A Little Delight… Stories of Responsible Travel in Hoi An, Vietnam

responsible travel guide Hoi An, VietnamDrizzling rain pattered on my umbrella as I wove through throngs of tourists, their rainbow-hued ponchos forming sudden pops of contrast against the canary-colored walls. I dodged locals pedaling rickety bicycles on the rain-drenched streets, and darted into the calm oasis of a local teahouse-cum-social enterprise in Hoi An, Vietnam. The rain hadn’t let up for a week and the teahouse was my daily respite from the chaos—a respite from the tedium of days spent peering from windows at waterlogged rice paddies and dark, pregnant skies.

I had landed in southern Vietnam weeks earlier with a vague plan to meander north for three months. Now into my tenth year on the road, my travel style has changed significantly. I no longer make meticulous travel plans and so I entered Vietnam with two vague goals: see beautiful things and find beautiful stories capable of inspiring others to use travel as a force for good.

Hoi An Ancient Town was a natural stop in my quest for beauty—a more charming town may not exist anywhere in the world. I have a deep love for towns many consider inauthentic. I passed through Antigua, Guatemala in the second year of my round the world trip and stayed for weeks. I loved Luang Prabang, Laos enough that I returned with my niece so she could soak in the laid-back Laotian culture and beautiful French colonial architecture. And Hoi An’s narrow streets and 18th century wooden houses enchanted me. Each of these towns share status as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and that is surely part of the charm—they are towns steeped in history and seemingly frozen in time.

aerial view of sustainable hoi an

responsible travel guide Hoi An, Vietnam

The Japanese Bridge in Hoi An.

sustainable traveling Hoi An, Vietnam

Quan Cong Temple ancient town temples

Hoi An at night with lanterns

Time moves forward, however, and touristy towns offer unique opportunities for responsible travelers that are impossible to find in more off-the-beaten-path locations. Tourism dollars facilitate innovations. Peeling back the layer of novelty from a travel experience uncovers fascinating ways for economic exchanges that support local economies and communities. And that’s my passion, finding ways to help travelers connect to causes and communities.

Before arriving in Hoi An, I puttered around the Mekong Delta for nearly a month. Few travelers venture into Vietnam’s Mekong for more than a day-trip, so I was a lone tourist biking through rice paddies and sipping coconuts bought from street-side vendors. In this situation, I knew my tourism dollars directly benefited the local economy because I placed each dong (Vietnam’s currency) into the hands of a local. Beyond this cash exchange for guesthouses and food, however, the lack of a tourism industry meant that I had no way to offer tourism dollars in support of local social issues lacking funding.

Supporting local businesses is enough in these situations, it’s a concrete and sustainable way to approach responsible tourism. But sustainable travel in more touristic places offers alternatives—fascinating alternatives, too! I loved my time in Hoi An not just because it’s a beautiful town, but also because locals are using tourism as a force for positive change in their community. Armed with information and curiosity, I delighted in discovering the many ways Hoi An’s doing sustainable, responsible tourism right.

responsible travel vietnam

Reaching Out: Providing Opportunities for People with Disabilities

reaching out teahouse vietnam
Fellow travelers Carmela and Raymund (on the right) passed through town on my last day, so we sipped coffee and swapped travel stories away from the bustle.

Reaching Out was the first of several Hoi An social enterprises I visited during my time in Hoi An, and it’s the one I frequented the most. The organization runs two businesses, an arts and crafts boutique and a traditional Vietnamese teahouse—both businesses employ people with disabilities.

Although I am not one for buying many souvenirs, I found a beautifully crafted silver ring in the shop and bought it as a Christmas/birthday present to myself. Employees craft the gifts by hand in the workroom at the back of the shop, so you can watch artisans weave placemats and blacksmith jewelry.

The teahouse, however, stands apart and houses my best memories. Hoi An’s Ancient Town is most famous for gorgeous teak houses filled with carved pillars and furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Just a block from the town’s iconic Japanese Bridge, the teahouse occupies a preserved building dating from the late 1800s. Hordes of passing foot traffic belies the serene interior. The teahouse staff are all deaf and hearing-impaired and the teahouse runs through written notes, small wooden blocks with messages for the servers, and when all else fails, the women are adept are sussing out any charades you throw their way.

Both businesses provide opportunities for people of disability to learn skills and gain meaningful employment so that they are able to integrate fully with their communities and lead independent and fulfilling lives. It’s not only a beautiful mission to support, but the entire experience is well crafted. Even though I had been in Vietnam for many weeks before arriving in Hoi An, I hadn’t yet sat down for a traditional Vietnamese tea service. The teahouse remedied that and provided me with a memorable experience.

In areas with a strong language barrier, participating in tourist experiences lifts the shade on the cultural window—it gives tourists a culturally appropriate way to interact and learn. Rather than seeming inauthentic, the teahouse experience gave me, a traveler, a clear understanding of how to access aspects of the culture that seemed distant or hard to penetrate. By finding these types of responsible tourism experiences, I can fumble my way through the etiquette, satiate my curiosity with questions, and ultimately support a worthy cause, too. For those, and for so many other reasons, Reaching Out added nuance and beauty to my weeks in Hoi An.

reaching out teahouse review

reaching out arts and crafts 

traditional vietnamese tea sampler

teahouse cookies  

shannon o'donnell a little bit adrift

try traditional vietnamese coffee

STREETS International: Training Disadvantaged Youth in the Hospitality Sector

My lunch at STREETS Restaurant Café in Hoi An was unequivocally my best meal in the city (and probably among my favorite dishes in Vietnam). Vietnam isn’t the easiest country for vegetarians and many local specialities are impossible to replicate without meat. Although I had read about cao lầu (a signature Hoi An dish served with pork), STREETS was on my radar wholly because of its social mission, not the food. So I was delighted to see vegetarian cao lầu on the menu during my first visit, and doubly delighted that it tasted as good as it looked!

STREETS International runs the cafe as a social enterprise supporting its hospitality and culinary training program for street kids and disadvantaged youth in Southeast Asia. Restaurant revenue sustains the training program while also providing practicum for the students—they run nearly every aspect of it, from cooking to serving.

STREETS became my regular haunt and I spent many afternoons people-watching from the wide, sunny windows and asking my servers candid questions about their long-term goals. They shared with me their hopes that this training would change the course of their life. By learning hard skills they could now contribute to their communities. Living in such a touristy town, hospitality training was their ticket to a better life and a future with real opportunities. Although our backgrounds couldn’t be more different, hoping to change the course of your life deeply resonates with me. Supporting this cafe offered a glimpse behind Hoi An’s beautiful veneer—no town or community is exempted from its share of hardship, and the servers at STREETS offer an uplifting story of how the aggregate of tourist dollars from responsible travelers creates sustainable change for local communities.

streets international social enterprise hoi an

The Wider Hoi An Region: Spreading Money into Local Communities

Hoi An suffers a fate facing many cities around the world: over tourism. The reasons I loved Ancient Town—the historic, well-preserved streets infused with centuries of history—were the same reasons I braved the rain and biked through the outskirts of Hoi An. Over tourism also affects my new home base in Barcelona—the city’s popularity has eclipsed sustainability. There is no single solution to over tourism and governments across the world are finding new ways to preserve historic cities. Tourists staying home is one easy solution. But then, that’s not ideal either! Mostly because they won’t stay home; tourists visit places regardless of their impact on sustainability. So one solution is to divert some of each traveler’s time into surrounding areas—to spread out the impact of those warm bodies treading through ancient wooden houses.

