Two reasons to pause in Pindaya, Burma

Pindaya, Burma
Markets, fresh pancakes
I found two very good reasons to stop and explore the little town of Pindaya. It’s in the picturesque Shan State in Myanmar, on the edge of a beautiful lake in a valley.

The Market.

There is always something endlessly fascinating to me about a true local market. One that has nothing to do with tourism.  The market (held every five days) in Pindaya is one of those markets, so we just had to stop and explore for a few hours. The variety of food stuffs was fascinating, from deep fried tofu to multicoloured rice crackers of many shapes, from fresh fish and fruit to dozens of varieties of dried fish.

My favourite though was what I called the “coconut crumpets”, being freshly made in front of us on a table that seemed filthy with splattered pancake mix, but the cooking pans themselves were very clean. The pancake batter included shredded coconut, and when they came out of the pan they were warm and light and full of holes like a crumpet, and absolutely delicious. Sadly we never found them anywhere else in Myanmar. If anyone has a recipe please let me know!

Pindaya, Burma
entrance to Buddha Caves, Pindaya, Burma

Browsing through the rest of the market was like having a nosy through a local home, there was clothing, bedding, electronics and plastics, music, a hairdresser, flowers and bicycles.

The Buddha Caves.

On a hill just outside Pindaya is the Shwe U Min pagoda, commonly know as the Buddha Caves. We drove part way up the hill to the entry hall to the pagoda. Bizarrely there is a giant fake spider guarding the entrance, based on a very old (pre buddhist) local fable. From there it’s about 300 steps up to the main part of the pagoda, which extends into the mountainside through numerous caves.

Pindaya, burma
sign of the day

There are reputed to be 8000 buddha images in these caves – 4000 are “miniatures” forming a few larger sculptures, the other 4000 are from inches to metres in height, and a multiple of styles and ages. In one cave there is a maze, in other caves there are hidden meditation chambers. And being in caves is pleasantly cool compared to the temperature outside in the sun.

There’s a great sign at the entrance to the cave, which clearly meant to remind visitors to remove their shoes, proudly announcing  “Foot-Wearing Prohibited”

We then walked the longer set of steps right to the bottom of the hill so that we could avoid walking out past the legs of the giant spider. At the bottom of the hill is also a shop selling homemade paper, beautifully made with petals and leaves scattered through it, a nice souvenir.

Ten things you will do on Inle Lake, Myanmar

We hiked for two days to Inle lake – through farms, over hill and dale. So we arrive ready to relax. Sitting in one of the long boats being whisked across the large, serenely blue (sometimes brown) lake to tonight’s accommodation (and showers) is a good start.  

Leg Rowing at Inle Lake, Myanmar
Our boat for the day is being leg-rowed

We all arrive in Inle Lake knowing we are going to explore the lake and its communities by one of these boats, but what you probably don’t know yet is that there is an established tourist trail across the lake, and you will probably do the following ten things in one day, even if you don’t explicitly request them. I am not normally a fan of enforced tourist trails, but being whisked from one spot to another by local boat makes it way more fun than a bus tour. So sit back and enjoy:

  1. Your boat driver will automatically look out for fisherman on the lake, take you in close and slow down so you can get good shots. He literally eased off the throttle every time I picked up my camera. They know how fascinated we are by the fishing styles and large cone nets.
    spooling the lotus silk
    spooling the lotus silk
  2. You will visit Phaung Daw Oo, a large pagoda housing five buddhas which we nicknamed the ‘golden balls’. Originally five normal small buddha statues, they are now unrecognisable large round blobs, due to decades of being rubbed with gold leaf for good luck. The Phaung Daw Oo festival runs for 16 days every spring, and the five golden buddhas are taken out on the royal barge around the 14 lake communities. A few years ago the barge tipped in rough water and one of the five buddhas was lost to the bottom of the lake. However when they got the other four buddhas back to the Pagoda, the fifth lost one had mysteriously reappeared in its spot in the pagoda. Since then they only take the other four buddhas out for the ceremony every year, the fifth one is left permanently on dry land.
  3. The Lotus Silk workshop is fascinating, seeing lotus plants being turned into silk fabric, beautifully soft and colourful. It is also tourist ‘grand central station’,  the shop is very expensive and it stocks more cheap synthetic fabric than real silk and lotus silk, so buyer beware! Then again you will struggle to find lotus silk anywhere else in the country, so if you want it, this is the place to get it.
  4. Your boat will dock at an ordinary stilt house in a small village, you’ll enter the front room and you will find that you are in a Cheroot factory. There will be burmese women sitting on the floor hand-making the cheroots, they are so skilled at it that they never need to look at their hands, they can look at each other and chat instead. They will be surrounded by a circle of stools for the tourists to sit on and watch them. Off all the touristy things I did in Myanmar, this seemed the most uncomfortably like a zoo, and I made a quick exit. 
    delicious shared lunch
    delicious shared lunch
  5. You will stop at one of the dozens of stilt restaurants for lunch. Because boats only travel on the lake in daylight, they only get lunch business, as no-one can get to them for dinner. Instead of the feast of a number of shared curries that was our usual enjoyable daily meal in Burma, here we had a meal of other local delicacies – stuffed whole lake fish, green and red tomato salad, chicken and peanuts, and bokchoy. All washed down with a good Beer Myanmar of course.
  6. There is nothing quite like the procession which accompanies a young boy on his way to the monastery to become a novice. It’s a boat procession of course, with boatloads of family members celebrating, loads of noise, and the novice dressed all in pink with gold jewellery and sitting on a throne, like a barbie doll, shaded by gold umbrellas. 
    novice monk in parade to the monastery
    novice monk in parade to the monastery
  7. Shwe Nin Thein pagoda is renowned for its hundreds of stupas, dating from the 14th to 16th centuries, mostly in a state of decay and disrepair. It’s a nice change to see stupas that are old brick and plaster, not just shiny gold. I really hope they stop restoring them, their charm is in how they show their age. There is a long covered arcade running hundreds of metres gently up the hill to the pagoda, lined with market stalls of both sides, but it seems to get little business, most of the stalls are empty. At least they have expansion capacity here as tourism grows. We were lucky enough to find a volleyball competition underway in the local village, it is a very popular sport in Myanmar. 
    ruined stupa at Shwe Nin Thein
    ruined stupa at Shwe Nin Thein
  8. You’ll see how the local communities have created agriculture on the lake with their floating fruit and verge gardens, established on floating platform made out of lake weed. The combination of fishing and floating agriculture on the lake makes for an impressive supply of fresh food for the local population and the visitors here.
  9. Nga Hpe Chaung monastery is famous for its jumping cats. Except when we visited in December, as one of the head monks had died three months previously, and since then the cats had refused to jump. I wonder if they have started jumping again. There’s not much to see here if the cats aren’t jumping, although they did have a large number of impressively clean toilets for tourists.
  10. You will shop at markets. It might be the market stalls at Phaung Daw Oo, it might be a market stall on the boat coming alongside your boat on the rivers and channels between communities, or it might be the “farmers market” which revolves daily around five sites around the lake. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get the one day out of five when it is a floating market, rather than in a village on the land. Bargain hard, it is expected and respected here.

What is the Liebster Blog Award?

Thanks very much to the lovely Claire from for nominating me for a Liebster, see her nominations here.  liebster2

What is the Liebster Blog Award?

It’s been around for a few years and it’s “rules” seem to have morphed over time, but basically it is a way to recognise bloggers that you enjoy following. It is passed on from one blogger to another to let them know that they are doing a good job and to encourage them to keep blogging. It’s a good way to show support, check out new blogs, and help promote readership.

So how does this work?

When you receive the award, post 11 random facts about yourself.
Answer 11 questions from the person who nominated you on your blog.
Pass the award onto 11 other blogs and ask them 11 questions. Make sure you tell them you nominated them.
You are not allowed to nominate the blog who nominated you.

