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THAILAND – The Golden Triangle Motorbike Loop: borders, bathing and tennis balls…

“Borders, bathing and tennis balls…”

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

Day 7/evening:

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Professional model - an Akha lady fond of the hard sell in a Chinese enclave in the hills

That evening we headed up a detour road simply marked “adventure time!” on the map sent to Nick by his friend, Chris. We had no idea what this meant, but were unsurprised to find yet more steep dirt tracks leading the way. We rocked up to be greated by one lone man…who didn’t speak English. The strange expression on his face would have had us believe there was no accommodation, but as luck would have it, a few minutes later a few Thai people showed up. Their first question: “How did you know about this place?”. The fact was, we didn’t really. We weren’t even sure if this was where Chris had stayed or if any tourists ever ventured this way. But as sunset was only about an hour off, and with no monastery to fall back on this time, we were counting on this being a place to stay.

With the new Thai group standing in as translators, we were soon looking at our room for the night – a 6 bed dorm, cheap as chips, sleeping only us.  Score. The group were even so sweet as to invite us to eat with them. Thai camping is a military operation, not least in terms of the cooking. Whole kitchens are transported just for one night in a tent – food really is at the centre of their social events.

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However, we had some exploring to do – this place was not only special because of its remote location, it seemed that here you could quite likely do what we hadn’t succeeded in doing before – walk into Myanmar. As we started along a path leading into a forested area behind the accommodation, we looked on Google – only 1km from the border. Where was all the border control now, we wondered? Pressing on, we could see the blue dot moving nearer and nearer that line, the words of Chris echoing in my mind – be careful not to cross over to the wrong side. We weren’t sure exactly where he meant originally, but now we were here, it seemed this could be the very place – nowhere else had we found it remotely possible to get even this close. As dark was coming, and Myanmar militia groups were probably close by, we sensibly, for once, decided to heed Chris’s warning and head back to our digs. Still, after all the “no entry” roads we had encountered near the border, it was exhilarating to think we had got that close, unnoticed and unhindered.

 Day 8:

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A driving day. Stopped off in this arboretum, which we probably could have given a miss. The gardens a few kilometres before might have been worth the money, though.

Day 9:

That’s not what we learnt in school…

It’s funny how perspective can change something as rudimentary as history. Reading a book about the Israel/Palestine conflict, I remembered an Israeli girl remarking that they didn’t know that Palestinians were chased out of their homes at gunpoint – the story that they were told at school involved the Palestinians running away and abandoning their homes like cowards. Sometimes white lies are easier to swallow. Except when it comes to history, the white lies are often very dirty. So imagine our interest, as two Brits, walking into the Hall of Opium Museum in Chiang Saen to hear history told from a non-British perspective. Our country was no longer a nation of heroes, but one that intentionally got China hooked on opium to further our own agenda, notably, facilitating our tea drinking. Apparently tea was a major expense to us and we had to find a way of funding our indulgence. Now, I’m all about the tea, but to discover the lengths we went to, and the manipulation involved, was quite the eye opener. We spent a good four hours in that museum and I don’t think we missed one placard.

“The Golden Triangle”

The afternoon of day 9 and we were nearly at the point after which this loop was coined – “The Golden Triangle”. On a map, this is the point where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. In reality, this is an ugly tourist trap with a ghastly monument, some misplaced attempt to mark the significance of the place. We were aware that this might be the case, and yet, we felt compelled to stop and decide for ourselves. Nick even got me on a boat up the Mekong. Now that might sound idyllic, but I can promise you that it wasn’t. The surroundings were that of an industrial bomb site placed next to a murky brown river. I wasn’t sure what he was thinking, but I boarded the boat, contrary to my better judgement.

“Shopping time!”

Noisy engine propelling us forward, we looped around the casino – evidently constituting something of interest for a nation where gambling is illegal. The next thing we knew, we had pulled across on the Laos side to go “shopping”!! When the guy selling us the tickets had mentioned the word, we explicitly said we only wanted a boat ride. Just when we thought people coming to the boat to sell us things was bad enough, around the corner appeared an elephant giving rides with one of those brutal chairs on its back. That was it, we got the boat guy to take us straight back across the murky brown water where we promptly moved on.