The perfect weather never materialized, so I donned a poncho and spent many days pedaling my rented bike on circuitous routes that delved deep into lesser touristed communities in the region. And it was lovely in every way. Misty rain coated the rice paddies. Heavy skies sat low on the horizon. School children vogued for my camera. Each day that I ventured out, I found delightful cafes and restaurants and fascinating slices of daily life in Vietnam.

biking around hoi an through the rice paddies

farmer in rural Vietnam

palms reflection on a rice paddy

school student Vietnam travel

bike riding around outskirts of Hoi An.

fisherman on a bay during my biking route

Smiles from an local Vietnamese man in a boat

geometric floor tiles in the temple

dragon reflections in the small pond

geometric floor tiles in the temple in Hoi An 

mahogany and mother-of-pearl inlay furniture

floor tiles 

Weeks of unabating rain eventually maxed out the capacity of the local reservoirs, which overflowed the river and flooded Hoi An’s Ancient Town.

The ancient houses contain pulley systems to raise historic furniture to the second floor and locals scurried to protect it all. And just as suddenly as the floodwaters appeared, the sun returned. Brilliant sunshine illuminated rivers of brackish water now flowing through the streets. These were among my last days in Hoi An, and the sunshine highlighted many of the serious sustainability challenges facing this pretty little city with history dating to the 15th century. Visiting social enterprises and spreading my money around the region doesn’t solve all of these deeper issues, but my time in Hoi An provided me with just enough insight to realize it was a credible start.

Flooding in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Dad on motorbike sustainable issues hoi an 

responsible travel Hoi An, Vietnam.

biking around hoi an

local street vendor in Hoi An

Historic Flooding in Hoi An 


Hoi An charmed me. It charmed me with its beauty, but also with its innovations—the local community facing down challenging social issues and bringing forward solutions.

Both businesses profiled here are beautiful ways for responsible travelers in Hoi An to leave behind money in a meaningful way. Over the years, I have shifted much of my time away from direct volunteering. When I left on my travels a decade ago, volunteering made sense—I had volunteered extensively in the U.S. and continued that form of contribution on the road. But the international volunteering industry is fraught with issues. In time, I found alternative ways to channel my goals to give back and serve communities.

Throughout my three months in Vietnam, I found countless Vietnamese social enterprises with similar stories of hope, similar goals to create change within their community. By the time I arrived in Vietnam, I was already tired from years on the road. My best friend had deeply loved her time in Vietnam so it was one place I was committed to exploring before finally creating a home base. Three months and more than a thousand miles later, the people, landscapes, and stories of Vietnam left me enchanted.

Quick Travel Tips: Hoi An Social Enterprises

Reaching Out Teahouse: 131 Trần Phú Street. Mon – Fri from 8:30 to 21:00, and Sat – Sun from 10:00 to 20:30.
Reaching Out Arts & Crafts: 103 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street. Same hours as the teahouse.
STREETS Restaurant: 17 Le Loi Street. Everyday from noon to 10:00pm.
9Grains by STREETS: 441A Hai Ba Trung. Daily from 7:00am to 6:00pm.
Jack’s Cat Cafe: Cuddle rescued strays at 12 Le Hong Phong. 11am – 3pm, everyday except Mon & Thur.

View my Vietnam Travel Guide for advice on every place I stayed and ate, as well as an interactive map of all the social enterprises in Vietnam.

Architecture in Tbilisi, Georgia

A Little Charm… 6 Things to Do That Will Make You Fall in Love with Tbilisi, Georgia

Maybe it was the wine. Or perhaps it was the latticed balconies? The unfettered hospitality played a part. And the idyllic scenery was persuasive. For the life of me, I can’t pin down precisely what made Tbilisi, Georgia so charming.

Since I left the country in late October, I took on the mantle of fangirl for the Republic of Georgia after uncovering a bevy of memorable things to do, experiences to embrace, and sceneries to spark wonder. I gush about it to any willing ear. I returned home late last year to holiday dinners and nights spent playing cards with friends. Between these engagements, I edited photos from my fall travels. Each night, with a swipe of the keyboard, a new image flashed on the screen. Like a slide projector warming up, memories flickered into my consciousness. Each cropped and straightened photo rekindled my crush on this beautiful little city in the far east of Europe.

Map of Georgia and Caucasus Region
Most international governments recognize that Georgia includes the two areas in blue and purple, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These are Russian occupied areas of the country and travelers should research current political issues if traveling around those areas.

Like any good crushee, I immediately wanted to know my crush’s backstory and history. Before I left for Georgia and Turkey, I showed my dad my route. His eyebrows shot to the sky and he released a single, skeptical “hmm.” Now into my eighth year of travel, my parents have long accepted my decision. They don’t always love the places I visit solo, but they trust my judgement. From his face, however, I could tell my dad was wavering. In the absence of context, it’s hard to imagine what Georgia’s like, what sort of things could possibly entertain a traveler. On the edge of the Caucasus Mountains, the country is neighbored by cultures as varied as its topography. Once a stop on the Silk Road, the city became a confluence of the civilizations over the millennia. This peculiar positioning means Georgia is considered a part of Europe or Asia, depending on who you ask. And you would be forgiven for wondering if it’s a part of the Middle East. But the actual vibe: It’s European.

Today’s Georgia is Eastern Orthodox—to the tune of 84%. Monasteries and churches stand proud on mountain peaks around the country. This religious history is important to modern Georgia. That said, despite the overwhelming presence of Christianity, other cultures and religions also found perch in Georgia over the centuries. My wanders through Tbilisi uncovered mosques, synagogues, and even a Zoroastrian temple.

And while a country’s ancient history plays a part in any trip, so too does recent history. Georgia was a part of the former Soviet Union. The country also dealt with political and social unrest throughout the 90s and early aughts. I’ll confess to forgetting the bulk of my World History course in 9th grade. Before I landed, I took to the internets and online readings to flesh out my understanding. I read up on not only the Soviet Union, but the also country’s complex present-day relationship with Russia. Important to understand is the history of the two Russian occupied areas of Georgia that are depicted on the map—South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

For countries with recently attained peace, understanding a foundational history is paramount. It shapes the experience with compassion and empathy. It invites the visitor deeper into the psyche of the culture and people. Only by understanding the past could I so enjoy what makes traveling the Republic of Georgia unique. It’s the resilience of the Georgian that spirit shapes my favorite aspects of traveling there, that shaped the best things to do and see. My memories float to the surface, begging to be shared. Like the delicate smile of a new courtship, the city flirts with visitors. Tbilisi won me over with subtle charms and gentle nudges. Let’s look at the aspects of Tbilisi, Georgia that stand out most prominently in my memories.

The Gorgeous Patchwork Architecture

Beautiful doors and balconies The patchwork architecture in Old Tbilisi is reason enough to visit this pretty capital city. Intricate balconies sigh from tired buildings. Cobbled streets ramble through historic neighborhoods. Sweet, shady trees along Rustaveli Avenue belong as much in Paris as in this tiny Eastern European city. Each day I leapt from bed, energized by the idea of wandering adrift on the streets of Tbilisi, camera in hand.

Quiet courtyards and ephemeral smiles form the bedrock of my memories. Centuries of Persian, German, and Russian architectural influence is visible. But it’s not just the historic aspects that fascinates. Tbilisi’s more recent stability has it screaming into a disorienting modernity. Controversial space-age architecture takes up residence alongside the historic buildings. A gamut of architectural possibilities sit in the shadow of the 4th century Narikala Fortress. Time passes, that’s what the fortress seems to say. Tbilisi has a complicated history that has continued into the present. The aesthetic of the city bears testament.

