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.

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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.

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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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Investigating Inle and its environs

Like Mr Soesoe I am gradually winding down. As I get to the end of my trip I’m slowly running out of energy, so I decided to take it easy on arrival and also have an extra day in Inle to do fuck all too. However I ended up doing a bit more than I bargained for before I left Inle.

I arranged a guide, Mr Htet Lien, for a three day itinerary covering various parts of the lake.  Having guides has been a real benefit, as otherwise I really don’t think I’d have got anywhere as much insight and information on the sites I saw without them. That does assume that none of them were talking bollocks for the duration of their time with me however.

It were nippy out in the morning, which made a nice change from the stifling heat and dust I was failing to get used to.  Being on and around the lake meant that even the jeans got a showing in the evening, as did the cold weather clothes for Korea.  Everyone is muffled up against the cold, the locals are in layers, with hats and gloves likes it’s winter. All the boatmen provide fleecy blankets and giant umbrellas for those sitting on the boats, to help stave off the breeze, however as the day draws on it quickly burns any mist off the lake and warms up in no time.  However once the sun goes down it is soon cold again, also pitch black, as they don’t have lights on the boats.

Here’s the bad news. There’s about 4000 boats on the lake, and the lake is at risk from many different factors, the diesel pollution from boats, invader fish species, declining fish stocks from overfishing, overuse of fertilisers on the floating island farms, rubbish and run off in the water, also the water table has dropped by over half to not more than 2mtrs in some parts and the lake has shrunk by about half a mile across its width in recent times. Mr Lien is part of a conservation group that is looking at how to come up with sustainable solutions before it is too late, as it is it’s already a depressing site. We spent a bit of time, as part of the trip, visiting some people to get them involved, this included an abbot of a small monastery who agreed to hold the meeting of the interested parties in a couple of weeks. The government wants to find the solutions to how to resolve the many issues impacting Inle but everyone knows that there is a balance to be had between ensuring it can continue to provide income for so many locals and recover.

When not using an outboard motor, the fishermen on the lake row using one leg. The legend is that about 100yrs ago a one armed man tired of waiting on mates for lifts decided to figure out how to propel himself and a boat across the water, and thus the unique leg rowing was born.

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Hands free fishing
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Fisherman on the lake.

Some of the guys on the water are not even fishing, they dress up in traditional Shan outfits and pose for tourists, then demand cash.  You could tell who the real fishermen were, as they were dressed in their work-a-day clothes.

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Faux fisherman waiting for tourists in the early morning gloom wearing his Shan outfit.

As well as fishing the biggest cash crop is tomatoes and other vegetables, garlics, gourds and rice.  People create floating islands from lengths of compacted water plants that have composted down creating a semi-solid mass. Long sections are cut and are floated to areas of gardens where they are pinned in place by bamboo poles. Water weeds are harvested to mulch and compost. Everyone was prepping for new planting, collecting the weed, clearing the land or transplanting seedlings.

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Collecting water weed for the floating islands.

Our first stop was a visit to the 5 day market happening at Indein.  The market works on rotation at various sites around the lake.  Guidebooks talk of the mysterious magic that ensures that all locals know where the market will be, and when.  Turns out it’s actually posted up on calendars everywhere, and the fact it’s written in Burmese means no tourist is going to know that the local person they’re asking isn’t actually doing ‘woo-woo’ when he’s staring into space before telling you, he’s actually looking over your shoulder to the right date.

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Market day boat frenzy

The channel to market was cluttered with boats, and a narrow walkway was equally full with stalls selling row upon row of tourist tat – jewellery, textiles, headgear made of teeth (whose teeth I didn’t discover), Buddha stories on dried palm leaves, wicker baskets of various shapes and sizes, fake silver, beaded necklaces, carved wooden dolls in couples that appeared to share a coffin, these turned out to be representatives of each tribal group.

Once you negotiated all of that and the hordes of backpack clad tourists all haggling with the stall holders through the use of a laminated card listing numbers up to 200, you came to the proper part of the market where the locals actually did their shopping.

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Shopping done, and heading back to the boat.
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Heading into town for a bargain.

The catch of the day was laid out on the ground with different varieties and sizes of fish gasping for breath, bunches of them were linked on strings made of banana leaf or something similar, eels writhed in buckets.  Not all were from the lake, some of the larger carp were farmed, and had been brought in from elsewhere.

