Category Archives: Myanmar

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.
image

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.
image

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.
image

5. Something I won’t miss – struggling to communicate, fermented fish (euch – the smell) & Myanmar music!
image

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?
image
image

7. Something I’ll never forget – the NLD rally in Yangon.
image

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!
image

image

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.
image

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.
image

* 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! 😉

Advertisements

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.

image

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…

image

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.

image

image

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.

image

“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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

image

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.

image

image

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.

image

image

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…

image

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.

image

image

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? 

image
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.

image
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…

image

“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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image
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.

image
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.

image
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.

image

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.

image

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…

MYANMAR – The Namshan Motorbike Loop – Day 2 of 2

(Written by Nick)

We woke early. Was it due to someone doing the washing-up at 4am? Or the monks waking up around sunrise? Maybe it was the hard floor. Still, we were given a flask of green tea and noodles for breakfast. We thanked our hosts and made a donation to the monastery before getting back on the bike for the second part of the trip.

image

Being able to stay in Namshan had now allowed us the time to explore the unknown section of the loop with enough time to back out and return to our base in Hsipaw town if need be. There would certainly be no mechanics on the way.

As we made our way from the ridge Namshan was perched on, down to the valley floor, the road deteriorated and houses came to an abrupt end. This road was clearly not as well used. The tea plantations continued, but now there were not even any huts or signs of people or animals. “Where are all the workers picking the tea leaves?” we wondered. So much tea and so few people. Riding around Munnar in southern India we had seen pickers dotted all over the picturesque hills and the roads had been smooth tarmac curving with the contours of the roads. Myanmar’s tea plantations were also created by the British, but management decisions had clearly altered since then, and the quality of the product had suffered.

image

The Namshan area lost its ability to export tea some time ago and we found out why; the tea is foul. Instead of the leaves simply being dried, it tasted like they had been burnt and I wondered why they liked it like that. We found out that it wasn’t intentional and was a side effect of the small-scale growers bringing their drying leaves into their houses when it was raining or windy. The hills get cold at night and familes warm themselves around fires in the middle of the living room without chimneys. The smoke from these fires sadly ruins the tea leaves.

The steep dirt road was cracked and undulating but at least wide, which gave you a choice in how you wanted to pick your way through the larger rocks and the smaller, looser gravel.

image

It was here I became aware of the inadequacy of my back brake. It didn’t really work. It was about 20% functional when fully pressed. Using the front brake on loose stones or sand risks the bike slipping out from under you (something my knees and elbows had learnt a couple of times previously) and is especially dangerous when turning. The road down the mountain was not only a series of hairpin bends but was pothole-ridden, making a straight course impossible. The extra weight of a pillion passenger didn’t make it any easier, especially since she’d got addicted to Snickers in Nepal.

We switched between first and second gear whilst constantly deploying the back brake and just tickling the front one and arrived at a bridge over the river at the bottom.

image

Now we were presented with two options. Continuing straight meant we could continue up the other side of the valley and join up with a road on the ridge opposite Namshan; That road was at least on the map and therefore probably in fair condition. Following that ridge south would complete the loop back to Paluang and on to our hotel in Hsipaw. The second option was less obvious and only useful as a long way round. It went north, the wrong way, until it met the thinnest of paths before joining up with the same ridge road.

image

Google (street) maps was not much help here, showing a road arching east from Namshan that didn’t necessarily join up to the other side while also omitting the road we could see to our left. Thankfully we had another tool available – my trusty companion Google maps satellite view. I only knew about this road from studying the satellite images previously and seeing the telltale signs of a dirt road carved into the red rocks. There’s a lot these images don’t tell you like the condition of the road, how steep it is or even if it is still in use. They do, however, tell you one thing that is crucial to an adventure – that it might be possible.

image

After a discussion on the merits of both choices Steph could sense how much I wanted to keep the journey going and encouraged me to go with my heart. The thing is though, when you’re half way along a bad road, turning back isn’t going to be any quicker.

This was the third time I had embarked on a bike trip purely from satellite mapping rather than a road marked on a map and it was to be another wild adventure. This technology is still groundbreaking to me and so phenomenally impressive. That it is possible to navigate unmarked routes in remote lands with just a phone in you pocket is a beautiful thing. In my eyes this is sacred technology.

image

It was uphill for the next half an hour and the Dongtong DTY125 was making a racket but loving it as much as I was. Steph had to get off regularly so I could get through the extra steep and extra muddy sections and it was after a combination of the two that we came upon our first village of the day. The looks we got here were different and it gave us a funny feeling. The smiles were no longer instant. Faces were more of confusion than anything else. Even some children were reluctant to wave. A few of the children’s eyes were on stalks and I believe I even saw some younger ones run away at the sight of us. We tried to play it cool and nipped into a little shop for some snacks but we didn’t exactly go un-noticed.  I took this as a sign we were on the “right” road. It was certainly feeling like an adventure now.

image

After only one other village we reached the ridge where we were to go round to the right. It was cooler up here at 1,800 meters, quiet, and with lovely views of the steep rolling hills covered in tea bushes. Now the way gave up all pretences of being a road and turned into a footpath weaving in and out of bushes and along ditches of mud. After one of these mud patches the trees lining the road made a clearing and provided a view down out over the tea gardens. Having slowed to just 1 or 2 KM/H I gently squeezed the brakes. That was the mistake. My motorbike instructor in England had warned me never to use the front brake when going slowly and this was why.

