Bagan, Myanmar

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Bagan is an ancient capital and religious centre of Myanmar. It’s famous for its tens of thousands of religious sites in Old Bagan.

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One cannot fly or take a bus straight to Old Bagan, as Old Bagan is now mostly an archaeological area with some small villages. The airport is around 30 minutes away from Old Bagan none the less.

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The Myanma government has reportedly been trying to get Old Bagan listed as a UNESCO Heritage Site to no avail allegedly due to its improper restoration of many of the temples and pagodas. To the uninformed eyes (ie mine), the buildings looked fine, even though many were still covered with scaffolding.

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Having been a Buddhist country for a very long time, the overwhelming majority of the sites are Buddhist, with one Hindu temple. Despite the reported number of sites, I suspect the counting of them is very relaxed, with every small site counting as one. As a result, it did not really feel like a heavy concentration of historical sites like for example Oxford has.

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In fact, as you can see here, many of the sites off the main roads are quite far apart with plenty of sand and grass in between. There continuously are structures all the way from Old Bagan to the city where the airport is at, however.

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Even though the structures are all now ruins, they remain active religious sites and one must not wear shoes or socks no matter how rocky or full of insects the grounds are.

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To navigate, one would normally rent an e-bike or a normal bike. E-bikes are basically slower motorbikes that are powered by electricity. They are easy to use, but rather heavy and do not work well on sand at all. Unfortunately, much of Old Bagan is very sandy and so I crashed a couple of times.

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After seeing the sunset, I actually got lost and had to keep shouting “help” until some vendors heard and rescued me. 112 just asked me to call the local emergency number, and there wasn’t strong enough of a network to call the local emergency number. There’s also no signs or lights away from the main roads. I was very lucky.

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Staff will tell you people are not allowed to climb any pagoda, but there is indeed one quite deep into the forest. Nearing sunset you will get loads of people offering to take you there. You don’t have to follow them as around that hour, all the tourists would be going to that pagoda and all you really need to do is to follow other people.

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Initially, I thought it would take days to see everything. As it turned out, if you mostly just stay on your vehicle instead of inspecting everything, it would take only half a day to see everything.

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And since all but one pagoda is climbable, there isn’t really much of a reason to go into the sites anyway. Not to mention your feet will probably thank you for not walking in the wild barefoot.

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There are also a lot of puppet stands and handicraft workshops everywhere.

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Another thing to do that I didn’t do is to go on the river. As a result, I didn’t go to the pagoda on the other side.

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That pagoda is one of the four that, according to legend, could make your wish come true if you visit all of them before noon in the same morning. As an atheist, of course there wasn’t much point for me trying to make that happen.

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And honestly, after the first evening almost getting stranded there alone, I was never going to get back there again.

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The sunset was quite uneventful as it’s quite cloudy. The in reality low concentration of temples also did not make the view better. I mean, it’s good, but it wasn’t what I expected.

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Everything was also a lot more expensive here, including food. Even the thanakha is sold at 6 times the price than it is sold in Yangon’s Aung San Market, which is in itself a touristy place and a touristy product.

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I did buy another one despite the overpricing, since the vendor looked as if she was almost going to cry. And I can understand that the costs for her was higher since there must’ve been plenty of middle men between them.

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And I thought it would be expensive if I was to buy at the airport anyway. I didn’t have the time to go back to Yangon city centre for it.

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When one enters the metropolitan area, one has to buy a ticket that is valid for only 3 days, counting the day of arrival.

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The staff wasn’t sure if I was an international tourist at first, but I did voluntary pay her to avoid trouble in the future. I was checked only once at the pagoda where I saw the sunset.

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When I left, it had actually expired but no-one checked. And I thought it wouldn’t be fair for me anyway, considering the fact that I was only in Old Bagan the first afternoon and early evening, and the other days I went on day trips outside of the division.

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I did like the structures and there’s a bit of a diversity, but it did feel like I’ve been there, done that in the end.

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There weren’t that many main roads, the tricky part was to navigate through the non-roads to see the structures off the main roads.

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There were some signs but they were mostly only on the main roads.

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Another thing I didn’t do was visiting the palace. It has its own entrance fee and apparently all conjectural anyway. These combined with the fact that I was traumatized to go to Old Bagan alone again meant there was little reason for me to go. You could see a bit of it from the entrance and it’s quite similar to the palace in Bago.

