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INDONESIA – Hanging with orangutans in Bukit Lawang

Welcome to the jungle…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

“Welcome to the Jungle, eh.”

It was a phrase we were to hear repeatedly over the next three days, along with “lovely jubbly”, “easy peasy lemon squeezy” and “owight maaay” (think cockney impersonations). It appeared we weren’t the first tourists here. In fact, one of our guides, Bobby, had been doing this for 15 years.

My first encounter with an orangutan was not in the wild, but rather in a zoo in Spain. I can’t remember how old I was, but my elder sister was being passed off as under 12 by my mother, who only wanted to pay a child ticket for her. My mother, the serial age deceiver: honest to the core…except when it comes to child fares. It must be why I always think I’m younger than I actually am. Anyway, back to the orangutans. Holed up in a large (but not nearly large enough) wire cage, a small baby had poked its head between the bars and got it lodged there. The mother was frantically trying to free her baby by pulling its legs, but this only caused the baby to scream in distress. Eventually the mother was shot with a tranquiliser gun until the baby could be freed, but the whole thing made a huge impression on me. I wanted orangutans to be free and I wanted to see them in the wild.

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In 1973 two Swiss zoologists, Regina Frey and Monica Boerner, came to Indonesia to rescue orangutans that people had kept as domestic pets. A law was passed banning this kind of activity, but what of the animals already raised in captivity? Regina and Monica opened up a rehabilitation centre where the animals stayed before releasing them back into the jungle – the jungle of Bukit Lawang. Fast forward however many years, and we were here to see these awesome beasts in their home territory…and definitely on their terms.

We had only been climbing, albeit it steeply, for about 10 minutes when we came across a mass of tourists. More than we had seen the entire time being here anyway. The object of their affection was a semi-wild orangutan, who had thoughtfully come down to visit them. I was happy enough to watch from a distance, not wanting to crowd her or feed her unnecessarily. Some of the guides had given fruit to their guests to feed her so she would come close, but the point was to try and keep them as wild as possible, so I was glad when our guides said they didn’t  feed the orangutans unless absolutely necessary. It wouldn’t be long before we found out what they meant…

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With a reputation that preceeded her, Mina, the oldest of the semi-wild orangutans, was one to watch out for. Many a guide carried the mark of her teeth on their bodies through one altercation or another. The story goes that one of her babies disappeared in the wild and since then she has been very aggressive towards humans. Face of a mafiosa, when we saw it, there was no mistaking it was her. She had positioned herself in the middle of a small clearing. Some tourists had passed by her and were on the far side. We were approaching on the other. I could see how uneasy she was about being surrounded, but there was no doubt about who would come out on top if it came down to it. As we tried to creep past, she started to come towards us. The guides were taking no chances; they pulled out some bananas, which they passed to her from as far away as physically possible, as we slipped away.

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After a slow but arduous climb and equally steep decent, we reached camp. Here we were met by Rahim, our jungle chef. Hungry and tired, we wolfed down the amazing selection of food cooked for us. How on earth did he manage to get all the supplies here to the middle of the jungle, we wondered. “Short cut.” Looking at the phone’s GPS, we could see we were suprisingly near where we started our trek. Seems we had been taking the scenic route, but we certainly weren’t in the middle of the jungle. We hung out our stinky wet clothes and tucked ourselves into bed, drifting off to the sounds of nature.

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“Mr Ant.”

The next morning we were unsurprised to find that our clothes were still soaking wet and just as smelly as we remembered. Reminding ourselves we would be just as wet within about 10 minutes of hiking, we forced ourselves into the same clothes as the previous day and set off on what seemed to be an even steeper path through the jungle.

Maybe it was that the hike was harder today, or maybe just that we didn’t see any animals, so we had no reason to stop, but we were feeling it. This was especially true of the girl of the couple we were with, Mylan. Afraid of insects and struggling with the ascent, she was certainly not in her element. Nick, on the other hand, was absolutely loving the insects, particularly the ants. The day before he had actually missed the entire approach, hangout, and disappearance of several orangutans, because he was taking photos of ants. It was on this day that he received his nickname, “Mr Ant.”