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A beautiful part of the Mekong

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Luckily that wasn’t to be our only experience of the Mekong. Aiming for Chiang Kong, we had the most beautiful ride along a road that weaved alongside the river. The water was now much clearer in colour, although still not quite clean enough to tempt me in for a dip. Nick, on the other hand, was raring to go, and it wasn’t long before we found him a spot to fill his boots, or rather, dunk his toes. Either way, he was in, and he wasn’t the only one. Two young boys were also swimming and had a great time trying to copy Nick swimming upstream against the strong current. We had such fun with them, practising their few words of English, that after they left, I made Nick ride after them on the bike to give them something I had been carrying around since the beginning of our travels – a children’s picture atlas. It had served me well in terms of learning my Middle Eastern capitals, but it was never intended for me. I had brought it along hoping to find a new owner, and as these boys ran off with it and sat on the step of their house to eagerly flick through the pages, I knew that they had been a good choice.

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Nick's swimming buddies

Day 10:

Accommodation along the Mekong road was far too expensive, so we had continued to Chiang Kong to sleep the night of the 9th. It was just such a beautiful bit of road, though, we decided to go back on ourselves this morning. Breakfasting looking out over the Mekong in the morning sunshine was a bit of pure bliss.

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Breakfast view!

After a lazy few hours reading in our glorious location, we headed for Phu Chi Fa, where it was said you could look straight down into Laos from the border.

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Sunrise from Thailand: peering down into Laos with a sea of cloud rolling beneath us

Day 11:

This time we did actually get up for sunrise. Us and the rest of the world. Certainly busier and more commercial than some of our stop offs, it was, none-the-less, quite beautiful. It was evidently a place for some of the Hmong people, who originated from China.

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We were meant to be doing a long journey on the bike today, but we hadn’t got far from the viewpoint when we passed a street full of people wearing the most amazing outfits, and this time it didn’t appear to be about the tourists. Now quite used to being brazen, we got off the bike to go and see what was happening in the school playground where all these people were congregating. Unmoving in two lines, they were simply throwing tennis balls back and forth. And back. And forth. Perhaps Murray had an opening for a new ball boy.

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Fruitlessly we tried to find out what it was all about.  Perhaps we assumed that because we were near a tourist attraction that someone might speak a bit of English. Not a sausage. It wasn’t until some other Thai tourists came along that they managed to find out for us that this was a new year festival and the throwing/catching game was one that was traditionally carried out between girls and boys that like each other. Now that’s what I call a date.

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 Day 12:

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Quick soak at Chae Som hot springs before heading back to Chiang Mai.
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THAILAND – The Golden Triangle Motorbike Loop: hill tribes, hot springs & a Honda PCX…

“Hill tribes, hot springs and a Honda PCX…”

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

We had arrived in the north of Thailand only a couple of days before our visas were due to expire. But a couple of days would be fine to get an extension…or so we thought. Ah. The weekend. It had been so long since we had endured a proper working week that we had forgotten about the fact that offices close on Saturdays and Sundays. So we would have to extend on Monday, the day our visa expired. Donning our smartest clothes, as advised on the net, we headed off down Chiang Mai’s superhighway towards the visa office, and crossed everything that we could whilst riding a bike.

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Without a hitch (bar recognising our own names as they were called out in Thai accents) we got our visas extended for another month. Now we were free to do what we had planned since the beginning – explore the north, full of jungle, waterfalls, tribes and greenery. Time to get back on the bike – quite literally…

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Days 1 & 2

It was only day two of our second motorbike trip in the north of Thailand, and we had already met some funny characters. It was Christmas holidays, and so the Thai middle class, who love camping even more than me and Nick, were still out in full force. We got to a hot springs, of which there are plenty in Thailand, to a setting of picturesque pools, small bridges..and children…everywhere. We opted for the hot spring pool with the least kids in, and dipped in an empty corner.

