The story on why we decided to visit Tonga

Mar. 4, 2015

Hi, Dallas here with my first post for this trip! It’s Wednesday today and it’s our third day in Neiafu, Vava’u. The weather continues to be gorgeous. It’s hot and sunny and pretty humid this time of year, so Jamie is really testing her limits again! We’ve been staying out of the sun since she burned her face on Tongatapu, so I think we’ll be ok for our boat tour around the islands tomorrow. We’ll both be putting on lots of sunscreen and fortunately it’s a covered boat.

Our flight from Tongatapu to Vava’u was awesome because not only was it a clear and sunny day, but we also got to fly on a small 18 passenger plane that flew relatively low. It was a beautiful, magical experience to see all those islands, many of them uninhabited with their perfect looking beaches and surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean in every direction!


As we were flying over the Ha’apai group of islands I was easily able to identify them because it was about the half way point in the journey and you could see the village of Pangai and the several roads along the islands. What was also amazing was looking to the West and seeing the two volcanoes, Tofua and Kao, way off in the distance just sticking out of the middle of the ocean. I’m also really excited for our flights from Vava’u to Ha’apai and then back to Tongatapu



Upon our landing into Vava’u it was obvious why people had told us that it was “the place to see” in Tonga. It’s much more scenic than the main island of Tongatapu, which is a very flat, sort of crescent shaped land mass. Vava’u is group of many tiny to medium sized islands with many bays, lagoons, beaches, hills, cliffs and caves. The varying elevations here mean that you can actually get up to a few high spots and really see the natural beauty. I hiked up to Mt. Talau yesterday and got a fantastic view of Neiafu town and Port of Refuge harbor.



The big news of the past while is that we finally got to meet with the governor of Vava’u, Mr. Fulivai. As some people know Jamie and I purchased three parcels of land here in Vava’u three years ago. The property is part of a self-sustainable community project on Hunga Island, which was envisioned by the governor’s father in the late 90’s. His father passed away in 2002 and now as governor, Mr. Fulivai wants to make his father’s vision a reality.

It’s funny because three years ago I don’t think we’d ever heard of The Kingdom of Tonga and to be honest I don’t even remember exactly how I came across this project, except that somehow I found it while I was surfing the Internet one day at work. We were both intrigued by the sound of it and the beautiful pictures we saw. The price was also by most people’s standards, very cheap!

Being that I’m not (that much) of a sucker and Jamie works in real estate law, we decided to be optimistically skeptical. We engaged a lawyer from New Zealand, who had written specifically on Tonga real estate mishaps. It turns out that under Tongan law there is no possibility for freehold title to foreigners. However, with recent amendments to existing laws, there is now a legal way for foreigners to have a 99 year renewable lease. The structure is modeled after the legally established “condominium” concept popular in most parts of the world where one owns their “condo” or “detached home” as is the case in Cocomo, but do not own the land individually. Our shares are transferable so we can sell if we want or we can even buy more property from another shareholder. There is also a yearly condo fee, which is essentially like a property tax. In the end the lawyer fees paid off with good news and we went ahead a purchased three lots!

Ever since then I’ve been a bit hesitant to talk about it too much. Even with the positive legal advice I still felt a little uncertain of how things would turn out since we had never seen the property or even been to the country! I guess I wanted to save myself too much embarrassment in the case that we arrived in Tonga and found out the whole thing had fallen apart or never properly existed in the first place.

So we’re excited and relieved today that we finally met the governor and he was an exceptionally friendly, well-spoken and determined sounding man. To our surprise he was also a lot younger than we expected. I believe he’s only 37 if I heard him correctly. He basically explained his vision to us about this being an eco-friendly, self-sustainable community project and sort of a model for others to follow. He also explained that for him it wasn’t about the money and hence the low purchase price of the lots. He also wants to boost tourism and the economy in general. The hope is that by attracting some expats and foreign investment to this project it will give jobs to the locals and also bring in new money and talent. In a few days we’ll actually be heading over to Hunga Island to see our piece of paradise! On top of that, after three years of little development, there is now another young couple who are in the process of building the first home in the Cocomo community. So not only will we get to see our chunk of bush, but we’ll be able to see somebody else making the first move.


Mar. 10, 2015


Yesterday, Monday was our last day in Vava’u and our last chance to make it out to Hunga. Unfortunately Jamie was still not feeling well since acquiring a nasty fever two days prior. With the symptoms she had we were suspecting it could be Dengue fever, but we’re still not exactly sure. She decided that it was best not to risk walking around in the heat all day, so she stayed behind at our guesthouse and rested. I went ahead and after a bit of a boat transportation issue I finally left Neiafu at 11:20 a.m.

Since it was a slower boat leaving from the old harbor the trip took about two whole hours, whereas it was supposed to take 25 minutes or less by speedboat! Oh well, the trip was scenic and I took lots of pictures and video.

We drove around the North and West sides of Hunga island so I was able to get the spectacular views of the high cliffs. Many, if not most of the plots are on the cliff side and I kept my eye on the map to try and pinpoint where our three parcels are located. I don’t think it would make much difference because the cliff is of fairly uniform height all the way to the end of the planned development.




As I had hoped I was thoroughly stunned! As we came towards the far West portion of the island there was a break in the rocks and I could see through into Hunga lagoon. Slightly further we made our way towards the second, larger opening and then passed through into the beautiful sheltered lagoon. It’s amazing how the huge ocean swells get reduced to ripples as you pass between the rocks. Inside the lagoon the water was almost dead calm and an absolutely ideal place to moor a boat. We pulled up to the pier where I met Betsy and Phillipe, who are currently there building their earth bag home, which is the first construction in the Cocomo Village project.