The front wheel slipped on a mud slick, the handlebar turned to the left, and the bike fell right. Steph’s right shin and knee hit the deck and made contact with the stones and rocks. I landed with my chest on the handlebar. Before attending to each other I knew we had to pick up the bike as, sure enough, the petrol was starting to leak out from the ill-fitting petrol cap.

When Steph pulled up her trouser leg she had a very red leg. Gravel had become lodged under the skin and there was a fair bit of blood running out. It looked bloody painful. She had 3 separate cuts in her leg and of course this was the one time we hadn’t packed the plasters.  Weeks later my ribs still hurt everytime I lay down. It turned out I had injured myself too.

image

image

When this garden path finally got to the other ridge it met up with the proper road which was still a dirt road but was wide and flat by comparison. It looked like it would be plain sailing from here on and all we had to keep an eye open for were insurgents.

By early afternoon we arrived at our first village on this side of the valley and went in search of food. This one had no restaurant either so we decided to “Go Nepali” and eat dry instant noodles.
No no no. The shop owner was not going to let his foreign visitors suffer like that. We were ushered over to some chairs and given cups of the local tea while he cooked our noodles. Word of our arrival had got out and an English-speaker promptly arrived. After lunch he took us to his house for tea and Red Bull.

image

Luckily we could hold a decent conversation and he informed us about the security situation as he saw it. The area was under Paluang army control rather than the national army it was true. However that didn’t make it more dangerous in his eyes. And the Paluang certainly had no beef with foreign tourists. Perhaps it was just dangerous in the eyes of the non-Paluang.

I remembered the drunk man’s insistent repetitions from the previous night. “Paluang state! Shan state!”. He had been trying to explain his political aggravations but all I could grasp was that he wanted the Paluang people to have their own state, rather than being a minority in Shan South state.

image

He told us how he had found work in the jade mines in Kachin state, in the north of the country. The jade and ruby industries are big employers in Myanmar and with less than impeccable reputations in regards to safety, corruption, and environmental consideration.

Corruption:
http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2015/10/corruption-myanmar-jade-trade-151022101916842.html

What the area looks like now:
https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=myanmar+jade+mines&client=tablet-android-samsung&prmd=imnv&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiOvo-3vJrKA

Despite this he said he didn’t mind the work and was paid fairly well due to the risk of danger.
Two weeks later over 100 were killed in an accident:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/12/28/why-myanmars-massive-jade-industry-so-deadly/77965302/

We were offered a bed for the night which meant a lot, and although we were tempted, we thought it best not to risk getting him in trouble.  He enlisted a friend of his to show us a shortcut back to Hsipaw town – a way that was much shorter than our proposed route along the established road. I was curious that I hadn’t noticed it when doing my research, but we thought it best to listen to local knowledge.

image

The “short half hour” road down the mountain took an hour and a half and it was absolutely terrifying. It was perilously steep, had been damaged by landslides and was still under construction. And that’s being kind. A lot of it hadn’t even started being made and other sections had fairly large rocks in what would eventually be the base layer when finished.

If it hadn’t been for our guide shooting off in front, we would have turned back. He was much quicker than us but even he fell twice. I’ve ridden a lot of bad and ugly roads in the Himalayas but this road takes the prize of being the worst in all regards.

image

A steep descent on a mud surface with an unusable back brake and a passenger on  back is the stuff nightmares are made of. Where the road turned and we had to be on the outside near the precipice (due to workmen, rocks, landslides etc) we may have said a little prayer each time. With no barriers or curbs to obscure our view, we could see exactly how long it would take us to tumble into the jungle far below. I tried to joke about the severity of our situation as I couldn’t allow myself to acknowledge what the cost of failure might be. If I had panicked I would have slammed the brakes on and skidded.

At the bridge crossing at the bottom our guide said farewell and laughed before turning his bike round to return home. He’d taken an hour and a half out of his day just to guide us down and he wasn’t even going that way. We tried to give him a donation for his help but he was adamant that he wanted nothing for it. We just about managed to buy him a litre or so of petrol in the end.

image

We managed to video one of the worst sections:

https://youtu.be/22BaljNrxYc

And finally, when all the drama had finished and we were on firm ground (well, flat tarmac), we went to wind down at the same solitary tea shop we had stopped at on the way there, just next to a large bridge.  I can tell you, it’s hard to wind down when you pull up right next to a group of soldiers with their grenade launchers lent up against the cafe wall and their AK47s by their sides.

“Oh shit Nick, it’s the army!”

Oh crap. Not only did we just come from a restricted area, we stayed overnight too, despite being refused permission and being told it was forbidden.

