This Is Where You Need to Start Your African Safari Adventure

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2017. 

Ready to explore the enormous continent of Africa but don’t know where to start? There are 54 countries in Africa, offering amazing opportunities to immerse in the culture, as well as view nature and wildlife. Most travelers flock to South Africa, not realizing it is farther, more expensive, and already packed with tourists.

If it’s your first time traveling to sub-Saharan Africa and your main goal is to see wild animals in their natural habitat, go to Kenya. The East African nation is well developed when it comes to tourism, with easily accessible flights to Nairobi.

Kiss Giraffes in Nairobi

Kenya Safari - Giraffe Center

The capital city is worth spending a day or two in. It will likely be your first stop in East Africa and will act as a gateway to other destinations around the country.

Nairobi is a bustling city with clogged roads and impoverished slums, juxtaposed to posh condos and luxury hotels. The large expat population (mainly working for consulates and NGOs) has paved way for a vibrant dining and nightlife scene in the city. Talisman, known as one of the best restaurants in Nairobi, is a fun place to grab a drink by the fireplace and taste globally inspired cuisine in an African-Arabic ambiance. Also, their Singapore chili soft shell crab is to die for. To take a break from the congestion, go to Amaniyajuu, a fair-trade restaurant and boutique located in a charming garden inside the city.

Kenya Safari - elephant orphanage

Watch baby elephants rescued from all over Kenya at Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage as they are fed every morning. If you’re an animal lover like me, you may end up fostering a young elephant for a $50 donation. Head over to the Giraffe Center for the perfect Instagram photo opp kissing a giraffe in its natural habitat.

Walk with Zebras at Lake Naivasha

An hour outside of Nairobi is a freshwater lake located on the elevated Kenyan Rift valley. Lake Naivasha is home to over 400 species of birds as well as a sizable hippo population. Lake Naivasha Crescent Camp is a good base to glamp (luxury camp) on the bank of the lake and take a boat ride to spot pelicans, eagles, storks, and cormorants.

For a unique experience, get off at Crescent Island Game Park and freely walk among wild animals. Zebras, giraffes, gazelle, waterbuck, and wildebeest are free to roam around as the park is not fenced in. Here you can find more animals per acre than any other park in Kenya and it’s completely free to visit.

Watch the Big Five in Masai Mara

Kenya Safari - Masai Mara

Over 4% of Kenya’s total area is made up of wildlife reserves and the Masai Mara game reserve is best known for its wildebeest migration, where millions of animals cross the Mara river during the months of September and October.

Plan to spend at least two nights in the Mara to see the famous “Big 5” game animals – lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards, and buffaloes. Sekenani Camp, located right outside the park’s entrance, is easily accessible within minutes. Individual tents come with comfortable beds, hardwood floors, private bathrooms, and even bathtubs. Fancy a hot soak while hearing the lions roar in the background? You can do it here!

Kenya Safari - Lions in Masai Mara

Ride in an open jeep during a game drive through the park (which is not fenced in like many other reserves in South Africa), as thousands of zebras, giraffes, gazelles, wildebeest, and impalas pass by. Given the open terrain, it’s easy to spot animals in the Mara. I was thrilled to see over 70 lions, cheetahs, and leopards hunting, mating, eating, roaring, and snuggling like kittens – up close!

Race Donkeys in Lamu

Most travelers to Kenya choose to visit one of the beach towns in the Archipelago. Lamu is one of the oldest Swahili seafront towns and a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is where you can feel the Arabic influence on the architecture, food, people, and religion of the region. Walking through narrow streets dotted with hole-in-the-wall food stalls, ornate wooden doors, and modestly dressed women covered in veils, you may feel like you’ve gone back in time to the 17th century.

Lamu is also known as “donkey island”. No cars are allowed on the island, so all goods are transported on donkeys. As there are 6,000 of these beasts on the roads, there are also major donkey traffic jams!

Shela Village in Lamu is a quiet place to stay with renovated Swahili villas converted into rentable apartments. There are a handful of restaurants and you get to know most residents if you’re around for a couple of nights. During the day, enjoy secluded beaches, swim, snorkel, and taste freshly caught seafood, and at sunset, take a dow (traditional sailboat) with snacks onboard. The Lamu Cultural Festival held in August, with its donkey races, swimming, and dhow sailing competitions, attracts visitors from the mainland and abroad. The Village Experience, a socially responsible tour company, partners with local businesses and helps uplift impoverished communities around the area.

In Kenya, there are lots of opportunities to get up close to the animals and bring back lasting memories (as well as great Instagram shots). It is, no doubt, the best place to start your African safari adventure.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2017. 

From Syria, with love

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. October 2017.

“Refugee cookies!” a 10-year old Syrian boy screamed from the front porch of an Oakhurst home. The shortbread style cookies, known in the Middle East as mamool and flavored with orange blossom, dates and pistachios, were an instant hit. In less than three hours, the entire batch sold: 45 dozen cookies in all. That was last fall.

Khaled and Ruwaida (last names withheld for safety reasons) are refugees from Syria. Along with their two young kids, Mohamad and Zainab, they lived in Jordan for four years, before coming to Georgia in July of 2016, sponsored by New American Pathways and co-sponsored by Holy Trinity Church. Back in Damascus, they owned two apartments and two electronics shops. Now, they live in a small rented apartment in Decatur. Khaled works a minimum wage job and the family scrapes by.

I meet Ruwaida, now 29, at the home of Amanda Avutu, a friend and advisor to the family. When a mutual acquaintance posted on Decatur’s Neighborhood Facebook page that he was looking for help to clean up an apartment for an incoming refugee family, Avutu and her kids volunteered. She offered to help stock their kitchen and drop off hot meals. Having no connection to Syria before, she began her job with a Google search: ‘What do Syrians eat?’ Then she purchased random items she wasn’t sure they would use. “I bought pomegranate molasses, orange blossom water, sesame, cooking oil, dried legumes and rice,” she recalls. “Later I discovered, there’s no way I can shop rice for [Ruwaida]!” She laughs at how particular Syrians are about their rice.

