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A sunrise visit to Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar! Burma golden temple, Buddhist travel destinations.

Shwedagon pagoda gold temple

I’ve been to temples all over Southeast Asia, but none has been as extraordinary as Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar. In this photo diary, Yukiro and I will show you why!

Before we begin our pilgrimage, I’m humbled and thrilled to announce that I won the Best Blog of the Year awardA zillion thank yous to everyone who voted in the Auxiliary Magazine awards. None of this would have been possible without your support throughout the years. Congrats to the other winners and fabulous nominees, and I am excited to keep on bringing alternative travel stories to you in 2017.

female buddhist monks pink robes

Yukiro and I are standing inside Shwedagon, with lovely locals. This huge golden Buddhist temple complex dominates the Yangon skyline, and is one of the most sacred sites in Myanmar (Burma). The name breaks down to “shwe” (gold in Burmese) and “Dagon” (the township where it is located).

That day, we met the kindest, gentlest Buddhist nuns, dressed in pink robes…

burmese children wearing thanaka face paint

… and children with thanaka (sun-protecting face paint) on their cheeks. (All photography by Sniper Chau.)

burmese makeup, burma style

Let’s begin our visit to Shwedagon Pagoda with a note on the dress code. Out of respect to those who come to the temple to worship, all visitors (male and female) should wear clothes that cover their legs and shoulders. Shorts aren’t permitted, but there are longyi that you can borrow at the front if you forget.

Despite the clothing restrictions, you can still glam it up — as we did! We wore long wrap skirts (mine is from Thailand), and lightweight tops that kept us from overheating in the humid weather. (Yukiro had the shawl over his arms except for this moment of posing!) Sunglasses are a must, as the golden glare hits hard once the sun rises. In addition to sunscreen, we painted some thanaka over our skin as well.

Shwedagon pagoda tickets, entry fee

We met our ParkRoyal Hotel Yangon driver in the lobby at 6am, as we wanted to catch the dawn. It’s worth waking up early, as sunrise and sunset are the best times to visti Shwedagon Pagoda. (You also avoid the crowds and the high noon-time heat this way).

The temple is open from 4am to 8pm, and the entrance fee for foreigners is $8 (about 8000 kyat — make sure you have the local Burmese currency). Everyone must remove his or her shoes at the entrance, and go barefoot inside the complex. If you’re a foreigner, there’s a special rack where you can store your shoes (otherwise, you’d have to carry them with you).




Shwedagon pagoda yangon myanmar

We walked down the long corridor, and bought a fragrant strand of white flowers. It opened up into this mesmerising plaza filled with gilded architecture and colorful Buddhist statues — we felt as if we’d entered a new universe.

buddhist children praying

Shwedagon is a feast for the eyes and senses. It’s filled with an energy of compassion and happiness — as personified by these praying, chanting Buddhist children.

The pagoda sits on Singuttara Hill, and holds the relics of four Buddhas. The first version was most likely built by the Mon people between theb Shwedagon Pagoda was pillaged many times, rebuilt and expanded, and struck by earthquakes — but has stood strong, and is grander than ever.

travel bloggers myanmar tourism

Could there be a destination more fabulous than this one?

Shwedagon is the largest stupa in the country, at 99 meter high. It’s plated with over 20,000 gold bars, with a tip decorated with thousands of diamonds, rubies and sapphires. The various buildings hold treasures of Burmese art, including the Tharrawaddy Min Bell that weighs 44 tons.

(In the 17th century, a Portuguese adventurer stole the 300-ton Great Bell of Dhammazedi — but it fell into the Bago River and was never recovered.)

smiling buddhist monks

Myanmar is the world’s most Buddhist country, with most locals identifying as Theravada Buddhists. It’s a regular sight to see monks and nuns of all ages in the city, and we encountered many smiling faces here.

Shwedagon golden temple burma

I think Yukiro and I fit in rather well with the decadent, golden art!

Visitors can spend hours wandering into the various buildings, where there are thousands of Buddha statues and relics to behold. 

reclining electric buddha statue

Although Shwedagon Pagoda is centuries-old, and has traditional architecture, you’ll also see modern incarnations. Such as this reclining Buddha with a flashing, electric cyber-disco halo around his head.

punk rocker buddhists

The spirituality is open and welcoming in Myanmar. We saw punk rockers praying, and monks with tattoos. Some locals choose to become monks or nuns for a short period of time (such as few weeks or months).

burmese sculpture, architecture

I wasn’t too familiar with Burmese sculpture / art until I visited, and was in awe. In this tradition, Buddhas are smiling and friendly, and draped in golden robes.

buddhist pilgrimage, sweeping floor

We had no issues walking around barefoot, as the tiles are kept clean by volunteers with mops. Locals have always pitched in to preserve Shwedagon, taking part in activities such as sweeping the floor, washing the statues, and repairing damaged areas.

buddhist asia tour group, travels

The stupa is a top Buddhist tourism destination. We saw a tour group of men and women in pink headwraps, travelling together on a spiritual pilgrimage.

buddhism spiritual destinations, tourism

I loved seeing the joy and tranquillity on everyone’s faces.

burmese rooftops, architecture

Burmese architecture ranges in styles. This reddish-brown spiky roof spoke to our Gothic aesthetics.

cyber goth rainbow gothic fashion

As the sun continues to rise, the tiles heat up. It’s good to go early (as we did) so that you can leave before high noon.