“It’s going to look even more suspicious if we reverse and drive off!” I thought, so we went inside.

Well, they refused me permission for photographs but didn’t question us. Luckily they seemed too busy with their (illegal) gambling…

MYANMAR – The Namshan Motorbike Loop – Day 1 of 2

I am a passenger, and I ride and I ride…

(Written by Steph)

Day one:

“I promise to give you an adventurous and exciting life.”

This was one of Nick’s vows to me two months earlier, and he was obviously viewing this with some seriousness.

Wednesday morning, Nick got out of the left side of the bed, and I got out of the wrong one. Tired from our overnight journey from Yangon to Mandalay, followed by the 11hour train to Hsipaw, I wanted a lay-in. “That’s ok,” said Nick. “We’ll get a motorbike in the morning and do a bit of exploring.” By ‘morning,’ he meant 7am; by ‘morning,’ I heard sometime before 12.

So, we were already off to a bad start, further exacerbated by Nick’s suggestion to take the tent as we were finally leaving the hotel room. We had discovered a largely friendly people here, but we had heard that the government would only allow tourists to stay in designated buildings, and I was apprehensive about what would happen if we broke those rules. Today wasn’t the day I wanted to find out.

image

We hadn’t got far on our Dong Tong bike when we realised the horn wasn’t working. Not such a vital part of a vehicle back home perhaps, but here, and on the roads Nick was about to take me on, I wanted a horn and boring ol’ me insisted on it. At approximately £1.50 for horn and labour at the mechanics, we reckoned it was worth it. Shame we didn’t discover the back brake wasn’t working properly until afterwards. It could have saved us a few heart attacks the following day.

Setting off down the road, arms wrapped around Nick, wind in our hair (mine anyway), we kissed and made up, feeling exhilarated to be on the bike and off to explore. The bike had super suspension, perfect for the mountainous path that Nick had picked out for us. Now we just had to see if we could really go where google satellite was showing some tiny faint squiggles.

Hmmm, after a few hours, we had had fun, but the roads were all paved and fairly wide. It was not the adventure Nick had envisaged. Checking out his satellite images, he reckoned the roads should get a bit more exciting from there, although we weren’t actually sure the end part of the road in our loop was open. The Internet said no, and we were to hear several different stories on our way. We decided we would have to stop at Namsham, as this was the only place along the route with a guesthouse.  The internet had also said it was possible to stay there. Don’t believe everything you read.

image

“Permission.” They kept repeating. And no matter how many times Nick tried to talk them round, it was clear. You needed government permission to stay there, and we didn’t have it. It seems that the gift of the gab doesn’t work so well when neither party speaks the other’s language.

Bugger. It would be getting dark soon, and we were at least 3 hours away from Hsipaw, where we had come from that morning and where we knew we could stay. We could make it, but we would then have to repeat these 3 hours of riding before moving onto any new roads tomorrow. And would that be enough time to do the whole loop? Would the road even be open by the time we got to the end, and would we have enough time to turn around and go back the way we came if not? The answer to all these questions was probably not. We had to find somewhere to stay the night.

“You know what that is?” Nick asked me with a glint in his eye. “It’s a monastery.” We had asked a few people in Namsham about a place to stay. We were met by blank looks, and 1 suggestion to try the place we had just been turned away from. I wasn’t sure about implicating the monks, but Nick was already half way up the hill and putting on his friendly tourist face.

image

“We can stay? Really?” Even with the sight of this nodding monk in front of us, we couldn’t believe it, and wondered if we should. Lost in translation seemed to be a thing here. But, no, it was for real. Phew. The government obviously didn’t want people staying in this town (militants were cited as the reason) We would keep under the radar, we thought. Just in case.

image

image

Back on the bike to look for some food before we settled in for the night, we noticed no restaurants or cafés. This was not a place where tourists usually came. Riding round a corner, we were met by a human conveyer belt of rice bowls stretching across the road. They parted for us like the Red Sea. Bemused and intrigued as to what was going on, we slowed right down and stopped to watch as they reconnected the line and continued to pass the bowls of rice to the next person. When they beckoned us to come and eat with them, we still weren’t sure what the deal was, but it seemed like a genuine offer, so it would have been rude to decline. Plus we were hungry, and still so intrigued as to the nature of the party.

image

It must be a charity, we surmised as we were sat down at one of several round tables and encouraged to eat. Afterwards we asked them, and were told by a man there it was because a woman died. “Which woman?” We asked. It was his mother. Complete strangers, they had invited us to her wake!

image

image

Back at the monastery, there was a stage set up outside. Curiousity killed the cat. We all know that, and yet, we felt compelled to go and see what it was all about. I’m not sure that we ever found out, but the date 04th November was of marked importance. So was Buddha…we think. Whatever the occassion, the celebration involved a great deal of “singing” onstage. Believe you me, Mr Cowell would have had a thing or two to say to these people.

image

If our aim was to remain inconspicuous on this of very illegal nights, we failed dramatically. As soon as we were spotted, we were given front row seats with very little prospect of escape. If there was anyone that hadn’t yet noticed us, this was soon rectified by us being hauled up onstage to dance to this god awful racket as people came and placed tinsel around our necks. A very drunk, and very annoying man decided we would be his friends for the night, and prevented us from any real interaction with anyone but himself. He must’ve had a twitch in his elbow the amount it kept jabbing into my side. It took every inch of my patience not to develop a violent reciprocating twitch.

image

“Cold?” a woman said, offering me her jacket.

