Friday, 23 August 2013

007 Burma stylee - Inle Lake

The journey to Inle Lake was fairly monumental leaving Hpa An at 9.30am and eventually arriving with a 2 hours break in the middle at 7.00am the next day. The journey made even longer by the fact that the driver played Karaoke music (literally recordings of people singing Karaoke, possibly him, which he also sang along to all night!!! I did complain but with little effect.

We are staying in Nyaungshwe at Inle Lake in an unremarkable hotel in the small town centre. We went for a wander yesterday and, as is our want, turned off the road to follow a dirt track through the paddy fields towards an old looking monastery.

Where, as usually happens to us, we found a friendly monk who beckoned us in for a chat. This 74 year old chap lived alone in this huge old timber building and had done so for 34 years with occasional company from another aged monk and a one week teaching stint every year. He lived a simple life of prayer and meditation. He was lovely and shared a few over ripe bananas with us whilst talking about a load of old rubbish.

Early to bed because we had barely slept the previous night we woke to a pleasant day with NO RAIN! After breakfast we went down to the jetty and haggled the price of a longboat for the day. We eventually agreed one price but after going to the toilet were told it would suddenly be cheaper because there was another passenger. Great!

The boat is a 24 foot long boat in which we all sit in a line. The sides are steep and the engine big with long prop shaft extending out the back and it whizzes through the water at a joyous speed. Our $10 bought us use of this and a driver for 7 hours during which time we travelled all over  the lake and through the extensive marshes covering somewhere about 30 miles during the day. Our travels took us through lots of floating hyacinths and reeds to a market on the lake side. "Just looking Sir, Madam, please".. Next we go to the far end of the lake past mile after mile of floating gardens.

These are actually market gardens or allotments that are floating. Water Hyacinths in often huge clusters which float with long bamboo poles thrust through them into lake mud. A few lengths of bamboo are then slung on top and then lake mud and old vegetation on top of that. End result is fertile, constantly watered, floating islands. As said these extend for miles with waterways running between. The gardeners prune, clip, plant, tend and harvest from their small flat boats which also serve as their wheel barrows. Quite amazing! Touching onto these market gardens are stilted villages with houses, shops, and walkways all hanging 5ft above the lake waters. The streets are waterways


 peopled by long boats and flat bed craft and reached by walking down rickety stairs to lake level. The buildings range in size from small shacks to quite large businesses all joined with power lines and telephone lines that dangle between them like rampant vines. We stop in a lotus flower weaving factory for the tour and obligatory hard sell then have lunch. All the time our fellow passenger has been featuring larger in our day but will come to that shortly. Although it is at this point, over lunch, that we notice an important detail - Many of the boats have a driver, the tourists and, always sitting in the same seat, a suspicious local person....Urrmmm!

After lunch we go to another craft factory ran by the long neck people. Those who wear brass rings around their necks and legs. Apparently this process starts at the age of 9 with 14 rings around the neck and continues up to 25 rings although one particular giraffey looking woman seemed to have more supporting her inordinately long neck. We are also told that the complete set weighs 8 kilos!!!

Final visit is to the cat monastery where the monks once taught cats to jump through hoops (bugger all else to do - obviously) but now just have a few cats wandering around to please the tourists. That said this very old, worn out and delightful place was wonderful with ancient looking shirnes and Buddhas all housed in a huge space supported by fading gold and red pillars. One last thing before we get to our boat guest,, The Inle Lake fishermen have an extraordinary way of plying their trade. They do so by paddling the boat by using the oar and one leg. This then leaves the hands both free to feed and gather the nets.

So. . The other passenger.

As stated. He suddenly appears on our boat on the quay. Burmese, 47, bad stutter, simply dressed, no camera, no bag, none of the trappings of a sightseer. He has a nice open face, speaks not bad English although stutters badly. He claimed to work for a missionary school in Mae Sot in Thailand and was here for a working holiday for a few weeks and didn't have much money.