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“Keep moving, keep moving.”

We were nearing our camp for the second night, resigned to the fact that we would not see any animals that day (bar the ants), when we saw a flash of orange up ahead. I checked to make sure Nick hadn’t gone ahead. No, it wasn’t his beard; it was pure orangutan and it was headed our way. In fact, as the orange got closer, we saw there were three of them – the mother was Jackie and she was accompanied by one large baby and one tiny one.

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This was the moment we had been waiting for all day, but the guides seemed intent on moving along quickly. Hang on a minute, we thought. We hadn’t seen any animals all day, and here we were being rushed away from these three. Jackie landed and Heri, one of our guides, went to distract her so we could pass. Reluctantly, we kept moving, but the Canadian couple hung back to take a photo just a few seconds longer. Before we knew it, Jackie was on the path with me and Nick ahead, the Canadian couple behind. As Mylan tried to walk past, Jackie’s hand was already firmly around her wrist. Ha.

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So, what to do now? Jackie wasn’t aggressive, but she knew what she was doing, and that certainly didn’t involve letting go. As we continued along the most difficult part of the path yet, Mylan was led by Jackie, who at times, politely signalled her to go first. Unable to free Jackie’s firm grip, she did as she was told, although trying to keep at an orangutan’s pace through the jungle was no mean feat. Hurried along the path, we reached a flat bit of land and Nick, Mylan’s boyfriend and I were instructed to carry on the path out of sight. Selfish as we both knew it was, we admitted how much we would have liked to be the one being latched onto by Jackie. However, the reality is, this kind of contact passes bacteria between the two and can be very harmful for both human and animal.

Finally Mylan caught up with us, Heri the guide still out of sight. As Heri had passed her some sugar cane, he had managed to distract her enough to prise Mylan’s arm free and tell her to leg it (probably followed by “take your time – you’re on holiday”). Jackie had got what she wanted all along. Mylan was her hostage and sugar cane her ransom.

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Take your time, hurry up, choice is yours, don’t be late…

If I didn’t know better, I’d have said that it was not Kurt Cobain, rather our other guide Heri that had written this. The next morning Nick and I opted for a couple of hours trek before meeting the other guys, obviously out-jungled, at a waterfall.

“We’ll have to leave at 8am,” Heri decided.

By 7.55am we had shoes on and were raring to go. No sign of Heri. At 9am I found he had returned and was, surprise surprise, smoking a fag in the kitchen.

We had been waiting for him for an hour, but we bit our tongues at his suggestion that we should “take our time, relax, no worries, you’re on holiday.”

We hadn’t been walking long when we came across a big group of long tail macaques. Good news. This was why we were hiking after all – to experience the animals in their natural habitat. Naturally we stopped to take pictures.

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“Ready? Are you ready? Mr Aaannt..?”

Nick had no sooner got his camera out than Heri was rushing us on. Fags were obviously higher up the food chain than monkeys. We made the decision there and then to skip the trek and instead opted to stay and watch the monkeys, Heri’s incessant chatter about relaxing bubbling away in the background.

We watched them for a good half an hour, the dynamics of each group giving new interest: two tiny babies wrestling in the trees, tumbling down and crashing into a preening session, whilst close by the alpha male did his best for procreaction, although his best was a few seconds at most.

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Even when we got back to camp, the fun was not yet over. We had one important part of the journey left – rafting on the river to get back! It was a fitting end to an unforgettable three days.

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INDONESIA – Back to Nature in the Sumatran Rainforest

River deep, mountain high, yeah, yeah, yeah…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

“You do know you have to cross the river TWICE, don’t you?”