Eventually we had managed to sneek off and started doing a crossword inside. This sweet woman thought it was because we hadn’t got enough clothes. Politely we declined and feigned tiredness, but I was touched by her kindness, and hoped she hadn’t caught on to our dislike for the vocal chords of her compadres. Ushered to our own private hut, with many more blankets than in the last monastery, we settled down for the night on the floor, somehow managing to drift off to the Burmese reverb that echoed through the walls. Tomorrow we needed to head off early if we were ever to do this loop.

MYANMAR – Bagan, city of magic & mystery

We built this city on rock and soul…

(Written by Steph)

I hadn’t Googled too many places before we came here. There was that small matter of the wedding bubble, true, but I was also unsure if the main tourist hotspots would be my cup of lapaieh. Mandalay and Yangon (bar the NLD rally where we saw Aung San Suu Kyi) were a bit of a non-event for me. But we had heard Bagan was a place for photos, and therefore, a place for Nick.

Perhaps if we hadn’t refused to read the guide books, the entrance fee to the city wouldn’t have been such a shock to us. We might have even been a bit more graceful about it as we were called over to pay our 40$ only minutes after disembarking the slow boat. On the other hand, we might just have decided to skip the place entirely, and that, as we discovered later, would have been a crying shame.

If you’ve never heard of Bagan, never seen pictures on the internet or on the TV, I’ll forewarn you that I’m probably not going to be able to do it justice. Nick’s pictures, on the other hand, might.

image
One of the coolest spots we found for sunset

image
Same spot, different angle

Bagan is an ancient place, literally FULL of temples and pagodas. You might remember me saying that I’m indifferent about these things. Bagan is different. Over 10,000 temples and pagodas were built here between the 11th and the 13th century, of which over 2,000 still remain. What used to be the heart of a thriving empire is now vast dusty countryside filled with all of that history.

image
Posing for pics pretty high up one temple

image
Nicki Visage

image
Nick put his rock climbing skills to good use to sit on top of this pillar

The popular thing to do is to rent an electric bike and ride to where all the temples are. Set off either side of a main road, the sandy paths wind and turn, leading you into a maze dotted with brick coloured treasures at every turn. Once you’re in, follow the smaller paths and it’s really easy to feel like you are all alone on the set on an Indiana Jones film.

image
The winding sandy paths

Our first day we got up and rented a bike at 5am. Armed with Google maps and GPS, we headed out to a site a blogger had recommended for sunrise – a smallish temple. Not one that would be on the mainstream tourist radar we hoped. We parked up and peered inside. Dark, dusty and deserted, we cautiously stepped inside.

“Arrgggh!”

Bats. We promptly ran out. Something about being there alone in the dark robbed us of all our conviction. Not quite the intrepid adventurers after all.

image
Sunrise in Bagan

We found another temple nearby and located the tiny and steep staircase that wound up to the roof. Nick could barely cram his giant frame within the stairwell, but head-torches attached, we excitedly made our way up to the top. The sunrise itself wasn’t amazing, but being just the two of us up there, looking out over this incredible place, was magical. I wondered what a different experience it would have been surrounded by happy-snapping tourists.

image
Nick crawling his way up the stairwell

The next day, Nick decided he would be one of *those* tourists. He got up for sunrise again, and headed out to one of the famous temples where the buildings line up for a great shot. Afterall, a person is meant to suffer for their art, right? Joined by over a hundred others, it wasn’t the peaceful and stilling sunrise that we had had the previous day. He did, none-the-less, get some incredible pictures.

image
Captured from the Shwesandaw pagoda. Another amazing photo from Nick

We spent two days exploring the maze of temples, searching for great sunset spots down
obscure paths that seemed to have been ignored, and therefore provided some guarantee of solitude. We discovered some real treasures, and exploring temples we knew had not been so frequently visited added an element of adventure. We climbed walls where there were no staircases; we shimmied along ledges to get the best view; Nick wasn’t even fazed by a bat flying at his head as we squeezed down one staircase at dusk. Ok, he might have been a bit fazed…

image
Our Milky Way from Bagan. This was an impromtu shot we took when riding back from one of our sunset spots

On our third day, our bus didn’t leave until the evening, and having explored a good number of temples and experienced 2 sunrises and 2 sunsets, we did what every crazy adventurer does – we spent the day at the swimming pool of a luxury resort sipping on cocktails. It was certainly an indulgent finish to an epic three days.

