Fortified Churches of Romania

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Romania might bring to mind images of Dracula and Transylvania, the mountains spilling through the country, or the Black Sea, but ….fortified churches?   And what, exactly, is a fortified church?  I knew nothing about fortified churches until I began to research my trip to Romania.  I read through the Lonely Planet guidebook, curious about the history of these ancient treasures.  It struck me that these small village churches (many looking to be on the verge of ruin) had been embedded in the local landscape for centuries, surviving long enough for some to be inducted as UNESCO World Heritage sights.  Once I was able to step inside them, it was easy to be charmed and awed by what they represented, their sturdy steeples declaring their presence as we criss-crossed the region.

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Villages seemed to grow around the old fortresses over the centuries, offering a juxtapostion of old and new.

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On the first day exploring Romania with my friends, Anthony and Helene, we stopped in a quaint town in the hills, Curtea de Arges, where we explored our first ancient church, the Princely Court, and then a monastery, which happened to be surrounded by brides and their grooms on a sunny Saturday afternoon.  Families gathered under trees, cameras recording every moment.  A service was taking place in the cool calm of the church and we peeked through the doors to witness a few moments of a wedding.

And this was our journey for the next several days– an investigation of old churches built to withstand an onslaught of invaders.  We climbed bell tower after bell tower, a rickety collection of steps and failing ladders to see the views across the countryside — the villages stretching out to meet fields of green or mountains in the distance.

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Visitors were few and we had many churches to ourselves, only Helene and I witnessed the bump and curse as Anthony hit his head on low hanging beams while climbing the bell towers.

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bellBut what was most surprising was the abundance of frescoes that had survived in the churches, paintings still showing luster after centuries, portraying stories from the bible and inspiring faith in congregations.  In the cool quiet of the deserted churches, I stood and stared at the amazing art, my eyes tracing stories and looking into the timeless stares of holy men, angels, and warriors preserved until today.

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fresco1 fresco2insidedomeAlthough entering the churches would seem to be straightforward, we soon discovered the novelty of being random visitors and having to initiate another journey to seek the key.  Enter the gatekeeper, whose whereabouts were designated with a simple sign stating an address in the village. And off we would go (or rather, Helene, with a helpful command of German), to fetch the keeper of the key, our admittance into history.

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Once located, we followed the gatekeeper down the road, a formidable key in hand to open the locked fortress.  The gatekeeper would then stand to one side as we walked through, our cameras and phones directed at the art, my mouth open in astonishment at the contrast between the outside and inside.  Behind the simple stone or brick walls, there were more complex structures, often double-walls, and a view of domestic life.  Some gatekeepers lived on site and we were greeted by dogs and cats, or perhaps a flock of chickens, baby chicks scurrying after the hens looking for insects in the velvety summer grass.

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Our purchase of a simple purple “Transilvania Card” allowed entry to 50 of the medieval and fortified churches, gaining a simple nod of agreement as we presented it at each site.

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It felt like a scavenger hunt, or more appropriately, a treasure hunt, as we followed GPS from church to church, logging our conquests with photos and then moving on to the next prize, another jewel in our crown of churches.  I often stood in the quiet cool spaces, thinking of the generations of village people who had sat and worshipped in the different churches, faith in something bigger than themselves, and hope that the fortress could keep invaders at bay.

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Some fortresses had small windows, also known as “murder holes”, to look onto the encroaching enemy, allowing them to shoot arrows into the oncoming troops.  But we were more likely to see a cow wandering the yard around the fortress, concerned with eating grass, not world domination.

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At one church, we stayed in the guest house behind the church, enjoying a home cooked supper of chicken soup, goulash, bread, salad, and wine– spectacular!  As we made our way over to the church the next morning, a young girl appeared to give us a tour in German.  She talked in a slow disinterested drawl, gesturing at different parts of the church. When I asked my friend, Helene, for translation, it appeared that a good part of the speech was “I don’t know.” Mesmerizing.