He was about the third person to say this to us, and we were starting to wonder if this really was a line to get us to stay in their own guesthouse or if crossing the river was actually as dramatic as they made it sound. Either way, Nick was determined that we go to the furthest away guesthouse from the bus stop. So far away that the last hour had to be walked along side the river. The river that you had to cross…dun dun duhhh…TWICE.

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We had emailed the guesthouse with the normal amount of warning that could be expected from us contrary Marys – all of a few hours. Needless to say, we hadn’t received a reply.

“It’s ok – they’re my friends. I’m going that way anyway.”

A local not only lent us his phone, but also offered to accompany us. For free..? Apparently so. We were waiting for Jeremy Beadle to jump out of the bushes shouting, “Fooled you!” but that moment never came. Laos, where no one does something for nothing, had obviously made us cynical. How refreshing to be on the end of genuine hospitality, and this was only our second day in Indonesia.

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We weaved our way along the river until the path abruptly stopped. Aha. This would be the first crossing then.  Shallow, but wider than we had first imagined, we shuffled across the fast flowing water, trying our best to avoid the slippery stones and maintain our balance with our big bags. It was fun, but nothing we couldn’t handle – we watch Bear Grylls, doncha know.

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Arriving at Back to Nature, I was most put out. It was amazing, and that meant I would be having hat for dinner again. When we hadn’t got a reply from the guesthouse, I had wanted to grab a spot nearer the town. All the guesthouses overlooked the river and had looked pretty good to me, but Back to Nature was something else. It really was right in the jungle. No WiFi, no toilet paper (apparently this is a leading cause of deforestation – up there with palm oil) and owned by a man kean on taking the protection of the severely threatened rainforest seriously. It was just where we wanted to be, and we weren’t the only ones…

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“Where are all the other guests?” we wondered. There were only four rooms, but no one was around. Probably out trekking, as was the thing to do here. Sitting down to a ‘jungle tea’ (delicious!), we were joined by a dude who, based on his haircut, was into punk. His name was Thomas, and he was a Thomas monkey. Cool as a cucumber with a mohawk, Thomas came and sat on the table, turned his back on us…and weed. Thanks for that hearty welcome, Thomas.

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“She is sad because she can’t cross the river.”

That first day we also saw a couple of orangutans across the river in the jungle. One of them had apparently slept on the sofas of Back to Nature for a while, but had been moved across the other side for her safety and to prevent her relying on humans. Even though that was a while ago, the orangutan could still be spotted trying to work out a way across the river. Ahh, how sentimental, I thought. Turns out there are good fruit trees on our side of the river. Motivated by food, it was easy to see that we share 96% of the same DNA.

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We did two treks that took us further into the jungle while in Bukit Lawang, but without moving anywhere, we saw so many animals – large groups of macque monkeys, 3 Thomas monkeys, 2 orangutans, a hornbill bird, massive black bees, a multitude of different butterflies, and some very hard to spot gibbons. Oh, and a few cockroaches. Where was my bottle of hairspray when I needed it? Unable to blow torch them like the good ol days, I set Nick on them. Turns out that he is an awesome cockroach killer. They do say that travelling gives you important life skills.

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As well as getting to know the animals here, one of the most fascinating things was getting to know the people. Each one of the workers did so for free, only wanting experience and a roof over their head, and each one of them had an incredible story – leaving home at 11, living on the streets of Medan, busking for a living and getting in fights with the mafia who were trying to get a cut of their earnings, living and surviving in the jungle for 6 months…each of these guys were only 23. What a different life they had led. All at once I was amazed by their survival, admiring of their lack of want, and envious of their simple life.

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Every evening we all came together to jam. They sang and played like it was an ourpouring of their souls, and I was hypnotised every time. What, I wondered, would it be like to be near the jungle everyday, to spend the days carving, painting, playing music. Then again, would that really be enough for our digital brains? Would we tire of the peace and quiet eventually? Would we manage to survive the jungle if it came down to it? The thing we would likely struggle with most would be the river.