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“Jingle bells, jingle bells, la la la la la”

It was perhaps less than a minute before a Thai couple started talking to us. The guy’s English was minimal, but what he lacked in language, he made up for in laughter. He had a story and he was committed to trying to communicate it.  Oblivious to the stares of the more conservative eyes around him, he started clapping the back of his hand against the palm of the other; the next thing he was cradling an imaginary baby. We got the jist. As he got on his knees and mimed praying to Buddha, he reached his pièce de résitance, “Jingle Bells”; we were in fits of hysterics. He and his wife had been married a couple of years and had been trying for a baby. Camping was their romantic setting and Jingle Bells their prayer song to Buddha. We would have to take a note for future reference.

That night we rocked up at Wat Thummuangna, a monastery just a kilometre from the Myanmar border.  Nick’s friend Chris had told us he had stayed there before, but on arriving, it seemed like most of the people staying there had come to practise Buddhism. Funny that. Feeling a bit presumptuous, we did the obligatory tour before being offered some food and a bed for the night by a friendly monk. I have to say, it was the most glamorous room we have ever stayed in, though I’d hesitate to call it The Honeymoon Suite for obvious reasons. We made ourselves at home to the soundtrack of mantras being chanted, and in the spirit of things we decided we might join them for a while. How long would it go on for, we enquired. Oh, only three days…THREE DAYS?! People in the temple (built into the side of a cave) were literally falling asleep mid-chant, waking up and joining in again. For THREE DAYS! Forty-five minutes and my legs were going dead. The only Nirvana I knew about was in my CD collection.

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Days 3 & 4:

By the next morning we had racked up several offers from the monk – it seemed like he was taking his vows seriously and trying to give away anything and everything he owned – tiger balm, candles, snacks. However, “Thou shalt not take copious amounts of pictures of oneself” was evidently not in the Buddhist guide. As we sat together with him and his side kick – one very extrovert nun, he got out his phone to show us photos of where he’d travelled. This monk was a serial-selfier. Hundreds of pics and not one missing his face!

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Actually it was fascinating talking to those two, as well as a couple of other nuns there. What I hadn’t realised is that anyone can become a monk or a nun, and they can choose how long for. Each had their own reasons for being there, and each chose the length of time. One woman told us of her controlling Japanese husband she needed some space from, while our fun-loving nun had worked for the U.N. for a time and didn’t like what she found out. As for the reasons they shave their heads, stop wearing make-up, give up possessions, and meditate, I thought I might have had an idea. However, I wanted to ask those willing to do so what was their perspective.  Essentially, the fullest explanation I managed to wrangle was, “Because Buddha did.” Nuff said.

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We spent the next two days camping at Fang hot springs, right next to the pools. It was pretty idyllic, bar the smell of eggs from the sulphur in the springs. This is where photos sometimes do lie.

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Day 5:

The next day we headed up Doi Pha Hom Pok, the country’s second highest mountain at 2285m. So far Thailand had been tarmac heaven. Although we loved the smooth curves of the previous motorbike loop, it had admittedly been just a little too easy. Not that I was complaining – there’s no way I would have had a go on the bike otherwise (a brief 2 hour affair). We had ummed and ahhed about whether to both get a small bike for this loop (Honda Wave 120cc) or for me to take up my usual pillion position on a Honda PCX 150cc. As we approached the road leading up to this national park, I was pretty relieved we had gone for the latter of the two options! A steep dirt road, full of large rocks and uneven ridges led us up to the top, finally arriving at dusk. Just time to set up the tent and get some food…

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“Beer?”

We had asked for noodles. There were no noodles. Soup?  No soup. The cafe seemed to be strangely unoccupied, and instead, a national park guard was taking us on a tour of the stock room to see what we could find. It seemed they had had a big weekend and the cafe owners had gone to town to restock. Eggs and beer it was then. What more could a girl want? Actually, a thermal blanket for the brutal cold. The plan was to get up early to hike the last few kilometres to the summit – a hike that would start in the dark, last 3 hours, and get us there for sunrise. Bitterly cold, we renaged on that one.