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But our trip was not in vain as we discovered a small kitten trapped in a tree just outside  and were successful in locating the owner to initiate a rescue.  The kitten had been stuck in the tree all night and returned to earth cold, tired, hungry, and happy to be reunited with his mother.  His weak mews under sleepy eyes, made your heart break.

And then there were the storks – a staple in every village, nesting on towers or steeples, clacking their beaks under the summer sun.

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The wonder was partly in the journey, searching for the churches as we drove through the countryside, never knowing exactly what treasure we would find behind the walls, the sunny warmth of the day encouraging us to walk around the sacred grounds to understand a past way of life under the same sunny skies.

For more travel information, see my travel site:  www.wanderlynn.com

Copyright 2018 ©wanderlynntravel.wordpress.com; photos cannot be reproduced without permission.

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Transfăgărășan Road, Romania

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Transfăgărășan Road twists and turns

The words “road trip,” can elicit a vision of wild adventures as irresponsible youths gallivant in convertibles along backroads, creating havoc in their wake.  That is the movie version and that is not my story.  My story is somewhat more civilized (and possibly less exciting – but that was BEFORE we had a gallop through a Transylvanian forest on horseback!) as I met two friends from London in Bucharest where we rented a car and set off on our road trip, two weeks of exploring Romania.  In our case, the words “road trip” conjured a journey more reminiscent of travel before planes, a way to move from place to place, and a glorious way to experience another country, driving two-lane roads through small towns and villages.

As we drove through Romania, it felt like plunging into the heart, the local roads acting as the arteries and veins moving people to and from Bucharest, revealing the daily life in the rural areas – unleashed dogs trotting about their daily business; a grey-haired man biking along the road in slacks, a sweater, and a cap; children running from the blue house to the pink house, calling to each other in the games of youth; and women walking to the market, scarves wrapped over their heads and tied under their chins, skirts bustling through the dust.

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Dog watching sheep in a mountainside pasture

Our road trip was built on the desire to explore life on the inside.  But we still wanted to tackle one mainstream treasure, driving the sexy curves of the Transfăgărășan road… with endless views of the Carpathian mountains stretching their feet into deep valleys, greened by summer rains, and dotted with sheep. A road of twists and turns, we began at the south end, ironically next to Poenari castle holding a twisted history as a fortress of Vlad the Impaler who skewered his victims onto long poles staked into the ground as a threat and a warning to invaders.  Before commencing our drive, we started our day walking up the 1480 steps to see the historic castle, now just a deserted ruin, with impaled dummies limp in the morning heat, strategically set to greet visitors.

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Poenari Castle and Vlad the Impaler’s dummy victims

Ceaușescu built the road as a strategic military route, running from the Wallachia region through Transylvania and up to Sibiu through the Fagaras Mountains, a southern section of the Carpathians. Balea Lake marks the mid-point before descending to the northern (or southern) point, depending on your direction of travel. Some of the longest tunnels in the country punctuate the road, torn through the ancient mountain stone.

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Mountain views from the Transfăgărășan Road

We made roadside stops with other tourists, a helter-skelter assemblage of cars gathered on a barely visible shoulder, often inches from a drop into the valleys, everyone snapping views with cell phones and cameras.  The cool change in temperature was a surprise on a July day after the warmth of the car.  Roadside stands greeted us with sliced pork derivatives, and jars and jars of honey, a recurring theme in the region.  We selected ham, sausage, and fresh bread to assemble a quick snack as we continued our ascent.

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A herd of sheep camouflaged against the rocky slope

Motorcycles and their flimsy cousins, the bicyclists, chased our little car as we wound our way up and across the passes.  We climbed and climbed to reach the snow sitting on the high hills, now just a walk away instead of a view in the distance.  A waterfall crashed alongside the road, the summer melt from snow fields even higher along the rocky hills.

