Cortisol’n’Costa Rica

Panic on the streets of London, panic on the streets of Birmingham, also the M25 in the early morning pitch dark as I careened across a lane nearly wiping out a lorry which swerved sharp left to avoid me. I had been scrabbling around for my bag with had my wallet, passport, money phone – my life basically – and as the adrenaline kicked in, negating any need for coffee for the next 48hrs, I decided to a) head for the hard shoulder, b) dig about the passenger seat a bit more, c) indicate left and d) not notice the large vehicle actually in the space I was thought I’d be headed to. Cortisol off the chart…Having survived that and his righteous anger, evidenced by full beam and horn I then found said bag, just as I was nearly at the point of turning around (by actually departing at a slip road and not just doing a full 180 in my lane of choice). However my brain appears to have departed from reality and these full on panics have become a thing very early on in this trip with 3 more happening in 24hrs, it’s no wonder I’m knackered by 6:30 every night at the moment.

The second melty panic happened on arrival my accommodation in San Jose. Couldn’t find my cash cash dollar dollar, which was in a separate (bum)bag to my small wallet containing a few dollars and some colones. My own colones nearly melted as I figured I’d left all my travel money at home and I’d have to explain to the non-English speaking Costa Rican that goodwill of $50 and a trip to a cashpoint would be in order. Cortisol going up….Then I remembered the secret hiding place where I’d stashed it….phew….cortisol rollercoaster as….the panic re-emerged about 10mins later when in my room getting ready for a shower I couldn’t find the (bum)bag. Fuuuuuuck, must have left it on the dining room table. Blind panic is not conducive to trying to get dressed, or to anything really that involves thinking or doing. You have to manually override it, kind of ctrl, alt, delete and then log off and restart. Hence then finding the money back in its original place, even though I’d rummaged in there a number of times previously.

Fourth melty was at the check-in desk for my flight to Manuel Antonio. Couldn’t find my wallet that time. Cortisol going up….Not the (bum)bag, and not the small one with a few bits of cash in it, but the fuck off travel sized one with the cards and other cash in. Convinced I had left it in the hotel room, and trying to do the arithmetic of ‘time there, time back minus flight departure equals not a scoob, I then found it in my rucksack. Cortisol going down….Meanwhile the contents of every other bag except my wheelie was strewn around the desk. I am on course for a heart attack.

After those panics at the hotel you’d have thought I’d have been awake till midnight but I was so knackered I was asleep by 7:30pm. Vista Los Volcanes was a stopover en route to Manuel Antonio where I’m staying for my whole trip here. It was a 30min or so bumper to bumper drive from the airport in rush hour, a complete contrast to the trafficless drop off the next day at 8:15am. Weirdly despite chaotic volume of cars it was a horn-free and mainly courteous driving experience. People waiting patiently to be let into the traffic would flash hazards in thanks, or face a full beam onslaught. I had wondered if I should have hazard lighted an apology to whoever I nearly killed on the motorway in the morning but thought he’d have probably interpreted that as a ‘Fuck you’.

The weather was warm but not swelteringly so. That was in contrast to the frickin’ freezing cold at home. At the car drop off it snowed, and the transit bus was nips too. Jeans and layers of warm clothes wasn’t cutting it in my world, but in others flip flops and shorts were….Even accounting for airports being so bloody warm you’re convinced you’re having a hormonal flush whatever your sex, it wasn’t Thai beach time at Gatwick South terminal. Certainly wasn’t on the flight – was excessively glad for the fleecy lined hoodie and my pashmina, darling.

I’d decided to go hardcore on the deodorant front due to my usual overheating at the airport and had Mitchum’d my pits. Normally this results in the backs of your ears sweating or between your fingers, but seemingly I’d gauged the layering levels about right, even with a carry on that felt way heavier than my 14kgs of checked in luggage to haul about for the whole 3hrs I had to kill at the airport.

My innate ‘don’t be late’ gauge means I’m always destined to be early, I’m compelled to it like a Pavlov dog with a bell. I arrived at the BA end of the terminal 20mins before the gate even opened, however as they’ve gone all AirAsia and as well as self check-in you also self luggage load it didn’t matter, and with no queue I was done and through security with my 3hrs intact. Joyous.

Travelling is therefore, for me in particular, a lot about sitting and waiting. And eating. Or wondering when to eat next and where. So after a brekkie at Jamie’s there followed pootling, sampling perfume till I smelt like a tart’s boudoir and then sitting waiting for the gate, sitting at the gate, sitting whilst they told us about the delay, some standing in mild expectation of boarding, then sitting for 11 &1/2 hours waiting to be fed and watered. I suddenly figured this is probably how the cat sees the cattery – in confined quarter between strangers, waiting for food and water, with your only freedom being when you decide to go to the loo.

It really was a rather dull flight, although we did make up time, in no small part to my arse and the constant farts I appeared to be unable to contain. I swear they served to propel us along somewhat. This is what comes of not asking for gluten free, however sausage and mash never killed anyone (although the lady next to me may have been ready to batter me as the windiness deteriorated into a somewhat stinkier phase later on in the flight). I also went on to scoffing the snack box presented 4hrs before the plane landed. I was thinking it was the last meal of the flight and BA were being tight. Tut tut….dinner was then served a couple of hours after that. The chicken makhani may have been a step too far, and it’s fair to say those around me (and me) were relieved to off that plane and away from the toxic fog hanging around seat 17D.

The joy off being upright and walking soon wore off in the immigration queue, although it was moving pretty quickly, the cross examination of where I was staying was slightly nerve wracking. No signs for where our luggage would be but following the masses seemed to lead me to the carousel. Twenty minutes in and I was starting to think that maybe the luggage tag I attached a Gatwick hadn’t been as well secured as I hoped. Cortisol going up…I was starting to wonder if I could describe the bag – was it black or grey brown….when it appeared. Cortisol going down….

Outside was a melee of men waving names, none with mine on. Bugger…cortisol going up….I’d emailed the hotel whilst at the departure gate requesting a pick up, and on landing had an email to say that they’d have a driver there (oh blessed wifi, what would we do without you?!) ‘You want taxi?’, ‘no, I have one’ (inner eye rollin for rip off a-coming), ‘where are you going?’, ‘it doesn’t matter’, ‘where, I want to help’. I told him and he bellowed the hotel name aand a man spring out from behind a pillar clutching a board with my name on…cortisol going down…how did I not see that? Doh.

In the room, calm and clean and thinking I’d hang it out till at least 9pm I decided to explore. This involved pulling the durtain pole down, then playing fan switcheroo, pull this string…nothing….pull again….nothing…pull the other string….nothing…pull again….oh, it’s actually stopping, and no idea which string gets it going again and then 9 switches in one room, guess which does what, I was in bed and ready to conk out. I was convinced the bed was going to be of epic Thai levels of discomfort but was proved soothingly wrong and slept for nearly 11hours, lulled asleep by the hum of the fridge, the thwack of fan bits hitting things it shouldn’t, dance music vibrating the walls, and cars turning up,at all hours. My first full day of living in the land of Pura Vida was about to start and I was hoping my heart wasn’t going to give out with anymore twattage from me.

 

 

 

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A week on the White Isle

I recently returned from my annual trip to the north of Ibiza, a week of things that I love – yoga, good food, great coffee, meandering around markets and what I don’t enjoy….despite the above giving lie to it…frickin’ lashings of rain.

The time of year – end of April, is a good indication that all may not be bright and sunny on the white isle but the Instagrammers of Ibeefa had posted photos of the unseasonably warm weather so I went with a positive outlook but travelled with 5 layers of clothes on (just in case Ryanair did weigh my bag), which turned out to be good practise for the days of rain ahead.

