Gunter and I embrace the concept of “slow travel.” Our preference for this method of land travel is probably a byproduct of our slow sail around the world (it took us eight years). We like to decide on a destination, dream, research and read about it, plan an itinerary with plenty of spare time built in, and then go. And when we’re there, we like to take our time, surround ourselves with the power of place, understand the culture, and break bread with the locals if we can. Walking a Village is part and parcel of this experience.

On the way to Mt. Popa and Table Mountain in Myanmar (Burma), a popular tourist site southeast of Bagan, our guide parked his car and led us into a small village where we walked among thatched huts, met villagers, and visited a school. We also walked a village outside of Varanasi, India.

During our recent trip to Uzbekistan, we drove off the beaten path into Nurata, located in the foothills of Nuratau Mountains which stretch out hundreds of kilometers from Barren Steppe to Navoi and Kyzylkum Desert. This village is almost 200 kilometers from Samarkand. It was founded as ancient Nur in 327 BC by Alexander the Great, and the remains of his military fortress can be seen on a high hill to the south of town. The fortress was a strategic center for gathering an army before attacking neighboring lands.

Nurata is known for its famous mineral springs.

Nurata is known for its famous mineral springs.

The elaborate water system Alexander had installed is partially used today. But the locals don’t care about which western conquerors were here; instead, they host Eastern visitors who come as Muslim pilgrims to visit the holy places and mosques. A settlement called Nur—at the foot of the mountain—contains the graves of many “who have seen” the Prophet Mohammed. This site was chosen as a settlement for its mineral spring, known as Chasma, which always stays at 19.5°C. According to legend, a fire rock (probably a meteor) fell from the sky and a spring of healing water rose where it hit the ground. Now, thousands of believers—most from neighboring towns—come to visit every year to view the strange radiance that sometimes appears over the spring. The complex contains a Friday mosque, qubba (Arabic for shrine or tomb) and a bathhouse.

A group of tourists in Nurata.

A group of tourists in Nurata.

Far from industrial and tourist centers, this town of 25,000 leads an unhurried, idyllic life. The innocence and genuine hospitality of the residents is a primary reason that pilgrims and tourists like to visit Nurata. While our driver parked the car on the outskirts, our guide Fakhriddin, Gunter and I walked into town.

Eager to witness this hospitality for ourselves, we were not disappointed. We felt as if the town had been swept clean for guests: bushes and flowers had been carefully manicured, there was no trash on or along sidewalks, and smiling faces greeted us everywhere. While Fak tried to explain the inner workings of the unique system of underground pipe channels running from the spring, onlookers kept asking questions about us. We were their newest attraction!

“Why are you here? Where are you from? Do you like Uzbekistan? Why? What do you like best?” Of course, we couldn’t understand a word of Tajik or Russian, so Fak was bombarded with questions. He turned to us, “Are they bothering you?”

“Quite the opposite,” Gunter explained. “We want to talk with them. You can fill us in on the history later.”

“America! California!” a student from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, yelled to his friends. Soon his friends surrounded us and the questioning resumed.

An English teacher from Tashkent visits Nurata.

An English teacher from Tashkent visits Nurata.

A teacher approached to ask Fak whether her International Language university students could come over to interview us. They were taking a cultural field trip. “How fortunate for us to find American English speakers,” she said. “That is unusual; few Europeans come here and almost no Americans.” We sat on a bench while a parade of students passed by. “Only one question each,” she instructed.

As we walk along the town’s main plaza, a withered man approached with a young boy, about 5 or 6 years old. “Photo of my grandson with you?” he asked.

“Okay,” Gunter said. “Come and stand here in front.” The grandfather releases the shy boy’s hand and gently pushes him forward. After he snapped his photo, his gnarled face broke into a wide grin. “My grandson will remember this photo for the rest of his life.”

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The center of attention all afternoon, we continued to walk and talk around the village. Those inquisitive-but-friendly people of Nurata will always hold a special place in my heart.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale.

Lois Joy Hofmann updating her travel journal.

Lois Joy Hofmann updating her travel journal.