And yet, the gorgeous laced balconies point to a concerning lack of infrastructure. It’s a similar problem facing places like Havana, Cuba. Decades of little money spent on redevelopment left gorgeous historic buildings in disrepair. There’s conflict in recognizing it needs to change while still loving the beauty it creates. But perhaps there’s a middle ground. Something between shimmering glass bridges and the city’s enchanting old-world charm. Either way, the city has an eclectic mix of styles that keeps things interesting.

 

Mowing Down on Delicious Food & Wine

Real talk: The food culture is wonderful. There’s a reason I started with an overview of Georgian history. History plays a pivotal role in Georgia’s current designation as an upcoming food destination. Cultures brushing against each other over the centuries resulted in a range of delicious dishes. In addition to meat in large supply, the country offers Mediterranean fares like salads, bean soups, cheese, and Georgian pizza. Let’s just say that as a vegetarian, I didn’t starve.

Then there’s the wine. It’s divine. Georgia’s clay vessel wine-making process, Qvevri, made UNESCO’s list for the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. During my stay in Tbilisi, I took part in the city’s beautiful café culture, which is reminiscent of so much of Europe. Sprinkled throughout the boutiques and sidewalk cafés are dozens of wine shops and tasting rooms. Wine is the icebreaker with new Georgian friends. Each time I befriended a local, they shared their favorite variety. Even more often, they boasted of their tasty homemade wines. The country has hundreds of indigenous varieties of grapes. Locals maintained their winemaking traditions throughout disparate governments and in the face of deep economic hardships. Georgians love nothing more than to spend a night (or many) sipping wine with friends. Evening shadows grow deep as friends toast to all manner of health, life, happiness, and family.

The Country’s Deeply Entrenched Culture of Hospitality

Kartlis Deda watches over Tbilisi from Sololaki Hill. Her looming aluminum figure is a touch point visible from nearly anywhere in the city. Better known as Mother Georgia, her figure so perfectly typifies the spirit and welcome I encountered in the country. For Georgians, this statue represents the dual priorities of hospitality and freedom. Erected in the 50s, Mother Georgia carries a bowl of wine in one hand and a sword in the other. The wine is for friends, the sword for enemies.

In practice, hospitality infuses every aspect of traveling Georgia. As I left, it was the feeling of complete welcome that stuck with me. Conversations with new friends swim to the forefront of my memories. Welcoming visitors is entrenched in the culture. After I posted a photo of Tbilisi on my Instagram, a local woman found the photo and welcomed me to her city. Teo and I clicked immediately. She’s a Georgian woman with a serious case of wanderlust. Now that’s something that I understand. When I admitted to her that I hadn’t yet sampled Georgian wine (I prefer drinking with friends), in quick order we arranged to meet. Across many hours—and many glasses of wine—we swapped travel stories. She shared what it’s like to live, work, and travel as a Georgian. Though I often meet kind travel friends in each new city, there is a palpable quality of joy to Georgian hospitality. If you visit Georgia as a friend, like their statue bids, you leave warm with wine and hospitality.

 

The Landscape is Beautiful & Endlessly Explorable

Tbilisi is a pocket-sized city. Even more, Georgia is small too. Combined, it’s all endlessly explorable. Situated smack between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains, there’s a varied landscape packed into this small country. Lowland lakeside towns on the Black Sea vie for attention alongside snow-capped ski slopes. I didn’t bring clothes suitable for visiting the mountains in near-winter. Instead, I spent my trip based from the capital, exploring on day-trips from Tbilisi.

History and nature collide outside the city. I hired my Airbnb host, Bacho, to show me around. He took to the task with ease and helped me pick which sites I’d like best. One day, we hiked around the David Gareja monastery to the painted caves. The monastery is a few hours outside of the city and our car hummed along lonely, winding roads, through a muted, lunar-like landscape. The monastery is beautiful. One of my favorite moments occurred as we crested the mountain behind David Gareja. Bristling in the cold air, I jerked to a stop as we faced Azerbaijan—a huge flatland plain spanned below, awash in dull greens and browns far into the horizon. As I took in the look of this new land, two eagles soared into the sky, emerging from the mountainside, their massive wingspan casting shadows on the land below. They glided on the breeze, free of the borders holding me to my perch. It was a beautiful moment. Over the following hour, we climbed among the caves carved into the rock mountain.

Other days we visited 4th-century churches—many still in use. These ancient buildings watch in silence as this beautiful nation shifts and changes. The country is making quick strides toward peace and development. In tandem, it also grips the pieces of its unique history and preserves them for future generations.

David Gareja Monastery

David Gareja Monastery

Absorbing Centuries of Music & Dance

Never before have I experienced a culture so taken with song. Rich harmonies drifted from family compounds. Sometimes for mere moments I caught a deep melody floating on the breeze. And they sing not for a coin, but instead for a love of the music. Polyphonic singing is another UNESCO recognized piece of intangible heritage, and is stunning to hear.

I visited Georgia during Tbilisoba, their annual cultural festival. I was taken with the country’s incredible history of song and dance. The festival allowed me to watch, mesmerized, a sampling of regional dances. The men leapt impossibly high, the women twirled and swayed. Each dance told stories of courtship, stories from history, and stories of joy. I was lucky to watch one long performance next to a local woman. She passed me chunks of churchkhela—a local sweet—and translated the introduction for each dance. Her kindness afforded me my sole opportunity for questions during Tbilisoba. With her explanations, I better understood how each region used the arts to preserve its history and maintain a legacy for future generations.

 

***

There’s no way to encapsulate why I am so taken with the Republic of Georgia. The sum total of Georgia won me over. Georgians have formed a deep resilience over the years. Even more, their complex history hasn’t curdled their love of life.

In addition to the many things I loved about the aesthetics, food, and culture, it goes beyond that. The same government and police presence that brought stability to Georgia in the wake of the Rose Revolution has kept the city safe today. The president overhauled the police force in 2005. This ushered in an era of safety for Georgians, according to my Airbnb host. As a new arrival, poor street lighting and rundown sidewalks gave the city an eerie feel. At first, I was uncertain about the assertions of safety. Familiarity with the pace of the city, however, assuaged my concerns. Women teetered home at all hours of the night on skyscraper heels. New friends echoed my host’s sentiments about safety. While caution goes far in any place, the city is at peace. As a solo traveler, I felt comfortable in my skin as I wandered. The relative safety of the city added a welcomed layer to the travel experience since I was weary from recent travels through Turkey.

And my gushing aside, there are a couple of downsides. Every place has them. I’d be remiss to overlook it. The Georgians have a high rate of smoking. As a non-smoker, the clouds wafting into my face during dinner was tough. I picked restaurants based on the availability of a corner where I could wedge myself away from the currents of smoke. I found the smoking even worse, however, in Istanbul. As with all things, it’s relative. The city’s air quality is declining, but again, didn’t even come close to huffing through the streets of Kathmandu.

When you aggregate the kindness, food, and history from my weeks in Georgia, it won me over. I am a lifelong fan. And it’s this same feeling that friends and A Little Adrift readers expressed when I announced my travel plans. Everyone gushed about the Georgian-ness of it all. Never able to quite pin down what they love about it, readers and friends echoed one sentiment: Just go.

I’d have to agree. Sometimes a city just sticks with you. It wins you over with a spirit and subtlety unmatched by previous experiences. For Tbilisi, I found the city as charming as the people who live there. Two weeks is too little time to claim I understand the culture, city, or people, but it’s long enough to admit I’ll be back to try.