DSC0060FAR FROM HOME: Ruwaida points out the Syrian city of Damascus, where she is from, on a map.JOEFF DAVIS

We sit in Avutu’s living room sipping cardamom-spiced black coffee and munching on a plate of homemade mamool cookies. Wearing a head scarf and long dress, Ruwaida mostly smiles, shy to respond in her limited English, but Amanda translates key words to Arabic and encourages Ruwaida to express herself. “Cookies!” she exclaims, making hand gestures when I ask her about her new business, Sweet, Sweet Syria. She tells me she has been making these traditional Middle Eastern cookies at home since childhood and has sweet memories attached to them, hence the name. But until recently, she never thought anyone would actually pay for them.

Sweet, Sweet Syria’s humble beginnings took place in a similar setting. When Ruwaida’s family moved to Decatur, neighbors and community members came to welcome her, bringing food, toys, books and helping to set up her new apartment. Ruwaida would often offer homemade cookies and coffee to her new friends as a gesture of thanks. Her mother’s wooden cookie molds were one of just a small handful of things that she could bring from Syria when she fled, and serve as a bittersweet reminder of home.

“Wow! You need to sell these at the Oakhurst Porchfest,” one of the visitors remarked, encouraging Ruwaida to set up a table at the upcoming neighborhood music festival, where neighbors play music on their porches. As a traditional Syrian woman, Ruwaida has never worked outside her home or earned her own salary before. It was hard at first, she says, to grasp the concept of selling her food for money. But friends and family convinced her to take a chance. And when her cookies sold out before the music even started, she realized she just might have something: an opportunity to make money and help support her family as they acclimate to their new home.

DSC0193EAT ME: Sweet, Sweet Syria offers samples of mamool cookies at their Emory Farmers Market booth every Tuesday.JOEFF DAVIS

Over the next few months, Avutu played an instrumental role in helping Ruwaida get her business off the ground, along with a team of volunteer advisors. They applied for a 14-week small business training program called Start:Me, run by Emory’s Goizueta Business School. Avutu accompanied Ruwaida to every class. They made a business plan, applied for various licenses and studied for the ServSafe exam. In the beginning, they would communicate through Google translator. Now, Avutu takes Arabic classes on Fridays and Ruwaida takes English classes on Tuesdays.

A recent GoFundMe campaign has allowed Ruwaida to rent a commercial kitchen, where she bakes her family recipes and supplies to local coffee shops and farmers markets. Ultimately, she’d like to have her own small restaurant where she and her family can cook together. Until then, she’s learning how to take orders, handle money and interact socially. Delicate shortbreads with coconut, chewy sesame rolled dates and strawberry pressed cookies are some of her most popular offerings. Sweet, Sweet Syria trio ($2.50) and half dozen ($5) samplers are available for purchase at Oakhurst’s Kavarna, Ebrik Coffee Room and Emory Farmers Market on Tuesdays. Orders by the dozen ($10) are also available at the Emory Farmer’s Market and can be placed online.

DSC0222TASTE AND SEE: An Emory student samples a cookie at the Sweet, Sweet Syria booth.JOEFF DAVIS

The family also hosts invitation-only gatherings at private homes to share a traditional Syrian meal. Here, they are forced to practice English, meet new people, and further understand the American lifestyle, including seeing how things work in other kitchens. “It is important to make a human connection and understand who they are,” Avutu says. Over the last few months, her kids have become friends with Ruwaida’s children as they get together for homework, sports and celebrations.

Near the end of our conversation, I ask Ruwaida what she likes most about being here in Georgia. She giggles and rattles off the names of several people who have come forward to welcome her and her family, and helped her get her business off the ground. Most of them were just strangers a few months ago. Now, they are friends.

For more information or to place a cookie order, visit sweetsweetsyria.com.

Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta. October 2017.

More than Dublin: A Roadtrip Through the Intriguing Irish Countryside

For CheapOAir Miles Away. October 2017

When I told my husband we were going to spend 12 days in Ireland, he was confused. That’s a long time to be drinking Guinness, hanging out in pubs, and partying in Dublin, he thought. In fact, most visitors to Ireland end up spending a majority of their time in Dublin, though some make day trips to nearby castles, churches, and cliffs. We decided to rent a car and drive around the country, exploring some of the most scenic routes and historic accommodations.

The different regions of Ireland are known for their own unique geography, architecture, and cuisine. Here are some of the most interesting places we discovered around the island.

A quick note of caution about driving in Ireland: You need to be comfortable driving on the left-hand side on narrow country roads. Sometimes the roads can get curvy with rocks on one side and no room for passing. Car rental companies lose an average of 700 left side car mirrors per week!

Modern Irish Cuisine in Cork

From Shannon airport, we made our way to the southeastern part of Ireland through Country Cork. Cork City, the second largest city in Ireland, is a university town built on marshlands. We found it full of upscale designer boutiques, international restaurants and cafes, and lots of live music. We drove further east to the village of Shanagarry and stayed at a traditional upscale Irish country farmhouse.

Ballymaloe House is a charming family home surrounded by farmlands, flower and herb gardens, fruit trees, and a granary. The owner Myrtle Allen (now 93), opened one of the first home restaurants in her own dining room serving modern Irish cuisine, a novel concept at the time. Because to serve liquor, she needed to have a minimum number of 11 bedrooms, she moved her family upstairs and opened an inn at her home. Fifty years later, the family still runs Ballymaloe House, serving farm-to-table meals created by Allen, a Michelin star chef. Next door is Ballymaloe Cooking School where students from all over the world come for 3-month intensives.

Rugged Coastlines of Kerry

More country roads lined with thousands of blackface sheep led us from Cork to Kenmare, a picturesque town in County Kerry. Park Hotel Kenmare is one of the oldest five-star hotels in Ireland, dating back to 1897. Dark red hallways, tall fireplaces, antique furnishings, and views of Kenmare Bay really make you feel like you’ve stepped back into the 19th-century. The hotel has walking trails and golf grounds on its premises, but they also organize hiking and horseback riding tours through the mountains at Killarney National Park.

We spent a day driving through misty narrow roads along the rugged coastlines in the Ring of Beara. Even with the occasional clouds and rain, we still stopped to visit sandy coves, beaches, and had lunch at MacCarthy’s, which was the #1 rated Irish pub of 2016. Close by was also the Ring of Kerry, a 120-mile scenic circuit around the Iveragh Peninsula, which beckons visitors to see even more spectacular stone forts, waterfalls, and valleys.

