A Spiritual Journey to Myanmar
Maureen Santucci, originally from the U.S., has made Peru her home for the past five years. She writes for Fodor's Travel Guide as well as various travel blogs when she isn't escaping off to the mountains to hike, teaching Tai Chi, or treating patients in her acupuncture clinic.
If you're looking for a different sort of vacation, a spiritual journey to Myanmar is something to consider. It doesn't matter if you are already Buddhist or even have an interest in it specifically—visiting the temples, and perhaps, taking part in a retreat at a meditation center, can help you to tap into your own personal spirituality.
Although you may think of Thailand, China, or Japan first with regard to Buddhism, Myanmar is approximately 90% Buddhist. The main form practiced is Theravada and the most common form of meditation is Vipassana, something that has become quite popular worldwide. There are several meditation centers in the country that welcome foreigners to their courses. Before taking short classes or courses, you must complete at least 10 days of a residential class, and during these retreats, silent meditation is observed for the entire day during the course schedule.
No fees are charged for the courses, accommodations, or for food and donations are accepted at the end of the course that will help foot the bill for future students. If you're taking a shorter course, a tourist visa is sufficient, however if you wish to study for more than 28 days, you'll want to apply for a 90-day meditation visa which must be accompanied by an invitation from the center where you will be meditating.
Among the many places you can study are the Dhamma Joti Vipassana Centre, the Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Centre, and the Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha Meditation Centre—all popular schools in Yangon that have branches in other areas as well. There are also a variety of universities, monasteries, and institutions that provide instruction in the history and practice of Buddhism.
If you decide to engage in a course of meditation here, you may want to tour some of the country's many temples before and after as part of your experience. Bagan, one of the main tourist areas (although the country does not yet have a huge amount of tourism) has more than 2,000 temples on its plains, an excellent way to get yourself into the spirit of the journey you are about to begin.
Afterward, you might want to take a trip to Mrauk U, a more remote region that is home to hundreds of religious sites in a very small area. Actually, anywhere you travel in Myanmar, you are bound to find temples, monasteries, and other religious sites dedicated to the teachings of Buddha.
Although we refer to Buddhism as a religion, Buddha is technically not worshipped, and it is possible to belong to another religion and yet be Buddhist as well. There's no need to feel conflicted if you have a different faith but wish to study Vipassana or any other form of Buddhist meditation. For some, studying meditation is a way of renewing and strengthening a sense of spirituality in their lives. For others, it's a much needed escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life. In either case, taking time for a meditation retreat, especially in a country so dedicated to it, is a great way to establish a daily practice that can help you with stress when you return home.
Myanmar's Mergui Archipelago: More Than 800 Untouched Tropical Islands
In a world where it seems every potential tourist spot is becoming yet another site for fast food franchises, Myanmar offers many locations that are unbelievably unspoiled. Formerly known as Burma, the country is vast and offers a wide range of ecosystems that can be enjoyed. Among them are tropical islands, such as those that make up the Mergui Archipelago to the south of the country. Because they only became opened to tourism recently (in 1997), there are not that many visitors as of yet, allowing you a chance to visit a place that few people in the world have ever been. It's the perfect spot for enjoying the surf and the sand. You can go boating, snorkeling, diving, and fishing here in turquoise water that is unbelievably clear. Or you can just laze on the pure white sand and do nothing at all except enjoy a refreshing drink. The choice is yours. On land, you'll be able to spot a number of different species including deer, wild boar, lizards, monkeys, and many tropical birds. In the water, there is abundant marine wildlife, including sharks, rays, dolphins, and an almost impossible myriad of colorful fish. As interesting as the animals are, so too are the local people called the Moken, or sea gypsies. They live primarily on the water and have a unique culture that is almost magical to behold. Today, they build their boats and fish much as their ancestors have done for centuries. They are superb swimmers and divers, making the bulk of their living by diving for pearls, shells, and other marine treasures. To get to the islands, you can fly from Yangon, Myanmar, or take a boat from Kawthoung or Dawei. Flights don't leave every day, so be sure to check the schedule when planning your itinerary. It's also possible to cruise there. The best part of the islands is the lack of infrastructure, so you're not going to find your pick of 5-star resorts here. The lodging of choice is the Myanmar Andaman Resort. While it is called a resort, don't think Club Med—it's more like an eco-lodge, but what it lacks in the facilities of a true resort, it more than makes up for in its proximity to nature at its unspoiled best. The hotel does offer kayaking and snorkeling trips and it's even possible to take most PADI courses here for those who wish to improve their diving abilities. If staying landside doesn't appeal to you, take a look at one of the many cruise options. They are available in a variety of lengths from as little as three days on up to 10. Of course, the longer a cruise you choose, the more you will be able to see and do. When choosing your cruise, you will have options as to the class of boat you would like—remember that you will be living aboard the ship for the duration of your tour, meaning you should choose the same comfort level that you would prefer in a hotel. Also, if your particular interest is in diving, be sure to look at one of the many vessels that offer that as a specialty. This article was written by Maureen Santucci. Originally from the U.S., Maureen has made Peru her home for the past five years. She writes for Fodor's Travel Guide as well as various travel blogs when she isn't escaping off to the mountains to hike, teaching Tai Chi, or treating patients in her acupuncture clinic.
