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…”

Back to Bhaktapur, Nepal: 25 – 26.09.2013

Our morning started early; we had chai with our couch surfing host Hem this morning, a brief but nice opportunity to get to know him a little more; he shared some stories and photographs, and we discussed more about life in Nepal and in surrounding countries such as Tibet, Bhutan and China. We could tell he is a generous and genuine person, with a real passion for his country and for politics. He was really intelligent and it would’ve been great to have more opportunities during our short stay to talk with him like we did.

We took a taxi from Milan Chowk area – close to Hem’s home – after bartering the taxi drivers down to a reasonable fee: we were headed for Bhaktapur, a UNESCO heritage town some 13kms away in Kathmandu Valley that is apparently renowned as “Nepal’s cultural gem” – a historic city famous for its beautiful temples and pagodas, its Indigenous Newari community, and its arts and culture: traditional art and crafts, dances, festivals, food and music. Bhaktapur is also one of the three royal cities in Kathmandu Valley. I’m fascinated…

Arriving into Bhaktapur, we were amazed at how close we were in distance to Kathmandu’s chaotic sprawl, but how far away we felt; it’s much quieter here and so incredibly beautiful – it feels like a world away.

There is a 1100 Nepalese rupee ($11AUD) entrance fee to enter the main area of Bhaktapur; Durbar Square – a fee that we feel is well worth it for the two days we plan to spend here. This beautiful town and its historic structures seem to be quite well maintained and preserved, so the fee is justifiable. Also, this place is simply incredible.

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We wanted to find a nice guest house here and weren’t in a real rus; our packs were not too heavy and we were happy to wander about and look at a few places, before finding a coffee shop with free wifi and enjoying a cup of caffeine whist scouring the internet for guest house recommendations.

Eventually, we settled on a place – Kumari Guest House – which is in a nice area of Durbar Square, situated a tiny bit out of the main area where all the bustle and noise is. The staff offered us a room for 1500 NR, which he dropped to 700 NR when I continually said “no, it’s too much. If we stay for 2 nights will you give us the room for 700?”  I’m getting better at this whole batering thing. Yessssss….!

Our afternoon was wonderful; we walked around as we pleased, explored the temples and pagoda areas, the square, the market and shop stalls, the pottery square (where a cute old man let me play on his pottery wheel and then became not so cute when he demanded 200 NR. I left feeling momentarily annoyed.) The pottery square is full of people making, drying, carving, stocking the large open-air kilns, firing the clay, and selling the end products. It’s smokey and full of people and clay hand-made goods, and a really interesting place to see. There are chickens scratching in the hay whist men and women work to make traditional products from clay – both by hand and by wheel.

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Cute old man...demanded money and then wasn't so cute.

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Durbar Square is difficult to describe; it’s just so magnificent and so beautiful, so relaxing and enjoyable. It’s pulsing with life and people, locals and tourists alike. Momos are being steamed in huge pots in lane ways, there are local chia stands dotted about, women in traditional Newari red and black saris wander the lanes and sell their fruits and vegetables, and the men wear gorgeous traditional hats.
It’s touristy, of course, with every second shop selling souvenirs and handicrafts at inflated prices, cafes selling coffee and free wifi, children selling their guide services and too many offers for taxis to Kathmandu at a “good price.” Regardless, it’s oddly nice; it’s still calm – it’s easy to spend hours walking around, the shops sell some beautiful handicrafts and it’s nice to browse.

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Bhaktapur is surrounded by stunning greenery and mountains, the skies are a beautiful blue, there is little traffic, and the people are friendly. As it got dark, religious ceremonies began to take place around the square and the sound of cymbols, bells and singing could be heard.

Our evening was spent eating beautiful fresh curd, kulfi ice cream, sipping chai and relaxing; we chatted with a fellow traveler who had some impressive stories and experiences to tell. We feel so happy to be here, and look forward to a great day tomorrow – especially because I am not setting the alarm.

