The Astonishing Feat of User Error

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This afternoon, I hat just settled into a thought-provoking book after a relaxing meal of avocado toast when my phone rang. Thinking that it was just an automated message from the NYPL saying... READ MORE

Creative Workshop #2: Easy as ABC

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To exercise my creative muscle, I am completing creative exercises from David Sherwin’s Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills.  #2: Easy as ABC Design a typeface that will be composed from elements in... READ MORE

Observation: Habits are Hard to Unlearn

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Our company just went through a series of renovations, during part of which our department was temporarily housed in a conference room on a different floor. This past week, we finally made the move back to our... READ MORE

The Astonishing Feat of User Error

posted in: Design Blog, User Experience | 0

This afternoon, I hat just settled into a thought-provoking book after a relaxing meal of avocado toast when my phone rang. Thinking that it was just an automated message from the NYPL saying that one of my books on hold had become available, I picked it up to hear, “Hello, Jessica? Are you still coming for your 1pm appointment with _____?”

Awwww Crap.

The haircut appointment that I had set up a month in advance was in fact for today instead of tomorrow, as I had originally thought. The man on the phone explained, kindly but understandably impatiently, that because I was (more accurate, would have been) a first-time customer, they would waive the same-day cancellation fee. However, according to policy, I was forever barred from making appointments with _____ again. Good day, *click*

A remarkable thing is that the salon had sent me a text message the day before, presumably to avoid precisely what had occurred. And I had thought it funny that they would send me a reminder 2 days in advance, but I carelessly and readily replied, “Yes.”


It just goes to show that no matter how many failsafes you put into place, there will always be someone–a user with her own assumptions, who ignores your instructions and doesn’t read your reminder texts– that blunders through and evades your best efforts.

And that user can be anyone, even someone with the best intentions whom peers and colleagues would otherwise describe as organized and responsible in other settings.

On the business side, then, what could the salon have done in order to prevent this from happening, or at least to minimize the damage?

1. Put more failsafes in place. Ask that users reply to confirmation texts with the time and date instead of simply responding with “Yes,” or send out another reminder text a few hours before the appointment. However, doing so requires additional labor, and also inconveniences ALL customers for the sake of the few.

2. Stricter policies. Charge for the full service or a nominal fee if a customer misses the appointment–and don’t waive it, even out of kindness to first-time customers. This would, at least, partially cover the opportunity cost of the missed appointment. However, there’s a potential downside to this as well: A study ran at a day care that wished to deter parents from picking their children up late found that instituting a late fee increased the number of late pickups. The introduction of the monetary fee decreased the parents’ guilt, and justified the late pick up because, hey, they were paying up for it. I don’t know to what extent customer guilt would help the salon, but it’s worthy of consideration especially if they’re looking to establish long-term relationships with these customers.

3. Be lenient, and go all the way. Accept that mistakes, accidents, and other circumstances happen and cut the customers some slack. In this case, the salon was already lenient by waiving the fee. However, I don’t know that revoking future appointment-making privileges would necessarily be the best move to follow. Had I been able to reschedule, I might have demonstrated that I actually am quite capable of keeping track of appointments, and given a substantial tip in gratitude for being given a second chance. I can see the logic behind the policy, though, in order to protect the business and weed out a segment who could very well turn out to be bad customers.

It’s not clear which of these options works best without being the business owner and without conducting a true experiment. But I’m grateful that the salon was understanding of my mistake, and it looks like I’ll just have to live with my split ends for a while longer.

Creative Workshop #2: Easy as ABC

posted in: Creative Exercises, Design Blog | 0

To exercise my creative muscle, I am completing creative exercises from David Sherwin’s Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills.

 #2: Easy as ABC

Design a typeface that will be composed from elements in the world around you. Assemble your twenty-six-character alphabet using only found objects or environments. Letters may be documented through collage, photography, photocopying, digital illustration, and other appropriate mediums. (120 min)

The weekend that I chose to tackle this challenge, I was also scheduled for two five-hour bus rides. Given that I couldn’t bring many things with me and also had virtually no mobility, the options for this project were limited.

But what about paper? Easy to carry, and possible to arrange and manipulate in close quarters. The only origami I know is the classic paper crane, but it sounded like fun to experiment and see what I could come up with. I had a few basic requirements:

  • Start with a square sheet
  • No cutting or tearing
  • No gluing or taping

I blew the 120 min time limit out of the water (no need to say by how much), because it turns out that transforming squares into abstract letters with no plan requires a lot of trial and error. It also turns out that supplying a bunch of paper and issuing the task of creating abstract letters is a great way to occupy and bond with a creative 10-year-old. My 10-year-old helper gave me a big creative boost, and she is solely responsible for the ‘k’ and for making the ‘a’ as cute as it is.