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Fish for tea

Further into the market were snack sellers everywhere, both sweet and savoury.  Massive rice crackers at least 12” across were piled up in stacks 3’ high, skewered by thin bamboo sticks to keep them together, baskets contained various sweets made of brown sugar – peanut or sesame seed brittle, bright red chicken heads on sticks, thick pancakes, steamed sticky snacks in banana leaves. Mr Lien bought a crème caramel type dessert made of sugar, and some fried snack made of chick pea flour like you get in Bombay Mix.

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Looks like the puppet show has gone drastically wrong…

We had a cup of coffee at a small shack and Mr Lien told me about his daughter, 15 and at a private school about 40mins away.  Private schooling costs him about $4000 a year, however it was clear that he wanted to ensure his daughter got a good education.  He had dropped out of university in his second year when he realised the only way he could succeed was to be able to bribe his way to good exam results and he didn’t want to do that.

Education in Myanmar is extremely basic and only recently was free schooling introduced for children.  It’s apparent that many families send their children to school, preferring to send them out to work after the mandatory schooling stops around age 9.  Only 75% of children finish primary school in Myanmar. At the teashop across from my hotel were 2 girls of 12 and 16 working for the owner, they don’t receive a salary per se, it’s akin to indentured servitude. At least they are working in a legal trade, girls are also regularly trafficked over the border to Thailand or China, promised good jobs they are bought and sold by agents to be used in the sex trade.

On that happy note, we wandered back to the boat and headed south for about 60miles through a narrow channel past Shan, Intha and Pa-O villages to a manmade lake for lunch and a visit to Sankar. This artifical lake was created in the 1960s by the Japanese, and was created to provide power to a plant which serves Yangon.  It was a case of sit back and relax, and watch the world go by for the next couple of hours.

Everywhere something was being washed, pick-up trucks, motorbikes, oxen, kids, clothes, women. You name it, it was getting scrubbed.

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Washing day on the water.
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Buffing up nicely
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Stopping off for some water weeds, and a bit of oxen washing.

After lunch, a quick tour of the rice wine barn out the back we then walked up to the top of a nearby hill (complete with pagoda, and monk in a woolly hat that matched his robe, smoking a cheroot – no photo) to see the view and then headed off to visit the ancient stupas.

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View from the hilltop.

Some of the stupas had been renovated by benefactors of the previous regime, new brickwork, new whitewash or updated umbrellas.  All a bit out of place, but seemed to be a common theme across Inle, shiny newness was the order of the day it seemed.  It wasn’t just Burmese benefactors chipping in, at another site there had been fundraising for works by Singaporeans, Chinese and others.

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Spot the new kid on the block.
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Offered – stupa, major renovation required…

Heading back to Inle and we stopped off at Takhaung Mwetaw Pagoda for a bit more stupa staring. You can never have too many shrines to Buddha!

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Umbrella, ‘ella, ‘ella…
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Takhaung Mwetaw Pagoda – mixing the old and the new.
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Buddha at Takhaung Mwetaw Pagoda, just in case you’d forgotten what one looks like.

A quick tour of Naung Po, to watch pottery in action. One of many of the cottage industries I’d be seeing over the next few days.  It always felt a bit weird turning up and us being able to potter about and have a good nosey in what is basically people’s homes or villages.  Nobody seemed to mind, or if they did, they hid it spectacularly well.  It’s also disconcerting the way parents would encourage their kids to wave and smile and pose for photos being taken by the tourists.

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Sort of like the Generation Game but without Larry.

This village makes a variety of pottery items, but mostly large pots, which they produce to mainly sell to Karen State (where the ladies wrap heavy brass coiled around their neck, and sometimes arms and legs too) for their alcohol.  Sounds like quite a niche market!  The kiln was in the back yard, buried about 2mtrs down, the fire kept going for about a day before it’s left to cool for another two, before being opened up.

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Pottery field

The noise of the boat engine droning on was almost hypnotic, a backdrop accompaniment to the setting sun. It was an ideal way to end the first day on the lake, although being at the front of boat that had no lights in the pitch black and the cold wasn’t and it was a relief to be back on dry land 30mins later.

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Accidental decent sunset.

 

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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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Cooking with Nazlina – George Town – Markets morning

Lots of photos – of stuff at the markets mainly.  Might make you hungry.

I booked a cookery class with Nazlina Pickles & Spice having read good reviews (and if she’s good enough for John Torode, then she’s good enough for me – he has just done a 10part cookery programme about Malaysia, and visited Nazlina – apparently). It was a 730am start, and luckily a 2min walk for me, and we were directly overlooking Campbell Street Market, and the Roti Chennai man who’d be supplying breakfast.

