Tranquility in the Country Side and A Quiet Resort

Country-Side-and-Mt.-Popa-ResortCredits: Papers by Sus Designs’ Saving Memories kit.

We found ourselves in a quiet street, away from the main road of New Bagan, looking for La Min Thit, a family run restaurant highly recommended by the staff of Yadanarbon Hotel. There we were warmly welcomed by the owner himself, Ko Htwe. He suggested some excellent dishes, which he said are simple home food that his wife cooks.

La-Min-Thit-dishes

While waiting for our food to arrive, we asked for a recommendation on things to do while in Bagan and ended up accepting his offer to drive us to Mt. Popa on New Year’s Day.

Fifty kilometers away from Bagan, passing through the countryside, is an extinct volcano, an iconic postcard sight, and a frighteningly steep cliff that leads to a sacred monastery.

Mt.-Popa

Monasteries and temples can become monotonous after a week in this country so we decided to just admire it from afar.

Resort

Instead, Ko brought us to the Mt. Popa Resort, just 1.5 kilometers away from the pilgrim village.

poolside

Mt-Popa-from-Resort

Mt-Popa-backdrop

The resort offers a breathtaking view of the Taung Kalat Monastery atop Mt. Popa and its lush surroundings.

Organic-garden

It also offers cooking classes in their organic garden.

Organic-garden-and-Ko-HtweKo Htwe enjoying the garden with us.

Resort-2

Mt.-Popa-Resort-dishes

We went continental for lunch, for a change.  The serene and relaxing vibe was a welcome treat.

On our way to Mt Popa, we stopped at a roadside village selling local produce.

Country-life

Local-snacksLocal snacks, which include ingredients to make Tea Leaf Salad.
Making-ThanakaNothing spells more quintessential Burmese than Thanaka.  This girl was making Burmese sunscreen from this bark.

Useful Info:

Mt. Popa Resort: Mount Popa, KyaukPadaung Township, Mandalay Division, Myanmar 
Tel: (+95 9) 402760884, (+95 9) 8600 660. 

La Min Thit: Khat Thet Street, New Bagan Tel: (+95) 6165313
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Of Snows and Hot Baths

In the middle of Daisetsuzan National Park, nestled in narrow scenic gorge flanked by cliffs,

abundant hot springs, powerful waterfalls,

and fantastic rock formation is a full-scale mountain resort town called Sounkyo.

It has become quite touristy because it is an excellent base for trekking and skiing around the National Park.

From late January to the end of March, the town hosts (you guessed it) the Sounkyo Ice Waterfall Festival (Sounkyo Onsen Hyoubaku Matsuri).

The highlight of this festival is the frozen waterfalls along with the man-made, multi-story high structures that have a maze like tunnels running through them, all built around the Ishikari River.

Snow domes and ice sculptures likewise scatter around the compound.

Heated quarters with warm drinks and food here.

And even if logic tells you to stay indoors due to the severe cold weather, make sure to be there at night


The Ishikari River runs through the festival.

or miss out on the spectacular lights that illuminate the whole place come sundown. On weekends, you’ll be lucky to witness fireworks too.

Us in an ice bar display

The best way to end the evening is to thaw off at one of the many hot springs found in town. At the Sounkyo Kanko Hotel, we went for the spacious outdoor bath at the back of the hotel. Crazy it may seem, but because this open-air bath is unisex, it was wonderful to be sharing this experience with the hubby. Getting ourselves to walk the short distance from the dressing room to the pool in skimpy clothes provided by the hotel was unimaginable, but once in the hot bath, it was nirvana. This being the last stretch of our Hokkaido winter holiday, it seemingly melted away all the frozen kinks in our body, accumulated over the past days.

Ahh… Always a good experience, this bathing in the snow.

Minalungao

It’s the first days of summer, and this draft has been on the back burner giving way to other bigger trips I’ve had.

So before I start writing about my next destination, which took place last month in an icy setting and is the exact opposite of what we will be experiencing in the coming days, I’d like to take you to a place in Nueva Ecija. A little gem, they say it is. It was a spur of the moment and as these things go, we all made it.  Sometimes to plan is vain.