Georgian History in Limerick

Heading north on the Wild Atlantic Way, the famous driving and biking route, we spotted places to kayak, kiteboard, paraglide, swim, and dive. After a brief stop for Murphy’s Irish coffee ice cream at the tourist-friendly town of Dingle, we arrived at Limerick, the third largest city in Ireland. We checked into No 1 Perry Square, a 1830’s Georgian townhouse that overlooks the people’s park and has been reinvented into a charming boutique hotel and spa.

A historic Viking town, Limerick is home to King John’s Castle on the banks of Shannon river. It also offers many venues to watch live Irish dance and music for free.

Majestic Cliffs in Clare

We made our way back to Shannon in County Clare for a luxurious treat at the Dromoland Castle, a majestic castle and the ancestral home of the O’Briens of Dromoland. Surrounded by 400 acres of golf courses, gardens, forests, and a lake, the dark blue limestone castle looked like something out of a fairytale. We ate at the Michelin star The Earl of Thomond’s Restaurant while listening to live harp, and we also learned falconry and archery and took a romantic horse carriage ride at sunset.

In the morning, we drove on to the small town of Doolin and met a local farmer for a guided hike to the iconic Cliffs of Moher, Ireland’s most popular natural landmark. With narrow trails, next to death-defying rugged drops, and gusty Atlantic winds, the 5-mile cliff walk is not for the ffaint-hearted. Most travelers go to the Cliffs visitor center, but the best views are from further away.

Driving through the Burren region was vastly different from other places in Ireland. Abundant with limestone hills, the area is home to three quarters of Ireland’s species of flowers. We found the tucked away Burren Perfumery, a good place to relax with a cup of tea and pick up some homemade perfumes to take back with you. A few hours at the Burren Smokehouse — a gathering place for drinks, pizza, and live music — was an amazing opportunity to interact with the locals.

Victorian Lake House in Galway

The road to Oughterard took us through scenic mountains, rivers, and lakes, arriving in a dense forest. Currarevagh House is the oldest family-owned Victorian country manor inn. We found it on the shores of Lough Corrib, a lake abundant in wild brown trout. Fishing is one of the area’s most popular activities. The Hodgson family still owns and operates the inn, serving traditional Irish meals made from local ingredients. Family portraits and collectibles populated the drawing room and library and the Hodgson offered us boats to explore the lake and Aran Islands.

Chilled Salmon in Mayo

Small villages around Connemara Mountains were perfect stops to snap a few great shots, We also found a few places to rent boats or simply walk along the lakes. Further north in County Mayo, we discovered the Ice House Hotel in the city of Ballina. At the turn of the century,  the iconic building was a salmon storage facility, with wild Irish salmon preserved in ice before being shipped to the markets in Dublin and Liverpool. Now, it’s a funky hotel with 32 spacious modern rooms and panoramic balconies overlooking the river Moy.

In Ice House’s trendy bar, we spied some of the original vaulted coves of the storehouse and ordered samplings of the local gin, on ice of course. Afterwards, we relaxed at the hotel’s Chill Spa, which was equipped with an outdoor cedar barrel sauna and seaweed hot tubs overlooking the river.

At the end of the road trip, my husband was completely surprised to see how the rest of the country was so different from Dublin. We both agreed that, to really understand the culture, people, and geography of Ireland, you need to get out of the big city.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away. October 2017

Creatively Traveling the World

For Cuisine Noir magazine. October 2017.

Eight ways to travel safer, cheaper and make a difference.

Wish you could travel more? Perhaps a limited budget and time is holding you back. Or maybe you are waiting for a friend or spouse to accompany you on your journey. Travel is an important part of our lives, an experience that opens our minds, makes us more confident and helps us be creative. But it doesn’t have to be something only the rich or retired can afford.

Here are a few ways you can travel more frequently, for longer periods of time, without breaking the bank. You can even use some of these tips to even travel for free.

Home Exchanges – Remember the 2006 movie, “The Holiday,” with Cameron Diaz who lived in Los Angeles and Kate Winslet in London, swap homes at Christmas after bad breakups with their boyfriends? If you have a house, condo or even a rented apartment, you can swap with another traveler from a different part of the world. It’s a great way to save money on hotels and you get to experience what it is like to live in that country. Just register on home exchange websites such as HomeExchange.com and iLoveHomeSwap.com, indicate where and when you want to travel, and send a request to exchange a home.

House Rentals – If you are not comfortable with swapping your place to complete strangers, you can still rent a home or a room on your next vacation. Websites such as Airbnb.com, HomeAway.com, and VRBO.com allow you to rent directly from homeowners by the night, week or month, cutting out the middle man.  Hosts will often share the best local spots in the city to eat, visit and party, as well as which areas to avoid. Also, having access to a kitchen means you can save money on eating out.

During a solo trip to Italy last summer, I stayed with a couple in Naples through Airbnb. They mapped out my daily explorations so I would avoid the not so safe areas of town and be able to take a more scenic route. They even guided me to the best pizza places in town that the tourists didn’t know about.

Volunteer Travel – Many for-profit and nonprofit organizations organize one-week to a few months long volunteer tours that include lodging, meals and sightseeing for a small price. Volunteers Initiative Nepal charges roughly $10 per day to place with a host family in exchange for helping in the villages with construction work, teaching or health care. Vaughan Town covers your hotel stay and 3-course meals in charming resorts across Spain and Germany if you teach conversational English. By engaging in volunteer work you get to meet locals and other travelers, so you will never feel lonely.

I have volunteered abroad in a dozen countries through Go Eat Give and other organizations. What I the enjoy most is the ability to meet people from all realms of society and understand their issues on a deeper level. As tourists, we don’t get a chance to see beyond the pleasurable side of the destination.

Farm Stay – Many families are turning toward farm stays to have productive bonding time, teach the kids important values, be close to nature, and experience country living. Help harvest grapes, press olives, make wine, rear pigs, milk cows or make cheese in exchange for free food and accommodations in Italy, Canada, Australia, France and more paces. On WWOOF.net, you can find opportunities to work on organic farms in 120 countries.

Barter for Work– If farming is not your thing, but you still want to exchange your skills for room and board and have a culturally immersive experience, register at Workaway.info or HelpX.net. Some of the projects listed on the sites include developing a community center in Italy, running a hostel in Brazil, and dog-sitting in South Africa. By working abroad, you get to understand the local culture, practice the language and make new friends.