He claimed that he was a manual worker although his English, partial French, knowledge and general demeanour would suggest otherwise. To begin with he didn't speak and was just walking near us, gradually his interaction with us grew more and more...The questions come thick and fast- nothing too probing but asked purposefully with the odd one thrown in ... "What is your middle name and second name", What year were you born". He also made open accusations against the Burmese and several references to the government in a fashion which would prompt collusion if I had firm views. Anyway things went on with him being constantly at our elbow but taking no interest in the places we were visiting. For a lowly manual worker who had not been there before he was very intuitive because he also seemed to know his way around, spoke fluent Burmese, dressed in the local fashion and was not treated as a guest by those around him. Add to this that he took no lead in decisions about where or how long our boat would be anywhere and alarm bells started ringing. Eventually I could not bear it any more so flatly asked him what was he doing on our boat, was he paid to key an eye on us and gather information. We thought he was not telling us the truth because of the way he was acting. That flustered him! He denied all but he was obviously uncomfortable and started acting anxious by constantly talking about things we were seeing ... "that's a horse, it is red, this is the alter, the Buddhists believe in blah blah, that's a coconut" etc. He became cloying and I had to tell him eventually that I didn't believe him, that we didn't want him in our face, to keep talking to us and to back off and do his job somewhere else. Which he then did at about 20 metres away. Really funny because he kept the pretence of not being with us but never took his eyes off us and if he was to lose us momentarily would panic and be seen frantically looking where we were then act all casual when we saw him. All very amusing and slightly disconcerting as why the government (I am sure he was a some sort of tourist spy) would feel the need to track us here??? Answers in a box please. Oh one final thing. We finally shook him off after the boat trip by asking what he was doing now. He said he was going to get the bus. We walked up the street and said goodbye and sat down in a café for a tea. He walked off. We drank our tea then headed back to our hotel only to find Peter (the spy) walking back down the street towards us. The look of surprise was on his face was a picture as he quickly scurried away.

Final day at Inle Lake and we have just returned from a 22km bike ride along country roads. Before we leave the town we drop by a really great market that sold everything. As always with these markets the produce was piled high and beautifully displayed. Spiced aromas fill

the confined spaces and vibrant colours all scream for the eyes attention. Their is jostling, shouting, hawking, chatting and laughter all around. A great place to shop and far removed from the sanitised experience of Tescos. Out of the town and on either side of the road paddy fields stretch to the far away hills. Groups of farmer workers using threshing machines are found every kilometre or so besides heaps of dried rice stalks. There are vast fluffy clouds rising into the blue sky with the ever present thunder clouds lurking upon the hill ridges. Along one stretch of road the houses are fronted by a slow flowing brown canal in which the locals are either washing themselves, their clothes or their children. It seems we are a curiosity because we are riding outside of the town and consequently the locals are once again friendly and smiling.

We drop into an old monastery - we love 'em - and enjoy the cool darkness inside whilst looking at the dilapidated woodwork, peeling paint and plaster and walking on the cool wooden floors bare footed. Groups of young monks are walking about and their voices can be heard outside of the shadowy halls whilst a flash of maroon can be seen through the large circular windows as they walk by outside. We also find a small mausoleum with small Buddhas in hundreds of Alcoves. Again the order of the day is decay - but done in a truly beautiful way with the fading reds, golds and browns of the tiles. A few more kilometres down the road we stop by a road side tea shop and get talking (well vaguely communicating) with a group of 7 guys and have a few laughs at one another's pronunciation, learn a few words in each others language and leave feeling all warm and fuzzy. The trip was to get to a railway station to buy a ticket for a narrow gauge train that runs to the town of Thazi which is in the foothills and meant to be a fabulous journey en route to Mandalay. The little town is dirty and dusty and perfect. We have lunch in a café and get served hot milk, samosas, milk curd with sugar, chipati and chickpeas. Bit weird but tasty as.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013


Up at 5.30am to catch the bus to Kinpun Camp at the base of Mt Kyaikhtiyo. A roughly 2500 ft mountain on top of which is balanced a giant golden boulder with a Pagoda built on top. The stone maintains its balance, according to legend, because of one of Buddha's hairs strategically placed in the stupa (pagoda). The bus is hardly luxury with open windows, unscheduled stops and Burmese television karaoke. Still it gets us their along the poorly constructed roads whilst the vegetation gets gradually wilder and the landscape more dramatic. The rain has poured down the entire journey and as we are entering the small village of Kinpun Camp we are a little concerned about the lack of booked accommodation and having to traipse around looking for it whilst getting soaked. However this is solved by an enterprising guest house owner jumping aboard the bus to introduce himself and thereby secure one nights accommodation from us. Bags deposited, quick curry lunch and two beers consumed we set off for a walk in the drizzle.