An origami alphabet of lowercased letters:



Fortunately, a lot of letters utilized the same shapes. ‘b,’ ‘d,’ ‘p,’ and ‘q.’ ‘e’ and ‘g.’ ‘u’ and ‘n.’ And ‘m’ and ‘w.’

‘x’ was a killer, and my favorite is ‘j’ (but I could be biased).

Taylor Swift 1989 World Tour

posted in: Travel, USA | 0

I’m pretty out of the loop when it comes to pop culture. The answer to “Do you know _____” or “Have you heard/seen ____” is “Um. No…” 90% of the time. But someone who I DO know (this is rare, so it’s a minor source of pride) is Taylor Swift, and I saw her live in concert in Philadelphia on her 1989 World Tour!

taylor swift 1989 world tour philadelphia concert

I’ve been to three concerts before in the past, Death Cab for Cutie, Jason Derulo, and David Guetta. But Taylor Swift was different because (1) I had heard her songs more than one week prior to the concert, and (2) I actually knew the words to said songs (again, probably not something that the average person would be proud of, but you underestimate the extent of my mainstream ignorance). I nabbed a ticket as soon as presales came out in December, so it’s been an anticipated event on my calendar for quite a while. To see the concert, I even made a special weekend trip down to Philly, because for whatever reason, NYC was not included on her tour. (I’m sure there’s a business rationale for this, but she’s the AMBASSADOR for NYC. Just saying.)

Being the concert n00b that I am, I arrived at the venue, Lincoln Financial Field, 15min before the start time of 7pm. It turns out that it takes quite a while for 50,000 people to pile into a stadium, and the event coordinators fully adjust the schedule to accommodate this. I found my seat in the second-to-last row (yes, I bought the cheapest ticket I could fined, and somehow it was still close to $100), and then there was nothing to do but to wait.

taylor swift 1989 world tour philadelphia concert

The camera makes it look much further away than it actually was, I swear.

taylor swift 1989 world tour philadelphia concert

I got so restless that I wandered around the concession stands and finally bought a cheeseburger and a $4 water, which the event coordinators probably fully accommodated for as well.

taylor swift 1989 world tour philadelphia concert lincoln financial field concession stand

I also amused myself by noting the demographics of the crowd, which was probably unlike any other that Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the Philadelphia Eagles, has ever seen. It was around 90% female, 70% young (which I operationally define as being born before 1989), and so, so overwhelmingly white. From my seat in the second-to-last row (and when you’re up that high, you can see a lot. Just not of the stage), I could only find four other people of color — two of which being my companions next to me. I was surprised because I thought she had a fan base that was at least twice as diverse (which still isn’t saying much…). But while everyone has danced to her music at some point, I guess mostly one particular demographic is willing to pony up $100++ to squint at her in a stadium.

Shawn Mendes kicked off the show at 7:15, followed by Vance Joy at 8:00. At 8:30, they amped up the crowd with videos prepared just for the 1989 World Tour, including trivia, behind the scenes for music videos, and interview snippets, and at 9:00 on the dot, Taylor Swift herself appeared.

taylor swift 1989 world tour philadelphia concert welcome to new york

Thank goodness for those two gigantic screens.

Her first song of the night, ‘Welcome to New York’ (I know videos are awful, but the goal of the videos was to save the experience rather than to try for the perfect cut).


Upon entering the stadium, everyone was given a white rubbery wristband that visibly contained LEDs but didn’t have buttons or any other means of activation. We were simply instructed to (1) wear the wristband, (2) remove the strip of plastic that separated the battery, and (3) have fun. As soon as Taylor took the stage, we discovered what it was for. The wristbands had no button because they were centrally controlled, timed to flash in rhythm with the current song of the set. Pretty cool!

taylor swift 1989 world tour philadelphia concert

taylor swift 1989 world tour philadelphia concert wristband

‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together':


One perk of being up high and far away: you can see the entire twinkling stadium. Because that — and not the performer — is clearly what I paid to see. After leaving the stadium the wristbands are set to flash colorfully when tapped or shaken. I don’t know how I feel about bringing a remote-controlled object back to my home, but who can pass up a cool reusable souvenir?

