Agra: the Taj Mahal at last!

Admiring the Taj Mahal from the shade of the southern portico

Our guide from the previous day’s visit to Agra Fort met us at Coral Court Homestay to walk with us to the nearby entrance to the Taj Mahal. Visiting the Taj was a highlight of this 3-month travel extravaganza, but I worried a little that the iconic landmark would be a let down after the countless images I’d seen over my lifetime. I needn’t have worried. The Taj Mahal was spectacular and we loved every minute of our leisurely visit on a gorgeous day.

View of the huge gateway leading to the Taj from the grassy courtyard just inside the main entrance gate

We opted to skip sunrise at the Taj, something that’s touted a lot, but which sounded to me like a gimmick…and I just plain didn’t want to get up that early. Besides, we’d put off our visit to the Taj until this year so that we’d see it just after the major cleaning that had its domes covered in purifying mud for much of 2018. I had no particular desire to see it turned pinkish by the rising sun. I wanted to see its freshly-restored gleaming white. The choice turned out to be a good one. We chatted with fellow guests at Coral Court Homestay who got up for a sunrise visit and said they were disappointed to find the entrance queue long and the Taj Mahal grounds crowded. They said it was pretty, though. We arrived around 10am to find only a short line and sparse crowds. And the Taj a brilliant white in the sunshine. The April weather was ideal, too: warm in the sun, cool in the shade. Fantastic! read more

En route from Jaipur to Agra: Chand Baori and Fatehpur Sikri

Chand Baori, an ancient step well

We opted to hire a driver to take us from Jaipur to Agra, splurging a bit for an SUV so David could stretch his legs. I wanted to make two stops en route: Chand Baori, an ancient step well and Fatehpur Sikri, a town founded as the capital of Mughal Empire in 1571 by Emperor Akbar and later completely abandoned in 1610.

Chand Baori is located in a small village a short distance off Hwy 21 that connects Jaipur and Agra. We’d heard mixed accounts of the road in India, but this stretch of Hwy 21 is modern, wide and in excellent shape. The road out to the village of Abhaneri where the step well is located is good, too. Our driver dropped us off just at the entrance of Chand Baori, parking to wait for us at a market set up across the street. Surprised to find free entrance, we ignored the many guides hawking their services and entered to stroll around the 100 ft. deep well, admiring its 13 story depth and 3500 steps. Architectural stone artifacts lined porticos around the well. The oldest parts of the well date to the 8th century, but upper parts date back to the Mughal period in the 18th century. Chand Baori has appeared in several movies, including the The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. read more

Jaipur and the Amber Fort by tuk tuk

The Amber Fort

We hired driver Abès for a full-day of Jaipur and environs by tuk tuk. David and I are both fans of tuk tuks. We enjoy the exhilarating feel of being in the thick of things, weaving through traffic, eye-to-eye with those in other vehicles, then enjoying the breeze when our driver hits a straightaway. I try not to focus on the fact there are no seatbelts much less airbags or even walls in these vehicles. They’re fun! Since tuk tuks are vehicles of southeast Asia, it’s often hot, but surprisingly not as much as you might expect. With the temperate springtime weather in Jaipur, we strongly preferred tuk tuks to taxis. And, boy, are they cheap. read more

The Pink City of Jaipur, India

Jaipur’s Pink City viewed from the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds)

I was excited that Jaipur was our first stop in India after Myanmar. After last year’s visit to the west coast of India, it was time to do the famous Golden Triagle: Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. Flying from Yangon to Jaipur (via Bangkok) meant we could travel just two legs of the triangle since we planned to fly out of Delhi to Kathmandu.