It is important to understand terminology at this point – spitting (occasional drop), drizzle (light rain that’s more a nuisance than a problem), rain (constant and harder and definitey needs a brolly to shelter from), pouring down (constant, hard, splashing, huge puddle forming and requires brolly and waterproofs to shelter from), Deluge (buckets of water constantly poured on the head and thrown from the sides, brolly and waterproofs can be discarded and swimwear put on instead).


The village road rapidly deteriorates into a rock strewn dirt track that winds its way up the side of the mountain. Houses are palm roofed shacks on stills. Bamboo poles support tarpaulin wind and rain shelters. Most have no windows and few doors. Kitchens are a circle of stones where fires heat black, bubbling cauldrons of food under a corrugated lean to’s, furniture is minimal, hard and creaky. The lucky ones have a small motorbike for transport the less wealthy have old shoes. The people are friendly, clean and approachable. This is the most picturesque and real village we have ever walked through. Children run out and we take photos, or wave to old folk in chairs, and nod to cheroot smoking men who are squatting over woodpiles or women lost in wood smoke rising from the meal fires. The going gets gradually harder with the rocks becoming more and more difficult to traverse. The rain is increasing to a downpour and the humidity is through the roof so we are sweating profusely from the inside and being soaked from the outside. The plan was to walk from the village to a small pagoda a little way up the mountain but quite honestly rain has stopped play. The beers have worked their way through our system and we ask if Rachel can use the toilet at one of the houses. Whilst gone I am invited in and hot tea served. We sit and try to converse for a short while then head up to the ridge as the rain starts using the walkway as a water channel.
On a ridge overlooking the valley we click a few pics and realise that the sky is looking increasingly foreboding so head back. The leaves of palms and bamboo and banana trees are glistening and the sound of the rain is becoming a roar until we are half way through the village and we hit ‘deluge’ status. I cannot describe the intensity of the rain but imagine standing under a waterfall and you are not far off. Children coming home from school swaddled in huge macs make a comical sight. Most have discarded brolley’s in favour of running more efficiently, some just lay down in the streams that are the high street whilst others enter into water fights with the red stained water. It was the wettest of days but also the very best of days and one we will long remember.

Last night it rained and poured and deluged whilst the electricity faded in or out sometimes for 30 minutes or more. We were wet through and didn’t want to get wetter so took to our bed early and …. Watched a movie!

After breakfast we walked through the little village to the truck stop. Yep, truck stop. 7.5 tonne lorry's with benches in the flat bed area which transport very well packed people - 42 of us up - the mountain to the Golden Rock.  Travel is as much about the journey and as the destination and this little journey certainly fitted the bill. A partly finished road set at a gradient of a least 30 degrees runs up the mountain. The road is narrow with onward visibility at a minimum due to the prolific growth of vegetation on either side. The engine screams in 1st gear up this fearsome track and the driver manoeuvres the hairpin bends with the precision and speed of a racing driver. The cloud is vey low and the thrill ride gets even more exciting with the nebulous swirling mist further reducing visibility. Eventually after 50 minutes we crunch to a halt and all disembark to walk the last 200 metres to the top. The clouds create an eerie feel to the monument which looms out of the mist. A large golden boulder of about 25ft high and 15ft across perched on the very edge of a sloping cliff face -  Its impressive and had we been able to see any of the surrounding landscape for more than a fleeting second then it would have been  more so. However, it was certainly worth the effort to get there and of course we were then treated to the even scarier descent which can only be likened to a ride at Alton Towers. Great fun to travel like this and even ride standing up with hands on the cab roof – something I haven’t done since I was a kid with my cousin Kenny.

Job done we left Kinpun Camp and jumped aboard a pick up truck that took us to a small town where we caught the coach to Hpa-An. This road was singularly the most stunning road we have travelled down in the whole of Asia. Lush green paddy fields screaming out in neon green. Thick jungle growth spilling out into fields and into the sporadic villages. The houses (huts) are mainly palm roofed here but in a scruffy fashion with the ends of the palm leaves hanging loose on the edges so they all like they need to get a trim. We pass rolling countryside covered with jungle, huge limestone crags rising in vertical columns  from the flat plain, distant hills and mountains disappearing in ever lightening shades of grey. Through villages with some amazing old colonial building and antique fire engines. Horse drawn carts next to lumbering juggernauts and all around the constant smiling and waving. Our guest house here is basic but clean and we can’t wait until tomorrows next bit of the adventure begins.

Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow! And more Wow! Today has been a day that will be hard to beat! Today is the day we have decided that Burma is snapping at the heels of India in our top places in the world competition. Today is the day that we say to all our friends that they must stop booking holidays to places you think might be cool and listen to the advice from those who has travelled a lot and seen a lot of cool stuff. Come to Burma now! This place is going to change, it is going to commercialise, the people and culture will alter, the prices will go up and it will become crowded, but now. Just before that happens, it is absolutely bloody marvellous.

Today was an 8.30 start in the back of a tuk tuk. Just Rachel and I and Latorr our driver. Its not raining for about the first 5 minutes after we leave the hotel but that all quickly changes and really heavy rain quickly sets in. We bump along ordinary potholed roads and then down smaller potholed roads and then lurch down dirt tracks with huge puddles and huge holes in them to our first location Yathay Pyan Cave. A shallow cave about 200 ft up the side of a limestone crag that rises out up
out of the lush vegetation and paddy fields. There is no one about and stepping up on the final steps one is confronted with a golden stupa and several Buddhas of various sizes also some lovely golden statues in ceremonial dress. The main event is not necessarily the cave, although this is pretty cool,  but the view looking out past the statues to the amazing countryside below. 
 The rain is lashing down and dripping from parts of the cave so everything is slippery and splashing noises can be heard as water trickles from fissures in the roof. Outside that scenery is topped by thunder clouds and mists that roll amongst the dozens of crags that litter the landscape. The rainy season has dropped a lot of rain and for miles one can sea fields of water interspersed with trees and small islands of higher ground. It is truly an amazing sight. Next stop is Kawgun Cave with 400,000 Buddhas inside.
Admittedly the are small and although often just bas relief wall art they still help create an interesting place to visit. Bump, bump, bump and we go to the base of Mt Zwegabin where, had it not been raining cats and dogs and numerous other animals we would have climbed to a pagoda on the top. The approach to this was through a large overgrown  field with hundreds of 6ft seated Buddhas placed every 20ft and then past a light blue limestone lake. Before we have time to draw breath we are whizzed off to the truly amazing Kyauk Kalap. Standing in the middle of a lake is a small island with finger of limestone rock rising to the sky. The rock is the basis of a working temple and has a stupa and shrine at the top. There are steps running up to the alter and we climbed these to be greeted by the most amazing vista so far. Our breaths are positively knocked from us as all around are flooded plains dotted with little islands and trees and ringed by more limestone cliffs towering with swirling clouds topping them and stormy skies threatening further rain the whole time. Pictures cannot truly capture the feeling of standing here and seeing what we are seeing. There is a 6th sense awakened that is distinct to sight, sound, smell, touch and taste and is felt by a tightening in the throat and swelling of the heart. It is akin to love and makes you feel like a better person for having seen it…getting soppy, sorry.

Further places of note for the day were the a beautiful lake with another cave shrine. Inside we noticed a small tunnel and squeezed along the damp walls lit only by flickering candles to a tiny shrine. Although small, claustrophobic and wet – its simplicity was quite enchanting. Emerging we take a walk that led to some floating restaurants and bars – all small and palm topped and appropriate to the setting and a place where on, on hotter days, families come to bathe. The walk there goes past a temple from whose entrance a long line of stone monks emerge (probably two or three hundred) following the lead statue of Buddha. Our final stop was supposed to be a village that can only be reached by a thin footbridge that runs across a lake. But the wind and rain reached such biblical proportions we were forced to shelter in a hut until such a time as we had to dash the 100 metres back to our tuk tuk to go home.
A fab day which had it not been the rainy season would have had even more wonders for us to sample but, being pragmatic, we will leave those for our next visit. Next 24 hours is travel to Inle lake…

General points of note.

95% of men wear a longi, 80% of women paint thanik (a sort of ground root paste) on their faces – supposedly to give sun protection and moisturise their skin. However this is worn, day, night and whilst raining so is more an affectation or commonly accepted form of decoration than anything else.