Taylor herself is an amazing performer, not unexpected given that she has had 10+ years of practice already. That girl knows her best poses and angles, and she has a talent for whipping up the crowd, even one that’s an unwieldy 50,000 people strong. The transition from song to song was seamless, so Taylor was fully present and fully on for two hours straight, when I was already hoarse from singing along by the end of the first hour. Much respect!

A runway that lifted up and rotated over the crowd:

taylor swift 1989 world tour philadelphia concert rotating stage

And ‘Love Story,’ redone in 1989 style:


The grand finale, with ‘Shake It Off’

taylor swift 1989 world tour philadelphia concert shake it off finale

What took me by surprise was Taylor’s eloquence. In the media, she is sometimes portrayed as somewhat spazzy, somewhat awkward, and generally “Omg omg — like, yeah.” But she gave earnest speeches as lead-ins to some of her songs, seeking to connect personally with her audience. She made a point of thanking us in person for supporting her 1989 album, shared some of the sentiments behind her songs, and made a variety of inspirational comments that drew from her own experiences. Aw man, she can sing, play instruments, and make good speeches?

Bring on the feelings of inadequacy. What am I doing with my life? Clearly not giving multiple concerts with tens of thousands of people in attendance. Realistically, I’ll never get to that point (“Not with that attitude!” yeah, yeah). But it is inspirational to see what someone can do at a mere age of 25. Let me set a goal of making “just” 50,000 friends, and I’ll move up form there!

After this concert, I understand the appeal of seeing artists live. It’s even more fun to sing along to your favorite songs when you’re doing it with the artist in the him/herself, even when s/he is an entire football field away. Maybe I should get more into music and other artists…nah. Taylor Swift is enough pop culture for me for now. One step at a time!

Monterey Bay Aquarium

posted in: Travel, USA | 0

Despite being from landlocked Colorado (or perhaps because of it), I’ve always loved aquariums. I had only ever been to the Downtown Aquarium in Denver, which if I recall correctly, is as famous for its tigers as it is its aquatic menagerie, so the Monterey Bay Aquarium was the first on my list of stops down the Pacific coast.

monterey bay aquarium sign

The Aquarium is located on the end of Cannery Row, the touristy (or quaint, depending on how you look at it) main street of Monterey, so finding parking nearby is difficult. There are only metered street spots that require you to have $4 – $10 worth in quarters/dollar coins, or parking lots that charge a flat rate of $15 -$20 for the day. Like a lazy parallel parking n00b, I opted for a lot, but belated parking tip: just a few blocks up the hill, there’s free street parking only a 10 min walk away.

All together the Aquarium only has two floors with four wings and a cafeteria, so I was a little disappointed with its size when I first got the map. However, it is extremely well-designed – I was consistently blown away by the exhibits, which were engagingly informational and put the animals in their best light.

I started off wandering into the Open Sea wing, and immediately felt like I was on a curated tour through National Geographic Land. With all of the beautiful, intricate creatures up close, every picture could serve as a bonafide magazine cover – the only limit being your photographic capability. My photography skills are sadly quite limiting, but with a moderately good camera and two photography lessons on how to adjust ISO/aperture/shutter speed under my belt, I tried to make do!

The entrance to the wing was a donut-shaped tank mounted overhead, filled with silvery sardines swimming in unending circles. Honestly, I could have just set up camp there and stared up for the rest of the day. (Here’s a picture by someone with not-so-limited photographic capability)

monterey bay aquarium sardine tank donut

Further in was tank after tank of jellies drifting peacefully under fluorescent light.

monterey bay aquarium fluorescent jellyfish

monterey bay aquarium fluorescent jellyfish

monterey bay aquarium fluorescent jellyfishAnd then a colossal tank at least three stories tall and at least three times as wide, filled with fish that were easily longer than me: tuna, sharks, rays, and other giants that I couldn’t identify. Wikipedia reports that it holds 1,200,000 gallons of water, features “one of the world’s largest single-pane windows,” and is actually “five panes seamlessly glued together.” The tank is so large that the fish swim by and disappear in the distance, so it lives up to its name of the Open Sea. I couldn’t even begin to do it justice, but here are some gems from the Almighty Google.