Shwedagon pagodas silhouette

As author Rudyard Kipling described it: “Then a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun.”

visit rangoon burma temples

Wearing cat-eye sunglasses by Moat House Eyewear, which match my pink hair and top.

myanmar temple tour, travelers

A lot of locals came up to us, and gently asked to take photos together. We got nothing but compliments on our outfits and style.




burmese women lonyi fashion skirts

We became fans of the elegant, traditional fashion — particularly these Burmese long skirts, or longyi. This group of women shows it’s possible to be chic while following the dress code.

buddhist kids girls shaved heads

Offerings of fruit and flowers for the Buddha, made by these young devotees.

indian beggar donation

Loved seeing the small moments of generosity all around Shwedagon Pagoda.

Shwedagon gold pagoda yangon

Myanmar has only recently opened to tourists, which means landmarks like these are still very locals-only. We saw only about 10 foreigners during this visit, and there weren’t any gift shops or touts.

burmese water purification ritual

Many Burmese also follow traditions that come from Hindu astrology. They pour water and perform purifications at their “planetary post,” which refers to the day of the week they are born on. For example, if you were born on “Wednesday Morning,” you would look for a basin with this signpost, and make offerings and wishes there.

leogryphs, cinthe

On the left, you can see the sign for “Tuesday Corner.”

We didn’t know which day of the week our birthdays fell on… but the giant leogryph (mythical lion creature) looked like our spirit animal.

burmese lion statues, cinthes

This protector lion being is a “chinthe”, often found at the entrances of pagodas and temples in Burma, Cambodia and Laos. Love the sideways-facing paws.

burma snake temple, snakes

Snakes are another guardian, depicted with vampire-like fangs. The precise carvings found all over Shwedagon are impressive.

travel tips visit myanmar temples

Photography is allowed in Shwedagon Pagoda. Anyone can respectfully ask monks or nuns if they’re willing to take a photo. However, as our guidebook counselled, one must not touch their robes (not even for a friendly pose).

young buddhist boy monk

As you can see — it’s ok to stand next to a monk after getting his consent to take a photo together. But langorous arm-draping is a no-no! 

burmese traditional makeup

Burmese children grow up learning the founding legend of this stupa. Once upon a time, two brothers were traveling when they met the Buddha beneath a tree. They offered him food, and as a thanks, the Buddha gave them eight hairs from his head!

Shwedagon buddhist temples pagodas

The brothers put the 8 hairs in a ruby casket and carried them back to Burma, where they started to build Shwedagon Pagoda with the help of their king.

blue leopard print top, skirt

There are other relics preserved in the temple complex, ranging from sacred robes to… an ancient water filter.

buddhist storyboard, illustrations

This sign illustrates the story of the Buddha’s journey to enlightenment. Love the rainbow colors, and the gorgeous Burmese script.

most buddhist country myanmar

It’s apparent how much meaning the Buddhist teachings have to locals here, through each stage of their lives.

longyi fashion southeast asia

We’re very glad we got to spend time in Myanmar, a travel destination that people often overlook.

red robe monks burma

Such an interesting contrast between monastic simplicity, and golden richness. 

lens flare morning sunrise southeast asia

When we saw these flares of light, we knew why “Shwedagon Zedi Daw” is also know as the Golden Pagoda.

myanmar bodhi tree Shwedagon

Don’t forget to walk around the edges of the complex, which tend to be quieter, and filled with surprses. Such as: a bodhi tree. 

buddha monk meditating bodhi tree

Siddartha Gautama meditated under a bodhi tree until he attained nirvana. Perhaps this monk, crouched under the canopy, will follow his path.