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I would’ve loved to do the day trip in Mandalay for the three cities, and do Old Bagan the next day instead. I ended up having to join three half-day tours.

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It’s also possible to take a tok-tok.

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That’s as much as a sunset as I could see that day. Perhaps the sunrises are better.

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The old city wall.

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I stayed at the city where the airport was at.

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There were like two pagodas, not too difficult to walk to. The city itself felt like a small town. I suspect many don’t have a lavatory at home as they seemed to have showering in public. I would take a photo but then I thought it would be quite impolite when they were half-naked.

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Everything’s Japanese.

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A monatery nearby.

Mandalay, Myanmar

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Mandalay, named after the sacred hill in it, was the last royal capital of the Burmese Empire, and has now become Myanmar’s nationalistic symbol.

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Sunset on the hill – sacred thus shoes and socks not allowed. It’s been claimed that Lord Buddha got to the hill and prophezied that a great city would be built below the hill. The last king – who overthrew the one before him after the second Anglo-Burmese War – decided to fulfil it by building a city here. As a result, at the time, it was only the palace.

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Ultimately, the decision led to easy British colonization. As an arguably illegitimate king, his power was already limited. The fact that he was an incompetent ruler did not help.

The British would have found it more difficult to take over all of Burma due to it being largely not urbanized, with territories deep into the forests. Nevertheless, Mandalay was an easy target to take as it sat between multiple rivers, and back in the days, once you take the capital, you basically take the whole country. And that’s what happened.

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Modern-day Mandalay is quite a bit larger than it was when it was founded. The palace is only one of its many attractions, but one can still get everywhere easily on a bike. With an offline map, the city is relatively easy to navigate, and the roads are generally good enough to bike on. At least the main roads are. Biking up the hill would be challenging, however, and one might want to get a taxi or a motorbike up instead.

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The main throne of the last royals. The palace was in fact mostly burnt to the ground during the Second World War, when the Empire of Japan occupied Myanmar to build a puppet State of Myanmar, and the allies fought back carelessly.

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The palace is a large complex of buildings but much of its current grounds are occupied by the military, and from the entrance, it would be either a long walk or taking a taxi to get to the main palace complex.

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Mandalay is also unsurprisingly home to multiple major pagodas.

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As well as the Buddha’s Temple, which is said to have been visited by Lord Buddha seven times, hugged, and came alive. It’s a bit far from the city centre.

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Even the lesser-known pagodas could be quite pretty.

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A bit further from the Buddha’s Temple is a lake. Another several kilometres and one will have gone to another city, where the longest wooden bridge in the world is located. It’s one of the three cities that can be done from Mandalay as a day trip.

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The observatory, one of the two surviving structures of the original palace. Up there it felt like it kept moving due to the strong winds.

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Mandalay is likewise home to the world’s largest book, with a page of Buddhist text within. The site was occupied and closed off by the British colonizers after the third and final Anglo-Burmese War, and the locals appealed directly to the sovereign, Her Majesty The Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and all Her realms, and the future Empress of India personally ordered British troops to be withdrawn.

Unfortunately, the site was already looted and the golden words are now black.

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I have been to multiple current and historically Buddhist countries, and Myanmar is the only one that’s so strict concerning footwear, and I suppose for good reasons. Under the British rule, there was apparently constant debate on whether the Europeans could have footwear with them, and so I guess after independence, the country feels like this is an exercise of their sovereignty.

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The junta built a new capital in this region but Mandalay has remained the cultural, social, and economic centre. 

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View from the royal observatory.

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The river protecting the palace.

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A page.

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A monastery.

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Interestingly, the city is with mainly Japanese cars, apparently because second-hand Japanese cars were cheaper to buy. The motorbikes were mostly made in China. Japan drives on the left, like the British does, but the “socialist” junta decided to follow the Soviet way and changed that.

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Lord Buddha is always thirsty. And you can only have the honour the shower the Buddha if you pay for a cup.

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A gem I passed by simply by riding through the city.

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I had lunch right outside the world’s largest book. Food is extraordinarily cheap in both Yangon and Mandalay. Soup, a meat main, a veggie dish, a cold entry, and rice combined only 1300K.

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The trick to walking through the religious sites is to keep yourself on marble as much as you can. Marble is heat-resistant but not anything else.