House Sit – This involves the least amount of work and gives you access to some of the most luxurious homes around the world, for free! All you have to do is keep the house safe and clean, water the plants, take care of the pets (if any), and enjoy the facilities. Look at HouseCarers.com, MindMyHouse.comand Trustedhousesitters.com for where you can go.

Work on a Yacht – Can’t afford a yacht but love to sail? At the sites FindACrew.net, CrewSeekers.net and DesperateSailors.com, you can find yacht delivery jobs around the Atlantic, Caribbean, Mediterranean and more, as well as captains looking for extra nautical help onboard.

Working Holiday Visa – If you are between 18-30 years old, you can get a working holiday visa in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, Ireland and Singapore. This allows you to work and stay for up to a year without having to apply for work permits or sponsorships. Working part time at a bar, restaurant or theme park means extra cash in the pocket to make your vacation last longer.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir magazine. October 2017 digital issue. 

Need a Unique Vacation? Train to Be a Yamabushi (Mountain Hermit) in Japan!

For CheapOAir Miles Away. September 2017. 

If you’ve been to Japan, you’ve probably been overwhelmed by enormous crowds walking through streets filled with skyscrapers and glistening neon lights, mechanical sounds of pachinko slots, and colorful plates of weird looking creatures passing around on conveyor sushi belts. Stepping out of Tokyo, you may have visited majestic Buddhist temples, Zen gardens, and the iconic Mount Fuji. But on your next visit to Japan, you can try a completely new experience that has only recently opened to foreign visitors.

You can sign up for a Yamabushi vacation.

What is a Yamabushi?

Yamabushi are Japanese mountain ascetic hermits who, according to traditional Japanese mysticism, are believed to be endowed with supernatural powers. They have also served as sendatsu, or spiritual mountain guides, since medieval times for pilgrims. Like Native Americans, they connect with nature by living in the forest and hiking for days. Their practice, known as Shugendō, evolved during the 7th century from an amalgamation of beliefs drawn from local folk-religious practices, embodied in Shinto, Taoism and esoteric Buddhism.

The Japanese people have been doing Yamabushi training for 1300 years. In fact, many Japanese take solitary retreats in the mountains to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. While it was more popular among older Japanese men to embark on Yamabushi getaways, younger generations are realizing the importance of taking a break and connecting with nature. Many professionals go for Yamabushi to relieve themselves of stress and find better focus at work. It’s the Japanese alternative to a spiritual retreat!

Retreat participants train with a Yamabushi master and many find that, while they’re likely NOT to attain supernatural powers, they can resolve a lot of challenges, questions, or decisions in their life.

The Yamabushi retreat I attended, designed by the Japanese company Megurun and called Yamabushido, is the first of its kind to led by an English-speaking master, and included exposure to Japanese culture and cuisine, along with authentic Yamabushi instruction. Yamabushido’s 3 and 5-day programs run throughout the year and range from 150,000-300,000 Yen.

My retreat was run by a 13th-generation Yamabushi, Master Hoshino, and a business professional turned Yamabushi, Master Takeharu Kato, in the sacred mountains of Dewa Senzan in Yamagata prefecture, an hour flight north of Tokyo.

Discover the there’s more to Japan than Tokyo and read our post Small Towns & Cities of the Japanese Countryside You Need to Visit.

Prayers by Zen Buddhists. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

My Yamabushi training took place during an impending typhoon in the area. We spent a day at a Zen temple learning from a Buddhist monk how to maintain proper posture, meditate, and pray. Then we practiced applying focus and being in the moment through the art of calligraphy. During the next three days, we stayed at a pilgrimage lodge which provided very basic, shared facilities.

Dressed in all-white Yamabushi attire, we climbed the three sacred mountains of Deva in the pouring rain, each mountain symbolizing death or letting go, ascension into heaven, and rebirth or the future. We climbed what seemed like hundreds of steps, rocky boulders, and wooden paths across Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Yudono, surrounded by towering beech and cedar trees.

During the hikes, we were encouraged to remain silent and feel our surroundings. We also stopped to pay tribute at the different shrines along the way and chanted the Heart Sutra at some of the pagodas and temples.

Hiking in Mt Haguro. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

Yamabushi training involves pushing one’s physical and emotional limits so that you can learn to put mind over matter. Waking up before sunrise, eating very little, hiking for hours, bathing in a freezing gushing waterfall, and meditating in a smoky room – are all part of the challenges one needs to overcome to graduate.

At the end of the training, we jumped over a small fire to represent rebirth into new life. Then we shared an elaborate lunch of over 15 dishes and sake with our masters while they commented on how they saw our progression during the program. Though our journey was mostly in silence, the masters could tell when we were struggling and what we needed to do to better in our lives.

Master Tak and Master Hoshino at graduation lunch. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

We finished the last day at a boutique ryokan in Tsuruoka, relaxing in the mineral-rich hot springs, and dining on beautifully crafted seafood dishes.

Don’t make a faux pas on your Japan! Read our post Watch Your Manners in the Japanese Countryside.

After the program, I felt stronger and accomplished. Others whom I spoke to told me they had renewed energy, a deeper appreciation and higher sensitivity to surroundings. Whether you are an avid hiker who enjoys nature or a city dweller looking to push your limits, Yamabushi training can be a wonderful experience, both spiritually and physically rewarding.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away in September 2017. 

Why Georgia (the Country) is the World’s Best Kept Travel Secret

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. August 2017.

While most people know of Georgia, the peach state in the southern US, very few are aware of Georgia, the former Soviet republic that’s tucked between Europe and Asia. The country is one of the oldest in the world, and has a rich culture that has managed to survive foreign occupation by Persians, Ottomans, and Russians.

Nowadays, tourism is beginning to develop in Georgia, so things are relatively cheap and uncrowded. Here are a few very good reasons to go to Georgia NOW before the secret gets out!

Diverse Offerings

The best way to see Georgia is by driving through the country. You’ll pass by lush green valleys, a sprawling wine country, the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, thick forests, and black sand beaches – all located within a few hours’ drive.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

Walk around the capital of Tbilisi through its winding, narrow cobblestone streets, charming bazaars and cafés offering local cuisine, drinks, and hookah. Spend a weekend at one of the lakeside resorts in the Kvareli region. Enjoy the romantic town of Sighnaghi, which offers picturesque views of the Alazani valley and even has a round-the-clock wedding chapel. Find a quiet spot along the beaches by the Black Sea, or gamble all night at a casino in Batumi.