Over cups of tea and coffee the 10 of us learning about Malaysian got to wake up a bit, and hear about the day ahead and then got stuck into our Roti Chennai – oh yum.  Then we were off to the market across the road.

The market had more going on outside than in, with only a 5th of it still in use with traders so we got to see the fresh tofu lady, the beansprout man, and the fruit and veg man (and all their wares).  Fresh curry paste man wasn’t there but he left his big buckets of various pastes out for us to peruse.

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Tofu, tofu – as far as the eye can see.

Outside we met the guys who produce fresh coconut milk every day – up at 2am to crack their nuts for 12hrs – that takes dedication.

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Coconuts – obvs.

I’ll skip over the chicken slaughter next to the coconut man and the resulting smell.

We headed off down to Pasar Chowasta, which was heaving en route in comparison to Campbell Street Market.  Stalls selling Nian Gao, glutenous rice that is pounded into a paste, veggies, fruit, fresh fish, dried meats, fresh jellyfish(!), and day to day market wares.

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Nian Gao – a popular gift item during the New Year period

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Edible jellyfish
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Daikon radish and tapioca

Inside the market itself it was cooler and here we tried candied nutmeg whilst Peter filled us in on the history of nutmeg, which the East India Company brought to the island having wrested control of the Indonesian islands that it came from from the Dutch East India Company back in the late 1600s. Tasting it, and later the nutmeg juice that is sold over Penang it became readily apparent that it tasted like flat cola, and must be an ingredient in it!

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Fresh nutmegs. The red round thing middle, far left is the mace that surrounds the nutmeg seed. Seed is next to it – looks like a black grape.

We collected the beef we needed for the rendang being made later, and headed back out where we saw the fish bladders and the stall of the  man who hand makes popiah skins aka spring roll wraps (he was taking the day off for Chinese New Year but I saw them being made a couple of days later) and back into the heat for a small breakfast snack of Ban Chang Kueh – pancakes stuffed with sugar and peanuts.  Watching the guy monitoring his 6 heated plates, lifting lids, adding ingredients, removing the final product was like watching a maestro at work – brilliant, and the results were fantastic too. There’s a vi-dayo on instagram here.

Pancake inhaled and the warmth of day starting to make everyone ‘glow’, we headed back to Nazlina’s with our haul of beef and various veggies for the cooking to begin – hurray!!!

Lazing on a sunny-ish afternoon….

Sunday in Samui and a day off from the yoga, with merely un tadette of rain, a small spittle from the heavens over lunchtime and a bit of sunburn to boot – happy days. After 4 days of yoga twice a day it was good to have a bit of a break.

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Man tries to hide corpse on the beach whilst bridal photoshoot takes place….

Time on Samui has been less rollercoaster and more roll over in bed and yawn, as time spent horizontal appears to outweigh the vertical by 2:1.  There hasn’t been a lot going on for me apart from wake, eat, yoga, lay down, eat, yoga, eat, lay down, with plenty of showers in between, because even though it’s been overcast and rainy at times, it’s still hot and yoga has resulted in a rather substantial outpouring of sweat – no glow going on here, it’s been pure unadulterated red faced out of breathedness and a drenched t-shirt every single time.

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Getting ready to chuck it down, again…

The doing nothing hasn’t been about preparing for the Vipassana – which has been cancelled (and I’m waiting to see if a school at Mandalay will take me instead) but because a) I’m lazy and can’t be bothered to rush off anywhere between yoga finishing at 11 and starting again at 4, b) I fear death on the roads and therefore do not want to get on a scooter and ride out to find it, c) everything is so expensive with the exchange rate, it means I’m having to make the budget tighter than a camel’s puckered ring in a sandstorm.  As a result of the latter, I stand out like a sore thumb in town, avoiding the dearth of fish restaurants, steak houses and pizza / pasta joints where the starting price for a main is c. £12-15 and instead head for the lil ma’n’pa Thai places where dinner is still about a fiver for two dishes and a drink. I think the people of Fisherman’s Village will be having a whippy to buy me a t-shirt that says ‘Cheapskate’ on it, and they’d be right to do so.

