Some say Ngwe Saung… I say paradise

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I’m writing this from a swanky airport lounge in Doha; somehow Tania’s misadventures at the beginning of the holiday turning into an unexpected boon as we wile away 6 hours in relative comfort (or at least, with free food and unlimited Nespresso!) It’s a welcome place to reflect on what’s been a great break, and one that’s come to an end far too quickly. Don’t they always, though?

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Our last few nights in Burma were spent in Ngwe Saung, a sleepy but beautiful beachside resort for wealthy Yangonites (and the site of the sailing event at the much-advertised SEA games later this month). We arrived to the most perfect sunset yet, and raced to the sea to take photos before our bags had even been unloaded from the car. There are some moments you just can’t miss.

We had chosen Ngwe Saung after some last minute trouble near Ngapali Beach put us off, but it is a laborious 6 hour drive from Yangon. Still, the sea was blissfully warm, the seafood fresh and delicious, and we wished we had more than just two nights.

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Myanmar, Burma, has been a dream. It’s a world away still from Western life – no McDonalds or Starbucks, no sign of Western celebrity culture (except for one young girl in Bagan who was singing Justin Bieber – there is no escape!), men eschewing trousers for longyis, women painting their faces in pale patterns of thanaka and – probably most striking of all – everywhere pockets of monks going about their daily business… Some collecting alms, yes, but some playing on their iPads, straddling motorbikes through town or sitting in teashops. It’s hard to think of another place in the world where men and women of faith are so ubiquitous – except for at the Vatican, I’ve rarely seen a Catholic priest or nun mingling casually with the public.

Yet unlike in other places of extreme culture shock (in Dehli or Nairobi), I never felt uncomfortable in Burma, and rarely hassled. As always, making an effort to fit in with local customs helped, but the people were so friendly despite any fumbles we might have made along the way.

If I had basic tips to offer for travel in Burma, it’s:

1) Bring toilet paper and hand sanitiser with you everywhere, but if there’s a basket for the paper, use it!

2) Try local style of dress (longyis for men and women) at least once – they’re lightweight and comfortable and it’s much easier to chat with locals that way!

3) Follow all the trusted advice, but know that Burma is a country that is rapidly changing – they exchanged a rumpled and folded up US note of Lofty’s without question, ATMs were everywhere and basically all the Lonely Planet’s advice was out of date… But still worth bringing for the history.

4) Try to go with at least some idea of the context of the country’s history and people. The events are so recent – in the last 20 years and still ongoing, especially if you listen to the Moustache Brothers – and the scars are fresh just beneath the surface.

5) Don’t be put off by said aforementioned events – go! And independent travel is possible and even easy in most places.

Normal life and the run up to Christmas awaits… But what a journey it’s been. Goodbye Burma! I wonder what changes will have been wrought, next time I see you…

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Inle Lake, stilts and cool water

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Drifting across the inky black water in an oversized canoe, it’s all too easy to feel the real world is oh so far away. Inle Lake in Shan province is a world of its own, a community built on stilts and floating gardens, where kids get picked up from school in long paddle boats and traders sell their wares while simultaneously bailing water from their canoe.

We’ve got a stunning view of life on Inle lake from the Golden Island cottages, a slice of luxury on this otherwise budget trip. The best moments come from just observing the people – once out on a boat ourselves, I found Inle lost some of its charms.

As one of the most visited spots in Myanmar (and probably on every tourists’ itinerary!), Inle is something of a floating shopping mall, and our boat driver took us from lotus silk shop to cigar shop to boat-making shop to umbrella making shop to basket-weaving shop… You get the picture. Some of it is very interesting, but it gets less so when you realize that the same (lovely) silver knot bracelets they’re selling as ‘local’ are the same you bought to promote your book with. Hmm. Also, we’d done most of our souvenir shopping in Yangon, which is still the place to get the best quality and prices, it seems.

Still, once I’d firmly conveyed the words ‘no thank you’, there were many delights to be found. The village of Inthein was gorgeous, with its ancient ruined stupas and over 1000 new ones. The Jumping Cat monastery (can’t quite recall the Burmese name!) was also very cool, and different to anything else we’ve seen.