Shwedagon lion statues, protectors

We encountered this lion guardian on the outskirts as well. The pale pink claws are on point.

praying burmese monk

Shwedagon is heaven for people-watching and photography. (All images by Sniper Chau.)

burmese ladies dresses

The women we met were stylish and self-possessed. The Burmese are known for their welcoming nature, perhaps testament to the Buddhist culture.

happy buddhist children school

This nun smiled at us as we passed by, and her group of children followed suit. Moments like this remind me of why I travel.

buddhist travel, destination

I hope this photo diary conveyed the magic of Yangon’s Great Dagon stupa. Although the pagoda is not a household name, it now ranks among my favorite wonders of the world (and I’ve been to Petra, Angkor Wat, Hagia Sophia and more).

southeast asia travel blogger

Coming up: we’ll show you more of Yangon, including Sule Pagoda and art galleries. A big thank you to ParkRoyal Hotel for the driver and travel tips. (See our review of ParkRoyal Myanmar here.)

Have you heard of Shwedagon before? Isn’t this spiritual site inspiring? Thank you again to everyone who voted for me in the Best Blogger of the Year awards — none of these adventures would be possible without your love!

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Hipster Stockholm travel tips! SoFo Swedish fashion & music stores, Sodermalm, Fotografiska museum.

long clothing streetwear, dolls kill

I spy, with my giant eye… Stockholm!  (My eye-catching top is by Long Clothing and these leggings are Killstar.)

I have quite a few friends from Sweden, but didn’t make it to Scandinavia until last summer. I was curious about the young / artsy / subculture side of the city, so we spent the day exploring. I thought I’d share my findings in this hipster travel guide to Stockholm.

stockholm cathedral doorway triangle

Along the way, I found the perfect outfit post location: Stockholm Cathedral’s doorway, topped with a spooky black triangle. I’m wearing a Long Clothing x Mishka eyeball shirt, and these exact minimalist sandals.

Long Clothing’s designs are great for travel, as they’re stylish and easy to match, and also comfortable and lightweight. Below are some of my favorites from their collection.

stockholm bridges, walking tour

Since it’s still freezing in many parts of the world, I thought it would be nice to have a flashback to summer. Many tourists consider this the best time to visit Stockholm, as the weather is pleasingly warm.

My friends and I spent the entire day walking around the city — and it was perfection. From our Grand Central by Scandic hotel in Norrmalm (north of the city center), we walked south to Gamla Stan (the Old Town district, consisting of Stadsholmen island and a few islets).

gamla stan shopping, fashion

Gamla Stan dates back to the 13th century. The cobbled streets and classic architecture give it an old time charm. I loved walking around these streets and admiring the historical buildings.

Some of these streets are very touristy, but there are also fun stores such as “Science Fiction Bokhandeln” (a fantasy / sci-fo bookstore) and “Zapata,” a hippie counterculture shop where Yukiro buys some of his clothes.

long clothing mishka eyeball shirt

Close-up on my Long Clothing oversize and pentagram leggings by Killstar. More from this Gothic occult designer below (click to see details):

stockholm roof spires pointed

Stockholm Royal Palace, Parliament and other government buildings are also located in Old Town. How neat are the Gothic pointed spires that pierce the skyline? And these manicured shrubs look like they were pruned by Edward Scissorhands.

freemason triangle symbol door stockholm

I enjoyed the sweeping 18th century stairwells of Stockholm Palace — but this archway was a better fit for my style! The giant wooden doors lead into Stockholm Cathedral, which was built in 1279. The golden Medieval interior has hosted many a royal wedding.

This triangular symbol has a Freemason and occult vibe. However, it’s apparently a symbol of the Holy Trinity radiating golden light.

(I’m wearing street style by Long Clothing, who also make:)

moomin shop stockholm

We kept on strolling… until I saw these happy Moomin figures, and ran straight in. This is a shop that sells cute character goods and souvenirs.

stockholm cute kawaii stores

Moomin is the white, globular mascot created by illustrator Tove Jansson. (You may recall that I went to the Helsinki Moomin shop.)

Tove was born in Finland, but grew up speaking Swedish and studied art in Stockholm —  so both countries claim Moomin as their own. 

katarina hissen elevator viewpoint

We crossed yet another bridge (Stockholm has many) — this time from Gamla Stan to Södermalm. “Soder” was once the working class district, but now it’s gentrified and home to a bohemian and cultural scene. Many scenes in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” were set here.

There’s an incredble viewpoint here: “Katarinahissen” or Katarina Elevator. This steam-powered elevator was built in 1882 and powered by steam — very much ahead of its time, and steampunk to the max.

stockholm fashion blogger, sweden

Today, Katarina Hissen is no longer in operation, but you can climb the stairs to reach the top (and it’s open 24 hours). The cardio workout is worth it, for these incredible city views.

(All photography by Joey Wong.)

dollskill fashion blog outfit

Stockholm is actually situated on 14 islands, which you can see from up here. No wonder it’s often called he “Venice of the north.”

