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.

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

20170425_173708
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.

Can Curreu car park
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!

20170426_200547
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!

Save

Save

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.

DSCF1165 (2)
Hands free fishing
DSCF1805 (2)
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.

DSCF1150 (2)
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.

DSCF1758
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.

DSCF1223
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.

DSCF1219
Shopping done, and heading back to the boat.
DSCF1236
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.

DSCF1251
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.

DSCF1278
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.

DSCF1350 (2)
Washing day on the water.
DSCF1328 (2)
Buffing up nicely
DSCF1508
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.

DSCF1394
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.

DSCF1418
Spot the new kid on the block.
DSCF1440
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!

DSCF1474
Umbrella, ‘ella, ‘ella…
DSCF1479
Takhaung Mwetaw Pagoda – mixing the old and the new.
DSCF1458
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.

DSCF1492
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.

DSCF1498
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.

DSCF1532
Accidental decent sunset.

 

Save

Save

Sleepy in Hsipaw and chucking up toward Inle

Meanderings beyond Mandalay

Day 2 in Mandalay and a full on tourist day with Mr Soesoe, from 9am till sunset. It’s a long read so save for when you’re having trouble sleeping or had enough caffeine, or just skip through ahd look at some pictures…

Being my usual attentive self I’d not read the memo on the day’s events properly. I knew we were visiting a couple of the ancient capital cities of Mandalay but that was about it.  Time seems to slip away each day, and it always feels as if I’m on catch up, trying to keep track of planning for the next part of the trip, downloading the photos from the day before, before you know it it’s bedtime and you’re still not sure what’s occuring the next day.

Mr Soesoe is not a Bamar (main ethnic grouping) but Yun, and he certainly stood out as being significantly taller and stockier than the little people I’d encountered so far. He’d started life as an English teacher over 25yrs ago and became a tour guide in the mid-1990s, just as people were asked to boycott the country. He was like a clockwork toy, start of the day, chatty, energetic, arms flying, stories coming and then as the day wore on he gradually wound down, quieter, lethargic.  Having gone through to identify our stops on through the day, it’s no surprise really – we had 19 different locations that we visited.  No wonder by the time we got to U Pein  / U Bein’s bridge (means Mr Skinny) he stopped entirely and I was accompanied by his son to watch another sunset. By the time we got back to the van, he’d had a nap or a beer or both and was a bit more with it, regaling me with stories of French tourists, elephant trekking, opium fields and militia on the way back to the hotel. 

First up (following a bit of Googling to remember), we went to Shwenandaw Monastery, a wooden structure built in 1880 by King Thibaw Min.  He decided to dismantle and relocate what was his father’s living quarters, believing them to be haunted by his dead father’s spirit. So when you’ve got a ghost in-situ it seems the best thing to do is move it with the building and let some monks figure out what to do about it. The building seemingly moved around a bit previously, having been part of the royal palace at Amarapura, before ibeing moved to Mandalay.   Today Shwenandaw Monastery is the single remaining major original structure of the original Royal Palace. There – cul-tcha for ya!

dscf0676
Shwenandaw Monastery
dscf0672
Shwenandaw Monastery

Mahamuni Pagoda, one of the most religious sites for Burmese.  A statue of Buddha sits here covered in repeated applications of gold leaf, now over 6” deep, looking as if he has a festering impetigo on his body or was morphing into Thing from Famous Four.  His face is kept clean of leaf, and every day at 4am there is a face washing ceremony to ensure he remains pristine.  Only men are allowed to apply the leaf, not just here, but at other sites where religious artefacts are held – in Inle  5 images of Buddha are so weighted with leaf they are merely bulbous forms, like snowmen.

dscf0698
Mahamuni Pagoda, where only men (wearing checked shirts) can apply gold leaf to the statue of Buddha

Giant screens are set up around the site so you can watch the faithful close up as they apply the gold.  Across the way stand 5 Hindu-Buddhist statues stolen from Angkhor Wat are lined up, parts of them shiny bright from repeatedly being touched by locals who believe that if they have pain and they rub the corresponding body part on the statues they’ll be healed.

A quick looksee at a damaged brick monastery now used as a volleyball court by monks and then it was off to Amapura, ‘City of Imortality’, and the penultimate royal capital of Myanmar.  Amarpura is known for its silk weavers and off we went to the ubiquitous factory of about 15 looms.  Girls working in pairs were threading silk weft to create an extremely intricate patterned longyi.  They mainly produce bespoke orders for weddings, religious ceremonies etc.  The patterns are worked on the reverse so you need a mirror to view the actual piece.

dscf0741
The underside of the weaving captures the pattern
dscf0742
Complex weaving with multiple colours!