The second largest tank at the aquarium is the Kelp Forest, an impressive tall tank that is illuminated by sunlight and utilizes a surge machine to keep the waters in motion. The kelp grows all the way to to the top of the 28-foot tank, and there are multiple windows on two separate floors to see the vegetation and creatures inside.

monterey bay aquarium kelp forest fish tank

monterey bay aquarium kelp forest fish tank

monterey bay aquarium kelp forest fish tank

monterey bay aquarium kelp forest fish tank

The open top of the Kelp Forest tank, with sunlight streaming in:

monterey bay aquarium kelp forest fish tank open from top

I was lucky enough to catch a feeding, administered by a diver who explained the process and answered questions via a microphone connected in her mask:

monterey bay aquarium kelp forest fish tank diver at feeding time

monterey bay aquarium kelp forest fish tank diver at feeding time

Other passable pictures that I managed to take at various exhibits throughout the aquarium:

monterey bay aquarium lobby

monterey bay aquarium octopus

monterey bay aquarium Chambered nautilus

Moray eels are creeeeeee-py.

monterey bay aquarium moray eel

Did you know sand dollars are furry when they’re alive?

monterey bay aquarium sand dollar

Outside on the balcony, which overlooks the bay:

monterey bay aquarium outdoor pool

The beautiful aviary, an artificial beach for beach birds that somehow obediently don’t take flight:

monterey bay aquarium aviary

And a few other notable parts of the aquarium that I greatly enjoyed:

The decorative art on pillars throughout the wharf exhibit (left), which mimics the teeming life on the actual wharf pillars (right).

monterey bay aquarium wharf pillars

An interactive seafood bar, wherein visitors choose various commonly eaten seafoods from the touchscreen menus and life-size entertaining characters pop up on the three screens to explain the supply and sustainability of the seafood selected.

monterey bay aquarium seafood

A wave cave where visitors can experience what it’s like to have a wave crash over them while staying completely dry.

monterey bay aquarium wave cave

And various touch pools, filled with rays, abalone, sea cucumbers, starfish, sea urchins, and more.

monterey bay aquarium rocky shore touch pool

The only exhibit that didn’t feel completely up to par was the Special Exhibition called “The Jellies Experience,” which had a smaller concentration of animals (because there’s already an entire section devoted to jellies) and mostly contained jellyfish-themed decorations. For instance, these giant inflatable polyps (baby jellyfish larva). They may be shaped like polyps and mechanized to bob up and down, but they don’t impart much knowledge – more art exhibit than aquarium.

monterey bay aquarium inflatable jellyfish polyps

All in all though, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has an amazingly well-designed experience. It perfectly captures the fact that the Pacific coast bay is beautiful from above, but even more spectacular below.

A Bump in the Road (Curb) in L.A.

posted in: Travel, USA | 0

In the 6 years that I’ve had my drivers license, I haven’t had a single incident. Alright, there was the time when I got pulled over for speeding (only because I picked my mother up from dancing at 1am and she was in the passenger seat going “faster, faster!” Thanks, Mom), but I got away with just a warning. And then there was the Welcome-to-New-York parking ticket the very day I moved to NYC. But on the whole, I’m a safe driver! Until my first little transgression in L.A.

As far as accidents go, it’s probably one of the most minor ones you could think of. I was pulling up to a curb when I accidentally hit it, and the part that I hit just happened to be crumbled and jagged. It poked a hole in the tire and dented the rim, and all I could do was watch helplessly as the air hissed out of it.


Fortunately, it was a rental car, and fortunately I purchased the $17/day insurance! Even more thankfully, the nearest Hertz location was just a block and a half down the road. It couldn’t have been a more well-planned accident. What would I have done if this had happened along Big Sur? I’d rather not think about it.

Calling the Hertz Emergency Roadside number yielded 3 options: (1) get the car to a repair shop, where the tire would be replaced free of charge, (2) send someone to change the tire for me, for a $79 service charge, or (3) change the tire myself.

I didn’t like any of the options, so I chose (4) drive the car on a flat tire to the Hertz shop and exchange it for another car, free of charge. The sales people were none too happy when I rolled in on a flat tire, but they were still extremely accommodating and cool with the general situation. Tears may or may not have been involved.

In the end, the worst that happened was a lost hour, some frazzled nerves, and a significant downgrade from a new high tech car (keyless ignition, iPod connection, video when in reverse) with 2,000 miles to a much older one (whose most advanced technology was a CD player) with 40,000+ miles. No one was hurt, though, and it didn’t cost a cent to fix — technically I already paid for it with insurance plus the age differential fee of being under 25, which you could now argue is quite justified — so I’m counting my lucky stars!

Aw, well. Accidents happen, and this was a thankfully harmless reminder. Here’s to hoping that this is the worst I’ll encounter for at least the next 6 years and, if I have any luck left, beyond!

