Monthly Archives: February 2016

MYANMAR – leaving Myanmar!

You say goodbye, I say hello, hello, hello…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

Post leaving Myanmar, Nick and I watched a documentary about the country circa 1996. What we saw shocked the living daylights out of us. We had read certain things about the history of this country in researching Aung San Suu Kyi. We knew Ne Win was a ruthless dictator who ran the country with the military in the 60s, 70s and 80s and that the military had subsequently reinforced the regime. What we didn’t realise was the extent of that. I had wondered why certain parts of the country were only recently opened to the public. Here in this documentary I got some clues as to why…

Only 20 years ago, people, some of them children, were used as slaves in shackles and chains, forced to work on developing the country for tourism – a money maker for the military. Oblivious to this, tourists coming in to see spectacles like Bagan were unwittingly contributing to this brutal inhumanity. They were shown only what the military wanted them to see. What they didn’t see were people having their hands chopped off for suspicion of speaking against the government; being imprisoned for 7 years purely for singing a freedom song; students left to suffocate in a van in the baking sun for protesting, others buried alive. Thinking back to 1996 in my life, I would have been studying for my GCSEs. My biggest worry would have been what grades I would get and how I would fit in Neighbours and a minimal amount of studying before seeing my friends.
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I can’t quite believe I went to this country without understanding the extent of the tragedy it had suffered. Looking back, I think about all the Burmese people my age and over – people who would’ve lived through this.  With that in mind, I have even more respect for their positive and relentless spirit. I hope that the people here finally get what they deserve – peace, security, and a government that put their well-being above all else.

So as we move on, we would like to share 12 things we felt about Myanmar with you…

1. Something I loved – how friendly the people were. I say this with the exception of Yangon and Mandalay, where some people were friendly, but it was not the rule on the street.
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2. Something that was confusing – buying a train ticket!! Seemingly impossible to do the day before travel, this was a source of much frustration.

3. Something that was amusing – wherever the kids are getting their English from, they seem to have been taught that hello is “bye bye,” so you ride around and these kids come and wave at you, shouting “bye bye.” It happened everywhere!

4. Something I’ll miss – Feeling like you are discovering something unknown…and Myanmar beer.
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5. Something I won’t miss – struggling to communicate, fermented fish (euch – the smell) & Myanmar music!
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6. Something we can learn from Myanmar – the simple way they raise their children. People breast feed wherever and whenever with no shame whatsoever, young brothers and sisters are trusted to look after their even younger siblings, there is so much nurture in families, and they are so resourceful with what they have – cots, swings, toys – all made from things around them. And who needs a pushchair when you have a baby sling?
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7. Something I’ll never forget – the NLD rally in Yangon.
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8. Something that surprised me – how many monks there are, and the behaviour of some – taking selfies, asking for photos with tourists, smoking on non-smoking trains, begging and, in extreme cases, inciting racial hatred, for example. Also, wifi is everywhere (almost). Ok, the signal is bad and in some places it didn’t work, but still!
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9. Something that concerns me – how tourism will affect Myanmar. We encountered some loud groups and girls in really short shorts, oblivious to the reaction of the locals around them. The more people go and give a bad impression, maybe the less welcoming the locals will be.

10. Something that was good value for money – the food! If you eat in local places, you can pay as little as 60p for a main meal! Chinese places were a little more expensive, but delicious.
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11. Something that was bad value for money – guesthouses in Miek in the South.  25$ for a shabby room with a fan that you couldn’t feel. This was the cheapest option here. In comparison to other places were we paid 15$ for basic accommodation, or 30$ for a really nice room, it was the worst value place.*

12. Somewhere that made an impression – Firstly, Hpa-an for the people and the houses in the woods. Secondly, Bagan – with all the red brick temples dotted in a maze of sandy paths; this place was jaw dopping.
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* This may be because it had only been open for tourism for the last two years. There aren’t as many tourists here, but each guesthouse that wants to house tourists has to pay a huge government tax, so maybe they need to make it cost effective. Or maybe it’s because this is nearish the border with Thailand and it will discourage all the Thailand backpackers from going into Myanmar! 😉

