Nay Pyi Daw, the new capital of Myanmar

I spent the past three weeks in Myanmar (Burma)… that country in South East Asia that no one seems to have heard of. That’s okay, some of them haven’t heard of Australia either.

It was a confronting country to visit, both for the cultural differences and the ongoing political problems that underlie everyday life for the Burmese, however much the government tries to (physically) shield visitors from seeing them. There’s a million places and stories I could write about Myanmar but the one that’s left the biggest impression reflects this shield, although it is the least representative of the culture of the country. Nay Pyi Daw (Nay Pyi Taw), the brand new capital of Myanmar.

In the same way that Canberra was purpose-built to be the capital of Australia, Nay Pyi Daw was built from scratch over the past decade and announced in 2005 as the new capital. The difference is that Nay Pyi Daw is drastically, out-of-this-world different to the rest of Myanmar.

Myanmar in general is typical of South East Asian countries in its roads, buildings and other infrastructure, plus some colonial buildings and minus some internet access, ATMs and hot water. Until you arrive at your humungous, brand new hotel in the ‘hotel city’ (the only place where foreigners are permitted to sleep) area of Nay Pyi Daw and suffer a brain dysfunction, forgetting whether you are in Los Angeles or Burma.

Among the many oddities of the capital are:

– An exact copy of Yangon’s Shwe Dagon Pagoda that manages to turn one of the most beautiful temples I’ve seen into a tacky Buddist tourist attraction

– An Olympics-quality stadium and sports complex still under construction for the South East Asia Games, coming up at the end of 2013. And next to it, a village of bamboo-thatch houses

– Two shopping centres with imported foods and international brands (we bought some Australian Brie and Cadbury choccy, still cheaper than Aussie prices)

– A brand new library full of decades-old books that had been moved straight from the former national library in Yangon

Aaaand…

– A 20-lane highway, 10 lanes each direction, no exaggeration, with about one car driving on it

To complete the experience, at the end of the day thinking the whole city was deserted, we arrived at the bus station and found it teeming with people. The same local markets that we’d seen everywhere in Myanmar, and we understood where all of the supposed one million inhabitants hang out. Nay Pyi Daw wasn’t a ‘fun’ holiday experience but it was one of the highlights of our trip just for the awe factor.

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20 lane, 0 cars

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Nay Pyi Daw’s version of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda

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The national library, ‘helping those who seeks knowledge’

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The site of the upcoming SEA Games

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Living with monks in Nepal

This month Meg and I signed up for a two week volunteer program teaching English to ‘baby monks’ in a Tibetan monastery. It turned out to be completely different to how I’d imagined, and also one of the best things I’ve done in my trip.

Pema Ts’al Sakya Monastic Institute is a school and monastery that houses boys as young as four, who are sent there for their education. They are all from Tibetan refugee families who have left Tibet because of Chinese occupation. In the monastery they receive a high quality education that their parents would not have been able to afford, and they study Tibetan Buddism and language (both of which are under threat because Chinese language and culture is now dominant in Tibet). Not all of the students are monks, only those who choose to be. The boys don’t pay anything as the monastery and students are sponsored.

The boys were so far from the subdued, disciplined monks we anticipated. There were cheeky, sweet and full of personality – just normal schoolboys. There were ninety altogether – sixty in the six school grades and thirty studying their philosophy college degree. The volunteers were also some of the best people. They came from USA, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Spain, England and were intelligent, genuine, talkative. There were lots of heated debates over the dinner tables.

The food was nice but repetitive. Tibetan bread for breakfast with potatoes, beans, peas or (if we were lucky) peanut butter and jam. Always dahl bat for lunch (rice, veg curry and lentil soup) – occasionally with a piece of fruit, bowl of yoghurt or a boiled egg. Dinner was very plain, steamed bread with miso soup/bean and egg soup/dahl, or fried rice or noodles with a tiny hint of carrot and onion. We went to Pokhara on the weekends to get our fill of fresh fruit and veg, sometimes meat, and of course coffee (and beer)!