Ancient Sites With Interesting Stories

Georgia adopted Christianity as a country in the 4th century and even today is predominantly Georgian Orthodox. It’s believed that Saint Nino carried a cross made of grape twigs from Cappadocia (in Turkey) to Georgia, converting many of the locals. The first Christian church in the country was built in Mtskheta, Georgia’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Due to its historical significance and numerous ancient monuments, the “Historical Monuments of Mtskheta” became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral here is said to house Jesus’ robe that was recovered after his crucifixion. The cathedral has also played an important part as a site for the coronation and burial of the kings of Georgia.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

About 45 miles away is Ananuri castle complex, another notable historic site that’s beautifully perched amidst turquoise river water and towering mountains.

The 14th century Holy Trinity Church near Gergeti village, located on a steep mountain cliff, is an iconic symbol of Georgia. It’s noted that, in times of danger, precious relics were brought here for safe keeping.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

Vardzia, a spectacular cave monastery stretching along the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain and which once housed 2,000 monks, is another must-see.

You can witness Georgia’s rich history in many such monasteries, churches, and cathedrals that are spread throughout the country.

Tons of Fun for Outdoor Adventurers

Georgia is a great destination for those who are looking for active vacations on a budget. There are abundant opportunities for hiking, trekking, and skiing in the Caucasus. Drive through the Goderdzi Pass for high adrenaline off-roading, where you can also enjoy views of mountains covered with wildflowers, thick pine forests, and well preserved remote villages.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

In Gudauri, you can rent a room at a traditional B&B including meals for $30/night, while ski lift passes go for an average of $30/day.

Another beautiful and much easier drive is on Georgia Military road that runs between Tbilisi (Georgia) and Vladikavkaz (Russia). Passing alongside the Aragvi River, you can enjoy beautiful views of fertile green valleys, crystal clear rivers, and majestic snow passes.

Many travelers enjoy the comforts of an upscale mountain lodge, like at Rooms Hotel Stepantsminda ($100-150/night), before heading on to trek Mount Kazbek, the third-highest mountain in Georgia at 5,034 meters. Here, you can see snow-covered peaks year-round.

Kazbegi is also home to one of the world’s most spectacular marathon routes.

Unbelievable Food

Every meal in Georgia is a feast, called Supra. Fresh baked breads, assorted salads, and farmers’ cheese (called sulguni) are staples. Then comes badrijan nigzit, eggplant with walnut paste; khinkali, drum shaped dumplings with soupy minced meat, cumin and pepper; or shashlik, tender grilled pork.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

The Georgian national dish is khachapuri — bread stuffed with cheese. While it’s made differently across the country, the most popular one is adjarian khachapuri, baked boat-shaped bread filled with gooey, melted, tangy cheese, a whole egg yolk, and some slivers of butter.

Meals in Georgia last for several hours, with multiple shared plates and endless toasts. Dried and fresh fruits are always served for dessert. Of course, everything is fresh, locally grown, and oh so tasty!

A Very Old Wine Culture 

Georgians have been making wine for at least 8,000 years in traditional methods by storing grapes (including skin and seed) in large clay barrels (known as kvevris) underground.

As a result, the wine has a dense and robust flavor. This method has been listed in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. There are hundreds of varieties of indigenous grapes that aren’t found anywhere else in the world.

Kakheti is the most fertile wine region in Georgia, known for Kindzmarauli wine, a semi-sweet red variety. There are several local wine makers in the area. Winery Khareba is one of the largest winemakers and offers factory tours where they take you through their cold underground granite cellars. Pheasant’s Tears is an award-winning winemaker, producing artisanal natural wines, owned by an American-Georgian couple.

One of the monasteries I visited, Saint George Monastery of Alaverdi, has been making wines since 1011 AD and the monks residing there still grow and sell their wine for $50/bottle.

While in Georgia, also try Cha-Cha, a local distilled alcohol made from wild grapes. Due to its high alcohol content (45-60%) it’s also called “Georgian vodka.”

Pure Water Everywhere

The first thing you’ll find out when you arrive in Georgia is that, not only is it okay to drink the tap water, it’s actually good for you! Mineral water is Georgia’s number one export and you can get all these rich minerals for free straight from any tap.

At Azarfesha restaurant in Tbilisi, expect to find a “water menu” as part of the wine and beverage list. Originating from Georgia’s different regions, the water selections are described as “soft and silky”, “saline notes,” and with “lactose like sweetness.”

The capital of Tbilisi (meaning ‘warm water’) was first built around hot Sulphur springs. Even today, you can find dome-covered public bath houses in the old city where you can enjoy a hot bath and a scrub.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

Borjomi is another popular spa resort town known for its hot springs and mineral waters. People from all over Eastern Europe flock here to fill their bottles with Borjomi water, which is believed to have medicinal properties.

Written for CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. August 2017.

 

More than Tokyo: Small Towns & Cities of the Japanese Countryside You Need to Visit

For CheapOAir Miles Away blog. July 2017. 

When you think of visiting Japan, the images that probably come to mind most are the leaning skyscrapers, glistening neon lights, and busy road crossings of Tokyo is like any other major city in the world. But head out of the county’s most famous city and you’ll find well-preserved monuments against a backdrop of picturesque scenery. In the countryside are temples, shrines, markets, and places to indulge in Japanese culture.

Spend a couple of days in Tokyo,  but if you want to see the real Japan head to these small towns.

Nikko

Nikko is a charming hill station, located only two hours to the north from Tokyo by train, with clean fresh mountain air. It has been a center of Shinto and Buddhist worship for many centuries, and is designated a World Heritage Area. There are oak and cedar forests nearby where you can walk, hike, or simply take a bus to the entrance of the temple complex. On the way, you may pass by hot springs and wild monkeys!

Nikko has important significance in Japanese culture. Here you can see one of the largest wooden tori gates in Japan and the most lavishly decorated shrine and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japanese military government from 1600-1868.

Nikko National Park is a good place to visit any time of the year, but it is especially magical when the leaves turn colors in autumn.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Kamakura

Kamakura is a seaside town an hour and half south of Tokyo with resorts and apartments overlooking sandy beaches. Japanese and foreign tourists come here during the summer to swim, sail, and surf.

Kamakura is also home to the second largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan at Kotoku-in Temple. The statue was cast in 1252 and originally located inside a large temple hall, destroyed and later rebuilt in open air. You can even go inside the statue for a small fee.