image
Me trying out the electric bike on the road to the posho hotel

image
Our hangout for the third day. Don't mind if I do

MYANMAR – Slow boat from Mandalay to Bagan

Whatever floats your boat…

(Written by Steph)

The slow boat left Mandalay at 4am, and figuring that this would be the way to be with the real people of Myanmar, we opted for this in place of the cleaner, shinier, and more expensive speedboats on offer. And we were sort of right. The local people did travel on the boat, but they were all gathered at one end, the other lined with plastic chairs and reserved for tourists. It wasn’t the integration we had planned, but it was still the middle of the night by our standards, and we were hankering after a bit more sleep in any case. We found ourselves a nice corner and laid down our tent ground sheet – it was about time we used the blasted thing anyway.

image
Having a Lapaieh (cuppa) onboard

A couple of hours later, we left our ground sheet to head for the boat cafe on the locals’ side. This consisted of a plank of wood to sit on and water pumped up from the river to be used for cooking. We didn’t mind a bit…although we quietly hoped that different water was being used to make our hot drinks – we had seen the state of that river up close. Rubbish disposable was not a big thing here.

“Lap-ai-eh,” I attempted.

“Lap-ai-EEEH,” the woman repeated back to me, chuckling to herself, perhaps at the fact that I knew the word, perhaps at my terrible pronunciation of it. We had met a French girl at the monastery in Hpa-an and she had taught us some useful phrases. “Tea” was the first word I had learnt, after “hello” and “thank you,” and I rated this as being of high importance. But now I was to crack out the sentence that was guaranteed to win friends…if I could get it right…

“Myanmar nangago cheeteh.”

She paused for a second before shreiking and clapping her hands together.

“Myanmar neingago cheeteh! Myanmar neingago cheeteh!”

She repeated the phrase to her family, waving her hand wildly in my direction and bursting into cackles of laughter. It was obviously close enough, and telling them I loved their country seemed to do the trick.

We were having so much fun with them, that even when the boat made another stop, we didn’t go back to make sure our spot was secure. I mean, our stuff was laid out on the groundsheet. Plus, there was oodles of room on the boat…

image
Picking up more passengers
image
Old-School farming methods

What we hadn’t bargained for were Italians. Big organised tour groups of Italians. They made themselves noticed immediately, cameras unabashedly shoved in faces of the locals for minutes at a time. It was so grotesque it actually caused Nick to keep his camera tucked away, not wanting to add to the obvious discomfort of the subjects.

We returned to our spot to find a human assault course of different Italians blocking the entire width of the boat. Not only do they not like queues, apparently they don’t go for rows either. Forced to clamber over them (moving their chairs slightly to make a path through seemed an alien concept to them) we made it back to what had been a nice, quiet comfortable corner, and what was now a caged-in racket. As individuals, I am fond of a number of Italians, but put ’em together and what have you got? Not bippedy boppedy boo, that’s for sure.

image
Another stop along the way. This one had no jetty, just a steep, muddy bank.

After an hour or two of climbing back and forth, they must’ve cottoned on to the fact that I was none too impressed by their lack of courtesey, and they actually started slightly moving the chair as I tried to get past, no doubt fearing I might just trample on them if not. However, two of them seemed unable to conduct a conversation at what a normal person might consider to be a reasonable decibel level, each doing their very best to be the funniest and most dramatic and gesticulate with the most fervour. These were Italian personalities that I recognised from my past, where I was happy for them to remain. After having a very nice conversation with one of the Italian girls there, obviously slightly embarrassed by her tour group company, I ran out of reasons to stick it out in the corner. Remembering that I had seen a Burmese lady giving massages earlier in the journey, I went to find a bit of restbite.

image

Well, it wasn’t as cheap as the Thai massage I had had in Bangkok, but it was certainly charming. I’ve no doubt in my mind that this lady didn’t have a single clue how to give massages, and I began to think maybe I should have just roped Nick in as I usually do. I’d trained the boy up pretty well, and he was quite accomplished in massaging my back now. Then I remembered the Italians. Oh yes, this was about a bit of escape.

So, there I sat, enjoying the peace as she silently squeezed my arms, wistfully staring into the distance. But at some point she clocked the NLD (Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party) stickers on my T-shirt. As was the reaction of many people we had met in Yangon, Hpa-an, and to a lesser extent, Hsipaw, she smiled widely at the recognition that we shared something in common, eyes full of surprise. Ok, so it was pretty superficial on my part. I only knew the basics about Aung San Suu Kyi, but I knew her party stood for democracy and I knew that she had spent a many great years of her life under house arrest, because she refused to give in to the people that wanted otherwise. For me, wearing the NLD merchandise was a small show of solidarity with the people here, so long oppressed. And they were so appreciative of this – to know that people outside their country actually cared about their future. My sweet masseuse came to life at this point, further animated by the other few Burmese words we had learnt that now came into play.

“Jai de Aung San Suu Kyi. Cowmareh.”
(I like Aung San Suu Kyi. Good.)