12 Delicious Foods to Try in Colombia
This article was written by Karen Attman on behalf of Viator.com. There are so many delicious dishes in Colombia it’s hard to choose just a few. Here are 12 of my favorite foods to try when visiting. Bandeja PaisaThe Colombian national dish, bandeja paisa, is not for the faint of heart. Born in the “paisa” region of Colombia—Medellin and its surroundings—it is called bandeja (tray) because rather than being served on a plate, it’s often served on a tray large enough to accommodate the huge portions. You certainly don’t have to travel to Medellin to try it, since this is a typical lunch throughout Colombia, sometimes served as a corrientazo (popular, inexpensive lunch). Normally included on the plate: rice, fried plantain, chicharron, ground beef, blood sausage, avocado, arepa, and red beans, all topped with a fried egg. LechonaLechona is whole baby pork, roasted to perfection, with a crunchy outer skin and deliciously soft meat on the inside. For those not used to seeing the heads of the animals they’re eating, it can be upsetting to see a whole lechona, but just one bite of it erases any doubts about the value of the dish. Lechona is served throughout Colombia for lunch or dinner at roadside stands, fine restaurants and fairs, or basically wherever Colombians are. A common street food, it is often served on small plates with arepa or potatoes, or made into a sandwich. ChicharronWhile we’re on the subject of pork, let’s discuss chicharrones. Perhaps one of the most common ways to eat pork in Colombia, it’s readily available everywhere and is inexpensive. The pork rinds are deep fat fried until crispy, then cut into small pieces and served with arepa, fried plantain, or potatoes. Pick it up from vendors on the streets throughout the day or enjoy it as a side dish with a meal. FritangaThis is another one for meat lovers. Fritanga is a dish with a mix of meats—longaniza (pork sausage), bofe (lung), liver, chicharron, blood sausage, chorizo (another type of pork sausage) and chunchullo (intestines) cut up into small pieces, thrown together and served on a big plate with yucca or plantain. This dish goes well with beer and friends. Sancocho de gallinaA comforting soup in colder climates, sancocho de gallina is often the dish of choice to make whenever there is a large gathering of friends or family. Hen, yucca, plantain, cilantro, carrots, and other vegetables are cooked into a soup in huge pots. Pan de bonoSmall, puffy, light-as-air cheese breads made with yucca flour and queso costeño (hard white cheese), these are common throughout Colombia for breakfast or snacks, or to accompany that afternoon coffee. PetoPeto, or mazamorra, is white corn cooked very well until it reaches a soupy consistency. The mazamorra antioqueña is usually served in milk and with a heaping serving of grated panela (raw sugar cane). It’s common to see vendors selling it on the streets or even from door to door, calling out “pehhhhhto” as they walk. ChuzosOr brochetas. Or pinchos. Whatever you want to call them, these Colombia kabobs are delicious. On the side of roadways or on any crowded city sidewalk, vendors set up grills where they place long skewers with juicy cuts of beef, pork or chicken and topped with an arepa or small papas saladas, a heavily salted potato. Calentao paisaCalentao (which means warmed up) began, as its name suggests, as warmed up left overs, traditionally served for breakfast in poor households. Rice, ripe plantain, chorizo, potatoes, beef, beans, chicken, and sausage are all thrown into the pan and heated up together, with a fried egg often served on top. Depending on the region, corn, lentils, and even pasta can also be thrown into the mix. TamalesThese are served throughout Latin America, and in Colombia the tradition is for families to gather together to eat them in restaurants and bakeries on the weekends. Tamales are made with ground corn or corn flour and are filled with meat, chicken, pork, vegetables and rice, then neatly tied up in plantain leaves and boiled. Each region of Colombia has their own version of tamales; in some areas rice or plantain is used to