   

We woke on our first morning in Bhaktapur feeling refreshed and hungry! Juju Dhau – a curd served in a ceramic cup – is famous in this area, and after enjoying it last night we wanted more. It feels as if today has just involved eating and drinking: we ate curd for breakfast and then visited a café we’d heard great things about. We ordered two coffees and two meals – one coffee and one meal came out; the staff member had “forgotten” the other two orders she’d written down, but we weren’t at all fussed. It meant we could eat momos at a tiny hole in the wall place we discovered, hidden from the road – the Tibettan Momo Shop. We enjoyed beautiful vegetarian momos and delicious chai. Our cheapest meal in Nepal to date, and also our best; it always seems to be the case. As we keep finding out, plastic chairs, metal plates and barefooted staff seem to offer up the best food experiences.

We wandered about the town looking into shops here and there and a few nice hours were spent in the shady court yard restaurant outside our guest house, drinking more chai and just being. We are loving the relaxed pace and the ability to just enjoy such a quiet space here in Bhaktapur – I could literally hear birds tweeting and nothing else, it was beautiful!

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So many dogs!

So many dogs!

We wandered around with no real direction again this evening, just enjoying the beauty surrounding us. This area would’ve been simply incredible in its heyday, and it’s nice to imagine how it would’ve looked. The temples and pagodas, buildings and cobbled streets – all still in such good condition offer a glimpse of how things would’ve looked. This place really has captured our imaginations, and our hearts.

We went back to the Tibettan Momo Shop again for dinner. It’s a tiny place completely hidden from view (lucky we chanced upon it during our explorations), and obviously a local-only type place. It was packed with locals enjoying Thukpa soup and momos, and the family running the place seemed quite excited to have us there. We tried fried buffalo momos, or “Buff Momos” as they’re known everywhere around town, and they were so delicious we ordered a second plate! I hadn’t expected to be eating buffalo here, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

We enjoyed more delicious curd for dessert – straight fresh from the ceramic bowl – whilst the man in the shop watched on with delight.

Back at our guest house, we could hear the cymbals and bells, the drumming and chanting coming from the nearby temples. It’s a beautiful background noise, and I felt really at ease here. We could spend longer here, quite easily, café hopping and strolling around. It would be nice to do some walks from here too, but we were happy enough just exploring the small area for the time we had here.

Tomorrow already we have to head back to Kathmandu – our passports and visas are ready to collect (and MUST be collected!) and we are meeting our hosts for the next three nights. We’re really looking forward to meeting them and enjoying Kathmandu with locals. There is a lot we want to see there and we only have 2.5 more days.

2.5 more days! It seems difficult to believe, we only just arrived here, right? It’s exciting and a little bit unbelievable that in a very short time, we’ll be in Japan!
I wonder if we will feel “culture shock” in a way, once we arrive in Japan? I know that after more than three months of travel in less developed countries and traveling on such a small budget, we will feel a bit of a shock in that sense. At the same time, I think it will be a wonderful “break” between where we’ve come from, and where we’re headed.

Being in Bhaktapur has allowed us to take a step back and travel slowly, enjoy our selves and our surroundings and begin to feel rejuvenated to the point where, I feel we’re back to our “optimum.” By the end of our time in India we were exhausted and a bit tired of traveling and being on the move constantly, but now I feel ready again and so excited to be somewhere new, pick up my pack and move, put it down somewhere else, meet new people and share stories and great food, explore places and try new things.

I absolutely adore traveling, more than I can express, and I can not even begin to portray or describe how overjoyed I am to be here, in Nepal… in the world… simply traveling.

Simply traveling...

Simply traveling…

French India – 02.08.2013

Bonjour from Pondy: a quirky city with a great deal of French influence, but a strong beating Indian pulse. Also, Happy Birthday to my gorgeous grandmother.