There was no reliable wifi at the monastery and we only used it one morning of the whole time we were there. It was far nicer to be cut off from the world and engage in the life of the monastery. By the end I felt out of the loop with everything happening in Sydney and for that matter the world. It was so hard to leave and if we hadn’t already booked our flights to Myanmar we would have stayed an extra two weeks. As it was we only had three days spare so we stayed as long as we could – in total 2.5 weeks.

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This building is where us volunteers and the college monks slept

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Messing round before bedtime

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Swimming in the river behind the monastery

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One of my favourites in the classroom

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The youngest monk dressing up as me

My story published on Naked Hungry Traveller

When I travelled through Malaysian Borneo in October 2012 I was blown away not only by the amazing sights and activities, but also the ecological devastation on the island. I felt inspired to write about my experiences, and today my article and photographs were published on an Australian travel website called Naked Hungry Traveller.

If you’re interested please check it out at:
http://nakedhungrytraveller.com.au/of-monkeys-and-men-the-wild-nature-of-sabah/

Mum and Dad liked it so maybe you will too 😉

…and don’t be afraid to share it on Twitter or Facebook using the links on the website.

Cheers!
Sasha

Mini trip in Eastern Europe

This week I travelled from Berlin to Kathmandu the long way round – via Budapest and Belgrade. The past week has been a whirlwind, living out of my suitcase and catching sleep on trains and planes wherever possible. Not surprisingly, I’ve caught a cold. This combined with the fact that Mum and Dad have been delayed by two days, leaving me alone in Kathmandu for three nights, means I’m having a chilled out time in Nepal so far despite the constant noise and motion that is Kathmandu.

I left Berlin on Friday night with Bec and we caught a 14 hour train south-east through Germany, The Czech Republic, Slovakia to Budapest, Hungary. The train wasn’t too bad and we managed a few hours sleep although were awoken at 2 a.m. with a creepy man watching us sleep. He soon left us alone and the rest of our trip was much more relaxing. We kept the history to a minimum and spent most of our time swimming in the Szechenyi and Lucasz baths, eating great Hungarian food, drinking chilli coffee and champagne frappes in New York Cafe, and generally admiring the beauty of the city. After being so long in Berlin, which makes up for in cool what it lacks in beauty, we were both in awe of buildings such as Fisherman’s Bastion and St Stephen’s Basilica, especially lit up at night. We also went to the Szechenyi bath party (Sparty) on Saturday night – think thermal pool plus DJ plus 500 drunk backpackers. Crazy fun but crazy gross by the end of the night. The one museum we visited was Hospital in the Rock, which was an underground hospital and nuclear shelter kept secret from the Soviets until 2002.

On Tuesday Bec and I left Budapest headed in opposite directions – she home to Berlin and I on another train south, this one to Belgrade, Serbia. Figuring on a lack of bread in Asia, I left her with my jar of Vegemite but the airport security staff took it away from her! I guess they wanted it for themselves, they’re only human.

With less than 48 hours in Belgrade I had to be choosy about what to do. On the morning of my first day I took a walking tour which was a good way to see a lot and learn about the city in three hours. Then I walked the length of the main road of the city to the biggest Catholic cathedral in the Balkans, Saint Sava temple. The outside is white and majestic, but the inside isn’t finished – not even close. It’s all concrete but I found this interesting in itself. I also met an ancient Serbian woman and we had a broken conversation in which we somehow managed to exchange names, nationalities and the fact that Christianity is common in Australia but I’m not religious. Amazing!

Belgrade has been voted the best nightlife in Europe, so luckily I was staying in a social hostel called Hedonist where we soon had a group of about 10 people wanting to go out, including an American expat who wanted to take us to his favourite bars. So all of us – Aussies, Swedes, Yankees and Canadians had a beer in a bar along the Sava river and then crossed a bridge into Novi Beograd (New Belgrade) which has a bunch of boats and barges converted into bars and clubs. We went to one that played the strangest mix of music from the ’80s to now of every genre imaginable and in no logical atmospheric order. Prince would become Kings of Leon would become a South American dance song.

