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Ballooning in Bagan

Bagan hot air ballooning

Edna and Steve Kornberg traveled with Journeys Within for a month-long tour through Myanmar, taking in many different destinations in this remarkable country. In this blog post, we’ll share some of Edna’s beautiful photos from their experience hot air ballooning over the temples at Bagan.

“We feel this was one of the so many highlights of our trip.  It was one thing to go inside each of these temples, or stupas, one at a time, but to get an overview of them like this was breathtaking. As you’ll notice, there are three different colored balloons – red, yellow and green. These represent the colors of Myanmar and each color is from a different company. We were in the green ones. You’ll see how high we were able to get as well as how low. In one photo you’ll see our basket very close to the top of another balloon. It was not scary at all. The company was very safety conscious and our pilot was such a pro. I even stood on the seat (with Steve holding onto my pants!) to get better shots… Up, up and away.”

 All photos by Edna Kornberg.

Click here to see the slideshow if it does not appear embedded below.

Reflections from Nepal after second major earthquake

Images of people, villages, earthquake relief work  in Nepal

With word just now spreading about a second major earthquake to hit Nepal on May 12, 2015 – this time centered west of Kathmandu near the Chinese border – we’ve just received an update from Sanjay Saxena (of Destination Himalaya) about what he witnessed in Nepal after April 25 quake. His thoughts and photos are below.

And, as before, our prayers are with all the people of Nepal and India affected by this most recent earthquake. Please see our earlier blog post for a list of aid organizations working to help in disaster relief and recovery in this region.

Sanjay Saxena’s story: (click here for Sanjay’s slideshow)

The day after the April 25 Nepal earthquake, I was on a plane headed to Tibet and Nepal – the timing was purely coincidental as my trip had been planed weeks in advance and I was not about to cancel because of the quake.  I was traveling with vineyard owner/philanthropist Richard Grace to visit some of the schools and clinic that his foundation had started and supports in Eastern Tibet.  I have been working with Ann & Dick Grace (the founders of the Grace Family Vineyard Foundation) since 2001, helping establish and oversee some of their projects in India and Tibet.

Dick was denied entry into China and we met up in Bangkok and decided to head to Nepal instead.  We scheduled our arrival into Kathmandu for May 1, day six after the earthquake, figuring that the immediate search and rescue efforts would be on their final stretch, whereas the rebuilding efforts would just be starting and that is where we and the Grace’s Foundation could be most effective.

First Impressions:

On arrival in Kathmandu, I was greatly relieved to see that the city had not been leveled as I was led to believe by the media reports to date. We went straight away to the Bodha neighborhood of Kathmandu which is where a lot of our friends and guides lived. Though there was no massive destructive damage like in Bhaktapur and Patan, there were building with cracks in their structure.  Most severely hit was Sechin Monastery’s main assembly hall that had very dramatic cracks, but thankfully the structure held as hundreds were inside attending a teaching at the time of the quake.  The monastery open space was a tent city not just for the monks but tens of local people too.

Locals across Kathmandu had tents and makeshift shelter of tarps set up in the back yards, gardens and any open space they could find. As people did not know the structural integrity of their homes and fearing additional quakes they opted to sleep or work outdoors.  What is really lacking here is structural engineers, seismologists that can ascertain which buildings are safe to go back into. The Government announced that the services of structural engineers will be free for all residents, but there just are not enough engineers to go around.  By May 7 (my departure from Kathmandu to Lhasa), 12 days after the earthquake, the engineers had not reached the Bodha neighborhood and our friend Dolma (an Honoree of the 2001 Unsung Heroes of Compassion) with her family, including 80+ year old disabled father were still living under a tarp.

Immediately on landing in Kathmandu, I received a text message on my mobile phone from T-Mobile stating that while I am in Nepal all phone calls, data would free so that I can keep in touch with my family in the US – what  a great gesture from corporate America!  My traveling companions who were using other US phone services did not get any such message and so my phone became the go to phone for everyone calling back to the the USA.  Needless to say T–mobile has me as their life-long customer.  In fact, Dick Grace and a few other foreigners that I met all said they are going to switch soon as they return to the USA.  On the other end of the spectrum was the Hyatt Hotel management who would not allow any of the locals to sleep in their 35 acres of open grounds.