Because I’d gotten away late and had a much slower trip than expected, Phillipe, Saleni (his Tongan friend) and I decided to walk quickly to try and locate our three plots. After about 30 minutes of walking we were close, but first they took me to another owner’s property to see an example of how it would look after the trees were cleared. I’m glad we took a look because it allowed me to walk right up the cliff edge and get the full panoramic view out over the vast ocean to the Northwest. It’s really unbelievable when you stare out and realize that there’s nothing but thousands of miles of ocean in that direction and that you’re standing on a tiny spec of land in the middle of South Pacific!





We didn’t spend too much time there before we kept moving Southwest down the road towards our lots. Maybe ten minutes later and we’d found them. I stretched out my long 50 meter measuring tape to try to get a sense of how much property we have to utilize. The frontage is 68 meters (223 ft) and the area is 1800 sq. meters (.44 acres). It’s actually a bit larger than that though because the lot dimensions are excluding an additional buffer zone of 15 meters, which means that from the cliff edge you cannot build any permanent structures within 15 meters. All inclusive then the parcels are basically 20 meters wide and 45 meters deep. To recalculate that means that the total area for the three lots is 2700 sq. meters (.66 acres). Either way the lots are a nice size and I can now visualize that even with three houses there would still be plenty of space and privacy between each one.


I was extremely happy with what I saw. The island is spectacularly beautiful, but a lot of effort will be required to build there, especially for those of us breaking ground first. Additionally, the fact that it’s in Tonga makes it even more difficult. Mostly because it’s pretty far of the beaten path. However, that’s also where the opportunity lies I believe. It was great meeting two younger people, close to my own age, who were really taking some risks and completely pioneering this thing. To top it off, they have a nine month old daughter to take care of while they’re out camping in the middle of the bush on this island and trying to build a house! What they’re doing definitely takes a ton of courage. After the whole experience I can see many potential opportunities and I’m really excited to go home and start planning something with our lots. Who knows, but I might be back a lot sooner than I’d imagined to start getting my hands dirty. We have a lot of thinking to do over the next few months that’s for sure.




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Sydney, Australia

Getting to Sydney was a bit of a long journey. It involved a flight from Yangon, Myanmar to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where we had a lay over of a good 10 hours or so after which we hopped on an 8 hour flight to Sydney. We chose this route because it was the cheapest way to get to Australia. Surprisingly we kept ourselves busy enough during the layover that it didn’t seem that bad.

When the airport shuttle took us to the hostel we had reserved, they told us that even though we had booked our beds online, they were full and would be sending us to their sister hostel (which ended up being the other option we were looking at). Upon checking in I wasn’t overly impressed. The hallways had a very weird smell to them. The door of each dorm room was painted with a different cartoon character. All of the dorm rooms were fan cooled only, so a lot of people had their doors kept ajar with their garbage cans or a shoe to try to get some airflow as there was next to no air movement in the building. I immediately got the sense that it was budget accommodation because of the young people staying there and the way it was decorated. Because the cost of a private room in Sydney was so expensive, we needed to stay in one of the cheaper places we could find. The hostel had to scramble to find room for us so we were split up for the first night, each in a separate dorm room. I lucked out and ended up with only one other girl and then a couple showed up in the middle of the night. Dallas said his room was a pig stye because of the two young guys that had been living there. That being said, the staff was very good and made sure we ended up in the same dorm room for the remainder of our stay. Needless to say, we didn’t spend too much time at the hostel which worked out fine as there was plenty to see in the city.

We ended up arriving in Sydney in the early afternoon which was kind of bad timing because we had been up for over 24 hours. We decided to shower and go grab something to eat. After that we walked around the area to see what things were like. On the way back we grabbed a few drinks and headed to the rooftop patio at the hostel. We arrived to find a group of semi-clad youngsters (I think I am allowed to call them that if I am over a decade older than they are??) playing beer pong while others sat in the corner smoking and cheering them on with electronic music playing in the background. We hung around for a while (me with an amused grin on my face) before deciding that it was time to get some much needed sleep.

The next morning we headed downtown to catch the walking tour. As in past experiences we were given a brief history of the city and some of its important buildings. In our haste to get down town we forgot to bring our camera so Dallas had to resort to using his phone. Our tour leader was a very pretty girl who reminded me of Duchess Kate. The tour ended at the harbour across from the world famous opera house. That afternoon we went to the top of the Sydney Tower where we got a 360 degree view of the city which allowed us to see all of the major landmarks and the far off blue mountains.






The following day we hopped on a ferry over to Manly Beach which we were told was very nice and it didn’t disappoint. The ferry ride gave us a nice perspective of the harbour and when we arrived it was a short walk down a pedestrian street to the beach. Before plunking down on the beach we stopped at a cafe for brunch. The beach was wide and long with nice sand. It was a hangout spot for tourists, locals and businesspeople on their lunch breaks. The water was a bit rough so I only went in up to my thighs to wash off the sunscreen before leaving the beach. Let me say that the sun in Australia is very strong. We both slathered on sunscreen but I had a few small places where I missed. After the beach we walked around a bit before finding a bar with a second storey balcony. We each had a couple of drinks and watched people walk to and from the beach. Before hopping back on the ferry we each grabbed an ice cream which was the perfect end to our day in Manly.