No visit to Japan is complete without a stroll through a bamboo forest. At Hokoku-ji Temple, a resting place for the samurai, you can soak in the beauty of the groves and have a cup of tea overlooking the forest at the café located inside.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Hakone

Hakone is a popular weekend getaway on the Sagami Bay (southwest of Tokyo). The area attracts golfers and those looking to relax at one of the natural hot springs. It’s also a great place to get a good view of Mount Fuji, the sacred volcanic mountain of Japan.

Be sure to book a stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn where you sleep on tatami floors and bathe in an onsen, communal hot spring water. The food is exceptional at the ryokans and assortment of fresh sushi, salad, rice, and soup is artfully served in dozens of intricate bowls.

Hakone is home to Lake Ashinoko, which offers some of the best vistas of Mount Fuji; and Owakudani Boiling Valley, with active sulfuric vents and hot springs caused by volcanic activity. Take the Hakone Ropway to catch aerial pictures of mud pools and smoke.

Takayama

Over 300 kilometers to the west of the Tokyo, Takayama is home to the oldest sake breweries in Japan. So it’s a must-stop for sake lovers. Head over to Sanmachi Street, lined with old merchants’ houses from the Edo period, where you can witness old wooden houses and busy tourist markets.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Here you can find several breweries offering all-day sake tastings. A clear fermented rice wine with about 15% alcohol, sake (like wine) can range in flavor from dry and fruity, to smooth and vinegary. Some places give couple of free samples, others charge $2 for up to 12 tastings.

For dinner, head to one of the local restaurants serving Hoba miso, a specialty of this region. Hida beef or chicken is mixed with miso paste, placed over dried a magnolia leaf and cooked over charcoal. It pairs well with a glass of sake.

Shirakawago

This Gassho-style village close to Japan’s west coast (Tokyo’s on the eastern shores) is a scene filled with thatched roofs, belled cows, rice paddies and surrounding snowcapped mountains. It looks like a Japanese version of Swiss countryside. The village has about 350 unique triangular shaped homes to allow snow to shed during winter, and has been named an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Start your visit at Shiroyama Observatory to get the best panoramas of the village and then walk your way down. There are few historic homes open to the public, as well as few restaurants and souvenir shops.

Kanazawa

This historic city right on the northwest coast is home to the Kenrokuen castle garden, which is perhaps one of the most beautiful Japanese gardens from Edo period and one of the three most famous gardens in Japan. Here you can see over 183 species of plants, a teahouse, stone lanterns, pagoda, and the oldest water fountain in Japan, which still operates today.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Stroll through Nagamachi, a beautifully preserved historic Samurai district to see where the aristocracy once lived. Still you can find wealthy homes with expensive cars maneuvering narrow cobblestone streets and canals. You can visit some of the former Samurai residences and private gardens.

Spend the evening at one of Kanazawa’s three chaya districts. A chaya (teahouse) is an exclusive type of restaurant where guests are entertained by Japanese Geisha (better known as Geiko) who perform song and dance. Most of the original structures are still intact, and many are converted into cafes and shops. You are likely to spot a Geisha while walking through one of these districts, but you can also purchase tickets to attend a Geisha evening at one of the public teahouses.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away blog. July 2017. 

First Look: CO

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. July 2017.

Floor-to-ceiling glass windows wrap around a sleek interior of red and black. Waves of natural wood cover the entire ceiling. A lone painting of Atlanta’s skyline adorns one of the walls. Designed under the Japanese minimalist principal of Ma, the space is uncluttered, the lines clean. This is CO, meaning “feast” in Vietnamese, the latest modern pan-Asian restaurant to arrive in Atlanta.

Located on the ground level of the new Poncey-Highland mixed-use apartment complex near the corner of Highland and Ponce, CO mirrors many of its new neighbors (like Rize Artisan Pizza + Salad, which opened late last year) in that it’s designed to multiply. The owner, Gregory Bauer, is a German-born U.S. Marine Corps veteran. While stationed in Southeast Asia on and off for three years, he says, he fell in love with the local flavors. After returning to the states, he got his MBA, then took a few months off to snowboard and do yoga, contemplating his next career move.

In the end, Bauer decided what he most wanted to do was share the flavors and cultures he encountered during his travels. He opened the first CO restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina in 2012 and has organically grown the business ever since, tapping into the same discipline and dedication that got him through his military service.

WAVY WOODS: CO's ceiling is pretty groovy.WAVY WOODS: CO’s ceiling is pretty groovy.JOEFF DAVIS

The plan has worked. Atlanta is Bauer’s fifth CO location and two more are scheduled to open this year. “I was ready to take my concept to the big city,” he says about launching the newest restaurant in Virginia-Highland, where he appreciates the fact that people can walk up for a casual meal.

Like Bauer’s travels, the menu spans the Asian continent. Original recipes were developed with the help of Vietnamese caterers in South Carolina. Later, Masatoshi Tsujimura, a Japanese sushi chef and restaurant owner in Raleigh, came onboard as executive chef. Today, “Chef Masa”, as he is known, oversees all CO restaurants.

The CO team hopes to provide an easy entry point to Asian flavors, one that won’t overwhelm the typical American palate (or your picky kids). You won’t find bean curd puffs or tripe here; instead, strong flavors and unfamiliar textures are replaced by approachable ingredients like chicken and tofu.

LUNCH WITH A VIEW: Two customers enjoy a meal in CO’s airy dining room. Photo by JOEFF DAVIS

Appetizers include edamame gyoza ($5) — a vegan-friendly blend of crunchy mashed edamame stuffed into fluffy steamed and pan-fried dumplings, and served with sweet ginger soy sauce for dipping. The salmon carpaccio ($13) is sliced a bit thick, but the fish is fresh, dressed in lemongrass zest and micro greens for a lovely summer flavor. Tuna tacos ($8) offer two soft flour tacos packed with diced tuna and avocado. Garlic, jalapeños and cilantro add balanced kick to the dish. There’s also bahn mi! Try the marinated and grilled lemongrass tofu ($8) served on a crisp rice flour baguette.

Wok dishes offer Chinese, Thai, Korean and Japanese-inspired combinations. Thai green curry ($14) resembles what you’ll find at most Atlanta Thai restaurants, but here there’s white wine in the sauce, making it thinner than most coconut-based curries. Those who appreciate a bit of heat should opt for spicy udon ($14), a colorful medley of veggies stir-fried with thick Japanese wheat noodles, spicy black pepper sauce and the protein of your choice. Or, to kick up any dish, add some of the restaurant’s signature hot sauce, made in-house by deep frying red peppers and grinding them with onions, garlic, shallots and lime juice.

