A Palace of Sorts Myanmar: 4.11.2013

Today was literally spent chit chatting with various people; we hadn’t planned it to be that way but that’s what was probably so great about it. I’m sick of planning; it’s so much better when things just happen and fall into place – and they usually do.

Agreeing we’ll do the one day hike and depart tomorrow, we decided we wanted to see lots of Hsipaw town today; first things first, however, we needed a decent coffee from Pontoon Coffee – a little cafe owned by a chatty Aussie lady, Maureen, who serves up the best coffee we’ve had in Asia so far. She was out when we showed up this morning so we enjoyed our coffee and decided to stop by later. Heading back into town, we visited the market and just strolled through the streets looking at everything going on around us.

We ended up back at our new local, Mr. Shake, for lunch where we enjoyed delicious fruit salads and good conversation with a fellow traveller from Belgium. She’d just returned from a two day hike and agreed the one day trek into the villages was probably enough to get a ‘feel’ for the area.

We’d been really interested in visiting the old Shan Palace here in Hsipaw; the home and ‘palace’ of the last Shan Price. The nephew of the last Shan Prince, Donald and his wife Fern, now reside there and welcome tourists at any time of the day to come and see the palace home and hear the story. Between 2002 and 2009 it was off limits and closed to tourists when Donald was arrested and jailed apparently for interacting with foreigners. Donald was eventually released from prison and again their fascinating story is being told to anyone who wants to know more about it.

Walking out to the Palace, we passed by Pontoon Coffee and thought we’d just stop by again and see if Maureen was around. We were interested in having a chat with her and she was happy to sit out in the sunshine with us for what turned into more than a few hours!

Late afternoon we finally continued on our way up to the Shan Palace – the walk there was short but beautiful and little children and monks pointed us in the right direction as we walked along the dirt track and through the greenery and villages. This place is beautiful.

When we arrived at the Shan Palace the entrance gate was closed; seeing as we’d only read online that it was open to tourists now (the guidebook says it’s completely off limits!) I wasn’t sure if we should just open it and walk on down the path. However, Fern must’ve realised we were there and walked down the path to greet us so warmly. She gave us a brief introduction and welcomed us to walk around the grounds for a while; a few other tourists joined us and soon there was a large group. We were welcomed into the front room of the palace (which is really more like a large, historic Brittish home, rather than a palace) and we were given a wonderful introduction into her family history and their story.
The palace is home to a fascinating history as well as generations of royalty. The story is amazing, shocking, saddening and interesting. We sat for a while and talked, Fern answered any questions and we gave a small donation at the end of our visit. It was an absolutely worth while trip out to the palace and a memorable afternoon.

Leaving the palace, we were planning on heading to Mrs. Popcorn’s Garden – a large, beautiful and chilled-out garden owned by an elderly lady who apparently makes beautiful organic foods and drinks – but I was feeling a little off, so we decided to just go back to the guest house. By the time we’d walked the 20 minutes back into town I was feeling worse, and unfortunately the rest of my evening was spent vomiting into a bin and watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Classy…

Yes, finally, more than four months and 6 countries into our travels, I had been struck down.

We asked if we could move to another room with a private bathroom and thankfully they had a comfortable double room with a bathroom right next door to our current room – Jake was able to just move all our belongings (which we’d naturally spread all over the room) next door whilst I lay on the bed feeling sorry for myself.
We’d been planning on booking our trek for tomorrow, but I guess that won’t be happening now which is really disappointing; tomorrow was our last opportunity really to take the day trek as we’re leaving the following day.

On the bright side, I guess, if I have to get sick anywhere, Hsipaw is a lovely place to slow down in for a few days…

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The Myanmar I’d been waiting for: 3.11.2013

Our train to Hsipaw was due to depart at 8:30am this morning, so naturally, it arrived in Pyin Oo Lwin well after 9am. Classic “Myanmar time” – I love it.

It meant we were able to take an unexpected stroll through the little local market right next to the station where produce and street foods were being made and sold. I bought myself a little bag of sticky rice for the journey and gushed over a tiny puppy asleep in a wood pile.

The train station with its quaint single platform was dotted with just a few tourists and several locals; I enjoyed ‘people watching’ as the locals travelled both by motorbike and by foot, carrying all sorts of goods and bits and pieces slowly over and across the railway track, uncaring that the train was due in any minute. The tea stall out the back of the station was busy – packed with people filling up on noodle soups, samosas, a myriad of other deep fried things and tea served with frightening amounts of condensed milk. The occasional woman with a large plate of food balanced perfectly upon her head would wander through the crowds of waiting passengers and along the platform, occasionally setting down her goods and packing little plastic bags full of hot fried noodles, vegetables, rices, curries and a range of unidentifiable foods for customers – along with two bamboo skewers to be used as chop sticks. Myanmar’s version of take away.

Eventually our train rolled into the station and casually everyone moved about whilst people got off, people got on, more food vendors arrived and began making their way up and down the platform, goods were unpacked as well as carted onto the train – lots of bags of cabbages included – and the little portly station master tried to work out where all the tourists in our single “upper class carriage” were meant to sit, even though minutes earlier he’d assigned us all seats on hand-written tickets. He clambered aboard after yelling through the window from the platform, wrote down our seat numbers in pen in a little book, shuffled off, then came back and scribbled out the original, adjusting it so we got a “better view seat.” Nice one Mr. Train Man.

As food vendors moved about, people continued to fluff about buying and selling and eating and sitting and not really doing an awful lot too quickly; it didn’t seem like anyone was too fussed about timings so the pace was relaxed and the people mulling about were disorganised in the most organised sort of way. Somehow, it all works out and I had time to get myself a bag of take away tea for the journey.
Eventually the train blew its whistle and people finally took their seats; the train began to roll out of the station at a walking pace and we sat back in our newly assigned “upper class” seats.

We’d been told that the train journey to Hispaw would take between 4 and 11 hours for the 200km journey. Yes, that’s no typo: between 4 and 11 hours. Preparing for a long ride, we sat back and watched as some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen rolled past our open window at a walking speed. This train is known to be one of the 50 “must-do” train rides in the world. It is also known to be painstakingly slow; at times we were moving at a speed slower than what we probably could’ve walked, but it didn’t matter. It was a wonderful, beautiful and sometimes strange experience.

Most of our time on this ancient train was spent rattling around in our upholstered upper class seats; as our carriage shook and jerked along the tracks we were frequently thrown into the air. Bouncing around, we watched as our carriage jolted and shook, swaying at scary angles as we rolled noisily along the tracks. Maybe this train ride is not for the feint hearted and I tried to ignore the fact that it was only days ago that a train travelling a similar route here in Myanmar had derailed… I could understand how that may have happened as I watched people being thrown about. Still, all in good fun.