Heading to The Republic of Georgia? Check out my Georgia Travel Guide: I aggregated my experiences in Georgia, plus all the tips from A Little Adrift readers. This is a free, comprehensive guide of history, sights, things to do, responsible tourism, and recommended readings.  

A Little Photoessay… Snapshots & Stories from Colorful, Colonial Mexico

The streets of colonial Mexico pulse with color and life. Before traveling, I glimpsed this pocket of culture and history only through small photographs of sun-drenched cobblestone streets making an appearance in my school text-books. And on a good year, my family visited a museum and I peered at the traditional clothes and colors in the works of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and the other greats to come out of Mexico.

The small town of San Pancho, Mexico is one charmed me — it was cute, tiny, and exactly what I wanted earlier this year. At the end of my time in Mexico however, I realized I had seen very little outside of a small pocket of the country. Three weeks before meeting my dad in Panama, I scoured the scribbled notes and hand-drawn maps in my notebook, each entry scrawled in haste as a new friend gave a passing recommendation. Together this advice formed a rough tapestry across the country, dotting small towns and big cities and showing the phone numbers of new friends in each place keen to share a coffee.

Guanajuato, Mexico
Friends first put Guanajuato on my radar when I was looking for a small town to travel to with my niece Ana. Those travel plans fell through and I forgot about Guanajuato until I looked at my notebook and saw the city was directly on my upcoming travel path. This town has a perfect mix of tourists/locals—local sites are in Spanish because the majority of tourists visiting Guanajuato are local within Mexico. My Spanish got better quickly! :)

With a route mapped, I shouldered my backpack and traveled overland from Puerto Vallarta to Mexico City with stops in Guadalajara, Guanajuato, and San Miguel de Allende. My bus left the coast and cut inland to small, low-slung towns and a few capital cities. Guadalajara’s size and traffic overwhelmed me (I’m not a big-city person), but the history won me over before I left town. Guanajuato and San Miguel charmed me with unique visual identities and intriguing cultural shifts that come with traveling through colonial Mexico. Gone was the relaxed mix of expats and coastal Mexicans I had lived with for months, nor did I find the trendy, cosmopolitan inhabitants of Guadalajara. Instead, indigenous Mexicans filled the parks and street-side stands selling tamales and fresh tortillas, tacos and fried dough, quesadillas and elotes.

Below are 20+ photos and stories from the tiny, colorful towns of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende; next month I’ll tackle the big cities and sights in Guadalajara and Mexico City.

Guanajuato, Mexico
Mountains and hills surround Guanajuato, which makes for great hiking but variable weather too. The weather alternated between warm and sunny to cool and overcast, but that didn’t stop the town squares from filling with vendors and locals in late afternoon to snack and chat.
Guanajuato, Mexico
The steep hillsides throughout Guanajuato make deliveries quite tough. My hostel had a vertical 10 minute walk up a hillside — these pack animals (are they donkey or mules, no clue) wandered along the main boulevard behind their owner for a spate of deliveries each day.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Charmed by the cobblestone streets throughout San Miguel de Allende, I spent both days on photo walks through town talking to the vendors and exploring the tiny hole-in-the-wall spots for coffee and tacos. Though expats and language schools fill San Miguel, the locals were friendly and keen for conversation as I wandered.
Guanajuato, Mexico
Following the common street-food wisdom of “find the longest line and eat there” I found this woman whipping out tacos, quesadillas, and a number of things I could not name. I ventured for a corn gordita stuffed with cheese and nopal (shredded cactus) — the conventional wisdom served me well because it was delicious!
Guanajuato, Mexico
Translation: “In Mexico, a day without chili is like a day without sun.” They take this sentiment to heart because there were days the tears streamed down my cheeks as I ate. :)
Guanajuato, Mexico
These guys worked on the corner I had to walk past to leave my hostel and head into town and they were hilarious. I often had my camera slung across my shoulder and one night they were quick to call me over and insist I take a photo of the guy on the left. More specifically, they told me I just couldn’t leave Guanajuato without a photograph of his bigote … which means mustache. I obliged (photo here . . . it is an impressive ‘stache) and they collapsed into laughter; afterwards, each time I passed by the street stand they erupted into rousing cheers.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
School children play kickball in San Miguel de Allende’s main courtyard and as the sun slipped lower, more children must have finished their homework because they all burst into the central plaza to join the game.
Guanajuato, Mexico
The Catedral de Guanajuato, the main church in the city dominates the downtown skyline and created a buzzing square of activity joining the various areas of town. In the evenings street-food stalls set up in the cathedral’s shadow to pedal tacos, churros, and treats to the nighttime crowds.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
More like a castle at Disney World than a parish church in the heart of colonial Mexico, La Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel is a gorgeous pink sandstone gothic church right in the city center.

San Miguel de Allende, MexicoGuanajuato, Mexico

Guanajuato, Mexico
A wander through the back-alleys of Guanajuato twist and turn up the hillsides. I loved the cactus plants and colors accenting this house . . . bright and charming in the warm Mexican sun.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
One of my favorite dishes (and one that is hard to find vegetarian), this tortilla soup was perfect on the cool overcast days (honestly, I ate it almost every day).
Guanajuato, Mexico
Guanajuato, a UNESCO World Heritage town center, is often voted one of the 10 prettiest colonial cities in Mexico and it’s easy to see why. I took this shot from the Alhóndiga de Granaditas — the museum is wonderful, only in Spanish, and filled with school children if you go too late in the day.
Guanajuato, Mexico
A colorful town square in downtown Guanajuato with a delicious veggie restaurant run by the Hare Krishnas just to the right — tasty and affordable if you’re needed a specifically vegetarian fix (and that can happen in Mexico a lot given how much cheese I ate day in and day out).
mexico
The twins on the right raced me to the top of the hillside in San Miguel while their mother laughed at our antics. Naturally, they beat me to the top, but I was rewarded with some chatter with their mom as I caught my breath before continuing up the hill. The mariachi player on the right was a sweet older gentleman who serenaded me as I journaled one afternoon in a courtyard in Guanajuato.
Guanajuato, Mexico
Journaling in a shady courtyard with my afternoon coffee at hand — my best blog posts and introspection are written in longhand, so this is how you usually find me on a random afternoon on the road.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
The pretty, gothic church in San Miguel is lit up on the city’s skyline.
Guanajuato, Mexico
The view from my hostel in Guanajuato, which I loved. This was the reward for hiking uphill every day to La Casa de Dante.

Mexico’s interior was friendly, open, and a wonderful place to travel. I haven’t yet blogged about the assumptions and fears many people have in traveling to Mexico, but these two pretty towns were  a reminder to me that each new place I travel offers unexpected places, people, and friendships.

Quick Tips: Visiting Guanajuato, Mexico

Where to Stay: La Casa De Dante is the best budget accommodation in the Guanajuato, bar none. It’s easy to book on Agoda or Hostelworld, and it’s a gorgeous spot with sweeping views of the city.

What to Do: Wandering the small back-streets and alleys is a highlight of both Guanajuato City and San Miguel de Valle. These cities having charming squares and tiny cafes in shady plazas that are delightful. More formally, you shouldn’t miss Alhóndiga de Granaditas, a museum in the town city. Go early as school children fill the place in the afternoons. You can’t miss the Catedral de Guanajuato, and you shouldn’t. Be sure to wander at different times during the day, as it’s particularly stunning when washed in the yellow late-afternoon sun. Same with Museo Casa Diego Rivera, the exhibits are well done and provide an important background on one of Mexico’s favorite artists. The city has a lot of street food and interesting markets, too. Mercado Hidalgo is the biggest market. You could take a street food tour, or just wander and sample and enjoy. The Mummy Museum is popular, but it’s not my thing so I skipped it, but not visiting horrified many Mexicans that I talked to, who consider it a must-visit. And lastly, you’ll want to get some height and pretty views over the city. If you’re staying at the hostel, then you already have some gorgeous views. Consider taking the funicular to the statue of Pipila, or you could take a hike on foot with water and half a day to explore.