The dogs, unlike in Thailand, are all timid and even in packs are quite genteel.

Everyone is seemingly connected so if we mention we are going to a restaurant or to book a bus ticket. By the time we arrive the place is expecting us. This does not feel like police state spying, more a care of duty to tourists. As we walked through the village to leave this morning 5 people pointed our way to the bus stop, several said goodbye and many more waved.

Everyone carries an umbrella. Whether you are walking, riding a bike, sitting on a trishaw or on a motorbike it is the done thing to keep dry.

Funny large wooden hats are worn by the older citizens and by people carrying produce on their heads than need protection.

Bettel nut chewing is endemic and most people have a lump in their cheek, red rimmed teeth, brightly stained lips and are almost constantly seen ejecting a stream of spit (clint eastwood style) – Our coach driver today even has his own spittoon.




Friday, 16 August 2013

Burma - At last!

Rangoon (Yangon) Day 1 and 2 hours after arrival we have our first meal which is a real gamble as we ask for something Burmese but not too spicy we get a sort of leak and cheese and pork goulash with rice and mild chilli’s and parsley and garlic root side salad - Bloody lovely! This is washed down with a delicious taramind juice whilst sitting on grubby plastic chairs in a seedy looking café. The only foreigners in sight and certainly something for the locals to smile, wave or stare at. Everywhere there are exotic smells of curried cooking. But, as we are to find out, the palette of the Burmese is not spicy hot but spiced just enough to add flavour. Subsequent early meals are equally yummy with a selection of chicken, pork with rice and vegetables at a roadside vendor under a tarpaulin roof by a crossroads with the rain lashing down and Myanmar beer flowing freely and then dosa’s and chipattis with Myanmar tea (Chai style – lots of milk and sugar) in a tea house looking out at the busy stalls and shops across the street. We have great hopes for the food here and trust that all will be as delicious as the first three.

 Walked from our hotel and generally got a bit lost which was cool as we happily just mooched until we eventually found ourselves again. Our tour took us to a lake in the centre of the city with a lovely walk around the outside upon wooden boardwalks both along the banks and across the water like long bridges. At one point Rachel picked up some rubbish and put it in a bin and was thanked by a local for caring for country whilst her fellow citizens plainly didn’t. The walk took us through some lovely gardens which were all interspersed with numerous young lovers holding one another beneath privacy giving brolly’s. Set on the lake there is an enormous floating palace in the form of a Royal Barge – all tiered roofing, gold
paintwork ornate carvings and colourful hangings. Set against the back drop of a huge storm clouds and a distant pagoda the place looked incredible. As we walked we are greeted with smiles and waves all the time. We are still a rarity in this country and so enjoy the full force of the Burmese peoples open nature. It will not be long before tourism changes this but for now we are delighted by our reception.

I had my sandals fixed as we were out walking by a man and wife team who sat upon a flat cart by the side of the road. They poked the broken strap into a hole in the base and stitched it in place whilst I stood on one foot and made the local giggle – 13p! Stuff is cheap here. Food, drink, shoe repairs etc cost virtually nothing. The only really expensive thing is accommodation because it is only us foreigners who use it.

The day ended with the rain getting heavier and heavier and us getting progressively wetter and muddier. The roads have pot holes full of water that are splashed all over the pedestrians that have to walk in the road because the pavements are a shocking jumble of broken paving slabs, street vendors, pipes and gaping holes. It is a virtually impossible to walk with giving full attention to the ground and traffic. Failing to do this would result in serious injury. These streets are crowded and lively and full of smells and characters. It’s India without the madness and less shit. It is charming place half of which is falling to bits and half of which is being rebuilt. Old colonial shells of buildings stand next to smartly refurbished blocks. Mobile phone and electrical shops are everywhere even though most people don’t have sim cards or the funds to buy the electrical goods. Men wear Lungis but have highly gelled hair. It is a place that is finding its way and it is thrilling to be here.