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Bago, Myanmar

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The inspiring story of a prince turning into the supreme god in one religion, a chief god in another, a wise man in a third one.

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The throne room in the small palace.

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Wopeople preparing food for the monks.

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Bago is an important religious centre that is around two hours from Yangon, and is itself a province capital.

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The first attraction was this. As you can see, one is allowed to wear shoes or socks even on exposed ground. In fact, this is already much better without the sun heating the ground up or the ground being actually ruins.

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Monks do not eat after noon and so they are preparing for their big meal at around 11am.

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The main pagoda. In the rest of the world, it’s called a stupa. You do wonder how it is possible that there are so many holy relics available for the millions of pagodas to be built.

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The palace is still mostly underground and the current structures are all reconstruction.

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The declining Buddha is another attraction. There are actually two of them now, but this was the first.

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The palace site is now basically just two buildings.

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I forgot the significance of this.

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Monks have to study and go through examinations. Here you can see a blank piece of exam paper.

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Monks receiving extra food as they go into the hall for lunch.

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Monks preparing for lunch.

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A baby monk.

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Monks queuing for food. It’s odd that people don’t wear shoes but somehow cars and motorbikes are still allowed in. It’s quite dirty everywhere.

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The exam hall.

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On the way to Bago is the WWII memorial.

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They kept chanting things.

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Rice.

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The memorial isn’t that big but it’s quite nice.

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I went in a private car, which was a good deal.

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The other reclining Buddha.

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The Thais buying donation certificates from a monk.

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Yangon, Myanmar

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Yangon, previously known as Rangoon, was the capital of Myanmar before the junta decided to build a new capital out of thin air Brasilia style. It has remained Myanmar’s largest city and economic and cultural centre.

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Despite being listed as one of the least developed countries by the United Nations, the metropolis was actually pretty decent. At least compared to the Lao capital, Yangon felt like a modern city.

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The pagoda in the city centre, where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, now State Councillor, earned her Evita moment during the fated 8888 Uprising.

Pictured here is the zodiac sign for people born on Wednesday mornings.

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A figure of General Aung San is his own house. It’s now a museum near the German consulate.

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Yangon is home to numerous impressive temples and pagodas.

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On the way to the most important site in all of Myanmar, and the pagoda that claims to be the very first stupa in the world. And yes, shoes and socks off.

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The gate of the house of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, where she had her Nobel-winning moment. It is still heavily guarded, now as the holiday residence of the State Councillor, their de facto head of government, instead of the residence of a dangerous political prisoner.It’s not in the city centre but it’s close to the biggerlake and the University of Yangon.

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The University attended by national hero General Aung San, the Father of the Nation.

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View from General Aung San Museum.

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A palace.

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It was pouring like a waterfall in the afternoon and I got soaking wet walking in the park next to the smaller lake. 

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TRIGGERED!

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Besides the temples, Yangon likewise has a handful of colonial buildings, though they are mostly poorly maintained.

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General Aung San’s house was actually quite decent. But then he was already a powerful figure before becoming an independence activist.

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The city centre is walkable, but taxi is needed for the main pagoda and Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. Traffic was horrendous.

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The river leading to the sea.

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It’s nice to walk around pagodas when it’s raining, as the ground is not hot and you get to wash your feet clean all the time. But it’s really slippery and the plastic paths aren’t comfortable to walk on.

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The city hall built with both European and Myanma features.

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Where the State Councillor used to sit at the table in the General’s household.

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The secretariat building, now closed for maintenance, was where General Aung San was assassinated while he was forming a government.

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A statue of the general. After Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s rise post-8888, the junta in the 90s attempted to erase memory of him.

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I was planning to take the circuit train, but as it turned out, it went only once every hour, and the whole thing would take three hours in total, and none of the station was close to where I was going. When I was done for the day, it was raining so heavily I just wanted to go back and shower.

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The train station.

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The high court.

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General Aung San Museum. Shoes and socks off.

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The cathedral.

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Lord Buddha’s footprint. In the beginning, I thought I was actually going to see a real footprint.

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Honestly don’t understand why this is a tourist attraction.

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A mosque.

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Even though homosexuality has remained criminalized, the streets of Myanmar are full of men in dresses.

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Outside General Aung San Market.

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People playing football in the heavy rain. Some shirtless.

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The view from the top of a temple near Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. Her house should have a very similar view.

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Pakse, Laos

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Pakse is a city on the riverside and is usually a good base to go to the different attractions nearby.

