A Rainy Day in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Few places in the world are as renowned for its incredible natural formations like the karst limestone mountains of Halong Bay, Vietnam

The sheer size, scope and beauty of the natural rock formations of Halong Bay, Vietnam, first captured my imagination several years ago when I caught a glimpse  of them on a television program on the National Geographic Channel. Seeing is believing and it is truly one of the rare places on Planet Earth that you really do need to see to believe. Unfortunately my trip included a massive monsoon rainstorm that caught up with me on the boat ride out to explore the area.

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For all the high-resolution photos from Halong Bay, Vietnam: Click Here

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From the start, we arrived to the town of Halong Bay after a couple days in Hanoi (with beautiful blue skies nonetheless) and the change of scenery was seriously welcome. A crowded and bustling (though brilliant… more on that in a later post) city gave way to striking countryside, small villages and excellent rural expanses that span as far as the eye can see. I was traveling with three mates, one from Israel and doing a semester abroad in Hong Kong, plus two of his classmates, one German and one from Singapore. After some hunting around for the best price, we ended up in a private van for about $15 each.

Halong Bay, Vietnam
Boats with cabins below and a sundeck above are aplenty at Halong Bay, offering daily cruises

After settling into the hostel and looking for the best price for day cruises, we found most prices to range from $30 USD to $50 USD and up. We booked for $30 from the Halong Party Hostel and pickup began at 6:00 AM. Unfortunately our perfect blue skies gave way to the last gasps of the Southeast Asian monsoon and muggy weather turned out to be the theme of the day. Luckily I was armed with my handy GoPro camera and its waterproof case turned out to be a lifesaver. So in advance, my apologies for the clarity of some of these images as I was constantly wiping away raindrops from blurring my shots of the area.

Halong Bay, Vietnam
For reference, the thousands of islands of Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Upon grabbing our boat and setting sail, our first glimpse of the thousands of islands that dot the Halong Bay landscape came into view and despite all the rain, the sheer size and immensity of the surroundings really blow you away. Our first stop was a cave amongst the islands for which I was able to break out the Canon and take some remarkable images of the giant stalactite and stalagmite formations of the cave.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, VietnamHalong Bay, VietnamHalong Bay, VietnamHalong Bay, Vietnam

The cave itself was an eerie experience though for me, a bit far from enjoyable. Many tourists are crammed into the caverns not only making the art of photography difficult but making it hard to connect with the site itself and feel more like a theme park ride than an adventure out into the islands. This is the tradeoff in Halong Bay, Vietnam = the most unique and impressive sights combined with a glut of tourists which make it hard to take it all in. But I digress… after we exited the cave, the weather had broken a bit and it was back into the boat and on to the next location, taking out kayaks into the Bay. A word of advice – make sure you negotiate the kayak rental into the price of the trip itself. We had it thrown in as part of our package and avoided having to pay an extra fee for the rental. But as we arrived, the weather acted up again but it didn’t stop us from going hard into the water.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam
The cave behind us led to…
Halong Bay, Vietnam
The most gorgeous lagoon I’ve ever seen, rain and all

Kayak rental can cost anywhere from $5 to $50 USD depending on who you rent from. Don’t get scammed but definitely take the kayaks. Even in the worst weather it is an adventure well worth the hassle. With the GoPro affixed to my head attachment, we set out into the bay and underneath a cave which led to the lagoon of my dreams. We were the only ones in there and it was a welcome change from being surrounded by tourists. This was by far my favorite moment of the trip.

Halong Bay, Vietnam

The rain continued to press on and by this time we were all quite miserable, our crew along with the entire boat. I attempted to dry off but it was ultimately to no avail. A short boat ride around the islands followed by another stop at a small island concluded our epic trip to the once-of-a-kind Halong Bay. I’ll leave ya’ll with some parting shots (For all the high-resolution photos from Halong Bay, Vietnam: Click Hereand stay tuned for more from Vietnam!

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Halong Bay, Vietnam
Sun setting after a long cruise on the epic Halong Bay, Vietnam

For all my travel blog posts on Vietnam: Click Here

For all the high-resolution photos from Halong Bay, Vietnam: Click Here

The Extraordinary Plains of Bagan

Bagan, Myanmar

The plains of Bagan rival Cambodia’s Angkor Wat in size and scale

Perhaps only Cambodia’s more-famous Angkor Wat can rival Myanmar’s Bagan in terms of religious importance, size and scale in southeast Asia.