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Bye bye England

Not sure what was going on with the Ryanair staff, but their previous rigorous response to clearly oversized baggage (and I don’t mean the fat birds on hen weekends) was as relaxed as everyone boarding and my concerns were waylaid, although the profuse sweating from layering wasn’t.   Travelling out in the day was a positive experience, less pissed party goers for starters and therefore a quieter flight, and less fighting and thieving going on – that might explain the staff’s laidback approach – they knew it was going to be less ructions in the air at this time of year.

Having removed 4 layers, and after a short loo break, it was a quick 40mins from the airport on the new road surface and around the newly installed roundabouts which were the cause of a lot of trauma last year (randomly shutting roads out of caminas for hours on end, getting shouted at for driving over newly laid tarmac, having to dump vehicles in fields in order to get home being a few examples) and we were sailing by the unlit side road to the yoga place in the pitch black as all previous sign posts had been removed.  U-turn implemented, we were soon arriving down the dirt track to the finca, set in amongst the fields of the local farmer.  Getting out the car you could look up to the clear starlit sky and remind yourself what the night sky looks like without light pollution.  It felt good to be back.  Then I went and laid down on my bed…dammit, the foam mattresses were as bad as ever.  Thankfully, I was boy scout prepared and had stuffed an inflatable air mattress in my bag to provide an extra layer of support to my already wrecked back.

Each day yoga was outside but under cover, and in the cool of the early morning we worked through our 90mins safe in the knowledge that a fabulous veggie brunch with Ibizan coffee awaited.  On day 2 we had torrential rain and howling gales, which resulted in avoiding the drips onto mats and a savasana inside on the various furnishings of the front room.  Eating breakfast under cover but outside, wrapped in blankets and all our clothes was an experience made smugger by having warm hands and fingers that worked thanks to my seemingly mad idea of bringing fingerless mittens.

As well as the discomfort of the beds, the other issue was the plumbing – the hot water took 15-20mins to arrive into the shower head and when it did finally emerge it was like being pissed on by fairies.  Cold, smelly and gloomy, we decided it was a good idea to get warm, get clean and hang out, and whilst there wasn’t a YMCA to head to there was a hotel / spa called Can Carreu which let you have spa access for €30.  Oh heaven is warmth, a hamman and a pool.

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The gloom of Ibiza… even the tree looks fed up.  The view from Can Curreu car park

Having scrubbed, soaked and relaxed to a wrinkled inch of my life, it was then a hot shower, soft fluffy towels, and a pootle back down the road for a snackage and coffee at Las Dalias Bar and Restaurant . Nothing like being clean to make everything in the world feel right and on track again.  In the meantime, the plumbing back at the ranch had also had a seeing too and we were rewarded with hot water and proper pressure for the remainder of the trip.

Grafitti outside Las Dalias
A portion of the Las Dalias grafitti

Las Dalias is famous for its hippy market as well, and by the time Saturday rocked around the sun was shining and the weather was good once more, the site totally transformed from the muddy gloom of a few days before.  Tourists were everywhere in overpriced flim flam, crotchet or thin cotton, the sort of stuff that look amazing on lithe, modellesque ‘young slip of a things’ but which look 1664 on those that can actually afford it (16yrs old from behind, 64 in front), and who struggle to squeeze into it.  Whilst it’s nice to wander around in the sun, soaking up Vit D to stave off rickets, it’s also alarming to see the amount of overpriced tat, or overpriced skimpyness on offer and how much of it is being bought.  My friend’s approach to purchasing any item of clothing is to ask, ‘Would you wear it on the Tube?’, the answer by most would be ‘Not on your nelly’, but I’m sure a number of people have persuaded themselves that they would, as long as they were wearing a large mac over the top of their Ibeefa outfit.

We ate out every night, and for someone who had been told to eat dead animal on a plate with veg at the moment I was in the right place.  Ibiza seems to be the central place for the Neanderthal diet, if Neanderthals ate chips with everything.  Ordering ‘drumstick of chicken’ actually means getting half a bird with chips and some salad. Leg of lamb is precisely that – €12 and you get a whole leg all to yourself.  No wonder the waiter chuckled at the little person who ordered it – it was larger than her whole upper body.  You are spoilt for good restaurants in the north of the island, and we made the most of it, with Italian eaten at Macao Cafe, Santa Gertrudis, and where the waiting staff were super attentive and helpful, La Paloma, San Lorenc, booking essential for an uber cool setting and a menu providing something for everyone, no matter your latest intolerance and Ecocentro, Santa Gertrudis for all things veggie, organic or raw.  Thank heavens for the yoga to help burn off the excess calories!

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Squid, with onions and lemon – La Paloma

We even made it to a couple of beaches and pretend we were beside the seaside, beside the sea.  First up after an obligatory trip to San Juan Sunday Market, we headed off to Portineaux, which quickly disappointed, not just because it was windy by the shoreline but because it’s a tad naff, and then we got lucky on the by driving round to Cala Llenya, practically deserted apart from some Dutch families and a guy who seemed to be auditioning for ‘Rocky, the Musical’ in sweats and a hoodie.  Sun shining, the sand soft, clean and warm, the waves far enough away that you weren’t going to get accidentally wet and freeze.  The law of sod would state that the warm weather would hit just before you’re heading home.

Monday and it was a day at Benirras beach, surrounded by more Dutch (seems the kids don’t need to be in school) and the chance to soak up the rays for a full day.  We headed back there for dinner, dead thing on a plate and chips por favor.  Protein overloaded it was home for a final sleep.

Benirras
Benirras, obligatory sunset shot.

Returning to the airport was straightforward enough, despite the petrol filling fun – you have to pay before you fill up which means either making  a stab at what you think you might need to pay or you hand over your payment cards to be held hostage whilst you fill up.  All a bit random but we achieved and after an unrushed breakfast at the airport we were soon shuffling along in the queue to go through security to join a queue to board a bus to board the plane to sit for a few hours to then join a queue to be allowed back into the UK.  Gotta love a queue.

Roll on next year, but somewhere with better beds!

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Yum mung pancake, cheesecake heaven, cats and kakao crayyyy-zeeness

The last few days in Seoul and sleeping on an air mattress was pure bliss – as was the massage at nearby spa.  CC and I were next to each other and the man attempting to unlock the rictus mess that was my back said to her aghast, ‘why are her muscles so tight, what has she been doing?’.  Well, carrying frickin’ ridiculously heavy rucksacks and sleeping on beds of rock it would appear.  Also turns out my sacro-illiac joint decided to join the party and the left side migrated north somewhat, thereby throwing everythin0g else out of whack – so at least we know now (I say, aching like a beee-atch after being manipulated – read ‘stretched’ by the physio).

There was eating to be done during our time left together and eating we did, from Bindaetteok – Mung bean pancakes, which we ate at a market stall, squeezed onto benches designed for little people with short arms, they have a different radius for the sweep from plate to mouth it appears, luckily I managed not to miss my gob too many times as these were delicious.

Bindaetteok
Bindaetteok market stall

In the same place we found a kimchi lady (a lady making and selling it, not made of fermented cabbage).  She had freshly made mustard leaf kimchi for sale and assuring us that it would be safely transported back home (it nearly was, there was a slight oozing) I bought an old fashioned paaahnds worth to sit in the fridge.

We also spent time over in Hongdae, allegedly shopping for beauty products – Korea is facemask central, and you can’t move for the various stores selling product.  However we went to eat at an amazing cheesecake cafe, Mobssie, where the menu is only in French, so it must be good, right?  Oh yes!

