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Lots of questions about Myanmar & maybe (a bit of) Thailand

Lots of questions about Myanmar & maybe (a bit of) Thailand

Dec 30th, 2016, 01:32 PM
  #1  
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Lots of questions about Myanmar & maybe (a bit of) Thailand

I think my husband and I are going to do it and make a last minute, peak season trip to Myanmar. After doing a lot of research and reading about the country, yesterday I e-mailed a couple agencies to ask them whether a last minute trip is doable as far as finding lodging. I got two responses from the three inquiries I sent, and both sent tentative itineraries and price lists (I had told them in general what I am looking for). So, apparently this should be doable to get lodging and internal flights. We are thinking of an entire trip somewhere in the four to six week range. It will depend on what types of plane ticket pricing we can find from the US and what places most call to us as far as how long we'll stay.

1. In Myanmar I am planning to visit the usual big four plus Mrauk U and am contemplating Ngapali (even though we are not at all typical beach people). Loikaw, Dawei, Myeik, Ye and Mawlamyine are other places that sound interesting and I am contemplating. We also want to do a couple day or half day trips for some light hiking so I am looking at Kengtung and Kalaw. Any comments or recommendations on these or other places?

2. We are not typically fans of crowded, noisy, unattractive large cities (especially Asian cities). Plus, those large cities that we tend to like are walkable and have low key things to see that interest us like waterfronts, produce markets, interesting architecture, gardens etc. I've read lots of trip reports and am debating how long to stay in Yangon and Mandalay.

3. As far as Bagan, I am trying to figure out how many nights to stay. We are not temple fanatics by any means, but last year when we visited Siem Reap we extended and ended up with a ten night stay and really got into this. Out of those ten days we used six days just visiting places around Siem Reap that were covered by our pass, and we spent two days just doing things in Siem Reap. We also made an overnight to Preah Vihar. Frankly Angkor Wat was one of our least favorite visits in the area because of the huge crowds and numerous tour groups. Knowing this, how many nights would you suggest for Bagan?

4. Do you know of any good guidebooks to Bagan I can purchase?

5. We are not normally people who use guides, but I know they are useful in some places so we occasionally hire them when they can facilitate a better understanding of a place or to have a better experience. Thinking back I think we are most interested in places when a guide has helped us to access places we could not comfortably have gone or benefited from on our own and when they have given us cultural insights. Are there any places in Myanmar where you felt having a guide was particularly helpful?

6. Last year we spent four nights in Bangkok at the end of our trip to Laos and Cambodia. Bangkok was not for us, and we won't be returning for anything than a possible airport use. We also had one morning in Chiang Rai last year, and that is the extent of our Thailand experience. If we spend a week or so in Thailand at the end of this trip, do you have any suggestions? I haven't had time to do much research on Thailand at all since I am focusing on Myanmar but have thought about Khao Sok national park, Sukothai, Chiang Mai or some of the islands possibly if there are some that offer something fabulous other than typical beach resorts. And, maybe since I am thinking of Ngapali in Myanmar for a few days, I shouldn't even be thinking about an island in Thailand.

We don't need deluxe or luxury, nor do we want towns or places that backpackers tend to just hang out in to wile away the time. We are looking for a combo of places to visit that are not too touristy (meaning not lots of t-shirt shops, junk souvenir places, international restaurant chains etc) and yet have tourist infrastructure for people who want to travel at a mid level or bit higher range.

I will appreciate any thoughts you have.
julies is offline  
Dec 30th, 2016, 05:05 PM
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Hi Julies, congrats on choosing Myanmar for your next trip.

1. I think the plan for where you want to visit is just fine. I haven't been to Ngapali, but I know people who love it.

2. I'm not sure what to say to you about cities. You say "We are not typically fans of crowded, noisy, unattractive large cities (especially Asian cities)." I think all of those things are in the eye of the beholder, so what I see and what you see might be very different. I don't think I've been to any large Asian city that didn't have "waterfronts, produce markets, interesting architecture, gardens etc." You know I love Bangkok - and you don't. I think Yangon is a very interesting (but very hot) city. I find Mandalay much less attractive, but it has interesting things well worth seeing/doing. Satoric has spent more time in Mandalay than I have and can give you different info about it. I find the areas outside of Mandalay fascinating.

