THAILAND – Khao Sok National Park: Trekking & Floating

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the I.F.s sleep tonight…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

“You HAVE to go there.”

In Groundhog Day fashion almost everybody we met backpacking had a ” You HAVE to go there” story. Quite often, “there” referred to some full moon party bursting with 20-somethings eager to find themselves and then puke their guts up on the beach. Um, maybe next time…This time, however, the place in question was a national park called Khao Sok. A national park? Our attention was grabbed. We had no idea that amongst all the beaches of the south lay a jungle ready to explore. It seemed, as rarely happened, we should trust in the keen recommendation of these nature-loving Aussies we had known for all of 5 minutes.

In our usual style, we spent way too long googling reviews on trip advisor of where to stay. After being taken to what seemed to be bungalows in a palm plantation (a leading cause of jungle deforestation), we hastily moved on – we had come here to be in the jungle, not to support its demise. We eventually found some amazing bungalows almost next door. They were more pricey, but they were in amongst the trees and next to a river. This was the real deal. Once settled in, we set about making a plan.

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Our Jungle Hut refuge where we ended up staying 3 nights we loved it so much

“No food. Pahahaha.”

We were asking about a survival trek, where you go into the jungle for a couple of days and forage. Apparently now wasn’t the season, so if you needed to survive in winter, you were a bit screwed. The rainy season over, the river was also too low for tubing, so we opted for a two day trek through the jungle with an overnight stay in the “floating houses” upon the enormous man-made lake that we had heard so much about. We decided that the trek should be fun to do in a group and crossed our fingers we would be in good company.

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Spot the difference…

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“Bonjour”

The good company came in the shape of a French girl called Charlene and her boyfriend, Anis. Maybe it was my fondness for Kylie in her Neighbours days, or the fact that Charlene thought everything I said in French was “tros minion” (so cute), but we hit it off right away. I’m pretty sure my rendition of a french gangster rap song had never been described as “cute” before.

It had been a while since I had bonded with a girl over shoes. Generally I had left the shoes and handbags phase of my life behind, but this was different – these shoes were “special.” And, dare I say a word that should never be uttered in the same sentence, “functional.” Yes indeed. Beckham would have been proud of these rubber beasts complete with footballer-esque studding. I was one proud owner; the other was Charlene. We might have received a bit of flak for our choice of footwear, but they were to stand us in good stead (boom boom) in addition to proving a great talking point.

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Modelling the envy of everyone’s eye – my rubber trekking shoes, which cost all of around 70p

First we just had to get to the floating houses. After a mini bus journey to the edge of the enormous man-made lake that capped the park, we transferred to our favourite mode of transport – a longtail boat. It was only now that the jokes about the shoes temporarily subsided, as each of us sat, jaws dropped, marvelling at the scenery. Steep forest-covered limestone carst mountains jutted high out of the lake. Combined with the overcast sky, this made for quite the dramatic setting. Jurassic Park would have done well to find a better set than this.

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Dramatic weather, dramatic scenery

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Having checked out our boingy floating houses and dumping our bags, we headed out on trek number one.  At this early stage we had already lost a few members of the team – apparently trekking was optional on this two day trekking tour. To be fair, staying at the lake seemed pretty enticing with the option of kayaking or swimming, but I had bought my special shoes for this trek, and there was no way I was going to miss out on wearing them.

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Floating restaurant
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Floating houses – our home for the night

We had read a blog on this exact trek in preparation, and as the words “exhausting”, “struggle” and “huge climb” popped up, I felt a sinking sense of deja vu. Here we go again, I thought. What can I say? That blogger obviously didn’t have a husband that constantly hiked her up to the highest possible view point – after all those previous uphill hikes, I was more than just a little relieved to find this trek was actually a doddle.

After about an hour or so of walking through a path in the jungle, we got to the bit we were looking forward to – the cave. Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we had become a little cave obsessed on this honeymoon, but not all caves are created equal. We would be following a river through this one for over a kilometre.

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A beard too huge not to be included, even if the photo isn’t the greatest (guess who is behind the camera)

We strode inside, confident from the brightness of the collective head torches. Heads circling, we examined the cave, careful to know where we were putting our hands. Our guide took great delight in pointing out the hundreds of bats, enormous spiders and a snake coiled up on a ledge inside. Still, we laughed and joked as we got a closer examination.

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“Take a picture, Nick.”

This involved a whole palarva of carefully removing the camera from the drybag, being additionally careful not to drop the lens cap in the stream. This on top of the usual faff of changing lenses (no zoom for Nicholas). Needless to say, by the time we were ready to take a photo, suddenly the cave seemed a whole lot blacker than before. All those other people in our group, along with their lovely bright head torches, had disappeared ahead. Scrambling to get the camera away and seal the drybag again, we pussyfooted our way along, now noticing just how scary the cave really was when you couldn’t see more than a metre in front of your face!

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Always slightly disconcerting when a spider is almost the size of your hand

The shallow river running through the middle of the cave added another element to the adventure. However, it wasn’t until we got near the end of the cave that we got the full “river-in-a-cave” experience. Squeezing through a skinny passage only big enough for the river and perhaps a Hollywood celeb, we found ourselves inching downwards.  At this point the river was up to our waists, then our necks, and as we emerged from the passage, brrrrrr! Plop – straight into a pool of freezing water. Now the ground was nowhere to be felt and swimming the last few metres was the only option. That was fun!  I was just sad the cave was coming to an end.

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The beginning of the passage and the end of taking photos! 

“You won’t see many animals.”

