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Sunrise Balloon Flight Over Bagan

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Sunrise Balloon Flight Over Bagan

By now, images of hot air balloons dispersed across the skyline of Bagan are almost synonymous with travel in Myanmar. With my (very) short itinerary in this picturesque architectural town, ballooning seemed like a beautiful and memorable way of viewing the immense number of pagodas (it's estimated that there are about 2200 temples and pagodas that remain today- there were over 10,000 during the kingdom's heyday from the 11th-13th centuries) scattered across the sparse landscape. 

I took the plunge online with Oriental Ballooning and crossed my fingers after submitting my credit card info, aware that all flights are dependent on weather conditions. Fortunately, all of the stars aligned that morning for a prime flying experience. [A little aside- I was impressed with the speed and politeness of their correspondence up to the day of pickup, which gave us confidence about this pricey experience]

On the morning of the scheduled flight, we waited in the lobby in the dark for the 5:30am pickup. We were driven to a field where tables were set up for a light breakfast and tea with the opportunity to chat with other basket-mates before the flight. As the sun began to peek out, the pilots introduced themselves and called out the passengers riding with them.

The balloon seems to stand still in the air while the earth flies past underneath.
— Alberto Santos-Dumont

After a safety briefing, we watched in fascination as these simple yet magnificent contraptions got prepped for takeoff. 12 of us climbed into each balloon (4 baskets, 3 people per basket, not including the pilot) I'm not sure what I expected but everything about the experience was very gentle; we floated off the ground slowly as the landscape below seemed to pull away. Something to get used to is the sound and sensation of the hot air blowing every few minutes almost right above your head. Despite (or because of) the haziness in February (word on the street is that the sunrise is much clearer later in the year) I enjoyed the soft light and cinematic views of the cloudy sky. 

Our pilot talked us through the flight, pointing out some of the main temples in Bagan such as Ananda, Sulemani and Dhammayangyi (pictured above). Soon, the sun was up and it was time to secure a landing spot. The magical thing about ballooning is that while they all take off from the same spot, your path literally goes with the wind.  

It was interesting to learn that many of the empty fields below have now been designated as a new hotel zone to accommodate all of the tourists interested in visiting Bagan, and I was told that soon, the balloons will end up landing farther and farther out from the center of Bagan. Like many other developing countries, this popularity can go both ways. While more lodging would certain make a trip more economical for many visitors (room rates in Myanmar seemed relatively expensive due to limited supply), only time will tell if it is possible to preserve the authenticity of the local lifestyle and integrate as many locals as possible into the tourism industry during this period of incredible growth. 

I have known today a magnificent intoxication. I have learnt how it feels to be a bird. I have flown. Yes I have flown. I am still astonished at it, still deeply moved.
— Le Figaro, 1908

If you have a few minutes (2 minutes and 21 seconds, to be exact), I invite you to experience the weightlessness of drifting gently along the horizon. 

Our pilot navigated us to a soft open field for landing. I loved observing the crew of about 10 men taking down the balloon, wrestling with the billowy fabric that just a few minutes ago was capable of transporting us across Bagan.

Play: 

Oriental Ballooning Lanmadaw, Hman Kyo Quarter, Nyaung Oo

Online reservations recommended.

[We found out that the government allows a limited number of balloons up in the air at once over Bagan and the operating companies split that quota. If you're deciding between which company to fly with, they all take off from the same field at around the same time, so it could just be a matter of availability.] 

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Slices Of Rome

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Slices Of Rome

Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning.
— Giotto di Bondone

There is an truly surreal feeling about stepping into a city that has been depicted so often in art, film, and literature...arriving in a place with an identity so robust it's often considered more of a character than simply a location. Every gap on the cobblestone streets and every crack in a facade seem to retain secrets of centuries past.

While navigating hordes of tourists during the busy summer season got a bit laborious, it is easy to see why Rome is one of the most visited cities in the world. Standing in the middle of the Pantheon gazing at the sunlight filter in through the domed roof, we marveled at the architectural feats of the Romans and the vision and patience required to execute such grand structures before the age of motorized machinery. 

Although we did visit many of the "must-do's" of Rome, some of my favorite images from the trip evoke memories of brief visceral moments in between landmarks; the majestic shafts of light that must have inspired so many painters, and the juxtaposition of contemporary life amid a city that has been vibrant for centuries and has the patina to prove it. 

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One of the highlights of our short stay: pick up prosciutto and bread at Giselda and hike up to Giardino degli Aranci for a classic Roman sunset over the city.

Feast:

Dar Poeta Vicolo del Bologna, 45, 00153 Roma, Italy

Highly recommended by a friend who grew up in Rome, this no frills pizza restaurant in Trastevere frequently has a waiting list on the sidewalk. 