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DAYS 6 & 7:

We stayed in a simple room next to the river in a lovely Thai town called Thaton. It’s the perfect place to take a 2 day boat journey to Chiang Rai, but we had the small matter of the bike we had hired. Instead we passed sunrise at the stunning, if slightly commercial, Monastery, Wat Thaton; swam in the river; and made a plan for the next day. We decided that, as wonderful as Thailand had been, we had only scratched the surface when it came to the hill tribe people there. There are 6 main tribes: the Akha, Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Hmong and Mien, but like everything in Thailand, these tribes were now increasingly merging with the mainstream – a Thai commodity in fancy dress. We had even heard that the long neck Karen tribes (so called because of the beautifying coils placed around their necks as children, which encourage their necks to grow long like giraffes) had sometimes been forced into commercial tourism – fenced in and peered at like animals in a zoo to make somebody else profit. Sounded like something we would be loathe to support. So how could we meet these groups on a non-commercial level? Surely they all lived somewhere hidden in the hills…

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“Turn around. It’s another one. “

Looking ahead we could see this was another army base, small but ubiquitous this close to the Myanmar border.  Nick had had the cunning idea of using google’s satellite imagery to try and pin point some extra small villages on the map. Unfortunately for many of the hill tribes, the Thai government has tried to relocate them from the hills, where they go about their traditional ways of life, to near roads.  Something about border control and security. Still, it gave us the chance of finding an authentic group, or so we thought. This was the third army base we had mistaken for a village on the map, and we only had one more place to check out…

“What now?”

We arrived on our roaring bike to stares of disbelief, or bewilderment, or perhaps a mix of the two. Entering the village there were perhaps 5 houses on either side, and one at the end. So, casually pretending we were just passing through wasn’t going to wash with them. Enclosed in their horse shoe village, we conspicuously dismounted the bike, looking around for a guise – maybe that old, “Let’s sit in a cafe and have a cup of tea” defence. Scanning from left to right, there was no cafe, not even a plastic table and chairs set up outside someone’s house as we had come across so many times before. There were people, and pigs. And maybe a few chickens.

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“Sawadee kaaaa”

We saluted the suspicious faces with the Thai “Waa” (hands together in prayer position, and a bowing of the head to show respect). Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Hill tribes have their own customs and language; had we been in any doubt, this confirmed that we were now looking at one.

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Unsure what to do next, we latched onto the kids. Even though they were shy, they seemed happy to entertain these strange people who had just invaded their village. The elder people were more cautious, although not unfriendly.  Obviously us turning up uninvited was probably quite bizarre for them, and with a communication barrier the size of the ocean between our respective lands, we weren’t able to convey anything about why we were there. Indeed, why were we there? I suppose were curious about a more minimalistic way of life and keen to understand what life was like for hill tribes in a society either trying to change or marginalise them. However, being there actually felt intrusive.

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Feeling like we should move on, we took a quick walk up the road first. Here we got a clue as to what these people hold dear and what they don’t. There a concrete building stood, with smashed windows, quite obviously abandoned. Venturing inside we found walls painted with colourful pictures, each next to the relevant word…in English. Whoever had opened this school, had seemingly tried, and failed, to introduce Western schooling to these people. As we so often do in our society, we assume that our ways are the best ways, not considering the fact that other societies live by a different set of ideals, perhaps contented to continue as they are.

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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 – 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 – Welcome to Hpa-an

Na-na na-na na-na na-na BAT CAVES!!

(Written by Steph)

Nick and I love to ride. Ok, so let’s clear that up – Nick likes to ride, I like to be a passenger, and how better than with a motor? No exertion required. Perfect.

We had been in Nepal for 6 weeks before arriving in Myanmar, and the petrol crisis had meant that we had accrued a total of about 30km by bike. Hashtag, firstworldproblems.