What to ReadThe People’s Guide to Mexico is the best alternative guidebook to Mexico and comes highly recommended for the culture and history. You still might want a Mexico Lonely Planet for the logistics if you are backpacking the area ‚ I nearly always have a proper guidebook on me — but the People’s Guide is the hands-down best option for history and better understanding all aspects of the culture. If you prefer story with your history, then Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico is a memoir that will explain the culture while wrapped in interesting narrative.

A Little Photoessay… Slice of Life Snapshots of Mexico

Mexico surprised me with the hospitality and friends I found when I arrived at the beginning of the year with no real plans and no certain direction for my life. I flew into Puerto Vallarta sure that I would visit with friends who were living near there for a month, and then move onto another region filled with colonial towns. I loved the little town of San Pancho so much that I decided to stay put for four months and live in this small Mexican beach town. Well, at least until it was time to seek out those colonial pueblas at a breakneck pace and make my way to my overland to Mexico City so I could catch a flight to Costa Rica.

I wasn’t sure the pretty colonial towns could get prettier, but Ana was right on when she told me this pink, turreted church in San Miguel de Allende looks like a castle at Disney World.

I arrived in Costa Rica a few days ago, and my dad and Ana arrived last night. Our plan is to explore a bit here and then travel together to Panama, where my dad grew up living in the Canal Zone. As I end the Mexico portion of my travels for the next while, I wanted to share highlights from my Instagram feed and camera roll over the past four months. One of the things I love about Instagram is that photos often capture moments, angles, or snapshots in a way I don’t usually share on the blog. The entire medium is intended more as a slice of life type sharing and it appeals to me a lot, even as I go in the exact opposite with my own photography (my 2013 goal is to fully understanding manual mode and everything my nice travel camera can do by the end of the year!).

I’ll be offline for a couple of days now as my family and I cross into Panama and go exploring, but I’ll share those adventures via Facebook in the coming days and weeks … and likely in the coming months on the stories since I am a few months (years?) behind on the blog.  :)

Photos of Colonial Towns in Mexico

Breakfast in Mexico: scrambled egg burrito topped with salsa picante, mashed avocado, and crema. (That offensive olive was an oversight, I picked the others off).

Sunshine, blue skies, and palm trees—my constant companion from day one. I don’t think it rained more than five times the entire time I was there … which is likely why it’s considered high season!

Beach umbrellas lined the beaches during Easter week as the city-dwellers fled to the coast; the town swelled with people and the main upside was the new street food vendors who descended on our town!

Kiddos play in a pool at the water’s edge because the surf on our beach is too strong for them (and me, if I’m being honest). I just love their little sun hats.

A day of fun with friends who also lived in San Pancho — we coated ourselves in therapeutic blue mud at a hidden beach about a an hour or two from our town. :)

Lunch at my favorite taco spot, Baja Takeria, for the tastiest taco in town; their chipotle sauce: so, so good.

Is there ever a reason to say no to churros? (No, there isn’t, especially when their served from a truck in Sayulita, Mexico!)

What is more Mexican than a roaming Mariachi band making their way through the market?

Music for all! A roaming mariachi band at La Penita weekly market. :)

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I mean yes, this puppy *is* the cutest thing ever; I found him on the beach and wanted to puppy-nap him.

Fresh coconuts anytime, only alarming part was the number of machetes laying around town. This was a perk to living in my tiny town; tiny specialized shops serviced every small niche you’d need, and it was all close together and walkable.

It’s a fresh coconut kinda day over here in Mexico :)

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Living in a beach town was a new one for me — every day included a trip to the sand and waves!

Why hello there Friday, I think I will go to the beach today.

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Sunset and stormy weather; the beautiful ones stacked on themselves and some nights I was just beside myself with how pretty they were. The sunset became a nightly ritual and many people in the town also gather for conversation, drinks, and nightly views like this.

Guacamole, a long-standing favorite snack, and my lunch several times a week since I found the perfect guac recipe through a friend here in town.

Guacamole. A reason for happiness. :)

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My friend Nick saw this guy fall from the ceiling of the community center, he’s on the window sill here recovering (and he did recover).

I found a new friend hanging out at the community center here in town. :)

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The delicious vegan café inside San Pancho’s community center.

A vegan paella, steamed artichoke, and lemon grass aguafresca was the surprise lunch on the cafe’s daily changing menu.

Speaking of aguafresca, this shot is from Guadalajara and shows just how many flavors they make on a hot day!

The town of Guanjuato is one of the prettiest places in colonial Mexico, and I loved that hardly a single soul spoke English to me in the five days I visited.

Unlike the beach town I lived in, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Guanajuato was buried in the mountains with dry, cool air.

Adios Guanjuato, que bonita eres. #Mexico

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Alhough I never drink soda, I am always intrigued to see which big corporations won the race … it seems Mexico is a Coke country.

A beautiful mural inside Darjeeling, my favorite bar (and pizza joint). Those eyes get me every time.

A beautiful mural here in town. Those eyes get me every time I see it.

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Mexico was partly work for me, so here I have a working breakfast with some wifi time along with my chilaquiles, oj, and coffee.

Tequila tasting with friends in San Pancho, tequila comes from that region so they make an art out of the tasting, sipping, clearing the palate, etc.

When friends came into town I was thrilled to go to the fancy hotel for breakfast and try prettily arranged dishes like this vegan chorizo.

The Cathedral of the Assumption of Our Lady in Guadalajara is beautiful and a high point of walking the city’s downtown area.

One night I found a lovely altar to Our Lady of Guadalupe on my solo walk home. The streets were completely silent, all lights out in the houses … and these two votives flickering through the night.

Late afternoon in Sayulita, a small beach town about 20 minutes from San Pancho.

San Pancho had just the prettiest sunsets in the world. I loved living in this gorgeous little beach town. :)

Thanks so much for following the Mexican leg of my journey, I started traveling too quickly over the past couple weeks to share more about the tiny towns I visited on my overland travels after San Pancho, so those will come later this summer. I’d love to connect with you on Instagram if you’re there, I think it’s such a fun way to share more “in the moment” pieces of life on the road. What’s your favorite shot?

Cheers,

~S

A Little Photoessay … A Glimpse of Gaudi’s Masterpiece: La Sagrada Familia

There is something about a church that transports me through time and deposits me at an older version of myself. I step through the doors and past habits and attitudes flood my senses and course through my body. I was raised Christian and, since then, I moved onto a mixed bag of spirituality. I found it impossible these past years on the road not to identify with other cultures and religions as I met so many new people and stories and perspectives.

And although I love the temples of Asia—so much—last month I talked about the vestiges of my own history that are so much more identifiable when I wander the streets of Europe. New wisdoms cedes the floor to customs and traditions ingrained in me since birth. The familiarity of a church washes me in calm; I give myself permission in holy places to release life’s stresses and the hurts. It’s the act of entering the church, not the service. It’s the learned behavior that here, in this special place, you can reflect and release. Going to church was not the point of my visit, I was there for the Gaudí architecture, but the by-product of visiting the Basílica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain was a visit to church—no doubt an activity that made my grandma sigh in relief.