Lotus and Silk Weaving at Inle Lake

posted in: Asia, Myanmar, Travel | 0

Besides its distinctive culture and beauty, Inle Lake is also famous for a rare and remarkable craft: Lotus weaving. It’s exactly what it sounds like, weaving scarves, shawls, longyis (traditional sarong-like garments), and other clothing using lotus fibers as thread.

The particular type of lotus that grows in Inle Lake produces thin, soft strings when cut and pulled, something that locals discovered about 100 years ago (so it’s actually a relatively recent craft). Lotus stalks are harvested by the thousands in the rainy season and then stored.

To extract the lotus fibers, craftsmen slice the stalks perpendicularly on both sides without cutting all the way through, then pull the two pieces apart. As they do this, silky strands, like hundreds of spider web strings, appear. The craftsmen roll the new strands into the end of the thread that they are working on, and then pull away the remaining pieces of lotus. In this way, segment by segment, a single piece of lotus thread grows slowly longer.

myanmar inle lake lotus and silk weaving  lotus strands

This thread is then taken to the loom, where it is handwoven. Lotus fabric can be woven with silk or dyed solid colors, but for the most part it isn’t heavily treated. Even then, it’s costly stuff — a single 10in x 3ft shawl can be a product of up to 4,000 – 5,000 lotus stalks.

myanmar inle lake lotus and silk weaving  loom

Dad picked up a lotus scarf for a gift, which he showed off with its (potential) maker.

myanmar inle lake lotus and silk weaving lotus scarf and loom

In an extremely rare moment of crazed consumerism, I decided that I must have one too, no matter the price. They were just too fascinating and rare to pass up — when it comes to handmade, all bets are off. $90? No problem. I don’t even wear scarves. Thank goodness I only get these dangerous impulses maybe once every 2 years.

myanmar inle lake lotus and silk weaving  lotus scarf

Of course I picked red, which clashes terribly with every other red garment I own (roughly 60% of my closet). But no regrets whatsoever!

Silk Weaving

The same facility was also home to silk weaving, which, though not as exotic or exciting, also had a pretty amazing process of its own. The silk is imported from nearby China, but all of the treatment and weaving is done in-house.

First, the silk is dyed to a base color in a huge pot with natural pigments. Because the combination of colored powders varies from pot to pot, no two batches of silk are exactly the same color.

myanmar inle lake lotus and silk weaving  dyeing silk

myanmar inle lake lotus and silk weaving silk dye

Then, the silk strands are rolled onto spools and brought to this beautiful contraption, where they are pulled out and positioned roughly as they would be in the scarf.

myanmar inle lake lotus and silk weaving

The taunt strands are then collected and separated into batches, on which the scarf pattern is marked. Using strings coated with wax (which will repel dye) to cover areas that will be in different colors, the craftsmen can create intricate patterns and designs.

myanmar inle lake lotus and silk weaving

Lastly, the dyed strings are disassembled, kept in order, and brought to the loom. You can’t tell from the picture, but each individual strand is pre-dyed with the pattern, and the weaver checks to make sure that it lines up with the previous strand before securing it in place. Because of this method, the pattern can look sketched and jagged instead of being perfectly smooth, but it’s painstakingly achieved and part of the charm.

myanmar inle lake lotus and silk weaving  loom

I’ve been to a lot of weaving facilities around the world, but I have the most lasting impression of this one at Inle Lake. Or perhaps this is just the most recent impression…in any case, it’s the first time I’ve bought something from a handcraft gift shop in quite a while. They were so beautiful, I wish I could afford more — actually, maybe a better wish would be to actually wear the one I’ve got.

Sunrise and Sunset in Bagan

posted in: Asia, Myanmar, Travel | 1

The multitude of pagodas at Bagan are quite a sight from the ground, but the only way to truly appreciate the wonders of the ancient city is from up high, where you can see not 5-10, but 50-100 pagodas at once. And when better to do it than at sunrise and sunset, to add some brilliant colors to the mix?

On our first evening in Bagan, we went to Shwesandaw Temple, the most popular sunset spot. With 5 levels and a view that extends to the Irrawaddy river, it’s the most accessible location for the spectacular view. Unfortunately, that also means that it’s the most accessed, so when we got to the temple half an hour before sunset, it was already crawling with tourists and locals trying to sell various goods.

myanmar bagan pagodas shwesandaw sunset

The terrace was already filled to the point where people were sitting on the steep, 2-ft-tall steps that came up to my knees (thank goodness for railings). But looping around from the Southern side, I managed to squeeze my way onto some prime real estate looking out to the West.