Gridlike patterns were set up next to each girl but how they managed to keep track of their patterns seemed headache inducing.  No wonder the prices were starting from $1000, which resulted in most people skipping the back of the show room where the good stuff was sat, and instead mooched around in the ‘cheap deals area’ looking at the bought in cotton scarves, Chinese factory made bags or silk mix cloth sold by the metre.

We headed to Mahagandhayon Monastery, which is home to several thousand monks and is renowned as a centre of Buddhist studies.  I thought that was why we were there, getting a bit of insight an cul-tcha and was therefore a bit confused as to why we went to see the kitchen which was full of other clusters of tourists staring into big pots on big fires and taking photos.  Big numbers of monks need a lot of food, so big pots of it makes sense.

Turns out that this is circus central, and everyone was brought here to watch monks line up for lunch.  The tourist obsessions with monks is obvious in Burma, but even more so in Mandalay due to the high numbers of monasteries, and therefore high numbers of monks.  People seem strangely drawn to wanting to photograph any male in a crimson robe just going about his business – looking at his phone, taking a photo, using an ipad, scratching his arse, sitting on a bus.  It borders on stalking in some instances.  It was therefore somewhat disconcerting to see hundreds of people all crowded, having bagged a ‘good spot’ to watch food being dished out.  It was a paparazzi style madness, everyone jostling for position waiting for the clock to strike 11am and lunch to be served.  The monks themselves arrived silently, bowls in their arms all in dignified receiving lines be dished out lunch by faithful donators who had paid for the privilege of serving.  They were themselves being filmed by their own camera crew, recording the event.  Even when the monks sat down to eat there was no respite, with long lenses loonies straining to peer into the gloom of the dining room to photograph men in robes eating food.  No wonder a number of the monks looked disgruntled, and some deliberately choosing to avoid the dining room due to the sense of discomfort.

dscf0803-2
ooo ooo men in robes eating lunch, must take a picture…

It was a relief to leave and to head over the water, heading toward Sagaing, the capital of the independent Shan kingdom in 1315. 

We couldn’t just head there and were pretty soon stopping at Kaunghmadaw Pagoda, a very breast shaped temple.  Built in 1636 to commemorate Inwa’s establishment as a royal capital, the king was dithering about the shape of the stupa, until the queen supposedly ripped open her blouse and pointed at her breast saying ‘make it like this!’ I presume she meant the shape and not the size.

dscf0819
Hopefully not to scale of the queen’s h’actual breast.

Soesoe and son were a bit peckish, and it wasn’t even 12noon.  They left me at the market to have a potter about and then lunch was at a little restaurant away from the market, choices were curry, or curry, 5 actually – pork, chicken, fish, something I missed, and deer (complete with mime of Rudolph). But it wasn’t just as straightforward as that, because no, you get your chow for you kyat. What turned up was a small dish of curry with two pieces of meat, rice, soup, beans, a fish tomato thing, cabbagey salad, chilies and raw veggies with the chili dip. If that wasn’t enough then you could refill and take advantage of your two bananas for dessert. Did I know Wayne Rooney? (Big premier league fans here in Myanmar), ‘Sure, and I’ll tell the big eared, potato headed overpaid boy-man to come eat here’.

DSCF0858.JPG
All this for less than £2…!

The Sagaing Hills are now home to over 6000 monks and nuns and we passed many who were finishing up exams, feeding the local dogs, or heading out to temples.  We visited Soon U Ponya Sin Paya, where a giant bronze rabbit was somewhat incongruously sat as a donation box next to the large Buddha image.  Nearby was the Umin Thounzeh caves which contained 45 Buddha images arranged in a crescent. Donors had recently paid for the glass mosaic that decorated the colonnaded space and their names covered the walls opposite the statues.

dscf0882
Makes a change from a Buddha, I guess.
dscf0870
There’s probably a song in there somewhere – 45 Buddhas all in a row…

Winding back down the hill we headed off to a brick monastery that had completely caved in following various earthquakes.

dscf0904
The ruined monastery – more building site than playground

Around it some local kids and some of the novice monks were playing together, as the school holidays had started.  Attacking tamarind trees, playing football, clambering over the rubble, before they scooted off to harass a cow.

dscf0924
Yeah, yeah, pictures of monks – I know! But how cute?

The harassment was short lived as they all got a bollocking from Mr Soesoe, at which point they all shuffled their feet, looked suitably contrite and one of the boys made a concillatory pat on the cow’s head. They then screamed off to their next adventure.  We were off to our next stop too, but with less screaming – Mr Soesoe’s son was a very calm driver, I don’t think we ever went over 20mph.