Delighted at the refreshing honesty of our guide, after our delicious dinner of fish, Nick and I decided to skip the night boat trip in favour of staying in our floating house for a nice relaxing evening. Everyone else was on the boats…or so we thought. As it turned out, the staff working in the kitchens took this opportunity to run up and down the boardwalk of metal panelling that seemed to hold the string of houses together. Suddenly our house was bobbing manicly. The noise, which I can only describe as “thunderous” added the finishing touch, but it was enough to leave us in fits of giggles.

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Beautiful dawn

After a beautiful sunrise cruise on the lake, we landed further down the lake for another trek. My favourite part of this was crossing a log which floated on the lake, dividing the restaurant we were at and the nearby jungle. Pretending to be Baby in Dirty Dancing was a bad move, as the log went rolling and my dignity went with it. I narrowly avoided plunging into the water and ploughed on, enjoying every moment of the jungle, the scenery…and my new favourite shoes.

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Enjoying the most delicious banana daquiri ever once we were back in our Jungle Hut digs
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Cheeky monkeys
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THAILAND – Krabi

The only way is up, baby…

(Written by Steph, photos by Steph and Nick)

 “Beginner okaaaaay,” I was assured. I wasn’t convinced. All the people I had seen so far looked pretty pro to me, but hey, what was the worst that could happen? We signed up.

Krabi province in Thailand is famous for many things. The Railay peninsular is much like an island in that it is only accessed by boat, and huge limestone cast rocks frame the outline. We had been recommended this place by a friend back home for the hippyish vibe off Tonsai beach, but a quick wade around some rocks and you find yoirself on a white sandy beach, known as West Railay beach, home of fancy resorts.

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After a couple of nights enjoying the relaxed vibe of the reggae bars over Tonsai, we thought we might be able to stretch to a fancy hotel over there, purely for the convenience, so we asked in a few resorts about prices. Several heart attacks later, we had discovered a more reasonable place on East Railay beach. The East beach was not really for swimming in, but everything was easily accessed from there.

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It was our last night on the Tonsai side, and we suddenly realised that we wouldn’t get these kinds of reggae bars on the East Railay beach, where we had managed to find a posher place for a reasonable price. We should go out and celebrate. It would be rude not to, right?

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We awoke with that feeling that you can only get from a drinking session the night before you have to do something that definitely can’t be done with a hangover.

How did this happen? Did we really drink that much? If I pretend it didn’t happen, can I magic this away? Pleeeease can I go back to bed?

The answer to the first question was probably something to do with Nick buying bucket after bucket of Sangsom and lemonade. The answer to the last question was probably yes. But, we had already paid for it and it was what we had come to Railay to do, or certainly Nick. I had to suck it up. I was sure to feel better later…

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One banana and a litre of water later, we were hooked up at the bottom of a huge cliff lined with other game tourists. In our group, there were only three of us.

“Have you done much climbing?” I asked the third guy, hoping for some kind of reassurance I wasn’t completely out of my league. “Normally level 8” was the reply. The fact I had no clue what he was talking about summed up how much I knew about climbing. The fact the number was near 10, I guessed, meant that I had better forget the reassurance.

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Steve was first up as I stood and gawped at those around me, scaling the cliff side, pinching here for one hold, little toe pressed on a ledge for another. Steve was up and down before I knew it. Nick practically walked up that first one. I, on the other hand, cried. I could blame it on my shaky hangover legs, but really, I’m just afraid of heights. And climbing. And yes, I do know what you are all thinking.

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The next two climbs in two different places came, and I sat out, but I was in awe of Nick. Steve had been climbing for years and found some of it really tough, but Nick had only been climbing once in Wales, a trip I bought him in a bid to convince him I was the adventurous type (who am I kidding?) and a couple of times on a climbing wall in Southampton. To see him manoeuvre himself to the very top of the cliff was both terrifying and incredible. Shame he didn’t take his phone up like the gutsie 10 year old we saw stopping half way up to take a selfie! Apparently it was a great view up there!  😉

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It was at this point our guide said to me, 

“C’mon. Your turn.”

“Whaaat? Up there?”
 
I said pointing at the route the guys had just done. He found this extremely amusing.

“No!” He could barely contain his laughter at the prospect of me attempting what the guys just done. He pointed to a small climb I had just seen a similarly pathetic girl fail. In her defence, she was French and her guide was shouting instructions up to her in English with her friend attempting to translate. It wasn’t a great start. I for one, had a very attentive guide, who instructed me where to put every hand and every foot, and in my mother tongue. That was pretty spoiled I reckon.

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It was absolutely astounding how well these guides knew the rocks. Even when Nick was half way up the cliff face and we couldn’t see any way to move further, he would tell him about some tiny hand hold hidden and secret to all but him. I took a deep breath. One leg up at a time.

He made me do that climb twice, just to give me confidence that I could do it. The first time he told me where to put my hands and feet. The second time he was chatting to some guy on the ground. Right, this is him throwing me out of the nest, I thought. I’d better just do it. And I did. It’s not the most natural thing in the world to me, but the guides were amazing, and if you are going to rock climb anywhere, I can’t think of a more beautiful setting. My only advice to would-be beginner climbers – leave the buckets of Sangsom for after your climb!

A few days later. What goes up, must come down…

Not content with scaling giant walls attached to a rope, Nick decided to sign up for an activity called, deep water solo. This involved free climbing (no ropes!) up the cliffs of a nearby island, and then plunging into the sea from ridiculous heights. I was going nowhere near it. Except there weren’t enough people going (too sensible if you ask me) so muggins here got roped in… ‘scuse inappropriate pun.

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I spent most of the time relaxing in the boat and enjoying the beautifully clear waters, while Nick did this…

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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! 😉

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…

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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One of the coolest spots we found for sunset

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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.

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Posing for pics pretty high up one temple

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Nicki Visage

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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

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