Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Mandalay, Myanmar

I got on the overnight bus (10,000 Kyat), found my seat and got comfortable. The bus didn't sound too healthy but we lurched off anyway. I knew I would get no sleep; for me it's impossible on sitting buses so I plugged myself into my mp3 player and closed my eyes. I've almost developed a musical meditation state that gets me through the night.  We travelled not 100 metres when the engine groaned and we stopped in a cloud of brown smoke. For an hour the driver, conductor and technical passengers crowded around the stricken engine, banging stuff and trying to start it. At one point someone actually climbed into the engine bay. Eventually it roared to life, everyone jumped on and we quickly set off! Everything was sweet then for hours until we hit the hills, when the engine sounded awful, like two very old, rusty, robots arm-wrestling. Stopping at a service station it decided it'd had enough and again everyone crowded around the back of the bus, this time for many hours.

We arrived in Mandalay only three hours over schedule. Extremely tired I asked the tuk-tuk driver to take me to the cheapest room he knew. At the ET hotel I shared a twin room with a 19 year old English journalist, Chris, for $5 each. Many people told me they didn't like Mandalay, that it was dirty and busy, with nothing to do. I really like it! For one its drier than Yangon, and less busy. The roads are in an interesting grid formation which looks easy on a map, but the amount of times we got lost is ridiculous. I called MandalayMotorbike@gmail.com (092014265) to get some out-of-town action but they were $5 more than some bloke on the street, who offered his motorbike for $10 a day. My motorbike had no speedometer, no mirrors, and didn't like the electric start, but my journalist buddy's bike was good. Biking around Mandalay itself is intense, and for Chris this was baptism by fire - first time on a motorbike, ever! I felt a little responsible and kept an eye on him (being the now experienced rider I am - ahem), but he quickly picked it up and before long we were out of town and cruising brand new tarmac, completely devoid of other traffic. We had no maps, and got lost several times, but the beautiful people of Myanmar happily pointed us in the right directions, or literally jumped on their bikes and told us to follow them down winding dirt roads and riverside paths! Stopping at a village cafe for snacks we were soon surrounded by what seemed like the whole village; they sat and watched us eat. I'm guessing not many tourists have ever been here. We found the snake temple, the teak bridge and the other tourist sites, but the best thing was just being out there in the wilds, meeting the people!

Sunken temple

Curious village kids 

Are you sure we should ride these bikes through the river??

Maybe you'd like crab for lunch?
Who lives in a house like this?
Beautiful wilderness of Myanmar
Back in Mandalay we dodged the busy traffic up to Mandalay hill. A wonderful and never-ending set of steps through Monasteries and Shrines to the top of the hill gives some spectacular views of the flooded plains and distant hills. The sun glimmering on the Buddhist gold and jewels on the Temple at the top is blinding.

Breathtaking views and shimmering gold temples
Chris, as he's just here for a few weeks writing about Myanmar, came straight from England. He wasn't particularly interested in Burmese food, partly because the chances of getting sick are quite high. For this reason we ate mostly at Western style venues; burgers, chips and coke (I've never seen anyone drink so much coke) being the main diet. In Mandalay there's a place called V-club that caters for the weak-stomached!

We both wanted to get as far away from the main areas as possible (even though there was hardly anybody about anyway). Lasho is the furthest east you can possibly go before you get to military checkpoints, and ultimately the Chinese border; we decided this was the place to go. At Mandalay railway station we find a train to Lasho and tell the clerk we'd like to go there. The journey will cost $30 (one-way) and will take 18 hours. He suggested we take first class. I pulled out a $100 note and he inspected it at great length, eventually deciding that he didn't like the serial number sequence. Bewildered, I offered others, but being in the same sequence range he refused them also. We had enough money if we used all of our Kyats and a $20 note that Chris had. Unfortunately the $20 note had a slight mark on it and he refused that also. He told us to come back to the station later; I had no idea why this would be different but we huffed and left. 

Back at the station at 8pm and the same clerk straight away accepted my $100 bill. I wondered what sequence of events had occurred since. It can only have been government decided. Maybe they needed to check something, maybe us? Was it to do with the distant destination? We now had our tickets and were to catch the train at 4am the next morning.

Sunset from the hotel roof

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar

One hour out of Yangon on the number 43 bus is the Yangon main bus station; It's more like a small town populated by buses. The amount of people that smile and wave is incredible. Everyone offers to help carry my bag and ask to see my ticket, then ushering me deeper into muddy bus town; how anyone knows where anything is here is beyond me! Directed by countless people I arrive at a concrete room housing the bus company I'm travelling with. Once checked on I grab some noodles and watch the world go by for an hour. There's no other tourists to be seen anywhere.

The bus is described as a sleeper but only as in you might be able to sleep, sitting up, while the bus bounces and judders, all night. The tilt on my seat doesn't seem to work too well, but the lady in front tilts hers back fine. I use this setup to my advantage and wedge my head between the back of her headrest and my bag, which is now on my lap. The bus stops so many times, all through the night; after a few times I don't even bother getting off the bus. You can see the rest stops from about 4km away as they have lasers, neon signs, flashing full-size palm trees and loud music from a giant Samsung TV.

I'm woken up abruptly and told this is my stop. I blearily look at my watch (5am) and get off the bus. I now have to go 15km to Nyaung Shwe and the only option (short of waiting hours for a bus in the rain) is to get a taxi. As I'm alone I reluctantly stump up 7,000 Kyat (locals can apparently take this journey for 500) and pay a $5 entrance fee to the lake area, as it's a national park. I feel like I've been fleeced!