About fifteen minutes later, a sly Chinese woman wedged herself behind me and tried to cajole me into trading places (“Come, do you want to rest against the wall? Let’s switch”), but I shook my head with wide eyes and pretended not to understand. If I let go of that spot, there was no way I was going to find my way back. This was the level below us when we first arrived, to give you an idea:

myanmar bagan sunset shwesandaw sunset crowd

And the temple from afar during the sunset, courtesy of my Dad, who made the smart decision to walk among the other temples instead of trying to squeeze on to this one:

myanmar bagan sunset  shwesandaw crowd

It was a long and literally crushing wait, but we were awarded with a gorgeous view. And a special treat–there were invisible, low-hanging clouds over the mountains, so the sun “set” twice:

myanmar bagan sunset shwesandaw view

myanmar bagan sunset shwesandaw view

myanmar bagan sunset shwesandaw view

Having seen sunset, we woke early the next morning for sunrise from an even better vantage point: a hot air balloon.

A rickety but charming old bus with wooden windows pulled up to the hotel to pick us up at 5:50am, and it brought us to an open launch area where the crew was waiting for us with folding chairs, coffee, and tea.

myanmar bagan sunset hot air balloon bus

Limp balloons lay nearby, and after our pilot had explained the necessary safety procedures and corralled us in a secure area, the crew started to blow them up. First a fan for cool air to inflate them, and then burners for the hot air to lift them.

myanmar bagan sunset hot air balloon

The pilot walked into the balloon at various times to check that the strings inside weren’t tangling as the balloon inflated, which I imagine is like being in the biggest game of parachute EVER.

myanmar bagan sunset hot air balloon inflation

myanmar bagan sunset hot air balloon inflation

One by one the balloons stood upright and took off, until finally we were the last ones left on the ground. Great. Not only did we select the slowest company (yellow and green balloons drifted by while our red ones were still slumped on their sides), but we had the slowest balloon. The slowest of the slow. By the time we actually got some air, the sun was already well above the horizon.

As it turns out, though, there are benefits to being last. We could take pictures of temples framed by all of the other floating balloons as we approached, and again with clear skies as we passed.

myanmar bagan sunset hot air balloon view

myanmar bagan pagodas overhead view

myanmar bagan sunset hot air balloon view

myanmar bagan sunset hot air balloon

But I have to admit that the pictures are more exciting with balloons in them:

myanmar bagan sunset hot air balloon view

myanmar bagan sunset hot air balloon view

And we more than made up for the late start by cruising by the river, over fields of peanuts, dunes of sand, and ox carts in motion (of course we have no pictures of them though, because we had to put our cameras away in preparation for landing). However, the wind wasn’t behaving quite like the pilot anticipated, so we ended up pretty far in the sand…and tipped over.

We were all in landing position (sitting on the bench, gripping onto straps in front of us with our arms outstretched and locked) and the balloon tipped slowly, so it was more comical than alarming. Two passing locals took one look at us and burst out laughing, without the slightest intention of concealing their merriment. I can’t say I blame them, who wouldn’t laugh at 16 foreigners laying sideways in a basket?

myanmar bagan sunset hot air balloon tilted landing

myanmar bagan sunset hot air balloon tilted landing

While the landing was fun, finding our way out of the sand wasn’t. It was a 30-minute trek to the nearest village with a road big enough for a bus to drive on to pick us up, but we did pass some scenes of unspoiled village life along the way.

myanmar bagan sunset hot air balloon sand landing

myanmar bagan sunset ox cart

I felt sorry for the crew, who were going to have follow the same path with all of the equipment loaded on ox carts because vehicles couldn’t drive on the sand. Pilot Barry definitely wasn’t gaining much love from the company for his unplanned landing, but he sure scored major points with us for the one-of-a-kind experience! We were all served a glass of champagne and delicious banana bread once we completed our trek as well, so it was quite a delightful ending – technically beginning (to the day), since at that point it was only 9:30am.

Of all the sun-chasing that we did in Myanmar, Bagan was the most difficult. The views are quite stunning and unique, though, so that makes the long waits, suffocating crowds, and sandy shoes all worthwhile.