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THAILAND – Koh Chang

The sun is shining, the weather is sweet, yeah…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

I had looked in my backpack, at the bottom of my bag, even on my head. Where was that hat? I was meant to be eating it…

It was looking remarkably like heading to the south, known for its lush beaches, was a bad move. All the weather reports suggested so. Nick wanted to risk it, I thought we should head to an island further north-east, where the weather was meant to be better. And so came the first test of the marriage.

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Nick wearing my dinner

Nick had been amazing at doing research on certain places, and it’s true to say that his attempts at getting me interested in where we were going had fallen largely flat on their face back in England. However, now that bridezilla had thankfully turned back into Steph, now we were here and we were continuously getting new info and new tip-offs about where to go, I was determined to have more input into the schedule. In the end, the compromise was that we would go to Koh Chang (the small one on the west coast – there are 2) but if it continued to rain so dramatically, we would move quickly on to the east coast.

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Bit of blogging on the boat across

We arrived on Koh Chang at the new port and hopped on some bike taxis. These took us on paths that wound their way through the dense jungle to some bungalows we had read were good – Swasadee bungalows. The sun was shining, but I still wasn’t convinced. 

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“What was the weather like yesterday?” I asked the owner, who had really good English.

“Yesterday raining,” came the reply.

I didn’t want it to rain, and yet, it not raining meant admitting that I was wrong. Either way, I might as well accept defeat. Luckily it was my pride that lost, and the weather that held out.

Always check under the toilet seat before you sit down…
Maybe this was instilled in me from the good ol’ days of living in cockroach-infested rooms. Goodness knows why I decided to lift the lid when I got into the bathroom, but whatever made me do it, it was pretty lucky for both me and the creature hanging out there. I had seen some enormous ones in India, but this was the fattest enormous one I had ever had the displeasure of meeting. A giant huntsman spider. In my lovely bungalow. Great start. I should have taken a picture, because no one will ever believe how big it was (the start of a theme). Instead I screamed like a baby and instructed Nick to flush it down the toilet. The Buddhists had obviously not rubbed off on me enough.

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Not our photo...but just as scary!

Aside from the spider, the bungalow was nice and cosy. Open to the elements, sure, but as with most rooms where the walls don’t reach the ceiling, there was a mosquito net covering the bed, functioning as protection from more than just those pesky mites. These would come to serve us in good stead as we got more and more nature-loving accommodation. Dotted along the beach, served up with a hammock on the balcony, this was surely a place to zone out. There was no wifi; no electricity, except for a few hours in the evening; and barely a soul around. This was the place that bookworm dreams were made of. Shit – I had just finished my book.

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This obviously wasn’t a regularly visited island. There was plenty of accommodation all along the beach, but it was really quiet. The bookshelf in our place told us that most people that had stayed here, and read a book at least, were German.  Still one title stuck out, probably because it was in English – The Lemon Tree – a book about the Israel/Palestine conflict. Well, it wasn’t your usual easy beach read, but it would keep me engaged in a subject that I had been keen to know more about at least.

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And so panned out the next few days. I lay in a hammock reading, and Nick swam in the sea. And we ate. A lot. I was a newly married woman, but it didn’t stop me starting a holiday love affair. Panang curry. In fact all the food here was delicious and some of the best we have had to date. The only thing we meant to do but didn’t was go for a hike through the forest. Having later found out that this forest was home to King cobras, perhaps it was lucky that the giant huntsman spider (and the lizard that jumped down between us from the ceiling one day with an almighty thud) were our only animal encounters.

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THAILAND – Arriving in Ranong

Nibble it, just a little bit, I wanna see you nibble it…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

Welcome to Thailand, where everything is SPICIER!