It was a late night and the next day I packed up on about three hours’ sleep and said goodbye to my new friends. I could easily have spent more time in Belgrade and the rest of Eastern Europe, but was due to meet Mum and Dad in Nepal. I flew to Kathmandu via a 10 hour stopover in Qatar bringing my travel time to almost 24 hours. As mentioned Mum and Dad’s flight was delayed so they are currently spending two nights in Kuala Lumpur.

As soon as I landed I recognised the familiar smells and heavy, humid air of Asia. Kathmandu is as chaotic as expected. Dumplings, curry, spices and chilli. Electricity blackouts every day. Incense, temples, hippie pants (regular clothing will be my biggest readjustment back in Sydney). Watching every step to avoid giant holes in the road. Endless car horns and motorcycle horns. Three months in Europe was awesome but Asia feels like coming home.

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The architecture of Belgrade: Communism meets early 19th Century meets modernity

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Looking over to Novi Beograd with the boat bars in the Sava river

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The Saint Sava temple

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Bec may call me the Map Queen but maps were no help to me here.

Auf Wiedersehen Germany, off to Eastern Europe

Tomorrow I leave Berlin, and I’m delaying the daunting prospect of packing by writing a blog post. Having been nicely settled with my own bedroom for three months (with a wardrobe – the first one in months!), the thought of fitting everything back into my bag is overwhelming. I’ve had to make a new music playlist as a packing soundtrack just to motivate myself – and to put it off further.

One job that I’ve finished is to clear space on my camera for the coming months by moving photos onto a USB stick – my third one of the trip. I’m not looking forward to sorting through all those photos when I get home, at a rough guess there’s probably well over 2,000 now. I think it will have to wait until the post-travel depression hits and I need some escapism.

It’s been a while since I updated about my own trip rather than singular events in Berlin. I think there’s some family members who are unsure of where I am and why and where to next and when the hell I’m coming home.

Yesterday was nine months since I left Sydney, and tomorrow I leave Berlin. I’ve been working as an au pair for 11 weeks, living with a German family who have two girls aged four and six. Au pairing has been difficult but a great job for travelling – I’ve worked 20-30 hours a week and have had free time to explore and socialise. I’ve picked up a decent amount of German out of necessity, and travelled to some nice towns out of the city. Berlin’s such a cool city, full of fantastic events, open-minded people, art, music and culture. I read a great quote about the large number of people who move to Berlin because of the lifestyle etc, and it was along the lines of: ‘Don’t stay in Berlin. Re-create Berlin in your own city’ and it’s really stuck with me. So don’t worry, I am coming home!

But not just yet. Tomorrow I’m catching a 14-hour overnight train to Budapest, Hungary with a Kiwi friend, Bec, who I met here in Berlin. We’re going to a club night at a public pool, among other surely amazing things. We just couldn’t resist the promise of ‘As long as you intrigues by the idea of a laser bath disco party’ [sic]. After three nights there I have a seven-hour train to Belgrade, Serbia where I’m spending two nights. I wanted to travel overland from Europe to Asia but it wasn’t possible given time, travelling alone and the riots in Turkey. So I’m flying from Belgrade to Nepal.

Mum and Dad join me the day after I arrive in Nepal, then Meg a few days later and Julia a week after that. I can’t wait to see them all! The family are staying for two weeks and Meg and I will travel for two months. I plan to return home in September.

Hopefully this gives the family and friends who are following the blog an update on my whereabouts. Berlin’s been fantastic, but I can’t wait to get back to Asia, to see my family and to keep on travelling.

The 10 best free activities in Berlin

Note: this article doesn’t really cover the obvious tourist attractions, which most people already know about. I’ve covered some lesser-known, interesting and authentic Berlin experiences that are f-r-e-e!

Living in Berlin for the past two months on a tight budget, I’ve investigated pretty much every possible option for saving money while still experiencing the city. Luckily, Berlin is full of people like me (such as travellers, students and those doing never-ending unpaid internships) and the powers that be have taken pity on us.