The Pagodas of Bagan

posted in: Asia, Myanmar, Travel | 1

The ancient city of Bagan is one of Myanmar’s most-visited destinations for local and international tourists alike. First inhabited in the 7th century CE, Bagan has around 3,000 pagodas in a 16 square mile area, mostly dating from the heyday of the Pagan Empire from 1044 to 1287CE. They’re everywhere; if you stood in the center of Bagan and pointed in a random direction, you would come across pagoda –  or 10, or 20 – in all 360 degrees.

myanmar bagan pagodas overhead view

In many ways, Bagan is similar to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the famous temple complex dating from roughly the same period. But they also have completely different atmospheres, as Wiki Travel sums up well:

Angkor ruins are like a Chinese banquet where food is presented in spectacular servings with a suspenseful wait between items which are hidden beneath a curtain of forests. On the other hand, Bagan is served in Spanish Tapas style, the ingredients exposed to the customer and shown in small bite-sized servings, with the next attraction close and visible at hand, in shorter intervals.

With so many scattered pagodas (a word that includes both stupas, which are the mound-shaped structures that usually enshrine relics, and temples, which are buildings you can walk into), it would take a lifetime to visit and appreciate them all. But these are some of the more famous ones:

Ananda Temple

Sometimes titled “the Westminster Abbey of Burma,” the Ananda Temple dates from 1105CE and contains four huge standing Buddha images gilded with gold, along with countless other murals and small statues depicting the life of the Buddha. From afar, the standing Buddhas smile welcomingly, but as you approach his expression changes to a sterner mask, reminding you to take the teachings seriously.

myanmar bagan pagodas ananda temple gold standing buddha

The outer walls used to be coated with trails of gray from centuries of wear, but a recent restoration project has restored some of its former glory.

myanmar bagan pagodas ananda temple exterior renovation

Shwezigon Pagoda

Before the Shwezigon Pagoda was built in 1102CE pagodas were generally smaller in scale, so this pagoda is dubbed the “prototype of Burmese stupas.” It is believed to contain a tooth relic of the Buddha, and the location was chosen by placing the relic on the back of a white elephant and entrusting it to find a “holy place.”

myanmar bagan pagodas Shwezigon

Every four years the pagoda has to be re-gilded with gold, but I think the flaking gold leaf is beautiful as well.

myanmar bagan pagodas Shwezigon

Gu Byauk Gyi

A small temple with intricate frescos dating from the 13th century. Because the wall paintings are so fragile, no photography of any kind was allowed inside. So in lieu of a photo, here is a link.

The delicate temple was not at all helped by the fact that pieces of it were carved out and carted off in 1899. A German engineer named Mr. Thomahn (at least I think that’s what I had in my notes – curse my handwriting!) fell in love with the frescos so much that he decided to carve 1x2ft panels out and take them back with him to Germany. He was already about 5 panels in before people caught on, and the pieces are still missing. Come on, now, and we can’t take one (no-flash) photo?

Nanpaya Temple

A beautiful temple with Hindu influences, built by the Mon King Manuha as a personal place of worship when he was held captive in Bagan between the 11th and 12th centuries. It is one of four temples in Bagan that is made of sandstone, and it is lined with intricate stone carvings. It was pillaged throughout the years, though, with parts missing on some of the carvings because thieves thought that round stomachs and bulging body parts were hiding treasure.

myanmar bagan pagodas nanpaya rock carving missing stomach

Manuha Temple

Also built by the Mon King Manuha (how could you guess?) in captivity, using the money he obtained by selling his personal jewels. This temple looks quite normal on the outside, but you squeeze through one of its small doors and BAM, there’s a Buddha in your face. The Buddha statues fill up almost the entire room:

myanmar bagan pagodas manuha temple giant buddha

This was intentional, as it conveys the stress and discomfort that King Manuha felt while in captivity. Subtle details in the reclining Buddha in the back, like its closing eyes and its stacked feet, indicate that it’s a dying Buddha as opposed to a resting Buddha. The message is that the king would only be free in death, and indeed, he died without returning to his kingdom.

The dying Buddha with a human for scale:

myanmar bagan pagodas manuha temple reclining buddha

And just to get a sense of how cramped the rooms were:

myanmar bagan pagodas manuha temple reclining buddha

A floor plan from

myanmar bagan pagodas manuha temple floorplan with buddhas

Shwesandaw Pagoda

Known as the “Sunset Pagoda,” this is THE place to be for the sunset…or the one place NOT to be, depending on your perspective. I’m leaning toward the latter. It too is sacred and contains hairs of the Buddha, but most tourists are just interested in camping out on one of its four levels and taking pictures every 5 seconds as the sun goes down (sadly, I fall into this category. I won’t share my final picture count).