My 11 Random Facts:
  • I was born with eleven toes.
  • I have eaten barbecued silk worms – and enjoyed them.
  • When I lived in London I lost all my freckles through lack of sunshine (but luckily they all came back in sunny Sydney).
  • Rollercoasters are not me friend – even the little old fashioned ones make me nauseous.
  • The All Blacks are my religion.
  • My favourite food is fresh Nelson Bay scallops from NZ.
  • I lived in London for 10 years in the following suburbs: Paddington, Wembley, Turnpike Lane, Plaistow, South Clapham, Putney – yes, I did a complete compass circumnavigation of the city.
  • When I first travelled to Mexico, the Chiapas uprising occurred.
  • When I first travelled to the Middle East, the Gulf War broke out..
  • When I first travelled to India, a local civil war broke out in Rajasthan and there were curfews and helicopter gunships shooting all night.
  • …do you see a certain pattern here?
My Answers to Claire’s 11 Questions:
  1. What book changed your life? a big glossy kids atlas of the world with pictures of the Pyramids and igloos and things – I was hooked.
  2. If you could only listen to one album for the rest of your life what would it be? a bespoke album containing all 8533 songs currently on my iPod – I’m sorry, I need variety (OK maybe I can leave Wham behind).
  3. What is the best Festival you’ve ever been to? Glastonbury, the year Oasis headlined, before they imploded.
  4. If you could fly anywhere in the world in the morning where would you go? Antarctica.
  5. Why did you start your travel blog? My friends had already heard all my travel stories, I needed to expand my audience.
  6. What do you miss most about home when you are away? my local cafe and it’s perfect brunch.
  7. Who inspires you the most? My friends, they inspire me daily.
  8. What is your earliest travel-related memory? Being car-sick as our parents drove us for a day out at the beach over winding, one lane wide, unsealed roads, where you had to beep the car horn before every corner to warn any on-coming traffic.
  9. What one item do you never travel without? A camera.
  10. Where do you think of as ‘home’? Bondi.
  11. Are they thongs or flip flops? Neither, they are jandals (it’s a kiwi thing).
My 11 Questions to the Blogs I Nominate:
  1. What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
  2. What is something you wish you could do really well?
  3. If you had the chance to have lunch with one person living or dead, who would it be?
  4. What makes you smile?
  5. What activity recharges your energy?
  6. What is the best Festival you’ve ever been to?
  7. What social network do you use the most?
  8. Why did you start your travel blog?
  9. Where did you get your first passport stamp?
  10. What one item do you never travel without?
  11. Dogs or cats?

I’d like to recognize other deserving bloggers too, both new and established. So here’s my 11 Nominees:

Clare at Earth Travel Unlimited
Elle at Elle Croft
Red at Red Nomad Oz
Paul at Walk Fly Pinoy 
Amanda at Adventures All Round
Ryan at Just Chuckin It
Girish at Girish Menon
Yvette at Where is Yvette
Juno at Runaway Juno
Ainslee at Good Airs
Meruschka at Mzansi Girl

Let’s give these blogs a round of applause and show some love. Visit their website, comment on their posts, and share their stuff with friends on social media.

Thank you again Claire from for the nomination! Let’s keep this going and recognize other bloggers for their work.

Hi nominees, what are your answers to the questions above?


The Unique Fisherpeople of Inle Lake, Myanmar

The man stands on one leg on the flat stern of his small wood boat, wraps the other leg around his upright rowing oar, and starts paddling in a circular motion with his leg. It is a unique and oddly graceful sight to see the unique rowing style of the fishermen of Inle Lake.

Traditional fishing on Inle Lake
Traditional fishing on Inle Lake

Because the boats are so low to the waterline, they need to stand up to see where they are going, and also to spot all the weeds just under the water line. This rowing style also leaves their hands free for fishing. Apparantly only the men do this, the women sit on the stern and paddle with their single oar.

Traditional fishing on Inle Lake
Traditional fishing on Inle Lake

The fishing also involves hand nets, and large conical wooden framed nets, about 2 metres in length. Other than the fishing boats, the main form of transport on the lake are larger longer boats with a motor on the back – similar to long tails in Thailand, without such a long tail! These are used by locals and tourists alike, although the tourist boats are easy to spot as they have seats in them and rugs to keep off the cold and/or the water spray, while the local boats were more basic. All boat transport stops at night, as none of the boats have lights.