Cheesecake and cwaafee
Cheesecakes and cwaafeee

The cheesecake on the left was fresh from the oven and hot, hot, hot.  Patience is a virtue, allegedly, but we were decidedly lacking so we tucked in at the point it was still at molten lava temperature, and it was worth it.  Having o’d on all things fromage-y and sweet, coupled with the caffeine, we set off to enjoy the buzz at the nearby Kakao store.

Yes, I definitely spelt that right – Kakao Talk is the Korean equivalent of Whatsapp, and they have a series of Kakao Friends who are a big hit with everyone and the whole concept store sells everything branded with the friends.  Your whole life can be Kakao’d, day to night…

Tonight Matthew
Tonight Matthew, I’m Ryan, I think…I can see fuck all in this sleep mask

Plus you can have your pbotos taken with large models of the characters too.

Not all of them are what you think they are – Ryan, in the sweater, is actually a lion with no mane, the rabbit is a radish in disguise (!), Jay-G, with the big yellow hair, is a hip-hop loving mole.

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Hoodie Ryan overdose.  Is it me or do some of them look a bit like angry teenagers?

The sugar and caffeine did the trick and we went a bit wild in-store.  I ended up with a rather large stationery haul, because you can never contribute enough to cutting down the trees of the world.  Thank you tax-free shopping!

CC’s mum treated us to dinner at the restaurant where she works.  I can see where CC gets her cooking skills from. Looking at the other tables I thought they were merely ordering a whole heap of food, but turns out people mostly order the set of multiple dishes. Turns out this was for us too, along with the inclusion of some bibimbap.  There was so much food for us that it’s brought on a giant wooden tray that slides over the whole of the table.

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Panaramic shot of the table – all (!) that’s missing is the bibimbap.
Total food overdose.
Now complete with bibimbap but we had already started on the noodles and veggies.

Fishes x 3, crab, rice, kimchi, salads, shrimps, veggies, more kimchi, seaweed, steamed spinach, noodles and the bibimbap, plus to top it off we were indulged in some cheongju.  Cheongju is a rice wine, and  was a lot easier on the stomach than soju, and went down a lot quicker too, despite having to ladle it into our pottery cups using a wide mouthed spoon.  I guess it would have gone even quicker if it was in a decanter.

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Chin chin with Cheongju

We did our best to clear the table but there was some left over.  It was either that or be hospitalised and have our stomachs pumped.  I tried to practise my Korean to say ‘thank you’ (kamsahamnida 감사합니다 )and also ‘I ate well’ (jalmuggutssahamnida 잘 먹었습니다), however the cheongju had done its work and despite me parroting the phrases repeatedly, by the time we got to leave I turned into a nodding echo of CC, mumbling through to the hamnida point both times. My ear for languages is seemingly shared with Van Gogh – the one that he cut off and threw away.

Our other great meal was at the 24hr joint around the corner from the flat.  It sold a broth made with pork ribs, gamjatang, but without the potatoes (which is what it’s named after). The meat had been cooking for so long it just fell off the bones.  The broth was full of the flavour of the meat and the spices it had been cooked in, and you served it up with rice, and an amazing wasabi sauce.  I was so happy, I’d definitely died and gone to food heaven.  There is no photo of this, only a video of the hot bubbling mess that was the food, (and not me, gurning at the dinner), you can look at it here.

The trip was coming to an end and I was heading back a few pounds heavier, both myself and my luggage. The stash of purchases meant that my bargain bag was turning into a liability sooner than you could say ‘uneven pavement’, and whilst I’d managed to squeeze everything into it that needed squeezing it ended up a bit like me after too many sojus – unsteady on its feet and needing to be leant against something so it wouldn’t fall ouver.  It also proved incredibly fragile as evidenced by it readily falling apart en route to the train station.  Now too heavy to carry, after the wheel brackets detached and the screws fell out, I was still able to ‘wheel’ it by treating it like an invalid, holding it upright at all times, moving it along with no sudden movements and ensuring the ground was smooth / bump-free. My mantra was ‘just get me to the airport’, where I was able to pay to have the wheels secured with packing tape, although I couldn’t do anything about the random screw that was suddenly sticking out of the side of the bag.

CC and I said our goodbyes, I’d already said good bye to her family, and the pets.  I really would miss being with this super friendly people who took me into their home for the duration.  I couldn’t not have asked for more, except for maybe a little less food, but that was down to me and my greed!

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Mr & Mrs (RIP) – Feling went a big shy…

I had visions of watching the conveyor belt at Don Mueang slowly churning out the contents of my bag – face masks, face scrub, Ryan and the gang, a pound of kimchi, my pants all piece by piece followed by the remnants of my cheap-o bag.  I had no choice but to bite the proverbial shopping bullet and get myself a replacement, and duty free was the only option, so lighter of pocket and relieved of my small rucksack now relegated into said new purchase I wheeled myself down to the gate and boarded my flight back to Thailand to collect my other bags, repack, and hopefully repair my broken back before jumping on the plane to London and home.

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Spa-clean in Gyeong-ju

A bus ride from Busan, on a dull overcast day and we were in Gyeong-ju, known as the ‘museum without walls’ due to the number of tombs, temples, rock carvings, pagodas, Buddhist statuary and palace ruins that exist there.  It is also a UNESCO world heritage site. Apparently you need a few days to explore Gyeong-ju, we were there on a whistlestop 22hrs and our first stop was not to whistle but to get clean as the proverbial at a spa in town.

For a tenner we got spa towels,  top and bottoms in baby pink, with XXL for the lardy and access to 4 floors of the 5 floor spa (one floor is for the men, and we wouldn’t be wanting to go there).  After a shower we then had access to the 3 pools at various temperatures – frickin’ hot to the point of wooziness, frickin’ cold to the point of shivering and goosebumps, and ambient perfectness.  I plumped for ambience complete with jets aiming to remove the knots in my upper back. There was a sauna but lounging in a pool seemed perfect, and required minimal movement.  From there I could observe other ladies being brought refreshments.  Others were scrubbing areas of their bodies that should never be aired, let alone given a vigorous going over with the equivalent of a brillo pad, it was DIY hammam-ing at its finest.

We got our outfits mixed up
We got our outfits mixed up

I could have stayed in the pool for the remainder of the day but didn’t have a book to read and my look for the day wasn’t going to be wrinkled prune, so after 45mins of wallowing I forced myself out of the pool.  Deciding against the human Dyson dryer that you could stand on and get blasted dry, I opted for the traditional towel, and once clothed and feeling about 10lbs lighter having removed a few layers of dirt, we headed upstairs to the resting space.  Here you can lie down on mattresses, or head into the cinema room where you get to sit in a comfy chair and watch a film of your choice, or else you can pay a couple of quid and get yourself practically strapped into a ‘massage’ chair and have pieces of metal that are barely covered in material try and force their way into your soft body tissues.  CC fell asleep during the torture, I aimed to put into practice some mindfuless and acceptance that pieces of metal inserting themselves into fleshy parts was ok, whilst simultaneously screaming silently and counting down the minutes till the chair released its steely grip.

Suitably knackered and time against us we binned off the trip to a UNESCO protected temple (always next time, right?) and headed out for a late lunch at a nearby restaurant Sukyoung Sikdang, which turned out to be the second favouritist restaurant in Gyeong Ju, according to TripAdvisor.

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We were so intent on food to avoid full on meeeeeltdown we completely missed this signage.

A tiny little lady served up the food to us, as we sat (or rather I lolled) on tatami mats.  The set up was traditional with the low tables, and underfloor heating, and small cushions to sit on.