La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

Eastern side of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain a grey afternoon at la sagrada familia

The Basilica is the crowning jewel of Barcelona; it’s the shining beacon of all touristy visits to the city. With two days free in Spain’s Costa Brava, I decided to play tourist. I was speaking at a conference in Girona, but I couldn’t pass the chance to finally experience Barcelona. Two days isn’t long, and having a speech to prep, I did only the bare minimum research. When visiting La Sagrada Familia, I knew two key facts: 1) it’s still under construction and 2) Antoni Gaudí designed it has his masterpiece. Gaudí was a Spanish architect known for his highly stylized interpretation of early 1900s Modernism. After taking a chocolate tour of the city in the morning, I started a long walk in the drizzling rain to make my late-afternoon appointment at the church (my hostel brilliantly recommended that I pre-purchase my ticket online—more insider tips at the end). I could have used the metro and buses, but the solitude and weather matched my mood that day. It was late September, and I had left my niece Ana home in the States while we decided if I would continue homeschooling her from the road.

For the first time in a year, I was back to traveling solo and my tourist map of the city had little cartoon buildings pointing my way to the church, indicating other buildings Gaudí had designed. I weaved through the lanes, lost in the pulse of city life. When I spotted a tiny nook of a café, I passed the rest of time with a hot Americano and my journal. It’s an interesting way to understand a city, to find a side-street and sit with locals. Eventually, with my time slot on the horizon, I walked toward the eight massive, intricate towers marking La Sagrada Familia (and I worried I would get lost!). Unlike any church I had seen before, the curious shapes, curves, and figures lining the façade became gradually clearer as I walked.

I don’t know the exact moment the church hooked me, but my fascination with the building surprised me. At times on my travels I get fatigued by sightseeing, but if there is one thing that calls to me, it’s passion. Passion and creativity are twin elements that I lament when they ebb from my own life, so as I wrapped the audio-guide around my head and absorbed myself in the story of a donation-funded church constructed over the span of more than century. A church so grand in concept, design, and style that it would become a the magnum opus of a century, not just a single artist.

Gaudí is but one architect on the project, but it was his passion that fueled the building of such a bizarre homage to the Gothic and Art Nouveau architecture of years past. He left plans for the entire basilica for the architects who would come after him—he worked on La Sagrada Familia from 1883 until his death in 1926. I am neither an art buff nor a student of architecture, but I found it impossible to stay impassive when viewing the complex scenes depicted on the Nativity façade. In stark contrast, the Passion façade offers a gaunt, and darker depiction.

The Nativity Façade, designed by Gaudí:

Nativity façade of La Sagrada Familia.

architecture of the Nativity façade Gaudi's façade of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The Passion Façade, designed by Josep Maria Subirachs:

Passion façade; La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain The Passion façade of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The Passion façade of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

The inside is exquisite, too.

The ceiling is so extraordinary that I very nearly caved into my desire to lay flat-out on the floor and get lost in the flowing tiers and spires (that would have totes broken social protocol though). Instead, I craned my neck and gawked to the descriptions on my audio-guide. Each footfall inside the church brought into view new twisting, tree-like columns branching out as they climbed upward. Each heartbeat allowed a glimmer of sunlight to dapple through into the interior, as if bathing me in the warm breeze of an orchard.

Ceiling of La Sagrada Familia.

stained glass windows Inside La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain

I spent the better part of my afternoon wandering the huge church, then below in the museum looking at the plans and miniature projections of the completed project. Thanks to the magic of computers and technology (which Gaudí did not factor into his two-century timeline for completion of his masterpiece), La Sagrada Familia could be done as early as 2026. (I revisted the church five years later, in 2017, and the architects had made startling progress on the windows and interiors, as well as several of the towers!).

When I emerged from the church, I soaked in the late afternoon sunshine. The welcome change in the weather matched my lifted spirits. I felt lighter after immersing myself so completely in learning about how one man’s creativity and religious fervor could compel him to funnel his passion so narrowly into a project that would affect millions of people and span several centuries.

It blew my mind.

The scope of his vision, the faith that people would continue donating to finish the church, the drive to work with such focus on a single project—I left both awed and envious. And I left living in a wider world, a world with more possibilities for those with the drive to follow a passion through to the end. I bid adiós to the church, but really more of a “see you in 20 years,” when I’ll be back to see Gaudí’s completed magnum opus.

Blue skies at La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona


Quick Tips: Visiting La Sagrada Familia

How: Book ahead through the official site and print your ticket. This was the best advice and help I received by far. You choose an hourlong time window to visit the church and you bypass the huge queue with very quick access. The towers were not open on my first visit because of the rain, so I was only able to do that on my return in 2017. You can and must pre-book this as well—the tower view time slots go very quickly, so book at least two days ahead of time if that is your plan.

How much: There are several options you can pay for; I paid to enter the church and the museum, as well as an audio-guide (worth the price in my opinion). On my return visit in 2017, my niece and I booked a ticket up the Façade (so worth it! The views are gorgeous and it’s an inside look behind the scenes of the church’s inner workings). As of 2017, it costs €15 for a basic ticket to enter the Basilica, €22 for the audioguide and museum too, and €29 to go up a tower and have an audioguide (if you book a tower view ticket, do not be late for your appointment time. (current prices)

Where: It’s a long walk from the downtown Gothic quarter of Barcelona, but I managed it both ways and stopped at the other Gaudí spots on the way. There is a metro stop and what-not, but I did not use it.

When: On recommendation from my hostel (they helped me buy and print my ticket), I took a 4 pm time slot, which was fairly calm (though there was a queue for those without pre-purchased tickets). I was there for over an hour listening to the audio-guide and wandering; it was relatively uncrowded at the end of the day. My photos also came out better by not visiting at high-noon.

Plan and Learn:  Every place is more interesting with back story; read a Guadí biography before you visit for a deeper perspective on this world-famous architect. This beautiful photographic collection showcases his work. And if you’re staying in Spain for a bit, consider the Spanish Lonely Planet as your guide, it was my go-to on both visits.

Bagan temples burma myanmar

A Little Photoessay… The Ancient Temples of Bagan, Myanmar

When I left nearly four years ago to travel, I wasn’t sure what pieces of the travel experience would most pique my interest . . . would it be the varied landscapes, the new foods and flavors, or perhaps new friends? In the intervening years, I learned that I am most engaged in my travel experience when I look for stories from friendly people willing to share a meal. In some places, however, the fascination truly lies deep within the history—often the living history—of a place.

The living legacy left in Bagan, Myanmar (formerly Burma) was visible for miles when I entered the Bagan Archeological Zone, a region of the country with more than 2,200 temples and stupas remaining; the earliest of these structures date back to beginning of the 11th century. As Ana and I traveled through Myanmar, luck was with us that our visit aligned with our friends’ family travels in Myanmar as well. The mother is Burmese-American and has family still living in the country; when our visits coincided, she and her family offered us the chance to travel with them on their pilgrimage to Bagan’s holy temples.

Views of many temples in Bagan, Myanmar
Starting in about 1044, Bagan’s wealthy rulers spent 250 years building up this ancient city. At the height of Bagan’s place in history as a seat of power in Southeast Asia, the city had more than 10,000 temples and 1,000 stupas. Building temples is a way for wealthy citizens to build merit, and for this reason temples both large and small were built and donated over the past century.

We spent a whirlwind two days from sunup to sundown visiting the holiest temples, and learning about why these temples are still today used in modern worship.Though renting bicycles is the most popular way for tourists to see navigate the dusty roads and fields of temples, we all drove around in the cushioned bed of a truck so that we could visit many of the temples spread over the 40-square miles of land within the ancient city.

