The Perhentian Islands

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After 4 days of strawberries, tea plantations and strenuous trekking, we headed to the North Eastern coast to hop on a ferry bound for The Perhentians – two small islands with a reputation for incredible diving and snorkelling. The port is in the state of Kelantan, a place that has well and truly taken Islam to heart and has semi-independence. Kelantan borders Hat Yai a place very well known for their determination to form an islamic state that is independent from Thailand.

In Kota Bharu the difference in culture is obvious. You’ll struggle to find a woman in a headdress and covered up from head to toe. Men tend to wear trousers (despite it being stupidly hot) and a little white hat and at times you could imagine you are in the Middle East. Whereas the rest of Malaysia is Muslim in name, Kelantan is Muslim at heart. It has also meant that for the first time since Istanbul we’ve been woken at 4.30 by the Mosques crying out their calls to prayer (you often get a mash of two to three mosques wailing through loud speakers at the same time).

The drive down from the Cameron Highlands to the port was surprisingly bad. This was quite surprising as the oil money in Malaysia has meant that the majority of the infrastructure is very modern and well maintained. Once again we were herded into a minivan and then driven at 60mph along a road that had reverse speed bumps every 100m. It was staggering that the driver didn’t think slowing down was a good idea and proceeded to continue thundering along whilst everyone was continuously thrown out their seats for 4 hours. The speedboat to the islands wasn’t much better as the lunatic driving seems to spread to all forms of transport. I guess that as boats don’t have the restriction of roads and there’s very little traffic that captains tend to just go crazy. At one point he turned so hard that all 26 of us (on a boat intended for 12) were close to falling out whilst the speedboat near capsized.

Despite the lunatic drivers to get there, The Perhentian Islands are incredible. Upon reaching the pier you see the water getting lighter from a dark blue to an azure blue then to a turquoise-green colour. It’s crystal clear and its obvious why the diving is so popular. Even without a dive mask you can see hundreds of fish and sometimes more. However, like with many South-East Asian islands, the accommodation borders on criminal. The conditions are inhumane as for £20 (which in many countries gets you a perfectly decent room) we got a building site which had plug sockets falling out the walls, sand solidified on the walls of the shower and endless dirt. We were joined by the resident cockroaches, huge spider and millions of ants. Sadly, this was one of the better rooms available on Long Beach.

To combat the filth, our plan was to stay out the room as much as possible. As the sun slowly cooked our room through the glass doors in the morning as soon as it rose, getting up early wasn’t difficult. At the time it was unbearable, but in retrospect it was a good way of ensuring we did as much as possible. My personal highlight was the snorkelling trip we did. I’ve never seen turtles before, so to swim alongside them was an amazing experience. They were surprisingly big and quick, so we quickly learned that once you spotted one you had to swim hard to keep up. The boat driver described this as “when you see turtle, follow follow follow!”. The best part was when you’d follow as they came up for air and you could see their head poke out the water. We followed this up by swimming with Black Tipped Reef Sharks, an experience that was interesting and slightly daunting at the same time (I was later told that they’re not aggressive).

The Perhentians were our last stop in the brief time we had in Malaysia. It’s a country often overlooked by travellers and I can’t understand why. It has just about everything you could want with incredible nature and culture in a small area. Our next stop is Indonesia, the last country we head to before work in Australia. The 4.30 mosque wake up calls will continue for now.


A Year of Travelling in Numbers

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Start Date: 14th October 2012

End Date: 08th October 2013
Total length: 359 days

Flights taken: 20 (1 every 17 days)

Number of Countries Visited: 13

Time spent per country:
The Philippines – 78 days (22%)
Thailand – 67 days (19%)
Indonesia – 29 days (8%)
Nepal – 28 days (8%)
Cambodia – 25 days (7%)
India – 24 days (6.7%)
Vietnam – 24 days (6.7%)
Myanmar – 24 days (6.7%)
Malaysia – 22 days (6.1%)
Laos – 21 days (5.8%)
Turkey – 5 days (1.4%)
Singapore – 4 days (1.1%)
UAE – 3 days (0.8%)

Most expensive country visited: Singapore – £30 per person per day
Cheapest country visited: Nepal – £12.60 per person per day