I had been momentarily disappointed in myself this morning when I chose the upper class seating option over the ordinary class seat (which was $3 cheaper), thinking I would maybe miss out on the whole “experience…” However, I was grateful to have my own cushioned seat during those moments when my ass parted from the seat and was thrown back down with each bump. Peering into ordinary class, the overcrowded wooden seats, the people sleeping on mats in the isle and the several bags of cabbage rolling about looked interesting – sure, but not for me. Not right now.

At one point I had to use the in-train lavatory and spent a good few minutes holding my breath and my balance whilst squatting over the foul smelling toilet, pissing zig zags and being violently thrown about as the train continued to roll at it’s own special pace.

At each station the train would halt and spend anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes there; the same buzz of people hopping on and off, food vendors with exceptionally good balancing skills would move up and down the platform, people would load and unload more goods and there was always something interesting to see. I liked getting down and watching the flow of people and bought myself some delicious noodle salad for lunch from one of the balancing acts. Sitting back on the train with my little take away bag of deliciousness, I tried not to stab myself in the face with my chop-stick skewers; the bounding, shaking, rattling and jerking made it difficult.

After a nap during the heat of the day, I woke to cool breeze blowing in through the open windows, along with too many little bits of foliage and the occasional strange looking insect. I had no idea where we were or how far away Hsipaw was but that was not important; we were really enjoying the journey.

Mid afternoon Mr. Train Man told us we were ten minutes away from Hsipaw; around 30 minutes or so later, we arrived. We were excited as we rolled into the platform – Hsipaw has been a place we’ve been really looking forward to; it sounds so beautiful and relaxing from what we’ve read and we’re looking forward to doing a hike and exploring in the surrounding areas, as well as checking out what this little town has to offer. When a young boy from Nam Khae Mao Guest house – the guest house we’d been intending to check out on arrival – popped his head up next to our window and offered us a room at a very cheap price, we immediately agreed and were carted into a tuk tuk with a group of other tourists and taken straight to our new home for the next few days. $12 a night (our cheapest accommodation in Myanmar by far) bought us a great room (Myanmar standards) with a shared bathroom, hot water, wifi and really friendly staff. We were in a great location too, looking out over the lovely historic clock tower – complete with a flashing electronic neon sign. Welcome to Hsipaw.

It was already after 4pm by the time we checked in and we were so excited to see the town. We considered briefly walking up the nearby hill to see the sun set but instead decided to head straight into town and explore. We have a few days here to do all the things we want to do. We were too late for the central market – it had just closed, and “Mr. Book”, the book stall guy was not around when we tried to visit his stall, but we did find a very cute toothless elderly man selling delicious chicken and sweet bean steam buns, a road side street food stall selling delicious grilled rice cake with palm sugar and sesame seeds, more little deep fried something-a-rathers and the very touristy “Mr. Shake” juice bar, where Mr. Shake and his wife served up incredibly fresh juices and lassis for a ridiculously cheap price.

We ended up sitting out the front of Mr. Shake until late – an Aussie guy showed up not long after us and we spent a couple of hours chatting and being reminded of how awesome the Australian style of speaking is. We’ve missed it and we didn’t even realise. On a recommendation from the Aussie guy, we ended up at “Mr. Food” for dinner (do you see a trend starting to appear in this town…?) where the same guy we’d met in the tuk tuk on our way to the guest house here was eating alone; we joined him for dinner and learned he was Matt from England.

Late evening we headed back to our guest house and planned a full day for tomorrow; we were trying to decide if we should do the one or the two day hike into the nearby villages and furthermore, if we should leave tomorrow or the next day… We’re still undecided about that, but one thing is for sure; Hsipaw is already a winner – it’s the Myanmar I’d been waiting for and I already adore this quaint, dusty, friendly little town.

Myanmar Eats: 1 – 2.11.2013

Our share taxi arrived on time this morning – and by on time, I mean on Myanmar time – just half an hour or so later than organised. Nice! Earlier than we’d been expecting!

I’d been trying to work out exactly what a “share taxi” would involve – it always seems to differ in every Asian country and after seeing so many different types of rust-buckets and packed full of people transportation zipping about on the roads, I was apprehensive. Jacob was betting on a mini-van, I was betting on a more pick-up truck style vehicle. Turns out, a share taxi is just a normal rusty shell of a car packed full of parcels to be delivered along the way to the final destination – which in our case, is Pyin Oo Lwin.

Our driver packed both Jacob and I, our backpacks, a heap of golf clubs, a few large boxes, two Burmese women and their belongings and a few more parcels into the tiny hatchback before lead-footing it for an entire two hours up massive hills, around hair-pin bend and tight curves and over taking anyone and every vehicle within sight.

We stopped twice (besides the several times the driver parked, leaving the car running, to deliver a parcel): once when the engine got too hot and our driver had to hose it down and again to get petrol. The petrol station was very oddly more like a small party – about twenty or thirty staff in blue tee-shirts and bare feet stood around just chatting and waiting for a car to re-fuel, music pumping in the background to keep them entertained. When we arrived, they all went wild for these two whities jammed into the back of the car, faces almost smeared against the window glass. Whilst our car was re-fuelled, five or ten people stood outside our car door smiling the BIGGEST smiles at us and laughing uncontrollably whenever one of them tried to speak English with us. All we could do was laugh and smile back. Momentarily one of the smiling women left, returning with about fifteen cups of raspberry cordial for us to drink. We took two. We told them we were going to Pyin Oo Lwin and they started hand gesturing a “shivering” motion, explaining to us it would be very cold. I wondered what the Burmese considered to be “very cold…”
Once our car was filled with fuel and ready to roar again, we waved goodbye to several massive smiles and sipped on our cordial as our driver put his lead foot back down.

The drive was wonderful though, beautiful scenery and pretty quick – just a couple of hours and we were absolutely a world away from hectic Mandalay. On arrival, we dumped our bags at our very fancy guest house and headed out to explore the town…

Pyin Oo Lwin was colonised by the British way back in the day and the old weathered buildings and Purcel Clock Tower (the wanna-be Big Ben of Myanmar) had a distinctly British look and feel – a charm that certainly seems to exist throughout this cute, welcoming, dusty town.
We admired the surroundings as we strolled up the main street looking for a place to get some local food for lunch. We discovered what we thought was a local place and had some average noodles there – later we realised what a touristic eatery this actually was. Jacob spied a local curd shop – he’s got a nose for this sort of thing now – and we ended up there sipping thick yoghurt through curly straws, watching the locals around us and the interesting street scenes continually unfolding. Horse drawn carts with wooden Cindarella-style coaches (although not as glamourous – think weathered wooden boxes, filthier, tackier and with sick looking horses) trotted past and locals roasted peanuts by the side of the road. Men huddled around betel nut stands, buying leaves and spitting massive glugs of burgundy goo onto the road and pavement. Women could be seen in their shop fronts, knitting hats and jumpers whilst waiting for their next customer. Children were playing, tea shops were busy, the air was fresh(ish) and it felt really nice to be here.