Next stop was Inwa another ex-capital city of Burma.  It had been the capital four times since .  Nowadays it’s a quiet rural location, with gardens of banana trees in the middle of what was the old palace city walls.  We left the van by a small pagoda complex and spent the trip around Inwa being transported by pony and cart.

dscf0957
All aboard the no.25

It was a weird rush hour of tourist filled carts, lines of them outside ruins like a rural taxi rank.

dscf1021
Please form an orderly queue.

The pony knew the routes by heart and set off at a brisk trot to the various sites, occasionally speeding up to the sound of the driver’s clicking tongue.

At the Bagaya Kyaung teak monastery, built in 1834 and supported on 267 pillars it was drama central.  A French tourist had gone arse over tit on his way out from the gloom of the interior and seemingly dislocated his knee.  He was surrounded by his tour group, a monk flapping a fan at him (someone would get mega-points for a photo of that), and a worried tour guide.  There was no way he was walking anywhere.  A British nurse popped up to assist although not sure he was going to be putting that bad boy back without anaesthetic.

dscf1004
Bagaya Teak Monastery – be careful where you step now….
dscf1007
There may be puppies in the way….

It wasn’t the only pratfall of the day (not me, amazingly been accident free to date) as later at U Bein bridge someone did a full on somersault down at a footpath at the river level.  I thought it was someone pratting about doing acrobatics, until it was clear they weren’t getting up and a whole heap of people were surrounding him and looking a bit perturbed.  We were rattling towards our sunset conclusion, after a quick look at the leaning watchtower of Nanmyin, the only surviving part of the royal palace complex.  It was on a wonk, and the earthquake of last year meant it was listing even more than ever, so no chance to walk up it.

Another monastery, this time brick, built in 1822, a trip to the city walls next to a Nat shrine and we were off ot the last stop of the day, U Bein Bridge.

Sunset at U Bein bridge is a thing so the place was HEAVING! Not helped by it being not very wide and no hand rails along it.  Just over a kilometre of teak footbridge going across a very shallow Taungthaman Lake from Amarapura to Mandalay.  People pay large £20 or so to be rowed into the middle of what’s left of the ever decreasing shallows to watch the sunset.  As it’s no more than knee high you could save yourself some cash and wade out.

dscf1047
That’s what we like to see – nice neat rows…bagsy a good view.

Everyone was angling for the best position to see the bridge, and the sunset, and if there was a monk walking through the scene at the right time it was triple bonus points all round. I sat next to monks drinking sugar cane (nil points – no photo) watching the melee unfurl.  On the shore line a girl from Singapore or somewhere was being told to artfully wander up and down by a guy with a camera, she had to pause…pout, and look up a la Diana to the camera, repeatedly.  After about 15mins of flouncing and twirling, racing back and forth to check the shots, they were spent, and then one of the aunties in the group wanted a go too.  She got told ‘look straight to camera’, ‘click’, ‘you’re done’.  Obviously a face for radio.

It was a great opportunity to people watch, give blood (to the mosquitos buzzing around), and to accidentally get in the way of mega zoom lens fiends and their tripods.

dscf1056
Ahhh shoot, no monks in the shot. And there’s people, ordinary people in the bloody way…

It was all over bar the return to the hotel, over 10hrs of non-stop touristic site-seeing, I was done in.  Least I had a bit of a lie-in, the cookery day didn’t start till 9am the next day and nopagoda viewing to be done.

 

Save

Save

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.

20170221_075731
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. 

dscf0621
Choices, choices…
dscf0615
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.

dscf0623
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.

dscf0629
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.

dscf0657
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.

dscf0662
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.

dscf0663
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. 

Save

Balloons, bikes and Bagan

‘Must remember to research where I’m going’.  This is my new mantra, as Bagan is not just Bagan, oh no, it is Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyuang-U (missus) where the train terminates and also where a lot of people tend to stay (and more importantly, where the good food is).  Old Bagan is exactly that, and where the poshest places are, so wasn’t going to be staying there, was I? Nope, I was in New Bagan, where the Old Baganians were relocated to, shenanigans Baganians weren’t happy with back in the day.

New Bagan is really just one main street with a couple of off-shoots.  Streets would imply a level of roadworthiness, these are mostly sand tracks, albeit in a grid structure. None of the 3 locations were within walking distance of one another, all were just far enough away to require transportation of some kind or another – hence the need to maybe do a bit more than hope to absorb information by merely looking at a name on a map.