Longest run of days without rain: 59 – Turkey, UAE, Nepal & India
Most days with rain: 7 – Bohol, Philippines (although Thailand and Laos were close with 5)
Hottest Temperature: 47C Chiang Mai, Thailand
Coldest Temperature: 8C Nagarkot, Nepal

Types of beer drank: 21

Countries visited without seeing a McDonalds: 5 – Nepal, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar
Countries that didn’t sell Coke: 0

Attacks by Sloth Bears: 1
Car accidents: 1

Forms of transport used: 29: Plane, bus, van, taxi, tuk-tuk, bangka, winstar, camel, horse, elephant, train, tricycle, jeepney, metro, ferry, longboat, pedicab, cycle rickshaw, lrt, cyclo, bamboo train, jeep, song-thaew, ox-cart, rice field tractor, horse cart, ojeck,
Longest journey: 16 hours: Chiang Mai to Bangkok
Slowest journey: Lucknow to Agra – 8 hours to go 180 miles (average speed of 22mph)

Visits by relatives: 3 – Ashley in Thailand and Singapore, Adrian & Georgie in Philippines and Thailand, Sarah in Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand
Countries visited by Cat: 56
Countries visited by Joe: 36

Most expensive country: 1: Singapore (£60 per day), 2: Thailand (£50 per day), 3: Philippines (£49 per day)
Cheapest country: 1: Nepal (£27 per day), 2: India (£34 per day), 3: Philippines (£49 per day)
Average daily spend: £51

Cheapest tea: 5 Rupees (6p) Joney’s Place, Agra, India
Most expensive tea: 35 Dirhams (£6) Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Cheapest meal: 5,000 dong (£0.15) Noodle Soup, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Most expensive meal: $140 (£70) Fern and Kiwi, Singapore
Best meal: Any brunch! Either Friday brunch in Dubai or Sunday brunch in Manila. Just incredible
Worst meal: Take your pick: crackerbread pizza in Iloilo (Philippines), Cream topped pizza in Jodhpur (India) or Pad Thai with mashed prawn heads in Koh Lanta (Thailand)
Most consumed meal: Competition between our several curries on India (I think we consumed 14), Pad Thais in Thailand (on Koh Phi Phi we ate 3 in 4 days)
Ice Cream Sundaes consumed: 12 and counting

Cheapest transport: 8 Pesos (12p) for 3km
Worst rip off transport: Cat needed to go 10km to the hospital (should take half an hour and cost £2). Ended up taking 2 hours, 40km and £9

Cheapest room: 550 Rupees (£4) in Visit Nepal, Kathmandu, Nepal
Most expensive room: 3,200 (£51) in Serenity Suites, Manila, The Philippines
Best room: Serenity Sites Manila. Beautiful room with kitchen and separate living room in the heart of Makati
Most memorable room: Hotel Green Valley in Nagarkot Nepal. Our room had a balcony overlooking Everest and the Himalayas and you could watch sunrise and sunset over the mountains.
Worst room: Tricky, but Adventure Camp Sablayan (Philippines) must be the winner. We shared our room with thousands of mosquitos, red ants, birds and frogs.

Strangest sight: Man washing himself using a crisp packet (Gorakhpur, India) or 2 goats riding on the roof of a bus (Mindoro, Philippines). The’s an honorary mention for the cringeworthy couple who spooned on the Diana chair at the Taj Mahal
Forts visited: 4 – all in India
Religious places visited: 21: 9 Buddhist, 7 Muslim, 2 Hindu, 2 Christian, 1 Jain
Islands visited: 13: Abu Dhabi, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, Koh Muk, Koh Ngai, Singapore, Cebu, Bohol, Panay, Guimaras, Boracay, Mindoro, Luzon

The Bangladeshi Duracell Bunny – The Cameron Highlands

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We’ve met quite a few interesting people on this trip, but few have so central a place we have stayed as Kassim, our host during our stay in the Cameron Highlands. Anyone who has ever stayed in Orchid Lodge in Tanah Rata will understand what I’m talking about,

After 5 days in Penang of culture and street food, we made the 6 hour minibus journey through windy mountain roads to Tanah Rata, one of a few towns in The Cameron Highlands in the North of Malaysia. As usual, the driving was idiotic and the minibus was cramped and hot, but the reward was cool mountain air. The Cameron Highlands were colonised by the British as an escape from the heat and a place to grow tea and strawberries. It’s hard not to like the place.