The bibimbap was amazing, as evidenced by the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. After stuffing ourselves senseless I utilised what was quickly becoming my standard escape approach of roll, release legs, revert to vertical and we headed off to our guest house via a local bakery.  Not just any local bakery though.  This was the first red bean paste bread (hwangnam-ppang) bakery to be set up in Gyeong-ju.  The bread was invented in 1939 and is a famous speciality of the town. The bakery is family run by the Choi son of the founder.

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The box lid strategically hides those already eaten.

CC stocked up for friends and family.  Each day fresh batches are made on tables by hand behind the serving counter, using the original recipe.  Often the queues are out the door but as we were there at the end of the day we got lucky and were in and out pretty quickly.

Our next stop was the guesthouse, which we got to just as the heavens opened and it started to chuck it down.  Our beds were set up the traditional Korean way, with a blanket on the mattress and a thicker blanket (no sheet) to sleep under.  We got a bonus with electric blankets too and a heater in the room.  Woo hoo – happy days!

Our day was not yet done, on a promise of chicken and beer with other guests for when we returned, we headed out into the rain to go to Donggung Palace.  The palace is supposed to be a great example of Silla architecture. Gyeong-ju was the capital of Silla, the ancient empire that lasted from 57 BC to 935 AD. The palace was a secondary palace used by the Crown Prince, with the main palace of Wolseong located nearby.  In the centuries after both palaces were destroyed and it was only in the early 20th Century when archaeological excavations were carried out were the ruins of these palaces discovered.

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Donggung Palace

It was beautifully lit up, and even the rain couldn’t dampen the view, as we wandered around the artificially created pond that sits in front of the remains of the palace.

Unfortunately we weren’t going to get the opportunity to revisit it the next day as we were leaving before midday, however just being able to see it at night made up for that.  As did the little shop that was open on our street that was selling the tastiest rice flour and almond powder biscuits.  The various flavoured biscuits were each cut into the shape of a particular historical artefact from Gyeong-ju, whether it was the astronomy tower, or images from famous tiles or artefacts found during the archaeological digs.

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Tasty, tasty, so very tasty

Managed to inhale a couple of these puppies before dinner….they were definitely a winner for me.

The next morning we left fairly early to get back to the bus station, and to have some breakfast beforehand, as the guesthouse offering was somewhat sparse.  None of the shops appeared to be open until after 10am, but we got to see the town and the architecture as we wandered our way back to the centre.

Traditional building
Traditional building of Gygeong-ju

All around the town are various mounds, which turned out to be tombs of all the various leaders of the Silla empire.

That's them thair tombs in the distance.
That’s them thair tombs in the distance.

With coffee inside me and finely waking up we were homeward bound to Seoul and for the last couple of days of my visit.  Shopping and eating awaited.

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Busy eating eel in Busan

We took the train to Busan, Korea’s second city and to the east of Seoul, on the coast.  This trip was going to be about the fish.

Our AirBnB was a guesthouse not far from the Jung-Gu metro stop, albeit after the climb out of the metro, we then had a climb up a serious series of steps to get to the guesthouse and then climb some more steps to the room.  Luckily their second floor was the UK’s first floor, so that meant two sets of stairs less to climb – woo hoo – you take what you can get when you’re as knackered as me! And I was taking in as much oxygen as I possibly could to help me up all those bloody stairs.

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Partway up the stairs en route to our guesthouse was this smug b’stard.

We dumped our bags and headed out for dinner at the nearby Jagalchi Market, Korea’s largest fish market. Even though it was early evening it was still pretty busy, with the mainly female market stallholders displaying their remaining fishy wares (oo-er) – octopus, tuna, dried fish, even whale meat (!), as well as lots of molluscs, sea squirts, sea cucumbers, crabs all in bowls, or tanks waiting to be picked out for dinner.  I was too busy looking to take too many photos.

I spy octopi...
I spy octopi…
Drying fish
Drying fish
Red mullet
Red mullet?

This was where I decided what else I wouldn’t eat whilst in Korea (the whale meat wasn’t even close to being on the agenda so doesn’t count, no, the first thing being the snails that were served up at the sashimi restaurant we’d been to the previous night in Seoul), it being octopus, as I saw somewhat too graphically parts of writhing and turning in a bowl after being sliced up for someone’s dinner. It wasn’t even a whole tentacle, but parts of one.  To watch it furling and curling was too much.

These definitely weren't moving, they were deceased, dead, dried, dessicated.
These definitely weren’t moving, they were deceased, dead, dried, dessicated.

I was obviously getting to be a bit of a fanny, says the girl who had eaten hongeo-hoe the day before (fermented skate, and as skate excrete urea through their skins it reeks of ammonia). Hongeo-hoe (more like honk-ing) was a shocker – it looks fairly innocuous then you put it in your mouth and realise that it’s practically solid due to the cartilage that it is mostly composed of so that makes it impossible to chew, or swallow, or bite down on.  Then you start to get the stink of ammonia in your mouth, burning down to your stomach and the only way is either back out onto the table or (gag) down,where it burns it way through your now wrecked stomach lining. Urgh…thank heavens for soju….

Fish, fish or fish?
Fish, fish or fish?

Meanwhile, further into the market the restaurants were in full swing, with some of the owners calling to those passing by attempting to lure them in to eat.

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We wandered along looking at what was on offer.

Each stall had its speciality on show at the front, with prices up on the walls.  The stalls were very basic looking but were doing brisk trade.  We settled on eel for our tea and sat down to wait for our eel served 2 ways – plain and with chilli.  No cartilage here.

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Eel for two

Once the main meal was done as much as possible, the leftovers were taken away and mixed with rice and returned to us to be warmed up over the gas burner.  Once it was sufficiently cooked we were let loose on it to scrape off the stuck bits.  The owner and their friends were suitably impressed with my impression of a starving person using a spoon to scrape at the rice burnt onto the foil, and thought I was practically a native, and kept giving us extra bits of freshly cooked eel.  We obviously looked a bit underfed….  Yet again, we were stuffed.

The next morning after skipping the lukewarm shower and trying to unkink my locked up back muscles that come from sleeping on a solid rock hard bed we were on the bus to Haedong Yonggungsa Buddhist Temple, which is right on the coast.  It was originally built in the 1300s but seemed to have been fully refurb’d with concrete fairly recently.

It was heaving, as it was the weekend, there were coachloads of lil’ ol’ folks all turned up wearing duck-down jackets, massive visors, and trainers or full on hiking gear all milling about and trying not to hit anyone with their visors.  There were also families, a few motorbikers on Harleys and the occasional tourist.  We had to queue next to the twelve statues representing the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac to get in, and watch as people posed next to their representative statue.  Mine is rat and he looked too much like Splinter from Ninja Turtles.  Could have been worse, could have been the snake that looked like a sheep in armour….

Splinter
Is that Splinter from the Ninja Turtles on the right?

Then we had to go past a nine storey pagoda that was for prayers for Traffic Safety.  It could probably have done with being a bit bigger and more prominent, maybe on a roundabout on the road in front of the traffic-ly traumatised.  We were then heading down a steep set of 108 steps, which apparently represent the 108 agonies of earthly desire of Buddhism.  There should have been an extra step to represent my agony of a  bad back and my earthly desire for a decent mattress.

Bit busy today
Let’s hope everyone is abiding by the handrail policy. Oh no, that’s right, they aren’t – they’re playing Pokemon Go in a temple!!!

Once over the bridge to the main temple complex there were numerous more tourists and numerous statues, including 2 golden peee-igs who were regularly being patted on the arse.  For luck, apparently.