The small part of an otherwise well-paved road was only wide enough for our Explorer to safely get its way past the stream, thanks to this boy who helped us navigate our way.

Thanking him after, he offered to be our guide. Enterprising young man. And so for 500Php, the then 14-year-old AJ took us around his playground.

We navigated the short but somehow challenging, sometimes slippery rocks and trail to the cave that AJ said would take only 5 minutes. “Akala ko 5 minutes lang sa loob ng cave, bakit parang 20 minutes na kami ditto sa loob ah?” (I thought it only takes 5 minutes to explore the cave, why does it seem like 20 minutes already?) I asked AJ. “Kasi ang bibilis nyo mag lakad!” “Because you all walk so fast!” he said. He has a point.  🙂

In the foothills of the Sierra Madre lies a protected area in the municipality of General Tinio (sometimes also called Papaya – don’t ask me why) where the Penaranda River flows cutting through magnificent limestone walls.

One can trek to the caves through the limestone wall, swim in the crystal clear, refreshing water or simply soak in the scenery while enjoying a packed lunch on the raft.

Do try to make your way there if you haven’t. An enjoyable day trip it certainly was.

Shaxi: Quaintest of Quaint

This must be the quaintest of quaint towns I’ve set foot on in quite a while if not in all of my travels. Found halfway between Dali and Lijiang,

sideng-square-from-trail-cafe

Shaxi is home to beautifully preserved adobe courtyard mansions that offer a glimpse into a forgotten era. It was the most intact trading center for centuries linking Yunnan into Bhutan and Tibet on the Tea and Horse Caravan Trail and this lead to its prosperity during the Tang Dynasty. The network channeled tea, horse, and other valuables among the diverse ethnic groups residing in the eastern Himalayan region. What lead to the trail’s demise was the development of the road transportation and Shaxi became just another village in the 1950s. In 2001, the village was included in the protection list of 101 endangered sites and a Swiss-led team worked for years to restore the deteriorating town.

alleyway

The old town of Shaxi is quite compact and easily explored by foot.

sideng-square

It consists mainly of a few quiet lanes and alleys that radiate from Sideng Square—a fascinating marketplace at the heart of Shaxi where we spent most of that Sunday people watching and just chilling.

chilling

The iconic Sideng Theater seats in the middle of the square.

sideng-theater

The unique 4-storey architectural structure and exquisite craftsmanship are the soul of Shaxi because it is (to this day) where the Bai people perform during celebrations.

Across the theater is the Xingjiao Temple. Both are ancient structures that add character to the square. The temple (now a museum) is one of the best-preserved temples in the entire China because it was sequestered and used as a local government headquarters during the Cultural Revolution.

xingjiao-temple-interior

This ironically saved it from destruction. Coupled with painstaking restoration by the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project (SRP), a visit is worth the while. Original murals can still be seen on the walls of the Hall of the Heavenly King.

hei-hui-river

One alleyway leads to the eastern village gate and outside this gate, the Heihui River meanders from north to south through Shaxi.

yujin-bridge-2

The crescent-shaped Yujin Bridge was the only way for the Bai people go to the fields and do business back in the days. With the towering mountains as a backdrop, this bridge is a sight to behold and is one of the highlights of this leg.

simple-joys

Many find pleasure just to simply lie on the grass and chill.

guesthouse-cafes-and-stores

What used to be tack shops, blacksmiths and caravanserais are now guesthouses and

western-dishes

western-dishes-2

foreigner-friendly cafes (offering English menus and western style dishes), which signals an upcoming tourism boom (read: tourist buses) in this old town.

daytrippers-2

Though its visitors still form a fascinating merge of intrepid and curious travellers, many of its visitors (at the time of my visit) came in groups and spent an hour or so running through the ancient streets taking shots of the temple and theatre.  This tells me that the boom might have started already.

daytrippers

The best time to enjoy the quietness of this old trade post is first thing in the morning or very late at night.

square-at-night

As soon as the last bus headed back to Lijiang, the sanctuary of calm kicks off and we sit in the square savoring the solitude.

night-life

At night, we shared the square with the art students. We sit sipping our cup of coffee while they gather around the plaza playing street games under the moonlight and a few lights illuminating the square.