We stopped at a market (not the right day for the floating market, unfortunately) and while we weren’t tempted by any of the goods, we WERE tempted by the hot fresh doughnuts being cooked up by the entrance. At only 7p a pop, they were an awesome mid-morning snack! Plus, there was delicious Shan noodle soup, simple and comforting.

Retreating from the balcony of our little cottage-on-stilts to avoid the mosquitos, the sky opened out to a blanket of thousands of stars. Out here, there’s very little electricity or light pollution to mar the sky, and for that sight, it might be worth visiting all the lotus silk shops in the world.

(Pictures to come – Inle internet too slow!)

Temples, temples and more temples… Bagan, Myanmar

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The Road to Mandalay isn’t a road at all… It’s the Ayeyarwaddy river. (Line stolen from a Myanmar infomercial we watched on repeat!) In total, we spent 9.5 hours on the Ayeyarwaddy, travelling from Mandalay to Bagan. We sailed on the Malikha 2, which was actually quite relaxing, and I managed to fit in all my required reading for the holiday.

Bagan is probably the most anticipated part of this trip for me, the most photogenic collection of temples anywhere in the world. More than 2,000 temples dot the plain, which is lush and green after the summer rains. We stopped off for sunset photographs straight away on a lonely stupa (see previous blog photos!), avoiding the overcrowded Shwesandaw Paya. What a magical way to start!

We lucked out with an English-speaking taxi driver, so we wasted no time signing him up for a day trip. We picked Mt Popa, known as the ‘Mt Olympus of Burma’, and once I heard it was he home of ancient Burmese alchemists, I couldn’t resist! About an hour’s drive from Bagan, Mt Popa springs up out of the ground, an extinct volcano topped by a glittering gold pagoda and said to be the spiritual home of the ‘nats’, or Buddhist spirits. The volcano itself is also overrun by macaques – the pesky monkeys – some of which tried to steal Lofty’s lychee juice in quite a violent manner! A local fended the monkey off with a well placed slingshot.

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Our taxi driver then gave us a tour of some of the major Bagan highlights, including the stunning Ananda Pagoda. He, of course, found us another amazing abandoned pagoda for sunset – you just can’t beat it.

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As if sunsets weren’t enough, we got up this morning for sunrise! Adam and Tania sprung for the hot air balloon, while Lofty and I climbed the aforementioned Shwesandaw pagoda, which was still extremely busy, even at 5am! Still, it’s popular for a reason… The view was absolutely amazing.

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For the rest of the day, we rented bicycles and cycled the temples ourselves. Luckily, it wasn’t too hot, although the bikes were far from in the best nick. We had to stop for repairs, but luckily the locals are used to rescuing flat-tire ridden tourists. It was amazing just being able to cycle around at our own pace, finding hidden temples away from hawkers and other tourists. Some of it felt very Indiana Jones!

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The subject of food is never far from my mind, and so far, we’re still not disappointed. The vegetarian food in particular has been amazing, and we indulged in amazing guacamole and poppadoms at Be Kind to Animals the Moon restaurant in Old Bagan.

Ancient wonders, golden sunsets, long walks…

In his apartment in Yangon, our host Nick had a photo hanging on the wall of a silhouetted bridge against the backdrop of a blazing orange sunset. This was U Bein’s bridge, the highlight of almost any trip to Mandalay – ours included. We knew we had to get that magical shot for ourselves!

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The day started early, with a taxi ride to Mingun. I’d read a fair amount about the tourist boat, which arrives at 10am, so we set out to get there by 8.30am. This was definitely a good decision, as the drive was scenic, and when we arrived there were virtually no other visitors. Mingun would have been the site of the world’s largest pagoda, but it remains unfinished as an earthquake destroyed the foundations. What remains instead is a very atmospheric massive collection of bricks, and an enormous bell – the largest (uncracked) bell in existence.