No matter, for first up was a hot air balloon, for which in order to get my spot in a wicker basket a 1000ft up in the air I would have sold my mother if I could have (sorry mum!) but as it was, credit card sufficed.  Up at stupid o’clock into the cool morning air.  Locals are wrapped up in scarves, balaclavas, jackets and gloves, weirdo tourists have slung a cardie on and got socks on with their sandals just in case.  A number of us are collected, herded together and driven to a field where 20+tables are laid out complete with tablecloths and cutlery, where we are served fresh tea, coffee and croissants. Then it was rollcall – you could tell that whoever set this up had been at British boarding school, I was fully expecting us to have to shout ‘Sir’ when our names were called out by our balloon master / driver / pilot / man.

dscf9531

Luckily I wasn’t to be in the group with the Kiwis, so no arse to view today, instead it was me, and a group of Danes, one of whom was blind and 6 French.  Total 12 to a balloon, 3 to a quarter of wicker basket.  Why these baskets don’t have a little door in the side that latches shut is beyond me? It can’t be that difficult – you can get pet carriers that are better thought through than this as a means of transportation.  As it was the blind lady and a French woman with a broken arm had to be put into the basket as it was on their side, so they were left there lying horizontal as the balloon inflated and tipped them upright.  How’s about that for decorum?

dscf9526

dscf9558

Anyhooooow, safety briefing done, basically ignoring the bit about flames and material being a hazardous mix resulting in plummeting to earth and dying, a quick practice of how to sit when landing and we were off…sloooooowly…and gently upward.  It was the most surreal feeling – to be floating skyward with just the use of hot air.  All around us were these money making balloons in either green, red or yellow depending on the company – There was about $100,000 of spend up in the air viewing the temples.  That too was a surreal feeling. I’ll leave it to you to work out what that looks likes financially for 6months of flying per year.

dscf9598
Money making machines are go!

You couldn’t deny that it was an amazing experience. For that, it was worth every penny.

dscf9603

dscf9595

We couldn’t go too high, air traffic control were advising to stay to about 1000ft, so it was clear we weren’t going to be getting a long session out of the ride. All the balloons were communicating back and forth, so as not to crash into one another, and to get a sense of the direction we would be heading in and where we’d therefore be touching down.  We drifted our way across the temple site, circling around some temples, watching people below waving up at us.

After an hour we descending to the ground, landing in and amongst the other balloons.  Once the balloon was deflated we were out of the basket, not always in a dignified fashion and all brought together for a glass of champage and some fruit.  Certificates followed, handed out to us by our pilots and then we were back into the vans and back to the hotel, just in time to miss breakfast!

The day was just warming up and it was onto phase two of getting to see as much of Bagan as possible, as I was then meeting my guide for the next two days – Mr Kyaw Swe, native Baganian, tour guide and previous horse and cart man and farmer.  We were soon off and out for a full on day of temple-tasticness.

Bagan is pretty earthquake prone, the last being in August 2016, which damaged over 180 temples and resulting in a number of temples no longer being accessible to climb up.  Most of the remaining 2000+ temples, stupas, pagodas and monasteries date from the 10th to 12th centuries and it seems that much of the earthquake damage was caused by the additional weight of new domes and ‘fancy bits’of brickware being added in the 90s as part of a botched renovation attempt by the military. Hundreds of the buildings and stupa have had these often concrete poor constructions added, and so when the earthquake hit they quickly came loose and fell, causing damage to the ancient monuments they had been stuck on to.  The plan therefore seems to be, wisely, to not replace but rather restore appropriately.  The temples are covered in bamboo scaffolding that looks like a net protecting the domes. Some of those being worked on have intricate bamboo stairs running around them.

dscf9849
Bamboo scaffolding to protect the dome

At the start of the day I’d stupidly thought I’d remember what the names were of the temples we were visiting, but quickly figured that that wasn’t a plan that was going to last as I was bombarded with dates, kings, buddha stories, information about buddha types, mudras, murals, umbrellas, glazed friezes, and history.  Overwhelming is an understatement, combined with the heat of the day my brain was frying with trying to remember everything. Trying to photograph signage wasn’t always possibly as it was often in Burmese so the task of trying to figure out what was where begins.