Scenes of Shaxiearly-morning-in-sideng-square

Sideng Square the day after, during breakfast, before journeying on to Lijiang.
ancient-treeAncient tree scatter around the village.
art-students-on-a-field-tripArt students abound; finding inspiration in this breathtaking old town.
 resort-on-the-riseA resort on the rise.
crystal-clear-waterA crystal clear stream flows through the main street of the ancient village.

resident

funny-english-translationsBastardized English Menu
fried-parametersThe fried parameters look like worms but is a root (perhaps from the ginseng family)
park-by-the-riverThe park by the river, just outside the East gate of the ancient town.
guesthouse-courtyardThe courtyard of our guesthouse (Renjia just off the village entrance) — turned into a drying area.
guesthouse-entranceThe entrance to our guesthouse was through the kitchen.
meal-at-renjiaPerhaps why they serve delicious Yunnan cuisine at our guesthouse.  This was lunch when we arrived.
modern-day-give-awayModern day giveaway — local kids with they games.

knitting

locals

little-girl

Xizhou: The Other Old Town of Dali

When asked where she would recommend we go besides the old town, Ling told us to go to Xizhou. “It may not appeal to everyone,” she said, “but many appreciate it for its cultural heritage.” And with that, Ling arranged for a car to bring us there.

A side note on how sweet she is. She lent us her phone so we can communicate with the driver, who does not speak a word of English, through her.

outside-the-village

Where he dropped us off, there was no sign or directions to the village so we walked around until we reached a bridge that seemed to lead to a community.

bridge

I have to say that albeit quite serene, the area was pretty empty.

lake

It felt strange to not meet a single soul for perhaps a good 10 minutes walking around the village.

empty-streets

A ghost town, we thought and wondered if it was why many didn’t like the village. The houses seemed lived in though so we explored further even though half of us felt like it might be a waste time.

bai-architecture

Well, I’m glad we persisted. We realized that the driver, for some reason, dropped us off at the back (perhaps) of the village or that we went the wrong direction (remember we cannot communicate).

squareBecause as we strolled further into the village, passing through courtyard houses, we eventually found ourselves at the heart of the village revealing a vibrant square surrounded by shops selling food, china wares, antiques, and a few souvenirs.

more-shops

shops

Being an enclave for prosperous merchants and scholars, the Bai people put emphasis on education and achievements. During the Ming Dynasty, they commemorate those who did remarkably well in the imperial exams by having their names written on a stone tablet standing on this square. Something like a “Hall of Fame.”

Xizhou was an important as a trading port along the Tea Horse Road and an essential place for military affairs, once housing a landing strip and radio station for the Flying Tigers during WWII.

coffee-shop

Just 20 km away from Dali Gucheng, Xizhou is (still) a sleepy town that lacks the hip vibe of the former. The architecture however fascinates and the square engaging with regular folks going about their business.

people-watch

In fact, the best part of our afternoon here in Xizhou was watching village life take place as we sip our cup of joe. The ordinariness of Xizhou is what makes it extraordinary.

Jianshui: An Ancient Town Side Trip

Ancient-Town-JianshuiCredits: Now is paper in green and orange; 4ever paper in argyle, love, and solid blue; 4ever striped ribbon—all by Splendid Fiin; Queen of Quirk star element.

Many stop for lunch, but not many stay the night. An optional gateway just 117 kilometers northeast of Yuanyang, we thought that it would be nice to spend a leisurely afternoon and evening in Jianshui County.

coffee-shaved-ice-and-beerRelaxing on shaved ice, coffee and beer ordered mostly through google translate.

It may not be the highlight of our trip, but it was a pleasant interlude, watching the day pass by in a small, sleepy town.

