep going.  Because there's still so much to explore and the work IS really interesting because changes are happening here.

I think this is a big reason why I am kind of enamored with rainy season.  When the sun was out and weather was nice our first 4 months at post it felt like rest was a waste of time, when we actually had time to stop and think about it.  Now it feels like a gift that comes with the rainstorms.  That and the reprieve of the heat.  March, April and May were incredibly hot to the point in which I couldn't believe in jeans.  Now the rain cools things down considerably and you just have to try to stay dry (not an easy feat but possible).

So here's to thunderstorms you can watch from on high and movie nights and sleeping in while the rain slaps against the window in big fat drops.  Here's to monsoon season!


Hot Season

We're almost 8 months into our time here, but it doesn't feel like that much time has passed because while Myanmar has seasons they aren't the four seasons we're used to.  Even in Florida it would could clear and cool and there would be days to bundle up in a hoodie and your flip flops.

In Myanmar, there's no real reason to change your wardrobe with the season.  If I'm honest, I've been wearing white since I arrived in October.  It is eternal summer except March, April, May are the REAL summer.  It has reached over 100F every day for the last month (at least), and ya'll it is HOT.

The whole city is just waiting for the first rain of the monsoon season which theoretically starts in June.  The last storm was November and while Yangon is still much more green than Shenyang ever was, lots of vegetation is dry and brown.

We are spoiled with air conditioned cars and homes and office so we just stay mostly inside or go outside and then take a really long nap when we come in.  Our church meets in an un-airconditioned building which makes Sundays extra lazy.

So in tribute to the heat and anticipation of the rains, I thought I'd share a familiar poem from my youth.

by Shel Silverstein
It’s hot!
I can’t get cool,
I’ve drunk a quart of lemonade.
I think I’ll take my shoes off
And sit around in the shade.
It’s hot!
My back is sticky.
The sweat rolls down my chin.
I think I’ll take my clothes off
And sit around in my skin.
It’s hot!
I’ve tried with ’lectric fans,
And pools and ice cream cones.
I think I’ll take my skin off
And sit around in my bones.
It’s still hot!
“It’s Hot” appears in Shel Silverstein‘s collection of poems of drawings Where the Sidewalk Ends.


Water Truck Ride 2016

Myanmar, much like its neighbors Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia celebrates their own New Year's according to the Buddhist lunar calendar.  It generally falls in April, the hottest time of the year and so how better to celebrate than a water festival, washing away the sins of the past year?

My boss was very enthusiastic about a CLO-organized water truck for this year's festival.  From what I've seen, water festival is 4 days (or 5 this year due to a leap year) of vacation where everyone karaokes or plays loud music from big wooden stages they've erected on the side of the road.  These stages (or pandals as they're referred to) are equipped with water hoses (some as serious as a fire hose others less powerful) for participants to spray people with.

"Who are the people they spray?", you might be wondering.  Those of us without a pandal or a desire to spend upwards of $50 USD to spend the day on one, might rent a flat bed truck and ride around town passing pandals and others to join in the dancing and get sprayed.  We weren't defenseless of course, we had small buckets, water guns and a huge barrel of water on the back of our truck.

We left the Embassy just after one in the afternoon on the first day of water pouring, but things don't seem to really start up until mid-afternoon that day.  That was OK.  We had time to work out the kinks in our water throwing techniques on some unsuspecting women and children and stop and have a beer at a roadside cafe.

It was brutally hot, so it really did feel nice when we got splashed.  What was not so nice was the people who added ice to their water- that was cold! And even the kids learn at a young age just how to whip the water at you so that it stings a little when it makes contact.

Things did pick up later in the afternoon and we rode around downtown and all over town getting into water fights with other trucks and being sprayed by those at the pandals.  They shut the hoses at the big pandals down at 6pm so by the time we made it through traffic a few of them were done, but we made it through a couple.  At that time, since the sun was setting it started to feel cold (almost) being drenched and out of the heat a little.

Water Festival 2016 did not disappoint!  I'm not sure I'd stick around for all five days of it, but glad we got to see a little bit of the fun!


"Real" Myanmar and the Snake Pagoda

We live our life in Myanmar in what I call the "golden bubble".  We drive our car* that we brought from America to and from our nice, neat apartment to the big, clean Embassy every day.  Air conditioning refrigerates each of those places so that I only break a sweat during the elevator ride to the parking garage.  We go to restaurants that for the most part are out of reach for the average Myanmar citizen, though altogether reasonable for Americans.  While the electricity at our apartment goes out daily, within 10 seconds the generators kick in and we don't think of it twice.   This is not something I'm proud of, but I sure am thankful for it.  I know we don't deserve it, and I try really hard to remind myself that these simple things are luxuries.  It helps to have Myanmar and expat friends outside of the golden bubble that deal daily with the power failures and water outages.  

trishaws in Dala
These luxuries make moving from country to country every 2-3 years a little more sustainable.  If we were trying to set down roots and really live life here, these luxuries would be counterproductive.  The downside to living inside the golden bubble is, that there's so much about daily life in Myanmar that we miss out on or are just oblivious to.

riding the ferry from Bohtataung Jetty to Dala
Over the Christmas holiday we had the chance to venture outside of the bubble and explore life just across the Yangon River in Dala and Twante.  There's a commuter ferry that runs between downtown Yangon and Dala, the village on the other side.  The ferry ride itself is an experience because locals are just going about their business- hawking fruit and betel nut and every kind of thing.