I’d read about Jaipur for decades, dreaming over photos of the fabled Pink City, walled forts and luxurious hotels. Since Jaipur was just one stop on a 3-month odyssey, I skipped the expensive iconic hotels and found a wonderful bit of luxury at a very affordable price at the Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel. The Pink City and all the other wonders of Jaipur still awaited, though. read more

Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel in Jaipur, India

Breakfast area in Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel

I don’t often do straight-up lodging reviews and then only when there’s something really worth mentioning. Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel in Jaipur is one of those places that deserves a separate write-up. Located in a neighborhood that’s gated at night, Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel is safe, convenient, clean, comfortable and reasonably priced, but above all, it’s gorgeous. Housed in an elegant historic building, the decor is over-the-top in places, but fun and displaying impressive craftsmanship and artistry. The hotel has been named #1 Romantic Indian Hotel on Tripadvisor and a portion of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2 was shot there in 2014. Photos are necessary to do this place justice, so here you go: read more

Flying Myanmar Domestic Routes

Golden Myanmar airplane at Heho Airport

I read some worrying reviews of domestic Myanmar flights, airlines and airports prior to our trip, so I thought I’d recap our experiences. During our time in Myanmar, we flew from Yangon to Mandalay, from Bagan to Heho (Inle Lake), and from Heho to Yangon. We flew Golden Myanmar Airlines all three times and our experiences were generally good. We had some delays, but nothing major and nothing that’s not common in the U.S. or Europe. The airplanes were clean, service good, flights smooth. Seats are a bit tight, but manageable especially considering the short flying times for domestic flights. Everything I read convinced me flying was the only way to go, given the state (or lack) of roads and railroads in Myanmar and the distances involved. read more

Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar

Mingalar Market in Nyaung Shwe

When making plans to visit Inle Lake in Myanmar, I debated whether to stay on an over-water bungalow on Inle Lake or in the town of Nyaung Shwe near the lake. Both had their appeal, and town is definitely cheaper. In the end, I opted for two nights at each. In retrospect, I’d skip Nyaung Shwe and spend three nights on the lake. Most tourists stay in Nyaung Shwe simply as a more economical base for exploring Inle Lake. Still, we enjoyed our time in Nyaung Shwe (except for some noise issues), and it was an interesting short stay, although lacking in any big must-sees other than Inle Lake. read more

Beautiful Inle Lake in Myanmar

Fisherman on Inle Lake

Inle Lake, in the mountains of central Burma was a highlight of our trip to Myanmar. Inle’s iconic fishermen have a peculiar one-leg rowing style they use while standing at the very bow of their boats, a method that allows them to navigate the weeds and shallow waters of the lake while looking for fish. They also use unique cone-shaped nets to fish, often raising them with a foot as they balance precariously on the other leg.

The nearest airport to Inle Lake is Heho (pronounced “hay hoe”) and it is a good 45-50 minute drive from the airport to the nearest full-sized town to the lake, Nyaung Shwe, which sits a fair distance from the lake down a long canal. Lodging options are split between lake resorts and hotels in Nyang Shwe. I loved the idea of an over-water bungalow on the lake, so was sure I wanted to do that. But, I also liked the idea of staying in town to see what that might offer. So, I decided to do both. read more

Bagan at last!

Tha Kya Pone, Bagan

The final destination on our Irrawaddy flotilla steamer cruise was Bagan (sometimes spelled “Pagan,” always with the accent on the last syllable), an ancient city of thousands of Buddhist stupas and temples. Bagan rivals such sites as Angkor Wat in historical value and size. The 26 square miles of plains on the banks of the Irrawaddy River that comprise the Bagan Archeological Site contain over two thousand of these religious testaments to Buddhist belief that to build a temple or stupa is to earn merit. The temples date back to the 11th century and were built during the reign of the Bagan kings until their civilization was destroyed by earthquakes and Kublai Khan’s invading Mogols. read more

Salay, Myanmar: Faded colonial glory

A Salay colonial relic: Beyond “faded” and all the way to “derelict”

The final stop on our Irrawaddy flotilla steamer cruise before Bagan was the former colonial outpost of Salay. We unfortunately arrived in the heat of the afternoon, maybe because our schedule had been off for the last couple of days due to a 3-hour delay when we ran aground on one of the Irrawaddy’s many sandbars. We’d been warned in advance to expect such minor mishaps and to be flexible, and the delay had been a non-issue for the most part (and actually kind of interesting to watch the maneuvers involved in extricating the boat from its predicament). read more