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We stopped at the glacial Balea Lake at the top of the mountain, surprisingly small and tucked among hotels, restaurants, and the usual entourage of tourist-enticing stands and restaurants.  Wandering into a large canopied tent, we found a lunch of roasted pork offerings – chunks of ham and racks of ribs served with pickles.  After a quick lunch, we climbed back into the Dacia, shelter from the cool and windy height, to begin our descent.  I held my breath as we seemed to hurtle down through the forests, our little car hugging the curves.  I felt the nagging sense of ancient stories, buried deep in the mountains but carried as legacy through the ghost stories of the region. I reconsidered the story of Vlad, repackaged as Dracula; was he a hero or a devil?

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Clouds drop to obscure views on the Transfăgărășan road

At last, we entered the town of Sibiu, the late afternoon sun warming the brightly painted houses adorned in oranges, yellows, greens, and blues.  A few blocks from our small inn, a large town square invited us to wander about under the shadow of the requisite old church and bell tower, wrapped in its own story of ancient graves and a diversion in faith.  Another stop to investigate history on our journey through Romania.

For more travel information, see my travel site:  www.wanderlynn.com

Copyright 2018 ©wanderlynntravel.wordpress.com; photos cannot be reproduced without permission.

California Coast

What is the allure of California?  The weather?  The beaches?  The mountains?  San Francisco, Los Angeles, or San Diego?  All of this and more.  I love the easy attitude that comes with living in a place where the weather respects your well laid plans and invites you outside day after day.  It’s my preference to wander without a heavy coat and there are always the mountains to wrap you in cold and shower you with snow.  But for one week in November, my friend and I focused on the warmth for our brief exploration of one tiny little section of coastline.

We started by driving from San Francisco to Carmel, stopping at every pullover to enjoy the spectacular views on Highway 1.

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A dinner at the Flying Fish Grill in Carmel reminded me of my first trip to California when I was young and had just started a new job.  A business dinner in Half Moon Bay included the delicious introduction to abalone.  When I saw that abalone was on the menu at the Flying Fish Grill, I indulged.  It was an expensive reminder but the enjoyment was the same.  Ah, abalone….

In Carmel, there are small shops and art galleries to keep you busy for a few days and if you’re shopping for real estate, check out the cute house with beach views listed for a mere $6.5 million.  Hmmm, where is my checkbook?

After you seal the deal, stop for some wine at Silvestri Vineyards tasting room (https://www.silvestrivineyards.com/tasting-room.htm).  I recommend the Barbera and the Syrah.  Don’t worry, it’s easy enough to wrap at least one bottle of wine in that extra pair of jeans for the trip home in your checked bag.

Don’t miss Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.  It’s only $10/car to enter and we were happy to support the park system and see the redwoods.  It’s hard not to look up into the canopy and feel respect for these forest giants as guardians of nature.  Even trees with fire scarred bodies I saw as an example of resilience, growing upward, still green.

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redwood1Before heading back to Carmel, head south a little further to stop for lunch with views of the coast.

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PCH6The next day, it was back to San Francisco.  The plan?  To walk across the Golden Gate Bridge (from Union Square/Geary Street, take the 38 bus to the 28 bus which drops you at the toll bridge; $2.75 with transfer; exact change only) and continue down to Sausalito.  You can also bike across the bridge, but why?  It’s only about a two mile walk and you have the chance to stop and see the seals and porpoises in San Francisco bay.

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Once across the bridge, take the trail around to your right, down the stairs and under the bridge to walk down to Sausalito.  It’s only about three miles and mostly downhill, a nice walk with views of the bay and San Francisco.

bridge3You can refuel with lunch (or chocolate) before taking a ferry back to Fisherman’s Wharf.  Be careful – there are two ferries and only one goes to Fisherman’s Wharf.

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Now back to the hotel from Fisherman’s Wharf.  Why not take the “world famous cable car”!  You would know it by the lines to ride one…  You may not see as much at night but you still get the thrill of riding up and down some extreme hills.  And you don’t have to walk them.

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On our last day, we took a bus (#7) from the Powell Street Station over to the Haight/Ashbury area.  Once a refuge for people wanting to live their life with more freedom, it’s now more mainstream but still has the lure of the beautiful homes and eccentric shops.  From there, it’s an easy walk over to Golden Gate Park.