We jumped off the boat in Kawthong, Myanmar, and half an hour later, we were on a tiny boat headed for Thailand. Fifteen minutes later we had arrived. It was a bizarre way to cross the border, and it was a bizzare feeling to be leaving Myanmar, only softened by the beers our German friend, Tamino, had fetched us to mark the occasion.

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Arriving at thai immigration

We passed the journey sipping on Myanmar beer, aptly named, “Myanmar,” and discussing how much we were looking forward to Thai curry. Nick and I had sampled the taste explosions in Bangkok on our transit stop between Nepal and Myanmar, and Tamino and Lisa had both been to Thailand before.

The four of us got off the boat, feet on Thai soil, and the bartering began. I had told an English girl we had met travelling in Myanmar about me trying to buy a top in Bangkok. When I decided I didn’t want to pay more than I would in England and walked off, the market holder practically screamed at me. This was the point at which I ran for my life…and my ears. Those Thai women have REALLY high-pitched voices. The English girl, who had been to Thailand many times, told me in no uncertain terms that I had upset the girl because I hadn’t bartered!

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Thou shalt not worship false idols

In Myanmar, bartering is received quizzically for the most part. In places for tourists, there were some people overcharging, and there, you could barter them down, but in general the price was the price. Here, not so. As several taxi drivers decended upon us, we practised the advice given to us. Without blinking or protesting, the price went from sky high to pretty good. This was obviously just part of the routine. We would have to remember that.

We all checked into an amazing hotel – pristine, modern and oh so comfortable – and only £12 for a room with aircon and balcony. Heaven. Showered and refreshed we headed out for that all important curry.

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Hanging out in our hotel lobby (with a 7Eleven banana muffin - mmm)

 “Don’t order spicy,” came the advice from Lisa…

We had heard this before. You think you know spicy? You think you can handle spicy? Pah. Those Thais laugh in the sweaty face of your chili intolerant ignorance. Spicy here is a whole ‘nother level. We did what most people that can handle their spice back home do – ordered “medium” and still perspired a whole ocean whilst trying to disguise our hiccups and tissue away our obvious inadequacy.

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Panang curry - the best curry ever..?

The next day it did just what you want in Thailand – it weed for England. It wasn’t exactly what we had hoped for, but we eventually found solice in our new hangout – Pornrang hot springs. After all, if you’re going to get wet, you might as well embrace it. 

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The hot springs were off a big road. Like a dual carriage way, if you went past your destination, you had to keep going until you could find a place to turn around, and then repeat on the other side of the road. We did this so many times in our search for the place, I find it tedious even writing about it. Once we found the right road, though, we were pleased to discover the springs set within the forest, where they also had a few bungalows, complete with stream running past. It was the perfect place to stay for the night.

The pools ranged from “freeze your nuts off” to “Delia could boil an egg in there,” and we were astonished to see some Thai people actually submerge their bodies in the latter of those choices! Nick and I managed a limb or two, before having to admit defeat and opt for luke warm. Nick had been talking about baths for pretty much the last 2 months, so here he finally got to live that fantasy.

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The best place to be when it's raining

The next day we awoke to heavy rain again. To mix it up a bit, we had a quick dip in the warm bath before deciding to check out the fresh water river running through the place. It looked decidedly refreshing…

Tentatively we dipped a toe in the water. After the lush of the soft warm water, we would have to ease ourselves in. Waist high, we were beginning to get comfortable.

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Swimming with the fishes

“Ow!…What was that?!

We stood still, surveying the water.

“Ow, ow, ow!”

We waded out of the water and stared back in.

You’ve heard of those fish tanks they use in beauty salons, right? The ones where you submerge your feet, hundreds of tiny fish feast on your dead skin, and you leave red raw and several pounds lighter? Makes sense they are known as piranas’ little brothers. Well, this was their place of residence.