What makes it so different to Angkhor Wat is that the Burmese used murals to decorate the interiors of their temples rather than carving.  Over the years these have started to disappear, due to people either deliberately damaging them (e.g. stealing, as in the case of a German archaeologist in 1899 who hacked off some frescoes, leaving his name carved into the brickwork), or accidentally (from smoke damage), or in some cases, farm animals rubbing up against the walls (there was a brick wall set up outside one temple to stop the cows from wandering in, as they’d come in to get out of the sun).  Some temples also had original 11th century murals painted over in the 1800s by people who wanted to ‘improve’ the images.  As a lot of the temples are dark inside, with limited light (originally designed to protect the images) a lot of tourists were wandering in, clicking a phone at the buddha(s) then wandering back out, failing to see what else was there to see.  Without a guide it’s likely I’d have ended up doing the same, getting temple fatigued in the process. I’ll post more photos separately.

As well as spending time with Kway Swe, I also did a Grasshopper Tours bike ride one morning, so I got to be on the receiving end of the balloons rising as well. Cycling on sand wasn’t my finest hour(s) but getting out and exploring under my own steam was a great way to try and join the dots. We cycled past various temples, they are everywhere, in the middle of fields, the edge of villages, round the back of restaurants.  You’re going to have to be a total temple nut to try and get to see all 2200+.  We got to revisit a couple of the temples I’d been to in the past couple of days and I could be Nora Know-it-all and regurigate what I had remembered to the Irish couple who were on the bike ride and had just arrived in.

20170219_072353
Balloons rising – we watched from a destroyed monastery whilst out on a Grasshopper bike tour

As well as temples we also passed through some of the smaller villages, ‘Mingalabar-ing’ our way along to all the kids who came out to wave and jump up and down at us.  Must have been a positive reaction because they weren’t throwing things. We covered 20kms over 4hours and then ate our body weight in noodles and fried food at our teashop last stop. After that lard session we had to be hoisted back into the truck and dropped back to our hotels for a snooze, worn out by chewing rather than peddling. Not even an espresso could repair the damage done by all that food! I was on the home straight, one last push with an e-bike (e for evil – these are electric mopeds, like the worst farts – silent but deadly) to see some sites (I say ‘sites’ I decided to stick mostly to roads, as trying to drive on sand resulted in me failing to go in a straight line and heading more downward into the ground rather than remaining on it).  Sunset was spent at a restaurant where I got to enjoy the delights of a group of British Torygraph lovers, you could spot them a mile off when their leader turned up wearing his ‘look at my red fucking trousers’, Boden’s finest linen. There’ll ideally be a short interlude about sunsets soon.

That was it – all over bar the re-packing and a final dinner.  Next stop was Mandalay.

Shhhweeeet Shwe Dagon Paya…

According to the map Shwe Dagon Paya is further to the north of the city. Sunset is about 6.10pm, so I set off about 5pm.  My ability to scale maps to reality was somewhat challenged as always, the bit about it being really far away and the map being really, really small hadn’t sunk in.  Setting off down what were practically dual carriageways was a clue that we were not staying in the centre of the city and it was a good 45min trek before the paya hove into view.

p1190697
What’s that in the distance…I do believe it’s a pagoda…..

Crossing by the paya was a bit of a challenge, roads are not built with the pedestrian at the forefront and things such as a crossing were seemingly not important for such a significant place of worship so you had to make the best of it and run across the 7 or 8 various intersections at the right time.

p1190699
I cross where???

 

By this time I was starting to feel a bit knackered, having walked about 15miles or more, and most of that seemed to be going up and down the pavements.  I looked up the covered walkway to see there were all the steps up to the paya, I could have wept but at least it was under cover and cooling down by this point.  Blimey heckers like, it was worth to get to the top, suddenly there were all these people – it was heaving with locals, Myanmar tourists and the foreigners alike, all staring at the shiny gold in front of us.

The stupa is over 300ft high and covered in gold and all around are these smaller shrines, temples and statues, all covered in gold.  Some of the Buddha statues have been taken a stage further and have laser lights shooting out of their heads. The paya has had a run of bad luck over the years, mainly suffering earthquake damage, as well as the Portuguese, and British attempting to steal their bells (!), in the case of the British, they dropped theirs in the river.

20170212_182407
Laser light Buddha

Watching the sun going down was a pretty relaxing end to the day, all very undramatic.  The guide book had sold it that as the sun set it ‘casts its last rays, [the paya] turns a crimson gold and orange, magic flats in the heat and the mighty diamond at the spire’s peak casts a beam of light that reflects sheet white, bloody red and jealous green to the far corners of the temple platform.  Seems when I went the sun and the paya were having a day off, as the sun sunk down pretty undramatically and the lights went on and the stupa was lit up – ta da!!!