3. We loved Bagan, spent 4 nights there one trip and three nights there the next trip. We didn't get to Mt. Popa (which people either love or hate), but that is s full day trip. Another trip from Bagan is to Salay, a village north of Bagan with a lovely carved teak monastery (we plan to go next time we get to Bagan). We also didn't explore the lacquer-making workshops. Our days were spent at the temples at at the market (mostly vegetables and fruits) in town. We will re-visit Bagan on out next trip.

4. IMO, the best book on Bagan is Pagan by Paul Strachan. It is long out of print, but readily available in Myanmar (I saw it in bookstores in Yangon, Began and Mandalay). I purchased a copy (used) on Amazon for a reasonable price.

gotta go now - I'll write more to you later.
Kathie is offline  
Dec 30th, 2016, 06:46 PM
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What I find to be must-see/do in Mandalay:

1. the gold-leaf workshops. The techniques are ages old, they use nested coconut shells as timers, for instance;

2. The Mahamuni Buddha Temple. The Mahamuni Buddha was taken as a spoil of war from Mrauk U to Mandalay. You will also see Angkorian bronzes there. Side note: I'm sure you saw the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok - this was also a spoil of war, taken from Sri Lanka, passing through many other places including Luang Prabang before ending up in Bangkok. I find the movement of important religious artwork to be fascinating.

responding to your #5: We don't usually use guides. We usually do our research ahead of time and want to focus on the here and now experience. We hired a superb horsecart driver in Bagan who turned out to be very knowledgeable and owned many of the same books that we do on Buddhism and Buddhist arts. We hired a driver outside of Mandalay to visit rarely visited ruins (info in my 2015 report). You will need to hire a boatmen at Inle (but he is not a guide - unlikely to even speak English), and if you go into Pa-O lands, you will automatically get a Pa-O guide.

your #6: I wouldn't do anyplace in northern Thailand in March - even the second half of February is iffy due to burning of fields. I would choose one beach area - either in Myanmar or Thailand, but given your stated interest, not both.

I'm sure I have missed some parts in your questions, so ask again for anything I didn't cover or that is unclear.

Happy planning!
Kathie is offline  
Dec 30th, 2016, 11:50 PM
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To add to Kathies list for Mandalay, I would include U Bein bridge to walk across for early sunset, and a ride on the public boat to Mingun. The boat is $5 pp and you can self guide once there, takes about half a day. I also really liked the ruined stone monastery and working teak monastery at Inwa despite the bumpy horse and cart ride. Maybe some enterprising person has mountain bikes for hire now. Use your hotel to help with taxis, they are not easy to get in Mandalay.

Consider a two day trip on the Irrawaddy from Bagan to Mandalay or vice versa. The river life is ever changing.

With a max of 28 days in Myanmar I would devote at least 4 or 5 full days to both Yangon and Mandalay, but then I like cities. The downtown area of Yangon is walkable (watch your step) and has many fine examples of colonial architecture in varying states of decay, plus some cool gardens. Walking tours are available, as are street food tours. Scott market (closed on Mondays) is well worth a visit. There are street markets everywhere selling the unimaginable, anything from old books to spices to a steaming bowl of something. Taxis are easier to get in Yangon. You might like the circle train for a look at the countryside.

I found that a guide in Bagan added context for me (I'm not quite a temple nut, just interested), he took us to less crowded or remote temples. I've been to Salay and recommend it not only for the teak monastery but also colonial architecture and a walkable central area with home based industry right on the street.