We decided to check out Bondi Beach the next day since it is the more well known beach for tourists. When we first arrived it was cloudy and very windy. Again we grabbed brunch at a cafe before checking out a couple of the shops along the main road. By the time we had finished with that the sun was starting to poke out so we decided to do the walk along coast to Bronte Beach which took us roughly 45 minutes. It was a very windy walk but gave us a great view of both beaches. We passed many people out with friends and family doing the same walk.



The following morning we checked out before heading down the street for what ended up being a really good breakfast for a decent price. It was raining on and off that day so there wasn’t much for us to do. We ended up in the downtown area and stopped in a movie theater to see if anything good was playing. We didn’t see anything that peaked our interest or that we recognized so we continued on to Darling Harbour. This area of the city is quite new and houses the largest IMAX theater in the world plus a number of fancier restaurants and a small shopping mall. We stopped in at IMAX but with a $33 price tag and no movies playing at the right time it was an easy pass for us. We also walked through the mall and bought some candy (because what else are you supposed to do on a rainy day) and I ended up finding a souvenir t-shirt which I really like. We stopped in at a hotel for a drink before deciding to head back to the hostel. We packed up all of our stuff and decided to head to the airport a little early. It is a very good thing we did because when we arrived at the counter to check in for our flight to Tonga they informed us that we needed proof of departure from the country before we could board the plane. This wasn’t the first time we had encountered this issue. Luckily we got that all squared away but it didn’t leave us much time to eat. We grabbed something from McDonald’s and ate it at the boarding gate with only 10 minutes to spare. We’ve learned that it pays to be at the airport within the time frame stipulated by the airport. It has saved our butts a couple of times.

We both found Sydney to be a great place to visit and wish we had more time to spend there. Things are expensive though. At the time we were in Australia, their dollar was on par with Canada’s but prices were generally higher than what we would pay back home. No doubt if you lived there wages would be higher to offset that so I am guessing that the quality of living would be about the same. Even though we were in one city in Australia for only a few shorts days I could easily see why people would choose to live there. You have all the modern conveniences of any first world country, plus the ocean and beaches on your doorstep. It is also a very metropolitan place as well with restaurants featuring every kind of cuisine you could imagine. Our hostel happened to be located in what is considered to be the red light district but we felt completely safe. Sure, there were a few interesting characters and adult establishments but the area was kept so clean that it didn’t feel sleazy at all. We also found that the older hotels were all wonderfully maintained and were a nice place to have a few drinks or even a meal. You could find these hotels on virtually every street corner and it was nice to see that they were working businesses and not left in disrepair. The public transit is also great and we each used a re-loadable card which was good for the metro, buses and ferries. We were lucky enough to have a metro stop just a few minutes from the hostel which made getting around a breeze. I would happily return to Sydney or another part of Australia for a longer visit.

– Jamie

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Inle Lake

This was our last stop in Myanmar and we only spent one night in the town of Nyaungshwe which is located at one end of Inle Lake. The only bus available from Hsipaw to Inle Lake left at 4:30pm and arrived at about 5am if I recall. Because it is a common occurrence for tourists to arrive so early, our hotel had no problem letting us into our room as soon as we arrived so that we could get a few hours of sleep. We were up just in time to get breakfast before renting pedal bikes to explore the area. We biked through town on the main street which led out into the country down a long, straight road shaded by huge trees. It would have been idyllic except for the local vehicles and motorbikes that were always passing us. Along the way we saw water buffalo, rice fields and a few small villages. We biked for a few kilometres before coming to an intersection where we decided to turn back. After returning to town we stopped for a snack and then walked through the few souvenir shops and picked up a few items. That night we walked around trying to find a specific restaurant I wanted to try but of course everyone we asked gave us different directions. We never did find it and settled for what appeared to be the main tourist restaurant in town. Right before we got a table the power went out but luckily came back on a few minutes later.



The next morning we had breakfast before following a boat driver hired by the hotel to take us down to his boat at the docks. The main attraction in the area is to go on a day tour of the lake to see the local fishermen with their handmade boats and nets and to see the villages built on stilts. We first started out by taking the main canal out of town which lead to the lake. During this short ride we were thankful to have blankets to cover ourselves as it was still quite chilly at that time of the morning. Upon entering the lake we were greeted by a group of the local fishermen who posed with their nets so we could get some good pictures. We then had a very enjoyable 45 minute ride to the main village on the lake. It was truly unique to see all of the wooden houses and businesses in neat rows and blocks sticking 8 or so feet out of the water, some with a main living area and a lower level as storage. They also had separate outhouses, some with the tell-tale blue plastic pipe covered to be discreet and some with it exposed so we could clearly see that everything ended up in the lake.



It is pretty common that during these day tours the driver takes you to various shops in hopes of getting a commission if you buy something. Our first stop was at a silver jewellery shop. They showed us a demonstration of how they extract the silver from rock which was then used to make handmade necklaces, pendants, rings and earrings. You may recall that I gave away my necklace while we were in Bagan and I ended up finding a suitable replacement along with a little fish pendant which will be a reminder of my visit to Inle Lake. The pendant is unique in that it has very small moving parts to make the fish look like it is swimming. We also stopped at a metal smith where they made knives and knife blades of various styles and sizes and a cheroot factory where we got to sample both the strong and sweet varieties and watch local women make them. From there we headed to the edge of the lake to have lunch at one of the restaurants and to visit our last pagoda. On the way back out to the lake we stopped at a couple of shops that sold all sorts of souvenirs, including woven fabrics. One of the shops even had a few long necked women and I had my picture taken with them and after gave them some money. It seemed a little random that they were there. It seemed like there were brought in solely for the tourists’ amusement. Our last stop before heading back to our hotel was a monastery made entirely of wood which was also on stilts. For some reason there were a pile of cats living there. They seemed content enough, sleeping in the sun oblivious to the handfuls of tourists milling about.