We took a stroll through the big Central Market area – it was filled with all sorts of goods and bits and pieces. There was cooking items, house hold items, clothing, shoes, underwear, food items and lots of knit wear that was oddly enough, exactly the same at every shop – besides one lady we found who was crocheting gorgeous little beanies. Moving away from this area of the market, we found ourselves out in the open-air produce market where all sorts of fresh foods were being sold. Deep fried insects, scary meats, unidentifiable items and lots of beautifully coloured fruits and vegetables dotted the ground and small tables. Women were fanning fresh fish that were displayed in metal bowls under the heat of the sun, right next to whole dead chickens, fried birds and little quail eggs. I think I’ve said it before, but I adore these types of wet Asian markets, and I never tire of looking through them; there is always something new to find that we didn’t see the last time we looked..

People were smiling at us, babies were being taught to wave and blow kisses and smiled when they saw us, the women kept telling me I was beautiful and pointing to my skin… People here were friendly and no one was touting or trying to sell us anything. It felt like a place where we would be really able to experience the local life style in an honest, non-touristic manner.

Evening time and we were hungry for some street food. We heard there was a night market here that sold “Myanmar snacks” but what we found was an entire street filled with tents and plastic chairs, metal tables and wonderful smells. Smoke and steam was rising from the hundreds of hot pots, woks, stove tops, barbeques, grill plates, coal fires and steel pots at every different street stall. Men and women and children were all busy – either cooking or eating – everyone seemed to be there. There was so much to choose from, so many different foods being cooked and prepared, boiled, chopped, fried and stirred. The organs and pig heads being cut into bite size pieces with house-hold scissors may have been immediately scrapped from our list of choices, but the vegetarian options were in abundance and there was certainly no threat of going hungry. We strolled by each stall looking and choosing what we might want to try. We ended up at a little noodle tent, slurping Shan Noodles and enjoying being amongst it all. Moving on, we found a place that was jam packed with people and with a queue forming for take away. The staff were under the pump and we decided this was the place to be. We enjoyed a clay pot of steamed vegetables, tofu and various noodles mixed with chilli and other spices and sauces. $1.50 bought us an incredible dinner; one of the highlight meals of this entire trip to date, and we were definitely coming back tomorrow night.

Taking advantage of the fast internet back at our hotel, our evening was spent watching one of my favourite movies of all time and drinking hot 3-in-1 milo. A tiny bit of normality for us; it felt a bit like home.

I really like this place, it’s quiet and calm and slower paced – I’m not missing the overwhelming honking and pollution that we found in Mandalay and Yangon. However, we’ve found this ‘quieter’ pace to be the case since arriving in Myanmar and it’s been olldy enough a little difficult for us to adjust to.
Maybe we were expecting something completely different? Although, I don’t actually know what we were expecting – or if we had any specific expectations at all.
It’s certainly a country I want to know more about, but at the same time, I wonder if it’s possible for tourists to get a real insight into what’s been happening and what is currently happening. We feel very much like outsiders – very much tourists – with no way of getting closer to the locals.
Furthermore, our budget is quite limiting – due to such high accommodation costs we can afford little more than accommodation, some transport and food/drink each day for about $50 – 55 (a lot more than the $35 we’d planned on spending). I guess Mandalay, for example, could’ve been completely different for us had we been able to afford more.

I’m hoping that as we move away from the big cities – now in Pyin Oo Lwin and into Hsipaw and Inle Lake – we’ll be more mesmerised and captivated by this country. We feel it has a lot of noticeable similarities to other countries we’ve visited – we keep being reminded of Laos and Thailand – and we hope Myanmar offers us something wildly different and makes us fall in love with her. No doubt there is immense beauty and a fascinating culture and history to be discovered here if we take the time to find them.
I think maybe I had this picture of what Myanmar would be and besides the temples of Bagan, I haven’t quite found it yet…

Our second day in Pyin Oo Lwin turned out to be pretty awesome and left us feeling way more motivated and back in “travel mode” than the previous day (and this morning).

We ended up organising a tuk tuk to take us out to the starting point of the Ani Sakan Waterfall hike early this morning; whilst we knew it would be spectactular and feeling as though “we should absolutely go,”  for some reason we were feeling unmotivated. I guess, as I’ve learned during this trip, “the scariest moment is just before it starts” – aka, “the hardest part is getting out the door.”  As soon as we jumped into the back of the rust bucket open-air tuk tuk and began hurtling down the bumpy, dusty roads, we were loving it. The cool breeze was beautiful against our faces and we enjoyed watching life whizz past us – often in the form of men hanging out of or clinging onto the side of pick up trucks whilst they waved and called out to us.

Arriving at the start of the short trek, we grabbed a couple of chewy lychee drinks and set off downhill. Instantly a group of very young Burmese girls began following us without saying a word and expected payment to walk with us down to the falls and back. I wished they were at school instead. We declined their service and continued down the path that almost instantly became steep and windy and continued that way for the next 40 minutes or so as we made our way down, down, down. The path was steep and often muddy or covered in loose stones and rocks. Images of my ass getting covered in mud from a potential (hilarious) slip often crossed my mind…
The scenery was breath taking and we often paused to marvel at the sheer cliff faces, forest, waterfalls and mountainous backdrop before us.

By the time we reached the bottom we could hear the massive falls so close and see the mist rising through the forest. The track turned to watery mud and we inched our way closer, trying even harder not to slip. When we made it up a small muddy incline the falls came into view: roaring and massive, they fell from a huge height and the mist almost instantly covered us in a fine layer of water. So refreshing.

Climbing down from the falls we passed smiling monks who greeted us with “mingalaba” and laughed as we all slid around in the mud and slush beneath our feet. The only difference was we were kitted out in hiking boots and they were barefoot. I think we were at more risk of slipping.

Downhill had been “easy” in comparison to going uphill and it took us just over 50 minutes to climb the steep incline and arrive back at our starting point; puffed out, we were happy to get back into the tuk tuk and ride through the cool breeze. I love sitting in these open air tuk tuks watching the scenery and the life going by. Firstly, the scenery is beautiful and secondly, there is always someone hanging out of their car/truck/van/tuk-tuk/pick up/motorbike/bicycle waving and smiling and laughing at us foreigners. At one point a man on a motorbike drove past carrying hundreds of dead chickens all hanging off the back. Oh Asia…

Back in Pyin Oo Lwin, we took another stroll through the streets and found ourselves back at the “night market” which, at 3pm…wasn’t so night-y. It was never the less full of street food stalls with smoking woks and boiling pots, cooking smells wafting and people everywhere eating and cooking and sitting at metal tables on TINY plastic chairs under tents. People were hard at work – and then there were those hard at eating. Last night it had been a bit dark and overwhelming when we came here and we’d chosen the sorts of meals we knew were ‘safe’. Today that was not happening – we wanted to try everything these little Myanmar food stalls had to offer. Most snacks and meals cost us between 100 – 300 kyat, (10 – 30 cents) which meant that we could hop from vendor to vendor, try every new delicious food, end up extremely full and with only the equivalent of .80c less in our wallet.
We had noodle soups, deep fried tofu, grilled fruits, rice paper pancakes, takoyaki-type rice balls, coconutty things, vegetable bits, salads, some sort of nut thing…

We returned late that night to the night market for another snack (or five) and the best cup of Burmese milk tea we’ve had. It amazed me that this night market was absolutely tourist-free, the three times we have visited this central place in the past two days we’ve not seen one other tourist – and there are a lot of tourists here. The Chinese restaurant down the road, however, seemed to be brimming with them. I wonder how much longer this market will remain a local-only type of place, souvenir and tout-free.