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A strange variation of thai massage

We debated getting the hell outta there, but curiosity got the better of us.  Following Nick’s lead, we sat on the bank and gingerly submerged a foot. Suddenly they were swarming around, darting in for a nibble. It was much easier to let them when you could keep an eye on exactly how much flesh they were hacking off. None the less, some of them were really aggressive, literally headbutting me in the ankle, where there was definitely no dead skin. Little buggers. Despite this, we stayed sat there for a long time, in the end competing to see who could get the most fish.

MYANMAR – Down in Dawei

That’s Dawei, uh-huh uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh uh-huh

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

We arrived in Dawei, hailed as an exquisite and untouched beach destination, to torrential rain. Oh yay.

Luckily this seemed to subside the next day, and we headed out of town towards the coast. Dawei has only been open to tourists for the last two years and on the coast there are only three places of accommodation available to tourists. Every place that puts tourists up has to register with, and pay a tax to, the government. Based on what we had heard, we opted for Muangmagan Beach Resort.

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Before coming here, we had been worried that the accommodation prices might mean cutting our trip short. Thus far, we seemed to have paid between 10 and 20 dollars. The 10 range featuring rats and the 20 being pretty nice.  At 35 dollars, this was the most pricey place we had stayed…

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Wow. In a stunning room, which Nick liked to call a villa, we were set at ground level with a terrace for relaxing on. But why would you? We only had to walk 50 metres directly out of the front door to be on a beach covered in white sand and home to the warmest sea I have ever had the pleasure of bathing in. I’m not one for laying on beaches, or one for swimming in the sea that much either, but this felt safe, calm, blissful, romantic. As the sun set on our first night, we held hands and strode in together. I could have stayed in that sea forever.

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Nick and I spent the first evening wondering where all the other tourists were. Let’s rephrase that, where the other western tourists were. Probably at Coconut Beach, the one in The Lonely Planet guide. It seemed all the tourists here were either Thai or Burmese.

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“What IS that noise?!”

A memory was coming back to me…a monastery, a party, the sound of cats screaming people singing.

I stood on the terrace trying to pinpoint where the noise was coming from. Surely not. Surely it wasn’t the hotel entertainment?! Second wow. And not in a good way. I followed the sound only to discover individual boothes kitted out with leather couches and flat screen TVs. And on the screens – KARAOKE!! I’d heard about this sort of thing in Thailand and China. You hire a booth to yourselves, then you and your friends deafen each other by destroying your favourite songs, oblivious to the fact that everyone can still hear you, despite the false protection of the walls. Hideous. We had to give it a go.

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My only experience of karaoke was being “clicker” for my friend Joy as she sang “All That Jazz.” This involved me sitting on a chair and clicking my fingers, Bob Fosse style. We repeated this after many a cider on several occasions when we lived in Tenerife. There was a reason I never sang. Firstly, I absolutely hate karaoke, but Tenerife is karaoke central, so I had to eventually embrace it on some level. Secondly, I can’t sing. Not that this seemed to hinder the Burmese.

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We scrolled through the English songs they promised us that they had. Satisfied that they had Venga Boys, if not The Spice Girls, we decided to drink some rum and embrace the madness.

Having showed us the machinery, the staff member stood inside the booth and smiled.

“Thank you, ” we said.

He smiled back.

“Ok. Thanks. We’re ok now.”

We gestured towards the door. He had no intention of going anywhere without us really pushing the issue. Eventually he laughed and left…at least the room. Had we thought that we could humiliate ourselves in private, we were mistaken. Staff members took it in turns to come and peer through the small window in the door, until we eventually moved a speaker in front of it. Furthermore, the Venga Boys didn’t work, and the Burmese Bryan Adams on screen only knew one verse of “Everything I do.” Still, at least we did the Titanic Song. It was our honeymoon afterall.