We found our hotel to be greeted with a paper sign welcoming us, telling us to have some tea and that our host will be with us in an hour (we later found out the same sign is printed for everyone, so I can only assume Kassim is never away for more than an hour).

Kassim is a Bangladeshi man in his mid-thirties who has been gradually trying to make a name for himself in the local tourist industry. He has two jobs: being an odd-job man at a hotel nearby (he said cleaning toilets, fixing things and gardening are his main responsibilities) and with every hour he can spare he runs Orchid Lodge, a small house converted into a guesthouse. We found out after two nights that we were staying in his old bedroom that he converted to host more guests.I can’t imagine how knackering his life must be as he’s at work in some capacity from when he wakes up at 6am to when he sleeps late at night. I was tired just being around him.

Kassim brings new meaning to “do the best with what you’ve been given”. He’s illiterate, so asks people to read out his tripadvisor reviews (memorising each with and remembering the explanation why they may not have been satisfied) and emigrated from his home country to a place where Bangladeshis are often seen as second class citizens (many are employed to just work on palm oil plantations or other sub-minimum wage jobs). He can’t get wifi set up in the hotel, so has stolen the passwords of all neighbouring businesses for his guests to hijack free of charge. He doesn’t do his own tours so – much to the disgust of other hotels – he’s undercut the local tour prices by not taking a commission on any bookings. It’s no surprise that Kassim’s eccentricity has made Orchid Lodge the top rated hotel on tripadvisor.

However, it’s this little man’s character which made him memorable. Knowing we had visited Bangladesh, he bought double each meal to share with us. He also taught us how to make Bangladeshi curries (which involved him throwing in ingredients and not telling me what they were) and helped us arrange everything to do. Having no cutlery we had to finally eat curry using only our hands (a pretty messy affair).

In between watering plants and hoovering the floors, he would tell us what his opinion was on every walk to do in the area. His default answer was “it’s fine, not difficult. Very easy”, only find out the walk involved climbing up cliffs and over huge rotting trees. My particular favourite discussion was when he reprimanded us for not fancying a heft 4 hour trek up hill when we could take a bus instead. Pointing his finger he said “Don’t be lazy, walk up the hill. You shouldn’t be lazy, it’s not good”. Hardly the advice you expect from your host.

There must be something in the water in the Cameron Highlands as the tour guide for the local tea plantation shared Kassim’s hyperactivity, but his was channeled into his passion for tea. In an hour long tour of the factory, he briefly explained how tea is processed to focus on his opinions on how it should be drank, the Dutch, the English, flavoured tea and any other philistine tea drinkers.

The worst thing you could do was talk about flavoured tea as the mere existence of this sacrilege to tea annoyed him. Second on the list of offences was being Dutch as this automatically meant that you liked flavoured tea or didn’t let your tea brew for more than 3 dips of a tea bag. Finally his third hate was teabags themselves. This was quite strange for a man who works for a company that specialises in producing teabags, but he made his dislike loud and clear. I didn’t quite know why he was still working in a place that produced flavoured tea, teabags and gave guided tours to what tended to be quite a lot of Dutch people.

Outside of the unusal characters, we managed to see some unusual sights in the Cameron Highlands. we trekked to two massive tea plantations, saw their famous “Mossy Forest” and finally managed to find a living Rafflesia, the biggest flower in the World.

Having failed in Borneo five years before, we didn’t expect to stumble upon the opportunity to see one in the highlands. Our 3 hour round trek was punctuated with nazi tour guides shouting “you must go quicker, the weather is going to turn bad” (it didn’t, this was just a scare tactic). Although many wouldn’t think 3 hours to see a metre wide flower that stunk of rotting flesh as worth it, to us it was success after the failure 5 years ago. It was just a shame that the Nazi tour guide allowed a grand total of 3 minutes to see it before shoving us back.

Where are the Malays? – Penang

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Arriving in Malaysia after spending a month in Myanmar is like entering a different world. The mould on the buildings and bustle of Yangon is exchanged for the skyscrapers and highways of squeaky clean and modern Kuala Lumpur. As soon as you get through the airport you realise the brands are back, the rickshaws are replaced by multicoloured taxis and you’re back in Western civilization. Malaysia, just like the UAE, is clear evidence that oil brings development (On a side note – the current price of fuel in Malaysia is 2.1 Ringitts or 41p per litre, two thirds of the cost in impoverished Cambodia).

