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Off to Israel & Jordan: Travel video press trip! Cute Japan flower arrangements & Snoopy donuts.

scottish fold cat with crossed paws

I’ve been itching to return to the Middle East, and am excited to announce (Terminator style) that “I’ll be back!” From late January to February, my filmmakers and I will be in Israel and Jordan for the first time.

Can’t wait to explore Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, all thanks to the Israel Ministry of Tourism. Our friends at Ya’lla Tours are helping us get connected, and will also take us on a guided tour of Petra, the historical city and archaeological heaven.

camel statue, dubai mall

My travel team and I will be shooting stories about the alternative nightlife in Tel Aviv — there’s a colorful LGBT scene here, including an Orthodox Jewish drag queen. We’ll also make travel videos, photos and blogs about the modern local fashion, Israeli wines, and even a hummus restaurant.

Maybe this time, I’ll get to ride a real camel? To get in the spirit, you can revisit last year’s Abu Dhabi and Dubai coverage in my Middle East category. And send us your travel tips; we’ll always keep them in mind.

lamb cute face cakes, hitsuji

Before we dive into tabbouleh and falafel, let’s hop back to Japan: the land of cute food.

At the Swimmer store in Shinjuku Alta, I spotted these “hitsuji” or kawaii lamb-faced cakes. Clever, how they use a coiled cookie for the horns.

kawaii cupcakes, swimmer japan

The bakery also sells “kuma-chan” or little bear cupcakes. I’ve never eaten anything from Swimmer; the pastries look too sweet and cute to consume!

mr donut japan, snoppy woodstock donuts

Mr Donut, the Japanese doughnut store chain, has seasonal collaborations with cute characters. Around Halloween, they offered spooky Hello Kitty donuts. For Christmas, they teamed up with Snoopy and Woodstock. Unfortunately, looks trump taste. I tried one, and gagged at the flaky icing and bready interior.

rilakkuma christmas snacks

While “character bento” recipe books aren’t as popular as before, there are still kawaii food items everywhere. I found Rilakkuma bear cookie boxes in a convenience store.

white cat sake bottle

Plus a bottle of white cat sake.

panda bear pocky cookies

I grew up eating Pocky as snacks. Fun to see these panda versions, made with white chocolate over brown sticks.

ghost tomato pretz

Do ghost tomato Pretz taste extra scary?

kawaii cute japanese van

In Japan, you’ll often see vans or trucks decorated to the nines. I stopped short when I saw this one, plastered with cute animals… made from flowers!

cute decorated flowers van

Similar to bento decoration, the flowers are arranged in clever ways to mimic figures like Santa Claus. Paper or felt cut-outs form the eyes, nose and details.

panda bear flower arrangement

These panda bear flowers were my favorites. At first, I thought they were onigiri or rice balls.

Dekotora japanese decoration trucks

Just when you think the Japanese have thought of every possible way to make things cute… a new idea comes along.

panda van, japan car decor

Perhaps these photos might inspire you to try “kawaii flower arrangements” of your own.

shinjuku conveyor belt sushi

Back to food, minus the cuteness. Whenever I’m in Tokyo, I gorge myself on sushi since the quality is outstanding here. At “kaiten” conveyor sushi parlors like Hibari in Kabukicho, each plate is only about $1.40.

tokyo sushi parlor, kaiten

If you don’t know Japanese, there is usually a photo menu that you can point to. My favorites are unagi (eel), hamachi (yellowtail), bintoro (albacore tuna)…

toro salmon sushi, ikura eggs

… and if I’m lucky, toro salmon topped with ikura, (fish roe). It melts in your mouth like nothing else, and is only about $2. I once ate about eight of these!

shinjuku subnade okonomiyaki

While not so pretty-looking, okonomiyaki or savory pancakes are a must-try, especially in Osaka. Also visit an izakaya, or homestyle pub, and pop into Coco Ichiban for mouthwatering Japanese curry.

haagen dazs pumpkin ice cream

How about dessert? If it’s around October, you can find pumpkin flavored Haagen Dazs ice cream in convenience stores.

cutest smartest cat breed

Basil and I hope you enjoyed this post about cute and yummy food in Japan. We urge you to step out of your comfort zone, and try new dishes whenever you are traveling. I’ll be doing that soon in Israel and Jordan.

cat with christmas bokeh

For more cat-ness, I just posted more photos of Basil Farrow on his Scottish Fold blog, and Facebook.

best travel instagram, instagrammers

Also add us on Instagram and Twitter — @lacarmina — for previews of my Middle Eastern journey. Above are some snaps from Tokyo.

What type of reports would you like to see from Tel Aviv and Jordan? Do you have suggestions for places to see, and things to eat?

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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