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When it’s time to return to the airport for the flight home, hop on BART – an easy and inexpensive ride to the airport.

For more travel information, see my travel site:  www.wanderlynn.com

Copyright 2017 ©wanderlynntravel.wordpress.com; photos cannot be reproduced without permission.

Chiang Mai Winter Escape

In the northeast United States, fall has taken hold as leaves swirl around me on a morning walk or run.  I’ve had to resort to long sleeves and even a fleece and a jacket a few times, but thankfully, it’s a warm fall and the temperatures still bounce between warmer days and cooler nights, inviting a few last occasions for open windows.

But winter is imminent.  I don’t like the cold.  Rather, I hate to BE cold so winter is not my favorite season.  Being wrapped in a blanket inside is just too stifling for me.  I want to move unencumbered by jackets and hats and gloves, feeling the sun on bare arms and legs.

So where should you go to escape the snow and the ice?  Maybe you have the time or the logistic flexibility to live or work somewhere warmer in the winter.  Why not try Chiang Mai, Thailand?    It’s cooler than Bangkok but still bustling with energy and people. And much less expensive than heading to the southern states of the U.S.  Of course, there is the small matter of airfare, but there are regular deals to Asia and once there, the living is cheap.

A few winters ago I was able to spend some time there.  I had the happy accident of arriving in time for the annual Flower Festival.  I wandered through the fairground atmosphere, in awe of the brilliant decorated floats glowing with lights.  Families and tourists made their way through stalls of flowers and food, eating grilled ears of corn and other treats, laughing and enjoying the warm night.

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The next day there was “Sunday walking street,” another excuse for everyone to take to the street, closed to traffic for the evening, for more eating, drinking, and shopping.

If you are an animal lover (how can you not be?), visit the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for elephants rescued from working lives, usually in the logging industry.  In the park, the elephants are free to live with other elephants while tourists visit them for a fee, a way to cover the expenses for their care.  Their stories are heart breaking and amazing – there was an elephant blinded by a cruel owner but she now had an elephant friend to lead her around the park; another elephant had suffered a broken back, hip, and leg but had healed enough so she could live out her life not threatened by more of the beatings and work that had left her disabled.  And there were happier stories – the elephants who were having babies, babies born into a better life protected by the herd.

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If you love Thai food as much as me, experiment with a cooking class!  I took a full day organic cooking class at the Thai Farm Cooking School, learning how to make several dishes, including the hot red curry that I love so much.

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And of course, there are the temples.  One of the most famous is Wat Phra That, high on a hill overlooking the Chiang Mai valley.  It is a destination for people seeking courses in meditation and is a spectacular golden treasure.

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I had time to visit multiple temples scattered throughout the city.  At one temple, I met  and then enjoyed lunch with a monk, a retired professor from the U.S. who had practiced Buddhism for 40 years and was spending his winter in Chiang Mai.

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To complete the week, take a trek in the hill country.  A couple I met in my cooking class invited me to join them and their private guide and we were able to go for a hike in Dom Inthanon National Park.  We stopped at the market that morning to buy fried chicken and fruit for our lunch and we spent the day walking through fields and forests, stopping at a small hill tribe village to meet some locals.

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So much to do and see and only a short inexpensive flight from Bangkok!  For more information on Thailand, see http://www.wanderlynn.com/thailand.html.

Copyright 2017 ©wanderlynntravel.wordpress.com; photos cannot be reproduced without permission.

 

 

Spring Break Anyone?

I’m not sure which creates more spring fever – the teasing warm days we just experienced in February, while walking in sunshine with bare arms, our faces turned to the warmth, or the recent backlash of snow and ice reminding us that it is still winter in the northern hemisphere.