Having only 19 days in Malaysia, our stop in KL was brief as we headed up to Penang on a bus with a driver who brings new meanings to “taking it easy”. However, this driver was by no means unique and I can safely say that Malaysia is home to the most reckless driving in South-East Asia (and that is quite an achievement). From what I could tell, it’s illegal to still in your lane on a blind corner and the lanes are just a guide line that interfere with your training to become a Formula 1 driver. We lost count of the near misses we had from drivers who crossed into the opposite lane to corner quicker to face an oncoming car. Self-preservation is not evident in Malaysian drivers.

Penang is another part of South-East Asia that was taken/bought (depending on your interpretation) like Singapore to create another stop on the India-China trade route. The main town is called Georgetown after the King and there’s plenty of mentions of Francis Light to make you aware that the island has a lot of British Heritage. However, there’s plenty of other cultures that are thrown into the mix; Chinese clan houses are everywhere, Mosques, Hindu Temples and plenty of other colonial buildings make Georgetown an interesting and diverse place. However the one thing that appears to be missing is the Malaysians (well, apart from the Laksa).

It dawned on me that by the time we were leaving Penang that I didn’t know if I’d even seen a single ethnic Malaysian. So far everyone seemed to be either Indian (with a thick Chennai accent to authenticate this), Chinese or white tourist. Although I knew Penang was a melting pot of cultures with the building and espeically the food, I didn’t imagine that I would barely meet a single Malaysian. It’d be like going to London and not seeing and Englishman….. Oh wait….

Cat’s love of trekking turned it’s attention to Penang Hill, a incredibly steep hill that most people take a fernicular railway up and down to see the amazing views of the island. After seeing just how steep the hill was, Cat compromised with me to go up the hill on the train and walk down (so half a trek right?). From the top you could see for miles, over the sea to mainland peninsular. It’s a great thing to do whilst in Penang and it’s temporary relief from the sweltering heat of the Georgetown. However, I soon found out the walk down was 5km down an incline which seemed to be 45 degrees (I say “I” because I wasn’t sure if Cat knew this and was sure that if I found out that I wouldn’t do it, or if that she genuinely didn’t know). Although walking down an incline this steep was difficult, it was worse for all the locals who were attempting to walk, run and even cycled up this hill. It was an achievement for so many to make it the first km.

Penang’s World renowned street food was a bit of a let down. Call me a philistine, but Laksa basically tasted like a Tesco’s fish counter smells (yes, try stinky fish and add some more) and the only thing that really stood out was Char Kway Teow (Malaysian noodles, like Pad Thai). It could be that I didn’t go to the right places or that It’s not for me, but Penang street food seemed to be changing food that tastes good (noodle soup) and then adding it to something that also tastes good (curry) and eventually creating something that doesn’t taste good.

But the atmosphere, architecture and people of Penang make the island. It was amazing to just walk around the old town, drink coffee in the colonial style coffee shops and get a feel for the place. It’s just a shame I don’t really know much about Malay culture or people yet…

Yangon – Bracknell Standards at Hong Kong Prices

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We’ve been to some pretty bad places on this trip: in India we stayed in a town that had cow manure and urine in the gutter, in The Philippines we stayed in a place where red ants crawled all over our belongings (including the toothbrushes) and my dislike of Bangkok has been well documented, but few places have made me angry like Yangon did (no, not even the “Brutalist Architecture” centre of the UK that is Bracknell achieves this).

Before the British arrived, the Kings of Burma governed from Bagan and then Mandalay. However, the British – intent on making Burma a stop on the India-China opium trade route – decided that Rangoon’s access to the sea was a more suitable capital city. This is when it all began to go downhill. The military junta kept it as their capital and it was the scene for a brutal massacre in 1988. In the preceding months, the government decided to ease the censorship rules, making it look like they were on a road to democracy. The reality was that it was a sham to flush out all “enemies of the state” in the open and in turn imprison/massacre any opponents. It was only in the mid-90s that the government decided to huge sums on relocating the capital to a new city in the middle of the country. Although Nay Pyi Taw maybe the official capital, many people still act as if Yangon’s the actual capital of Myanmar (kinda like Sydney being the capital of Australia or Istanbul being the capital of Turkey).