 

 

1. Myanmar is more open to tourism than ever before. The country welcomed some 3 million visitors in 2014, about half of those international tourists. Five million tourists was a target set for 2015, although the numbers are not in yet. The number of tourists to Myanmar (Burma) is exploding because tourists may now enter freely after acquiring a visa online and picking it up on arrival; they can travel freely throughout the countryside without escorts (this was not the case during my first visit in 2006); and Myanmar is the most authentic and untouched of all the countries in Southeast Asia. Tourists are rushing to see it before it turns into another Thailand. So now is the time to go!

My husband and I chose Myanmar as our international vacation destination for 2014. Because of skyrocketing tourism, hotels tended to be scarce during the high season, so we chose to leave in October and return in early November. We booked through Enchanting Travels, Myanmar. They organized an independent “slow travel” tour for us via auto and plane, with a local tour guide at each destination. Our round-trip tour included the bustling city of Yangon, the fertile farms of Shan state, the mountain villages of Pindaya, the fishing villages of Inle Lake, the stupas of Bagan, a two-day cruise up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay, and relaxing at Ngapali beach, where I had an opportunity to journal before heading home.

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You can access my blog posts and photos about my trips to Burma here:

Why Go to Myanmar?

Burma in My Blood

Walking a Village in Myanmar

Burma, My Next Favorite Place

I recommend booking hotel rooms in advance through a local travel company—at least for the first few days of your trip. Cash is king in Myanmar. You can exchange dollars for kyats as you go.  Credit cards are not widely accepted but ATM machines are readily available. WiFi is like dial-up internet of the 1990s in most places, but that only forces you to adapt to the slow travel approach. Just be patient, take it easy, and enjoy the spectacular scenery and friendly people. Pack for hot weather. The “peak season” to visit with the best weather is from November to February. We traveled in October during the “shoulder season” because we wanted to be home for Thanksgiving. If you visit in other months, you’ll suffocate (110F/45C in Yangon) or you’ll soak during the rainy season.

2. Cartagena, Colombia is one of the most charming cities we visited during our entire sailing circumnavigation. Now you can fly there from almost anywhere in the world. The city holds a special place in my heart because this was our refuge from a Force 10 storm that we encountered off the coast of Venezuela during the Maiden Voyage of Pacific Bliss. In fact, I wrote this about Cartagena in Chapter 7 of In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss: Maiden Voyage:

Cartagena is a magical place that must be experienced at least once in a lifetime. But a word of caution: Once you come to see her, you will dream about when you can return. From its charming, old walled city to its historic naval and land fortifications to the posh, modern high rises and its tourist beaches, Cartagena dazzles and thrills. However, this is a city that cannot be devoured; she needs to be savored—slowly and deliciously. Mark my words: Gunter and I will be back!

The photos below are taken from Maiden Voyage.

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Although we haven’t returned to this marvelous destination yet, rest be assured, it is on our bucket list! If you want to see the city, just book a hotel and take a city tour or travel around by cab. Be sure to spend a full day in Old Town Cartagena. While you’re there, you might want to take one of the many Spanish language courses offered. Or you might want to book a day sail to Islas del Rosario for some swimming and snorkeling. If you’re more adventurous, contact Worldview Travel about one of their jungle tours.

3. I never tire of Bali, Indonesia. But beware: Once you go there, you’ll return again and again. Bali has a special significance to me because Gunter and I spent our honeymoon there back in 1995. We rented a hotel at world-famous Kuta Beach, not far from populous Denpasar. If you like loud music and crowded beaches, this is for you. If you are more adventurous, you can do what we did. We checked out of our hotel after two noisy days and booked a four-day boat trip to Lombok and then to the Komodo Islands to see the dragons. Back in Bali, we spent the second week at the far side of the island, at a quiet beach resort with a volcanic, black-sand beach. We were instructed to hit the dong of a wooden carving outside our door to call for coffee service. Later, a server asked us, “Did you know that Mick Jagger slept here—in your bungalow?” Hmm. But our favorite part of Bali was the traditional town of Ubud in the interior, where we watched Balinese processions, visited carving and silver shops, and took in a Legong Dance at the King’s Palace.