Traditional fishing on Inle Lake
Traditional fishing on Inle Lake

The freshwater lake is the second largest in Myanmar, at about 116 sqm, with floating garden agriculture on the western side of the lake taking up about half as much space again. The floating water agriculture has developed over the last century in particular. The local people harvest lots of seaweed from the lake, and then tie the seaweed all together to make floating platforms on which fruit and vegetables are grown, particularly tomatoes.

floating agriculture on Inle Lake
floating agriculture on Inle Lake

The platforms are so robust that the farmers can stand on them to tend to their crops. The combination of water and lake weed makes a very nutrient rich environment, supporting intensive agriculture. In other words, it’s not difficult to eat well around Inle Lake.

Degustation relaxation in Mendoza, Argentina

Wine tasting can be a tiring business, it needs real stamina. Mendoza is quite rightly a world renowned wine region,and I have already spent a day exploring and tasting by car, and another day of the same by bicycle. Now I feel the need for a little time out. My lodge owner comes up with two suggestions for me. I can either spend a day rock-climbing, or I can do a long degustation lunch at a winery restaurant (with matching wines of course).

ready for the degustation to begin
ready for the degustation to begin

Surprisingly I chose the long lunch. Now that might not sound very different to wine tasting, but this time I can sit in one spot for hours and it all comes to me, instead of getting in and out of a car door dozens of times in a day. So off I go to the Casa Del Visitante, at the Familia Zuccardi Vineyard for a spot of degustation relaxation.

The hardest thing I have to do all day is decide whether I am going for the 8 course or 12 course degustation. With a rare sense of restraint, I choose the 8 course menu (with 6 matching wines). My table is in a prime spot in a room with floor to ceiling glass and a view over the vineyards, on a sunny blue day. At times I am so distracted by the view and the food that I forget to take photos!

Cured trout from Tupungato with caramelised peas and kefir. This is a lovely light start.
Santa Julia Torrontés 

Cured Trout
Cured Trout

Lamb sweetbreads with sunflower seeds ice-cream and sweet eggplant foam.
Corn creme brûlée with brie, tomato marmalade and lamb’s kidneys. I can thank Colin Fassnidge at 4Fourteen in Sydney for getting me over my offal aversion, so that I am now excited instead of scared to see these dishes on a menu.
Santa Julia Reserva Bonarda 

Corn Creme Brûlée with lambs kidneys
Corn Creme Brûlée with lambs kidneys

Crunchy yolk wrap with tomato fondue and bacon chips. I still have no idea how they achieved a runny yolk inside a crunchy cooked filo, but it was delicious!

Crunchy yolk wrap
Crunchy yolk wrap

Lamb ravioli with smoked corn cream and crunchy leek. Crunchy leek, say no more.
Zuccardi Serie A Bonarda

Braised lamb rump with truffled beans puree. This is the most substantial of the courses, the rump is large and rich and delicious, and I realise that I am very very full already.
Zuccardi Q Cabernet Sauvignon 

Braised Lamb Rump with truffled beans puree
Braised Lamb Rump with truffled beans puree

And then there are 3 desserts to finish me off:

Torrontés grappa and raspberry sorbet with tangerine and cardamon gelee. Alcoholic sorbet and gel lollies are colourful and fun

Roasted squash tagliatelle in torrontés, cinnamon mousse, Malamado viognier and apple infusion. The sweetness of the squash makes it a great dessert ingredient.

roast squash tagliatelle (dessert)
roast squash tagliatelle (dessert)

Coffee truffle filled with chocolate and black olives, mascarpone and vanilla sauce, white brownie mousse. Maybe I am just too full by this stage but I wasn’t as wowed by this dish, the olives seemed overpowering in it.

Malamado Voignier

Coffee Truffle
Coffee Truffle

Mmmmm… time for a slow wander around the vineyard (to aid digestion) and then back to the lodge for a light nap I think. This has been a delicious and interesting way to wile away a few hours of the day, one that I would happily repeat.