Back at our room we followed our standard ‘the night before we leave this place’ routine: we acknowledged we needed to pack our cases, we procrastinated for a good hour (or three) and then finally – way too late at night to have the energy or motivation to do so – we got our things together and packed our packs.

After today’s little trekking adventure and the joyous experience of trying new things and eating with all the locals, I feel my excitement about travel and being here in Myanmar start to heighten a lot more; I feel so much more motivated and excited to be here than I was feeling when we were in the big cities.
Tomorrow we’re taking the scenic train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw. I think the distance is something like 200km and takes around… oh, you know, between 4 and 11 hours by train! It’s been described as one of the 50 “must-do” train travel routes in the world, but also, as being “painfully slow.” I’m a little apprehensive about what a train trip involves in Myanmar, but at the same time I of course want to experience it. If it’s anything like some of the scenery we’ve seen else where in Asia, no doubt it will be stunningly beautiful… if it’s anything like the crowded, jam packed trains we’ve seen else where in Asia, 4 – 11 hours may end up feeling a lot longer. We shall see.

From what I have read, Hsipaw is a pretty magnificent place and I am looking forward to getting there and seeing what’s on offer. It sounds like a place you can really start to ‘feel’ and take your time in – I love those sorts of places. I much prefer to travel and just get a feel for a place rather than hop from tourist attraction to tourist attraction, so Hsipaw sounds like it will  be perfect…

For now, Pyin Oo Lwin – you’ve been pretty great.

Perspective Myanmar: 30 – 31.10.2013

The bus ride from Bagan to Mandalay was stress-free and offered a wonderful view of the beautiful scenery and often, quick glimpses of Myanmar life. I watched out the window as our bus drove through vast fields of uneven sand whilst children ran alongside the bus frantically smiling and waving. We passed by small village homes where children were busy playing with old tyres and women were combing and picking the lice out of their family member’s hair. Our bus drove over ancient looking bridges as we waved back at women in lungis with large bunches of branches and leaves sitting on their heads, perfectly balanced.

The roads were uneven, unpaved and full of pot holes ,and the bus struggled at times to plough over the mud and sand that often replaced the tarmac. We rolled past houses built from the leaves and branches of trees, sitting in the middle of rice fields and greenery. Goat, sheep and cow herders could occasionally be seen watching over their flock near by the roadside.
Karaoke could be heard streaming from the TV at the front of the bus; home-video style film clips accompanied the songs providing short lived entertainment before we were forced to resort to our iPods for some sanity.
I watched as women in conical hats sat on the road side piling rocks into baskets; metres away men were filling a large hole in the road with the rocks – buses and cars were given ample warning in order to move around the workers: a bunch of small rocks in place of safety cones/witches hats made a small border surrounding the workers to keep them safe.
As we moved through villages I was yet-again amazed by the living conditions as we caught a quick passing glimpse of life here. Babies sat naked in the dirt alongside cows flicking their tails in the dust, women were busy hanging laundry in the heat of the sun and in the open bamboo hut next door, men played pool around a very fancy looking billiard table. Myanmar’s version of a men’s pool room…
We passed an area that looked to be purely a rubbish tip; massive amounts of filth and waste, pollution and rubbish were scattered across a large section of land. Mountains of plastic and and discarded items were sifted through by women with large collection baskets. Their working conditions and the pollution seeping into our earth made me sad.
Recent rains have left the roads in an even poorer condition than what I can imagine is normal. Pot holes that could no doubt engulf a motorbike were filled with muddy water and flowing over; entire sections of road seem to be completely covered in thick uneven mud that made driving through them even more difficult and unpredictable. Traffic was quieter than we’re used to, but still busy and full of motorists that never seemed to follow any specific road rules.
People sat along side the road in that typical “Asian squat” that looks so comfortable; their lungis up around their thighs and a cigarette in hand…

I like these bus rides.

I like the act of travel – not just being in a place, but actually making my way there. I like these bumpy journeys, the new and different sights and the quirky people we seem to meet.

We stopped for lunch at a road house – complete with a massive kitchen, huge meals, a massive group of women balancing all sorts of foods in metal dishes on their heads, a large serving of deep fried whole quails and the pretty standard scary squat toilets. Jacob and I played it safe and said no the bag of quail eggs that had been sitting in the sun and instead ate some sort of sponge cake with a sugary pumpkin-bean-something-a-rather filling. We met an American girl who was also trying to work out what food was safe and edible and we quickly became friends – discovering we were all staying at the same guest house in Mandalay, we planned to share a taxi on arrival there.

Arriving into Mandalay, getting off the bus was a struggle due to the massive onslaught of touters and taxi drivers, people yelling and pushing and screaming for our attention in the doorway of the bus. In fact, before the bus could even stop there were touters running along side the bus checking each window; once they spotted our white tourist faces they became very eager to get our attention. A man with a sign stating our guest house name and “Free WI-Fi. Suitable Place” caught our attention, but his taxi price was too high and we instead found a driver with a strange sweat-rag/hand-towel wrapped around his head who complained to us that he is thirty two and still single. We told him he’s still a spring chicken and there’s plenty of time to find a wife. He told us he should’ve been married at eighteen. I see.

Our afternoon was taken up with an hour or so long walk to a big shopping plaza – I needed to go to a specific shop that I knew was at this specific mall and we were too stingy to take a taxi, so walked an hour or so through the intense heat, traffic and pollution to get there. We like these kinds of walks that lead us through the hectic chaos; it offers us an insight into the area and how people live.

Mandalay’s footpaths are an experience in their own right: they are like a potentially lethal obstacle course; a maze that takes you over, around and through absolute mess and rubble, with the constant threat of injury or possibly ending up doused in sewage. The massive sections of missing concrete open up to reveal thick, toxic smelling waste below and make you question your every step as you dodge and weave around and over large cracks, gaping holes and possibly-about-to-cave-in cement slabs. All this whilst trying to navigate direction and the chaos happening around you; intense but so much fun.

We found the mall eventually, and my hopes were quickly crushed when we found the shop – completely gutted and closed down. Oh well, we’ll try again when we get back to Yangon. Instead, we spent an hour or so walking back through the heat, traffic and sprawl our guest house.

