Southeast Asia 2017 or, how I spent my sabbatical

I am fortunate to work at a great company (Adobe) that has a killer sabbatical program. I took almost 2 months off work, from late-December 2016 to mid-February 2017, and was able to spend almost a month of that time in Southeast Asia visiting Myanmar (formerly Burma), Thailand and Laos. This is the photo journal of my trip.

Myanmar (formerly Burma)

My first stop was Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma and the main focus of my trip. For years the country has been politically isolated and mostly "closed" to tourism due to the repressive military junta that ruled the country. In 2011, the military junta was officially dissolved, and a civilian government was created that embarked on a series of reforms, including the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest (she is one of my personal heroes and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991). In April 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi became State Counsellor (similar to Prime Minister).

Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the country's largest city, is home to Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most significant and sacred sites in the Buddhist world. The temple complex is breathtaking and dates from the 6th century.

I was fascinated by the huge lines of volunteer sweepers who would get in formation, one line behind the other, to ensure that the area around the pagoda was always pristine and clean. At all Buddhist holy sites in Myanmar (and most of Asia) you remove your shoes before entering the complex.

I visited many other sights in Yangon, including the Reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Paya; the angular gold passageways of Botataung Paya; and I did a walking tour of the old historic colonial downtown, which included lunch at the Rangoon Tea House (a modern version of a classic Burmese teahouse; the banana blossom salad was out of this world).

The crazy, angular, gold covered passageways of Botataung Paya.
A Buddha image at Botataung Paya.

I loved my hotel in Yangon, which was the Belmond Governor's Residence. How could you not love a place that is dripping with colonial elegance, situated on such beautiful grounds, and includes a greeting from a peacock?!

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Next, I flew to Mandalay, the country's second largest city and the spiritual center of Myanmar. I spent the next 7 days on a river boat (the Belmond Road to Mandalay) that sailed from Mandalay to Bagan and back again. Everyone who has been to Myanmar recommends spending as much time out on the river as you can, and they are right! What a great way to see this part of the world.

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The area, especially around Bagan, is home to over 2000 Buddhist temples dating back as far as the 9th century. I visited dozens of them and can't list them all, so here's a photo gallery of some of my favorites.

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When not on foot or on a bicycle, I toured around the temples in this horse and buggy. Note to self: When a horse looks like it might poop, and you are wearing Toms, step away!!!
I also visited the longest bamboo bridge in the world, which was really spectacular at sunset.

One of the most special aspects of Myanmar is its people. They are incredibly gracious to visitors, and extraordinarily generous. (Note that these photos are from people all over Myanmar, many of them from the Shan State, not just Bagan/Mandalay.)

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This is Pyae, my smart, amazing, adorable guide while I was on the river boat. Her deep knowledge of the area really helped me get so much more out of my Mandalay and Bagan experience. The gold dust on her cheeks is a paste made by grinding a local tree bark (from the "thanaka" tree) with water. Locals (mostly women, and on occasion men) wear it as both a natural make-up and a sun block.

Buddhism is central to the lives of many of the people in Myanmar, and I had the honor of participating in giving alms to the monks in the local village (our ship had prepared a meal to serve about 200 monks). It was truly a humbling experience.

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Another highlight of the trip was a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the temples of Bagan. It was early (5-something AM) and chilly but so worth it!

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At sunset one evening, I was given the opportunity to light all of these candles in this 1000+ year old Buddhist temple in Bagan, and then I spent some time reflecting and meditating in their glow.

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Last stop in Myanmar: Inle Lake in the Shan State. It's famous for the fishermen who hold the oar and row with their leg so their hands are free to throw the fishing net.

This was my favorite part of the trip. I spent 4 days zooming around the lake in a long-tail boat visiting local villages (all of which are built on stilts over the lake), exploring temples, and enjoying the breathtaking scenery. It was perfection.

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Bangkok, Thailand

View of the Chao Phraya river, the lifeblood of Bangkok, from my hotel room.

Some people don't like Bangkok; I love it! It's busy and crazy, ancient and modern at once -- a real hot mess of a city! One of my favorites.

After a lot of traveling around Myanmar and very busy days, I wanted to relax a bit. So I spent 3 nights at a great hotel (the Shangri-La), with an amazing view of the Chao Phraya river, and did some "light exploring" of the sites along with plenty of relaxing and meeting up with friends.

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I have been friends with Eric for about 20 years, but had not seen him in quite a long time. It was great to spend a fun afternoon with Eric and his finance Andi, especially after flying solo for a few weeks!

Luang Prabang, Laos

My favorite mode of transport for seeing Luang Prabang.

Laos was my final stop on this trip. Originally, I had not planned on visiting Laos. But my friend Emily (who has traveled extensively in Southeast Asia) convinced me to go. And how right she was -- I think Luang Prabang was my favorite part of the entire trip. It definitely made me want to explore more of Laos!

The town itself is terrific -- a great mix of French colonial architecture, historic Buddhist temples and monasteries, and a "buzzy" scene. Exploring the town by bicycle was really fun.

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This really fun bamboo bridge is re-built every dry season and is a quick way to get across the river – in my case, to get to the restaurant where I wanted to have dinner!

I also did a cooking school with Tamarind, one of the best restaurants in town. I met some really great fellow travelers and, after visiting the local market, I learned how to make Mok Pa (steamed fish in a banana leaf), Ua Si Khai (a lemongrass “basket” stuffed with pork), some small dips like charred eggplant and blistered tomatoes, and Laap (the national dish which is basically any kind of ground meat seasoned with basil and lemongrass).

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Finally, I visited an elephant sanctuary in the jungle – such cuties!

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That's all, folks! Hope you enjoyed the photos and story!

Created By
Scott Morris
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All photos taken by me.

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