(I got this cute bag from Hong Kong, but there’s a similar Harajuku ghost backpack by Killstar.)

sofo grandpa clothing store

In my previous post, you’ll recall that we visited the hipster district of Hornstull.

There’s another hip haven in Södermalm: SoFo, short for “South of Folkungagatan.” These blocks are a collective of indie fashion, vintage shops, cute cafes and artsy bars.

hipster fashion stockholm so fo

The ironically named Grandpa is all about young fashion and interiors. The shop has a Kinfolk-worthy atmosphere, and all the brands are carefully chosen. You’ll find eco-friendly clothing, minimalist and subculture-inspired styles, and metallic Scandinavian home decor.

sweden street style stockholm

Behind me, I spy a rack of granny dresses, bicycles, and outdoor tables. (My leggings are Killstar; more pentagram witch fashion below:)

rainbow pastel vintage interior decor

I spotted pink flamingos int front of this SoFo store. Coctail is a rainbow of cute retro maximalist kitsch.

kawaii home decoration

I spotted a Miffy lamp, hovering on a cloud. This collection of colorful Mexican sugar skulls also drew my attention.

pet sounds records stockholm

Don’t miss out on SoFo’s Pet Sounds record store. Run by music buffs, the shop has a delectable selection of vinyl records, CDs and DVDs.

sofo hipster underground alternative

I’m looking at disco rarities, of course. Pet Sounds has albums for the most obscure of tastes, including collector’s items from around the world.

killstar leggings goth pants

(See more items from Kill Star below:)

nick brandt inherit dust exhibit

Last stop: the Fotografiska Museet, or Stockholm Photography Museum. I sometimes find photo exhibits to be hit-or-miss, but this museum had multiple floors filled with thought-provoking works.

The most compelling gallery was “Inherit the Dust” by Nick Brandt. In a “making of” video, I was amazed at the photographer’s process. Nick blew up prints of his earlier wildlife photos, turned them into life-sized panels, and placed them in the slums and quarries of East Africa. He found locations that matched up the mountain ranges and backgrounds seamlessly, making it seem as if elephants and leopards were roaming these industrial wastelands.

stockholm fotografiska photography museum

There’s no Photoshop in these black and white panoramas. The contrast between nature and uncontrolled development is startling. 

photography museum stockholm sweden

One of the most painful photos shows a drug squat, filled with addicts with glue bottles hanging from their noses, ignoring the giant elephant print looming next to them. If you’re intrigued, I encourage you to look up Nick Brandt’s photography about disappearing Africa.

All in all, I was very impressed by Stockholm’s museums. (I also saw and reviewed the Yayoi Kusama art show, at Moderna Museet.)

Katarinahissen stockholm best view

Isn’t Stockholm one sweet city? I hope this travel guide helps you plan a visit.

And if you’re looking for a hip hotel in Stockholm, here’s our review of Grand Central by Scandic.

stockholm street fashion

How do you like my Nu Goth outfit of the day? There’s more from these designers below!

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Universal Studios Osaka Japan: guide to buying tickets, Express passes & Halloween horror nights!

where's waldo costume, minions girls

Universal Studios Japan rocks! You’ve got to visit this theme park at least once in your lifetime — ideally, during the Halloween season.

Getting express tickets is a bit complicated, so here’s a detailed guide to the theme park, which features Harry Potter, Minions, Hello Kitty, Resident Evil, Jurassic Park and other favorite characters.

wedding zombies, bride groom undead

Every September/October, Universal Studios Osaka turns into a zombie fest (literally, they send out walkers to attack!) For a limited time, there are frightening special attractions dedicated to Japanese horror — including Sadako of the Ring.

zombies halloween universal japan

Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights are brilliantly produced, with the right balance of fear and fun. (But there are themed events all year round, which match the seasons.)

If you only have a day to explore, I highly recommend getting entry tickets in advance, as well as Express Passes to bypass long lines. The online process is more than a little complicated — so read on for a detailed guide to purchasing Universal Studios Osaka tickets from their Japanese booking website.

universal japan entrance, directions subway

First, directions. To get to Universal Studios Japan, take the direct 15 minute train ride from Osaka Station to Universal City Station, on the JR Yumesaki Line (aka JR Sakurajima Line). You can use a JRailPass (unlimited Japan Rail Pass for 1-3 weeks) to ride all these trains, which saves costs and makes the trip even easier.

If you have a “timed entry” ticket and need to arrive by a certain hour, give yourself plenty of time to walk from the train station to the theme park. You might need an extra 30 minutes to purchase food outside the gates, or check your bags in the coin lockers (larger suitcases can be stored at Guest Services for a fee).

universal studios halloween horror nights

The amusement park goes all-out with seasonal decorations. Since I was there in late September, I got to see Hello Kitty, Elmo and Snoopy in spooky Halloween costumes!  (Shop for Sanrio goods below with a click:)

As for my outfit: I’m wearing a devilish T-shirt from Dead Gallery Iceland, and my tote bag is from Territory, DJ Taiki’s occult store in Osaka. 