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Back in our comfort zone on the bike (with a sleep inbetween I must stress) we spent the next couple of days exploring the coast off Muangmagan. Journeying through jungle, I thought of the tent that Nick had insisted we should keep carrying, “…just in case.” I was already wondering where on earth he thought that camping might be possible when I suddenly had to lift my legs up to avoid a snake covering our path. It was at that moment that I knew if he was going to camp anywhere in the jungle, he would be doing it alone.

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The first day the roads were pretty good, but on the second day, as we headed towards a fairly well untouched beach, we encountered yet more seriously bumpy and undeveloped roads. Not for long, we thought.

Though there was not a single soul on that stunning stretch of beach, we could see the beginnings of industry creeping in with big warehouse type buildings popping up inland. A major port and rail lines into both Thailand and through Laos to China are due to be built here, funded by contributions from Thailand and Japan. This is part of bigger plans to increase trade between them, thus increasing their gross domestic profit. It will also benefit India and China by cutting the travel time between them. In the short term, it will certainly increase employment for the Burmese. What it will mean for Myanmar in the long term remains to be seen.

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The beaches here were beautiful, and it was amazing to experience nature in its purest form. What, we thought to ourselves, were we going to make of Thailand?  We planned to take a series of boats right down to the southern tip of Myanmar and cross the border with Thailand there. We had debated this carefully, knowing that southern Thailand is very touristy. But we figured that if we were travelling half way across the world, we should at least check them out…

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MYANMAR – From Yangon to Dawei

Thank god we made it. Look how far we’ve come my baby…

( Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

Nick’s arms wrapped tightly around me, up and down we bounced vigorously underneath the sleeping bag.

“This is what honeymoons are made of, ” whispered Nick in my ear.

We were, of course, on a Myanmar train.

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As a westerner, you’d be excused for thinking that the train is an efficient way to get from A to B – fast and smooth, it’s the obvious choice. Not in Myanmar it ain’t. But this was no surprise to us; the reputation of the trains here had preceeded themselves. When planning our trip, we had made the decision to try and take as few planes as possible, and to see as many of the changes in landscape as we could. What better way than on a train? 

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A mastery of British engineering - the line from Mandalay to Hsipaw

Our first experience of a train in Myanmar had been on the famous line that goes from Mandalay to Hsipaw with its jawdropping viaduct. That journey had taken 11 hours, some of which lifted you a good few inches out of your seat and swayed you from side to side like a teeny bopper at a Bieber concert.

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Holding on tight - looking out at the scenery from the suspended line

At about £2.50 each, we had decided we could probably stretch to an upper class ticket for today’s journey. Lower class did look fun with the hussle and bustle of the locals innovatively transforming the carriage into a lounge and games room. However, the seats were wooden slats and today we were attempting a train marathon. It was perhaps not the best day for that. Determined to get to the very south of the country, and with our visas nearing their expiry date, we decided we would face the 26 hour journey to Dawei in one fell swoop – we had heard rumours of this place with its untouched beaches and jungle to explore…

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“No Dawei.”

We encountered our first hurdle at Yangon. As we had discovered previously, buying a train ticket here is a source of great confusion and great frustration. Every time we tried to buy a ticket the day before travel, we were told that you needed to buy it on the same day, even if your train was leaving at 3am. Apparently you should just turn up at 2am and hang around for an hour for no apparent reason. On our first train journey, we’d been lucky enough to discover an extremely helpful English speaker who had eventually got us tickets and made sure we were on the right train. Today we had no such luck.

“No Dawei,” the ticket seller insisted.

A couple of American dudes leaned over to us from the next counter, asking where we were going. They were obviously having trouble, too, but with different destinations, we were of no help to each other. Not that where we wanted to go was even being recognised as a destination. We knew it was definitely possible – we’d read a blog about a guy who had done this exact journey, but even with our best broken English and proficiency in mime, we were still *definitely* not being sold a ticket to Dawei. We opted to go to Malaminye, 9.5 hours away, and would have to get off the train and buy another ticket there before getting back on the same train. With all the palarva of filling out passport numbers (required to buy a ticket) and with trains only going once a day, we really hoped we would have enough time to do so.