Least someone had a smile on his face today
Least someone had a smile on his face today
The view up the coast
The view up the coast.

Down by the water there were terrapins being harassed by small children, and randoms were trying to clamber over rocks and avoid major waves to get the ultimate selfie moment – a snap of them being washed out to sea..  All truly spiritual and calm-inducing, if you’re on 5mg of Valium.

Fish sausage on a stick
Fish sausage on a stick Mr Dibbler?

After the fun of being among the screaming hordes, we treated ourselves to a fish sausage on a stick (as bad as it sounds) and after waiting in another queue for a lunch of THE coldest noodle soup in the world (it turned up in a metal bowl that was fresh out the fridge, I had to warm the noodles up in a cup of broth served separately, till that became tepid from overuse).  Apparently cold noodle soup was quite the thing back in the day, and judging by the queue still was a thing, if you liked freezing your mouth off.  The Korean dim sum helped to warm us up a bit before we headed out to go to Haeundae beach to meet a couchsurfer for the afternoon.

Looked good - fucking freezing.
Mul Milmyeon – looked good – fucking freezing though.

The sun was shining and the beautiful white sandy beach was a perfect place to soak up some vitamin D and watch a bunch of foreigner freaks (mainly US grads teaching English) celebrate the Indian festival of Holi by dancing like loons to some tooooons.

Haeundae Beach
Haeundae Beach – a mile long and wonderfully wide, so you can avoid the eejits throwing powder paint.

Basically it seemed to be any excuse to get pissed and plant hand prints on girls’ tits, judging by the behaviour of everyone coming off the beach covered in paint and the fact that every girl’s t-shirts had handprints in the breasticle area.  Strange how none of the boys had handprints around their testicle area.

Is the irony of this lost on anyone else?
Is the irony of this happening lost on anyone else?

Our lil’ couchsurfer was going to show us the sights and delights of Busan, until he ‘fessed up to not being a Busan native and was there studying for government exams.  He was locked away for 6days a week and was venturing out on a Sunday in an effort to interact with other humans before he forgot what it was like to do so.  Tourist responsibilities fell back onto Corean Cimchi and therefore we set off to see a bit of nature at Taejongdae Park, which had a little pullalong train that we could hop onto and thus avoid a long slog uphill.

Choo choo
Choo-choo, all aboard the Bof….

We hopped off at the viewing platform, where you could look out to see to tankers parked out to sea and the cliffs, then the kids wanted to head off down toward the lighthouse whilst this ol’ dear had a breather on some nearby seats.

More view
More view
The view from the, er, viewing platform.
The view from the, er, viewing platform.

I was about ready to keel over but our day wasn’t done and after a strong brew and the opportunity to warm up – it was blowing a bit this side of town, we headed off for our dinner back toward town. Yet another astounding eating experience – what this country can do with a dead animal is nobody’s business!

This time around it was Suyuk Baekba, which is boiled meat, in this case thin slices of pork, like bacon, which came with tofu, kimchi, white rice and a soup.  Any British person served bacon is guaranteed to die from a pig overdose, and happily so.

Unfortunately sitting at a low table means getting up from very close to the floor, never a good look but even more difficult with a stomach full of pork. We set off to burn off some of the calories at the nearby beach of Gwangalli where the  Gwangandaegyo Bridge lights up as part of sound and music show on the hour. A gentle stroll to the sounds of dance music which finished with a suitably rousing can-can drew our evening to an end and we said our goodbyes and went our separate way to our host, and all of us headed off to own solid beds.

Gin-gan-Gwangalli, gin gan-gooo
Gin-gan-Gwangalli, gin gan-goo – Gwangandaegyo

We walked past here, best sign ever…

We didn't eat here
Best restaurant sign ever

The next day we were off again, by bus this time, to Gyeongju for a night.

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Soju, selfies and Jeju

We flew from the attractively named Gimpa airport, the old international airport of Seoul.  Straight there on line number 5.

I was obviously very out of place, being the biggest person on the train and with unbrushed and undyed hair, no make-up and constantly blowing my nose rather than sniffing politely.  Virtually every Korean woman and most men are impeccably turned out. Make up is an art form as is the 7step beauty routines that many Korean beauty companies recommend. You’d be lucky if I did 2, and only if one of those was sliding my eyes past what was showing in the mirror. Not wearing make up marks you out and I certainly was stand out with the black smudges of tiredness under my eyes, looking like death warmed up and a Rudolph red nose. Also, heaven forfend, I had a tan. Not the deathly whiteness so much favoured (partnered with American tan tights though…). Frankly, I was an embarrassment.  No wonder CC was sprinting ahead of me out in public, and I don’t blame her! Even my hair had rebelled by this point, to the stage where I eventually had a trim at a local hairdressers – reurning to my Sideshow Bob look of a few years back, winner!

It was a short hop to the island of Jeju, and from the airport we were picking up a car.  The airport was particularly empty – all the flights from China weren’t heading that way anytime soon, so it was majority Korean.  Jeju is the seaside island break for a lot of Koreans, as well as hikers heading up the highest mountain in the country, Hallasan.  Wouldn’t be doing that even though I’d schlepped my walking boots all the way with me just for this trip!

This was the point where CC had to ‘fess up to not being the most confident driver, that two day driving course really hadn’t imbedded a strong driving discipline.  That coupled with living in a city where public transport is so endemic and a car is unnecessary, it’s not surprising she wasn’t used to driving.  She initially had a penchant for wanting to seemingly mount the right kerb but as they say ‘practice makes perfect’ and once we were out of the main town the open roads and lack of traffic allowed for CC to get up to speed both literally and metaphorically.  Our sat nav was insistent on talking to us and I soon learnt the Korean for roundabout (ro-ta-ree-a, e.g rotary, although CC was confused and thought the lady was initially saying lotteria – which to be fair, with some of the driving going on, road use on Jeju often was). What was apparent was that most road users hadn’t learnt how to use a rotaree-a and thus various methods of how to deal with them were in operation, with the most favoured being to just get over it as soon as possible and hope that there’s no traffic on it at the time.

Ahhh scenery
Ahhh – scenery. The small stacked stones are offerings from passengers of cars that have successfully made it this far.

First stop was the beach, well, a beach and more precisely a windy and sandy one.  It was full of other tourists with the same idea – get to the first attractive beach and start taking selfies.  Unfortunately for CC, and fortunately for me, we had come without a selfie stick.  How sad…and we initially had to request a fellow tourist to take some photos, until the God of Camera-Phones heard CC’s pleas and she found a discarded one in the mini-dunes.  Deep joy.  With the wind whipping the sand in our eyes, and me layered up in jumper, eiderdown jacket and scarves, we attempted to ‘strike a pose’, or in my case – gurning. CC has particular views on selfies and they must look good, or else there is punishment – more posing….

IMG-20170323-WA0163My preference
Far away from the camera – and my face partially covered, the best way to be. And no, didn’t need a wee, even though it looks like I do.
Paining
Tooooo close for comfort. At least you can’t see the fear in my eyes. But you probably can see the outpouring of snot from my nose.

(Painful) interlude over we downed coffees and after a bit of Chuckle Brother maneouvering – me to you, to me to you with the car reversing out of the car parking space we headed off to the supermarket for snacks, and soju.  Soju is one of Korea’s national drinks, made from rice, and can be bought in anything from smart glass bottles to cheap white plastic bottles. Container is not an indicator of quality it appears.  The taste has been described as resembling that of slightly sweet, watered-down vodka – sort of like sugar dissolved in rubbing alcohol – yum.  The danger comes with the flavoured versions, grapefruit (like flat Fanta), tangerine (synonymous with Jeju – the land of oranges – the government promoted tangerines as a major export item in the 60s!), and other fruit flavours, before you know it, your legs don’t work and you’re wondering why the floor is so close to your face.