I recommend wearing good shoes for walking around all day, and shielding your eyes with sunglasses and a hat (my cap is from the Drop Dead Clothing x Sonic the Hedgehog collaboration.)

flying snoopy ride, universal osaka

Now, a guide to buying tickets and making the most of your visit!

Osaka’s Universal Studios is compact, and it doesn’t long to walk between the various districts. However, this is a popular theme park. To avoid the crowds, try to come early, and on less busy days (avoid weekends and holidays).

While it costs more to buy Express and Special Passes, I highly suggest that you do. Otherwise, you’ll wind up waiting 1-3 hours in line for rides, and you might not be able to see the special attractions at all (as they require advance passes that sell out fast).

sailor moon group cosplay girls japan

If you’re going with a group of friends, I encourage you to designate one person to purchase tickets and advance entries. Otherwise, you won’t be able to coordinate the timed entrances, and “slowpokes” may not be able to get in at all.

Universal Osaka has an English-language sales website, but the available options in English are very limited (for example, when I checked, there was only 1 Express option and no Horror pre-sales).

Instead, you should purchase advance tickets from their website in Japanese. Let me warn you — this process is rather complicated and “Google translate” won’t work well, so ask a friend who is fluent in Japanese to help you (and reward them for their efforts!).

japanese suicide squad cosplayers cosplay

I can’t describe the entire process step-by-step because the Japanese website changes constantly, as the theme park updates attractions and passes.

However, I can give you a general overview. I recommend that you purchase three things well in advance, from the Japanese language site (or if you’re in Japan, you can go to any Lawson to order them):

1) An Entry Ticket ($75), which everybody need just to get inside the theme park. If you don’t get this ticket in advance, you may need to line up outside the gates for 1-2 hours. (If you decide to only get the basic entry ticket, you can purchase this on their English site. There’s also a cheaper evening-only entry price.)

2) An Express Pass, which lets you skip the lines on certain rides. The Japanese language site gives you a variety of Express options, which range in price. I suggest that you figure out which rides/attraction you want to see, and then pick the pass that matches. I personally went for the $55 “15th anniversary Express pass,” which let me access Harry Potter and 3 rides. A steep fee, but this lets you go straight to the front of the line instead of waiting 2-3 hours for the popular rides. Worth it, especially if you only have a day to explore.

3) Advance tickets to Special attractions that you’re keen to see. Again, this will change with the seasons; in my case, I did the $75 package to skip the lines at three Japanese horror attractions. These special events require advance/extra passes regardless, and they sell out fast — so advance entry may be the only way you’ll be able to get in. 

halloween wreath, skull

Ready for another layer of challenges? The Express and Special attraction passes have timed entries — meaning that you have to pick the exact “time window” for going to the front of the line.

Some of these “windows” sell out — so you’ll have to compare time-charts in Japanese, and do some juggling to figure out a schedule that works. For example, I chose an 11-11:20am entry for Harry Potter, and a 1:10pm entry for the first Japanese Horror attraction, followed by a 2-3pm window for the Jurassic Park rollercoaster, and so forth. The attractions may be in different areas of the park, so give yourself enough time to walk over.

prisoner striped costumes halloween

Final puzzle: How to pay for Universal Studios advance tickets? If you’re in Japan, you can go to any Lawson within a day to pay. If you’re outside the country, you must use a credit card to check out from the Japanese website.

Here’s the trick: you need to input a Japanese address AND phone number, or else your credit card won’t go through. You can try putting your Osaka hotel’s address and phone; it took me a few tries, but I finally managed to get through to the confirmation page.

universal studios japan theme park

Complicated? Expensive? Yes, but it’s worth it for guaranteed timed entries and to avoid waiting in queue. I’m glad I splurged on the Express and Japanese Horror passes, and booked weeks before so that I had many timed entry options to choose from.

You can also save money by bringing in outside food (just keep it hidden in your bag) rather than eating the theme park food, and resisting the merchandise. 

jaws ride osaka universal theme park

All right — now we’re inside, and ready to explore Universal Studios Osaka!

The park is divided into different sections: Jaws, Jurassic Park, Terminator, Spiderman, Waterworld, Harry Potter, Snoopy and more. The attractions are constantly changing; there previously were Resident Evil and Evangelion features.

ユニバーサル・スタジオ・ジャパン

From September to October, Universal dresses up its characters in Halloween costumes. Since this is my favorite holiday, I was excited to visit during this time.

universal studios osaka amusement park

As you can see in the photos above, many visitors come in groups, and dress extravagantly (even when it’s not Halloween).