Modern day Yangon epitomises the problems facing the now-open Myanmar. Well, problems really for tourists and a massive payday any business owner in the tourism sector in Myanmar. When the borders opened, the opportunists moved in, smelling money and sensing Myanmar could be the next China, waiting to boom. Similarly, the tourists crammed in knowing that it wouldn’t be long until the country modernised and lost a lot of its unique culture that remained from decades of isolation. The belief is that the influx of tourists would bring the end of the longyi, oxcart transport and some of the quirks that still remain in Myanmar.

This all sounds great and I’m perfectly happy for countries to develop and bring wealth to a country that has been impoverished for so long. However the current infrastructure is unable to cope with the country’s new found popularity. Within a year, tourists numbers increased from less than 100,000 per year to over 1 million. The country can’t build hotels quick enough and this was evident with the recent high season when many tourists found their only option was to sleep on the floor of a monastery.

The hotel owners have responded in a way that any capitalist would, increase prices until people refuse. So far that hasn’t happened and most places have increased their prices ten-fold. An employee of “Beautyland II Hotel” (oh the irony) told us that because of the demand they could now charge 10x the market rate. The room had no bathroom, windows or anything but a dirty mattress on a stone floor (well it did have a lot of dirt on the walls which hadn’t seen paint in the last century). He happily admitted he could charge Hong Kong prices for a hotel in one of the poorest countries in the World.

This in turn has meant that anyone else to do with tourists has increased their price. The taxis now charge treble what they used to and cafes and many restaurants charge more than Europe for a tiny sandwich and a poor excuse for coffee. All in all, you get very little and lose a lot of your money.

This is the reality of a capitalist system and may not last once all the new hotels have been built, but it leaves a sour taste in your mouth. Paying £50 for a room is fine, but when it’s not got a window and isn’t clean it’s unjust. Even worse was that most hotels overtly publish that foreigners must pay double what a local pays to stay in the same room.

What’s particularly sad is that monks now beg outside hotels, targeting tourists. In places such as Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai, the ceremony of giving alms to monks at 5am is humbling. The locals all line the streets with food and money to give to the local monks who have dedicated themselves to a life of no possessions and money. It’s a ceremony of the community coming together to support each other. This doesn’t happen in Yangon and the monks (the majority of which are between 10-15years old) have turned their attention to chasing tourists to get money.

However, not all is bad in Yangon. It does have possibly the greatest Biryani in the World (rivalling my brother’s Mother-in-law, whose biryani is also amazing), that is also suspiciously cheap. For 60p you get a mountain of amazing biryani and an option of seconds for 15p.

Shwedagon Paya is also an incredible site. A mountain of gold that shimmers in the sunlight. It strangely has atms which must be the Buddhist equivalent of the condom machine in the Vatican joke (although it has actually become a reality). Yangon also has The Strand Hotel, home to the greatest Happy Hour in Asia. Not only do you get half price beer (which was $2 per pint to start with) but you are plied with peanuts, pizza, bruschetta and fishcakes.

After 25 days in Myanmar, Yangon was one of the lower points of our time. The feeling of constantly being ripped off is frustrating and how can you enjoy spending what you would on a holiday to a fancy resort on an old and tatty dump.

You can’t blame the opportunists as this would happen anywhere in the World and there’s a part of me that thinks the influx of foreign money is bringing development. However, when money’s tight on a trip as long as ours, it’s difficult to not be angry at such a situation which will your only choice is to spend £50+ a night to have a semi-acceptable room or sleep in the dirt.

The current problems won’t last long. Once the new hotels arrive, the dumps won’t be able to charge some of the highest prices in Asia and all will even out.

Trekking to Inle Lake – Cat’s New Favourite Hobby

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Trekking/hiking/rambling/long walks (applicable as to the age of who’s doing it) has never been something that interested me. On an exercise basis I’ve preferred sport or running and I’m too impatient to take the time to see somewhere at a leisurely pace.

However, after leaving Nepal Cat has had her heart set on trekking. Missing out in the Mecca of Trekking, she was determined to take future opportunities. It started in Thailand with the hills in Soppong, then the rice terraces in Batad, but the trek over more than a day was the goal; Kalaw presented this.

In the hills of Eastern Myanmar, Kalaw is a mountain town approximately 30 miles West of Inle Lake and is a welcome break from the oppressive heat of the lowlands. For the first time in months we could sleep without air conditioning and actually underneath the duvet (an unbelievable feeling after so long). I was beginning to like the place already.