For more information from our Travel Guide on Bagan: Click Here

More on Bagan: Brilliant Bagan Sunrise in Myanmar: Click Here

More on Bagan: Photo Essay: People & Places of Bagan, Myanmar: Click Here

For all the high-resolution photos from Bagan: Click Here

Bagan

After taking in the unbelievable sunrise from the Shwesandaw Pagoda (Shwesandaw Pyay), a quick breakfast was in order back at the hotel and then it was straight out for a full day of pagoda hopping. Our first stop after breakfast was the Shwezigon Pagoda (Shwezigon Pyay, Paya) in the small town of Nyaung-U. The prototypical Burmese pagoda is as bright as gold can get and gold leaf-gilded stupa shone even brighter in the bright sunlight. Our guide filled us in on its history, having been built during the reign of Anawrahta in 1102 AD and finished during the reign of King Kyansittha of the Pagan Dynasty. Though he doesn’t buy the traditional story, it is said to house the bone and tooth of Gautama Buddha.

Bagan
No tourists, only locals… and a few at that!
Bagan
A reflection pool was used to measure the straightness of the pagoda in previous times
Bagan
Mon inscriptions can be found all around the Shwezigon Pagoda

After walking the wide expanse of the Shwezigon and peppering our tour guide with questions both relating to the pagoda, general history of Bagan and his relationship with Buddhism, we hopped back in the minibus and made our way to the Sulamani Guphaya Temple, one of the wonders of Bagan. The Buddhist temple located in the village of Minnanthu about 10 minutes southwest of Bagan from the Shwezigon and is an immense structure kept in relatively great shape. As a main destination of travelers, there are plenty of stalls and stands to purchase hand-made sand paintings and all sorts of little knick-knacks and other trinkets. As for the pagoda itself, take a look:

Bagan

 Bagan

Bagan

Bagan

Bagan
The famous hand- and sand-sculpted paintings of Bagan

Bagan

Built in 1183 by King Narapatisithu and similar to the Thatbyinnyu Temple in design, the Sulamani Temple also shows influence from the Dhammayangyi Temple and was the model for the Htilominlo Temple. Sulamani Temple was restored after the 1975 earthquake and utilizes brick and stone with frescoes in the interior of the temple. It was rebuilt in 1994 and maintains its aura even today. After we purchased two too-many sand paintings, we hopped back in the minibus for a tour of the jewel of Bagan, the world-renowned Ananda Pyay (Ananda Pagoda, Ananda Paya).

Bagan

The Ananda Temple is the holiest and most important temple in Bagan. It houses four massive standing Buddha Images each facing towards the four cardinal points. The Ananda Paya displays a mix of Mon and Indian architecture.  Originally built in 1105 AD, it is one of only four temples that survives within Old Bagan. The temple was extensively damaged by an earthquake in 1975 but has been restored with the spires being gilded in 1990 in preparation for the celebration of the 900th anniversary of its completion. The Buddha statues are made from teak wood gilded with gold leaf and the ones facing North and South are believed to be originals. The four Standing Buddha Images are:

Bagan
Kakusandha Buddha – Faces north and pictured for scale
Bagan
Konagamana Buddha – Faces east
Bagan
Kassapa – Faces south, appears to smile the further away you get
Bagan
Gautama Buddha – Faces west and the final Buddha of Ananda Temple

The name ‘Ananda’ derives from ‘anantapannya‘ the Pali word for ‘boundless wisdom‘. There are only so many pagodas that fit into a day and our last stop was the impeccable Dhammayangyi Temple. The largest of all the temples in Bagan, the Dhammayangyi was built during the reign of King Narathu (1167-1170). Narathu, who came to the throne by assassinating his father Alaungsithu and his elder brother, presumably built this largest temple to atone for his sins. Local legend backs up this tale, although he was never able to finish it.

Bagan

The Dhammayangyi Temple is also the widest temple in Bagan and is built in a plan similar to that of the aforementioned Ananda Temple. Burmese chronicles state that while the construction of the temple was in the process, the king was assassinated by some Indians and thus the temple was not completed. Sinhalese sources however indicate that the king was killed by Sinhalese invaders. The temple’s interior is bricked up for unknown reasons, thus only the four porches and the outer corridors are accessible. I definitely accessed them. Stay tuned for a final post on Bagan and it’s villages, people and culture. Until next time, Cheers!

Bagan

Bagan
A rare opportunity to enjoy the quiet halls of this famous pagoda

Bagan

Bagan
Old and ‘new’ brickwork on the outside of the temple

Bagan

Bagan

Bagan

For more information from our Travel Guide on Bagan: Click Here

More on Bagan: Brilliant Bagan Sunrise in Myanmar: Click Here

More on Bagan: Photo Essay: People & Places of Bagan, Myanmar: Click Here

For all the high-resolution photos from Bagan: Click Here

Brilliant Bagan Sunrise in Myanmar

Bagan, Myanmar, Burma

The Bagan sunrise is a must-see in Southeast Asia

Thousands of temples dotting the landscape make the Bagan sunrise one of the best in the world.