I'll still put in a plug for Georgetown for your next destination. There are direct flights with AirAsia from DMK to PEN.
sartoric is online now  
Dec 31st, 2016, 06:23 AM
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Satpric gives you some good suggestions. Let me mention my favorite place on the outskirts of Mandalay: Sagaing. The places we visited in Iowa/Ava were lovely, but the horsecart ride left me with a vitreous detachment. and the rigidity of the transport "There are four and only four stops" made me crazy.
Kathie is offline  
Dec 31st, 2016, 09:47 AM
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I like BKK just to add context. I did not care for Mandalay at all. I did enjoy the boat ride and time in Mingun which was desserted when we were there. I preferred Yangon, but definitely watch your step as you walk about. When we were there it wasn't any hotter than anyplace else we had been. Kathie's guide rec for Bagan was great and added greatly to our time there. We took the boat from Mandalay to Bagan and found that fascinating and I am not particularly a boat person.

You might look into Hspiaw. Lots of people we met were doing the trek to Kalaw from there. Small town, lots of backpackers who were doing trekking and pretty area. We did a walk to the "Shan Palace" and had a fascinating visit with "Fern." We enjoyed our couple days there.

Watch out for the burning of the fields. We've merely had a touch of it on our trips and its awful.

I know you like to go away in the winter and wondered if you have visited South America?
yestravel is offline  
Dec 31st, 2016, 01:07 PM
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Thanks for all of the suggestions. I've been spending hours on the web and with my travel books.

Speaking of books, Moon had a new Myanmar guidebook that is due out next week. And there is an e-book on the temples of Bagan that gets great reviews except some say it is too in depth. I will be buying this.

https://www.amazon.com/Myanmar-Burma...=bagan+temples

I just got back from a walk with my husband (trying to walk very carefully so we didn't slip on the ubiquitous ice and break something, so that is why we are so anxious to get out of here) and we discussed the various possibilities for this trip. He reminded me again that he doesn't like large Asian cities, and I don't either. Perhaps we should consider just skipping Mandalay or make it a quick two nighter. We don't like Delhi or Bangkok or HCMC. We had a fine time in Phnom Penh, Mumbai, and Hanoi.

As far as the boat trip from Mandalay to Bagan, for people who have done it, did you do the fancier more expensive overnighter with a cruise line like Pandaw, or did you do the cheaper long one day cruise that is much more affordable? Last year we did an overnight cruise from Luang Prabang to the Thai border and really enjoyed it. We went with the top of the line outfitter, and they certainly didn't charge as much for that cruise as Pandaw and competitors do. But, we did spend the night in a deluxe resort on land rather than spending the night on the boat.

Then, when I mentioned Bagan and the temples he said that we just saw lots of temples last year in Cambodia. But, we like to explore on our own, so I think maybe we should consider 4 or 5 nights here. And, Kathie and sartoric have a good suggestion for a day trip.

We have found that often we are most interested in visiting places that have an overall unique aspect or ambiance to them rather than just the typical tourist sites. I think he may be most interested in some of the smaller, more remote, lesser touristed locations, but he was also wondering about if some of these locales I am considering are so small and have so little tourist infrastructure that their idea of a restaurant is a metal barrel on the street that has been converted to a stove. By the way, we are not high end diners at all, but I think he is picturing some of the more remote places we've driven through on other trips.

And, he wants to know if there is anything else to do (walking, kayaking, visiting small villages/towns, cycling, fishing) in Ngapali other than sit on the beach and read. He is good for perhaps a half a day of beach visiting without something more active to do.

I've looked at the UK travel advisories for Myanmar, and travel is okay for Hsipaw town but not the surrounding areas since there is fighting in the region and several tourists were injured by a landmine a couple months ago. So, that idea is a no go.

Georgetown is an intriguing thought. I looked and there are flights from to Yangon to Penang (connecting through Singapore). That is something I had never thought of. Would people recommend this over Chiang Mai for the second part of February? And, if so, for how long? Realistically I am thinking this may be our last trip to SEA, so I want to make choices about what we would really most like to do.

