Wednesday, 3 December 2014

MYANMAR: Top 5 things to do in… Burma

Golden pagodas, smiling people, brave monks and sunrise over the temple city of Bagan - Burma is beautiful, touching and one of the most photogenic places on the planet.

1. Give alms to the monks at sunrise
Buddhist monks are an integral part of  Burmese society.  From their ancient role as educators and spiritual leaders to the inspirational “saffron revolution”, monks are everywhere you turn.  Forbidden to earn money, monks rely on food donated each day.  Each dawn, hundreds of people line the streets to fill the monks bowls with rice,  vegetables and fruit. A beautiful and moving spectacle, giving alms is a “must do” for me on each visit.  

2. Visit Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon
The 2,500 year old Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the symbols of Burma. Despite being on the trail of every visitor to Yangon, it is well worth visiting.  The great spire rises above the surrounding city, its thick coating of gold made up of tens of thousands of individual offerings of tissue thin gold leaf.  Despite the crowds, you can still find a quiet corner. Savvy guides know the quietest times and will schedule around them.

3. See the sun rise over the temples of Bagan 
The temple city of Bagan is justifiably one of the wonders of the world.  Sprawling out across a dusty plain, the elegant pagodas are especially beautiful at dusk or dawn.  Standing on the same spot as Marco Polo once did, witnessing a sight almost unchanged since his day as the sun rose behind the spires is something I will never forget. 

4. Ride in a foot paddled boat on Inle Lake

Inle Lake supports a unique way of life largely unchanged for hundreds of years.  From floating vegetable gardens and Buddhist temples to cheroot factories, it offers a glimpse into rural Burma and the lives of thousands of Burmese.  Watching a man paddle his boat using only one leg in a sinuous motion is truly remarkable, and dusk on the lake reveals a scene still untouched by the modern world.

5. Fall in love with the Burmese people
Burmese people are amazing. They are gentle but brave, happy in the face of what is often great hardship, and their long, vibrant culture still remains relatively unscathed by the outside 21st century. Make the time to get to know the local people and they will reward you with unfailing hospitality, generosity and inspiration. 

Rush Expeditions runs  tours to Burma each year. Our next trip is in January 2015, and with $500 off all tours to South East Asia booked before December 31, 2014, there is no better time to 
experience the "golden land"! Book now!

Friday, 14 February 2014

JAPAN: Tokyo on a shoestring. Is Japan an expensive destination?

People often approach me for recommendations as to where they should spend their vacation time.  As one of my favourite destinations, I always recommend a trip to Japan, but I find one of the common responses is "I'd love to go to Japan, but isn't it very expensive?" Overall, there is a perception of Japan and Tokyo in particular as being a costly destination.  While Japan may not be as cheap as some other Asian destinations, as I always emphasise, Japan IS good value.  

Delicious, cheap food is everywhere.
You cannot compare Japan to other developing countries in Asia. I always describe Japan as a "more than" first world country - Tokyo in particular is so futuristic it is hard to believe!  The technology, transport systems, food, cleanliness and overall beauty and sophistication of the country cannot be compared to a developing country like Cambodia or Burma.   And compared to other first world countries, and especially Australia, Japan is very good value.  I am always pleasantly surprised to finish a fantastic meal at a local restaurant and then receive a bill of less than half of what I would expect to pay back home in Sydney.

Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than almost any city in the world, and if you want to treat yourself, there are hundreds of world-class restaurants to choose from.  However, even the humblest yakatori bar serves great food.  Throughout Japan, I find the food to be wonderful. It is not only good value in terms of the price, but eating out anywhere is a cultural experience in itself. Japanese cuisine is so special it has just been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in it's own right, but most importantly it tastes fantastic! Dishes are always of wonderful freshness and quality, beautifully presented and served by exquisitely polite and friendly staff.

The bullet train system runs all over Japan.
Japan also has a fantastic transport system, which is one of the best in the world.  The local suburban train system in Tokyo is clean, punctual and easy to use (especially with the new Pasmo pre-paid system), with signs in English and easy to understand colour-coded lines.   It is also cheap compared to train fares in other parts of the world.   Linking to the superb "bullet train" network, which allows rapid, efficient travel throughout the country, it makes moving between destinations a breeze.  I also enjoy the cultural aspect of something as simple as a train trip - the signs reminding commuters to be courteous (I suspect these are not necessary for the ever-polite Japanese, but they are helpful to foreigners wanting to do the right thing), respectful school children bowing and offering a seat to anyone older, and sober-suited businessmen avidly reading manga comics. 

Hotels are also good value.  Tokyo, as a large international city, tends to have more expensive hotels than other areas, but I find that they are still inexpensive compared to other comparable cities like Sydney or London.  Rooms can sometimes be on the smaller side, but the Japanese aesthetic and cleverness at making small spaces functional shines through.  Once you add in the beauty and uniqueness of many hotels and the inevitable friendly, helpful staff, the value becomes clear.  Another good-value option is a traditional ryokan inn, where the rates usually include both dinner and breakfast as well as use of facilities like onsen baths.  The experience of learning onsen etiquette, sleeping on tatami mats or being served dinner in your room by smiling staff in beautiful kimono is priceless!

100 Yen Shops.  100's of cool things for $1!
Clothing, souvenirs, homewares and strange gadgets you never knew you needed until you saw them are all available at good prices in Japan.  From exquisite ceramics and fabrics to the treasure trove of the 100 yen (around $1) shops, shopping can be loads of fun and surprisingly good value.  Entering a store is of course a cultural experience too, from the enthusiastic chorus of greetings as each customer enters to the elaborate swapping of shoes for slippers in the changing room area.  I've spent many happy hours wandering markets, department stores, boutiques and even supermarkets (one of my favourite things to do in any new place!), and the staff are always overwhelmingly helpful and polite.  As prices are set, there is no haggling or pressure to buy as there may be in other Asian countries, and converting the price tags into your currency is usually a pleasant surprise. 

For me, the most important and enjoyable aspects of a trip to Japan are those that you cannot put a price tag on - the unique culture, friendly locals and feeling safe and welcome.  These things are invaluable, but combined with the well-priced accommodation, food and transport available, they make Japan exceptional value and one of my favourite destinations on earth.  

Rush Expeditions runs regular trips to Japan, where you can discover great value Japan for yourself!