We met back up with our new American friend back at the guest house and together the three of us went out again to pay a visit to the night market and find ourselves some street food for dinner.
The night market was not so interesting; mostly strange books in Burmese with a few strange English titles such as “Really Good English Essays” and “AIDS Now” mixed in, alongside cheap looking children’s clothing, weird maid costumes, large posters of white-skinned naked babies and the occasional women’s underwear stand – always with male stall holders lounging around in a lungi, smoking casually. Enticing.
Oddly enough, market stands and book stalls (mounds of books thrown onto pieces of tarp laid out on tarmac in the middle of the busy road) were lined up in the street, competing with motorbikes and cyclists trying to negotiate their way around the stalls and people. It was an odd mix, but pretty quickly we found the food area where Jake and America enjoyed scary meat with rice and vegetables whilst I watched happily. I requested vegetarian curry but was met with a blank stare and eventually, “no vegetable, only raw.”… It seems trying to find vegetarian food here is a lot more difficult than I expected it to be. Moving on from the street side eatery, we continued walking to find me street noodles. America bought herself some Burmese sweets which reminded us of overly sweet mochi. The vendor grabbed a huge chunk and cut it into bite sized pieces with scissors that could easily pass off as an antique, or become part of some museum collection. Amazing.
Locating a street restaurant that looked to be full of locals, I went to inspect if noodles were available and watched as a little old man slurped away at a delicious looking bowl of soup and vermicelli. I want that.
I ordered “vegetarian noodle, no meat please” and the short fluffy man in a lungi nodded. I hoped for the best…and the meal served to me was totally amazing. Good food, good atmosphere, good company, good conversation. I loved it.

Our following day in Mandalay was really a “nothing day” – sometimes you need these when traveling, I guess; we felt unmotivated and not in the mood to explore. I guess we were not feeling so much the need to visit monestries or pagodas and the intense traffic, heat and motor pollution here was a little overwhelming. We ventured out in the morning for brunch of more noodle soup and strange dumplings with an unknown meat filling, before taking a walk to find a curd vendor... surely there had to be someone making curd fresh around here…

There was, we found the stall, bought the curd and it was oishi!

Oh Asia, why you be so awesome.

Our day was whittled away with ease – using wifi, playing ukulele, reading Manga and doing washing.  We were interested in taking an evening bike riding tour but it was quite expensive – and I mean, a lot expensive for our tight backpackers budgets – seeing as our budget is so stretched as it is because of high accommodation costs, it meant we had to give it a miss. This part of budget travel is challenging, but it’s all part of it I guess; deciding what you feel is worth the money and what is passable. I think and feel Myanmar is a country that we need to travel in with a lot more “fat” built into our budget; something we absolutely did not expect nor accommodate for.

We ventured out in the afternoon for a second serve of delicious curd (good bacteria for our gut – what we keep telling ourselves, at least), and visited the night market again for more healthy noodle, vegetable and tofu soup. I hate ‘sticking to what we know’ when it comes to street food – I want to try everything – but I had a lot of trouble trying to find vegetarian food and the offle and intestines floating in broth at every second street food stall scared me a little.

Overall it was a pretty quiet day; we now realise that Mandalay was a city we probably could’ve given a miss and moved straight on to the “hill country” in the North of Myanmar; never the less, we came and we saw (a little) and are ready for our next destination. Tomorrow we head to Pyin Oo Lwin by “share taxi” – whatever that is…

Pyin Oo Lwin sounds like my sort of place a hill country town that is supposedly famous for coffee, strawberries and knitted jumpers/sweaters and hats/beanies. Seeing as I adore both coffee and strawberries and am rarely seen without a beanie (unless I’m sweltering in Asia), this town is sounding pretty awesome already.

Bagan Bound Myanmar: 27 – 29.10.2013

Our first overnight bus pulled out of the bus station perfectly on time; the steward came through giving everyone clean blankets and a little hot dinner with drinks, reclining our seats and switching our lights off. There was no loud music, no tacky karaoke, no hocking or spitting, no mobile phones ringing late into the night… just quiet as the bus rolled and bounced along, Bagan bound. Something seemed strange… it was too good to be true

Our luxury bus arrived into Bagan at 6am; the sky was just starting to show signs of light in the distance and rain was already falling. We stepped out and were immediately hit by taxi drivers and hotel touters at the ready; we’d arrived into tourist territory and again we were reminded that we absolutely underestimated this country.
We declined offers of “I’ll drive you the 6km to your guest house,” “just pay me how you like give me first customer lucky money”  and “It 3km away, too far for you”  and walked the 10 minutes along the road to a guest house.Taxi drivers are funny.
It was dark when we’d arrived but in minutes of walking the sky was getting lighter and lighter; we passed tea shops and small road house restaurants already brimming with people feasting on morning noodles, rice and Burmese tea.
The main road was pretty quiet; a few bicycles and motorbikes rode by, some stray dogs and the occasional woman carrying a basket on her head, but otherwise empty and silent.
Good morning Bagan.

Looking at the wet weather and feeling pretty tired from the overnight bus, we were not sure exactly what to do on our first day here in Bagan. It didn’t take too long for our guest house owner to help us out – he was straight to the point in saying that “Relax in your room today. Full moon day, no market. Everything close today. Rainy weather all day today, no clear sky. No good for temple. No good for Mt. Popa. No good for bike. Bad weather. You should be tired after bus ride. Relax today.”
Okay sir, will do…

The first day in Bagan was pretty much a nothing day; the rain continued to fall heavily all day and left the dirt roads nothing more than a flooded muddy mess. When we did attempt to explore the town on foot, large puddles forced us to walk through the muck and flowing rivers of water – our thongs acting like suction caps and flicking dirt up our legs and backs and motorbikes spraying us as they rode past.
Hoping the following day would be better weather, we planned to explore the temple area. E-bikes (electronic bikes) are everywhere for rent in Bagan and I was super keen to get my bum on one of those bad boys and zip and zoom all over this ancient city.

The next two days in Bagan offered us much better weather and an opportunity to explore the town and spectacular ancient temples and pagodas.

We started our second day by firstly paying an early visit to the large local markets which were still muddy and wet from the previous days’ rain. Within minutes mud had flicked up our legs and backs (and all over our clean clothing) and our thongs were suctioning us to the ground, causing us to near-miss falling flat on our asses in the mud. The markets were large, sprawling and smelling strongly of raw meat; that distinct smell that all Asian wet markets seem to have. People were everywhere and as we walked through the narrow alley way we dodged sick looking dogs and small playing children. Most of our concentration was taken up in an attempt  to step over and around the blood that was trickling down the meat market tables and spilling out into the mix of mud, water and filth on the ground. Whilst the many bare footed customers didn’t seem to worry about the blood and animal matter that spattered on their skin as they trudged through the slop, I did.
We watched as whole animal carcases were skinned, sliced and cut open, organs and gizzards hooked and hung out for sale, blood collected and pig head skins shoved out on display. The sellers were posed squatting in their lungis, bare footed, cutting and chopping with massive knives that sliced through entire animals in one loud chop. They talked and laughed and smiled as they handled the chunks of raw meat and fish – it was gutted and prepped and weighed, then shoved into metal dishes for sale. We were once again amongst the fascinating, foul smelling action. On the other side of the alleyway, all sorts of colourful vegetables and fruits were being sold. We turned a corner, away from the pungent smells that were forcing me to cover my nose and mouth with my sleeve, and were suddenly no longer in the locals area – we were in the tourist section. Damn.
“Lady, you want lungi, looking is for free” “You need wood carving? Laquerware? Bell? Metal thingy? Useless item? T-shirt with strange English translation? Ugly wooden cat?….”