Walking around Jianshui brings you back to the Ming Dynasty.

exploring-Jianshui-2

Many of the structures still keep the tradition architecture of that time. It is like walking through a museum of ancient buildings and residences.

exploring-Jianshui

Small enough to walk around, we covered most of the must-sees in one afternoon.

lunch

After a sumptuous lunch in one of the very few “foreigner friendly” (menu presented on a tablet with photos) restaurants in Han Lin Lu, we headed out to explore the town.

restaurant

Not far from the restaurant in Jianxin St. is a fascinating example of the Qing era, the Zhu Family Garden.

zhu-family-ancient-architecture-

Transporting you 150 years back into imperial times, it showcases the elegance of the Zhu family’s architectural complex from raised eaves, intricate carvings to the spacious 20,000 square meter compound—

zhu-family-courtyardcourtyard
zhu-family-intricate-carvingsintricate carvings
zhu-family-looking-out-to-gardengarden

comprising of ancient buildings, family houses, ponds, lovely gardens and courtyards that took thirty years to build.

tree-lined-street

The main road, Lin-an Lu is shaded with old trees and on its eastern end stands this three-story Chaoyang Tower with a panoramic view of the town.

Chaoyang-Tower

Built in 1389, the gate tower stands in the middle of Jianshui County and with exactly the same style as Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, it has been labeled as the “Little Tiananmen”.

locals-socializing

locals-socializing-4

locals-socializing-3

A lovely place to while away time, many locals spend their free time socializing at the square.

confucius-temple

On the opposite end of Lin-an Rd. is a well-preserved and one of the largest Confucius Temple in China.   The temple is constructed in traditional Chinese architecture with a history of more than 700 years.  We actually skipped this and instead walked around town and amused ourselves with the everyday goings on.

everyday-stuff-2A favorite past time, I reckon
everyday-stuffA lovely background sound it made while we were having our coffee

A contrast to lunch, in an alleyway in a small barbecue shop, dinner was the famous BBQ tofu

grilled-tofu

and a Jianshui original, rice noodle soup call Guo Qiao Mixian.

dinner

And with that satisfying dish, we ended our day ready for tomorrow’s trip the Yuanyang.

More of Jianshui:

guilin-innThe entrance to our guesthouse, Guilin Inn
locals-in-the-squareA man on the square
locals-socializing-2Singing in the square
restaurant-interiorInside the restaurant at lunch
view-of-Lin-'an-from-Chaoyangthe view of Lin’an Road from the tower
zhu-garden-pondone of the many ponds of the Zhu Family Garden

Bukchon and Samcheon-dong: A Fusion of Old and New

hanok-roof

Wandering around Bukchon, a village with over 600 years of history in the midst of metropolitan Seoul was a stroll into the past and the present.

residential-It was home to aristocrats back in those days when the village was downtown Seoul hence the many traditional houses dating back to the Joseon Dynasty.

cultural-center

Called hanok, more than a few of these traditional houses remained remarkably well and are still actual homes to the Seoulites if not operating as cultural centers, guesthouses, restaurants or tea houses.

view-of-the-metro

The walk around Buckchon will immerse you in an atmosphere of ancient Joseon Dynasty with old hanoks in small alleyways that lead to great panoramic views of modern Seoul.

samcheongdong

Next to Bukchon is Samcheongdong-gil. One of Seoul’s most stylish neighborhoods harmoniously juxtaposing the old Korea and the modern artsy galleries and cafes as numerous art galleries, shops and restaurants set up shop in renovated hanoks.

mountain-viewMt. Bukak is partly responsible for the charm and mystic of Samcheong-dong.

This charming enclave begins where Insadong ends. Not the typical tourist area, and the rows of boutiques, galleries, and cute coffee shops make for a delightful afternoon wander.

charming

Captivated once again by Seoul’s unique charm, delectable bites and warm-hearted people, it is beyond any doubt that I will be back, and hopefully much sooner this time.

tea-house

Annyeong Seoul… till we meet again.