The only place in South America we have been to is Peru. I've thought about Ecuador and spent a little bit of time investigating Argentina but discovered that BA is probably a better shoulder season than Jan. and Feb. destination. In Central America I've been to Nicaragua and only Antigua in Guatemala. Liked both places a lot.
julies is offline  
Dec 31st, 2016, 01:43 PM
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Sorry to hear that about Hsipaw.

We did a local type boat from Mandalay to Bagan. Large, lots of people and not a cruise, just a mode of transportation between the 2 cities. We also did the boat trip from LP to Thailand/Laos and its nothing like the boat we went on.

I like CM, but from what I read of your likes, I'm not so sure you would. It's one of those cities that divides people -- some really don't like it and others, like me, do, You also could run into the burning there. Parts of it are fine for walking, but certainly not outside the gates. We actually got stuck on a traffic island and had to be rescued by a kindly tuk tuk driver or I fear we would have spent the night there. (And we've crossed streets elsewhere, like in VN, with no issues.)

On SA, I suggest you check it out for future travels. I think it would match up nicely with what you say you like. It's not as hot as SEAsia (outside BA in Feb.) Colombia is great and fairly undiscovered. Ecuador is nice as is Chile & ARG is huge and lots to see & do outside BA. Mexico also has much to see and there is more to Guat than Antigua which I like a lot.

Good luck with figuring out your travels.
yestravel is offline  
Dec 31st, 2016, 02:03 PM
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I'd recommend Georgetown over Chaing Mai every day of the year!

There are plenty of other off the beaten track places you could go in Burma. Monywa is where our Chindwin Cruise started, for instance. The city itself was interesting and the caves across the river even more interesting. A recent traveler to Myanmar noted that he went there (and saw no other travelers).

You can rent a bicycle in many towns. You can bicycle around Bagan. And if you aren't all that interested in the temples, it might be a fine way to see the area. If you are more interested in the temples, you may want a horsecart driver who can take you to remote temples and who knows who holds the key.

I'd recommend that you stay outside Mandalay rather then in the city. I think you might enjoy the out-of-town places more than Mandalay itself.
Kathie is offline  
Jan 1st, 2017, 12:33 AM
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Like yestravel, I too think you should consider South America and especially Colombia. Indeed it was her comments and TR that largely promoted us to spend two months there this year. It has pretty much all you want. Dec -Feb is pretty much the best time weather wise to visit and, apart from the hot and humid Cartagena we found the climate perfect. Reasonable temps and plenty of sunshine - argely due to the altitude. Lots of great amazing town and villages as well great hiking and beaches. Definitely worth a look. A great time for Patagonia - Chile and Argentina but I think that is just more of what you are trying to get away from! Likewise Ecuador.

Never having been to Burma i can't really comment but am reading along as it is still on our list. I would however, second kathies comment about avoiding the north of Thailand fro mid Feb on. Simply nor worth the risk of hitting te burning season which can be horrendous. Not always, but there is no way yo telling in advance. Clearly those problems would affect Areas of Burma close to the Thai border.

I love Georgetown but I also like Chiang Mai. They are very similar in a lot of respects. Georgetown is a city of some .75m people so it is very busy. Some of the best food in Asia and some great sights to explore. If flying out of KL you could get the train from Penang to Ipoh which is a smaller town, renowned for its, Chicken and Beansprouts and Dim sum - weekenders come all the way from Singapore just for that. Also has some interesting cave temples just out side of town and it is but a 3 hour bus or taxi to The Cameron Highlands. A few photos and more info on these places on te Malaysian section of our blog.
crellston is offline  
Jan 1st, 2017, 05:50 AM
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I am currently exploring all of our options, so we will see how this ends up. Thanks for all of your thoughts, and Happy New Year.

Unfortunately, as much as we'd like to visit Mrack U that too is probably now off the table since I've learned there are active advisories from many different countries not to travel in most areas of Rakhine state due to the violence.