We visited the local tour operators to find out more about what the treks entailed. The guidebook had warned to not even bother attempting trekking during the rainy season as the trails become muddy and slippery, not ideal for climbing up and down hills. The prices on offer were unbelievably cheap: 2 guides, all meals and accommodation cost £6 per person per day. Even if we didn’t like it, we weren’t going to be out of pocket.

We thought it’d be sensible to do a trial run of the area as the last thing we wanted was to be stuck into a 3 day trek and have an awful guide, treacherous conditions and no way of getting out. Our 1 day trek started off pretty badly. Our guides decided to take us through the middle of a forest in the middle of a storm when the paths soon became narrow, slippery and with a sharp drop on one side. Soon after this point we found out that our two guides were nearly half our age. “Ohm Ma Tett” had just turned 17 and “Com Bak” was 18.

However, things got a lot better. After the initial downpour and crazy path, the countryside opened up, the sun came out and the beauty of the Burmese countryside was all around us. There were no cars, motorbikes or any form of transport other than the occasional bike or ox-cart. The Shan countryside is not the stereotypical South-East Asian landscape. There are a few rice paddies, but the area is personified by farmland growing cabbages, strawberries, beans and other vegetables. Between the fields there are hedgerows and the occasional pine trees. Add in the cooler climate and you could believe you were in Europe.

The first trip wasn’t the potential nightmare the guidebook warned of and (despite some my calves beginning to not even think of trekking for a long time) we decided to trek for two more days to Inle Lake. The walk to the lake was even more beautiful and peaceful and we got to see people genuinely living a rural life in a remote area, not one staged for tourists to pay and take photos. Lunch was spent with a local family who – seeing that our original hosts weren’t in – had invited us to their house. The noodle soup was one of the best I’ve ever had and the food just kept coming: rice, noodles, fruit, sweets just kept coming out of our guide’s bottomless backpack.

By about 6pm we made it to our accommodation for the night, beating the storm that was about hit. We were due to stay with a couple who regularly let trekkers sleep on the floor of their barn house and let the guides cook in an even tinier outhouse. Our shower was a slab on concrete on the ground next to a well. A visiting tour group was particularly pleased to see Cat using the facilities with only a towel hiding her modesty. So much so they stayed there for another half minute watching….

If we thought lunch was amazing, dinner was a spectacle. Or guides decided to cook up a Thali that out-Thalied all other meals we’d had until now: 3 curried main dishes (egg, eggplant and vegetable), with sides of ocre, chips, rice, curried tomato and marrow (with top ups that just kept coming). All this was supplemented with copious amounts of Green Tea. When we asked if they would be having any, the guides just turned around and said “ohhh, we’ll just have noodles and chili” It seemed a shame after cooking all this amazing food that they’d only be eating noodles.

As with the rest of South-East Asia, even remoteness doesn’t guarantee quiet. We were miles away from a road, on the top of a mountain with no electricity anywhere and still someone was blaring out music loud enough to be heard for miles. The only time the music couldn’t be heard was when it was drowned out by the deafening sound of the rain falling on the corrugated iron roof. Add in our bed was a wooden floor and we both knew sleep would be tricky.

The final day was a straightforward walk for 5 hours down to the lake where we’d catch a boat the remainder of the way. After 3 days constantly walking, my horrendous lack of fitness and barely sleeping the night, I was glad that this was predominantly downhill. Our guide/gourmet chef cooked up a couple of pancakes, some more green tea and we set off. By lunch time we finally made it to the lake having made it through the “trechorous rocks” and were greeted with a $10 fee for the sake of having got to a lake (yet some more Burmese bureaucracy).

The walk was tiring but worth it. There were few other ways of seeing a remote and rural way of living away from hoardes of crowds in a really authentic environment. I’m not going to rush to do another trek, but I’d happily do another of the same vane. Cat however has planned 4 treks in Malaysia, 2 volcanoes to climb in Indonesia and has already started planning how to do Annapurna and Everest Base Camp in Nepal. I don’t know how I’m going to get out of them….