The swallows were whirling around overhead catching insects, and the crows were settling down among the flags fluttering on top of the temples. I meanwhile was heading further out of town for dinner. Luckily it was pretty much in a straight line but again I wasn’t too sure of the actual distance from where I was, also it was pitch dark by this time, and the only light was coming from cars that had actually decided to put their headlamps on (or had one or both that worked).  Thankfully rush hour was still on and it was pretty much standstill so the only real potential for death was to break your neck stepping off a pavement or stepping too far to the left and falling in an open sewer / ditch.  I walked for about 30mins or so and found the place – Wai Wai’s, which was of course, up on the 7th or 8th floor of the building it was housed in.

I think that schlep up the stairs added another mile to the day’s walking at least, even if I couldn’t draw breath to askf or a table! However the chance to have Myanmar food made it all worth it and a small menu meant a joyful lack of overwhelm, so I had the sticky noodles and a long bean salad. Couldn’t take a picture because it was so dark but it was mouth-wateringly good.  I had read that Myanmar cuisine is very oil, they use a lot of it to preserve food, as they tend to make the food in the morning and keep it for the day, and there’s a lack of refrigeration, so the oil helps to stop it turning.  This however was amazing.  The texture of these Shan noodles was definitely sticky, but they were spicy and the pickles that came with it cut through them and brought out the flavours.  Meanwhile the beans had onions and garlic in them and then had been dressed with lime juice and fish sauce, and oil then had crushed sesame seeds and peanuts added on top.  I hadn’t thought I’d be coming to Myanmar to get fat, but if all the food was as good as that there’s going to be trouble ahead.

Suitably stuffed, I waddled back downstairs and started the 45minute walk back to the hotel, courtesy of googlemaps.  I wended my way down various bustling side streets, with hawkers selling roadside snacks, and people out on the street chatting and generally milling around.  Then I was back on the main road and at the back of Shwedagon Paya and the moon was full, and hanging above the lit up stupa and it looked beautiful, an almost perfect end to the day, if I didn’t have another 3 miles to walk to get back to my hotel.

20170212_201346
More than a bit blurry – but you get the jist.

Finally made it back and pretty much collapsed into bed, wondering if my feet were every going to work again, and thankful for the walk as it allowed me to work off some of the food too.

Languid in Langkawi

I’ll keep this brief – I spent 6 days in Langkawi, mainly horizontal, except for the bits where I was upright either eating or heading to the beach on my newly acquired moped. Yes folks, you read that right, I was on a moped.  It was either that or spend 6 days moping rather than mopeding, in my AirBnB in Teriang, in a room with just a mattress on pallets. Wasn’t quite in the mood to shout ‘Vive La Difference’ after my loveliness that was my 2 nights in Campbell House, George Town, particular after I saw what I thought was a 3” floater in the toilet but then I realised that it was in fact a dead cockroach.

20170205_125240
Teriang – not sure it’s really a resort kinda place.

So I got off my arse and on my bike and slowly but surely set off, firstly stopping off for petrol as I was on fumes for the first 5km to the petrol station. Heading out at 10am was perfect, no traffic, only monkeys for pedestrians around the forest, they drive on the left (people, not the monkeys) and people don’t drive like loons and they do give you a wide berth when overtaking, unless they’re Chinese in a hire car, in which case they try to trim your leg hairs with their tyres. Having pre-paid 10Malaysian Ringgit (£2) to fill ‘er up, it was full at 8.80MR (but that’s ok, because when I refilled it again another day I spent 7.50MR and got 7.50 in change out of 10…!

Anyhoooo, I went to restart the bike and nowt happened.  Shit…had I put the wrong fuel in (who’d be so daft….not anyone who drove a diesel Skoda for 7yrs and then one day put petrol in it) – nope not this time, had I overfilled it (yes, obviously, but would that really kill it?), am I cursed, because it bloody felt like it? Turns out it was none of the above, just me being a dumb arse who forgot to squeeze the brake when turning the key.  Ker-nobber…panic over and off again back the way I came and on to Cenang Beach, the main resort.  Parked up and success!  Beach was wide, sandy, busy but not rammed with people.  Sun was out and it was perfect.

20170208_164823
Cenang beach

After lunch I decided to head north to Tanjung Rhu, however rather than do the sensible thing and ride back the way I came, against the traffic, I went with it expecting to circle around the back of Cenang.  Suffice to say I didn’t and the bonus was I got to see a lot more of the island than I bargained for, including a very nice and very empty dual carriageway.  Luckily I managed to figure out that I was heading the long way around the island pretty quickly, (I see the sea – it’s on the wrong side of me!). What I couldn’t do though was go right back the way I came, so instead had to opt for heading for the airport as my point of reference.  This took me on a somewhat circuitous route inland before heading back out toward the sea-line again, and later when looking at the map I couldn’t figure out how I got to where I did, but I had and it’s just best not to over-thunk it.  Main thing was I had pretty much a full tank of petrol, a small island to get lost on and I got back on track.