When we visited Bali the second time, during our world circumnavigation, we knew exactly where we wanted to stay. With Pacific Bliss safely berthed at the Bali International Marina, we took a taxi to Hotel Tjampuhan on the outskirts of Ubud. For one week, we enjoyed a totally hedonistic experience in a secluded hillside bungalow overlooking a lush valley.  Birds called back and forth, their high notes overriding the deeper sounds of rushing water far below. Squirrels raced up tall tamarind trees and red hibiscus blooms added color to the verdant landscape. We swam in a cool, spring-fed pool, and enjoyed side-by-side massages at a spa dug into the hillside above the waterfall. In the cool of the evening, we walked into town and enjoyed performances at The Royal Palace. Later during our sojourn in Bali, we booked a few days with friends in Sanur Beach—a much better alternative to Kuta. I haven’t been back to Bali since the advent of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love book and movie but rest assured, this island will never lose its charm.

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4. Vietnam is a must visit that combines history and beauty—and they openly welcome Americans. We visited Vietnam in June 2006, along with a cruising couple who had set up our private tour for four with a local travel agency, Focus Travel. That worked out well because we could share a van and driver. In fact, the total cost for each of us to tour there for 10 days, including guides, private transportation, four-star hotels, tours, a cooking class, 10 breakfasts, 4 lunches and one dinner, plus domestic flights from Hanoi to Danang and from Hue to Saigon was $673. We flew from Langkawi, where Pacific Bliss was berthed, into Hanoi and out of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

Vietnam has over 2,000 miles of coastline and our route from Hanoi to Saigon covered most of it, backed by central highlands and jagged mountain ridges throughout most of it. Fertile farms line the rivers and deltas. We loved Hanoi with its charming French colonial boulevards and landscaped lakes. The city was a wonderful mixture of old and new. In addition to taking in a Water Puppet show and a Vietnamese cooking class, we toured the Military Museum and the sobering Hao Lo Prison Americans called the “Hanoi Hilton.” 

DSCN2056 (2) Rice Fields of Vietnam

We found the people giving, gracious and anxious to please. I was fascinated to learn what the younger Vietnamese think about what they call “The American War:” According to them, that was but a blip in their history, following a1000-year war against China and a 30-year war against France. Yes, the older generation of Vietnamese are battle-hardened, proud, and nationalist. But for the energetic younger generation (the median age is 29) Vietnam is a place to succeed, to earn a lot of money, and to have a good time. They care little about politics; they were born since all those wars occurred.

From Hanoi we drove along the coast to Halong Bay, a World Heritage site, then flew to Danang with its stretches of unspoiled sandy beaches, and drove on to Hoi An to relax at a beach resort for a couple of days. In a town famous for its tailors, we dropped off clothing to be “copied” and picked up the next day. Next we drove over the mountains to Hue, the former capital city of Vietnam where we took an evening barge trip down the Perfume River. We flew to Saigon and checked into a 1920s hotel in the heart of downtown, great for shopping and touring a city that, in 2006, had no McDonalds, KFC, or chain stores of any kind. From Saigon, we toured the Mekong Delta and then drove through industrial areas south of Saigon—car assembly plants, and numerous manufacturing complexes. There, we could see that rapid industrialization was underway.   

DSCN2035 (2) Tourist Boats, Halong Bay

With over 90 million inhabitants in 2014, Vietnam is the world’s 13th most populous country. A full 65% of its population is under 30. Since 2000, the country’s GDP growth in has been among the highest in the world, with the U.S. as its largest trading partner. When we were there, the populace was very excited about joining the World Trade Organization in 2007.  Since then, much has changed dramatically, so if you want to see parts of the old Vietnam with the simpler life, go there soon!

5. If you want a more adventurous vacation, check out Savu Savu or Fiji’s remote Lau Island Group.  We sailed almost all the way around Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, then left our yacht in Savusavu, on Fiji’s second-largest island, Vanua Levu. We had obtained a special permit in Suva to visit Fiji’s remote Lau Group for a thatched-hut-on-the-beach experience. Not easy, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Chapters 8 and 10 of Sailing the South Pacific, my second book in the adventure series, describes two sailing seasons we spent in Fiji, where we had too many adventures to list here. Feel free to ask for advice in the COMMENT section below.

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What are your travel plans for 2016?

On the way to Mt. Popa and Table Mountain, a popular tourist site southeast of Bagan, Burma, our guide parked alongside the road and led us into a small village. It’s one of the many memories of our recent trip to Myanmar that I’ll never forget. Back in 2011, I enjoyed Walking a Village outside of Varanasi, India on the way to Sarnath to visit Buddhist sites. After that experience, I vowed that I would continue to use this method of “slow travel” during future trips. I was not disappointed.