As we headed back to Nyaungshwe in mid afternoon we passed many boats full of people heading out, probably for sunset which I can imagine would have been really great. Unfortunately we were booked on a bus that night back to Yangon so that we could catch a flight to Kuala Lumpur and then onto Sydney, Australia. On our walk back to the hotel to gather our things we ran into one of the women that did the hike with us in Hsipaw. I always find it comical when we run into the same people, but everyone tends to see the same things, sometimes just in a different order.

Even though we didn’t spend much time at Inle Lake we did get to see what we came to see and it was worth the short trip for sure.

– Jamie

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Since we hadn’t managed to make it on a trek up to this point, Hsipaw was our last chance to fit one in before hitting the beach on the last leg of our trip. In order to get there we took the mini-bus back to Mandalay and then got a bus ticket to head North. The only tourist draw to this town is providing a base camp from which to do a trek. Since we were short on time we did a two day – one night hike. Dallas had been in contact via email with a guide but we were unable to touch base with him when we arrived in town so we ended up booking our hike through someone else. We had a free day to “explore” the town which wasn’t all that exciting. I will say that the mornings there were cold. By that I mean 10c which for us was the coldest weather we have had during the trip by far.

The following morning we met up with our group and hiked for about 5 hours to the village of Pankam. Along the way we passed through 2 different states and learned how to say “hello” in both. I believe we gained 700 metres which was enough for me. Since I hadn’t been to the gym in a few months I wasn’t in top shape so it made for a moderate climb. We hiked up the main “road” which was taken by all motorbikes and bison carts so it wasn’t rough terrain by any means. Our accommodation was a house stay which means that we all slept in the same space on mats on the upper level of the house. Once we arrived in the village we were given lunch which consisted of several vegetarian dishes. Anyone who knows me knows that “vegetarian” isn’t in my vocabulary but I adapted to the situation. After dozing off in the sun our guide took us on a little tour of the village to see a tea plantation, a Nat temple (which is a spirit house), the local school and we also stopped at one family’s house to see a rare white water buffalo and her calf. The woman who lived there was very proud of her buffalo which was cute. While walking back to the house a young boy who was completely filthy ran up to me and wrapped his arms around my legs for no apparent reason. It caught me off guard and I remember thinking “this kid needs a bath”! Remember how I mentioned that the Burmese have no issue with breastfeeding in public? While we stopped to watch a family working on the tea plantation a woamn lifted up her shirt and her son latched on, right in front of us with a big smile on her face. I only mention this, not because it upset me but because it is not something you would ever see in Canada.  After returning to our house the guide pulled out some rice whiskey for everyone to try. I only had a couple of very small sips as I found it very overpowering. Dallas happily finished it off and had another two servings. Our guide then told us a few stories and showed us pictures of his family. By the time dinner rolled around he appeared to be a little drunk. We then had dinner followed with some fresh night air before heading to bed. In the morning we had breakfast and were back on the trail by 9am. On the outskirts of Hsipaw we stopped at a local restaurant to try Shan noodle soup which was very simple yet tasty (named after the state in which it originated).







That same night we took a night bus to our final stop at Inle Lake.

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During our first day in Bagan our plan was to come up with an itinerary for visiting the temples and catching up with the blog and downloading pictures. Its safe to say that the internet in Myanmar was not up to the task. After just catching last call for breakfast Dallas sat down to do some research and I started drafting a blog post. At around noon a man approached us asking if we had any plans for the afternoon. He explained that he had partnered up with some young men from the area to put together a boat trip that would allow people to see something a little different than just the temples. He needed 6 people in order to go out and two people had already signed up. Since we had no plans we decided it would be good use of our time. There did end up being 6 of us on the boat that day. We first went to a little known temple that had some hidden tunnels that at one time hid gold treasures. From there we were taken to a sandy island where we got to cool off in the Irrawaddy River. We couldn’t actually swim because the current was fairly strong and the bank quite steep. It was safe to go chest deep but no further. After a swim we headed to a local village which can only be reached by boat. We were each given the photo of someone who lived in the village and it was up to us to find where that person lived and present them with their photo. Since the villagers don’t have cameras they were quite happy to receive the photos. We were then asked to take a photo of someone different which would be given to the next group. I was able to find the older woman in my photo quite quickly and ended up on my own wandering the dirt paths. Along the way a young woman motioned for me to follow her to the hut where she lived. She proceeded to give me corn to eat and tea to drink. At one point she gave me a ring with a big smile on her face. It was obviously very inexpensive but she was very happy to give it to me. After a little time had passed other members of our boat turned up in the yard. At one point the young woman motioned that she would like my silver necklace and pendant in exchange for the ring she had given me. I was very hesitant to give it to her because it was worth a lot more but I could see that she was dying to have it. So as not to insult her, I gave it to her and she was thrilled. After that they all wanted they pictures taken and insisted on looking at the photos on the camera. Dallas ran into some young girls who spoke very good English and they were kind enough to write each of our names in Burmese which was really neat. After waving farewells to everyone we headed back across the river and grabbed our chairs to watch the sunset. The afternoon was a last minute thing but turned out to be one of the more memorable things we did in Myanmar.