Curry laksa ($15), a coconut-based soup, is inspired by Bauer’s frequent visits to Malaysia while he lived in Singapore. “When I first served it in Charleston, no one knew what it was,” he says, “but now it is one of our popular dishes.”

While stationed in Okinawa, Japan, Bauer developed a fondness for oshizushi (pressed sushi), and CO is one of the few places in Atlanta that makes it. Sliced salmon ($13) is pressed onto rice in a wooden box, resulting in rectangular cuts of sushi, then topped with ripe avocado and a creamy lemon aioli. Each piece is enormous, so go ahead, forgo the chopsticks and use your fingers to pick it up — nobody’s at CO to judge. The spring geisha roll with seared salmon ($14.5) and kobe jalapeño ($15) are other fun, fusion-y creations for those who prefer their proteins cooked.

PRESS PLAY: Salmon and avocado pressed sushi. Photo by JOEFF DAVIS

At the newly opened bar, you’ll find a traditional sake selection as well as fruit and herb infusions made in-house. There’s also an array of signature cocktails (blackberry bourbon fizz, anyone?) and a whole menu section for boba tea, with toppings that range from lychee jelly to bursting passion fruit pearls.

While CO may not impress die-hard foodies (as in, those who will gladly trek to Buford Highway in search of the best pho or dumplings), it’s a pleasant and accessible spot to take the whole family and expose picky eaters to new flavors. Add in the convenient location, sleek ambiance and well-stocked bar, and you just might have your favorite new neighborhood noodle and sushi joint.

CO, 675 North Highland Ave., 404-474-0262, www.eatatco.com.

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. July 2017.

 

Add This to Your Summer Travel Bucket List – Glamping in a Treehouse in Georgia

For CheapOAir Miles Away blog. June 2017. 

There’s something childishly fulfilling about staying up in a treehouse. This summer, if you want to feel a bit nostalgic and re-ignite some of those emotions (but you just can’t part with a few luxuries), you’ll be happy to know there are decadent modern treehouses just for you.

But is it worth all the hype?

We’ve heard of the famous TreeHouse Point in Washington state and even the exclusive Treehouse Cottages in Arkansas, which are just some of the most incredible treehouses in the US,  so we decided to travel to Georgia to scope out another luxurious property for ourselves.

Located in Flintstone, Georgia at the base of Lookout Mountain near downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, Treetop Hideaways came about as an idea to allow childhood memories to flourish and for families to experience sustainable living close to the city. There are two houses on the property, each equipped with their personal bedrooms, living area, kitchenettes, full baths, decks, and outdoor fireplaces.

You won’t need to trek through a forest to get to this treehouse. There’s a short paved trail from the parking lot to the cabins and a short staircase that brings you inside.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

The original treehouse has a two-story loft with a bedroom upstairs offering spectacular views of the canopy from its large windows. There’s also a small bathroom where a whiskey barrel is placed for a shower tub and copper coins donated by people across the country make up the unique flooring.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

The second one named “Dove Men+Care Elements Treehouse” has a bathroom that makes you really feel like you’re at a private spa in the middle of the forest. Very few treehouses can claim to have heated flooring, temperature controlled 5-head shower with a digital keypad, and a glass enclosed tree in the bathroom with skylight and see-through flooring.

Not too familiar with the concept of glamping? Read our glamping 101 guide and join the party!

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Neighborhood restaurants offer delivery of pizza and ice cream right to your treehouse door. You can also grill hamburgers and roast s’mores over the outdoor grill and enjoy a quiet evening by the fire pit under the stars.

The unique tree hotel is popular with couples and families looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, without having to compromise on luxury. Most people spend 2-4 nights at the treehouse, so they can enjoy outdoor adventures, sightseeing, entertainment and dining in the surrounding area.

After our experience, we’ve got to say that glamping up in a treehouse is just something that can take your bucket list to new heights, so go ahead and branch out!

Written for CheapOAir Miles Away blog. June 2017. 

My Andaman-Myanmar Sea Expedition

For Khabar Magazine print edition. June 2017. 

Kaala Pani is such a storied place in the narrative of India’s independence struggle. Visiting that infamous jail was a humbling experience. The iconic pagodas of Myanmar, on the other hand, inspired awe.

Growing up in northern India, I did not have much of a chance to explore the south. So, when the chance of going on an 11-day sea expedition cruise to the Andaman Islands came to my attention, I jumped on it!

It was a culture and adventure oriented cruise line rather than a floating amusement park. The Silversea Andaman Sea Expedition offered basic luxuries as expected on cruises aboard this yacht-style Italian ship. But it was different, considering there were on-board expedition leaders, who were experts in history, botany, birds, sea life, and more. Each day, there were several guest lectures on the ship to prepare travelers for what they were about to experience. There were also recap discussions about the key learnings from our visits.

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The infamous Kaala Pani (“black waters”): the Cellular Jail in Port Blair, on South Andaman Island.

Port Blair – Kaala Pani, The Infamous Jail
Our first stop is Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India. The group of 36 islands has been inhabited for the past 60,000 years, yet little is known about the tribes that live here. Only the infamous Cellular Jail has made headlines. This is where the British East India Company Army held Indian political prisoners in solitary confinement. It was believed that no one who crossed the Andaman Sea over to Port Blair ever made it back alive, hence gaining the nickname Kaala Pani or black waters.

Walking along the lonely hallways, I could only imagine what our ancestors went through bearing inhumane tortures, all for the sake of our freedom. Names of freedom fighters from all over India were listed by the states they hailed from on the pillars of the jail. Those who survived the British Raj remained in the penal colony and started a new life here.

In most respects, Port Blair feels like any other city in coastal India. Coconut trees on wild beaches, women dressed in colorful saris, sounds of honking cars, delicious aroma of dosa (savory pancakes) and curry, all seemed much too familiar. In recent years, adventurous Indian tourists have gained more interest in the marine activities offered around the islands. From Port Blair, jetty boats shuttle to neighboring Havelock and North Bay islands where vacationers snorkel, kayak, dive, jet ski, or simply lie on the beach.