The thing I found fascinating about the temples in Bagan, in contrast to other temple complexes in Southeast Asia (namely Angkor Wat, which I took Ana to see two months after Bagan), is the fact that many of the temples were reconstructed for modern use. There were plenty of crumbling, pumpkin-colored stupas contrasting the fields of dull grass burnt dry from the strong sun, but a great many of the holiest temples were modern places of worship with re-gilded exteriors, Buddha statues, and Nats.

Below I’d like to share a photo journey and the story of our days visiting the monasteries and stupas of ancient Bagan that form the country’s living history. Bagan is incredibly photogenic, so I’ve shared the highlights (21 photos and mini-stories!)  from two full days below (sunrise to sunset), but there are more Bagan travel photos if you’re keen.

Monks line up for alms in Bagan, Myanmar
Our small group prepared for our first day at the ruins as dawn settled over the region; these monks passed our guesthouse in the early morning hours on their almsgiving walk through town. Giving alms is a daily ritual throughout most of Southeast Asia and the act of giving builds merit for the giver. Locals give rice and food into the bowls of the monks as they pass by homes and shops; in this way, they pay respect to the monks and connect to their spirituality.

Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan, Myanmar Burma
The beautiful, gilded complex of temples and stupas at Shwezigon Pagoda attracted a handful of tourists in the dawn hours. The quiet energy humming through the temple captivated us. Sunrise hot-air balloons would have no doubt been a magical way to experience the first hours of lift shining over the 40 miles of temples, stupas and monasteries dotting the plains around Bagan, but we opted to stay on the ground this time.

These twin images side-by-side are an uncommon representation of Buddha. I have seen the Buddha depicted in hundreds of positions and facial expressions over the years, but these beatific smiles at Dhammayangyi Pahto temple shine with peace and happiness.

Dhammayangyi Pahto temple in Burma Myanmar
 The stunning, cavernous hallways at Dhammayangyi Pahto temple. This is a highlight and a a beautiful temple.

Ananda Paya temple in Bagan
The quiet sunrise hours have given way to the tour buses by mid-morning, and locals and tourist alike mix and merge on the paths leading to Ananda Paya temple.  Of note, and particularly interesting to the children in the group, was that this temple’s gilded top looks like a corn cob. :)

free water at the temples for pilgrims
The Burmese are generous with water and basic necessities. There were many instances where they could have charged for water, but instead the active temples and monasteries offered up jugs, canisters, and containers filled and free so that no one should go thirsty on their pilgrimage–some temples had very steep hikes!

Thatbyinnyu Temple temple in Myanmar
Ana and I posed for a shot together with the photogenic Thatbyinnyu Temple temple in the background.

Thatbyinnyu Temple in Bagan, Myanmar
Two doorways from two beautiful temples. The left is looking out at Thatbyinnyu Temple. The second one is the ornate entrance to the Hgnet Pyit Taung temple.

Burmese zodiac animal
Different animals represent different days of the week in the Burmese zodiac. The week day of your birth dictates which station and animal you should visit at the temples. There are eight stations because Wednesday is split into two different animals. This creature is the tiger and represents Monday; it’s worth researching your day of birth before you travel through Myanmar so you can pay respect through their cultural beliefs to your zodiac animal.

Mt Popa to the Popa Taungkalat monastery
A vendor sells bouquets of flowers to pilgrims making their way up Mt Popa to the Popa Taungkalat monastery.

Sign about walking up Mt. Popa barefoot
You must have bare feet when entering any Buddhist temple. In this case, the sign is a reminder to the pilgrims hiking the stairs to the very top of the mountain that they must do so barefoot … while dodging monkeys!

777 steps that are carved into the side of  Mt. Popa filled with monkeys
The temple monkeys are aggressive and hungry; they pester the pilgrims slowly making their way up the 777 steps that are carved into the side of  Mt. Popa, all leading to the Popa Taungkalat monastery.

Htilominlo Temple details in Bagan
Intricate paintings inside of Htilominlo Temple have survived the centuries. This was just one of the many frescoes lining the walls. The most delicate and intricate of the paintings in some of the other temples are only lit by flashlights and prohibit photography as a way to ensure future generations can witness the beautiful artwork.

thanaka powder grinding block
The thanaka powder that the Burmese use on their faces actually comes from these sticks. They grind the thanaka on the stone, add water (or other creams in modern instances) and then apply to their skin for beauty, tradition, and skin protection.

sour plum candies in Bagan, Myanmar
On the side of the road a candy maker sells hand-rolled sour plum candies; although sweet candies from jaggery are popular all over the country, the sour plum flavor is unique to this region and it’s worth sampling some from many vendors as they come in varying levels of sour and sweet!

temples of bagan
This young and eager boy was our impromptu tour guide through one of the temple complexes.

Manuha temple buddha and Buddha in the Taung Kalat monastery on Mount Popa
Buddha on the left is from the Manuha temple, and the right one is unique. This Buddha sits in the Taung Kalat monastery on Mount Popa—the Buddha statue is adorned with hundreds of tiny Buddha images.

The Irrawaddy River runs along Bupaya pagoda and provided a welcome and cool breeze in the hot, late afternoon sun. Ana and I learned a lot before we left for Myanmar about the effect that major rivers have on trade and development within the countries in Southeast Asia, so it was interesting for us to watch the slow pace of life on this section of the river.

car full of people in Bagan, Burma
As the day started to wind down, the pickup trucks began to ferry all the locals back to their homes just as we (Ana, Aye, Em and I) rented a horse cart to take us to a sunset spot. Though tourists are common in Bagan, friendliness is an inherent part of Burmese culture and we got waves and smiles from every single passing truck.

Sunset at the Burmese temples in Bagan, Myanmar
Our second night in Bagan we picked a sunset spot that only had a handful of tourists sitting on the ledges. Because the trip back is in near darkness, tourists take the horse-drawn carts to and from the sunset spots.

Horse carts and sunset temples in Bagan, Myanmar
The horse-carts give a bit of perspective on the size of these temples. Though some of the ruins are small stupas, others are massive temples that date back to the kings and rulers in the 10th and 11th centuries.

Sunset temples in Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)
The hundreds of temples shift and change in the setting sun and allow for a different and beautiful sunset spot each night.

sunset bagan temples
We perched on the ledge of the temple and watched the sun sink across the sky.

The last fragments of daylight left the sky and silhouetted the iconic temples.

Bagan was such a special stop on our travels through Myanmar and an real highlight of our time traveling the region. The temples are incredible, and though they are not yet registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site (politics), this counts as a unique place in our cultural heritage.

Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia

A download of everything I learned from years backpacking Southeast Asia, and a beginners guide of sorts for anyone traveling through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia!  

Dessert-Castles-Jordan

A Little Art … A Gorgeous Pre-Islamic Mural in Jordan

The air around me was cool and damp, the kind of pervasive dampness only found in old spaces, spaces locked off from human habitation for decades, centuries even. On every wall, remnants of an ancient culture depicted animals, kings, triumphs, and women, lots of women. We had visited several desert castles in Jordan that day, and Quseir Amra was the last. We had, it would seem, saved the best for last.

Quseir Amra's gorgeous and detailed fresco.
A full wall of the detailed frescoes at the Quseir Amra UNESCO World Heritage Site in Eastern Jordan.