As Nick wrote, our preconceptions of Myanmar were largely based on the internet, and a couple of my mum’s friends who have been going there for years. But this is a country on the move; no sooner is information posted, it changes. So we really weren’t sure how much we were going to be able to ride bikes here.
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We needn’t have worried. Our guesthouse hosts were only too happy to rent us a bike. Nick has a licence, but even if it were me that wanted one, I don’t think it would have been a problem. We hadn’t much idea about this town, it was just on the route, but our guesthouse owner was ready with a map of the sites and some broken English. Caves seemed to be the big thing here. We would explore by bike the next day.

The next day came and it was baking, but we soon discovered relief in the lush, foresty shade. I often dream of living in a wooden hut in the forest, and here people were, doing exactly that. A whole forest community, smiling and waving, welcoming us to their country. We were off to a good start.

Now, my idea of a cave, is a huge stone entrance that’s dark and wet inside. I was half right. This cave had bats – noisy ones. It also had giant buddhas. And so the theme would continue.
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The Buddhists really like their Buddha statues, and this cave had quite a few ginormous ones inside, but this was not my favourite thing. Tiptoeing through the cave with our head torches, we felt like we were intrepid adventurers. I was none too convincing as I squealed everytime a bat flew overhead.

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Out the other side we hopped on a row boat to take us back to the entrance, ducking our heads as we passed through the underneath of the cave. “Crocodiles?” we asked him jokingly. He looked puzzled, so I whacked out my charades skills. He smiled and nodded his head, the same way everything that is not understood is reacted to here. We would assume he wasn’t aware of the international mime for big jaw snapper.

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We had had an amazing day chipping about on the bike, and had even gone swimming in an outdoor pool we happened upon on the way home. Loads of kids were swimming, and one asked me to come in. I’ve got no swimming clothes, I thought. Not that that matters in a country like this. Everyone goes swimming in their day clothes and lets the sun do what it’s best at afterwards. Including us. Apart from humiliating myself with the world’s longest build up to an underwater handstand (which was more of a roly poly in the end), it was the perfect end to a sticky day.

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“One day. Only one cave?” Our guesthouse owner seemed confused by our obvious lack of speed. There were two other caves on the map, as well as a sunset spot, where you could see the bats come out at night. We would be more efficient with our time the next day, we thought.

Day two:

The following day came and we were determined to tick off some more caves to save us from the quizzical look of our guesthouse owner. We set off with a drawn map, and some vague idea of how to say one of the names of the caves. At least that’s what we thought. Our pronunciation was obviously lacking in finesse, and we were still discovering what we should have already known – people just don’t speak English here (there was to be the very odd exception to this, but that comes later). So, out came the charades again. “Bat” and “cave” being somewhat more advanced than “crocodile,” it took a while. But, eventually we made it to the caves, and to the Buddhas.

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We were joined by a huge swarm of young monks, doing what you imagine all young monks to do – take selfies with the buddhas, duh. It was not long before they turned their attention on us. Here we were, serial photographers, having the tables turned. It was to be the first of many times we were treated like celebrities, and a reminder that this was a country where tourism was still very, very new.

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After seeing the sum of two bat caves in the daytime (a 50% increase on yesterday’s total), we decided we should explore some of the foresty villages that surrounded us. More than monuments or statues, I loved meeting the people. And the people here were just incredible. We stopped off for a tea at the side of the forest (much harder to get here than I imagined!) and were then lured in by the mystery of the network of houses there. If the people of Hpa-an hadn’t seen that many tourists before, they certainly hadn’t seen any brazen enough to walk right into their shaded sanctuary. Feeling slightly obtrusive, we weren’t exactly sure how people would react, but we needn’t have worried.

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After happening upon a full size snooker table in the middle of the forest (they really love this sport!) we had a communal place where we didn’t feel like we were encroaching upon their space. We had no means of communicating verbally, but we laughed and played with a boy – equally ecstatic and nervous that these alien people were by his house, and his grandmother brought us drinks and snacks, refusing to take any money. She even wanted to take us on a tour of her house, but we had to go – the third bat cave that day awaited us.