Aside from the well-known free attractions like Brandenburger Tor, East Side Gallery on the Berlin Wall and Unter den Linden, there’s many essential Berlin things to see and do that are completely free. It’s especially easy to save money if you’re in Berlin for more than a few days, because you’ll be able to plan your schedule around the times when certain attractions have free entry.

In no particular order, the ten best free activities I’ve discovered are:

1. Memorials
Situated mainly around Brandenburger Tor and Tiergarten are touching memorials to groups who were persecuted by the Nazis. There’s the endlessly photographed Holocaust memorial, the homosexual memorial and a memorial to Sinti and Gypsy people. There’s a memorial for the book burnings, and you’ll also notice the gold plaques in front of apartments throughout the city to recognise the former homes of Jews who were killed by Nazis. Each memorial is designed in a beautiful, meaningful way and all are free.

2. Parklife
‘Gartens’ are a very popular leisure activity for Berliners in spring and summer. As soon as the sun comes out the parks are full, even during business hours (I’ve come to the conclusion that not many Berliners keep normal working hours). In the absence of beaches, people bring blankets and swimmers to the park. Tiergarten is the largest and most impressive, but each has its own atmosphere and typical crowd. For example, Görtlitzer Park turns into an outdoor party every weekend for the hipsters of Kreuzberg.

3. Museums
The best known museums and galleries such as the Pergamon are expensive, and if you want to do a few of them, definitely buy the three-day pass for €24. With most of the popular museums charging €10 each, you can save about €30 by visiting two each day for three days. Keep in mind that most are closed Mondays and some are closed Tuesdays, and plan your time around the locations, some of which are quite spread out.

By the way: I can recommend the Pergamon, Alte and Neue Nationalgaleries, Museum Berggruen, Museum für Fotografie and Sammlung Schaff-Gerstenberg Museum. I found the Alte Museum overpriced and a little boring.

But if you can’t even afford that, there’s two other options. The first is to visit the free museums, like Berliner Dom, German-Russian Museum, Sachsenhausen Memorial and the Topography of Terror. Secondly, many have free entry one day a week or one day a month. Ephraim-Palais, Maerkishes Museum and Nikolai Church all offer free entry on the first Wednesday of the month. Get your free (!) brochure ‘Museums to Enjoy’ by Visit Berlin from a tourism office, which lists all the major museums along with a description, directions, opening hours and cost (as well as which days, if any, are free).

4. The Bundestag/Reichstag
The huge and beautiful parliament building in Tiergarten seems to be part functional and part tourist attraction, with its glass dome on top that looks out over the city. The building has an interesting history and you can take a free 90-minute guided tour in English. Or if you’re too lazy for that, you can just go up and look out of the pretty dome. But: for security reasons, you must book a time slot online, usually at least two weeks in advance. Give ’em your details, they’ll check you’re not a likely terrorist then send you a lovely invitation letter. Apply on the website here: http://www.bundestag.de/htdocs_e/visits/kupp.html

5. Berliner Philharmonie
Fancy some Beethoven with your currywurst? Lunchkonzerts are daily classical music concerts held in the foyer of the Berliner Philharmonie at Potsdamer Platz. They last about an hour and the performers are young but very talented. They begin at 1pm, arrive early if you want a good view. This little known freebie is worthwhile if you want to experience the venue in an authentic way, but don’t take it too seriously. You’ll need a lot of tolerance to put up with the crying babies behind you and the twelve years olds flirting and playing gameboys in front of you (this actually happened to me). Mothers must figure this to be a great time to expose their kids to some culture without disrupting people who have actually paid for music. But hey, it’s free!

6. The City Library
The Staatsbibliothek on Unter den Linden is the main library of Berlin. Because I’m a massive book nerd, it’s a beautiful building and there’s some interesting history from World War 2 associated with it, I wanted to visit. Alas, when I arrived I was turned away. Apparently without being a resident of Berlin and becoming a member, the only way you can enter is with their free 5pm guided tour, held Tuesdays – Fridays. And that tour is only offered in German. But I did it anyway, and while I mostly had no idea what was being said, I did get to see the impressive building, some very old manuscripts, and a staff-only storage area that made my nerdy little self and my nerdy fellow tour-ers very excited. Recommended if you’re into that sort of thing (especially if you can sprechen die Deutsch).