But I am thinking of the daffodils and tulips poised for celebration, upcoming horseback gallops through verdant fields, and the tossing aside of gloves and scarves.  And spring is a great time to travel – beating the crowds and heat of summer.  There is a sweet spot in the next few months to venture forth – the weeks after Easter and spring breaks but before the release of school children and the intro into family vacations.

Where to go?  There are so many choices, but I am reminded of my spring adventure in Italy just a few years ago, traveling from north to south, rewarded with warming days enjoyed in long sleeves, bolstered by a fleece or jacket at night.

I started in Venice, exploring the cathedrals, art museums, and random twisting streets learning that even the locals admitted to getting lost when they wandered outside of their neighborhood.

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Venice

I then boarded a train to Florence, joining hundreds to circle the Duomo and explore the shops and museums.

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Duomo

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Florence

I felt brave enough to take on the challenge of renting a car and driving down to Siena,

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Duomo, Siena

then continued on to enjoy the countryside, driving among the wineries and hills as the tulips bloomed,

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Tuscany Tulips, Montalcino

stopping to sip the regional Rosso, Brunello, and Chianti wines.

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Chianti sign in Tuscany

I didn’t forget to linger in Rome and say “Ciao” to Pope Francis,

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Palm Sunday, Rome

before confirming that the Leaning Tower of Pisa lives up to its name.

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Leaning Tower of Pisa

After time spent in museums, cathedrals, and shops, I headed to Cinque Terre to walk the trails and breath in the air along the Italian Riviera.

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Cinque Terre

A final stop in Milan completed my tour of the upper half of Italy.  There is so much to see and do, I found it hard to select a few sights but have every intention of returning to enjoy it even more.  For more information on my travels, visit my website: www.wanderlynn.com.

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Milan

Copyright 2017 ©wanderlynntravel.wordpress.com; photos cannot be reproduced without permission.

 

Vietnam from south to north

I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first visit to Vietnam in 2006 but may have been even less prepared for what I found on my second visit in 2012.  On my first visit, I was only able to see a snapshot of the country from the far south in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh city to the northern city of Hanoi.  I was there to do volunteer work in a dental clinic but we were certainly not denied the opportunity to explore the people, the cities, and the culture. On my second visit, I was there for business in Ho Chi Minh city and I was amazed at the transformation only six years later – more buildings reaching to the sky, more tourists to crowd the streets and markets, and more “westernization” with smart phones and Wifi.

Back to the first visit, when I volunteered with Global Dental Relief.  They conduct dental clinics in Asia, Africa, and Central America and I’ve been on four trips with them.  In Vietnam, the dental clinic was located between Danang and Hoi An.  We based ourselves in Hoi An, one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever visited – very close to beaches but with an artistic focus and just brimming with collectibles, crafts, and original art.  And there were the tailors for quick custom-made clothing.  Our entire group indulged, boosting the local economy as we commissioned shirts, pants, skirts, dresses, and even robes.

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Patients, dental clinic

The conditions were rustic in American terms.  It was November but there is no winter in Vietnam.  It was extremely hot and humid, reminiscent of August in Miami or New Orleans.  I couldn’t imagine soldiers fighting in the same conditions during the war in the 60’s and 70’s.  Generators provided our power but there were drops from time to time as I assisted a pediatric dentist.  Suddenly the drill would stop.  We’d yell, “No power!”, tinkering would ensue outside and then the magic of the drill would start again.  Masks covered our faces, goggles protected our eyes, and the sweat ran down our backs like nervous insects but we were focused on treating as many children as possible.  We were only in the clinic for one week.  At the end of the Thanksgiving week, our clinic had treated several hundred children.  I discovered what a “cankle” was as I watched my lower legs transform with the combination of heat, humidity, the cramped position chairside and the salty diet.  It didn’t matter.  The outhouse Asian toilets and the extreme heat chased around the hot room by a few fans didn’t matter either.  Nothing really mattered except seeing as many children as possible.

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Generator power, dental clinic

When the clinic concluded, we had the chance to put our feet up and let our fluids redistribute as our cankles disappeared.  While we relaxed in chairs by the beach, too tired to even run into the waves, we watched some young Vietnamese girls enjoying the water.  Cultural norms dictated a different approach to a swim in the ocean.