20170207_145650
I think I took a wrong left somewhere, or maybe they did?

After a quick wee stop at home I headed off to Tanjung Rhu without any diversions, where I arrived 50mins later with a numb bum and sore knees (from where they were banging against the basket at the front of the bike.  Worth it though – it was stunning – proper sandy white beach, beautiful blue sea and about 4 people on the beach.  Lovely, lovely, lovely.  I stayed for an hour or so enjoying the scenario, had some dinner and headed home a very happy person, my only problem being I couldn’t go around a roundabout properly and steered off halfway round – a U-ey and a left and I was off again.

20170207_131308
Tanjung Rhu – worth a numb bum.
20170207_135207
Dammit, I knew I needed a man for something. ‘Strike a pose giiiirlfriend’

And thus the routine was set, I got up, I went to eat breakfast, I went to the beach, I ate a late lunch, an early dinner and came home to my mattress on pallets. Across from my gaff was a ‘hotel’ that did breakfast, popping in one morning and there were 2 guys from the mainland visiting the owner Johny Be Good, ex-hotel and bar singer and musician.  They invited me to join them for a beer and a G&T but seeing as it wasn’t even 10am I declined plus didn’t want to drink and drive.  Ahmed, one of the guys had 3 wives, and 5 kids, included a chubby little 7 year old from the latest Mrs A, who loved to give it some full-on Pop Idol action – luckily I only got to see the one video and then managed to make my escape, leaving them to their liver implosions.  I was invited back to the ‘Thursday night is music night’ night which included Johny and some expats putting on a show, with guitars and keyboard but after another riveting meal of Nasi Ayum (basically rice with a bit of a chicken on it, the fun comes trying to identify which bit of the chicken you have got) I settled in for a bit of Netflix binging.

Friday being my last night, I went all out and had a shwarma in Cenang, actually saw my first proper sunset of the trip at the pier in Teriang, along with all the scooter boys and girls (the kids all ranged in age from about 12 and upwards and from 5pm onwards would be zooming all over the place chattering, fighting, and mucking about on their scooters, it was like a cheaperand younger version of Grease and without the leather but was still serious pouting, gelled hair and tight clothes for the boys, giggles and over-exaggerated posing by the girls).

20170210_193214
Sunset over Langkawi
20170210_193349
Full Moon over Langkawi

I then wandered over to the ‘hotel’ for a beer.  The intent was  ‘just the one Mrs Wembley’ as I was getting down to the bare bones of the Ringgit, but Johny insisted on buying me a second, so I had to return the favour and that meant 3 in total.  Johny launched into a little song routine with his guitar, some of it made sense, some it didn’t – mostly due to accent and the fact he’s missing a fair few front teeth, however he definitely could play the guitar and you could tell he was a bar-room crooner back in the day.  9pm and way past my bed time, so I headed back home, onto my pallets and then failed to sleep as I had to be up early doors to get to the airport – always the blooming way.

Taxi rocked up for 7.40am, and 15mins later I was deposited at the airport.  You weren’t allowed through security until at least an hour before your flight, so luckily having breakfast at the airport wasn’t such a mad idea after all.  A hop and a skip and we were back at Penang airport to await the connection to Changi, and then onto Yangon.  Myanmar here we come….!

I would go back to Langkawi again, it’s easy to get about, the beaches are beautiful.  It wasn’t heaving with people, was really laid back and easy-going but next time I’ll stay somewhere a bit closer to ‘civilisation’ and maybe ensure I have a proper bedstead too.

Bangkok

Having dragged myself up and out after breakfast it was only then that the heat and smells really hit home, as did the sights and not so delights of the Khaosan Road.  Arse grazing shorts for the girls and undone shirts for the guys – clearly no-one read the memo about suitable wear in them thair foreign parts, or did, and decided it didn’t apply to them.

20170116_112346_1484751068340
Even Auung San Suu Kyi is unimpressed with the dress code on the Khao San Road.

I meandered out and around, getting my bearings very slowly – down to the river, away from the river, ooo am I near the river – does that hotel name Riverside give me a clue???? There I was thinking I knew where I was and popping up somewhere unexpected but vaguely close by-ish.  Was never going to get a medal for orienteering, that’s for sure, however I was relieved that that small patch of Bangkok finally made sense that evening when I headed off to a restaurant called Peeps for dinner.  It was a 20min walk of ‘Aha’ and not because Morten Harket showed up, and also a good opportunity for the late lunch to digest and make space for the dumplings and Tom Yum I had.