We finally got to our AirBnB house,  after a stop off at the market for lunch and a wander, in the traditional village of Seongeup (on the eastern side of the island) in the late afternoon.  As well as staying in a traditional village we were staying in a traditional thick black lava rock walled single storey house with a straw roof, complete with underfloor heating, karaoke tv and hard bed. Outside the stone grandfather statues (Harubang) stood guard at the entrance.

I think CC got the better bet sleeping on the floor!  The host meanwhile was amazing, providing recommendations for places to see, eat out at and generally giving ideas for what to do.  It really did feel like a home from home, even if we weren’t going to be putting on the coloured afro wigs and give it large on a microphone to ‘Let it Go’. Exhausted by the day’s exertions it was a home stay evening with Korean evening drama, soju and strawberries – tres decadent, no?

We started the next day late, we were on holiday after all.  Once the pain from the bed kind of wore off we headed up the road to what turned out to be a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant – who’d have thunk it!  Yetnalpatjuk serves up red bean porridge (patjuk (팥죽) as its local fare. If you wanted it as dan patujuk then you would add sugar to it and people on the next table were doing so with gusto but I wasn’t up for that, and preferred it au naturel, even if it meant it tasted like rustic, commune porridge.  The portion size could have drowned a small baby, although the reality of anything sinking into was unlikely, it was so solid.  It was served in beautiful eathernware bowls, and the traditional style dining room was surrounded by random bird ornaments.  If you’re not a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds you might feel uncomfortable.

Lunch
Lunch – this one I was a bit sad about, although the crockery was amazing!
The restaurant
Not exactly helpful that all buildings in town look the same….

We headed back out to explore some more of Jeju and Moon had suggested Sagye Beach. Right on the waterfront was a statue of two Haenyo women talking to Mrs. Gorbachev to commemorate the Gorbachevs’ visit in 1991. The Haenyo are the famed Korean women divers of Jeju, and are considered one of Jeju’s valued treasures.  There were a couple of ladies left still selling their catches.

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The harbour
Mount Sanbangsan
Mount Sanbangsan – one of volcanoes of Jeju

We hopped back into the car and drove past a load of nutters paying 1000won (about a quid) each to stand in a field of rapeseed flowers and take photos.  Seems to be traditional fare in springtime – people paying to stand in a field and take selfies. We meanwhile stood at the end of the pier for our posing:

One of us was taking it seriously….

Our day wasn’t done – we were on a full itinerary of things to squeeeeeze in to our short stay, so after checking the scenery we headed off to the Cheonjiyeon Waterfall, along with everyone else it seemed.  Old ladies were hiking the 1 kilometre along the tarmac’d path wearing enough kit to head to Everest base camp to see a waterfall that is about 70ft long.

That'll be the waterfall
That’ll be the waterfall – what you can’t see are the screaming hordes standing in a queue to take photos next to it.

There was a queue – a frickin’ queue (!) of people to stand and have a  photo taken of them ‘catching the water’ from the fall, or to just pose their arses off.  Thus we quick snapped it and high tailed it out of there as we had places to be, that place being a market to buy homegrown oranges to take back to Seoul and then we were ready for dinner.

We had decided to get a bus to a nearby restaurant for bbq.  Big ol’ mistake.  We arrived, after 30mins, to a corner of somewhere in the pitch dark.  It was 7.30pm.  We walked into the restaurant.  Got very excited to smell the cooking.  Got very dispondent and hangry when we got told the restaurant had stopped serving and was shutting at 8pm.  Bollocks.

Back out in the dark and we could not find the bus stop! Let alone know what time the bus would be coming, except at some point in the next hour or so.  Sheeee-it.

Back in the 70s Nelly would have knitted the Ark and Noah out of any situation.  In this one on Jeju, CC super googled us out of hicksville, back to home, to the car and out on the road to Pyeong-dae and barbeque pig – woo-hoo, with a new find Gat Kimchi.  Gat Kimchi is made from Mustard Leaf, and thank god Korean restaurants do free top ups of the sides as I was prepared to o’d on it and the lettuce.  Never been so happy as that evening eating peeeee-iiiiiiiig.

We left full and happy, so happy, and full, and did I mention happy?The sky was amizzin’ – probably looks shit below but it was wowzers!

Is that aliens in the sky?
Is that aliens in the sky?

But we weren’t done with that being the only fabulous meal of the stay, oh no, that was for tomorrow too en route to the airport.   After a 30minute walk in the forest – because, you know, we had time and we may as well tick it off the list we headed back to Jeju town to drop off the car and then stopped off at Dragon’s Head Rock (Yongduam Rock) and had lunch, amazing fresh soup with pork, noodles – joyousness.  So happy with FOOOOOOD!

More poi-k

We definitely were leaving Jeju on a high after that lunch.  We rolled ourselves back out, had a look at the lunchtime offerings by Dragon Head’s Rock – raw seafood as fresh as possible served on the rocks, literally, as the waves hit the shoreline.

Staggering over the rocks with all our luggage and full stomachs, we to find a taxi and we were on our way back to Seoul, just for a night before we headed out to Busan, Korea’s second city.

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The home straight…

Two nights in Kinpun (aka Kinmun – no idea why p and m are interchangeable) to see Mount Kyaiktiyo (pronounced Jai-toe but not Chay-cho), aka Golden Rock, one of the three most sacred religious sites in Myanmar. The rock is said to cover a hair or two of the Buddha, which holds the rock in place.  It was all a bit unerwhelming, but that maybe because I was coming own with yet another cold and was feeling rubbish.

The bus journey had allowed for more sleep this time around, but even so we had had to change bus at 4am to transfer onto the bus that had actually left Nyaung Shwe 30mins before we did.  Bus swapsies in the middle of the night on a dual carriageway was weird enough but to see 3 guys laid out inside the luggage compartment fast asleep was something else.  We arrived into Bago about an hour later and transferred to a rust bucket minivan an hour later.  Rust bucket would be a generous overstatement, there was no rust under my left foot, just a hole showing the road below.

Kinpun was boiling hot, and packed full of the faithful, either queuing to go up the mountain by truck or fighting their way off of a returning truck.  I deferred going up till the next day, taking the time to catch up on sleep and get over the feeling of being kicked in the arse that being ill gives me.

The trip up the moutain is done by a truck which seats 7 rows of 6 seats.  Each truck waits till it’s full before it sets off at a fair lick up the winding mountain road, the road is winding, and very much like a rollercoaster in parts.  The seat belts are not in use, merely providing decoration on the back of each row of seats. Predictably people were vomiting, in fact the trucks stank of vomit, even when there was no-one heaving their guts up. It was either unbearably grim or I was being a negative Nelly as I wasn’t feeling particularly well.

Once you get to the top there’s a 20min walk to the rock itself.  The area was pretty grubby, the ground was not as clean as other religious sites, despite the heavy footfall. Stalls and hawkers lined the paths both into and upto the rock.

Fashion statement headgear
Fashion statement headgear for this season’s young monks and nuns. It’s all about the towel for him and the pink faux fur animal hood for her.

People were dumping rubbish over the side of the mountain, and it was strewn just beyond the boundary.  Families were up at the site for the day, bringing picnics, blankets, mounds of food, setting up camp under trees or within a small bit of shade, where possible .  There are porters there who will carry it all, for a fee, in their baskets and will even carry people (larger than a child) in reclining sedan seats made of bamboo and cloth.