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Now, this last cave was not one we were going to go in. This was a one way system, and at this time, there were due to be lots of bats, coming OUT. I don’t know how many I expected to see, but nothing could prepare me for the sheer amount that suddenly started swarming out. It was quite incredible! Painting a wavy path across the dusky sky, a continuous stream of black, tens of thousands of them exited for what must have been near half an hour. Buddha only knows how they all fit in one cave. All I can say is, as a Brit, and lover of organised queues, these bats were really quite something.

NEPAL – 8 Things you’ll have to get over as a westerner in Nepal

I’m a legal alien, I’m an English girl in Nepal…

(Written by Steph)

1)The spitting

Now, we aren’t talking about your regular mouth-spit here. This is a full-on, collecting every inch of phlem from the back of the throat, kind. If you’ve ever been to Spain, and heard the way they pronounce their Js (the jota), you’ll catch my drift. I’ve coined this kind of spitting the “Jota Spit,” and it happens everywhere in Nepal – on the streets, in guest houses, even in restaurants, juuuust as you are about to put that tasty morsel into your mouth. It’s worth being aware of in case you need to jump out of the path of the spit’s trajectory suddenly.

To start with, this habit may go against everything you know about “manners,” and it may even put you off your food momentarily. The thing is, you’ll notice that when anyone spits here, none of the locals take a blind bit of notice – it’s something that is considered normal here, and not in the least bit rude. The Nepalese people simply adhear to another set of norms. They may be similarly revolted to be offered something from your left hand!!

2) The Traffic

Whether you are a pedestrian, a cyclist or a passenger, you may not have encountered travelling quite like it in your home town. You know that story in the Bible about fitting a Camel through the eye of a needle? Kathmandu is full of opportune drivers and cyclists trying to do the same with their vehicles, and if your toes are in their way, you better move! Much like Delhi, for example, the lanes of traffic all overtake each other to the soundtrack of beeping horns, quite often venturing onto the other side of the road, and almost always without indicating. In fact, indicating could be a sign that it is ok for the person behind you to overtake. Confusing?  Never! 

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Face masks are worn by vast amounts of people in Thamel, Kathmandu, said to be one of the most polluted cities in the world

I had enough trouble keeping my tootsies in tact, but I did note a number of westerners getting on their bikes (push and motor) and giving it a go.  Why not?  If you do want to, be sure to get into the mind set – all the rules that you hold dear in your own country (unless you live in Italy, for example) will mean little, if nothing, here.

When you venture out of the city, it will certainly be much less hectic and there will be much less traffic to negotiate. You may also be able to breathe!  Hurrah! However, just be aware that drivers don’t only cross to the wrong side of the road in busy cities – this happens a lot on windy roads in mountain areas.  Use your horn on every corner. On our 7 hour bus ride back from Dunche, we witnessed two collisions that looked like they were down to this.

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A collision in the mountains

3) The Toilets

If you are staying in Thamel (tourist hub in Kathmandu), or Pokhara (home of the Annapurna trek) you will likely be well catered for as a westerner, and will have Western toilets to match. The rest could be a bit hit and miss. On our trek to Gosaikunda Lake, we only had one Western toilet on the way, but we were mega chuffed with this find to be honest.

As for the drop toilets, we had some clean ones, and a few you wouldn’t send your worst enemy into. I even got sent into one extremely questionable one that had no light…and a step in it. As I closed the door behind me, I prayed for my life that I didn’t slip or trip!

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A typical squat toilet. Thankfully the actual toilet was cleaner than the walls

I would advise taking the following –

a) toilet paper – the Nepalese have a different system involving water and their left hand.

b) flip flops/shoes that slide on and off – we didn’t take any on our trek, and it got pretty annoying lacing up shoes everytime we wanted a wee. Believe me, you’ll want something between that floor and your feet!

c) antibacterial gel – if you are worried about germs, carry some with you.  Not all of the toilets have soap and some of the door handles etc might be contaminated.

Another tip is to get used to squatting before you travel – maybe do some achilles stretches so that when it comes to the “real deal,” you don’t feel like you might fall in the toilet!

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4) The Hard Sell

“Namaste. Where are you from?”