Anyhoo, earlier in the day I somehow I ended up heading toward The Grand Palace, passing hundreds of Thais in mourning black who were coming and going to the Royal Urn to pay respects.  There were temporary shrines, stalls giving away free drinks and medical checks to those visiting, and shuttle buses to bring the mourners to and from the area.  It was heaving with people and despite being suitable attired I was told I couldn’t walk straight up the road to the palace so had to go a back route, which was fine as it meant more wandering around vaguely looking for a restaurant I had eaten in a few years earlier with Ar Lel (not really expecting much success as couldn’t recall what it was called or where it was), suffice to say – not a success and as I was soon turning into a human Mr Stay-Puft I set off in search of air-con and a large bottle of water back toward the hotel followed by lunch close by and then a nap.  20mins of shut eye turned into 2hrs and I awoke from my slumber less Sleeping Beauty and more Drooling Beast and headed out for dinner.

Awoke at 5.30, pretty perky with it so got up which was weird as didn’t really need to get going till 9am, or so I thought.  Just after 7 and deciding to go to breakfast I decided to check my ticket one last time and that’s when I saw that the flight was at 9.20 and that’s when I went into panic as I had just over an hour to get to the airport in the rush hour to check in. Having run down to reception to ask for a taxi, I had to head back up to the 4th floor and stylishly fling everything remaining into my bags before returning back down again.  No taxi was ordered – as it consists of a man going into the road to wave at taxis to stop..and said man had to go to the room to check I hadn’t decided to get a tattoo done whilst smoking a pack of 20 cigarettes in my room.

Finally out on the road, and into a taxi and I re-read my booking and check-in was by 9.20, flight at 10.20 – phew…breathing space.  However what I had in my hand was not my check-in document but my booking document.  Check-in document was in the bottom of my rucksack….or was it?  Turns out it wasn’t but I wasn’t going to find that out for another hour.  In the meantime I sat back and watched the rain start to pour down, not realising it was also going to be the same in Samui.

As it turned out I got to airport, managed to rummage through the bag, not find the ticket, not get charged for a reprint and make it to the bag drop still 2 minutes early than check-in was officially open.  I’ve never been more relieved.  After that as I tried to get to security, however there was an additional ‘surprise security’ just by the desk.  Who’d have thunk it? I was stopped by a man and directed to look at a screen.  On said screen was live action viewing of our bags going along the belt and everyone checking in a bag had to wait and then point out their bag before being released from the pen.  That was it – point at a bag, declare it yours and be released.  Not a problem for me, as my bag is fairly distinctive but more of problem for the little old ladies in front of me who had a) bad eyesight and b) plain black wheelies.  They hadn’t a clue, and were intently peering at the screen as a whole raft of black wheelies went by.  As they were before me at check-in logic would dictate that my shouting ‘mine’ would suggest their bags had been and gone but no-one cottoned onto that fact so I left them to their early morning viewing and scuttled off to security and some breakfast.

The flight only took us as far as Nakhon Si Thammaret, and we came out onto the runway to dry skies but AirAsia had put a rack of umbrellas out for people, just in case, how cool is that?  From here it was a bus ride to the ferry, ferry to the wrong side of Samui, then an hour and a half minibus ride in the pouring rain.

2017-01-18-21-56-30
What’s that coming over the hills, is it a monster? No, just a chuffing big cloud of rain.

It was only as we drove along through massive puddles that I realised there is no drainage system here at all, so it all collects on the surface.   I was sharing  a minibus with some Chinese people going to a hotel in Chaweng – they got dropped off at the door of their hotel, I think the driver and his companion were a bit bore, by the time we had circled Bo Phut once, having missed the turning to the hotel, so I got dropped at the corner of the road the hotel was on and told ‘it’s down there’ with vague pointing.  Clearly, even I could tell you that from the tone of triumphant arrival coming from the Thai satnav.  Luckily the hotel is signposted as it’s tucked away or else there’s a good chance with my directionally challenged nature I’d still be out there now wandering or else staying somewhere completely different. I arrived, happy to a) learn I did not have to move rooms after one night now, and b) find out they have real beds with proper mattresses like proper folks have.  So happy!

Showered and sorted I headed out into the street (yes, not a typo, it is practically one road) of Bo Phut to reacquaint myself with it, try not to ‘do the math’ at the cost of the food, avoid the puddles and the torrential downpours and basically settle in for my 12days of yoga in Samui.

img_20170117_164636_703
Ahhh..did you pack an umbrella?

Can’t wait to start.