The following morning we were up quite early in order to rent ebikes and drive out one of the temples we could climb for the sunrise. Things didn’t go quite as planned. We each had our own ebike that day and I had never driven a throttle powered bike before. Needless to say, within 10 minutes of getting it and trying to stop so we could look at a map, I cranked the throttle and the bike tipped over which in turn bent one of the pedals. I should point out that my ebike was not in mint condition when I received it. Someone had obviously had a pretty good tumble with it as the front light, horn and blinkers did not work plus the plastic was cracked and was taped in place with clear tape. Luckily when we returned the bike that night no one said anything. We did end up making it to a temple to see some of the sunrise and watch all of the hot air balloons pass over us with envy. It would have been an amazing experience but it was a good couple hundred dollars per person to go up for an hour which we just couldn’t justify.



We spent the next two days driving a zigzag of paths to a mind blowing number of temples. There were so many that you could easily declare one for yourself. Its hard to imagine any civilization having the time and resources to build that many temples, most of which were no mere simple structures. Most people would compare them to the temples of Angkor Wat and I would have a hard time deciding which ones I like more. It’s safe to say that both sites are amazing and worth seeing.






On the second day we only rented one ebike as I refused to drive on my own again. We ended up with one flat tire on the main road and a man was kind enough to call the store that rented the bike to have someone come out to fix it. We ended up with a second flat tire as we were back in town only a couple of minutes away from the rental store which sucked. Dallas and I aren’t very big people but they probably shouldn’t allow two adults to ride on one ebike. Since only the locals were allowed to drive motorbikes we had no other choice.

The area of Bagan covers 40 square miles and contains the remains of over 2200 temples. Though you would expect the site to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to the government’s restoration of many of the larger temples in the 1990’s that did not stick to the original architectural style and by using more modern materials the site has not obtained that recognition. I’ll admit that I was completely lost most of the time we were driving around even though we had a map. Some of the temples started to look the same and I had no idea which direction I was going. Luckily Dallas had better bearings. Each evening the dust and smoke from cooking fires hung in the air which made it unpleasant walking to and from dinner, but visiting the temples sure made up for that! We both highly recommend checking out the area if ever you get a chance.

– Jamie

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Our next stop was in Mandalay and we got there by taking the nicest bus of this entire trip. It truly was VIP which included reclining seat and leg rest, blanket, water and snack and the best part – built in tv screen to watch movies. If every bus trip was that nice I would find travelling just a little more enjoyable. But like Dallas always reminds me, travelling isn’t about being in the lap of luxury every step of the way, its about the experiences along the way; whether they be good or bad. If it were all easy, everyone would travel the way we have been. It’s not for everyone and I wouldn’t say it is for me either, but I do seem to manage for a few months at a time.

The guesthouse we stayed at was great and had probably the nicest hostess we’ve ever had. We had a private room and bathroom and breakfast every morning was very filling which included eggs, toast, juice, tea or coffee and a small plate piled with fresh fruit oh and some other local favorite like sticky rice or dough balls in a sweet syrup. One morning we told the girls that we didn’t want the toast and they didn’t understand why and I think were almost offended. We joked with the owner that we didn’t want to get fat and she passed this along to the girls and we had a good laugh. I’m not used to eating that much in the morning but it does help once we set out for a day of sightseeing.


On the night we arrived we took a walk down the main road and ended up walking into a weekend fair which had a few carnival games, street food and even one larger ride – the ship that swings from side to side. It kind of reminded me of the stampede back home but on a much smaller scale. I think the two of us walking around that area made us just as much of an attraction as anything else. We got a few stares and a few hellos. That first night also gave us an indication as to how dusty it would be in Myanmar for the most part.

On our first day we decided to check out the Royal Palace, Mandalay Hill and a few of the surrounding sites. As we were walking along the main road looking for a cab and man approached us asking if we needed a taxi. We said yes and he offered for he and his friend to be our moto-taxi drivers for the day. It seemed to be our only option at that time so we agreed. Even though they hardly spoke any English they were both quite nice and we hired them for the next day as well. The Royal Palace was built between 1857 and 1859 and housed the last two kings of the country. It was created in the style of the traditional Burmese palace design, inside a walled fort and moat. Most of the palace was destroyed in World War II but the reconstruction we saw was built in the 1990s. From there our taxi drivers took us up to Mandalay Hill. Unfortunately it was about midday when we arrived so our view of the city was a bit hazy. In order to get to the very top we were required to remove our shoes and take an escalator to the pagoda at the top. I found this quite funny because in every other case you would normally take stairs. Our drivers then took us to Kuthodaw Pagoda which had 729 miniature stupas; each containing one engraved page of the world’s largest book, Shwenandaw Monestary which was made entirely out of wood and showcased some amazing carved details; it was actually part of the original royal palace but was moved to its current location in 1880 and finally to Atumashi Monestary which is unique because it has five graduated rectangular terraces rather than the traditional tiered and spired roof; this was also a replica because the original was burned to the ground in 1890 and a 19.2 carat diamond which adorned a Buddha image contained therein went missing.