To our unfamiliar tourist ears, this seems like a friendly and innocent enough question. When followed by one hundred “come into my shop”s, it can wear a bit thin. Now, I’m the first one to admit that I am a difficult person, ahem, shopper. If someone wants to stand over me while I’m looking at their wares, I’m inclined just to walk out of the shop. I’ve  been inclined to walk out of a few shops in Nepal.

The running commentary on things you might be looking at is another thing you have to get used to. Nick and I had fun trying to discuss whether a blue or a yellow Tibetan wall hanging would go better with the things we already have to decorate our house, whilst trying to ignore the persistent chirping of, “Blue nice colour,” and, “Yellow also nice colour.” Such nice colours, the shop keeper got to keep them both.

People may also tell you that things are “No problem,” when, actually, you have assessed that they are – like a stain on a piece of clothing or something not fitting. There’s nothing that winds me up quite as much as being told what I should think.

Having said that, and bearing in mind that I am just a grumpy old man in a 34 year old woman’s body, I appreciate that this is the way of selling here, and possibly desperate times call for even more desperate selling techniques. It didn’t work on me; I definitely would have loved to put more money into the shops if I could have done it with a bit more peace, but lots of (more patient) people seem to go for it. It’s worth noting that not all of the shop owners were like this. I did actually go into a couple of shops, coming away with a book, some postcards and some clothes that had no stains, that fit me, and that I had assessed to be “No problem.”

If you like to barter, there is certainly a bit of room for that, but if you’re like me and prefer to know what’s what before you buy, there are the occasional shops that have “fixed prices.” Here you can browse with no more than a “Namaste,” a smile and a pair of eyes. Bliss.

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A rare moment of browsing with no observation

5) Being hassled on the street

Leading on from no. 4, shop keepers aren’t the only ones that will try and speak to you on the streets. Taxi drivers, drug dealers & fruit sellers are the ones you can see coming, and you can decide for yourself whether you want something or not. They aren’t pushy.

However, you’d be forgiven for thinking that lots of random people are just really curious about your plans for your trip. Starting with the same opener of “Namaste.  Where are you from?” The conversation almost always leads to asking if you are going trekking. Sadly, every second person here seems to be a trekking guide, and probably because of the time we have come, only 5 months after the earthquakes, there are very few trekkers. I felt bad about that, but we had limited time, and if we had gone trekking with everyone that tried to sell us their services on the street, we would never have been able to leave the country!

6) The food

If you don’t like spicy, you may be excited to see Western options on the menu. Beware, however – things are not always as they seem. Hash browns may be fried potatoes, sausage may be chicken, jam may be neon in colour and taste like cherry cola bottles and pizza may be like rubber. It even took us a while to figure out that curry in the hills is not like the home style curry that our Nepalese friends in England make; it’s more like a watery soup. The best thing to do is to either order the type of food you think they will be good at in a particular restaurant, or if you want something Western, get recommendations where they do it well. We did both and had a few successes in the end:

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A lovely Samosa Chaat we found on the streets of Thamel

Kathmandu:

Buddha Bar – the buffalo momo here (a bit like dim sum) are amazing. You can have steamed, fried on one side (my fav), deep fried or in a spicy soup (Nick’s fav). This is also a pretty modern bar, with funky decor and chilled out music

Momo Star – a basic cafe. We had some lovely chicken momo here at a quite cheap price.

Al Madina – if you like meat curry, this is the place! It’s a basic muslim cafe, so you won’t get much atmosphere or any beer, but you will get amazing food! Someone recommended us the fried chicken. I expected a KFC type deal, but got an amazing dish – dry and spicy with lots of ginger and tons of zing! The lamb kebabs were also scrummy. If you are vegetarian, or you don’t like spice, this is not the place for you. Otherwise, you’ll love it.

Maya bar and Restaurant – amazing Mexican food, albeit at Western prices.

Pokhara:

Maya Pub (not bar & restaurant) A popular name! – Indian style curry. Tourist prices,  but well worth it. We paid them 2 visits (would have been more if we had had more time!) and we ordered Saag Paneer (blended spinach curry with Indian cottage cheese), Kadai Chicken (a fairly spicy curry) and Chicken Butter Masala. All “meeto cha” (delicious) as they here in Nepal.