Another heartfelt story was Dolma Dhakhwa who runs a small Tibetan carpet export business (Reliance Carpet Industries), “I immediately went to visit all of my weavers, spread across the valley to give them bags of rice, lentils, and 2 months advance salary in anticipation that they may run out of food or have need for cash in the coming days.”

There is no doubt that Nepal is seeing an overwhelming response from the international community to help with the earthquake relief. As I walked around Kathmandu and drove in the countryside, I have seen flags from Sri Lanka to the USA on supply trucks, temporary housing, bulldozers.  While Kathmandu city saw a fair amount of quick response, the overall infrastructure here is completely taxed and outside of medical evacuation, the outlying village areas saw little or no aid all.

If there is a silver lining to this tragedy it was the timing of the earthquake.  Saturday is Nepal’s Sunday when everything is shut.  All the schools, private and Government offices were closed for the day, and at noon most people were outdoors, especially the villagers who were working the fields, and thus the death toll was relatively low compared to what would have been the toll had the earthquake happened on a working day.

Nepalese resilience

On May 2, Dick Grace and Samten Aungae (a Tibetan from Colorado who was visiting Nepal after 14 years) and I went to have lunch at a local pizza restaurant “Fire & Ice” and we could not get in – there was a 15 to 20 min wait as the restaurant was packed with tourists and locals.  Less than a week after the quake, I am seeing more and more of the shops, restaurants opening up, life slowly returning to some form of normalcy (immediately after the quake the downtown was like a ghost town). Shops in Thamel selling Tibetan artwork, native and trekking clothing are starting to open.  All of the tourist hotels from the Yak & Yeti, the Gokarana (where we were staying) to the Hyatt were open for business.  I also spent a night on the 5th floor of the Yak & Yeti and felt totally safe.

Images of people, villages, earthquake relief work  in Nepal

Immediate Relief:

We spent the first couple of days with Dr. Anil Shrestha (an Honoree of the Unsung Heroes of Compassion) and director of the Nepal Orthopedic Hospital. It was here we learned about Kunchuk Village region, from a 15 year old boy whose mother was in the hospital recovering from surgery.  He became our guide and took us to his village, located near the Tibetan border, about a 5 hour drive from Kathmandu.  Made up of small villages, numbering about 200 house with a population close to  7000. After the quake the locals found that they had lost 113 members of their community, and over 300 injured. Almost all houses were destroyed and those which were standing were not habitable.  Funded by the Grace Family Foundation, Dick Grace, Samten and I took 10,000 lbs of food (rice and chura – a ready to eat mixture of rice, lentil and nuts) to the families here.

In addition to the dump truck loaded with supplies, I was lucky to rent a large SUV type vehicle.  This enabled us to take three doctors with medical supplies with us that Dr. Shrestha was kind enough to spare from his hospital.  This just in case we encountered people with medical needs  I am happy to report that all of the seriously injured had already been evacuated to hospitals and other injuries already treated – a big thumbs up for the medical evacuations teams that had performed their jobs so efficiently in this region.  What was still seriously lacking a week after the quake, was food supplies and shelter. On reaching Kunchuk we learned that we were the first to bring food to this region and we only reached there on day 8 after the earthquake!  I can only imagine the plight of villages further afield.

The journey to Kunchuk was almost as difficult as meeting the people of Kunchuk – I could see the shock, the horror, the loss that they had experienced etched in their faces.  En route we passed houses (it’s tradition for locals to build houses close to the road) that had collapsed encroaching the narrow roads. Occasionally we saw signs in English “Please help us.”  Temporarily forgetting our destination, we made a few stops, but learning that some help had come to them recently, we continued to our destination.  The end of the black-top road was at Chautara, the district Capital, (which had been very badly hit but saw lots of Army medical help) we continued on a very poorly maintained dirt road till we reached the villages around Kunchuk. It took us several minutes to get organized and soon distributed the food supplies to some 200 families.  I was once again moved by the resilience of the Nepali people and their calm nature – what could have been a riot and feeding frenzy, the villagers calmly made two lines (one female and one male) and came to the front two families at time to collect one bag of rice or chura that they would share.  Even though we had 10,000 lbs. of food with us, it was not enough for everyone.  When our supply ran out the remaining people did not get angry or riot but simply resolved to wait for the next shipment.