As we entered the village, we were enthusiastically greeted by small children. Some were shy, but most warmed up to me after I crouched to their level.

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As we walked among the thatch-roof huts, we introduced ourselves to a family sow and her brood who scurried away to hide underneath a nearby yam patch.

The family pig

The family pig

The brood of piglets

The brood of piglets

I was impressed with the use of solar panels in the village. One panel could power a small 6-inch TV. One home owner proudly showed how he could charge batteries to power a radio or a smart phone. He showed us his living space. I noticed that his motorcycle was kept inside, under the thatched roof.

Cycle in a village home

Cycle in a village home

This solar panel can power a small radio

This solar panel can power a small radio

Large solar panel on thatched roof

Large solar panel on thatched roof

A group of villagers were busy harvesting peanuts. They smiled as we passed by.

Villagers harvesting peanuts

Villagers harvesting peanuts

We didn’t meet many older children because they were in school. So we stopped on by to take a look at the classrooms before we returned to our vehicle.

Village school

Village school

 

Should you go to Burma? The answer is a resounding YES! I can still feel the memories of Myanmar coursing through my body and my jet-lagged brain. “This is Burma,” wrote Rudyard Kipling over a century ago. “It is quite unlike any place you know about.” His words are true even today. Everywhere you’ll encounter men wearing skirt-like longyi; children and women with thanakha (traditional make-up) on their cheeks; and grannies smoking cheroots, chewing betel nuts and spitting red juice. There are no Starbucks, McDonalds, or Kentucky Fried Chickens—yet.

The October/early November “shoulder season” is a great time of year to go there. Although it rained during our first two days in Yangon, the wet season is generally over; the countryside is lush and fresh; and the tourist season is just beginning.

I was fortunate to be in Burma during a rare press conference held by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, held a week prior to President Obama’s recent visit. She warned the U.S. not to be “too optimistic,” and that promised reforms have slowed during the past two years. The government’s emphasis, she explained, has been on economic advances rather than human rights.

Suu Kyi opened the press conference in Yangon with Obama last week by addressing reports of tension between the U.S. and those working for democratic reforms in Myanmar: “We may view things differently from time to time but that will in no way affect our relationship,” the Associated Press reported. Burma is clearly counting on the support of the west.

IMAGE: PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

IMAGE: PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

It’s a heady time for the people of Burma. In 2010, Myanmar held its first free elections in two decades. Even though the country’s progress on the road to democracy is two steps forward and one step back, there’s a cautious optimism in the air. The 2015 elections are coming up next fall. I could sense the spark of hope and excitement. Just maybe they will change the constitution so that “The Lady” can run. And just maybe the generals will delete the clause they added that allows them to have 25% of the parliamentary seats no matter what the vote tally shows. Everyone I queried says they would vote for The Lady. Of course. She has given up her life, her freedom, and her family—all for the people—quite a sacrifice.

Restrictions have definitely relaxed since my last visit to Burma in 2006. During a two-day cruise up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay, I was surprised that the Paukan cruise line could show the film, “The Lady” (see movie trailer) released in 2012. Even so, the film is still not allowed in Burmese theaters.

We had the opportunity to see much of Burma through “independent travel,” which allowed us more free time to digest what we had seen and learned before rushing home or on to another country. Many of the tourists we met were heading from Yangon, the largest city, to Bagan with its 3200 pagodas, and then to Mandalay, the ancient capital of the kings. By expanding the itinerary of a typical trip and seeing only one country, we could take the time to go deeper into the interior. Swaths of the country, off-limits for years, can now be visited. I fell in love with the fertile farms of Shan state, the mountain villages of Pindaya, and the fishing villages of Inle Lake. We saw people getting around in trishaws or horse-and-cart and farming with little or no mechanization.

It wasn’t all easy travel. Beyond Yangon, Burma is still a third-world country. In the interior, I had to let go of internet, phone and e-mail. However, I’m very glad I went there. And I urge you to go as well!

I plan to post stories and photos of the best of Burma in forthcoming blog posts. Here’s a sneak preview:

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We are asked this question when our friends find out that we are off to yet another adventure on Saturday.

Gunter responds, “Why go? Because it’s there. And it’s exotic.”