The following day we ventured out of the city to see some of the main tourist hotspots. Where most people would share a cab, we travelled in a more adventurous fashion – on the back of two motorbikes. It was a lot of fun to go whipping through the countryside and over the main highway on the back of a bike with the wind blowing through your hair. Our first stop was still in Mandalay where we got to watch the procession of monks collect their breakfast from the locals. We also got to see them eat from long, low tables. On one hand it water interesting to see, but on the other I felt like we were invading their privacy. From there we stopped at a weaving factory to see how scarves and skirts were made. I ended up purchasing the same style of long skirt that most women wear and I plan to wear it to work. It will most certainly be unique as far as work attire goes! In order to get to the town of Sagaing we crossed the huge Ava Bridge over the Irrawaddy River. The central pagoda, Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda, is connected by a set of covered staircases that run up the 240 m hill. It was a long climb up those few hundred stairs in the heat. Thankfully the stairway was covered. From the central pagoda the surrounding hills were dotted with many other pagodas and monasteries and over a loudspeaker from one of the monasteries we could hear a monk praying. We then stopped for lunch near a boat dock before crossing the river to ride in the back of a horse cart to visit various old ruins. Our last stop of the day is believed to be the oldest (built in 1850) and longest teak bridge in the world known as the U Bein Bridge. This is always the last stop so that tourists can get some great sunset photos with the silhouette of the bridge. We walked the 1.2 km bridge which took roughly one hour. We each had a drink at one of the local restaurants on the bank before making the return journey. We were on the bridge when the sun set and got some really nice photos, but not the iconic image of the bridge. For that you had to pay for a boat to take you out onto the water, plus the bridge was full of people so the pictures wouldn’t be as nice anyways. We hurried off the bridge shortly before everyone else so that we wouldn’t get stuck in a traffic jam on the way out. The return bike ride back to our guesthouse seemed to take forever and the traffic was insane. I completely trusted my driver but it was still nerve wracking to weave in and out of traffic.






On our last day we took a ferry over to the town of Mingun which is the home of the largest ringing bell in the world, weighing in at 90 tons. We both walked in underneath the behemoth and many people had engraved their names and the year they visited. We also climbed to the top of the Mingun temple which had huge cracks in it from the earthquake of 1839 and we needed the assistance of some locals to make sure we made it across okay. The climb was worth it as the view from the top was amazing but we were both glad to have our feet back on solid ground in the end. From there we made our way to a very beautiful and one-of-a-kind white pagoda followed by two huge animal statues which lost their heads to the river during the earthquake. We finished off our visit by having lunch before hopping back on the ferry to Mandalay.




Our time in Mandalay was made more enjoyable by our great hostess at the guesthouse as well as our days spent on the back of a couple of motorbikes.

That evening we took a mini-bus five hours West to the area of Bagan to check out some of the world famous temples.

– Jamie

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Yangon, Myanmar

So I will admit that Myanmar was the only country I was nervous about visiting. In comparison to the other countries we have been to, it has only more recently opened its borders to tourists. This being the case I didn’t know what to expect. Yes, it is the least developed country we’ve been to on this trip but to our delight the people were extremely kind and willing to help whenever possible. I will say though that we felt more like celebrities there simply because tourism is still very much a growing part of Myanmar’s economy.

We arrived in Myanmar by plane which was a very nice change from taking some of the less luxurious buses we had experienced in Laos. We flew from Luang Prabang back to Bangkok and then to Yangon. When we arrived at our guesthouse it was a little shocking because it had been a while since we had been in a big city. For me it was a bit of a jar to the system to see the streets crammed with vehicles and hydro wire and business signs everywhere. We dropped off our bags and took a little walk. We didn’t end up going too far because the city seemed to lack streets lights for some reason. We were a little hungry by this time and the only thing we could find that was close to our guesthouse was a small (and extremely hot) little convenience store. We picked out the one thing we recognized which was some locally made potato chips. It wasn’t ideal but it worked.

The next day we took the local train which basically makes a big loop around the city. The train station wasn’t far from our guesthouse but we were unsure who to speak to about getting tickets. Luckily for us a very nice man who spoke decent English took us to the ticket booth so everything could be arranged. The next train to stop at our station was an air conditioned one which we thought would be great, however once we jumped on it was soon apparent that it was hardly air conditioned at all. As the train became more crowded a woman, her young daughter and mother sat with us. The young girl was dressed in a very frilly dressed and her head was shaved except for a small portion just over her eyes, like bangs. When it was time for the little girl to eat her mother simply took out her boob and stuck it in the girls mouth. People are not shy about breastfeeding in Myanmar at all. The train ride did give us a glimpse of what life is like in and outside of the city and it wasn’t pretty. There is no structured garbage collection so it was built up in heaps everywhere so that dogs would go sifting through it and children would play within feet of it. After the travelling we’ve done I still finding it disturbing but the people just don’t know any better.



I realized after our first day in Myanmar that the people have a very strict way of dressing and I knew that I had better dress more on the conservative side. Most men, with exception of some of the younger men all wore long skirts known as “longyis” which are basically tubes of cotton fabric which are tied a certain way around a man’s waist. They are usually of a mini checkered or plaid pattern. Most women wore the long skirts also which are tied a different way and were usually more elaborate, paired with a shirt or blouse that covered the shoulders. The women are expected to have their shoulders and knees always covered so I made a point of wearing longer pants and t-shirts so that I didn’t offend anyone.

Here is Dallas modelling the longyi.


After the train ride we walked to a nearby lake which was located in the middle of the city called Kandawgyi Lake. It took us a while to find the entrance but once we did we found a cafe and had lunch after the longer than expected walk. After that we approached the large golden boat shaped structure we had seen from the other side of the lake. Turns out it was a replica of a royal barge called Karaweik. It hosts a dinner and cultural show. A picture of this icon is featured on the Myanmar Beer label.