Day two has been another day of wonder for Rachel and I. We were given directions by a man in the street who turned out to be a lay monk (about to commit to full monkeyness for 18 months). We then spend the next four hours with him being shown first the Sula Pagoda – A huge cirucular golden domed building housing alters to Buddha. Here he instructed us in Buddism, various rituals, beliefs and fallacies and showed us how to show our respects to the Buddha. We then hopped on a bus and went to his monastry where we were shown around the meditation and public areas, saw a huge 73 metre golden reclining Buddha which was amazing in its scale and detail, chewed some Bettal nut (apparently a mild narcotic which relaxes the user) and chatted to various monks the best of which was an 83 year old man whose name I forget but who found Rachel taking pictures and
immediately sat her down and made her tea. I found these two cosied up on short stalls in the murky darkness of the monastery – shes such a tart. With broken English and translation from our man Ko Sai we discovered he had once been to England and had been in the navy whilst a young man. He had been good at sports and for his age still seemed remarkably agile although thin and bony in his saffron robes and even agreed to a race down the hall in the monastery but cheated and started whilst I was getting in the starting position. Very funny and a joy to share some silly humour and see him laugh openly with this three remaining teeth on plain view. We ended our day with Ko Sai hearing about the monks (his included) incarceration around 2007 and the hardships that they faced with the government. He eventually showed us to our bus stop and we said our goodbyes and we hope that he follows
his dream of becoming a writer once he has been a monk. And so the day ended with rain once more. So brollys in hand we dashed from the bus to the Strand Hotel – made famous by Orwell and enjoyed a cocktail in the salubrious teak encased setting.

OMG! We think we might explode! So today we got up and walked to the railway station. On the way we pass strings hanging from high up windows of apartment blocks. Each string has a bull dog clip. Pull on the string and a bell rings in the
corresponding apartment. Attach item to bull dog clip. String pulled up and
appropriate payment then lowered down. Brilliant. On the way also pass men putting concrete pathways down in place of crumbling paving slab. For area of 4 x 10 metres first pour in loads of cement then have 5 men wander about with no shoes on in the knee deep cement to ensure well mixed and settled. Have two men flattening with a piece of wood, two men smoking a fag and 1 man to point at things. Another thing we notice is that on most walks there are more condom and underpants stalls than anything else. Finally. There are lots of desks outside shops with three or four phones on the them. These are for the public to use because half  the mobile phones people own don’t have sim cards because there are only limited numbers auctioned by the government. Finally we have not seen any police officials or spies following us.

 The railway station….

 We are here to go on a 50km train journey that runs out and around the surrounding villages of Yangon. It costs 1 dollar and we are told it will be interesting – understatement! It was bloody brilliant! So we deliberately forego to pleasure of upperclass to sit in the ordinary class carriage – two long bench seats either side of the carriage with two small cross carriage seats at either end. No doors, no windows and only 30 seconds stopping at each station. Passengers please mind the gap..when hurling yourselves aboard at 20mph. The train trundles through streets that gradually become more decrepid and dirty and shanty like until we hit countryside. Bamboo and miles of paddy fields with huts on stilts, banana groves, muddy villages and dirt roads, rickshaw drivers and dusty men and women with brolly’s. People become less polished but this does not stop the friendliness shining through. Waves and smiles and greetings are constant as the carriages empty and fill. Hawkers are constantly jumping aboard and selling their wares of bettal nuts, pineapples, sweet corn, sticky rice, nic knacks and hot tea. The locals sleep spread out on the benches and other passengers jostle themselves into positions around them while grubby street urchins jump on and off to evade the ticket inspector.

Suddenly we hit the main market village where the platform is lined with vendors selling vegetables of every description. The gabble of voices drowns out the sound of the train wheels and all hell breaks loose with bundles of vegetables thrown through the doors and windows,  huge baskets of aubergines and corn are
manhandled over sacks of onions and potatoes. People are chucking in bags and sacks and buckets of god knows what whilst the 30 second stop ticks away. As the mounds of food grows higher and higher around us people are having to climb over the top to get into the now moving train and final bunches of green stuff are handed through the window to us to allow someone to leap on and get a hand hold. It is madness and beautiful. With helping hands pulling and pushing and gradually everything is divided up into piles and pushed under seats, depositied on laps, stacked into piles and everyone can sort of calm down until its time to get off. Equally manic but in reverse with individual items being thrown from the train to litter the platform and get collected once the train has moved off leaving customers and produce behind. It’s a great journey because its real with people just living their lives and us being able to witness it. The best dollar of entertainment I think I have ever had.