It’s a terrific opportunity to cosplay as your favorite Universal mascot. However, keep comfortable footwear and sun protection in mind, or else you may wind up at Universal’s First Aid office (they have one near the front gate).

super mario cosplay, nintendo costume

I saw a lot of Suicide Squad and Minion outfits. Since this is Japan, I was happy to see Nintendo represented — “It’s me, Mario!” — and a bad Japanese schoolgirl in a sailor uniform.

harry potter entrance osaka japan

I was excited to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter for the first time. My heart raced when I saw “Please respect the spell limits,” and the pointed, snow-capped rooftops of Hogsmeade village. Universal recreates Harry Potter’s world magnificently, with swells of music and meticulous attention to detail.

hogwarts express train universal studios

All aboard the Hogwarts Express! In every area of the park, you’ll find the Universal Japan staff smiling and welcome guests. In Wizarding World, they helped children perform magic tricks with wands (a few gestures made it rain candy). There was also a Harry Potter choir and stage show, performed in both English and Japanese.

You can easily spend an hour or more exploring Harry’s home. A barrel dispenses Butterbeer, a sweet non-alcoholic beverage that is a bit like butterscotch. Personally, I didn’t enjoy the taste…

hogwarts entrance winged boar statues

Hogwarts Castle looms high over the village. Stroll past the winged boars, and into Hogwarts’ School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This is the site of the uber popular ride, “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.” (Average wait time is 3 hours… but with my timed entry Express pass, I got to go straight in.)

The anticipation builds as you pass Dumbledore’s office, the Gryffindor common room and Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom. Then, you put on special goggles and get strapped into a moving chair — for a “4K 3D” ride that makes you feel as if you’re soaring through the skies with Harry, on a broomstick.

harry potter roller coaster, flight of hippogriff

There’s also a small roller coaster called “Flight of the Hippogriff,” which dives past Hagrid’s hut. I was impressed by the moving recreation of the half-eagle half-horse creature, which you pass on your way up the tracks.

owl post, dogweed deathcap, harry potter world

Shops, shops everywhere. You can purchase Harry Potter goods inside the various themed stores, such as Owl Post and Dogweed & Deathcap (which had a moving plant in the window.)

harry potter magic wand store, universal

Inside Ollivanders, you can choose from an array of magic wands, including replicas of the film characters’ personal wands. They’re intricately carved out of wood and decorated, and are in the $50 range.

japanese cosplayers, universal studios osaka

The staff does a fantastic job at immersing you in a fantasy world. I watched a little girl purchase a stuffed owl, and the shopkeeper gave her gentle instructions on how to care for the creature (“she needs lots of hugs, and to have her feathers brushed”).

I snapped a photo of these Japanese girls in front of Honeydukes, which sells sweets from the Harry Potter stories, including Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans and Chocolate Frogs.

snoopy mascots, universal studios parade

I couldn’t help but smile as I strolled through the different parts of the park. Universal broadcasts holiday music, so I got to groove along to The Monster Mash and Time Warp.

Many of the live attractions appear at random. I caught a few Minions performing on a fire truck. Then, it was time for the parade.

hello kitty parade, sanrio theme park

Dancing Hello Kitties, and pumpkin-folk giving out free candy… How can this day get better?

asian matching couples kawaii costumes

Many visitors wore impressive costumes. Some couples dressed up together, such as this pair of Minions, and Hello Kitty and Daniel. 

cute japanese girls halloween costumes

Naturally, “kawaii” cute is a frequent theme. In the “San Francisco” section of Universal Studios Osaka, I came across three Little Red Riding Hoods.

resident evil hunk costume, cosplay mask

Behold — it’s Hunk from Resident Evil! If anyone can survive the zombie apocalypse, it would be this guy.

jason, nightmare elm street toys

As a horror movie fan, I was thrilled to see Jason Voorhees (Halloween) and Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street). They’re strung up as prizes, in the games section.

zombie blood bags, universal studios halloween

The zombie attacks and Japanese horror-shows start when the sun sets… you simply must read on to see what happens.

More here!

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A royal stay at ParkRoyal Hotel in Yangon, Myanmar! Mohinga buffet, Bogyoke Aung San Market longyi.

burmese musical instruments xylophone patala

Long time no see… Yukiro and La Carmina are back!

At the end of 2016, we journeyed to Yangon, Myanmar — and it turned out to be one of our most meaningful trips to date.