encase the meat, and they can include peas, beans, egg, veal, chicken, capers, or raisins. ObleasThese thin, round wafers are served sandwich-style, filled with arequipe (a South American caramel sauce). In addition to arequipe they can be filled with mora (berry) sauce, grated white cheese, peanuts, passion fruit sauce, or cream. They are an inexpensive sweet snack sold everywhere throughout Colombia. Fresh fruitThere’s an abundance of fresh fruit in Colombia that delights visitors. Fruit here comes in all colors, sizes, shapes, and flavors and with unusual names like lulo, maracuya, granadilla, pitaaya, and níspero. Also, some of the ones that are well known, like mangoes, are so flavorful and juicy and come in such outstanding variety that it’s a totally different eating experience. Mango biche, green mango that is often cut into thin long strips that look like green spaghetti, is served with lime and salt. Salpicon is a huge serving of tropical fruit salad served with or without ice cream. For those that are brave, there are also choices like mondongo, large fried ants, and chunchullo (fried pork intestines). A food tour is one of the best ways to get in a number of these tastes at local spots around Colombia.
Thai Massage: Relaxing or Voluntary Torture?
This article was written by Sia Ling Xin, who travels and writes about it for Asiarooms.com, a blog and online community focused on travelling in Asia. You can also find her on Twitter. Thailand, known for her islands, cheap food, and friendly locals, is also famed for massages. You may have heard horror stories of crazy poses, crackling spines and vicious masseuses bearing their full body weight on your naked back. Is the quintessential Thai massage experience really so scary, though? Sia Ling Xin, a massage addict and avid beach holiday lover, explains the various types of Thai massages commonly offered. No Thai experience is complete without a visit (or three) to the massage parlours. Remember, there's no need to be afraid of Thai masseuse lady! Thai Massage (with Oil)Pain factor: 2 stars This massage requires you to get naked and lie stomach-down on a bed. The masseuse starts applying oil on your back and rubs in long, gentle strokes. She may apply more pressure when kneading your shoulders, but overall, it's not painful or demanding. In fact, most people doze off and only wake up towards the end of the session, when the masseuse prompts you to sit upright, and proceeds to gently swing your head a few times... until she manages to 'pop' your neck. Expect the same swinging and popping for your spine and toes, but while you may hear scary sounds, it doesn't hurt at all. If you're looking to be pampered and fussed over, this is the massage for you. Traditional Thai MassagePain factor: 4.5 stars (if you ask for a strong masseuse, give it five stars, and bravo to you) You may be asked to change into a loose fitting outfit provided by the parlour, usually a pair of knee length drawstring pants and a t-shirt. This massage is fast-paced, demanding, and by far my favourite type of massage to get in Thailand. When in Thailand, forget about Swedish oil massages. Get kneaded as the Thais do! And boy, do they do it well. Expect lots of cracking (fingers, toes, spine, neck), lots of elbow and knee jabs (on sensitive points like the small of your back) and even some body-to-body contortion. It all sounds and looks a lot scarier than it actually is. My suggestion is to find a 'medium' strength masseuse and tell her to take the pressure down a notch if a while into the massage, you find it too intense. There is some pain involved, but only for areas that are stiff. And the pay-off is feeling wonderfully relaxed, almost like an out of body experience, after an experienced masseuse has had her wicked way with you. Relaxing Foot MassagePain factor: 3 stars (one star for the massage stick) If you're in the mood for a gentle foot rub that gets the blood circulation going, opt for this. You may see the masseuses whip out a black pen-like stick. Made of teak, this stick will be used to press on certain acupuncture points on your foot and toes, and you may feel a slight