Fisherman’s Village is a small part of Bophut that runs a few hundred metres along the shoreline, not far from the main ferry crossing to Ko Phangan and Ko Tao, and not far from the airport.  There’s not a lot going on here, and it’s pretty laidback as a result – not much gets going till about 10am, which makes breakfast before my 9.30am class a 15min walk to the other end of town to the only reasonably priced place that’s open and that sells decent coffee (the hotel does breakfast but getting them to cook an omelette at 8.30am feels strangely instrusive –  with a baby and a small kid are barely awake themselves!).

Weirdly, for such a small place we seem to major in tailors – at least 6 at the last count – not sure if it’s a legal requirement to have one every 50mtrs or so (none are ever busy either),

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and then it’s farang run restaurants – lots of French, some Aussie, an Indian, even a Spanish tapas bar, there’s also a plethora of massage places and you’re guaranteed to be followed down the road by a cry of ‘Maaaaaassssaaaaagggge’ at least once a day.  No overdose of opticians though, unlike Hua Hin where Chareon opticians was in a head to head death struggle for retail space with the tailors – both were winning the space race, neither had clients though….Fisherman’s Village is a drop-in sort of place, where people who don’t fear death come for the day on their scooters and have a look-see, go to the beach and then bugger off again, except for on Friday…on Friday they come to long time look see.

Because….

Friday is the big day – for this is Walking Market day.  This means that all the stores along the one and only main road move all their tat from inside the shop to outside onto the road and ‘ta da’ we have a market.

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Ready to (dis)grace a mantelpiece near you.

Who ever came up with that idea to block the road with useless tattery deserves shooting or a medal, not sure which.

Meanwhile further up the other end of town food stalls set up to sell every kind of edible on a stick that’s possible – various bits of meat on sticks, corn on sticks, sausages on sticks, fruit on sticks, you can even have a giant potato that’s been cut to look like a row of crisps (sadly not on a stick) but in the main, basically if you can skewer it – you can sell it seems to be the rule.

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Banana Pancake – not on a stick.

The other big thing going on is wedding photos on the beach, just the bride and groom alone with a photographer. Usually this involves the small group being watched by the sunburnt fat farangs  (e.g. me) and the beach dogs.  It’s a weird event, the clothes seems to borrowed, the poses somewhat stilted and usually involve the couple looking wistfully into the distance, or doing some sort of action shoot – slow-mo running on the beach or a bit of heavy lifting of the bride. Certainly fun in the sun – photos to follow!

Right, my day is nearly over – time for horizontal and snoozing x

A taster – the last post from Laos 2015

Morning from Luang Prabang and my last day…well, half a day…in Laos. I’m sitting in the courtyard of the hotel listening to the bustle of the morning market outside and pondering on why I bought another bedspread last night. Hibiscus daiquiris are a dangerous menu item it appears. Thus it looks as if I’ll be paying the price of the special cocktail with a visit to the Chiang Mai post office as my textile acquiring beacon was on high alert here and my luggage excess will be costing more than my flight home from India. Luckily I managed to avoid buying the ubiquitous Laos traveller garb, that of the elephant print troos – not hard – I have, what is commonly believed to be ‘taste’ when it comes to travel gear. To be fair I’ve seen worse but when people turn up en familie all clad in the same print it brings the thought ‘what cults are these.’

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The night market is a huge affair with stall after stall selling mainly Laos textile, tshirts and paper items. It’s also weirdly quiet, no music, talking mostly muted (unless it’s a screaming Chinese person saying ‘I only pay 50,000kip, no more’) and a lot of business conducted via the passing backward and forwards of a calculator as people bargain.

I arrived yesterday morning in the drizzle and mist, after a 11hr ‘sleeper’ bus ride from Houay Xai. That hadn’t been the plan, spending a night wedged into a sleeper seat designed for a minute Laotian with no arse, hips, or height over 5ft, instead I was all set for a mattress, clean sheets, a room alone, not being stuck next to a pissed off Chinese girl who insisted on rowing with her boyfriend in the pitch dark as the bus lurched around the mountainside with random Laos music videos playing, or AC starting up noisily and unaccountably at varying intermittent times of the night. The plan was to get on a boat for a few hours from Pak Tat and arrive into Luang Prabang early evening and relax, instead it was a night clenched rigid to avoid rolling over onto my sleeping buddy (seatbelt was wedged down the side of the seat) or into the footwell of the seat. However it turned out Pak Tat to LP was a two day boat ride, a bit of miscommunication between Lara and N’Zoua meant my lovely plan was caught in the crossfire and squashed like the mosquitos that insist on attacking me every night.