Hobbiton, NZ, a journey to my childhood

The Lord of the Rings inspired Hobbiton, New Zealand.

Imagine a happy place of green rolling hills, colourful doorways and a beautiful big symmetrical party tree with spreading branches. Well, that’s where I came from. Oh, and it’s also the film set for a crucial part of a couple of little known trilogies – Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. That’s right, Hobbiton is alive, well, and absolutely thriving in Hinuera in New Zealand. Which co-incidentally is where I spent the first couple of years of my life.

Hobbiton, New Zealand
Hobbiton, New Zealand

Hinuera is one of many small farming enclaves in the Waikato, a intensely farmed area of New Zealand a couple of hours south of Auckland. It is a bucolic vision of green rolling pastures (except in summer when it can look like the dried brown hills of a drought, basically because a good summer is a drought!). One particular farm here has housed the Hobbiton film set for about a decade now. It came about as the director Peter Jackson scouted the country by helicopter looking for the perfect “Party Tree” of Hobbiton, huge and spread symmetrically, with its lower boughs brushing the ground, where a whole village can celebrate. He spotted one on this farm, and the whole film set was created around it. (the locals claim the lucky farmer refers to the party tree as the “money tree”, an apt description after a decade of film production fees and massive tourism)

The popular film set tour of Hobbiton, NZ.

And there’s no doubt it is a very popular tourism attraction right now. It’s only about an hour away from where my Dad lives, so I had to visit it for the nostalgia kick on my recent trip to NZ. There are tour buses arriving constantly everyday from Auckland, Tauranga, Rotorua and Matamata, as well as self drive visitors like ourselves. The starting point is a cafe, ticket shop and merchandise shop by the roadside.  So what does the tour involve? Well, no matter how you got to Hinuera, you first have to buy a ticket which includes getting taken by bus from outside the ticket booth to the Hobbiton set. (I like the way they use old school buses – makes us feel too large for Hobbiton right for the start!)

Hobbiton, New Zealand
Hobbiton, New Zealand

The enforced bus transport makes sense as we head off down the farm over a few kilometres of steep, winding, gravel, one lane wide tracks. Suddenly from the drought stricken landscape around us, an oasis of green appears – clearly the Hobbiton set has some fairly effective watering systems in place. Our local guide then walks us around Hobbiton, which is bigger than I expected, and keeps us entertained with anecdotes of the set construction, maintenance and filming, as well as some of the more obsessive fans he has met on tours, although you don’t have to be one of them to enjoy this.

It’s hard not to want to stay and live in Hobbiton, it is perfectly staged to meticulous detail, and is almost hyper-real, the saturated colours of the greenery, the bright front doors, the hobbit sized clothes on the clothes line – it seemed very charming and I did start to believe that this was exactly what it looked like when I grew up here.  It’s a kid’s dream village.

Hobbiton, New Zealand
Hobbiton, New Zealand

The enjoyment of the tour is aided by the local guides who understood that everyone wants to get photos of themselves in front of every famous piece of scenery, and had artfully designed the walking tour to make that happen easily. And it wasn’t harmed by the recent addition of the thatched Green Dragon pub, where us weary tourists could stop for a cold beer or cider at the end of our tour, knowing the brews are the ones created specifically by a local brewery for the 3000 odd film crew  that had worked here. I would not have been surprised if a hobbit had wandered on by (actually I was a bit disappointed that none did).

The tour lasts about one and a half hours. On return to the shop by bus, you can also chose to watch a farm demonstration show including cute little lambs and farm dogs.

Good food recommendation for Hobbiton, NZ.
Te Poi cows near Hobbiton, New Zealand
Te Poi cows near Hobbiton, New Zealand

My main tip would be to skip the on-farm cafe, which was disappointing – possibly the worst cafe food I’ve come across for a few years in NZ. If you are travelling under your own steam (or can persuade your tour driver), go just a few miles down the road to the neighbouring farm district of Te Poi, and stop at the Te Poi tavern (by the big black cow) for a feast of good old fashioned home-made hamburgers  – I recommend the Works Burger.