What was most disconcerting to for me was what I can only call “the smell of death,” the distinctive and disturbing smell of decay – knowing it was not a mouse caught in the basement or roadkill on the highway, but people entombed under the rubble of their homes.

Long Term Commitment:

One of my primary goals of setting up Destination Himalaya was to use tourism as a means to empower local people to having financially successful careers, and as such Destination Himalaya and I are totally committed to staying with our Sherpa and Tibetan friends for the long duration.  I am teaming up with my long time friend David Breashears (mountaineer and filmmaker) to bring the rebuilding effort directly to the Sherpa community that we have so intricately involved over the last two decades.  David  was in Camp 1 on Everest when the earthquake hit.

“I’m really thankful to say that although our Base Camp was destroyed, none of our team were injured.”  David reported via satellite phone.

On April 28, David was interview on  BBC’s Radio 5 Live “Up All Night” program w/Rhod Sharp. The audio of the radio program is still online f you wish to hear David recount what it was like to be at Camp 1 when the earthquake hit.

David’s interview takes place time code ~ 02:23:10 – 02:38:52:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05s0vsn

The consensus among our Sherpa team and Wongchu Sherpa, the owner and founder of Peak Promotion (Nepal ground operator that both David and I have worked with for over two decades, was to set up a fund to rebuild the three severely damaged schools in Chyangba (8,400 ft.), a village of 600 people in the Solukhumbu district. Most of the Sherpas that David has worked for during his Everest career, and Destination Himalaya’s employs on our Nepal treks, hail from this region.  It is their wish that the schools be rebuilt over the coming months. David, with his 25 years working with the Sherpas, knows them well and says “education is viewed as the most valuable investment in their future.”

Because of our long term friendship with Wongchu and the Sherpas of Chyangba village, David and I will ensure that 100% of the funds donated will be spent specifically for rebuilding these schools, which benefit the entire community and not just one or two families.  One of David and my goals is to rebuild the schools to be more earthquake-proof.

How to donate:

Destination Himalaya does not have a non-profit status or foundation and so I have teamed up with the Grace Family Vineyard Foundation to channel all donations to Khumbhu Villages rebuilding effort.  Grace Family Foundation is a tax-exempt non-profit charitable organization under section 501(c) of the US tax code. All contributions are tax-deductible in accordance with US tax law.  A 100% of all donations received will be sent on to the project in the most expeditious manner.

Please make your donation check out to the “Grace Family Vineyard Foundation“, and in the memo line please write “Nepal Earthquake”.  NO DONATION IS TOO SMALL.

Checks can be mailed directly to:

Grace Family Vineyards Foundation
1210 Rockland Drive
St.Helena, CA 94574

If you prefer to charge your donations to your credit please follow the “Donate” link on the Foundation website.

Remember, 100% of all donations will be sent to fund the rebuilding of schools in the villages of the Solukhumbu district of Nepal.

Help support Heritage Watch’s new children’s campaign

Comic Book

A project to educate Cambodia’s kids of the importance of heritage preservation as they are the future stewards of the country’s past.

Heritage Watch was founded in 2003 by archaeologist Dougald O’Reilly following the rampant looting of Phum Snay, an immense Iron Age burial ground in Cambodia’s northwest.

Cambodia’s great archaeological heritage is being decimated by widespread looting.  Heritage Watch is a non-profit organization dedicated to halting this destruction and saving Cambodia’s cultural legacy.

Their most recent campaign focuses on the youth of Cambodia, and they’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund this latest initiative…

One of our most popular projects to date was the production and distribution of a Khmer language comic book called “Wrath of the Phantom Army” that tells the story of poor villagers who are encouraged to loot their home town. However, there are scary consequences. Reviving the tradition of ‘horror story’ comics has become very popular and thus, it is our venue for this media. Heritage Watch originally distributed this comic nationwide. Now we have integrated it into a comprehensive project called ‘Heritage for Kids’. 

Heritage for Kids involves developing a series of classes on historic preservation for teachers at primary and secondary schools in Cambodia. Part of the curriculum includes reading and reviewing “Wrath of the Phantom Army” and another of our popular children’s books ‘If the Stones Could Speak’. These books, together with a colouring book and the teacher’s guide, will help educate younger Cambodians about the importance and value of their cultural heritage. In the end, these younger Khmer will not only learn, but perhaps inform the rest of their communities, as well as their own families, on the importance of preserving their heritage. 