Linquistic flair eluded me, but a little went a long way, and she was soon telling me about her life, travelling back and forward on the slow boat and living in two places. Communicated with a mixture of Burmese, broken English and nodding, most of it was lost in translation, but it was still nice to connect in some small way.

image
That red thing there on the right is a makeshift cradle with a baby inside. The mother had a pulley system to keep it rocking while she sat a few get away.
image
Nick enjoying his deck space

As port by port new people, and often huge bundles of goods, came on and off the boat, we managed to relocate to a quiet spot on the Burmese locals’ side. I was drifting in and out of sleep, enjoying the activities going on around me – a mother from the café rocking her baby in a makeshift cot hung from the ceiling, another group of girls enjoying the photos of the foreigner sat with them – when a woman approached me. She was selling rugs. I politely explained I had nowhere to put a rug and that I was travelling for a long time. 

“Perfume? Lipstick?”

I assumed that she had more wares somewhere on her.

“No, thank you, ” I repeated.

image
People were really impressive with their set-ups. This little guy has a sort of walled den to enjoy.

A short time later, as we were approaching the port of Bagan, another woman came up to me saying the same thing. As it turned out, she wanted to know if I had any perfume or lipstick for her, not vice versa. She wanted to do a swap with her handiwork. Aha! A German couple we had met previously had encountered the same thing the first time they had visited Myanmar, almost 30 years ago – many locals wanting, not money for their goods, but foreign items. Unfortunately, this local was out of luck. Perfume and lipstick were not on my list of backpacking essentials. However, when she mentioned T-shirt, I was happy to be able to oblige. Although this was an item she could get in Myanmar, she said it was expensive where she lived. I’ve no idea if that were true or not, but I had one too many T-shirts anyway, so we were both happy. I took my chance that we were near enough port that I wouldn’t suddenly be surrounded by loads of other locals, all wanting something from me, and handed her the Beatles T-shirt. By the look on her face, she obviously wasn’t a fan. We also weren’t quite near enough port. Shit. As another woman came in my direction, expectantly, I thrust my last 2 sets of books, pencil cases and stationary into her arms and made a run for it to the exit of the boat. We had arrived in Bagan. Phew!

MYANMAR – One pagoda, two pagoda, three pagodas more…

(Written by Nick)

If Thailand can call itself the land of smiles (which, after 3 weeks there, I found to be an innaccurate marketing campaign) then Myanmar can certainly be referred to as the land of pagodas. Ok, and this time definitely the land of smiles, too.

Gazing out of the train window as we pull away from Mawlamyine station, the colonian British capital of Burma, I count 5 mosques. I soon lose count of the number of pagodas, though. The city is behind us now, and as we trundle through miles of rice paddies, the hills to the east glisten with gold, each one adorned with its own pointy pagoda. I notice a similarity with the Tibetan prayer flags strategically placed on peaks and passes in the Himalayas. And the cairns of Scotland – simple rock piles added to by successive travellers.

image
A mosque and a pagoda in Mawlamyine
image
A pagoda showing its authority in Hpa-An

So these gold, bell-shaped monuments may be particular to Burmese culture, but there seems to be a greater inherent human desire to mark these points of natural significance. In Britain I would consider it a physical representation of the original graffiti cliché, “I was ‘ere”. I suppose others are not as flippant as me.

They’re not just in the hills, though. Like children’s glitter, these things seem to get everywhere. And when one is not enough, another is made alongside it. And then a few more. And then perhaps a larger one. The conditions here are just right to allow them to breed.

image
Try to do a spot of caving and, oh, there's a pagoda
image
Try to drive down the street and, oh, there's a pagoda in the way

image

image
You never know when you might need to pray

On our arrival at the airport in Thailand we were greeted with an angry sign placed at each immigration desk declaring that all imagery of Buddha’s head was disrespectful and encouraging visitors not to support those who depicted it. Whoever placed these signs should definitely not visit their neighbouring Buddhist country; they will surely have a rage-induced fit.

One statue of Buddha is never enough here. Like the pagodas, they too multiply, culminating in the “field of a thousand Buddhas” we happened to pass the other day. So whenever you see photos of Myanmar and you wonder if all tourists do is visit pagodas, the answer might be that they didn’t even realise the pagoda was there. These things are the original photo bombs.

image
Each small figure is another Buddha
image
A young monk on pagoda painting duty
image
They even employ monkeys to guard the pagodas...

Top tip for tourists:
Do not plan any trips to pagodas, temples or monasteries. They are the top attractions in this country, so my advice may seem extreme, but I promise I’m not being negative. Even if you love them as much as most tourists appear to, I would still purposefully avoid adding them to your itinerary. You will see more than enough of them without trying. Think of other things you want to see and do and they will provide a picturesque backdrop. That is their true magical power.

image
Man was created in God's image
image
Even this frog seems to have one on his back
image
Some people get templed out and resort to Facebook for inspiration

MYANMAR – The NLD Rally, Yangon

“What do you mean you didn’t go to the Shwedagon pagoda?!?”