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Beach outside of Hoi An

But soon it was time to move on to Hue, even hotter than Hoi An.  And like most places in Vietnam, the streets were full of scooters and masked natives shielding themselves from the sun and pollution.

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Street scene, Hue

Our small group of volunteers now had time to enjoy the sights.  Boarding a dragon boat, we sailed down the Perfume river to explore the Thien Mu pagoda.

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Dragon boats, Vietnam

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Thien Mu Pagoda outside of Hue

A few days in Hue and then on a plane to visit Hanoi.  We landed in the gray skies of the Vietnam version of winter, where temperatures in the 60’s prompted most Vietnamese to wrap themselves in winter coats.  We toured the Hanoi Hilton, the famous prison where they subjected their victims to various forms of torture.  Gracious mannequins depicted some of the treatments to offer the full effect.

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Hanoi Hilton

We also took in a local cultural attraction, the Museum of Ethnology, which included some rather interesting sculptures.

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Sculpture from the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi

My only regret is that I didn’t have more time to enjoy the country and the people. I’m sure I’ll make it back – so many countries, so much to see!

For more travel information, visit www.wanderlynn.com.

Copyright 2016 ©wanderlynntravel.wordpress.com; photos cannot be reproduced without permission.

Have you explored Myanmar?

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Temple in Bagan, Myanmar

Slowly, slowly, the crowds are starting to trickle into Myanmar, still called Burma by some countries.   The Burmese (or the government?) have decided that tourism is a good thing. It’s an interesting place – generally south Asia is an inexpensive place to travel but Myanmar was two to three times more expensive than its neighbors. I was there with a couple of friends and we decided to max out our visas, staying for 27 days, edging the 28-day limit. Traveling with friends made it much more affordable for lodging and transport, definitely the most significant portion of our spending.

Some places were more rustic than others – one excursion took us to Mrauk U, seldom visited by anyone and the limited choices in lodging meant we had some interesting company in our room.  It’s always a bit surprising to have squealing from the ceiling wake you at 3 a.m.  It was a matter of “insert ear plugs” and return to sleep.  Whenever I’m sleeping under a mosquito net, it also suffices as a cloak of invisibility in middle-of-the-night logic.

In cities like Bagan, there were buses full of tourists from Europe, traveling in large groups and armed with water bottles, sunscreen, and sun defying hats and sunglasses.  All were eager to explore the temple-studded landscape.

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Bagan Landscape

 

The ubiquitous Buddhas greeted us at every stop and no two seemed alike.  The one below seems somewhat restored but still possess the knowing smile, and sedate eyes while the subtle cracks betray the antiquity of his being.

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One face of Buddha

My friend and I opted for bikes to tour from temple to temple, simmering in the heat as we glided along the uncrowded roads, enjoying the slight breathe of air created by our pedaling. By early afternoon, we were ready for lunch in the shade of some trees, dining outdoors at a small café with fresh squeezed lime drinks to wash the dust from our dry mouths.  The highlight was the delicious tamarind candies, innocent looking enough in wax paper wrapping, but delivering a burst of fresh tart flavor to finish our meal.

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Exploring temples in Bagan, Myanmar

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Temple detail of Buddha

Even the local livestock were fascinated with the temples, embedded as they were in the landscape and the lifestyle.  They just couldn’t stay away.

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Cow exploring temple in Bagan, Myanmar

This monkey took a break from exploiting the crowds at one temple, perhaps subdued by the practice of compassion.

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Monkey resting at a temple

By two or three in the afternoon, we retreated to the small pool at our hotel.  It seemed the only sensible thing to do in the oppressive heat until the sun dipped low in retreat signaling it was time to venture out again for dinner.

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Myanmar sunset

For more travel information, visit www.wanderlynn.com.

Copyright 2016 ©wanderlynntravel.wordpress.com; photos cannot be reproduced without permission.