The 2,000 Temples of Bagan

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Myanmar has a unique way of overestimating the length of journeys. Before hopping on the bus to Bagan, we expected it to take 8 hours and arrive at about 5pm. To our surprise we turned up at 1 pm, a nice 4 hours early. The majority of South-East Asian buses claim the journey is about 2-3 hours shorter than the truth to get your business; the Burmese took the tact of massively over-compensating instead.

Happy to have 4 hours of time not spent on a bus we found our hotel and started the hefty task of getting round the 2,000 temples of Bagan (there were 4,000 until many teak buildings decayed and earthquakes finished off a number as well). Building started around the 11th Century as the Burmese Kings clearly tried to build up merit in the cosmos to ensure they would get closer to nirvana in their next reincarnation (building temples and pagodas in Buddhism can undo a life of atrocities). This continued for a few generations until they either got pushed out the Mongols, broke or both.

Worship in Buddhism is hard enough without the hardships of visiting temples in Bagan. Buddhists must adopt a life of limited possessions, celibacy (women are seen as dirty according to Buddha), no money, 5am starts and no dinner (quite how this is wrong or dirty I don’t know). To pray or meditate at a temple you first have to walk there in the blazing sunshine as there’s little trees or cover. Then you have to remove your shoes (also seen as dirty) and walk around in bare foot. This wouldn’t be too bad if the floor wasn’t built from clay or other materials that become red hot from the sun. It’s incredibly hard to not burn you feet at the majority of temples so you end up running around stupas or hiding in the shade, working out how to get to the entrance.

The majority of Buddhist sites in South-East Asia are immaculately clean as they know worshippers and visitors are walking in their bare feet. In Burma, they decided against this, allowing monkeys, dogs, pigeons and all sorts to do their dirty business right in the middle of a pagoda. It shows the contradiction of Buddhism: feet – bad and dirty; women – also bad and dirty; dogs, monkeys and pigeons – less dirty and allowed to crap at will. I doubt my shoes will ever be as dirty as the floors of most temples in Burma.

However, the site is magnificent. Although no single temple can compare to the likes of Angkor Wat and Bayon (see Angkor Wat blog), the scale of the site is grander than anything I’ve seen. When you cycle around, you begin to lose count of the number of temples that you pass in the desert and the view from the larger temples such as Shwesandaw and Buledi is staggering. In all directions you see the spires and carvings of hundreds of temples that are nearly 10 centuries old. At sunset it’s hard not to be awed by the silhouettes of all the temples jutting out the horizon.

First Stop Mandalay

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A warning

The guidebooks do enough to put most travellers off Myanmar. Here’s some of the warnings:

– There are no atms available for foreigners
– Bring only pristine, crisp and flat US Dollars that are no more than 3 years old. This is the only currency you can exchange (at a very uncompetitive rate)
– Start your visa process 3 weeks before departure. Make sure that if you work in media that you are creative with your job title otherwise you won’t get one
– Transport is a choice of long and uncomfortable or even longer and slightly less uncomfortable.
– Hotels are often overbooked, so ensure you book all your accommodation in advance (some travellers told us about how they had to sleep on the floor of a monastery floor)
– Avoid rainy season at all costs. Some roads are impassable and trekking is not advised


What Mandalay’s actually like

The reality is that Myanmar has changed a lot since the guidebook was written. There are plenty of atms I can use, my visa was processed the same day (even with my media background), transport has been half the time described in the book and we’ve not had a problem with accommodation. Even the weather has been good. The relative lack of tourists has been our gain.

You can tell that Rudyard Kipling never visited to Mandalay as I doubt he would have made it out to be so exotic. The reality is Mandalay is a bit of a dump. A dump with charm, but nevertheless a dump. The hotels are poor, the roads crowded with cars, motorbikes and horse carts and the city has many of the uncleanly elements of many Indian cities (see Gorakhpur). However, the history, culture and friendly demeanour of the local people made up for the grottiness of the city.

The Kings of Mandalay decided that greatness wouldn’t be achieved through grand building projects such Angkor Wat or the Taj Mahal, but through trying to build “The World’s largest….” Unfortunately, only a couple worked:

World’s Largest Pagoda: eventually was given up after only a third was built. After several earthquakes it’s falling apart and it’ called “The World’s largest pile of bricks”
World’s Largest Bell: until the Russians built one three times the size. So they had to settle for “World’s largest uncracked bell”
World’s Largest Book: cheating really as they’re stone tablets. Not your traditional book…
World’s Largest Wooden Bridge: Soon became “The World’s longest teak bridge”

Odd record attempts aside, the towns around Mandalay were our first introduction to rural life in Myanmar. Here you pass ox carts and people working paddy fields in a fashion that doesn’t seem to have changed in a century or more. It’s wonderfully quiet, green (because of the rainy season) and incredibly picturesque as many of the villages sit on the still Ayerwaddy River. The people are incredibly friendly in the way that locals tend to be in countries that don’t appeal to mainstream tourists.