7 and 8. Sony Centre roof and film premieres
The Sony Centre at Potsdamer Platz looks like it should be in glitzy New York rather than dirty, ‘alternative’ Berlin. The building is famous for its roof, which is apparently some kind of architectural landmark. I’m no design expert but I know it’s fun to pose below the pretty lights. The Sony Centre is also known for its cinema, where major Hollywood films are premiered – Brad Pitt is there right now, in fact (WHY am I still sitting here?). You can wait around by the red carpet for free, and there’s a list of upcoming premieres at Berlin Sidewalk: http://berlinsidewalk.com/tag/sony-center/

9. Festivals
There’s always a celebration happening in Berlin, especially in spring and summer. Last month we had Carnival of Cultures and in June alone there’s the Gay Pride festival, Neukölln festival, Vintage festival and All Nations festival. Each one has free events like street parties, parades, performances and workshops. Search for upcoming events by date at http://www.visitberlin.de/en/experience/events/event-calendar

10. Nightlife
Last but definitely not least, the Berliners love their nightlife. It’s not a night out unless you’re crawling home as the sun comes up, counting on one hand how many hours of sleep you’re going to squeeze in before work. You can minimise your spending by using public transport (it’s so frequent that you’d be crazy to pay for a taxi), choosing from the great selection of venues that charge nothing or only €5 entry, and that teenage favourite tactic, pre-drinking. Spätkaufs are a Berlin institution – bottle shop and convenience store in one, ubiquitous throughout the city. Every good night starts with a beer run to the späti.

I’m the first to admit that I split the point about Sony Centre into 7 and 8 because I couldn’t think of a tenth addition. If anyone knows of any others, please comment below. I have three more weeks in Berlin and plan to see and do as much as possible while spending as little as possible!

Carnival of Cultures / Karneval der Kulturen

This weekend, 17th until 20th May Berlin hosted its annual Karneval der Kulturen in Kreuzberg. It’s a celebration of the cultural diversity of Berlin and is four days of street markets, food and music, as well as a huge parade, which took place yesterday. And when I say huge, I mean nine hours of trucks, music, costumes, dancing and above all, people. The parade begins at Hermannplatz and finishes just a couple of kilometres away at Yorckstrasse, and along the street that connects them are around 700,000 people dancing, eating and drinking.

We arrived around 5pm, half way through the parade, to a U-Bahnhof along the main road of Gneisenau Strasse. My first impressions were of the noise and the crowds. Noise from DJs in the street and from the crowd, which appeared to be tourists plus every resident of Berlin and their dog. Berliners love their pets (which are usually giant dogs) and take them everywhere: the train, restaurants and street festivals.

We first found a drink of strawberry punch and then made our way slowly down the street, taking everything in and trying not to lose each other. We came across a crowd of people – a crowd within a crowd – who were using the street as a dance floor for a techno DJ who had set up outside a bar. He even had a smoke machine. People in a nearby building were dancing on their windowsills and throwing confetti. It was such a happy and laid-back atmosphere that it was impossible not to stop and dance.

After about half an hour the parade reached this part of the street and we found a great place to stand right beside it. The floats of the parade represented different nations and subcultures within Berlin. You could tell the floats hadn’t been expensive to put together and didn’t need to be. I’d love to see something like this in Sydney. It reminded me of our Mardi Gras, but this was less intense, more of a family-friendly, daytime event. I barely saw any police, but I also saw no violence or troublemakers. Everyone was represented – from Thailand to Nigeria to Colombia to Jamaica. We danced Gangnam Style with South Korea and eventually joined the parade behind a truck that had a DJ and strobe lights on board. It was just one of those days when you feel so ecstatic to live in Berlin, even for a short while.

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Dancers behind the Ghana float

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The South Korean float

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The Thai float