the motorcycle ride- my favorite part
When we got to the other side of the river, we had a decision to make- how would we get to Twante and the Snake Pagoda, a 25 km distance.  A taxi would have made sense with three of us, but I couldn't resist a ride on the back of a motorcycle! Can I recommend it as the safest way to go? Not really, but it felt glorious to have the wind in my hair speeding past the rural area just outside the city.  This was also when it struck my how developing Myanmar still is.  Most of the homes we passed didn't have electricity and I wonder about running water.  The were bamboo huts basically.  I remembered that this is Myanmar.  This is what most of the country looks like.  The people in Yangon are the exception and those within our bubble even more so.  
the snake pagoda
one of about 30 snakes in the Snake Pagoda
So our impetus for heading to Twante was to see the Snake Pagoda.  At this pagoda live about 30 sleepy snakes.  The snakes are all sizes and they just slither around as they please, not in cages, just curled up in the sun in various corners.
several snakes piled up above the windows

snakes in the donation box
 At first because they're so still, you walk in, and see one or two and thing- huh, that's all? But then as you look around the room you realize they're everywhere.
this was about as close as R and our friend were willing to get to the snakes (look above them in the window)

another snake or two? curled up in the corner

this snake must have been thirsty

We were all pretty proud of our bravery.  It was definitely creepy because you'd have your eye on one and then one in another corner of the room would start to slither one way or another.

who's scared of snakes?

We had a really nice day out and about seeing something different.  It was also the full moon (or around it) which meant there were trucks of people on the road with huge stereo speakers on back heading to one celebration or another.  They were having a great time and happy to smile and wave at us foreigners.
one of the floats for the full moon festival
*Some of you remember the sad condition our car arrived in.  While it's still a little funky at times, we are driving it very short distances to and from work while we wait for the parts for a mechanic to replace all of the upholstery all at the expense of the shipping company.  We are hoping that that happens before monsoon season so whatever mold is still resident won't have the chance to multiply in the humidity.  


New Year's in Penang, Malaysia

It's been 2016 for a while now, but i haven't had the chance to share our New Year's trip to Penang, Malaysia (yes, like the curry).  Since we arrived October 1, this was my first trip outside of Yangon.  Typically, we avoid leaving town (unless R has a work trip) for the first couple of months at a new post.  This is kind of a two-fold strategy. First, there's so much to explore when you arrive that it's good to just be there even if you have a holiday or opportunity to travel.  If you're gone right away, it's hard to know people and places very well in your new home.
sunset from our hotel
NYE- our first night in Penang- amazing food scene!
New Year's noodles- good luck somewhere, I think.

It's also just good work etiquette.  When we arrived there was actually a leave freeze up until the elections meaning no one could take leave until mid-November.  R had colleagues who had been at post much longer and had been working so hard for so long.  It seemed only right that they could escape for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the new guy stays and holds down the fort.

But this new year's holiday actually combined with Myanmar's Independence Day, January 4 giving us a free 4-day weekend.  We decided to take another day off and skip over to the little island of Penang in Malaysia.

This trip was truly needed.  I can honestly say R has worked more this tour than ever before in his life (and I probably have too not out of necessity but more in response to his hours and liking my job).  He works more hours on any given day, more weekends, more evenings.  There are breaks but when we're in the country it's very hard for him to turn off.
my first ever cronut and some delicious churros at a cool cafe in George Town

Penang is a lovely island with lots of history, incredible diversity of cultures converging in one place, tropical beauty, and amazing food.  Cultures have crossed paths here for centuries as it was the first British UNESCO World Heritage site with a 500-year history of trading.  The amazingly well-restored architecture made us dream of what Yangon could be, if the heritage buildings downtown are restored correctly.

Just before our trip someone sent me the LA Times places to visit in 2016 article which highlighted Penang.  They said, "George Town gives you British echoes, Malay essence, Chinese and Indian commercial traditions, scattered rickshaws and a stew of religions."  Indeed it did!
navigating and just being R

where life imitates art?
You could probably spend 3 days in Penang and do all of the major things there are to do, but we were glad for 4 days and 4 nights so we didn't feel the pressure to "do all the things."  We stayed in Batu Ferringhi which is the resort area up the coast and a good 30-60 minutes from George Town by taxi or bus.  If you're just trying to cram in as much Penang as you can, I would look for lodging in George Town itself, but for us, Batu Ferringhi worked.

New Year's day looking over Monkey Beach!
well deserved coconuts after a hike through a tropical jungle
We had access to a decent beach and good food options right by our resort, and then we made one excursion each day to do our tourist thing.  On New Year's Day we hiked up to the lighthouse at the National Park- a hot and humid endeavor with monkeys, monitor lizards and snakes along the way, but so nice to get time together on the trail and enjoy a coconut on the beach.
such a lovely city with surprises around every corner
so many fun murals throughout the city
We also spent a decent amount of time at the hawker malls trying the famed cuisine and wandering around the heritage buildings and checking out the amazing street art.  We visited the Blue Mansion and the amazing Peranakan mansion.  The Blue Mansion tour gave you much more of the story of the Chinese diaspora, but you don't really get to see much of the property because it's a hotel.  The Peranakan has an incredible museum quality collection of valuables, but the tour doesn't give much context.
touristing at the blue mansion
chinese dragons on display at the Chinese cultural town hall
Our last night in Penang we had one of the best meals- a three course set menu for $30/person at Kebaya this lovely restaurant at the boutique hotel Seven Terraces.  If you go, you should not miss this!

Penang was a great trip for us because we had lots of down time to sleep, read, pray write, and discuss life in Yangon.  There was also plenty to go out and see that was lively and interesting.

decisions decisions at Kebaya

and the amazing food continues

happy with our choices!