Category Archives: Travel Writing

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

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

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!

Two weekends in Falkenberg (Mark)

It’s funny, the places you end up when you leave home with no particular route in mind. The past two weekends I’ve had excursions out of Berlin, fifty kilometres to the north east to a little tiny town called Falkenberg (Mark). No, the town is called Falkenberg (Mark). I’m not sure what the brackets are for. It’s very East German and less than fifteen kilometres from Poland. Forest, farmland and grey communist towns, rather different to Berlin.

I went with my au pair family because of an art exhibition showing the work of the father of the family and the mother of family friends of theirs, also an artist. The exhibition was in her home-studio which is inside a hundred year old bahnhof (train station) that’s no longer in use. Not a bad place to hang out – it has three levels and any number of doors and passageways that divide it into a kind of maze, scattered throughout with artworks.

To give me a break from the chaos of two families with four children I was staying in a hostel on the Saturday night. The first weekend, I was booked into a hostel built from an old German flour mill in the nearby town of Bad Freienwalde. It was a Saturday night, and the hostel was at the very end of a pot-holed road with few houses in the vicinity. It was in the middle of a forest. And I was the only guest in the entire place.

I was in a room with three single beds, two built-in heaters and not a lot else. Having been dropped off at 9pm Saturday night, I had twelve hours to kill before my breakfast and collection by Silvian. First of all I tested the mattress and decided it could be more comfortable. I pulled down the mattress of the top bunk and put it on top of mine before making the bed. The princess and the pea, but actually I was just killing time.

It was cold in my room and my only entertainment was my iPad, so I brushed my teeth, put my pyjamas on and spent the next three hours listening to music, writing and reading eBooks. I had pulled the curtains closed and the creaking of the old house was quite terrifying, given the circumstances. I thought about whether it was fair that my family had taken me out of Berlin on a Saturday night (that’s a night I could have spent at Berghain!) and put me up in a cold, empty mansion. At least it was better than spending the night with the four kids.

The following weekend I politely asked not to be put into another horror film situation so I was booked into a Pension, which is like a little apartment complex that is popular with sixty year olds who rent long-term. This was much more comfortable, decorated like the house of a grandmother in the seventies, all animal statues and floor rugs. It even had a TV, but what with the German way of dubbing everything I had to flick between an MGMT concert on a Kultur station and Donnie Darko in Deutsch.

I did enjoy both weekends – we had sunny weather so it was great being outside all the time, my accommodation was fine apart from the emptiness and it was interesting being at the exhibition. It was nice to get a taste of East German towns. But I was very glad when the train pulled into Berlin on Sunday afternoon. This may not be the ‘real’ Germany but it’s much more liveable.

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Flour mill turned abandoned youth hostel (actually I got the feeling the whole town was abandoned).

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The dorm room, all to myself.

Nudists and swans on Rügen Island

A story in photos, because I’m too tired to write. Just returned from an overnight trip to Rügen Island in the north of Germany with my au pair family.

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In summary, the trip went like this:

I got to the beach and was reminded that Aussie beaches are the best in the world – wearing scarf, coat, beanie. Then, we went to another beach which was signposted FKK = watch out, naked people about! (In this case just one old man braved the wintry Baltic Sea in his birthday suit). We fed the seagulls and please also note the photo of the swans, yes swans swimming in the Baltic Sea! Ah the things you see when you leave Australia. Then, we visited an abandoned building that was formerly a Nazi holiday resort. Then a quick photo at the famous chalk cliffs. On the way home we stopped at another creepy building, this one a cathedral. Finally I look a photo of a cool tree and then it was back to Berlin.

It was actually a lovely island and would be even better in summer, but two days straight of work has left me exhausted! I’m off to sleep…

Guten tag Berlin

Last week I took up residence in Berlin, Germany and am making it my home for the next three months. I’m working as an au pair for two little girls and living in Mitte, right in the centre of the city. I’m still not sure if I’m trendy enough to be here, but I’m loving the abundance of culture, anything-goes fashion, left-wing + eco-minded lifestyles and of course street art. And I’m trying to address the lack of trendiness.

Yesterday I visited the East Side Gallery. I saw Kim Jong Un (see pic below and also http://on.fb.me/11a4otz). I love street art, it’s definitely something I’d like to see more of in Sydney, and I’ve included my favourite pieces from the wall below.

Plans are underway for the wall to be removed to make way for some fancy schmancy new buildings. Everyone up to David Hasselhoff has become involved in protesting against it, so if you feel so inclined, check out the online petition at http://www.change.org/eastsidegallery (and don’t forget to click the button to translate the page into English!).

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A classic Berlin Wall image – still so evocative.

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Kim on tour

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West side

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