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Inside the city, the main attractions are the monastery where people learn to be monks, as well as the royal palace (now a hotel) that was built by a prince but said prince fled before it was completed.

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The city itself is small and peaceful. No time needs to be allocated here, as one can see everything by walking around for an hour or so.

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These are graves.

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There’s flooding everywhere.

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Luang Prabang, Laos

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Luang Prabang was the royal capital of Laos, as the seat of the king before the “communists” took over by forcing their way into government and forcing the king to abdicate (and sending the entire family to labour camp, where they probably died).

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It is also a UNESCO Heritage Site for its well-preserved historic centre that has both native buildings and colonial structures. It also serves as a base for trips to other places. Unfortunately, due to the heavy rain, it was not possible for me to do a day trip to the Plain of Jars.

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A big reason why Luang Prabang managed to keep its sites intact was because there was never that much fighting involved here. It’s far from the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the communists’ base in the Plain of Jars. The monarchy never really put up a fight against the Japanese or the French or indeed the communists. The Americans didn’t bomb it as it’s the Kingdom of Laos they supported.

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The rivers were not clear.

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Not only is the city next to two rivers, it also sits at the foot of a hill.

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Even though the fundamental style of Indochinese temples appear similar, Lao temples are actually not the same.

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The palace. Very small.

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View from the hill.

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The city is not big and it’s quite easy to just walk around. And in a day you will have been able to see everything.

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I even had the time to go for a massage. The massager kept squeezing my penis hoping to give me extra services.

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There’s a temple at every corner, basically.

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Families who are too poor to raise their children would hand their boys to the monks. It’s a good thing Laos is not a Catholic country or…

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One may also go across the river, something I didn’t save for the trip to the botanical garden.

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Baby monks reading.

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Everyone all over the world wants to know where Hong Kong is.

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I’d stick to the paved roads as the grass is generally muddy. I eventually threw away my sneakers. Should’ve carried slippers.

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The alms-giving ceremony is supposed to be the main attraction here. But I was quite disappointed as there weren’t that many people offering to the monks really. It’s true that it happened all over the city, but mostly with one or two on each street.

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The elephant I rode loved food. Every half a step it asked for food.

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The top of the hill.

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A day trip from Luang Prabang is a day spent elephant riding and looking at things like this.

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A half-day out would be to the botanical garden, the highlight of my stay in Luang Prabang.

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Flooding.

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The river from the waterfall has flooded the entire riverbank and so one must walk barefoot. But it’s also possible to avoid all of that by walking on the driveway. What’s the fun in that tho?

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French buildings.

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The elephants also go into the river. The sanctuary stressed that there’s no problem whatsoever for elephants to give rides and that their elephants are all very happy. I joined because I honestly didn’t see the option not to have the elephant ride, you could go for one without if you object to this.

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The other thing that bugged me regarding waking up at 5am for this was that it turned out wasn’t a thing unique to Luang Prabang at all. It actually happened with all the monks practically everything in Buddhist Indochina.

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The day tour also included the trip to two caves where people placed damaged Buddhas. I wouldn’t go just for that.

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Before getting to the waterfall, the park has a sanctuary for bear rescued from some Chinese people who tried to use them as Chinese medicine.

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I’m not entirely what this is. People seem to live in it. I’m guessing it’s a restaurant or a cruise for tourists.

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Children playing football on the school field.

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There’s plenty of space for the bear but it’s not difficult to spot them.

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Notice how flooded it was?

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At one point, it was too rainy/windy we paused for a while on the river.

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It even gave you the opportunity to feel like a trapped bear.

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The botanical garden is a half-an-hour boat ride away from the office on the edge of the city centre.

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It’s very educational and has a very nice layout. The best botanical garden I’ve visited.

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A shell-less snail.

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It’s a pretty big place, perhaps better to call it a botanical park! And very few people around. I hope they will get more visitors in the future so they don’t fold!

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The staff members were also super nice – when I went back to Luang Prabang city, one even ran out to say goodbye to me.

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The 20000 price tag might seem high at first, but you really can easily spend at least half a day there and so it’s really worth it.

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Climbing up the hill there.

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It even has dangerous plants!

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It has loads of different sections, and even a cave during dry season. 

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A lot of events included as well, such as several informational talks, and a bamboo art workshop (you take it as a free gift home).