Double View – small and simple place. We went here more because we wanted to enjoy the terrace view than because we were tempted by the cuisine. We were pleasantly surprised by their English breakfast, though – it was actually pretty good! The bacon was real bacon (!) and was nice and crispy, the mushrooms were lovely, the hashbrown did actually resemble something of a hashbrown, and they were the first place to serve English breakfast with beans! It won’t be the most amazing cooked breakfast you’ve ever had, but considering we are in Nepal, it was a damn good imitation!

Godfathers – pizza place. Now, think of everything I have said about not being able to get Western food that tastes good here, and then forget it!! This was one of the nicest pizzas I’ve had outside of Italy…and it even beats a couple of those!  Cooked using a wood burning oven, this pizza was thin and crispy and full of flavour!  Highly recommend!

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No pictures of their food, but this is the outside of Al Madina, where we had many tasty meals

7)The dogs

“It’s coming at us again – quick! Grab a rock!”

Never a sentence I thought I’d hear myself say. I love most animals…as long as they aren’t trying to tear my arm off.

However, dog lover, hater or indifferent, you are going to have to get used to the fact that dogs here are different. Rarely kept as pets, the vast majority of dogs here are strays. Like the Mafia, they have their own set of rules, and as amicable as they may appear on the surface, they are to be approached with caution. Generally they sleep through the day, when the humans rule the roost, but come dusk, they start trotting about in packs, marking their territory, and defending it. We were unfortunate enough to witness a couple of terrifying dog fights between packs. In one case, we were far enough away to be able to avoid them, although it scared the royal crap out of me; the other fight happened right in front of our path. Luckily for us, but not for the dogs, there were some kids throwing stones at them to try and break it up. I don’t think they actually hit the dogs, but they certainly weren’t afraid to. It was right on their doorstep and something they have to deal with daily. A friend of ours was also bitten by a wild dog in Nepal and ended up in hospital with a few extra rabies shots. She’s fine FYI.

That’s not to say that all the dogs we met were aggressive.

“Ahh, look – he’s following us!”

One particular dog in the mountains was a complete softy, following us for ages. These dogs aren’t stupid. You might be flattered, thinking that the dog has taken a shine to you. Actually, this happens a lot with foreigners. The people most likely to give scraps of food are exactly that group, and the dogs know it. I’ve heard of dogs following foreigners for hours, even days. If you give them any attention, they are unlikely to leave you alone, so this is best avoided. This particular dog seemed very friendly and as he was outside of an area with other dogs, was likely of a more placid nature than other dogs.

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A street dog in pretty good nick. Most had patches of skin missing and various scars from fighting

8) Guilt

A small and dirty child with a sad face and outstretched arms walks up to you as you sit down for a lavish meal and a beer. What do you do? At first it seems obvious, right?  You give them something, RIGHT?! Or is that actually the right thing to do..?

Their parents have likely sent them out begging because people are a sucker for children, and while that child is successful at bringing something home for the family, those parents will continue to send them out being instead of sending them to school. It’s a dilemma I was faced with many times in Nepal, and one that really bothered me. In Western culture, basic schooling is a necessity if you want opportunites.

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This young boy works as a bottle collecter. Because of his caste, schooling or no schooling, he may not be allowed to escape this trade

However, I’ve read enough books about slums in India to know that school doesn’t equal opportunity for everyone.  Maybe begging is survival, and who can argue with that? It’s what we are all programmed to do, afterall. Having to confront those issues & make decisions with no background information was hard. The times when I didn’t give anything, I felt harsh and undeservedly spoiled.

The hardest thing, though, was the realisation that I am part of the “one percent” – the richest people in the world.  That was something that felt alien to me, always having been surrounded by other westerners with varying, but similar incomes. I wondered how those people with nothing viewed me and the other tourists, and how it felt for them being confronted with other people’s wealth and privilege. It was uncomfortable, but I guess that’s a first world problem I had to get over as a westerner in Nepal.