For more information from our Travel Guide on Bagan: Click Here

More on Bagan: The Extraordinary Plains of Bagan: Click Here

More on Bagan: Photo Essay: People & Places of Bagan, Myanmar: Click Here

For all the high-resolution photos from Bagan: Click Here

Bagan Sunrise

Most travelers know that any wakeup after 3:30am is just an arbitrary number. You know you’re going to be shredded and zombiefied so the only thing to do is to keep on doing. A 4:30am call beckoned for what we heard was a must-see in Bagan – the incredible sunrise over the immense plains of the ancient city. With just enough time to boil water, throw on some clothes and quickly down a couple instant coffees, we were out the door from our room at the wonderful Bagan Hotel River View and on the road in Old Bagan to the Shwesandaw Pagoda (Shwe Sandaw Pyay).

Bagan Sunrise
The steep steps of Shwesandaw Pagoda post-sunrise

Our pickup was a minivan flush with air-conditioning already at full tilt which was absolutely unnecessary at 4:30am but appreciated it nonetheless. Our guide and driver were eager to get going as sunrise was expected at about 5:00am on the dot. The 10-minute ride was fairly mundane as Bagan is pitch black at night. Pitch black as in hardly any electricity in the area and only a few lamps around the sides of the roads. Once we arrived to the pagoda we hopped out, kicked our sandals off at the foot of some incredibly steep steps and made our way to the top. The only indication that there was anyone else on the pagoda were quiet voices up ahead on the walk up. In reality, it was packed but you’d never known until you reached the terrace they were standing at. A great spot and a few minutes to relax in the cold morning air gave way to a glimpse of the Bagan plain and mist ascending from the jungle as the sun made its way up to the horizon. Some more light, some more pagodas, some more light, mist, some more light, ‘wow there’s a lot of people around me,’ and then… this:

Bagan Sunrise
First Glimpse
Bagan Sunrise
Little More…
Bagan Sunrise
Money Shot

Yep, for the Bagan sunrise, totally worth it. The moment passes so suddenly and as everyone fell silent to take in the incredible sight I couldn’t help but notice a female traveler, probably in her mid-40s-50s in tears. Turns out she wasn’t crying at the beauty of the sunrise but at the shame of having her camera fog up. Apparently she had been looking forward to this moment for years, taking in the sunrise over Bagan and waiting for the perfect picture… and her camera had fogged up. I got her email address and she had these photos the next morning. Karma must have worked in my favor as the view from Shwesandaw was immense in all directions. The sun, now just settling over the horizon, made for some amazing shots of the misty plains laid out before a backdrop of mountains against a purple-red sky.

Bagan Sunrise
Bagan Sunrise

Bagan Sunrise

The Shwesandaw Pagoda was built with five terraces and is topped with a cylindrical stupa with a bejeweled umbrella (hti). The pagoda was built by King Anawrahta in 1057. The pagoda once contained terracotta tiles depicting scenes form the Jataka Tales (a voluminous body of literature native to India concerning the previous births of Gautama Buddha) and supposedly still houses sacred hairs of the Gautama Buddha obtained from Thaton (a town in Mon State, southern Myanmar).

Bagan Sunrise

Bagan Sunrise

Bagan Sunrise

In true traveler spirit, the Bagan sunrise was over and everyone started moving on for a day out and about in Bagan. Breakfast was beckoning but we stuck back for a bit to take in the incredible sights and to talk to some of the locals. The famous Hot Air Balloons take off around sunrise, however it you want some photos of that or to hitch a ride (an expensive $300+ ride per person!) the Shwesandaw is not the place for that. But for incredible landscapes of Pagodas and an excellent view of the entire area, look no further. Check out some pics below, for High-Res photos of my trip to Bagan CLICK HERE. Stay tuned for more posts from Bagan, coming soon!

Bagan Sunrise

Bagan Sunrise
Bagan Sunrise

Bagan Sunrise

Bagan Sunrise

Bagan Sunrise

Bagan Sunrise

Bagan Sunrise

Bagan Sunrise

Bagan Sunrise

Bagan Sunrise

Bagan Sunrise

Bagan Sunrise

Bagan Sunrise

For more information from our Travel Guide on Bagan: Click Here

More on Bagan: The Extraordinary Plains of Bagan: Click Here

More on Bagan: Photo Essay: People & Places of Bagan, Myanmar: Click Here

For all the high-resolution photos from Bagan: Click Here