That evening we visited the famous Shwedagon Pagoda which is covered in a combination of gold plates and gold leaf but at the time we visited, a lot of it was covered as they were doing some yearly maintenance. At the very tip of the pagoda is a 76 carat diamond. Why on earth they let a diamond that size just sit up there exposed to the elements I will never understand. It was a very impressive sight to behold during the day and we stuck around until the sun went down. At that point the pagoda and surrounding complex looked more like Vegas because many of the Buddha statues had multi-coloured lights that would radiate from behind their heads. There were a lot of monks and many local families milling around with their families. It obviously plays a big part in the lives of the people that visit it. There was a figure for every day of the week and people would pray and pour water over the head of the figure for good luck I presume.




The next morning we checked out the main tourist market which had tons and tons of Jade jewellery for sale. It was pretty cheap for being “real” in my opinion so we found a family run shop on the outskirts of the market. There I purchased a Jade bracelet and necklace and Dallas purchased a Sapphire ring. They explained to us that both Jade and Sapphire are mined in the northern part of Myanmar. I felt better about buying the items there rather than in one of the 100 stalls in the market. I figure there was a greater chance that we ended up with the real deal. After the market we had a cab take us to Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda which houses the largest reclining Buddha I have ever seen – measuring 65 meters in length. We then walked over to see the seated Buddha image which was 30 feet in height and is located in the Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda.



In a nutshell, Yangon gave us a very busy glimpse of what to expect in Myanmar. On one hand, being that it was the capital, parts of it where quite nice while others where very congested and dirty. Oh I almost forgot to mention that as we were walking around one night a big rat came out of nowhere and scampered into the sewer just a couple of feet from me. Definitely not something I’m used to seeing – yuck!

– Jamie

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Luang Prabang

This was our last stop in Laos and it appears that we saved the best for last. I didn’t know this before we arrived, but the old town centre is a UNESCO Heritage Site. I completely understand why someone would want to extend their stay there. As it was, we stayed for 5 nights. There is so much we could have done it terms of day trips but we were content to get up late and go to a cafe for lunch and wander the streets. Because of the huge French influence, fresh baguettes and croissants, not to mention mouth watering desserts, were readily available. Even after strolling through the night market one of the bakeries had pre-cut cakes ready for purchase to take away – how convenient! The town has done a nice job of finishing the sidewalks and curbs with brick and some of the little side streets are finished that way as well. It was such a fun town to walk around in. I felt no expectation to do anything other than be lazy. Even though it is the most touristy place in Laos everyone seemed to be spread out enough that it didn’t feel like a circus.

The only time we left town was to rent a motorbike and drive about an hour to Kuang Si Falls. We went on a Saturday and arrived around 11am. The timing was perfect as there was hardly anyone there. The first thing we saw as we wandered up the trail was surprisingly a sanctuary for rescued bears. They seemed happy enough and most were taking a nap while we watched but one posed long enough for Dallas to snap some good pictures. They had little souvenirs for sale to raise money for the sanctuary so we bought a beer koozie to do our part lol. As we worked our way further we saw several blue pools and we ended up in front of the three tiered waterfall which is 60 metres high. The color of the pools and the bubbles from the water rushing over the edge reminded us of a hot tub. It has something to do with a type of mineral which builds up over time that created the unique formation of the pools. At the base of the waterfall there was a trail that led up to the top of the falls so we decided to hike it. It probably would have been a good idea to wear hiking shoes instead of flip flops but it wasn’t the first time we had hiked in flip flops. It was a pretty steep climb to the top but it afforded us a nice view. After we hiked back down Dallas decided to go for a swim in one of the pools. It was kind of overcast that day so I didn’t go in for fear of catching a bit of a chill. He said it was very cool but not ice cold and even felt little fish nibbling his feet. By the time we stopped for a quick snack and started walking back to the entrance the area was swarming with tourists and locals alike. I can understand why because it is such a beautiful place to spend a few hours. On the way back to town we stopped off at a butterfly park that had been recently opened by a couple from Europe. I don’t know how they came across the chunk of land but it was so pretty and they had done a very good job landscaping it with all sorts of plants and trees. I can only imagine how much better it will look in a couple of years. The husband was running the front desk and his wife was giving mini tours inside the enclosure where the butterflies where. They even had a laminated booklet giving some great information about butterflies that I didn’t know.

Another day we climbed a bunch of steps which lead to a pagoda at the top of Phousi Hill which was located right in the middle of the touristy area of town. Along the way there were several Buddha statues. There was even a small cave which supposedly contained a footprint of the Buddha. I could tell that most people were less than impressed with that particular attraction. I guess sometimes when you don’t hold certain beliefs, certain sites or objects just don’t hold the same significance. We did however enjoy the view from atop the hill which made us realize that the city was much bigger than we thought. We could also see the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers which converge in the old part of town.That night for dinner we ended up at a restaurant that had a fashion show featuring countless outfits worn by women from many different regions of Laos. We found out that there are 160 different ethnic groups in the country, each with their own style of dress. A lot of them were very similar with exception of the stitching or embroidery used. We also found out that there are 82 languages spoken in the country which is staggering considering how small it is. As I understand it, the very small tribes end up dying out as larger groups take over.

On another day we both went for a traditional Laos massage in which the masseuse uses mainly her thumbs and doesn’t involve the same stretching techniques used in a Thai massage. The girl I had must have been around 20 and not very big but she did a number on me. It hurt so good!