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After returning from our survival trek in torrential rain, which didn’t pause for a full day and night, the river had doubled in height and width. The once clear and mildly white-water was now a raging torrent of opaque brown. Not a raft on the waters was to be seen.

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“Too dangerous”

What about crossing the river…TWICE? The capital letters were now warranted. A German couple we had befriended had a flight to catch and we were also planning on leaving.

“Too dangerous,” they said.

Now I had seen the locals in the river in the deep parts with the strong current, and they rocked it. Even the littlest of the dudes could handle it, so if they said it was too dangerous, it was too dangerous. What if it didn’t stop raining?  Hundreds of streams ran into the river, making it quite easy for the water level to increase dramatically. They had experienced major flooding on more than one occasion.

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Tara honing his carving skills. He also had the most amazing voice and sang us all Pearl Jam songs.

Luckily, as you have probably guessed, we did get out alive. The rain stopped and the river level dropped, although the flood took out one of the bridges and the river was still fierce. But we got by…with a lot of help from our Indonesian friends.

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The Floods:

The most dramatic flood happened in 2003, when logs falling in the river had caused a kind of dam. The water built up and up and up…until the dam broke and all that water burst out like a giant wall. Suria, one of the guys working there, told me about his experience of it. Their only option was to run away as fast as they could. They couldn’t run up the steep slopes that border the river as the river was already higher than them, and there was no time.  He was only 10 years old as he watched houses and people alike swept away by the river. Around 1,400 people lost their homes and 239 people died in that flood.

INDONESIA – Arrival and impressions

Da-da da-da do da-da do da-da, said I love your smile…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

“What do you mean you don’t have a return ticket?” the man said with exaggerated surprise in his voice.

So I might have read that one of the Indonesian visa-on-arrival stipulations is that you must have a return flight. However, I had also read this about other countries and we hadn’t, thus far, encountered any problems.

The truth was that didn’t know where we were going to fly to next, and we also wanted to see if we liked the country before deciding exactly how long we would stay. That thing about honesty being the best policy did us no good here.

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“But you need a return flight.”

“Unfortunately we don’t have one.”

It was a game of ping pong that was likely to continue until suspended by the slip of a note being pushed across the table. A note with dollar signs on it. We had been warned by some other tourists that Indonesia was about as corrupt as it gets, only to have this confirmed by a German sat next to us in the waiting room for people pulled aside at border control.

He didn’t have a ticket, because he wanted to take a boat to Singapore – one that you had to book in Indonesia. As he had been in Indonesia before, he knew the drill and was ready with a little bribery money. Appearing from his turn in the office, he signalled we would be ok if we did the same. The thing was, we didn’t have any money on us. Absolutely nada.

As the conversation with the official progressed in a loop-de-loop, Nick started to utter something about an ATM. I stopped him with a hand on his arm, sensing a hesitation in the official.

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“Ok, I make an exception.”

As soon as he knew we had no money on our person, he obviously realised the futility in keeping us there. Sometimes having no money does pay.

So we had got through our first experience of bribery unscathed, but what would the rest of the country hold, we wondered. The three of us hopped in a taxi come mini bus for roughly 2 quid each and headed to Medan. There we would stay for the night before pressing on to Bukit Lawang in the hope of seeing orangutans.

The number 64 bus from our guesthouse in the Masjid Raya area to the Penang Baris bus station was just as cheap at about 35p each, and we marvelled at the ease of it. But nothing lasts forever, as they say…

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As we got off the local bus that took us to the bus station, we were immediately surrounded by a group trying to take our bags and load them aboard their mini van.

“How much?”