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The drive back took us to Sagaing, which must have the most monks per square mike of anywhere in Myanmar! A major religious site, there are golden stupas dotted everywhere among the hills. A few highlights were the Umin Thounzeh complex, with 45 Buddhas in a crescent shape and Soon U Ponya Shin, where we had a great view of the surrounding area.

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Our driver spoke very little English (our fault for booking through the hotel as we met many English-speaking drivers throughout Mandalay, and so he refused to stop anywhere other than the pre-arranged places). That meant we had 4 hours to kill in Amarapura while we waited for sunset at the aforementioned U Bein’s bridge. We filled the time with an interesting lunch of tiny whole fish, deep-fried and staring at us with googly eyes, and deep fried sweet corn (something about deep fried food feels comfortably bug-killing), then took our time strolling across the rickety bridge. We stopped at a (pretty insulting!) fortune-teller for a laugh, and watched the daily comings and goings of the people on the bridge. We also posed for many photographs!

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Sunset came up quickly, and we didn’t expect the rush for the little boats! While most boats carried only 2 people, we crammed 6 in ours, as it was the last one available! Still, the boat was by far the best way to see the sunset, and we got some pretty spectacular pics of our own.

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Dinner was at a delicious vegetarian restaurant called Marie-min, then Lofty and I stopped for a Burmese massage. Lovely!

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For our last day in Mandalay, we took it easy – strolling to an old Buddha so covered in gold leaf that its body and features have become all lumpy, and then to a gorgeous teak monastery. Lofty and I wandered through the back streets of Mandalay, to the delight of school children everywhere, and stopped for tea in a local tea shop where they kept trying to feed us rice. The tea in Burma is made with thick condensed milk and is quite sweet, but a fun atmosphere. I always find the best part of any trip is just getting out and meeting the locals, and the Burmese people are always happy to have a chat, or to let us join in on their games.

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Tomorrow is an 11hr boat ride to Bagan. Wish us luck!

Golden rocks and Mandalay magic

Myanmar is changing at light speed. Guidebooks are essentially obsolete the moment they are printed. Advice given from visitors a month ago, no longer applies. Almost all the changes are pleasant, though, and show off Myanmar as a country adapting to the needs of its booming tourist industry. We’ve seen plenty of ATMs and even Visa/MasterCard signs, and some of the more hectic tourist trails have been smoothed into pretty slick operations. Maybe this is the country losing its rustic charm, but for flashpackers like us, it just makes the whole experience far more relaxed and enjoyable.

This was really evident at the wonderful Golden Rock pagoda, a few hours drive from Yangon. We stopped at a giant reclining Buddha and a monastery in Bago along the way, where we could see 3/400 monks lining up for lunch. It’s imperative that women don’t touch the monks – a fact that becomes important later! The peaceful atmosphere of the monks is shattered by the snapping of camera shutters. We arrived at 10.15 (guidebooks say lunch is at 10.30) but we had the place virtually to ourselves, and we enjoyed the gentle serenity. That all changed at 11 when dozens of (better informed) tour buses stopped by!

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From Bago, we drove to the base of the Golden rock mountain, where we were loaded onto a locals bus to take the trip up to the top. In this case – with two 6ft+ men squeezing onto tiny backless benches alongside 70 others on the back of a pick-up truck – it probably wasn’t the best idea. Worse, Tania and I were sandwiched between monks in front and monks behind, all desperately wriggling away from us. Oh dear.

The journey was then mostly harrowing switchbacks and a juddering engine, but it took us all the way up to the top (an hour and many sore legs/backs later). We had anticipated an hour long hike after the cramped bus, but fortunately the bus now travels further up he mountain so it was only a short distance to our hotel!

The one thing all the guidebooks and fellow travellers have gotten spot on is the friendliness of the people – I’m not sure I’ve ever had more welcoming service from our hotel, Mountain Top Hotel. From there it was only a 5 minute walk to the golden rock itself, although the journey took considerably longer due to the amazing photo opportunities at every turn!