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Four am and we arrived into Malaminye. We grabbed our heavy bags and ran for the ticket office.

“Ticket. Dawei.”

“No ticket. No seat,” came the reply.

You’re kidding me.

“Ok, lower class ticket.”

“No seat.”

Now this just wasn’t true. There was no way there were no tickets in lower class left. No one could explain a thing to us, and with our evident lack of Burmese, it was tough.

“Ye?” Nick chanced. This was another main stop, 6 hours away, but still another 10 from our desired stop of Dawei. Finally we got the ticket and hurried back on to the train.

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By this time it didn’t matter, the day’s heat had started to fill the air, and after running about like headless chickens, we were sweating like chorizo in the glovebox. Still, at least we were on the train. Goodness knows if we would be able to carry on our journey from Ye, but at least we had not been before – being stuck there was certainly more appealing than Malaminye, where the guesthouse we had stayed in last time was also generously housing several rats.

About half an hour later we stopped at a station and seemed to be there longer than is usually necessary. Hearing a commotion, and wondering what it was all about, I poked my head out of the window, just in time to see at least 50 new passengers being hurded onto the carriage behind us. Goats. Well, that certainly explained a few things.

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We arrived in Ye to repeat the same pantomime, and we were bemused to find that there definitely were seats on the train from Ye to Dawei. It was the same blinking train we had just got off. Sweaty and tired, we were hurried to our seats on a different carriage of the train, no time even to grab some snacks for the day long journey. Realising we had run out of water, Nick quickly grabbed a couple of bottles off a boy selling them on the platform and launched himself onto the train as it moved off.

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Another passenger runs to catch the train as it departs from the station

“Did you already open this?” I asked Nick, as I went to have some water. The seal was already broken. What we had just been sold was not clean water: not clean enough for us to risk drinking anyway. With our carriage completely sealed off from the rest of the train, and with the only fluid for sale fizzy or energy drink, we opted for a sprite and settled into our seats. This next part was to be long. Why had we not opted for the bus, again? I asked myself.

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Last leg of the train from Ye to Dawei

Luckily, as with all trains here, there were people waiting  on the platforms with food piled up on plates that balanced on top of their heads. If you were quick, you could get a chinese bun or a polystyrene container full of rice and curry. If you were lucky, the curry wouldn’t contain intestines. By the 2nd or 3rd station, we had also got water! Hurrah! And we needed it. I made sure we bought an extra bottle and then, balancing as best I could, washed my arms and legs in the toilet. This was quite a feat, I have to say. This train jumped up and down even more than the previous ones, and I wondered if anyone had ever sued for whiplash.

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Buying food from the platforms on a brief stop

It was quickly evident we were indeed heading into the jungle, but not because of what we could see, rather because of what we couldn’t. Following the line of the tracks, a train shape had been cut out of a dense and tall jungle. Now the lush foliage, which had since started growing back, poked through the open windows as the train chugged slowly past. The only sight we were greeted with was the odd close up of a branch, whacking us in the face as we attempted to see anything outside the carriage.

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A couple of hours left of the journey and Nick got up to go to the toilet.

“Most difficult wee of my life,” he declared as he staggered back, straining to see the right seat before being thrown in it by a jolt in the train.

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If a passenger had epilepsy, they would have had trouble on this train. I say this in all seriousness. The final two hours of our journey were in pitch black, with the erractic flash of a strobe from the loose connection of the overhead lights. The train stopped, the lights were on, the train moved, disco time.

The blinding strobe added one more level to the bouncy castle carriage. It was like one of those game shows to see if you could survive and the Burmese people on the trains were definitely the champions; they had been through the mill so many times, they didn’t even blink. Well, if they did, maybe it was when the lights were off…