We didn’t stay much longer.

Deciding we would head out to the temples, we started walking… Why not? It was about a 4km walk to the Old Bagan area and it was nice weather.
It’s hard to explain how it appeared and felt when we began to see these ancient ruins start popping up along the sides of the roads, through the over grown jungle grass and surrounded by thousands of dragon flies, but it was pretty spectacular. These 4000-odd Buddhist temples that are dotted about a massive area of land could be compared – in their own magnificent way – to the temples of Angkor Wat, and were truly stunning.
I think you are supposedly meant to pay $15 USD for a week long general entrance ticket to the temples but there was no ticket seller around anywhere and no one checking tickets, so… awesome! I checked this later with the guest house manager and he said “no one is checking so don’t buy.” Love it.

Walking along the roads and dirt tracks, we took time to move about the little temples and structures as we chose. There are so many of these marvelous structures, it’s not hard to find one that is completely empty and it was amazing to have such an area to explore by ourselves. We found one temple that, when we climbed up the dark narrow staircase, offered us a stunning view over a large area of Old Bagan and surrounding temples. Thousands of them seem to just sprout up from the greenery to give a view that is spectacular; one that no words – or my dodgy camera – can do justice…

We spent our third and final day in Bagan zooming around on bikes and exploring the temple areas. Whilst I chose a gnarly looking e-bike (a tiny bike with a massive battery on the back that whizzes along at a surprisingly fast speed), Jake chose a pedal bicycle. I tried to get him to hire an e-bike; I wanted us both to have the opportunity to speed around on one of these bad boys, seeing as we don’t get to back home, but he was eager to stay “traditional.”

Trying to negotiate the muddy, wet, pot-holey roads and the many unorganised road users – human and animal – with an e-bike was at first a little bit daunting, but before long I was speeding along at a “medium speed”… (actually a lot faster than I was expecting).
We headed out towards the area we had visited on foot yesterday, planning on travelling much further down through Old Bagan to the area where there are lots of these stunning ancient structures (although, there seem to be lots everywhere!) but, of course, Jake’s bike tyre went flat about an hour into our explorations. We’d been to just a few temples before we were forced to turn around and walk the hour or so back into town – me pushing the bike and Jake riding my e-bike at a walking pace alongside me. “Should’ve gotten an e-bike…”

Back in town, Jake selected another bicycle from the pretty dodgy selection and again we were off. We took a different road to get to some different temples – the road that runs parallel with the main road was much quieter and in a much better condition – and we had a lot of fun zooming down the flat stretches of road. We hopped from temple to temple, walking bare foot through ancient ruins and structures with murals from hundreds of years ago covering the bricks. Again, no words to describe it.

We met a young Burmese guy who was very eager to tell us where to see the best views and what temples we should go to; he was super kind but… no, we don’t actually want to buy any paintings, sorry.
Back on our bikes, we zipped over the road and up a very muddy and wet dirt path – almost getting bogged more than once along the way – towards the Buledi Stupa. Supposedly with some of the best views over the area, we climbed the several steep stairs up to a view point that literally left me awe struck. There are just so many temples… so many. Breath taking.
We stayed up for a while just trying to take in the view and the structures that dotted around us for such a far and wide distance. Shiny golden pagodas peeped through the greenery, along with the red-coloured bricks of the ancient temples and massive structures.

As the sun was setting we took in our last views of the scenery before hopping back on our bikes to head back into town before dark… but of course, we couldn’t just have a leisurely non-eventful ride back– Jake’s bum was obviously too heavy for these Asian-made bikes and he bent the actual metal bike seat pole: it just folded all of a sudden like a piece of paper crumbling. I was riding along and heard a sudden loud noise and then “shit!”…

We arrived back into Nyaung U town at peak hour where we shared the road with all sorts of people and animals and vehicles. It was dusty and chaotic and there were roosters strutting about, children playing on the road side and water spilling out from somewhere unknown… people riding on the opposite side of the road, women carrying large baskets and dishes of goods on their heads and restaurants gearing up for the evening rush. We rolled into the bike rental shop where the faces of the staff members dropped when they saw Jake’s bike… and then changed from a state of shock to a state of laughter whilst the male staff member said “too strong” and tensed his biceps. Jake went next door to the conveniently located bike repair shop and bought a new pole for 1500kyats ($1.50c)… so, not so damaging on the wallet, thank goodness.

Since we are leaving Bagan tomorrow headed for Mandalay, we spent some of the final evening cleaning up our mess: after two nights here we’ve “somehow” managed to spread our (my) belongings across the entire room. I had done some laundry that wasn’t quite dry, so had it hanging over the furniture. As I sat there amongst the mess and drying clothing in my mud-splattered trekking pants, treating a bottle of water with the steri-pen, I thought to myself… “We’re really here. We’re true backpackers…”

Unexpected Myanmar: 24 – 26.10.2013

The alarm went off at 2:45am on the morning of the 24th; with our eyes feeling as though they were hanging out of our heads and our bodies heavy after only three or so hours sleep, we hauled our packs onto our backs and walked out into the dark, empty streets of Kuala Lumpur in an attempt to find a taxi.
The taxi dropped us at KL Sentral Station, where we were instantly able to board the bus bound direct for the airport – one hours bus ride meant one more hours sleep, and I woke as we pulled into the International Departure Drop-Off area. I didn’t feel ready for Myanmar in so many ways, but I guess, as per usual, the unknown was the scariest part. With out knowing what the country would be like and with so much conflicting information, it was hard to know what we were heading for… an odd mix of hesitation and excitement began.

Arriving into Myanmar, we flew over several golden pagodas emerging from the landscape below and glistening in the morning sun. We were here, finally, in “the land of a thousand pagodas.” Somewhere amongst the sheer exhaustion and uncertainty of what this country had in store for us, I felt excited.

With our bags collected and clinging to our pristine, clean, new US dollars, we headed for immigration – past a very large – empty! – VISAS ON ARRIVAL counter with several customs officers sitting, waiting… Flash backs of the absolute ordeal that was getting our Myanmar visas in Kathmandu, Nepal, were suddenly entering my mind – but it didn’t matter; the lady stamped my passport and ushered me through. We went directly to the money exchangers at the airport; regardless of what the guide book says, the best exchange rate for USD to Myanmar Kyat was surprisingly at the airport; confusing – yes, but true!