An introduction to the uniqueness of Myanmar

Some background

After years of isolation from the rest of the World, Myanmar (or Burma to some people) has opened its doors, released a lot of prisoners and is trying to make up for lost time. A lot of travellers are referring to Myanmar in the same way that East Berlin and Cuba were with the stock phrase “get there because it’s changing very quickly and will be westernised soon”.

You hear other travellers warn you that “they’ve already got atms everywhere, so you want to get there before it changes beyond recognition”. Although this is a vast exaggeration (the infrastructure hasn’t caught up with the demand, meaning visitors often sleep on monastery floors as the hotels are fully booked) we thought visiting now made sense.

Like many former ex-British colonies, Myanmar spiralled into chaos and civil war not long after the British left. Soon, the much loved military took control (loved because they helped gain independence from the British) and people thought stability and development would come. Unfortunately, as most military regimes do, it just brought human rights abuses, corruption and totalitarian politics and one of the richest countries in Asia soon became one of the poorest in the World.

In an attempt to introduce Socialism, the government nationalised most sectors of the economy ploughing the profits into the growth of the army to maintain control. Entry in and out of Myanmar was severely restricted so that even Burmese expats were refused entry back into Myanmar. Strikes and protests were violently put down and like Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, many people were hearing what was going on in Myanmar, but few could see it. It was only with the dawn of the internet and camera phones that soon the violent suppression of protests were broadcast on youtube and to tv networks which in turn brought pressure from the international community.


Modern Mynamar

With a crippled economy, Myanmar looked to tourists to resurrect their fortunes. In Myanmar, tourists are shielded away from the truth of what’s happening (to go to a lot of places you need permits as they’re declared “too dangerous”) and in a strange twist, travellers are given better protection by the Police than the local population. We’ve heard frequently that the government wants tourists to encourage more people to visit and spend their money, so unlike many places (where the Police will never intervene in your favour over a local) many business owners fear upsetting a tourist.

To help improve their image and end the international sanctions, the government has released over 1,000 citizens who were imprisoned for anti-government protests and have held “democratic elections”. In reality the ruling party won, but the army has split from the government as the President is no longer the head of the army. There’s a long way to go before everything is put right, but it seems to be making the right noises.


How Myanmar is so different to everywhere else

Having been isolated for so long, Myanmar’s people have a distinct cultural identity. When you get off the plane, you can’t help but see that you are in a country that is very different. Here’s a few things that make the Burmese so distinctive:

1. The men wear long skirts (longyi) that need to be constantly re-tied, even whilst in the middle of walking

2. Women and children have a yellowish make-up smeared over their cheeks, forehead and sometimes nose

3. The cars are right hand drive on the right hand side of the road

4. The bureaucracy is endless and means you have to pay several fees to just get from A to B

5. In some towns the main form of transport is ox and cart

6. The most common umbrella is a big leaf

7. The invention of a “tri-shaw”: a bike with a sidecar where one passenger faces forward and the other faces backwards

8. Your curry comes with 8 side dishes (which are as big as the curry you ordered)

9. Green Tea is plied on you by everyone and is free in all cafes/restaurants. We’ve been offered tea by so many people who are just working in their huts

10. The government penalises you for using the local currency, charging more to use Kyat than the US Dollar.

The best way to generalise Myanmar is to describe it as a mixture of Nepal, India and a little bit of Thai.

It doesn’t have the human crush of India, but has it’s eccentricities and friendliness. It has a Nepali approach to Buddhism with Stupas and Pagodas rather than the South-East Asian Wat.

However, the majority of Burmese people have a skin tone and appearance which is more like their Thai and Laotian neighbours to the East rather than their Indian and Bangladeshi to the West. It’s an interesting merge of cultures and one I doubt I’ll ever fully understand. However, that is what makes Myanmar so appealing.

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