There’s so much to share from this beautiful Buddhist country. We met creative locals, volunteered, and immersed ourselves in Burmese culture. (Above: Yukiro sits in front of a patala, or traditional xylophone, and I’m wearing the traditional longyi skirt and thanaka face paste).

monks Myanmar tourism

Until a year or two ago, Myanmar was difficult for tourists to access. Now, the country  has changed its government (with Aung San Suu Kyi in power) and opened its doors. Visitors can easily get an E-Visa: we filled out the government application online, paid $50 US, and were approved in a day.

More airlines have also launched routes to the newly-built Yangon Airport. We flew on my long-time favorites, HK Express: they have a direct, fast and inexpensive flight from Hong Kong to Yangon. In just over three hours, we were in the land of Buddhist monks.

parkroyal hotel myanmar rooms, suite

We were treated like queens at ParkRoyal Hotel Yangon, our home base for this trip. The hotel sent a BMW to pick us up from the airport, and later take us around the city. The staff greeted us at the door, and showed us to our rooms on the exclusive Orchid Club level. 

Yukiro and I loved the old-world charm of this luxury hotel. As you can see above, ParkRoyal gracefully incorporates Burmese art into the design. The location is also ideal: right by cultural attractions including the golden Shwedagon Pagoda.

parkroyal hotel bakery, desserts

As part of the Orchid Club privileges, we were spoiled with freshly-baked treats every day. Such a joy to come back from sightseeing, and find little sandwiches and sweets awaiting us.

parkroyal hotel resorts yangon room

It’s a relief to visit a country without any tourist trappings (such as fast food chains and tour buses). However, this also means Myanmar can be a challenging place for some travelers to navigate (for example, streets and numbers are not easy to find). We were glad we had the ParkRoyal staff to assist us, and these comfortable rooms to return to.

● You can book a room at ParkRoyal Yangon here, at a discounted rate.

● Here’s where you can get a black off-the-shoulder top like the one I’m wearing.

myanmar travel guide book

In our rooms, we found these cute primers on the local etiquette. The illustrations explain regional quirks that everyone should respect, such as not pointing to objects with one’s feet, or taking photos of pregnant women without permission. (I thought the above cartoon was common knowledge… until I saw someone grab a monk to “pose” him for a photo!)

burmese sculptures, burma art

Local art and music fills the hallways of ParkRoyal Yangon. We watched a lady play the saung (national string instrument) in the lobby, and admired these traditional Burmese carved wood panels.

The hotel staff even provided us with longyi, or long single cloth skirts that are tied at the waist, and worn by both men and women in Myanmar.

parkroyal hotels orchid club concierge

As Orchid Club guests, we were privy to additional benefits including a concierge desk right on our floor. Every day, the kind staff helped us coordinate our itinerary and car/driver. They were wonderful at answering our questions about local culture, and giving us off-the-beaten-path travel tips.

parkroyal club lounge buffet drinks

We also had access to the lounge, which is always stocked with complimentary drinks and snacks. During cocktail hour, we tried Red Mountain, a Myanmar wine that comes from the hills of the southern Shan State. Yukiro took a few bottles back as gifts for friends and family (very few people have tried Burmese wine!)

parkroyal yangon spa massage

On our first day, we relaxed at the hotel spa. I lay down on this inviting bed, and got a traditional Myanmar Thanaka massage that worked out all my knots.

swimming pool myanmar luxury hotel

It’s hot year-round in Yangon, and the ParkRoyal swimming pool beckoned us to dive in… but it was time to explore the city.

(Hotel photos by Sniper Chau, city photos by La Carmina. My black top is similar to this.)

rangoon burma market vendors

Our concierge suggested that we walk to the nearby Bogyoke Aung San Market. A staff member took us there by foot, and pointed out a few neighborhood attractions on the way.

overhead bridge to bogyoke market

There’s an overhead bridge leads to the market, with vendors selling fruits and dried seafood on the wooden planks.

Safety note: While some outskirt regions of Myanmar are in conflict, Yangon (the biggest city and former capital) is considered one of the safest cities in all of Asia, with very little crime. All the locals we met were friendly, and no touts approached us. It’s important to stay cautious wherever you travel, but let me assure you that Yangon is not a dangerous destination.

yangon railroad tracks walking

The bridge to Boygoke spans these railroad tracks. Locals walk right on them, balancing objects on their heads.

superman car decal customization

Yangon’s infrastructure and development were better than I expected. There are a lot of Japanese and Korean electronics here, including cars and smartphones.

It’s easy to spend an hour or more exploring what was originally known as Scott Market, established in 1926 during the British rule. Upon Burmese independence in 1948, the market was renamed after Bogyoke (General) Aung San.

yangon flower vendor

After the coup d’état of 1962, the country became a military dictatorship, ushering in years of violent suppression. In 2011, the junta was dissolved; in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won a majority in both houses, and she is the democratic leader today.