I’m time-jumping a bit here, away from my recent travels with my niece, and instead into my treasure chest full of stories that have not yet made it onto this site. A few times a month I’d like to share stories that bubble up to the surface, usually inspired from some recent encounter or conversation. In this case, during a discussion with my niece on how we understand and investigate ancient history. How murals left behind show insight into past cultures. I pulled Ana over the computer to show her some of the murals I found on my travels in Jordan last year. Murals abounded. Jerash had murals, Mount Nebo too, and sculptures came to life right out of the walls of Petra.

And, in this case, we looked through and discussed the beautiful frescos from the Quseir Amra desert castle in eastern Jordan, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A wall fresco in suprisingly good condition at the Quseir Amra desert castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site.A wall fresco in suprisingly good condition at the Quseir Amra desert castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Following the path of UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world wouldn’t be a bad way to travel, these sites are rich with history. Natural history in some cases–forest sanctuaries teeming with biodiversity and life. Or cultural history in other places–monuments, castles and man-made structures.

Quseir Amra UNESCO site
UNESCO World Heritage site, Quseir Amra is filled with beautiful, well-preserved frescoes.

Quseir Amra falls into the second category of UNESCO sites. The man-made fortress-cum-castle houses some of the most well-preserved frescoes from the 8th Century. One of the things Ana’s come to appreciate is living history — knowing she can now get on a plane and touch, taste, feel, and experience the places where history happened.

Qasr Kharana jordan
The Qasr Kharana desert castle in Jordan, surrounded by blue skies.

 

camels desert jordan
Shifting sands, trotting camels and nomadic Bedouin fill the miles between the desert castles, perhaps tracing pieces of the old caravan trails that criss-crossed the Middle East for centuries.

This is the short of it. I subjected Ana to a longer discourse on art, the tribal art I studied in college, the churches and art I will take her to see in Europe one day, and the pre-Islamic and Christian art I observed in Jordan.

So tell me, are you a history buff? Any artwork or murals that have fascinated you over the years? :)

The Jordan Tourism Board sponsored my trip; the experiences, photos and stories, though,  are my own :)

animist beliefs burma

A Little History… Myths and Spirits in Modern Myanmar

A tiny bell tinkled in the light whisper of wind outside the inner temple, the faint music audible inside the small prayer room despite the crush of bodies kneeling prostrate in front of the gilt Buddha. After paying my respects to Buddha, Buddhism, and Burma inside the room, I continued circling the tall zedi, the Burmese word for stupa. My friend’s young daughter, M, instructed my niece Ana on Buddhist history and prayer rituals. They bowed their heads together, the sounds of their low murmurs contained to their tiny circle of instruction.

coconut offering at mt. popa bagan incense bagan burma

I peered at the carved creatures adorning the outside of the temple, and it struck me I how much Buddhism and spirituality is a consistent and daily part of Burmese life. In fact, in terms of ceremonies, merit-making activities, and donations, Burma ranks as the most religious Buddhist country in the world according to scholars who research these things. Myths, animism, and spirituality form the religious core of Myanmar and none of my pre-traveling research prepared me for the deeply spiritual side of daily life in Burma and their faithful fastidiousness.

incense temple bagan
Incense floats through the air as an offering at the Popa Taungkalat monastery near Mt. Popa, Bagan, Burma.

More than 90 percent of the Burmese practice Theravada Buddhism, a fact common in this region of the world since Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka report similarly high percentages of Buddhism. Burmese society differs a bit though because they embrace the merit-making tenant of Buddhism. Meaning the religious engage in good deeds, offerings, and charity work to build merit on their path toward enlightenment…a task is not undertaken lightly.

Religion devotion suffuses the country and is the most obvious layer of spirituality in Burma. But when I looked closer at the temples and shrines, Buddha is but one part to their spirituality. Spirit worship and beliefs that pre-date Buddhism are still alive and fully integrated into modern Buddhist worship, as evidenced by the mythical figures and twisted faces of part-animal creatures standing guard on every temple, in street-side shrines, and throughout the countryside.

mount popa temple bagan burma
The Popa Taungkalat monastery is home to the 37 Nats in Burmese spirituality and sits the Pegu mountain range near Bagan, Myanmar; it takes 777 steps, fending off monkeys, and a dose of ambition to reach the top of this volcanic plug that formed a pedestal of sorts that sticks out of the mountain’s sloping hillside.

Ana and I wandered the temples in Bagan and Mandalay, examining the odd additions to seemingly Buddhist temples. Why are there twisted images of strange creatures? Who are those upright people guarding the temple high at the top of Mt. Popa?

For me it came down to why? Why are these images here? I have long noticed but never researched the many Spirit Houses outside businesses, shops, and houses in Thailand.

Well, it comes from the same, basic and ancient animist beliefs. Animism predates Buddhism, Christianity, and the majority of the world religions. And it’s funny, I have spent nearly a year in Thailand over the past two years, and yet, until Ana and I traveled through Burma and saw the fervent devotion, it hadn’t occurred to me to look more closely.

spirit house thailand
A colorful spirit house at a small outdoor coffee shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand protects the establishment.

In Burma, these statues, and animals on the temple are Nat, which are at their simplest form spirits. The Burmese believe in 37 different primary Nat, while Lower Nat are regionally influence, and often, only a small community worships that one spirit. The stories behind each Nat are fascinating and remind me of the Catholic Saints I learned about in youth. And, that’s likely a bit controversial for any strong Catholics, but the Nat all have a human story behind them—a person who lived and died (often violently) but is ultimately appeased for protection through worship and honor.

naga spirit siem reap cambodia serpent angkor wat siem reap.

There is a King of the Nat, Thagyamin, who is based on of Indra, a Hindu deity. Then, the Nat descend from there with spirits to protect the mountains, forests, trees. The Nat cover every aspect of human life: hearth, animals, crops, safety. The animist beliefs integrate into daily worship for many rural Burmese, as well as the various ethnic groups.

Then you take those basic but seemingly separate Nat concepts, and mix in the Nāga serpent spirits and you have the twined and headed snakes and dragons guarding the entrances to temples complexes throughout Southeast Asia, including the ancient temples of Siem Reap.

mermaid burma burmese nat

And to complete the picture, the animist beliefs spawned a rich culture full of myth and folklore that hasn’t made it outside Burma much in the last century because of the country’s rocky politics. Stories passed to children in Burma explain why crows are black (Ana and I read this one to get a sense for their myth culture), and Burmese folklore founded the country’s creative comic characters rivaling the marvel superheroes with their powers and lessons in humanity.

animist worship burma
An odd assortment of carvings, animals, and colors denote this spot for animist worship outside Hpa-an, Burma.

Myth, history, and religion intertwine in modern Myanmar in an odd fusion I’ve only seen echoed perhaps in the spiritual Hindu-Balinese culture in Bali, Indonesia.

Mount Popa, near Bagan in Burma, is a pilgrimage site for the Burmese, and my friends and their extended family opened up their days and took Ana and me along on their journey through Bagan’s crumbling ruins, golden stupas, and mountain-side temples. After passing nearly an hour at the mountain top temple, our group reconvened near a bright golden zedi. We discussed Buddhism, spirituality, and life. Then, when we each murmured our last prayers, the thin plumes of offered incense delicately dancing into the air, I grabbed Ana’s hand for the long descent back to ground level.

buddha hpa-an
A lone Buddha statue and aging stupa are all that is left of an old hilltop temple.

I took one last look at the faded green mountains and crafty monkeys cagily watching us walk; how easy it once was for me to believe the story of the world murmured to me in my cradle, but through traveling, I have listened to so many tales. So many gods, goddesses, and deities. Cultures full o f myths, storytellers, and history. The combination and commonalities across all the cultures — Burmese, American, Balinese — it continually changes shape the more I learn and see of this beautiful world.