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The Golden rock is a major pilgrimage site in Myanmar, an enormous rock covered in layers of gold leaf, which precariously balances on the mountainside on a strand of Buddha’s hair. We arrived around 4.30, which gave us plenty of opportunity to watch the sky around the rock blaze bright reds and oranges against a dramatic foreground of clouds. Adam and Lofty were able to apply a square of gold leaf to the rock itself (a privilege only offered to men), but it was a great experience all around.

The rest of the site lit up in technicolor strings of lights (not that dissimilar from one Niagara Falls – at least, that’s what we were reminded of!) as the sun went down. A pretty surreal sight.

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A 5.30am wake up call saw us watching the sun rise from our room. Why is it only when travelling that I can stand to get up so early?

The next day, we were able to have a goodbye meal with Nick, who has been our host in Yangon. We have absolutely no doubt that we would have missed out in so many local haunts if not for him – our last night in a delicious pizza restaurant, L’Opera, was proof of that! He’s witness first hand to the myriad changes in Myanmar since his posting started over a year ago, and it’s been fascinating getting to learn more.

Another early wake up call (why?!) was this time for our flight to Mandalay. Of course, this blog wouldn’t be complete without a Myanmar mishap – this time, one of our number was out for the count with a nasty stomach bug. Hand sanitiser necessary all the way!

Mandalay is a city of contrasts – more dusty streets and bad traffic than the romantic images you might associate with Kiplings version if Mandalay. Still, we found some real gems by wandering (read: dodging mopeds!) through the streets to a gold pounding factory – where they make the gold leaf that Lofty used in Golden rock. We then started to walk up the Palace, surrounded by a huge moat, but with heat and time running away from us, we hopped in a taxi to visit… Drumroll… The world’s biggest book! How could I resist?

While actually being a series of 729 stone tablets each within its own whitewashed pagoda, it still took 1200 monks six months to read it all in relay, which probably makes it just about longer than A Storm of Swords.

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Last stop in Mandalay was Mandalay Hill for – you guessed it – another sunset. A 45minute walk straight up stairs in bare feet was almost more than my poor, soft Western feet could take, but I survived on a drip supply of lychee juice (I’m addicted) and interactions with the few locals dotted about.

Tomorrow, more early starts and adventures await. Myanmar isn’t disappointing yet!

Welcome to Myanmar, tiger tiger… or is it?

I’m sitting here covered in cuts and bruises, every muscle aching and sore, having narrowly avoided an awkward interaction with a cobra and picked several leeches off my friend’s body.

No, our plane didn’t crash in the middle of the Myanmar jungle. Instead, I was talked into a 9km ‘Hash’ run with the Yangon Hash Harriers… but that isn’t even the start of our story!

The Myanmar mishaps (or is it Burma blunders?) began at Heathrow airport at 5.15am, where Tania (one half of the couple L and I are travelling with) was refused entry on to the plane. Her passport was only valid for the next 5 ½ months, as opposed to the 6 months “required”… thank goodness she has dual citizenship (and therefore a second passport) so she was able to rush back and get on the flight the next day.

We didn’t know that, however, as we unhappily said goodbye to Tania to go through security. Two six-hour flights later… we landed in Yangon, one person missing but happy to have heard that Tania had managed to secure a flight, which meant we could relax a bit into our journey.

Yangon/Rangoon is a beautiful city, much calmer than any other place in South-East Asia I’ve been in terms of traffic and people. It has the most number of colonial buildings of any city in SE Asia, which lends it a really gorgeous, lost city-type of vibe. We are so lucky to be staying with a friend who works for the British embassy in Myanmar, so we have lots of great local knowledge on our side!

We walked on a lovely boardwalk across Kandawgyi Lake in absolutely blazing heat, spotting some temples along the way. The three of us were very knackered during lunch, so it wasn’t long until we were ready to head back for nap.