We also spent a fair amount of time planning the last few steps of our trip and ended up booking most of our flights. It’s so hard to know how much time you want to spend in a place you’ve never been to. Time isn’t so much the issue as the money is. Sure, we can stay longer in a place but that means more money, but that money has to come from somewhere.

On our last night in town we met up with a couple that we spent New Years with in Thailand. Over a couple of drinks we shared our travels since we had last seen each other. It was interesting to hear how their views had changed and what they liked best about travelling. I would say that we are different types of travellers that like different things but that is the neat thing about travelling: everyone has a different take.

Laos is the only country we are visiting that is completely land locked but even so we enjoyed our time there and met some very friendly people and very much appreciated the french baguettes and beautiful river landscapes.

– Jamie

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Vang Vieng

The trip to Vang Vieng was the best we had experienced in a couple of weeks. We took a van rather than a bus so we made much better time and arrived in the early afternoon. Because I was still recuperating from the flu I took a nap after we checked into our hotel. After I woke up I was pretty confident that I could eat again. We walked around town for a bit and made a note of where we could rent tubes before having dinner.

After a good meal and night’s sleep I was ready to try some tubing – which is what the town is known for. You basically rent a tube, wait until the tuk-tuk has enough people and then they drive you about four kilometres out of town. You are then on your own to float down the river at your leisure back to town. Even a couple of years ago things would have been much different. I read that the average was at one point one death per month from tourists swinging into the river or tubing. At one point there were as many as 20 bars that lined the river banks, now there are only 4 or 5, one of which is owned by the Chief of Police! When we went it was much more tame that I expected. We got a fairly early start compared to most people. We were in the river by 11:15 am. No sooner did we start our journey down the river then we heard dance music being pumped out of a very crappy large speaker. If memory serves, I am pretty sure the music only started once they saw us down at the water’s edge. We decided to stop since we knew we had plenty of time in order to make it back to town by the deadline of 6pm (after which time you forfeit your $6 deposit). We had the whole place to ourselves for the time we were there. We laid out in the sun watching the odd tuber and lots of kayakers go by. After spending close to an hour there we started out again only to be met by a couple of guys in the river directing us to stop at the next bar. It was a clever tactic, they tell you to stay on the one side of them and before you know it, you are at the shore. The second bar was a little more lively. There was a game of beer pong in progress. They also had a ping pong table and a basketball hoop with a sprinkler system hooked up to it. I imagine that place would become a zoo in the early afternoon. We stayed for another drink and continued on our way. As we were drifting along we could hear the conversation of the group near us and someone mentioned Canada and then Alberta. Sure enough it was a group from Canada, some from Alberta and a couple from Quebec. We joined their group for more or less the rest of the day. We stopped off at one last place. For alcohol they only served beer and had a few bottles of Whiskey on offer. The Canadians thought it would be a great idea to divide a bottle amongst the group so they had something to drink while floating along. We opted out, but it was funny watching them try to equally distribute the alcohol. At one point we spied a group of kayakers and thought it would be funny to all hold hands and block their path. Unfortunately the plan backfired on us because we couldn’t get in a straight line and they ended up splashing us with their paddles. We made it back to town shortly after 4pm. It was a great day – the sun was hot, the water refreshing, it wasn’t nearly as chaotic as we expected, we met some fun people and you couldn’t beat the scenery! For dinner we went to the only Mexican place in town. We did have to wait close to an hour for our food but it was worth the wait.



The following day we rented a motorbike (again) and took a cruise out to a popular spot known as the Blue Lagoon. I should mention at this point that Vang Vieng (and Luang Prabang further North) is very popular with the Korean tourists and we were told that the lagoon would be a busy spot. The place itself was neat; basically comprised of a natural pool of blue water with a huge tree on one of the banks that you can climb onto at a very different levels to use as a jumping/diving board. Everyone was pretty good about taking turns jumping into the pool but we did see one close call. Luckily no one got hurt. One french guy even dove off the higher branch of the tree which was probably 12 feet from the surface. Everyone was very impressed. We didn’t wear our swimsuits so we just watched from the sidelines. From there we took a 20km loop around the countryside. Man, that has got to be the bumpiest road we have ever driven on. I was thinking to myself, surely all these vibrations will get ride of cellulite or something lol! There were a few villages along the way where women were working their weaving machines and had their hand made scarves for sale. We stopped at one of these and purchased a scarf from a nice woman who told us that it took her two days to weave one scarf. That’s a lot of work (and very repetitive)! Close to the end of the loop we stopped to check out a cave. They gave us each a head lamp and in we went. That was pretty neat and it was a nice break from the heat as well. There were two other men that came out after us and asked if we had seen the huge spider. Thankfully we didn’t. They told us it was the size of a man’s hand. I’m not sure what I would have done had I seen it. In true girl fashion – yuck!!




Vang Vieng was a neat place to stop for a few days. We did what needed to be done which was float down the Nam Song River and it didn’t disappoint. The town is built along the banks of the river and only has a few mains streets. Even though there were tons of tourists milling about it still had a lazy feel to it.


– Jamie

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Yes, we are still alive!

Hi everyone. Sorry for keeping you on the edge of your seats for almost a month. Between sickness and bad or non-existent internet I wasn’t able to get these last few posts up until now. We are currently in Luang Prabang, Laos. To keep things easy for me, I posted them from older to newer so you’ll want to scroll back to the post entitled Phnom Penh and work your way from there. As always, don’t forget to check out our picture library. Happy reading!!

– Jamie

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