Alternative taxi option
An alternative to a taxi, I guess.

At the rock itself only men were allowed to touch it, so the women had to view it from afar.  The rock wasn’t quite so precariously perched as perhaps perceived (try saying that after a pint or two), however what wasn’t clear is how they’d managed to gold leaf the entire rock.  Maybe it is on a pole and gets spun round by degrees, who knows…(actually, just looked it up an it gets a repaint every 4 years, so now we all know).

Golden Rock - exactly what it says on the tin.
Golden Rock – exactly what it says on the tin.

Getting back down the hill proved to be slightly more challenging than getting up as there was some sort of methodology associated with getting in the trucks that wasn’t communicated to the foreigner.  Climbing up a 6ft high rickety metal ladder to get into a truck is bad enough, being told to go back down it against a streaming tide of humanity that is all boney elbows and baskets and bags is another.  It did get to the point where I was prepared to take out a granny or two in my attempt to get down the steps rather than being pushed off the edge of the step ladder.  I apparently had to get on truck 3, rather than any of the other part empty ones, dems da rules, so you do as you’re told.

It was a relief to be back down at base camp, safe in the knowledge that I’d be away from the smell of vomit for the rest of the day and I could go back to my hotel room and atrophy before packing again for the final destination.  The next morning, after swerving the oil filled omelette,was to head back to Yangon for the final two nights in Mynamar and a lil’ bit of shopping and afternoon tea at The Strand Hotel.  I was staying at The Loft Hotel in Yangon, a treat for two nights, where I was safe in the knowledge that my omelette wouldn’t be fried – that’s not a euphemism, it’s just a weird thing that seems to happen at some places here.

The Strand had recently been refurbished and was looking suitably swish, all monochrome loveliness, and fragrant roses everywhere.

Oo la la - The Stand chic
Oo la la – The Stand chic

The eleganza of the establishment was brought down a few pegs by me completely covered in sweat, looking as if I’d walked through a shower fully dressed before wandering in there in order to drink my body weight in Twining English Breakfast and eat a small but perfectly formed afternoon tea.

Pot one of two - got to get your money's worth
Pot one of two – got to get your money’s worth.
Get ready for sugar overload.
Get ready for sugar overload.

It was a nice opportunity to pretend to be civilised for an hour or so, but it was soon time to head back out into the boiling 36degree heat and burn off some of the English Breakfast and then return to the hotel for another round of packing in order to get set for a couple of nights in Bangkok doing ‘feff all (quickly becoming a theme) before flying off to South Korea, and 12 days with Corean Cimchi.

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Stuffed to the gills…

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Malingering and Munching in Mandalay

And I am spent….lingering lurgy that started on the bus to Mandalay was a warning sign. As was the stiff calves and sore legs that made me walk like I’d poo’d myself for a couple of days in Bagan (definitely haven’t) – I’d put that down to the mileage I’d ramped up in Yangon. Sore throat and now a comedy cough so that I too join the phlegmy hawkers of spit coughing it up at regular intervals. 

I’m recovering in Hsipaw (no I didn’t sneeze as I said it, its pronounced Sipa, or Thiba, but the Burmese do like an extra consonant or two, or just have them sound completely different to what you’d expect, thus the currency of Kyat is pronounced Chat).

It’s no wonder I’m ill, the concept of a hand over your mouth when coughing seems to me, based on experience, to stop at a point prior to India and sharing your infectious spittle is done with aplomb till you get towards Japan, South Korea etc and your hand comes back into action once more. 

Due to getting my arse into gear for visiting Mandalay I had a full on itiner-inner-inary when all I wanted to do was sleep. Luckily the ‘Home’ hotel was amazing, a massive big room with a bed even bigger than the one at Campbell House Hotel, hot shower and a bath (which looked useable unlike the one at Betelnut in Bagan that looked like a large leftover slightly stained and rusting plant pot) and even more amazingly-wifi that worked, a lot of the time! Wowzers!!! I had to eat before bed and I cheated with a European bistro up the road dosing up on ginger beer and fresh lime juice to attack the lurgy and a small salad at an eye-watering £9 (Not really expensive but as a lunch spread of curry, rice, soup and salad plus veggies and a dessert will cost no more that £2 it seems a bit of a shocker).

Walking back, well hobbling, you could see that whilst a grid system was also in use in Mandalay traffic lights were less evident, so at every junction it was a case of majority wins when it came to right of way, a little cluster of vehicles would gather and edge, edge, edge their way forward till oncoming traffic stopped. Luckily most drivers seemed to cautiously edge forward rather than take a nihilistic approach to crossing but the motorbikes did have an unerring ability to cut right across corners thus being on the wrong side of the road after they turned. Still, it carried on like swans gliding across a pond and I didn’t get to see any accidents.

Drivers generally seem to help one another out, particularly on the major roads, probably because when it comes to overtaking they can see feck all as the driver is on the right side and blind to any oncoming traffic. Trucks therefore will use their indicators to advise when it’s safe to overtake, right meaning ‘stay behind’, left to mean ‘safe to overtake’. It did take some of the fear out of the shared taxi drive to Hsipaw knowing that the driver wasn’t always blindly taking a chance when pulling out behind the many trucks on the road. 

Back at Home, in my supersize, super comfortable bed I was woken early to the sound of amorous pigeons using my window ledge for a bit of wooing and cooing.  Meanwhile outside was pretty quiet on the roads as I headed east to the rendezvous point for the trishaw tea shop tour.  People were slowly coming to, seemed a bit slower paced to Yangon. The poverty was more apparent here in Mandalay than in Yangon too, or maybe it was just in a different part of town there. Running parallel to the main road were little hovels on the pavement where families were waking up, cooking over small charcoal burners, sweeping, washing or setting up small food stalls.  

Our teashop half-day was with Grasshopper tours, the same guys who I’d cycled with in Bagan. Sai was our guide and we were joined by a Dutch couple. We all wedged our arses into the teeny side car next to our trishaw drivers and set off. My driver had double bubble, with me at the front and tiny Sai at the back. If the driver was cursing under his breath for having to heft this portion around, I don’t blame him. It can be disconcerting being driven directly into oncoming traffic with only the tinkling of the driver’s bell to protect you and a man’s pedal power being the only way to keep you clear of lumps of metal hurtling hither and thither at speed. Shutting your eyes helps, alot.

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Our arses have to fit in those?!? Trishaws lined up and ready to go. Lucky those tyres are solid rubber and not pneumatic.

First up was veggie tempura, fried corn fritters,and little savoury dumplings and samosas. The place was doing a fairly brisk trade although we were the ony ones sat down. We were going to get our lard on today. Good lard though, we would certainly die happy and fat. 

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Choices, choices…
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Hopefully the chilli sauce will stop the arteries from furring

We were peddled off to a teashop next for samosas, more fried donuts and the ubiquitous chai. I skipped the chai as wanted to keep the enamel on my teeth, but the Dutch guys gave it a go – one sip and one wince and they were back on the jasmine tea.

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Samosas and plain doughnuts, keeping up the fried theme…

At the hastily found mohinga stall (the first one being shut) we were served up just outside the front of the family home. And family they were -2 middle aged sisters and their mum. The mohinga is noodles with with fried corn fritter broken up into it and banana stem in it, then you add your chili according to your heat preference. Doesn’t look the most appetising but is reet tasty and very filling. Not that we needed filling up much more by this point.