Journeys Within is proud to donate to this important cause and we hope that you will join us.

Click here for the project’s Kickstarter fundraising page. (The campaign must be funded by June 12, 2015)

Flights of fancy: 5 countries, 5 beautiful drone video tours

These days, with low-cost camera-ready drones available from a number of different manufacturers, and a bevy of amateur and professional videographers getting into the drone video game, we’re seeing more and more aerial video tours of the places we visit throughout Southeast Asia.

Take a moment (or five) and enjoy these unique perspectives on some of the monuments and destinations you may have already experienced first-hand or might have on a travel bucket list, from each of the five countries we offer tours in.

We suggest you make each of these videos full-screen to truly appreciate the stunning footage captured in these amazing places. Enjoy.

Cambodia

Tour the Angkor Wat temple complex in this video by 5Mars.com titled “Angkor – Visit from the sun.”

Thailand

See the Thai island of Koh Yao Noi in this video by Philip Bloom.

Vietnam

Enter the magical world of the Hang Son Doong cave system via drone in this video by Ryan Deboodt.

Myanmar

See the temples of Bagan from above in this video by YouTuber Clipper 707.

Laos

Enjoy a selection of aerial shots above the countryside of Laos in this video by YouTuber moodakdrone.

Make the most of your Thanksgiving holiday at Thailand’s Loi Krathong Festival

The Thai festival of Loi Krathong is celebrated annually on the evening of the full moon during the twelfth month of the Thai lunar calendar – corresponding to Nov. 25, 2015 this year.

Loi Krathong Festival

The name Loi Krathong essentially means “to float a basket,” and comes from the tradition of floating beautifully decorated baskets (krathongs) on a river, with participants making a wish and giving thanks as they release their basket.

During the festival, expect to see thousands of elaborately decorated krathongs floating down the waterways of Thailand – a sight that must be seen first-hand to be appreciated. And in the bigger cities, beauty pageants and even fireworks shows are common during the Loi Krathong festival.

At the same time as the Loi Krathong festival this year, another traditional Thai celebration – Yi Peng – will be celebrated. Also scheduled around the full moon, the Yi Peng festival features swarms of sky lanterns (khom loi), which float gently into the sky like luminous miniature hot-air balloons.

The khom loi are made from thin fabric, such as rice paper, stretched over a lightweight bamboo or wire frame, with a candle below the opening at the bottom. When the candle is lit, the warm air produced by the flame is enough to lift the khom loi into the sky.

Floating lanterns
Photo courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

In addition to the floating marvel of thousands of candle-lit khom loi, Thais also decorate their homes, gardens and temples during the Yi Peng Festival with elaborate paper lanterns which add to the amazing beauty of the countryside during this special time.

Best places to experience the festivities

Chiang Mai – a history city in the mountainous region of northern Thailand – is where we normally recommend people experience the Loi Krathong festival due to the unique history of the festival in this locale.

The ancient Thai capital city of Sukothai is another great bet for guests who have been to Thailand before and wish to experience the festival in a less touristy area.

Finally, there are celebrations in Bangkok, in the beach towns, and throughout the country if neither of the locations above works with your planned itinerary. The festivals will include events from Nov. 24 – 26 in 2015.

Journeys Within always send our guests with a guide who can explain the historical significance of the festivals, help navigate the crowds, aid in building krathongs and lanterns, and find the best locations to experience the festivities. Due to the popularity of these festivals in Thailand, travelers can expect large crowds – especially in the urban areas – however, it’s worth putting up with the crowds to be a part of such a magical time.

Book now to ensure the best accommodations for these unique festivals

Given the popularity of the Loi Krathong and Yi Peng festivals in Thailand, and the fact that they fall over the convenient Thanksgiving holiday break for U.S. travelers this year, we recommend booking your tour ASAP to ensure the best experience.

Our expert tour planners can plan the perfect itinerary around experiencing these two amazing Thai festivals, while also incorporating cultural excursions in smaller Thai villages, shopping trips to Bangkok, or relaxing days on the white-sand beaches Thailand is famous for.

Call our Thailand experts at (877) 454-3672, or submit an inquiry here to start planning your Thai festival tour today.

Preview the Loi Krathong and Yi Peng festivals