Today was spent exploring the city by foot, starting from the old French Quarter where we’re staying. We started our morning with masala chai, coffee, and free wifi, and made a ‘plan’ for sight-seeing today, working from our guidebook map. We headed towards the beach, along Gourbet Avenue, but didn’t get too far before we came across a shoe maker along side the road, crafting shoes on the floor of his tiny open shed/shop. Seeing as Jake has size 16 feet that are impossible to find shoes for and his thongs are already wearing through one month into our trip, we’d been on the look out for a shoe maker. 700 rupees ($12.50 AUD) for a pair of custom made, awesome looking leather sandals – ready the same day – how could we not order a pair each?!…

We continued walking along the coast line, looking out along the ocean. The sun was beating down today, but the walk was beautiful and there were several interesting sights, beautiful French architecture and some important monuments (including a statue of Ghandi) along the way to see. We visited a couple of Hindu temples, but the constant begging for us to buy crappy tack that we didn’t need (including creepy framed photos of a close up view of some old dude’s yellowing cataract eyes) meant we left pretty quickly. We went to visit the well known Sri Aurobindo Ashram here, but it was closed to visitors at that point, so we moved along.

We explored the town some more, visited a book shop, a couple of market stalls, explored the massive maze that is the Gourbet Market, and ended up at a vegetarian restaurant where we both ordered thali – a delicious banquet/feast that ended up being our breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The opening to the Gourbet Market

The opening to the Gourbet Market

Kitchen Goods

Kitchen Goods

Gourbet Market

Gourbet Market

The opening to the Gourbet Market

Gourbet Market

Excellent Sales Technique

Excellent Sales Technique

An example of why you shouldn't consume ice in India

An example of why you shouldn’t consume ice in India

Thali is an all-you-can-eat meal (don’t be put off by the dodgy association); traditionally served in several tiny steel bowls, within a larger steel platter. Our thalis came out with about 10 different curries, gravys, watery stocks packed with massive amounts of flavor, a large dried chilli, stock and oil, raita, a dish of sour curd, a little Indian sweet and some spiced, sweet rice. Massive amounts of rice are given, along with a flat bread and pappodams. And if all of this doesn’t make you full, staff are constantly coming around to top up the tiny steel dishes with more steaming [whatever is looking a bit empty]! All this for 150 rupee (under $3 AUD). I managed to get through about half of my thali, with no top ups. I have no idea how the locals can manage to top up two, three, four times before they’re finished…

Thali

Thali

After rolling out the door of the restaurant, we visited another book shop where I bought Eat, Pray, Love – how cliché – but, I’ve finished the obligatory must-read-if-travelling-to-India Shantaram, and missed having a book to read. That should keep me occupied on the five hour bus trip tomorrow!

We walked back along the beach towards our shoe maker, whose name I discovered is Prabu – for anyone who has read Shantaram – awww, Prabu!…  Prabu, along with his uncle, was in the process of putting the various pieces of our shoes together – the bases, the soles and the straps. Watching him and his family member craft our shoes with such patience and ease was a lovely experience, they bought us chai and chatted with us a bit; Prabu explained “I really happy in my job.”  They fitted our shoes several times to our feet, before finally gluing down the straps to fit us perfectly. Prabu’s tiny work space was filled with tools, glues, scraps, materials, shoe bases, photographs, shoes, books, and a beautiful antique-looking Singer sewing machine.

Smiling Shoe Makers

Smiling Shoe Makers

The end result!

The end result!

We took a tuk tuk later that evening to outside the city area, with the intention of booking a private bus for tomorrows five hour trip to Trichy on the advice of some locals – they explained since tomorrow is a Saturday, traveling by the local bus will involve “you not being freely or freeness.” However, the only private buses that run were firstly, only overnight buses, and secondly, really expensive. I guess we’ll take the ‘normal’ bus tomorrow and see how we manage: I hope we get some freeness.

Our short time here in Pondy was wonderful; it didn’t feel as though we were in India at times, and at other times we couldn’t have felt like we were anywhere else… I’m so glad we have had the opportunity to spend a tiny piece of our journey here.