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Mohinga – might not be much to look at but tastes amizzin’

Sai like most Burmese guides had great English, the amount of things they’re expected to know, and the range of vocab is impressive. He was softly spoken so he had to repeat things a couple of times. What was funny was that he couldn’t help but be honest, if you asked a question, there’d be a momentary pause, he’d screw his face up as if trying to stop the words coming out, then he’d breathe out and start ‘well actually only in my opinion…’ 

We headed to Zegyo market for a wander around, and to taste a couple of desserts. Upstairs in the meat and fish section it was a tad smelly but completely fly free, with at least one contented cat having a wash by the fish and a couple of dogs milling around.

As usual it was nose to tail selling, chicken feet, and sheeps brains, blood, intestines, the lot. Sai confessed to not knowing how to cook, seems a common trait amongst most men here, although he did have a fair bit of knowledge of the market and the various oddities for sale, including the roasted rats that were outside.

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Snack anyone?

Apparently these were country rats, a far superior meat to town rat, (wasn’t going to find out) although there had been tell of town rats being passed off as their humble country cousins, so you never can be too careful. Check you origin of rat, folks, that’s all I’m saying.

The amount of snackage we were putting away meant that every time I sat in my trishaw seat I feared for getting back out as my arse was expanding at an alarming rate. The hour long walk back would hopefully counter the effects of the food, but at the rate we were going I’d need to do a full on marathon to achieve any rebalance.

Next up was lahpet, pickled tea leaf salad, a curiosity as this is the only country where tea is eaten. Salads in Myanmar are usually mixed by the recipient so they can blend the ingredients according to personal preference but as we are sharing the dish it was pre-mixed. Pickled tea leaves are covered in sesame oil and mixed with crisp fried garlic, peas and peanuts, toasted sesame, crushed dried shrimp, preserved shredded ginger and fried shredded coconut. The taste is almost meaty (I guess it’s umami innit?), and you get the nuttiness coming through, but what really stands out is the texture, which as with all salads is a blend of oily and crunchy, and definitely a Burmese ‘thing’. Often it’s also the inclusion of chickpea flour that coats the ingredients along with oil that gives it that texture.

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Pickled tea leaf salad with green tomato, peanuts and fried lentils

We thought this was the last stop but nope, two more…another teashop for Indian and noodles – big puffy puri with sambals, naan, and two types of noodles, along with pickles and some diced cabbage. More tea, this time ‘less sweet, more bitter,’ allegedly, which tasted as sweet, if not more that the standard chai affair.

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Last dishes of the day – noodles galore with naan, pickle and shredded cabbage

I was waiting for my lime juice at our final stop, a juice stall (helpfully) which was full of kids on their school time lunch break. We were back in the residential area of south east Mandalay, extremely wealthy judging by the size of the houses tucked behind gated entrances and the general quietness of the area. We were trishawed all of 50mtrs to the top of the road where we said our goodbyes, I was pointed in the right direction and I set off for my waddle back to the hotel – it was going to be a light dinner that evening. 

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I feel loooooooooooooove

For good food, and it seems I’m in the right place. After packing up and heading to the MK Hotel t’other side of town in the east of Central Yangon, where they out-serviced themselves with juice, early check in and lots of smiles.  I’m pretty sure if they could have carried me up to the room themselves they would have done.  To be fair, every hotel in Myanmar has been amazing with the service, cannot fault it.

Admiring the view straight into someone’s kitchen window from my room, I then left my bag and was soon walking back the way I came (amazingly, because then twice later I headed out in the completely wrong direction), before veering north once more for a nose around and then lunch at ‘Feel’ Burmese restaurant in the embassy area of town.

First up it was time for a bit of history, courtesy of the tomb of Dargah Bahadur Shan Zafar, who died in November 1862.  He was the last Mughal emperor of India and had been exiled to Rangoon along with his family by the British 4 years before in 1858.  He had been buried in an unmarked grave that was only discovered in 1991.  I had read about him and his story in a book that titled exactly what it’s about , namely ‘ The Last Mughal’, by William Dalrymple.  I wanted to see Shan Zafar’s final resting place.  Resting being the right word as the tomb, and his wife’s are covered with a very nice silk bedspread, which are then covered with rose petals.  It all smelt very nice, courtesy of the air freshener hidden round the back of Mrs Zafar’s own silk bedspread.

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Now where can I get me one of them thair valances?

A slightly circuitous (of course) route took me to Feel, for an early lunch.  Just as well that I got there when I had, as it was heaving and I ended up table sharing with a group of non-talking Chinese (to each other, I wasn’t expecting idle chit-chat and sharing pleasantries with me) with their Myanmar guide.

The waiter hustled me to the back of the restaurant where the curries were laid out in trays behind a glass counter and started to list all the different options, so I panicked and went all British and didn’t want to be getting in everyone’s way so ordered the meatballs at the front, ‘oh, you like spicy?’ said the waiter.  We’ll see, I guess, and then we moved onto the piles of salads on small plates (the salads are called ‘thoke’ ) so I chose two salads – one ginger (Gin Thoke) and one tomato.  Didn’t seem too much…..famous last words, which I’d have eaten, if I wasn’t soon to be so full.

Back at the table, I was delivered a mahoosive plate of steamed and raw greens with a chilli dip – that was a meal for 2 in itself. Then came the soup, which you seem to get with most Burmese food – a clear soup, often with noodles in and some chicken floating in it.

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And it started off so simply…round 1 – chili and veggies…

I was starting to get a bit overwhelmed by the amount of plates and bowls on the table, and the main order hadn’t even turned up at this point. Also squeezed on the table was a thermos of jasmine tea, three types of chillies – in vinegar, crushed or as a sauce, and then napkins and a small bin.  Then my drink turned up followed by the mains, each on a plate and two plates of rice – one plate went back.

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Meat balls and salads are go go go…

The meatballs were delicious, probably beef, possibly mutton – either way – the spices really brought out the flavour and they weren’t as spicy as I’d thought they’d be, well they weren’t until toward the end of the meal when I bit into one of those chillies that numbs your tongue, lips and roof of your mouth, as well as makes the hairs on your arms stand on end.  Thankfully that didn’t last too long and the free dessert came in handy at that point to take away the pain. Anyhow, back to the main meal, everything was full of flavour and texture, no wonder the Chinese next to me were silent – they were just tucking into it all, savouring everything.  The salads were something else, with the crunch of the peanut and sesame giving them really interesting texture and the lime and fish sauce coming through, as well as the ginger.  My mouth just waters at the thought of them.  Clearly there was way too much food and when the free dessert turned up – a kind of tapioca with jaggery I nearly despaired, till the moment I found that one evil chilli.

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Dessert and numb tongue / chili mouth soother. Looks pretty vile but tasted suitably sweet.

I took my time working through everything, like a dog with two tails, not sure where to go first.  I was so very happy and so very full by the end of it, and was looking forward to a wander around the National Museum to walk off the food baby.

The National Museum was shut, what with it being a Monday and all, so waddled back to the hotel and then got lost wandering around nearby as my sense of direction completely failed me and I turned the wrong way coming back out of it.  Took me a few blocks to realise that I was heading out of Yangon and not into it, however having course corrected I found myself back on track.

Having had my fill at Feel, I thought that a light dinner was in order.  Rather than have Myanmar again and possible feel let down, it was time for European at Sharky’s, where I ordered the chicken salad.  Should have read the reviews perhaps, as when it came it came  there was enough for 3 as it was in a 12” tray, completely covering the base and was almost as high! The egg on the top looked at me mockingly, wondering how I was going to stuff all that down my throat.

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Best just to dive in and figure a way through to the bottom of the tray – Chicken Salad – Sharky’s

Buying a new wardrobe was not on the agenda for coming away, but at this rate was looking increasingly likely. No amount of walking was going to resolve this!