Feeling suddenly very rich with a thick wad of thousands of kyats in our hands, we headed towards the exit and walked out into Yangon’s morning heat. Headed for our guest house in the city centre, we hopped into a car with right hand side steering wheel, with a driver that drove on the right hand side of the road… and sometimes the left… and sometimes in the centre…or anywhere he really felt like, or fitted, really…

The city centre was an hours taxi ride away and as we rolled towards our guest house we tried to take in the sights and sounds of a new country whizzing past our eyes. We were instantly reminded of Laos and the fact that we were absolutely not in Japan any more. Pagodas shimmering in the sunlight were dotted amongst buildings and greenery. The roads were filled with traffic that was still hectic compared to say, Japan or Melbourne, but nothing like what we’ve experienced else-where in Asia. We immediately felt a sense of calm here. The cars on the road were older, some rusting, lots of Japanese models… it was quickly obvious that one classic style of transport found everywhere else in Asia was missing… where were the motorbikes? Turns out, there are none: motorbikes are illegal here in Yangon.

When we eventually arrived at our budget guest house – which we’d paid a whopping $45 US dollars for (yes, that is for just one night in a basic room with shared bathroom) – we were at first a little (and by a little, I mean, a lot) taken back…We’ve not paid more than about $17 for any accommodation this entire trip and when we have (which has been very rarely) we’ve gotten absolute luxury in return. From our past experiences in Asia – particularly in South East Asia – we recall paying around $5 for a decent room or dorm room with a bathroom, so it was a very rude shock to our budget to find out that $25 – $35 per night is pretty standard for budget accommodation here in Myanmar…
So, our first impressions? We needed to make a bit of an adjustment to our budget (and our mindset), which we’d been expecting to sit around the $35 per day mark. Shit…

After sleeping away the morning, both of us woke feeling groggy and run down. We ventured out to find a place to eat and ended up walking through the streets – passing so many friendly and curious faces, avoiding large gaping holes, rubbish, upturned rubble and uneven ground on the footpaths, breathing in car fumes and delicious smelling street food.

Yangon seems quieter than other Asian cities we’ve been to but still full of traffic, people and life, buzzing with activity, little shops and street carts, open air food stalls, men carrying large bird cages full of birds on their backs, women cooking on ancient stove tops fueled by hot coals and fresh fruit for sale that is always so tempting… so much is happening and it feels great to be back amongst the grungy, homely Asia that I fell in love with…

Street food lined the roads and footpaths we walked by – the main foods seemed to involve varied noodle dishes or big pots with a boiling stock, surrounded by bits of skewered meat that looked very much like organs of some description. Vendors were mixing noodle salads by hand under the shelter of their tiny carts or under larger tents set up like make-shift restaurants; people were everywhere eating on tiny child-sized colourful plastic seats. The food all looked so interesting, so delicious (although maybe not the organy looking things…) and it smelled beautiful and fresh; at the same time I felt the need to proceed with caution – I wasn’t ready yet to dive into the street food scene here. Maybe tomorrow…

The Burmese, it seems, are crazy about tea – sweet, milky tea which can be found almost everywhere. Every second building seemed to be a Tea House; complete with concrete floors and child waiters with cigars behind their ears, wooden seats or tiny plastic ones, and people everywhere, sipping tea and making smoochy noises to get the waiters attention.

I love this tea culture we seem to always be following regardless of what Asian country we are in. Although, it’s safe to say I have a severe sweet tea/sugar addiction after the copious amounts of tea we have been consuming in the past 4-odd months and the threat of diabetes is starting to worry me ever so slightly. Asians seem to love their tea SUPER sweet – if you can taste the tea, it’s not sweet enough apparently – and we’ve gotten somewhat used to wincing away the teeth-pain every time we take a sip.
Whilst funny, it wasn’t all that surprising to find a menu in a tea house displaying a number of different options for tea:
Little sweet
Sweetened
House Special (more sweet)
Diabetes

“…aaah, yes, I’ll have the diabetes, thanks…”

We walked gladly through the streets, watching and observing. It’s nice to be surrounded again by a new and different culture yet, oddly it feels really familiar. We keep being reminded of Laos and other areas of South East Asia… and then something new or different is discovered or revealed.

The boys and men here mostly wear lungis – much like the ones the men wear in Sri Lanka, India and Nepal – and it’s quite normal to see people (men and women) with faces and skin smeared with a cream coloured powder – especially all over their face; the traditional make-up of Myanmar that has been worn for thousands of years.

The people here are friendly and curious; their stares are warm and no one tried to cheat us or bother us – apart from one man who offered us a very generous exchange rate on the street – a little too generous – but he was polite when we said no thanks… we knew his tricks!

We eventually found a very local looking restaurant packed with people, took a seat on the tiny red plastic chairs and ordered Burmese tea and a bowl of Shan noodles; our first Myanmar meal. The verdict: delicious.

Our second day in Myanmar was spent doing not a lot at all; it rained heavily in Yangon for most of the day; thunder clapped and the roads and footpaths – even some shops – began to flood.

Feeling so unwell from a nasty coldy-virusy-thing that took hold overnight, venturing out of our room to the downstairs restaurant (that doubles as a strange mobile phone shop) to simply get our breakfast was an effort in itself. The pouring rain meant we spent a lot of time resting today and I didn’t have to feel so guilty about not being outside exploring and sight-seeing.

When we did venture out around lunch time it was still drizzly weather and we were amazed to see roads flooded with brown water, people driving through massive puddles that had become small rivers, men hiking up their lungis to wade through the water and women scooping water out of the shops with dust-pans and stick brooms.
We spent some time just walking along the accessible bits of footpath and taking photographs.
Unable to cross any roads, we were limited to where we could walk without the threat of falling into a flooded pot-hole. We found a little local eatery nearby our guest house and experienced some local food: fermented tea leaf and rice salad and another type of Shan noodle soup.

Our afternoon was quiet as the rain continued to fall. We spent some time trying to plan out our rough route and itinerary. It was quite difficult to plan a route for some reason: I think we were not sure what the best options are, what is available and what we should/must see/do. Furthermore, we were wondering if we need to start booking accommodation now: it’s getting into peak season and it’s become quite clear already from what we’ve seen and heard that there are many tourists in Myanmar and not enough guest houses. This is absolutely something I wasn’t expecting nor planning for – I think the both of us were expecting to be able to travel here like we have done previously in Asia – just show up and take it from there, plan nothing and see what happens… I’m not sure that’s possible here – at least not in high season…
The standard of accommodation also seems to be either very good at a very high price, average to good at an affordable price (although still WAY above our backpacker budget) or horrible (think horror film scenes) at a budget, but still over-priced price. Seeing as I refuse to sleep in a grimey prison cell, we decided we need to at least book ahead a place before we arrive there.