The journey ended we leave the train and find somewhere to eat. A busy tea house with tea boys running around and shouting out the taken orders. Westeners are rare in this part of town so we are curiosities here and are studied from all sides as we slurp our noodles and  drink our Burmese tea in small cups.

Next part of the adventure is to jump on a bus and get to the Biggest Pagoda in Burma – The Shwa Dagon Pagoda. We are jammed in the bus with about a thousand other Burmese and then chucked around the cabin as the maniacal driver races through the streets trying to kill pedestrians. Its crazy but exciting and amazingly we get the right bus and get off at the right stop – later we expertly do the same in reverse too – we are very good travellers now. The pagoda is…astonishing. Its huge and golden and incredibly ornate. Beautiful towers and turrets and shrines are all around the base of this huge stupa like shape that towers over everything. It takes your breath away and  we are absolutely bewitched. The pagoda has the traditional North, East, South, West entry gates and 8 day deities around the outside as well as hundreds of other smaller shrines and bells and gongs and whistles etc to appease the Buddhists hunger for genuflection. Considering the size and splendour and importance of the site it is strange to find not only minimal foreigners here but also not many Burmese nationals. Possibly the size of the place makes it seem empty, but I don’t think so. Anyway it was cool and a must see for anyone fortunate enough to travel in this very unique country.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Leaving Thailand....Finally!

So the tooth thing went well and her new implant and crown appear to be trouble free. Upon finishing we jumped in a minivan and trundled off down the coast to Cha-am – a not terribly exciting little sea side resort about 3 hours from Bangkok. The hotel was a good choice and we got upgraded to a lovely big room with sea views and huge covered terrace because our cheaper room flooded and the lock failed – result! The staff were good fun and helped us enjoy ourselves. The hotel itself stood right on the beach and the when the tide was in it splashed against the restaurant terrace bit. Weird tides though that seemed to have no concept of the

Where the hell can we sit?

gravitational pull of the moon so high tides were a little sparodic. We walked along the sandy beach for several miles, clambered through rubbish and got bogged down in muddy sand – Rachel pulled a strop and stomped off at one stage. Little princess! Once out of the mud, however, she did become her old self again and laugh about it. The most memorable thing about the short stay was the rain which poured down but due to our big comfy room and view we still enjoyed.
Fastest Balloon seller in Thailand
After three days we went on to Hua Hin for a couple of days and enjoyed lazing on a beach drinking beers and wines whilst the sun shone down. Lovely big beach in Hua Hin and even though there were several big hotels they were all empty so there were only the obligatory expats (with Thai girlfriends) and a few holiday/traveller types about. Place was OK actually and we would probably go back to have a better look.

Main event after leaving Bangkok was seeing the lovely Jill down in Nakhon Whatchamacallit – an unremarkable town on first impressions and, quite frankly, an impression that I had no time to correct. Arrived and had breakfast with Jill and her lovely friend Ana who interestingly had a strongman acrobat father who was in the guiness book of records for holding 8 people in a vertical tower on his shoulders. Her family were Bulgarian Circus folk and moved to the states when she was young. I could make up all sorts of interesting lies about Ana but in truth she was great company and a delight to meet. Indeed all of Jills friends were lovely and we could see how happy she was to be there with them. We drank and drank and rode our bikesx and ate and eventually ended up (some of us) on a 100ft water tower looking for the meteorite shower that was supposed to light the skies. Clouds stopped played and being on a hundred foot high open sided derelict tower with drunk people drinking red wine, sake and smoking doobies caused me to give up the pursuit early and Rachel and I, sensibly, retired to our hotel about 1.00am. It was great to see Jill and we will miss her strange Louisiana colloquisms dearly.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Last few days of Thailand part 1