(In 1989, the military government changed many official names — Rangoon became Yangon, and Burma became Myanmar. There’s some contention over the official name, but Aung San Suu Kyi stated in 2016 that foreigners could use either. J. Peterman from Seinfeld put it best: “You most likely know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me.”)

burmese street food market

You can find all sorts of local food at Bogyoke Aung San Market. However, be careful about eating street food, if you aren’t accustomed to it.

bogyoke aung san market

So many sights and smells to behold. Isn’t the Burmese alphabet beautiful? The written language dates back to the 11th century. (Myanmar is bordered by China, Laos, Thailand and India — hence some of these influences).

myanmar bazaar night markets

“Langorous” was our word of the day. In Myanmar, do as the locals do: slow down, hang out, enjoy the moment.

traditional burma hairstyle ponytail

The market has hundreds of vendors, lined up on cobblestone paths. You can find all types of antiques, jewelry, clothing, Burmese art, handicrafts, you name it.

Long, silky hair is a trademark of Burmese beauty. Yukiro and I loved this futuristic-looking hairstyle worn by “Aunty Mary.”

longyi skirts bogyoke market

Bogyoke market is the best place in Yangon to pick up a longyi, or Burmese long skirt. You can choose from the various embroidered silky fabrics, and get the garment custom-tailored to fit you like a glove. The ladies can also help you match it with a sleeveless top and sheer scarf.

yangon longyi market fashion

The shops are a rainbow of intricate, elegant fabrics. Longyis are worn by both men and women, and are a perfect mix of style and function. (The airy fabric keeps you from overheating, and protects you from mosquitoes).

burmese traditional skirts shop

As I mentioned, Burmese vendors aren’t aggressive — they don’t run up to you or try to rip you off. Shopping at this market was easygoing and enjoyable.

bogyoke market jewelry shops

We went indoors to look at the gems and jewels. This cyber disco Buddha greeted us at the entrance

burmese carved buddha statues

Myanmar is known as the world’s most Buddhist country. Close to 90% of the population practices Theravada Buddhism, which certainly contributes to the peaceful, welcoming, compassionate nature of the locals we encountered.

annabelle creepy doll antique

In a country that was formerly isolated, you’re bound to find some oddities. I did a double-take at this store window. Is that… Annabelle? (The haunted doll and horror movie star must have escaped from her locked case at the Warren’s Occult Museum!)

burmese comics, cartoons

These funky faces reminded me of Japanese daruma. Underneath, notice the Burmese comic strips, with speech balloons in the local script. 

aung san suu kyi poster painting

Many vendors put up images of The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi. During the time of military rule, she was placed under house arrest and it was forbidden to publicly display her photo. Now that she’s the leader of the country, locals can have her smiling from their walls.

hotel lobby christmas tree

Since it was humid (even around Christmas), we tended to go out for a short period, and then return to our hotel to rest before heading out again. ParkRoyal’s central location and car/driver service made all this possible.

kawaii cute gingerbread house chocolates

One time, we came back to gingerbread houses and cute chocolates in our room! The pastry chef is a maestro; we gobbled everything up, like Hansel and Gretel.

parkroyal yangon restaurants

We dined with the General Manager at Shiki-Tei, an exquisite Japanese restaurant inside the hotel. We started with sake-tinis and warm sake…

Shiki-Tei japanese restaurant myanmar

… followed by the freshest sashimi, yakimono (fish and steak grilled right at the table), and nabemono (hot pot with fish and vegetables in a subtle yet complex broth). A meal to remember.

parkroyal yangon buffet, food

Every day, we looked forward to the breakfast / brunch buffet, which is one of the best in Yangon. There’s all types of international food, but I focused on the Burmese dishes, such as spiced salads, curries…

best mohinga myanmar yangon cafe

… and one or more bowls of the national dish of Myanmar, mohinga. This is a fish and rice noodle soup — but it’s so much more than that. Mohinga is heartwarming, with every flavor and texture (salty, sour, crunchy, sweet) in perfect balance.

At first, there may be a “fishy” smell, but once you get in a few spoonfuls, you won’t be able to stop. It’s a little like laksa and pho, but uniquely Burmese. I hope you can try mohinga for yourself, as it’s a game-changer.

yangon myanmar 5 star luxury hotel

We’ll miss the friendly staff of ParkRoyal Hotel Yangon, who always greeted us with a “Min Gā Lar Ba!” Without them, we wouldn’t have had such a magnificent time in Myanmar.

(Find out more about this hotel here.)

burmese writing, buddhist poster

Isn’t Myanmar a fascinating country? I hope this first post got you intrigued about Burmese history and culture.

There’s a lot more to come from this fascinating destination — including monks and punks. Let’s just say… you won’t be disappointed!

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