When we were researching Myanmar before we left Australia we used our guide book as a rough guide. $7 – 12 rooms seemed reasonable-isha and we imagined it to be quite easy to get accommodation. Amazing how the latest guide book is already SO out of date. This country is obviously changing rapidly and I certainly didn’t expect the level of tourists that are here to be so many. I think it’s safe to say that both of us grossly underestimated Myanmar; the guide book information has now been deemed pretty much useless – besides the maps – and we have not much else to rely on besides word-of mouth.

Our second evening was spent at the local night market which was alive and full of people. I adore Asian wet markets and never tire of seeing them in action – they always have something new, exciting, interesting and often foul-smelling on offer. It’s so impressive and fascinating to see bare footed women and men sitting on – again – tiny plastic chairs, cutting open animals on the ground with massive knives in one big chop. Chickens are displayed – beheaded and befooted(??) – right next to the massive river fish sitting alongside tied-up crabs, flicking prawns and the organs and heads of pigs.
The colour at this night market was intense and I loved it – it could be seen in the countless types of fresh fruit and vegetable as well as in the coloured clothing that everyone seems to be wearing. Black-clad fashion conscious Melbourne would go into shock with all these wild colours and patterns.
There were no tourists at this night market, no tacky souvenirs on sale or people pushing us to “only looking – looking is free.” We wandered about enjoying ourselves in the cool night air, finding serenity in the loud buzzing and pumping of generators and the harsh light of the powerful fluorescent lamps.

I seriously love Asia.

On our final day in Yangon – for now – we had good intentions to visit the famous Shwedagon Pagoda… but it never happened. Whilst the weather was better today, both of us were still run down with a nasty cold and decided to spend a decent portion of our day planning out and organising the rest of our trip.
Whilst I usually hate planning in advance and would much rather just ‘wing it’, judging from what the guest house owners and other travelers have said (one couple told us it was virtually impossible to find a room on arrival at some of the bigger tourist destinations they went to), it seems pre-booking accommodation in advance during high season was pretty much a must.
With the assistance of the incredibly helpful and generous staff at our guest house, we were able to call and reserve accommodation. I was amazed to discover how difficult it was to reserve a room at even the most basic of guest houses; at one point we had to try five different guest houses before we could find one with availability for our visit to Inle Lake in two weeks time.

We booked ourselves seats on the night bus to Bagan for the evening and requested VIP seats on the “best bus;” we handed over $18 each and wondered what standard that would result in – memories of our “Ultra Deluxe Bus” in India that was in reality much more like a prehistoric rust bucket sprung to mind…

At around 6pm we left our guest house to take a taxi to the bus station, which was more than an hour drive away from the city centre. It took a while to find a taxi that would even take us  there– apparently none of the drivers felt like sitting in traffic or driving us that far…
Eventually – thankfully – one agreed to take us and the next hour and a half was spent stuck in traffic jams, hectic traffic and near misses. Our taxi driver kept phoning the bus company and confirming that we’d be there on time – I think he was worried we’d miss our bus which was making me a bit nervous, but we made it there at check-in time at exactly 7:30pm (that was after our driver stopped twice to casually urinate on the side of the road) – what a guy!

Arriving into the bus station was like driving into a mini city with a thousand buses and people and cars and taxis all trying to move through a small space. Our taxi driver took us right up to our bus company station where he then got out of the car, took our bags, took us to the counter where we handed over our tickets, passports and luggage, helped us with whatever we needed and then made sure we got on the bus and waved us goodbye – again, what a guy!

Stepping onto the bus, we found it hard to believe this was a bus in Myanmar. All those horror stories about “some of the worst buses in the world”… prffft. This was the most luxurious bus I have honesty ever been on. We were greeted immediately by a female staff member who turned out to be the bus stewardess, and smiled and welcomed by the portly bus driver. The bus was clean, new and had only three seats across each row: the seats were massive, comfortable, they reclined and had foot rests. I know this is a lot of detail to be giving out about a bus, but it needs to be understood that we were all in a state of shock – this type of luxurious transport has been non-existent during our travels to date and we were not expecting to find it here in Myanmar – we were overjoyed.. Even more so, there was no neon deities adorning every section of wall and ceiling and no loud tacky karaoke. Holy shit – we might actually get some sleep tonight…

Disney Land and Money Changers: 21 – 23.10.2013

On our final day in Japan, Yuki – our couch surfing host – and I went off to Tokyo Disney Land to be in our element, whilst Jake went off to his version of Disney Land – Tsukiji Market area and the cooking/kitchen streets and of Tokyo… We left each other near Akihabara in the early morning and all three of us had an amazing day.

Disney Land was, to put it simply, incredible.Yuki and I had so much fun and walked around in a daze of pure joy, feeling like  children again as we queued excitedly for rides, squealed through the highs and lows of the roller coasters, pointed excitedly, marveled at the costumes, decorations and the elaborate Halloween parades, ate Mickey Mouse shaped ice creams and burgers, popcorn and onigiri, and generally had an incredible day. Yuki and I walked around with massive smiles permanently on our faces; putting culture aside, the day spent at Disney Land was just so brilliant.

When we met Jake late in the evening at the train station, he’d had a wonderful day too – eating at the very first Yoshinoya in Tsukiji, looking in knife and cooking shops, exploring and generally doing what he loved. Although he’d already eaten 280Y beef bowls twice that day, the three of us went together to Yoshinoya near by for a final meal of gyu don together… I will miss this.

Saying goodbye to Yuki that evening saw us both crying – we’d met a week ago as strangers and were saying goodbye as friends. I know we’ll meet again somewhere in the world…

We then took a train, a monorail, passed through customs and officially left Japan, took an 8 hour plane journey, passed through more customs, took a bus and then a train, finally arriving back at one of our “home away from homes” at our usual hostel in downtown Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
We were home, for now, and needed ‘the usual’ – roti cannai and teh tarik from our local.

We had two days in KL basically as a transit between Japan and Myanmar; the only thing we wanted and needed to do here was get out an amount of crisp, perfect, clean, crinkle and crease free, new-ish (older than 2006) US dollar notes… $100 and $50 notes preferable. We needed enough to last us our entire stay in Myanmar.

We though this would be a reasonably simple task. Pay the Malayisan money to a bank or money exchanger and walk out with sparkling US dollars.
In theory it’s reasonably simple.
In reality, it was not.

Countless banks, money exchangers, dirty/old/stamped/stained/creased/crinkled notes that we had to turn down and cups of teh tarik, and finally, we had our US dollars… Now the challenge is, how do we make sure they stay perfectly flat and beautiful for the next month?

Two days and nights in KL and pretty much all we’ve done is eat, drink teh tarik and visit possibly every bank and money changer in the Chinatown area… and there are a lot!
But, we accomplished what we’d needed to and were pretty content… that was, until the alarm went off at 2:15 am on the morning of the 24th and we had to haul our packs onto our back, walk out into the dark night, empty streets and rain, hail a taxi and take a bus to the airport…

Finally, after much anticipation, we are Myanmar bound.