Not a popular question with these people. After we bartered them down to half what they quoted us, but still 2 and a half times the local price, they demanded that we pay the driver. It seemed that the 5 of them, though they had done nothing to get our business, wanted their commission. We had read that the 3 hour journey to Bukit Lawang should cost no more than a pound each. We also read that you should, under no circumstances, pay before you arrive. Their shifty demeanour and unfriendly demands did nothing to gain our trust. Sticking to our guns, refusal to pay upfront ended with us disembarking the bus and 5 touts and one driver with empty pockets.

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Five minutes later we boarded a different bus, and a similar debate ensued, only this time we had already been driving for 10 minutes. At this stage, Nick was getting quite irrate, determined that the driver know we knew the real price and that we had been warned to only pay on arrival. Suddenly the van stopped and our door opened. We were about to be thrown off again. But Nick was not backing down. Before I knew it, he was out of the van and squaring up to the driver. Fearing a game of fisticuffs was about to ensue, it was time to intervene.

“Right, we’ll pay you the 50,000R each (£2.50) but we will only pay when we arrive. Yes or no?”

The driver mumbled something.

“YES OR NO?!” I barked.

I got a reluctant “yes” before the two boys’ complaints subsided and we continued in silence. It wasn’t a great start to the day, but we had been warned that we might come against some hostility. Fortunately, this was our first…and last…negative experience of the place. Okay, bar the beyond basic room we stayed in, furnished only with a bed and a couple of cockroaches.

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The thing that struck us most was not these experiences, but the local people. Arriving in a Muslim country, I had done my best to be mindful of this and had covered my arms and legs, but I was still unsure how we would be received. The answer to that was in the Mexican wave of smiles that burst into life as we passed by, punctuated by the odd wave or thumbs up. Walking around the streets of Medan on our one night there, we ended up in a local cafe serving a sweet nutty sauce that you dip fruit in. We laughed and joked as we tried to converse. Everybody in that street cafe was warm and genuine.

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Moving on to find something savoury to eat, we were stopped by a group of twenty somethings, eager to practise English and tell us about their country. Kids smiled and giggled when you looked at them, and we wondered how few tourists must go through there that we were still such a novelty. Or maybe, Medan being a big and ugly city, tourists just didn’t wander about too much. Either way, we both felt strongly reminded of our beloved India and in this way, quickly connected to this new land.

Notes for tourists:

From the airport to Medan, trains are expensive (about 100,000r, which is £5 or 7.50 USD). We paid 120,000r (£6 or 9 USD) for a taxi between 3 of us, but we had to barter down from 150,000r. The journey takes about 45mins to an hour.

Accommodation is VERY basic in town. Cold Water is the norm, some rooms don’t have a shower, toilets are bucket flush, you might get a cockroach. BUT, they are super cheap. The cheapest ones are right by the mosque, which looks pretty, but believe me, it’s LOUD. At 5.30 in the morning when the call to prayer starts, you definitely know about it. We paid 700,000r for a double room (£3.50 or 4.75 USD). Get a fan – it’s HOT! The one plus was that the mattress was actually soft – a bonus after Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand! Our guesthouse was called Residence.

Turn left out of the front of the guesthouse and walk to the end of the road. When you meet the main road, cross to the other side and wait for the number 64 mini van going to Pinang Baris bus station. Give the driver money at the end (as do all the locals). We paid 7,500 each (about 35p or 50 cent).

Minivans from Pinang Baris to Bukit Lawang are privately owned, so you will need to barter. We read that you should only pay 20,000 each, but we paid 50,000r (£2.50 or 3.75 USD). It’s more than twice what the locals would pay, but we do earn more money, so I think that’s a fair price. I would reiterate what we read, which is not to pay any money upfront. Buses regularly break down (if this happens, you have to wait for the next mini van passing by to pick you up). You’ll be expected to pay for the amount you’ve travelled if so. If you’ve already paid, I doubt you’ll get a refund! Paying on arrival also ensures that you get taken to where you actually want to go. NB – the minivans stop about a couple of kms away from Bukit Lawang. From there you have to get a tuk tuk to the guesthouses.

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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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.