I’d arrived into Houay Xai from Chiang Rai without issue, into the chaos of Daauw House, carrying my 12kgs of pretend cheese (another story involving cash and carry out of town, taxi drivers abandoning me and me then standing on the roadside like a cheap hooker (albeit one with a rucksack full of cheese) awaiting a replacement taxi driver for 40mins.

The stay was its usual madly disorganised self, slightly worsened by a)being in a bungalow with no hot water and THE coldest shower known to man, and b) a mattress so hard you’d break your arsebones if you sat down too hard, but at least be assured the floor would be softer as you fell toward it.

The project was overrun with snot faced children, as it was the weekend, and they were running riot, screaming, falling out, wailing, misbehaving and generally behaving in a way that would have had me reaching for Calpol for all of them if I’d had it. The youngest all have a habit of screeching if they don’t get their way, so your eardrums bleed, as do your eyes and your hand raises up in a pose that threatens to beat the living shit out of them if it continues. I retired to ‘town’ (the stretch of restaurants and guest houses that runs parallel to the Mekong) to drink coffee and breathe deeply. At least the next day they didn’t start up till 6am, and even then at restrained levels, not sure if the Noise Abatement team had been in and literally applied a gagging order or what, and the monks didn’t have any 4am drumming practice till the Monday . This was a very spiritual experience as remarked by a German women staying there overnight, or ‘a very fucking noisy one’ as thought by the tired Brit who’d had a week of it during a previous stay when it’d been a monks on tour stay at the temple and morning drum-offs were de rigeur.  Getting away to the village to visit Baauw, her 2week old twins and new family was going to be the break I needed…..wrong……

The trip aht (not aht aht, just village visiting aht) was a heady mix of ‘we’re leaving at 9am with N’Zoua and Lara with Baauw’s daughter Siiwa’, to ‘N’Zoua and Siiwa will go and we will also take Baauw’s parents so we will leave about 9 /10am’ to the actuality of leaving without N’Zoua and having Pa-ow driving Siiwa, me and Baauw’s parents (riding in the back of the truck like mad max outriders) at well after 11. What followed was a very bumpy ride across dirt tracks full of potholes nominally called roads, that threw up massive dust clouds when anything drove past us. We passed through villages, and huge Chinese owned banana plantations where the bunches of bananas were dressed in paperwork and plastic bags so it looked as if a dry cleaner had decided to say fuck it to the business and threw all the cleaned clothes out amongst the banana trees.

Partway through the journey N’Zoua overtook us on a motorbike, his dark hair full of orange red dust, looking like he’d been horribly hennaed. Ahhhh so he was coming with us after all. We stopped, after 3 hours, for a noodle lunch by a river and were quickly joined by flies who wanted to hang out and share our lunch. 2hrs later bumping down yet another dirt track we finally arrived to Baauw’s village where we were met by even more children than at the Daauw house all bearing their own snot trails down their faces, their clothes and over the dogs and puppies that ran around.  Said canines were waiting, invariably, for what came out the kids bums – that seemed to be lunch for the critters. Funnily enough, after witnessing that my lunch revisited itself to my mouth but I managed to get back to where it belonged so the puppies missed out on a second course. Weird really as everyone is pretty obsessed with cleanliness as I can attest when I went to the community water pump for my shower I was followed by EVERYONE to see how I’d get clean whilst wearing all my clothes (answer – not as well as I’d like).

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However my tumble arse over tit at the wrong end of the water pump area went down pretty well, I managed to break the fall into the built up scum with my nice clean clothes so it looked as if I’d had a turd accident on them even before I put them on. This was followed by getting dressed in open plan (eg a large room in a hut filled with bags of rice and a platform on stilts that’s your bed) whilst being observed by staring children and is off putting to say the least – moreso for them – no trauma therapy for those critters having to see this getting dressed. Still, everything appears to be conducted with everyone else in attendance – there is no concept of privacy or keeping your voice down at midnight or 4am or any other time or leaving the light off so others can sleep…hell no, it’s ‘I’m up, we’re all up!’.

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I appeared to have an allergic reaction to the oversharing, with wheezing, itchy eyes and sneezing on the second day and after taking an antihistamine conked out at various times throughout the day. I was all headachy and bleurghy – although that was also probably shock after climbing up a cliff in Birkenstocks, shuffling over edges with sheer drops and no hand rails available and generally being in fear of plunging to my death so early in the day. I therefore decided to forego the climb all the way up to the top, leaving everyone else (including grandparents and grandchildren) to scramble up a sheer rock face either barefoot or in flip flops. I meanwhile headed back down with a lady companion and then promptly swung off the edge of the cliff and would have gone over it completely if I wasn’t holding onto a branch at the time. Doh. No idea what she said to me but gathered it was along the lines of ‘thank fuck you were holding that branch because if you’d gone over that edge you’d be dead and I’d be having to explain to everyone how the hell I lost the big white portion’.

