One of my favorite stops on our Irrawaddy riverboat cruise was Yandabo, a village known for pottery production. Yandabo is cleaner and more prosperous looking than many of the villages along the Irrawaddy. The government is assisting with funds to build a river wall (erosion being a big problem along the Irrawaddy) and the locals organized to clean up trash (another big problem along the river and in the villages). We were impressed to learn that the entire family of potters we visited had university degrees. Sadly, though, they could earn more making terracotta pots.
We’ve really been looking forward to our time on a wooden Irrawaddy Flotilla Steamer. Prior to WWI, the largest river flotilla in the world was on the Irrawaddy River in Burma. Most of these classic teak wood boats were destroyed, either by bombs or by scuttling. Pandaw, the river cruise line I’d chosen, salvaged and restored one of these boats, then built others, copying the original 1930’s style, but with modern updates. I’d carefully chosen our intimately-sized boat and even the side of the boat I wanted our cabin on. So, I was worried and disappointed to read an email from my booking agent the day before we boarded in Mandalay saying we’d been changed to a larger riverboat. A little research revealed this new boat, the Pandaw Orient, was 8 years older than the original, Pandaw Kindat; worse, the Orient had 30 cabins vs. 18 on the Kindat.
Yangon was, by necessity, our first stop in Myanmar although I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the city as a destination. Flights to the country are limited and the vast majority of international flights arrive at Yangon International Airport. Due to an airline schedule change, our already brief 3-night stay was whittled to 2-nights. Yangon turned out to be a really pleasant surprise.
After a 36+ hour flight and layover odyssey, the Yangon Airport was a nice, hassle-free experience. Seated in business class, we were one of the first off the plane and one of the first through customs. We handed over the Myanmar visas we’d obtained online and printed at home, posed for a photo and were stamped into the country, all quick and easy. We were lucky as a line quickly grew after we passed through customs.
We’ve had a major change of venue since our Texas roadtrip: We’re back overseas again, this time in Yangon, Myanmar, which we’re really enjoying. We head to northern Myanmar tomorrow where we’ll cruise the Irrawaddy River and visit Inle Lake. We’re kicking off a 3-month odyssey from Myanmar to India (Jaipur, Agra, Delhi and Dharamshala), Nepal, Bhutan, Australia (Melbourne, Tasmania, Ayers Rock/Alice Springs, Port Douglas, Sydney), and then we’ll take a ship from Sydney to Hawaii via Tahiti, Bora Bora and Moorea before flying home. I’ll blog when I can, but enjoying the trip and slow internet tend to put me behind. As always, I’d love to hear any tips and suggestions for things to see and do (or avoid) while in any of the above.
While not exactly a tourist destination, Sterling City does boast a historic little hotel and that was enough to get it on my radar screen as a half-way stop on our drive from Big Bend National Park back to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I was looking for a hotel with character and–as nice as Hotel Settles was on the drive down–I wanted to take a different route home just to vary things up a little. When I found a list of historic Texas hotels online, I pulled up Google Maps and eyed the location of those I wasn’t familiar with. 1910 State Hotel in Sterling City seemed exactly what I was looking for.
In recent years, Marfa, Texas, has gained a reputation as a funky, artsy destination town. Before that, it was famous as the filming location for the movie, “Giant,” starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. (Dean died in a car crash in 1955 and the movie was released posthumously.) The cast stayed at the Hotel Paisano during filming, a -great old inn steeped in West Texas culture. The hotel plays up its connection to the movie with framed, poster-sized black-and-white photos scattered throughout.
After our stay in a Roosevelt Stone Cottage in Big Bend National Park, the next stop on our week-long roadtrip was Marfa, Texas. We’d originally planned to take US385 north to Marathon. US385 parallels state highway 118 that we’d taken south from Alpine to the park. US385 had the advantage of taking us a longer and different route through Big Bend National Park to exit. The time to drive to Marfa on either highway would be about the same. That original route plan changed when I spotted a longer route that ran along the border and the Rio Grande. When I asked some of the staff at Chisos Mountains Lodge about that road, I was told it was called The River Road and not to miss it if we had the time. It would take us an extra 20 miles and an extra 45-50 minutes. We had the time, and we had a new route to Marfa.
The goal and ultimate destination of our week-long Texas roadtrip was Big Bend National Park, one of the most remote national parks in the country. I’d heard about it all my life, but had a mental block about the distance. My loss! The park is remote…and desolate and harsh and ruggedly beautiful and vast beyond description.
My plans hadn’t included a government shutdown, and I was glad I’d booked one of the Roosevelt-era cottages in in the park’s Chisos Mountains Lodge over a year in advance since the Lodge is run by a private concessionaire and was open despite the unoccupied booth at the entrance to the park and the sign notifying visitors that park campgrounds were closed and staff was furloughed. I was happy to find the cottage all I’d hoped for, and we quickly settled in on our first afternoon, eager to get outside as soon as possible. We started with Chisos Basin Loop Trail, one of the seven hiking trails that start beside the cottages. The trail as far as we explored was well-worn and easy to follow. It had been groomed with logs and stones inset to ease the way on slopes. The view from the trailhead itself was hard to beat with the well-known “Window” at the end of the basin framing the span of desert, mountains and mesas beyond.
For my first ever and long-awaited visit to Big Bend National Park, I wanted to stay in one of the five “Roosevelt Stone Cottages” belonging to Chisos Mountains Lodge, the only (non-camping) lodging within the park. While the Lodge has hotel- and motel-style rooms, the Roosevelt Stone Cottages are the most popular and book up “almost a year in advance” per the Lodge web site. I found this to be the case. Although some of the cottages were booked when I did a search last January, I was able to get one of my top picks, #101 by booking last January 19, one year and a few days before our arrival. Still, even with that lengthy pre-booking, we weren’t guaranteed the cottage of our choice since the Lodge reserves the right to change (should there be a maintenance problem, etc.). Upon check-in, I was happy to find we would in fact have the cottage I’d booked.
Heading to Big Bend National Park from Davis Mountains State Park, we made sure to make time for a stop-off in Terlingua, a former mining town known primarily for its eponymous chili cook-off (actually two cook-offs these days which take place on the first weekend in November). I’d heard about the Terlingua chili cook-off for decades and am the proud owner of a cookbook of championship recipes from the original event. The chili cook-offs draw upwards of 10,000 people to a tent- and camper-filled party in the desert. According to the town’s event calendar, Terlingua has also instituted a couple of lesser cook-offs including one for black-eyed peas and another for dutch ovens. Barring cook-offs, Terlingua is a desolate little town. I didn’t expect much, and a cook-off-less Terlingua turned out to be less than that. Oh well, all travel destinations are not created equal. If you’ve got the time, the turnoff to the Terlingua “Ghost Town” is about 5 miles west of Hwy 118 just north of a main entrance to Big Bend National Park. If you don’t have the time, no worries.