“And because the country has recently opened up to tourism,” I answer. “It hasn’t been exploited—yet.”

In 2010, Myanmar (formerly Burma) held its first free elections in nearly two decades. President Thein Sein came to power in 2011 with the promise of reforms to reconnect Myanmar to the global economy. Burma will never be the same. A huge industrial park is scheduled to open mid-2015. Over 400 hectares are currently being cleared for the first section of the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Some of the 22 factories set to move in will begin building their factories this month. But before the economy gains, the local monastery will gain its share. “With every corporate groundbreaking,” reports the October 18th Economist, will come a donation to the monks that may one day pay for a grand golden stupa.” (The monastery has much to gain because it sits on a finger of forest jutting into the park.)

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This first business park will employ 70,000 workers when running at full tilt. It will provide food, consumer products and construction materials for the domestic market and will export shoes, clothing and car parts. Two other such parks are planned.

When I visited Burma back in 2006 (see previous blog entry: Burma, my next favorite Place) the big question was: Should you go to Burma? Aun Lang Suu Kyi, Burmese Peace Prize Laureate and opposition leader, had asked tourists not to come because the money would only prop up the dictatorship. The income from the hotels would go straight into the government’s coffers. Even so, most of the people I talked with welcomed tourism anyway. They wanted to sell whatever goods they could in their meager stalls. Now, they are beaming. Because tourism is booming.

Investors are dreaming about investing in Myanmar. The country sits right between the massive markets of China and India to the north and Thailand to the south. It abounds in arable land, water and natural resources: oil, natural gas and precious stones such as jade, rubies and sapphires. From 2010 to 2013, foreign direct investment tripled. But the picture isn’t all rosy. There needs to be massive investment in education to create a well-trained work force. The average Burmese spends just four years in school!

As I stated in my previous blog: “That short trip gave me a taste of Burma I’ll never forget. But it was just an appetizer. Now I’m preparing for the main course.”

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We’ll be there for almost three weeks. And most of that time, I’ll be off the grid. I’ll post stories and pictures after I return.

After book presentations and during conversations with friends upon returning from a trip, this question invariably comes up: What was your favorite place?

My count of countries visited now totals over one hundred. So how can I possibly choose just one? One year after returning from my travels, I realized that I had been struggling with this “favorite place” question because I had been approaching it all wrong. There is a simple and obvious answer for a traveler afflicted by wanderlust: my favorite place is always the place where (a) I haven’t been or (b) my visit there was too short.

So this year, my next favorite place is Burma (Myanmar). Back in 2006, I traveled there by bus from Phuket, Thailand on a one-day visa run. All I experienced after a long, bumpy ride was crossing a river in a panga, walking a block to the border station to have my passport stamped, and returning to the bus. Our yacht, Pacific Bliss, was docked in Phuket, undergoing repairs before crossing the Indian Ocean, so the following month when the once-a-month visa renewal was due I decided to fly to Yangon for a three-day weekend. That trip gave me a taste of Burma I’ll never forget. But it was just an appetizer. Now I’m preparing for the main course.

Map of Burma

This autumn, Gunter and I are looking forward to a three-week Burmese adventure, to be conducted in our typical “slow travel” style. We’ve selected a standard 10-day country tour and added a special Paukan cruise down the mighty Irrawaddy River and three days at a seaside resort to write and relax before crossing the International Date Line again during the long flight home. We’ll begin our tour at the Inya Lake Hotel where I stayed in 2006 and repeat my visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda. We’ll travel on to view the ancient temples of Bagan. And we’ll see Mandalay and the famous Pindaya Caves.

In addition to sightseeing, I want to catch up on the opening of reclusive Myanmar to the western world and to find out first-hand how it’s working. When I was last there, the street to the home of Aun Lang Suu Kyi, Burmese Peace Prize Laureate and opposition leader, was blockaded and she was under house arrest. She has since been released but she says, “As long as the military does not stand for the people I cannot guarantee that democratic processes will not go backwards in Burma. When the military is ready to stand for the people and not take part in politics, then we can say our transitional period is concrete. Of course, problems will still remain – but the road to democracy is open.” — https://www.facebook.com/aungsansuukyi

Enjoy these slides from my visit in 2006:

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For a report on my 2006 visit to Burma, click here.