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There’s even unlimited tea (three options) for one to choose from).

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Since it was quite rainy, it was a bit muddy in some places. During the dry season, I can see it being even better with the gardens being good places to walk on.

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Although of course some flowers might not come out during the dry season.

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It also has a small gift shop to buy both souvenirs and practical items such as shampoo and face cream.

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I can totally see myself relaxing the entire day there, if I had gone earlier.

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The night market was certainly also a highlight, especially with tear-jerking messages like this…It made you feel like you had to buy something, even when you’re not from the United States of America and had nothing at all to do with the Secret War.

Vientiane, Laos

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Vientiane is both a border town bordering Thailand, and the current capital of the Lao “People’s” “Democratic” “Republic”.

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The very first attraction I would recommend is the COPE Visitor Centre. Pictured here is a display of cluster bombs raining down on you, a reconstruction of what many Lao experienced during the Secret War, when the United States of America dropped in excess of 270 million bombs for a nation of merely 7 million people (today).

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It’s free, but of course you’d feel like you have to buy and/or donate after seeing the terrible displays. It’s educational, it’s sad, it’s hopeful, and it shows the resilient of the Lao.

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Statues made from old bombshells.

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Up to 80 million bombies are still thought to be unexploded in current Laos, and every year tens of people lose their lives, and many more their limbs because of them.

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It’s around a 20-minute walk from where the night market is at, and very close to the bus station and WTC.

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Mekong Riverside.

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The very pretty presidential palace.

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The first Lao state was named “million elephants”, which is today Vientiane’s name in Chinese.

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A temple near their national symbol.

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Perhaps it was due to the fact that this was the first place I visited during this Indochinese trip, but I was really impressed by the sites.

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This is despite the fact that none of them was exactly old – the Lao king angered the Siamese (now the Thais) so much the capital was literally destroyed to the ground, and the Japanese occupation didn’t do it much good either.

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A landmark.

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Some random European-looking area with nice restaurants and cafés.

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The Lao king who angered the Siamese.

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Fishing.

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The Buddha Park is another attraction and it’s around 40 minutes away by tok-tok. Initially, I was not sure about visiting, but I actually liked it very much.

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The must-see national symbol of Laos, which is not in the city centre.

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The Buddha Park really does have very interesting scriptures.

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Inside hell in the Buddha Park, you can climb up and down to see the different levels of hell.

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The city was one of the few that housed the Emerald Buddha (now in Bangkok).

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That Dam. People believe that it would stop invasions. It wasn’t very effective.

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They were playing.

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The entrance to the friendship bridge.

Varanasi, India

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Varanasi is the holiest city in Hinduism and it sits on the sacred river The Ganga. 

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Hindus believe that it’s the best place to die, and many do bring the bodies to be burnt at one of these many ghats into the river.

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The riverbank was largely peaceful, unlike the unclean and noisy streets behind them (Indians can’t seem to stop honking no matter what). The ghats all have their own unique designs.

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Interestingly, despite the ghats looking so massive, there actually isn’t much inside (no space or anything), presumably because people burn the bodies on the bank for them to sink into the river.

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It’s wonderful walking along the river doing nothing, listening to Alanis Morissette’s “Thank U”.

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The water of the river is considered holy, despite the fact that it is in reality extremely polluted. Here you can see people drying their cloths.

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Wi-Fi is prevalent in India, and everything is quite cheap.

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In the suburb of Varanasi, is Sarnath, one of the holiest towns in Buddhism, as the place where Lord Buddha first preached, upon His enlightenment.

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It’s a town packed with temples funded by foreign Buddhist countries.

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The Chinese Temple.

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A mosque.

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One of the main activities is to go on a boat into the river,  whether it’s to go upstream/downstream, or just to the other side (which has nothing but horses).

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Hindus doing their laundry.

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I’m not entirely what these stations are for, but I’m guess it does have something to do with the preparations for the funerals.

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An archaeological site in Sarnath. Don’t remember what this was.

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The famed burning ghat. Very smoky.

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People “swimming” or rather soaking themselves in the sacred river.

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The famous sunset of Varanasi.

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The ghats were built only on one side of the river.

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Not too far from the city, is a magnificent fort called Chunar Fort. I paid an auto rickshaw driver 1000 rupees to take me there, wait a while, and back. It’s not a big place but still decent and is a good place to visit for a morning.