pinch. Overall, however, it's calm, gentle, and a great chance to practise your Thai with masseuses or just catch forty winks. About 50 minutes will be spent on your feet, and the last ten minutes on a quick shoulder and head massage. (This quickie will give you a taste of a full-blown traditional Thai massage.) Don't expect intense foot aches to disappear. The relaxing foot massage is great pampering while you're in the parlour, but it does not quite invigorate. If you like it hard, ask for the Oriental Foot Massage, which is a notch more intense. Aloe Vera MassagePain factor: 1 star (from the shock of cold aloe vera gel) This is the go-to massage for those who had a little too much fun in the sun and forgot protection (SPF 30 at least!). Sunburns can get nasty, and the pain sometimes lasts for days. If you're in the mood for a massage but your skin is too tender to be subjected to any kind of kneading and rubbing, opt for the Aloe Vera Massage. You'd be asked to strip down to your undies, and a masseuse will apply liberal amounts of aloe vera gel on your scorched skin. It is very gentle, and instead of a massage, may feel more like a spa treatment—not a bad thing for those with painful, inflamed skin! Those strapped for cash can duplicate the experience on their own—just bring a large tube of aloe vera along on your beach trip (or purchase one locally at a marked up rate), chill it in the hotel mini fridge, and apply it every night. If you have a significant other or good friend with you, the application at hard to reach areas should be no problem at all. Sports MassagePain level: 4 stars (you sporty folks can take the heat, I know) Yes, a beach holiday may take a lot out of you... especially those who like to go kayaking, rock climbing, or engage in other sporting activities. In this case, you may want to opt for the sports massage, which usually targets often-used areas such as hamstrings, shoulders, and arms. Somewhat of a cross between an oil massage and a Thai massage, the sports massage usually uses some form of heat rub to relax your aching muscles, which are then kneaded with ferocity. It may sound daunting, but a session or two may just be what you need to relax those stiff muscles!
Bring Home a Taste of the Islands—With the Original Piña Colada Recipe
Say "piña colada." It rolls off the tongue nicely, doesn't it? And you might as well have said "party!" Did you know that the iconic tropical drink was originally created at Caribe Hilton, in Puerto Rico, in 1954 by bartender Ramón "Monchito" Marrero? The creative mixologist whipped up the classic and continued to serve up the tasty blend of rum, coconut, and pineapple until his retirement in 1989. The drink is now the official drink of Puerto Rico (which is one of our favorite affordable indulgences in the Caribbean). To say "happy birthday" to the signature beverage, Hilton is rolling out a deal from November 17 through 23 that allows guests at select Hilton properties to enter to win a six-day/five-night stay at Caribe Hilton along with travel/airfare for two. Just as exciting—or maybe even more so!—is that rooms at the gorgeous Caribe Hilton start at $99 per night, putting a luxurious Caribbean vacation well within reach this winter! Caribe Hilton's Oasis Bar, where Marrero first concocted his sweet, icy libation, will be serving the original recipe plus some contemporary riffs throughout the year. The hotel will also offer mixology classes, sweepstakes, and more. Thirsty? Get out your blender! Here's the ORIGINAL piña colada recipe, as perfected by Ramón Marrero in 1954. Enjoy it (responsibly) with friends the next time you're browsing BT's tropical eye candy (for starters, check out Senior Editor Jamie Beckman's "10 Most Romantic Islands in the World!"). THE ORIGINAL 1954 PINA COLADA RECIPE Serves 1 Ingredients: 2 oz White Rum1 oz coconut cream1 oz heavy cream6 oz fresh pineapple juice ½ cup crushed ice Directions: Pour the rum, coconut cream, heavy cream, and pineapple juice in a blender. Add the ice and blend for about 15 seconds or until smooth. Serve in a 12-ounce glass. Garnish with a fresh pineapple wedge and a maraschino cherry.