So, that either means less time in Myanmar overall or spending more time in some of the other locales in Myanmar we have thought about visiting. With these safety precautions in place limiting visits to certain areas, I am starting to get the same feeling I had when we visited Nepal (a country we loved)--there is probably a certain amount of time that the average tourist would want to devote to the country. In Nepal we were lucky enough to discover a couple totally off the beaten path, smaller family-owned places that had some interesting and low key things to do for a few days. Since the tourism industry is just developing in Myanmar there don't seem to be such places.

Over the years I have toyed with the idea of Columbia, and as I understand it it certainly is much safer than it was years ago. And, we know people who have visited there and enjoyed it. But, it too still has travel advisories, particularly for many rural areas. And, of course, we typically enjoy rural areas.

I think I am also going to further explore the idea of possibly visiting the middle section of Vietnam, an area we completely skipped on our trip there when we flew from HCMC to Hanoi. There are flights from Yangon to DaNang that take about the same amount of time as flying to Penang from Yangon. But, of course, this involves the hassle of getting a Vietnam visa. The Myanmar 28 day limit is a hassle too because we can't do something like just buy a 5 week round trip ticket into Yangon and then spend time in Myanmar, go somewhere else for a couple weeks and come back to fly out immediately or spend more time in the country.

And, I will also be looking at southern Thailand since it sounds as though Chiang Mai and the north is not a good choice. Plus, I am a little bit intrigued by exploring the idea of finding the perfect beach area in Thailand that we might enjoy--a combo of quite undeveloped, interesting scenery, opportunities to maybe kayak, perhaps nice snorkeling close in, no nightlife, no jetskis, no parties, no tourist activities like parasailing, no noisy bars, some local low key sights we could enjoy like villages or fishing towns. We don't need or want luxury resorts and were very happy when we spent a few days at the beach in India in quite basic rooms that had great views but absolutely nothing else in terms of amenities. I've been reading more about Ngapali and it is supposed to be much more expensive than Thailand's beaches.
julies is offline  
Jan 1st, 2017, 07:33 AM
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Julies, I know you haven't yet decided, but if you opt to go to Myanmar, I'd suggest you spend all 28 days allowed there - especially since you anticipate this will be your last trip to SE Asia. There is lots to see and do and all of it is more off the tourist track than other places in SE Asia. Even without going to MU, you can easily spend 28 days.
Kathie is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2017, 09:10 AM
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Kathie--You are right about being able to occupy ourselves for 28 days in Myanmar.

I have been spending more time with in-depth researching because I want to pin down our requests prior to communicating with the two agencies again. Both have been very responsive but offer some different variations. And, of course, our exact dates will determine what hotel availability there is. I am hoping that since our hotel requests will be more mid-range rather than super deluxe there may be more availability. The time around Chinese New Year (Jan. 28 this year) will be a complicating factor; however, one agent told me that demand this year is less than last.

Right now I am thinking perhaps (not in sequential order):

5 nights Inle Lake
2 nights Kalaw so we can do some easy walking
1 night if we can get in at Mountain Top Resort in Golden Rock
3 or 4 nights in Mandalay
4 nights in Yangon
5 nights in Bagan
We also want to do that long day trip ferry between Mandalay and Bagan so depending on which direction we'd go, I'd add another night to either Bagan or Mandalay to cover sleeping after the transit day.

This totals 21-22 days.

Then I have several other areas I am still looking into because they sound interesting, so I can see that we could easily spend our 28 day visa in Myanmar. Our overall goal for our trip is not so much ticking off all of the historic or must-see tourist sites but finding a balance of overall places that are scenic, allow for some active endeavors suited to people our age, historic, cultural and those that offer windows into everyday life. With all of the different traveling we have done, we are now at the point where we are looking at some ideas, places, locales, experiences etc. and saying to ourselves that they might be too similar to other places we have visited.

Kengtung for some day trip walking is a possibility.