(Written by Steph)

A city was never going to be our favourite thing.  We arrived in Yangon on the train from Mawlaminye, another pretty thankless destination, to stoney faces and zero personality. It’s not to say people here weren’t friendly exactly, but cities have a habit of doing that to people. After the illuminated faces of Hpa-an, “come-down” was the phrase.

Yangon used to be the capital.  Ask people if it still is, and you get mixed answers. Generally the consensus is that, no, it is not, but the new capital, Naypyitaw, is as unlike a capital as you’ve seen. It’s new and shiny, sure, but hardly anyone lives there. No, Yangon definitely had the feel of a capital.

image
Yangon City (formerly known as Rangoon)

“What did you do in Yangon?” We had asked many a traveller in Myanmar. The answer always had one common factor – The Shwedagon Pagoda. I’m sure it’s impressive, I’m sure it’s beautiful, historical things happened there, but I wanted to see history in the people – not in the buildings.  I was lucky in my partnership with Nick that we were on the same page. We love to experience the nature in different places, including that of the people. Monuments, temples, pagodas…? Meh.

We skipped the site-seeing on the Saturday, but it wasn’t time for us to move on just yet. Nick, savvy googler that he is, had discovered that there was to be a rally held by the National League for Democracy (NLD) here in Yangon. I didn’t know anything about the NLD, but I knew that their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was a democratic hero to this country. With an election approaching, arguably the most important Myanmar election to date, here was an opportunity to experience history in the making rather than centuries later.

image
On a Yangon train the day before the rally, a random woman gave me this NLD balloon. 🙂

Aung San Suu Kyi and the military:

Myanmar, formerly named Burma under the British rule, has a complicated and tumultuous history, and not one that I can pretend to comprehend.  My, perhaps crude, synopsis is that, after gaining independence from the British in 1948, the country struggled to find its feet amidst clashes of power, ethnic groups and ideologies.The first years of independence were marked by successive insurgencies. In 1962, dictator U Ne Win staged a military Coup and took over the country.

U Ne Win, having decided that he would abolish all currency notes not divisable by 9, which was his lucky number, proved himself to be a superstitious idiot as well as a tyrant. The people of Myanmar, subsequently bankrupt, were disillusioned and yearned for change. This led to one of the most memorable days in Myanmar’s history – “The 8888 Uprising”. On 8th August, 1988, thousands of people took to the streets in peaceful protests. They were met with open gunfire, which culminated in the loss of over 3000 lives. U Ne Win outwardly turned the country over to the rule of the military, while in reality he merely stayed in the shadows, their relentless puppeteer of torture and illegal arrest.

image
As it had never been before...

This same year Aung San Suu Kyi, having studied in Oxford and lived abroad for years, returned to Myanmar. She was to become a voice of hope for the people, denouncing the junta and standing up for human rights. It was to earn her the right to 15 years, on and off, of being placed under house arrest, cut off from the eager ears of the people. Giving up the chance of going free, based on the condition that she left the country, she sent a strong message to both those in power and to the people – she would not rest until democracy reigned, even if it meant sacrificing her own freedom.

In 2013 Aung San Suu Kyi, now released from house arrest, registered to run as a political candidate for the NLD. They had won an election in 1990, with a landslide 80% of the votes, but the military junta only ignored the results. The election that was to take place on 8th November, 2015, a week after this rally, was meant to be different. This time the people had Aung San Suu Kyi…and they were not taking no for an answer.

image
Pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi adorned t-shirts of the supporters - the face of a heroine

The NLD Rally, 2015:

I was slightly nervous about this rally. The history of their relationship with the governing military didn’t fill me with confidence. Finding it would be the next issue.  It was due to take place in a huge park in the centre, but this proposed venue had been downsized just a few days before the event. We can only assume this was designed to discourage too many people from going. Well that didn’t work…

It took a while to find someone that knew what was going on. Everyone knew about Aung San Suu Kyi, but not about the rally. When we said her name, our taxi driver wanted to take us to the house where she had spent all those years under house arrest, also in Yangon. That might have been interesting to some, but we wanted to see Aung San Suu Kyi, not her empty house.

image
Flying the NLD flag

image

We arrived to streets full of red – the colour of the NLD. The Traffic was heavy crossing the bridge to where we needed to go, and our taxi driver, tutting and sighing (obviously not an NLD supporter) dropped us off way before the destination. We had only been walking two minutes when a guy noticed us. Fair to say we stuck out a bit. For a start, Nick was several heads taller than the tallest Burmese man. He was so happy that someone outside his country had come to show support for them. Immediately he took us under his wing and insisted on buying us a drink. We joined with the crowds moving forwards like a carnival procession. All around us, decorated floats with huge speakers and groups singing. On the ground, children doing choreographed dances and singing songs with such steely passion, I thought they must be about freedom. Further on and another group of older men dancing around joyously and with total abandon. It was a week away from the election, and yet, not hope, but celebration, was in the air. The people were not going to entertain another outcome.

image
Fiercely passionate performance from a group of young kids

Our (my) primary concern had been that the rally might attract fierce vigilance from the military, and our support might not go down too well. We needn’t have worried – we saw a total of one policeman the whole day! Not what you would expect, especially given the history of the military here. The other thing was that we knew that Suu Kyi was coming to do a talk. In Burmese. Our four new sentences were not going to go very far. Little did we know that the run up would be so electric. Having kitted ourselves out in NLD headbands, and stuck stickers to every inch of free skin, we almost looked the part, although considerably less cool than the others.

image
Didn't quite get the'D' in!