Regoli Pasticceria Via dello Statuto, 60, 00185 Roma, Italy

We spent our Sunday morning in Rome at Regoli's, ordering a selection of pastries, hot cocoa, and tea, lingering at our table watching locals float in wearing an assortment of workout and church attire and carrying out boxes of sweets in the signature Regoli blue wrapping.

 

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Destination Wedding In Yelapa, Mexico

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Destination Wedding In Yelapa, Mexico

In This Side of a WildernessDaniel Rice writes that "There are places which exist in this world beyond the reach of imagination". VERANA is that place. We knew right away the remote setting, which requires transportation by plane (to Puerto Vallarta), car (to Boca de Tomatlan), and boat (to Yelapa) to reach, was the perfect destination for our intimate jungle-meets-sea union in 2015. 

I loved that place as if it was a part of me, and perhaps, in some ways, it was.
— Neil Gaiman

The thought and care put into each of the 9 uniquely designed bungalows in VERANA and the property's stunning locale overlooking Banderas Bay make it a visual feast at every angle. Instead of inundating this post with wedding images; I opted to share a few of the many details that made this a dream setting to pledge our vows to each other, and hopefully return to for years to come.

Moments like waking up to the morning sun peeking through our open air bungalow (we stayed in the Tea House) still hasn't left us. The combination of thoughtful design and architecture that highlighted the mountain setting felt like such a gem in a country with no shortage of overdeveloped resorts. While the sea crabs and occasional critters that roam the property may not be for everyone, we found it charming that the ecosystem of Yelapa remained intact. 

Our 3-day celebration was filled with moments of love and laughter with the friends and family who journeyed to join us on the start of our lifelong adventure and was made more so by the warmth that every person on the VERANA staff exuded. We were made to feel like we were visiting the home of a long lost travel companion and for all of the superb hospitality, nourishing meals, and enticing cocktails, we are forever grateful. 

Stay/Play/Feast:

VERANA Yelapa, Mexico

While we booked out the entire property for our festivities (it holds 30-40 guests comfortably), it is possible to stay there individually as well. Meals by their incredible chefs are included due to the remote location. Go full-on retreat with their yoga classes and on-site spa services that all begin with a custom blend of tea. 

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Enchanted By Phu Quoc Island

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Enchanted By Phu Quoc Island

Maybe it’s because I was born on an island (Penang), that I find myself constantly drawn to them when traveling. After hearing about Phu Quoc, a idyllic Vietnamese island in the Gulf of Thailand, I knew it was not only a must-stop on my limited timeline, it was the destination I wanted to end the trip with. That arrangement turned out to be exactly what I needed and continues to be one of my fondest memories of Vietnam

Unlike the charming yet commercialized village of Hoi An (which happened to be pouring rain during my stay) or the overwhelming bustle of motorcycles in Saigon, Phu Quoc is a low key fishing island surrounded by shimmering turquoise water. Most of the north portion remains a dense tropical jungle, much of it having been designated as a national park just recently in 2001. Making my home at Mango Bay Eco Resort, which was a bit of a distance from the cluster of hotels and resorts on Long Beach, was also what made the time there so enjoyable. 

While pepper and fish sauce are the island's main exports, many of the locals make their living off the sea and the activities available in Phu Quoc reflect that. On the first night, I joined Phu Quoc Sunny on a squid fishing excursion. They sent a moped to pick me up and I was instantly transported to my time in Bali, riding through the countryside with the wind blowing through as I gazed at fields, sparse buildings, and street side vendors.

We arrived at Duong Dong harbor and climbed onto the barge just before sunset with about 15 other eager squid fishers. Once night fell, we fished alongside other vessels, for as long or as short as our patience would allow. Afterwards, the crew cooked a simple meal of veggies and (what else?) squid and we all ate together illuminated by the boat lamps, washing the savory meal down with Vietnamese beer. 

The following morning, I went snorkeling at An Thoi, a group of 15 islands just off the southern coast of Phu Quoc. It was the type of day you reminisce about months later; the kind of day spent in a sun-baked haze revolving between sunning, diving off boats, swimming in pristine water, and drying off, punctuated by sips of cold beer and sunscreen reapplication. The boat, also operated by Phu Quoc Sunny, stopped at 3 different snorkeling spots around An Thoi and famed Sao Beach, once a lot more secluded than it has been recently. 

On the way back to Mango Bay, my driver was kind enough to stop at Dinh Cao Night Market at my request, since I was leaving the following afternoon. I walked through the lively seafood stalls, ordering freshly grilled shrimp and scallops simply seasoned by the smoky grill and a sprinkle of lime and salt and enjoyed observing locals taking in the sunset. It was the perfect way to wind down a whirlwind trip. 

Stay:

Mango Bay Eco Resort 

Ong Lang Beach, Phu Quoc Island; Kien Giang Province, Vietnam. 92000

Feast:

Dinh Cau Night Market

Play:

  • Snorkeling at An Thoi Islands
  • Night squid fishing
  • Swimming + sunning at Sao Beach

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