Ross Island – From Paris to Forsaken
Another popular attraction nearby is Ross Island. Once known as the Paris of the East, Ross Island was the administrative headquarters of the British while they kept a watchful eye on Cellular Jail. Now, there are only remains of its opulence – a church with stained glass windows, a bakery serving French croissants, a clubhouse where the general public gathered to drink and play, a self-sustaining water purifier, etc. along with wild deer, peacocks, and rabbits. Every evening there is a sound and light show that brings the island back to life with vivid colors and Bollywood style narratives.

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Prayer procession at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.

Myanmar – Open for Business
Our journey takes us further north to the country of Myanmar (formerly Burma). The first thing that comes to mind is a song from a 1949 film, Patanga, where the male lead goes to Rangoon (now Yangon) to serve during World War II, while his beloved misses him, singing “Mere piya gaye Rangoon…

Things haven’t changed a whole lot in this country since the 1940s. Myanmar recently lifted its embargo on foreign tourists and opened up its borders. The largest city, Yangon looks like what New Delhi would have 70 years ago. There are a few buildings and hotels, clean roads, gardens, teashops, and no international brand names. What you do see is very friendly men and women dressed in traditional longyis (similar to Eastern Indian lungis) with thanaka(multani mitti or Fuller’s earth) rubbed on their faces as makeup/ sunscreen. Here, the nomadic fishermen still live on traditional boats, while the working class commute to the slum-like dwellings in the township of Dala across the river.

Yangon – Land of Golden Buddha
Most sightseeing in Yangon is centered around Buddhist pagodas and temples. At a length of 217 feet, Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple houses one of the most revered reclining Buddha statues in the country. It is a colossal gold colored statue with a diamond and precious stones encrusted crown that attracts visitors from all over the world.

Myanmar is a Buddhist country, with Muslims and Hindus forming the rest of the minority population. Most Burmese people are Theravada Buddhists, and many also follow practices that originated in Hindu astrology. The Burmese worship animals that represent the day of the week when they were born: garuda (bird) for Sunday, tiger for Monday, lion for Tuesday, tusked elephant for Wednesday morning, tuskless elephant for Wednesday afternoon, mouse for Thursday, guinea pig for Friday and nãga (snake) for Saturday.

Only at Shwedagon Pagoda do I realize the importance of gold in Mon architecture that was prevalent between the 6th and 10th centuries CE. Stick-on gold leaves that remind me of those atop shiny barfis (Indian fudge) are sold outside most religious monuments and are glued onto the statues as offerings. It is believed that by building or donating to the pagoda, you will receive blessings, and take a further step towards salvation. On a weekend, there are families organizing prayers for their loved ones, taking a child in a procession for his monkhood inauguration, and couples offering waterlilies to the shrines. Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, as it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas of the present kalpa (aeon).

Culture – Blends of the East
We dine at the Karaweik Palace, a majestic building by the lake in the shape of a royal barge. Every evening, there is a cultural program organized for visitors, which includes traditional crafts, international buffet, and live dance performances. Many of the Burmese dances have Indian influences, as cultures intermingled for centuries. The bilu dance (of demons or ogres) is said to have originated from Desagiri, a demon in the Ramayana, while the kinnara and kinnari dances are based on mythical birds with human head and torso referenced in Sanskrit literature.

Burmese food offers familiar flavors to those who are well versed in Bangla cuisine. With influences of India, China, and Thailand, local dishes must have a balance of four primary flavors: sour, salty, spicy, and bitter. Spicy lentils, curried fish, thick noodle soups, rice, and leafy green vegetables are staples at a family-style Burmese dinner table. I personally couldn’t get enough of the Shan noodles, a stir-fry of wide rice noodles with chicken, tomatoes, and spices; river fish seasoned with shallots, ginger, garlic, and turmeric, then fried whole with more spices; and a unique Pickled Tea Leaf Salad with tomatoes, roasted peanuts, fried ginger, chickpeas, sesame seeds, and of course, pickled green tea leaves. Most midrange restaurants are known as teahouses and serve traditional Indian dishes, as well as Indo-Burmese fusion.

Bagan – The Ancient Capital
Early one morning, I take a flight from Yangon to Bagan (formerly Pagan), also known as the city of temples. Soon, I am surrounded by over 2,000 ancient structures built between the 9th and 13th centuries. Here I can see the evolution of Burmese temple architecture from Andhra style hollow cylindrical temples with bejeweled umbrellas, to solid dome shaped stupas. Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Empire about a thousand years ago, and only a fraction of the 10,000 Buddhist temples and 3,000 monasteries they built still stand today, mostly destroyed by periodic earthquakes.

I climb a series of five steep steps to the top of Shwesandaw Pagoda for a panoramic view of the surrounding temples spread across the plains of Bagan with the Irrawaddy River in the background. I spend the rest of the day admiring the intricate carvings, painted murals, and inscriptions inside some of these temples.

The Coast – Sunsets and Beaches
After a deep dive into history and religion, the ship steers toward the coastal areas. Myanmar has 1,200 miles of coastline and an expansive coral reef in Mergui Archipelago. Beach resorts in Myanmar have become immensely popular with Asian and Western visitors as they are often unspoiled, offering seclusion, crystal clear waters, picture perfect sunsets, and a range of accommodations from beach huts to luxury resorts at relatively affordable prices.

Lampi Island is the only marine national park in Myanmar, and is home to over 1,000 species of animals, plants, and marine life, as well as occasional sea gypsies. We leave our ship and take a Zodiac cruise through the mangroves, listening to the singsong of Andaman birds residing in 200-year-old trees. The staff on the ship also organizes a lunch at the beach on Shark Island, another uninhabited island in the southern coast of Myanmar. With no one else in sight, we enjoy the secluded white sand beaches and turquoise blue waters against the backdrop of a thick forest, while sipping on cocktails and nibbling at the grill.

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The town and streets of Kawthaung.

We finally approach our last destination as the ship docks at the southernmost point in Myanmar, at the border of Thailand. Kawthaung looks akin to an Italian seaside resort, with small houses nestled along a slope and golden domes instead of church clock towers. It has more Muslim influences than the rest of Myanmar, which can be seen at halal restaurants and shops selling scarves and jewelry.

As I look through hundreds of pictures I have taken, I feel lucky to have visited these areas before they become overpopulated with tourists.

~ Written for Khabar Magazine print edition. June 2017.