“These guys know that Aung San Suu Kyi is the famous one, right? ”

We were part way down the long road that led to the rally, but we were stuck. Not in mud, not in traffic, but in photos. Our photo session with the monks in the bat cave in Hpa-An was evidently just a taster of what awaited us here. Crowds gathered to take photos of us with their friends, then with them, then with their mum, and their uncle, and their second cousin three times removed.  By which time 10 other phones were pointed at us and we had to do the same thing again. It was fun, and not wanting to be rude, we obliged, but it was pretty surreal to be the ones being photographed. It wasn’t until we got home and looked at our photos that we realised we didn’t actually have that many. How was that possible? we thought. We must have been there for 30 minutes having photos taken…but all on other people’s phones. The tables had turned – now we knew what it felt like to be a tourist attraction!

image
This little girl asked me for a photo. She was such a cutie I got one, too.
image
Aung San Suu Kyi talks to a captive audience. Don't ask us what she actually said, though.

“May Suu! May Suu! May Suu!”

Huge lines of linked arms lined the road, 3 deep and holding tightly. It reminded me of a pop concert or something, and as Suu Kyi’s car approached, I half expected the screaming fans to surge forward and ask for an autograph. That didn’t happen, but she was a hero, for sure. The chants, meaning “Mother Suu!” said it all.

image
Closest we've ever been to a decent politician

image

Today’s update:

The NLD won the election on the 8th November 2015, but the military still retain 25% of the seats. Legally, Aung San Suu Kyi is not allowed to be president, owing to the fact that she married a non Burmese national.  This is written into the constitution and would take a military constituent to change. Suu Kyi, however, has since given many interviews in which she makes it very clear that she intends to rule. She is fearless in the face of the oppostion, and steadfast in her goal for democracy.

MYANMAR – A hike up Zwegabin mountain in Hpa-an

“It’s got a good view.”

(Written by Steph)

It was a sentence that drew me into my future, and saw me pushing my husband off the top of whatever he had forced me to hike up in order to get to said view. Nick likes a good view. Normally the kind that requires some sort of laborious ascent. 

image
Zwegabin mountain in the distance

Today’s “good view” was from the site of 1000 Buddhas (because we hadn’t seen many already) and was to be earned by walking up 10 times more steps. THE steepest steps I’ve ever seen. There must have been at least 3 step’s worth in each one. Talk about scrimping.

It was scorching hot, and we soon realised why people did this walk in the early morning, not at 2 in the afternoon, like us. That may have been my fault, but let’s not dwell on that…

image

image
Near the start of the trail, in the field of a thousand Buddhas

Twenty five minutes in, Nick consulted his faithful companion, his phone’s GPS, and announced that we were half way there.  Spurred on by this news, we accelerated our speed, just about managing to say “mengalaba” (hello) to each person who was descending. There were 100s of them, each smiling and greeting us, perhaps wondering why we were the colour of lobster and quite so drenched. A great deal of them had children with them, who they were carrying in their arms or in slings. I couldn’t imagine many English families hiking that far with their children. But comparatively speaking, we are a nation of weeds, socialised to take the easy route. Or maybe I’m speaking for myself.

image
That pagoda is where we're heading. And the path goes almost straight up.

After 50 minutes, it was clear we were nowhere near the top, and I was cursing the misinformation from Nick’s phone. The summit of each winding staircase only revealed, in turn, another: just as steep and with no clue as to how many more proceeded. My “had enough” moment came 2 sweaty hours in, just as two tourists appeared round the bend. “It’s about 5 minutes,” one said. “Ten,” corrected the other. Pffff. We did as any sane person does for motivation – we put the Lion King soundtrack on the phone and sang Hakuna Matata til we reached the top. I’m sorry Nick – being married to me is doing nothing for your street cred.

So, what was the point of all this? At the top stood a monastery, and apparently you could sleep there. Images of monks silently moving through stone archways conjured in our minds. It sounded quite special, and something we might not be able to repeat, so we would do it.

image
Our bathroom facilities
image
Sunrise

It must have been “wear what you like” day that day. Either that or there was only one actual monk living there. There was a beautiful moon that night, and we had some nice company. Nick was happy taking photos and pottering about, but a small part of me was gutted to find out that there was a festival…at the bottom of the hill!  Lights dotted the landscape below and music echoed through the valley, but we would have our special night in the monastery, even if it did have only one Monk. Did I mention that he snored like a bear? It was definitely fairly far removed from what we had expected, and yet, it was at least memorable.

image
Our room for the night. Check the monk's portrait on the right

image

image