Pyin Oo Lwin--In Uttarkrhand in India we enjoyed the low-key two nights we spent in Ranhiket which is a nicely preserved British hill station that is still the center of a large military base. So, Pyin Oo Lwin might be intriguing.

Ngapali sounds intriguing for also having other possibilities than just lying on the beach. But, it is hugely expensive compared to beach resorts elsewhere in other countries.

Mawlamyine and Hpa An also sound interesting.

Then, I still need to figure out if this will be a Myanmar only trip or if we should tag on some time in peninsular Malaysia, southern Thailand, or the mid section of Vietnam. Obviously all three very different places and ideas. I am guessing that Thailand and Malaysia would be the most developed and Vietnam the least. Perhaps I am wrong though.
julies is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2017, 09:31 AM
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Or, I could contemplate Bali for a week or so in February instead of some of the other places I've mentioned as possibilities if we decide to extend for a week or two. I guess I'd like a place that offers most interest and most contrast to Myanmar.
julies is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2017, 09:48 AM
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We spent an overnight in Pyin Oo Lwin on the way to Hsipaw and I would not describe it as intriguing. It was nice and cool and a welcome break from the heat in Mandalay. We drove around a bit and explored the gardens. We might have missed something. We did have a good meal there.
yestravel is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2017, 10:14 AM
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We also went to Pyin Oo Lwin. I especially wanted to see the Botanical Garden there, as I'd read the account of a botanist who searched for rare plants in Burma (The Weeping Goldsmith). The botanical garden was nice, but not exceptional, IMO. But we did have a long conversation with a woman who was a grad student studying butterflies there. The town itself was so overrun with military, I found it hard to enjoy. There is a military academy there and many of the generals have torn down the lovely old houses from the days of the Brits and are putting up McMansions. We did stop at a shop that had old crafts and weavings and had a long conversation with the man (Soe Moe) who owns the place.

Certainly Bali would offer quite a contrast with Myanmar, but then most places would offer contrast. You might consider a week in Bali pus a few days in Singapore. Or, Georgetown, Penang or Kuching, Sarawak.

I'd say that there are no "super deluxe" accommodations in Myanmar.
Kathie is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2017, 10:33 AM
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When we were in Pyin Oo Lwin which was on a weekend day, the town did not have military all over. Mostly families out enjoying a Sunday I think. We did see the McMansions everywhere though.
yestravel is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2017, 10:54 AM
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Oh, that is interesting, yestravel. Obviously, we were there on a weekday.
Kathie is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2017, 11:36 AM
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I remember passing the Military Academy on the way iinto town, but it was quiet and looked deserted perhaps for the day.
yestravel is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2017, 12:44 PM
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Very helpful! Sounds like we'll take a pass on Pyin Oo Lwin. Any comments on the number of days I am tentatively allocating for the other places?

Right now I am thinking of perhaps peninsular Malaysia as an add-on of maybe two weeks. It sounds as though we could keep ourselves easily occupied for two weeks between Georgetown, Taman Negara National Park, Ipoh, and Malakka.

I am going to also look more closely at Bali. Would you still consider it "exotic" despite all I read about fancy restaurants, shopping, spas, deluxe resorts etc.? Our aim is to try to visit places that are definitely not home. We don't need or want SEA lite made to appeal to inexperienced or nervous travelers. Could be my impressions are wrong from what I've read though.

I think I have eliminated Thailand as a possibility. February sees Kuching gets a horrendous amount of rain in February, so that is out.

Thanks again! I am getting anxious to get a rough framework put together, plane tickets booked and to get out of here where right now there is freezing drizzle coming down on top of icy-crusted snow. We knew we wanted to get away this winter, but we were busy with two other recent trips this fall and also trying to decide between if we'd prefer to stay in the US and potentially take a road trip looking for a condo to buy in some warm place for winter or take an exotic trip elsewhere. So, we didn't plan anything; that's why I am trying to pull this together last minute. The exotic trip won out because we figure we won't have too many years left to tackle this more difficult travel.
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