Brushing Buddha’s teeth and washing his face in Mandalay

It all started innocently enough. “Anyone want to get up early tomorrow to see Buddha get his face washed and his teeth brushed?” asked our local guide. And then he added the clincher. “It’s a local custom, for the local people, not for tourists”.

Which is why I get my wake up call at 3.15 am, and am in the lobby at 3.30am to join two fellow travellers and our driver. Its pitch black and cold outside, with no other traffic. There’s a small queue of about a dozen people at the door of the Maha Muni pagoda, and we have plenty of time to peruse the stalls to buy offerings for the temple , as we discover that the doors will only open at about 4.45am today. The queue is slowly growing as tour groups arrive (so much for the ‘not for tourists’ claim), but it seems that these groups are buddhists visiting from other asian countries, we are still the only westerners here.

The Buddha at Maha Muni is famous for having grown ‘fat’ from the amount of gold leaf rubbed onto it for the last one hundred or so years. When the doors open we are all shepherded into areas in front of the Buddha statue, where we place our tray of offerings on a bench and then sit down behind it on the floor. This is the point when my sleep-deprived brain remembers that I struggle to sit cross-legged for more than five minutes at a time, and that’s before I add in a stone floor. Uh-oh, better find the endurance switch, and quickly.

As a distraction, and following the lead of the more experienced visitors, we open the packets of food on our trays, peel the top half of a banana and the top half of an orange, and try (unsuccessfully) to arrange all the food in an attractive pattern on the tray.

The actual ceremony is carried out by the head monk and a number of lay helpers (distinguished by their white robes). My silent hope that this turns out to be a spectacular but surprisingly short ceremony is quickly dashed.

First many ornate containers and platters are carried up to and placed in front of Buddha. The monk then presents these to the Buddha one by one to be blessed. The monk wraps a large gold cloth around Buddha’s neck and shoulders, and climbs up on a platform so he can easily reach Buddha’s face. One of the lay helpers passes up a large urn of cooked rice, and the monk takes a handful and proceeds to scrub Buddha’s teeth with the rice (or more accurately he scrubs Buddha’s lips, as the statue does not actually open it’s mouth).

This is repeated for about ten minutes with more handfuls of rice. Eventually the rice is passed back down and the monk starts to wet Buddha’s face with a spray of water from a golden can. The face is washed with a cloth in a series of rhythmic arm movements, over and over again, and then dried with a series of towels in the same repeated rhythmic pattern. Strangely this reminds me of Karate Kid – wash on, wash off! The drying is then finished off with the waving of a golden fan.

While the repetition and rhythm of the ritual is very relaxing on the mind, it hasn’t helped at all with my attempts to sit still on the floor – I am changing position every few minutes, and struggling to remember to make sure my feet always point away from Buddha. I marvel at how my hips can be completely numb and yet very painful at the same time. Eventually I admit defeat and drag myself out of the viewing area – the hardest part is trying to stand up – it takes another ten minutes before I can walk with any  normality again.

Now that we are standing we realise that the best viewing spot might actually be to the right hand side of the buddha (when facing the buddha). In this area you can stand or sit, with room to stretch and it is much less crowded. It would also be a good idea to bring a cushion!

Elsewhere in this pagoda I am able to admire the soaring gold arches of the hallways, the intricate patterning, the collection of ancient Angkor sculptures which had been stolen from Cambodian kings during wars over the centuries, and an impressive row of large bells to ring to share your good merit. It’s also a good site for charcoal and ink sketches, the quality here is a lot better than the ones for sale at U Bein bridge.

So the final verdict is yes, the face washing and teeth brushing ceremony is a unique enough local ritual to get up early for. It’s also far too uncomfortable for me to ever do twice, if I happen to make it back to Mandalay.

Especially when I learn that the length of the drawn out process of washing and drying with multiple cloths is driven by economics. Buddhist pilgrims like to buy a cloth used in the ritual as a souvenir, as the cloths are considered to be blessed by Buddha. So the more the monk uses, the more they can sell, which enhances the pagoda’s ability to support the local population. I call it a trade-off between charity and hip bones.