These are only a few — and admittedly, most impressive — of the thousands of pagodas, and they each had such rich histories and wonderful artifacts. I imagine that each and every pagoda has some sort of story, whether involving the people who commissioned it, built it, or visited it throughout the years. I couldn’t dig out all these stories, but I could at least take a horse cart trip through the pagodas, in old school(ish) fashion.

myanmar bagan pagodas horse cart ride

myanmar bagan pagodas horse cart ride

Sadly, a few factors, like Myanmar’s controversial military government and alleged poor treatment/reconstruction of the ancient temples, have prevented Bagan from being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But regardless of the whether it has that official title, Bagan has a magic to it that spans almost a millennium, and it deserves to be cherished and respected to the utmost extent.

Inle Lake

posted in: Asia, Myanmar, Travel | 1

When I first saw that we were staying for three nights at Inle Lake, I was both a little relieved (a break from repacking every morning) and a little taken aback. Two nights, sure, but three? Isn’t that a little excessive with a tight itinerary? But after seeing Inle Lake and its remarkable way of life, I wish we could have stayed for much longer.

Inle Lake is extremely long and narrow, connected in some spots by a waterway so tight that the side banks (especially with floating grasses and hyacinths) seem to close in on the boats motoring along them. Most tourists start at the town of Nyaung Shwe at the Northern tip of the lake and only explore the surrounding area, but for the full experience of the lake, we started down South from a town called Phekhon.

We boarded long, narrow boats with engines, the standard vehicles of transportation on the lake. I love the design of the boats, with the front quarter sticking up out of the water and the middle of the boat almost level with the water’s surface:

myanmar inle lake boat with motorThey were quite comfortable, equipped with padded seats, seat back pockets filled with water and cleaning wipes, umbrellas to deflect sunlight or water spray at high speeds, and even toasty blankets to break the wind. Our boats were newer with quieter motors, but just about every other boat that we saw had motors that you could hear from 100 yards away. Thank goodness for our boats, otherwise the three days at Inle wouldn’t have been nearly as fun.

We pulled out our cameras as soon as we left the pier, and didn’t have them off for more than 2 minutes straight thereafter:

myanmar inle lake water and birds

myanmar inle lake boat with motor

myanmar inle lake river grass

A couple of hours in, about halfway to our destination, we encountered a toll bridge of sorts. It’s hard to make out in the photo, but there is a woven basket hanging down from the bridge between the two posts. We pulled up to the basket, the boatman seated in the front threw in a few bills, and off we went!

myanmar inle lake mawbe toll bridge

Inle is famous for its floating villages:

myanmar inle lake village house on stilts

Every house had its own little dock leading down to the water, and often there were people sitting on it washing pots and pans or taking a river bath. Even if they were bathing (always, quite prudently, with the essential parts covered), they generally responded to our waves and smiles with hollars and waves of their own.

myanmar inle lake village house on stilts

Some, but not all, of the villages had power lines running through them, lining the lake passage like any normal street:

myanmar inle lake village house on stilts with electrical wires

The electrical poles made for some great silhouettes (what happens if this comes crashing down into the river? Because it’s not at all out of the realm of possibility):

myanmar inle lake power electrical wires

Another unique feature of Inle Lake is its floating gardens. Villagers start with clumps of river grass (like the one in the photo above – river grass and river hyacinths can be found basically anywhere), which they anchor with bamboo poles. Then they add layers of seaweed and mud, slowly building a little plot of earth in which to plant crops like tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash. These plants put down roots just far enough to get the right amount of water, and because they don’t have to be irrigated, they can be planted for many more months than the same crops on land.

myanmar inle lake floating gardens with hut

We pulled up next to a plot to try standing on it, and it surprisingly held the weight of three people, only seeping down about an inch or so. These things are buoyant! You don’t want to misstep, though.

myanmar inle lake floating gardens

Inle Lake is also famous for its fishermen, who wield large conical nets and paddle with their feet, so as to free their hands for fishing. They don’t fish so much as just pose for tourists now, but it’s still a remarkable amount of skill.

myanmar inle lake fishermen with nets

myanmar inle lake fisherman rowing with feet

Out boatman demonstrated the technique:

myanmar inle lake boatman rowing with feet

But clearly, it’s not as easy as it looks.

myanmar inle lake rowing with feet

Our group leader got the wonderful opportunity to snap this photo aboard one of the fishing boats:

myanmar inle lake fisherman with net and rowing with feet

And of course, our fascination with sunsets didn’t go away at Inle Lake: (the smoke is from farmers burning their crops in order to get ready for the next rotation)

myanmar inle lake at sunset with smoke

myanmar inle lake boat at sunset

The three days ended way too fast! It’s hard to say what my favorite part of Myanmar was, but Inle Lake was unforgettable.


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