At the start of the Yangon hash

At the start of the Yangon hash

Then began my real adventure. The boys were too tired (read: they wimped out) but I tagged along with Nick for my Hash Harrier adventure. ‘Hash’es are organized runs that happen throughout the world, led by ‘hares’ who mark the run with shredded paper. Hash runners are known as ‘runners with a drinking problem’ or ‘drinkers with a running problem’, depending on how you look at it! The runs can be any length and can take you through any part of town – ours was quite rural, which was lovely, and also quite long! I definitely didn’t expect to be running 9km, but I was already there so why not?

The first half of run felt like more of a bush walk. We headed straight out into fields and long grasses, filled with thorns and uncertain footpaths – not really your ideal running route! I quickly fell to the back of the group, and thought I was dead last – but it turned out I was just dead last of the people who managed to keep up and not get lost! I was determined not to get lost, so even if I felt tired, I wasn’t going to lose sight of the person in front.

Spot the runners...

Spot the runners…

We ran through some quite deep mud (about mid-shin – and it might not have been all mud, if you get my drift), which led to leeches! Thankfully I avoided them, but Nick wasn’t so lucky with three of the buggers latching on. I did spot the cobra though, slithering through the grass ahead of me, so I think I won! Nick jumped about a mile after I spotted it…! No picture, unfortunately, as it was moving too fast.

The second half of the run was much easier – through little villages where I could see a slice of country life. We finished the run in a brewery (natch) called Dagon beverages, where I collapsed – sweaty and exhausted – but actually feeling way more energetic before. Turns out maybe the best jet lag cure is a whole lot of exercise! I had my Hash induction – downing an entire beer in front of the 60-odd runners – and came back home, tired but happy.

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We were up early the next morning  to meet Tania, who finally made it to Myanmar! The group was complete!!

My legs and ankles were pretty sore from the run, but we had a jam-packed day ahead. We started out at Nagar glass factory, which had been completely destroyed by the cyclone in 2008. The family who runs it has been creating blown glass wonders for years, but not since the cyclone. While their kiln and buildings were ruined, the glass – which had always been stored outside – has remained, in a surreal jungle-like atmosphere. It’s like an Alice-in-Jungleland type glass menagerie, a forest floor that sparkles and glitters with coloured glass sculptures. They don’t have the money to restart the kiln again, but there are wonderful glass treasures to be found, which can be polished up to mirror shine. Needless to say, we spent plenty of kyat there, and spent an age chatting to the knowledgeable owner.

The 'natural warehouse', a glass wonderland

The ‘natural warehouse’, a glass wonderland

For lunch, we had our first taste of Burmese food – which was absolutely delicious. Where I would almost immediately turn my nose up at ‘salad’ (especially while on holiday!), Burmese salads are amazing, especially the tea leaf salad, tomato salad and aubergine salad. We also shared some curries and Bago coconut noodles – all scrumptious. Burmese food, thumbs up!

In the afternoon we wandered around downtown Yangon, looking at all the colonial buildings. Afternoon tea at The Strand filled us all up with amazing cakes and snacks, while feeling very posh despite our traveller wear.

Then came the absolute highlight of the entire trip (yes, even more than the 9km run!): Shwedagon Paya. This might be the most beautiful temple complex I have ever seen, shining like a golden crown above the city. We arrived just before sunset, watching the sky change from blue to indigo to black, and the temple change from bright gold to burning orange as the monks and worshippers lit candles that illuminated the riches all around. It is a full moon tonight, which meant the temple was packed with people. Even so, it was a magical place.

Shwedagon at sunset...

Shwedagon at sunset…

In Buddhist culture, it is best to pray to the specific animal which corresponds to the day of the week you were born on. Lofty, born on a Friday, is a guinea pig. Lucky him! Adam and Tania were both Hinta birds (or garruda birds). And what was I? A tiger, of course! I am also a year of a tiger in Chinese astrology, which makes me a Tiger Tiger. This, clearly, made my entire day.

After Shwedagon, Nick took us to a bar that must have one of the best views in the world: overlooking the golden temple at night. A few cocktails later, we agreed this was one of the best starts to a trip ever – missed flights and scratched up legs included.

View from the best bar in town...

View from the best bar in town…

Bring on more, Myanmar! We can take it…