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Still, I made it to the evening and after another shower al fresco with more towel and less clothes (equalling better cleaning) we then had the naming ceremony for the twins, which took place in my bedroshom /the rice storage area with c40 people present for the grub. The food had all been prepared over an open fire in the kitchen area – chicken, rice, morning glory – all rustled up by the ladies of the household, including Baauw, during the day.  Earlier we had walked up to her restaurant building which is under construction and where I hope she will be serving up more of the same in due course.

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At this point I developed a pounding headache, and then nearly lost it when I found out that my trip to Luang Prabang wasn’t going to be the day ride on a boat I was assured it was but was instead the two full days on the bloody slow boat (this explains why all the photos that night show me both red eyed and red nosed). It meant I’d turn up in LP just after I should have left. Not helpful….and not a great use of the flight I’d booked out and the two nights accommodation at the hotel which had proper beds and mattresses that supported not repelled you and were not corrugated iron under fabric purporting to be a mattress or bamboo slats under fabric likewise attempting to lure you into a false sense of sleepy sleep night nights. Argh. I could not wait for the leaving the next morning although returning to Houay Xai was not tippy top of the agenda.

Baauw offered to massage my head to help with the headache. After a liberal application of tiger balm she then proceeded to drive her fingers into the bone structure of my skull, I think it’s a new shape now. Whilst recovering from that pain (which did distract from headache pain, so kind of worked) she then pinched me so hard between the eyebrows and down my neck I now have blood blisters come up there and it looks as if someone attempted a hickey right between my eyes. Goyjus. She then pulled my hair, a lot. It hurt. A lot. When she asked if I was better, I decided it safest to lie and say ‘A lot’, as I was worried I’d start to flinch involuntarily if she came near me with her pincer grip again. Mr Spock and his death grip has nothing on her, that’s for sure.

Up at 6, awake since 4 due to everyone else being up, and letting everyone else know it VERY loudly and headache still there and expecting to leave by 7, we set off at a reasonable 8:30 after hugs, tears and photo ops.

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It started to rain, which meant my rucksack came into the cab of the truck but the grandparents and Siiwa were left out to get soaked. Not my decision…there must have been a rule that I missed about who could be in the cab, and who couldn’t. Meanwhile the brakes started to smoke and luckily we were distracted from that by N’Zoua’s phone being used as the sound system. What this meant was that every 30seconds a track would get randomly switched to something else. I learnt that Laos has a wide array of bastardised music genres that they overlay onto their own traditional style, and that they do love a love ballad but they don’t love it enough to listen to it all the way through. Still, 4hrs of that passed pretty quick, all things considered -random weather, smoking brakes being cooled by us driving through fords, the small amounts of road with tarmac followed very quickly by potholes and dirt, blind corners with music blaring so you had no hope of knowing if a car coming the other way was warning you of its locale, or the variety of potential roadkill up ahead – be it dogs, ducks, children and chickens and then the banana plantations complete with dry cleaning adrift in the bushes and before we knew it we were back in Houay Xai, brakes practically on fire, everyone slightly deaf in the front seats and the passengers in the back slightly windswept and damp.  5hrs later and I was on the bus ready to set off pretty much back the way we’d come although with less off-roading and more horning. Joy…

Getting into Luang Prabang at 6:15am the next day in the rain and mist was bliss, even having a tuktuk driver not have a clue about where my hotel was ok too ‘Ban Pakham, you know?’ ‘Ban Pakham?’ ‘Yes, Ban Pakham’, ‘Only Ban Pakhaaam’. ‘Ok Ban Pakhaaam, yes.’ ‘…’Silence. He dropped me close enough and pointed in the right direction to the new bed and breakfast that was converted from a beautifully traditional wooden Laos house. I had a proper bed, a shower that I didn’t need to share with the local poultry, a flushable toilet and all to myself inside, with a door that locked and best of all –  filter coffee. Sorted. S’all an experience and nothing a lime and mint juice won’t fix. After this, Chiang Mai and Mumbai and home. Nearly done, innit.