We have left Ayutthaya and given our last lessons. For me that was sad as my school colleagues and diminutive fans were genuinely upset and I received mob cuddles, hand shakes, high fives and awkward hugs and kisses – Also a punch in the bum from one of my more mentally challenged students. Rachel sadly was robbed of similar experiences since a number of her last classes cancelled through illness or work which left her feeling a bit cheated. We have learned a lot in Ayutthaya about our craft and been able to experience a wide range of age groups and class numbers at Zenith and various schools. Surprise, surprise Rachel knows full well that she prefers either bright willing students or adults whilst I have learnt that I will never teach maths and science to children unless I speak the country language or the children speak mine. Seriously – trying to convey the concept of genetic make up, trait characteristics, DNA, cell structure and what a nucleus is to an 8 year old thai child. Really!??
Two very notable events whilst we were still in Ayutthaya was the passing of Rachels Nan at 97 years of age. A truly beautiful woman who still used anti wrinkle cream up to the day she died and was living testament to how some care can kick the ass of the seven signs of aging. Rachel plainly was very upset but had come to accept that this might happen on our travels. Not that one can truly prepare for bereavement. After much consideration she decided that the visit home was not necessary for nan, family in England who had support or herself and so we went to a beautiful temple - Wat Yai where she lit some candles and whilst holding the customary lotus flower and incense sticks knelt before Budhha and contemplated nans life and said her goodbyes. The picture below tells of her pain but can not also convey the sense of right in doing what she was doing and certainly does not show the peace she received walking around the lovely setting and gardens after.
On a lighter note. My sister and Josh shared a couple of days in Bangkok with us and One in Ayutthaya. Bangkok included using the river taxis to move around the city, a visit to the Royal Palace, Wat Aran and the Khoa San Road (all spiritual in their own way). Back home, in Ayutthaya, we did the ruins and drank some beers and we felt quite proud showing them our turf.

Generally we have met some lovely and interesting people over the three months we have been here with special note to Oh, Charlie, Joy, Diew, BB, Dom, Glenn and Angie. All of whom provided us with support, kindness and laughter. Even though we didn’t finish our full term our employers were great and up to the moment we left were still doing things to be helpful. Very Buddhist, very inspiring and I guess partly in response to the considerable notice we gave them. Lesson from the Rachris book of travel. Treat others well and they will treat you well.

Ayutthaya has ruins and elephants and picturesque temples and friendly people but  ultimately I think we should have stayed in Chiang Mai or gone coastal. Since we are leaving Thailand for some time we have just returned from a short visit to Chiang Mai to say goodbye to our friends and returning to that city again certainly confirmed that belief. I agreed to sell the bike to one of the our friends up there so I sent the motorbike up on the train the day before for £28 and a £2 backhander to the station master at the other end. It was kinda cool driving my bike along the station in Ayutthaya to leave it at the baggage hall and equally exciting getting off the train in Chiang Mai to find it sitting on the concourse waiting for me.

 The friends we were visiting were those we made on the TEFL course. Good people and a strangely cohesive bunch for such an  eclectic group which numbered Sarah, Mike, Patrick, Chris C and Niall. Lovely to see them and certainly worth the effort and cost of getting there and back. We walked in the night markets, toodled around the city, drove up the mountain to the Doi Suthep temple and the palace and looked down on the city whilst cool clouds emersed us in cold ethereal vapour. We ate and got drunk  in a shit restaurant one night, had Smoothie Blue (fave breakkie place) breakfasts twice. Ate in a nice Thai/Western place another night who made Rachel a birthday cake (arranged by Mike F) and got very drunk and danced till 5am – something we haven’t done for a while. And here’s one of the great things about this city. You can have beautiful hills and forests just 10 minutes away. Great temples, and picturesque streets, go the gym, swim, eat in good restuarants but still be dancing in packed bars, clubs etc all night and find restuarnats and hawkers open everywhere even at 6.00am. Leaving Chiang Mai again is sad.

One night back in Ayutthaya en route to a dentist appointment for Rachel in Bangkok. Had to pack everything for the first time in almost half a year this morning and consequently have had to throw stuff away and consider the weight/need ratio of everything. Decided that the weight and in this case the volume of our pillows is a problem so walked into a seemstress’ shop this morning  and got her to cut pillow in half and sew it up so I had two half pillows thereby saving one pillow space in our luggage. The ladies did it instantly and wanted nothing and only accepted 100 baht after I physically ran out of the shop so they couldn’t give it back. IFLT moment.

I am now waiting in the Mahidol school of dentistry whilst Rachel has the final part of her implant/crown treatment finished – something that has been going on and on and on for weeks and caused her much distress. That done we are off to Cha Am – our first stop en route to KL over the next 10 days.