I get a room at the Nandawunn for $11 a night (down from $16). Nyaung Shwe is said to be the the most touristic place in Myanmar and the prices reflect this. The focus of the tourism is a beautiful lake surrounded by misty mountains peppered with hundreds of Pagodas. The lake is 22km long but you can't stroll around it as there's no paths. People get about on boats, and the houses and businesses around the lake and rivers are all stilted. I join 3 Chinese people and hire a boat and driver for the day (3,000 Kyat each). The boats are long and fast; we shoot down the river and into the lake past a huge welcome sign. We approach traditional fishermen who row using their right foot in a figure-eight motion, while standing. It looks extremely difficult but leaves their hands free to collect or distribute the nets. We leave the south side of the lake and enter a network of muddy fast flowing rivers. The driver skillfully manouvers the long boat around tight corners and through narrow stilted villages. The trip is well worth the money, here's what we saw;

 - Cigar making
 - Cotton weaving
 - Silk weaving
 - Boat making
 - Lotus weaving
 - Silversmith
 - Food market
 - Paper making
 - Various temples
 - Jumping cat monastery

Yep, Monks, in their spare time, have taught the cats to jump through hoops, for treats. There must be 10 or 11 cats of varying sizes and skills in jumping. One in particular is obviously the king and gracefully flies through hoop after hoop.  When the cats aren't jumping they sleep and wash amongst the many Buddhas. At the end of the day we dart north across the lake smoking some hand-rolled cigars and back up the river into Nyaung Shwe. Me and a Chinese girl on the boat learn we share the same birthday and perform the "birthday twin" hug, then part company.

It rains a lot in the rainy season. I didn't see blue sky once. This does however mean fewer tourists; there's barely anyone here. Umbrella's are essential, as is ducking into a cafe when a particularly heaviy downpour appears. One of these cafe's was Indra; a tiny little Indian with four tables and a warm welcome from Miss Indra, her daughters and brother. The first time here I ate a mutton curry with chapathi and chilli and mango side dishes, the second time I had a tandoori; both delicious. Speaking with Miss Indra's brother he talks about how he had drawn plans for a website, but doesn't know how to put one together. As the food's so good I offer the services of Bishshat to build the site and get some free chai ;)

Waiting for the bus out I managed to catch some of the Olympics in a little cafe. It was women's cycling. Despite the rain I had a deep hankering to be back in London; I've cycled those exact streets many times. The Brazilian leader was causing much merriment among the Burmese men I was sitting with!
Women's cycling - good spectator sport
You can see all of my photos here

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Yangon, Myanmar (Part 1)

In the queue for check-in at Singapore airport I was approached by a suited young man and two girls. The man, called Htoo,  could obviously see I was travelling light and wondered if I had any spare luggage allowance. At the desk I had a good spare 6kg and they said it was fine for him to have it (I can't somehow imagine this scenario on a western budget airline). On the plane Htoo came and sat next to me and he told me that he'd been living, studying and working in Singapore for two years, and now he's going to make a business back in Myanmar. He gave me his email address and told me to call him in a few weeks before I fly out.

I had $700 in brand new, unmarked sequential notes stashed in my laptop to keep them from bending or folding. This kitty had to last me 22 days as there's no western ATM's here. I was told that you shouldn't change money in the airport, as you'll get an abysmal rate; as little as 100 Kyat (pronounced "Chat") to the dollar. I checked the rate and it was fine at 867 Kyat so I changed one of my sparkling $100 bills (which they thouroughly checked over). Two people I later met didn't even look at the options in the airport as their guidebooks told them not to. They went to the black-market sellers in Yangon. One guy was promised 900 Kyat to $1 and the changer "mis-counted" the cash back to him and, deal done, quickly ushered him away. Refusing to be ushered until cash counted he reasised he'd been dramatically short-changed. The changer refused to give him the extra cash and the man threatened to get the police involved. The police are under government instruction to "warmly welcome" tourists and won't tolerate anti-tourist behaviour (someone told me a man got 7 years for stealing some flip-flops?!). With this the changer decided to give him some cash back, working out at a normal exchange rate. They other guy I met simply didn't realise he'd been ripped-off until later. For an extra 40 Kyat (5 cents) per $1 your risking losing a lot more, and if you go to the police you're potentially putting the changer forward for some inhumane punishment, considering the crime. There's no need to go to a black-market changer, there's banks everywhere changing money at reasonable rates, and with sanctions now lifted it won't be long before western ATM's start springing up all over the place, making the country much more tourist-friendly.

I get a pre-paid airport taxi to Yangon centre for $10. A very friendly, English speaking driver gave me a big welcome and a mini sight-seeing tour on the 30 minute journey. His taxi was stylish, in the 1980's. It had deep, plush burgendy seats covered with doily and brown plastic trim. The Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon is in the centre of a traffic island and its huge golden dome can be seen from a long way. Thanking the driver I consult the little map someone had drawn me (I wish I could remember who this was) and head to the Okinawa guest house. I curious little wooden building, unlike anything else on the street. Inside the wooden panelled theme continued. I didn't pre-book (I'm not sure if you can?) but manage to get (one of four) $7 dorm beds in the loft. I'm a little damp from humidity, sweat and rain. Everything is a little damp, not wet, just that hint of moisture. It rains most of the time in Yangon in the rainy season. There was so much rain that when I awoke from a small kip the road outside the guest house was now a shin-deep river. Realising my canvas shoes and socks were completely inappropriate (and not wanting to get them wetter as they would never dry) me and a French journalist, also in the dorm, waded against the torrent, barefoot, to a welcoming Indian cafe with lots of men gathered around a TV showing Manchester United vs a Chinese team. We sat there for hours while it poured outside. I can't think how much rice, curry, sauces and sweet tea we consumed.

Rivers of roads
Next day wandering about the city (still in light rain) a came across a little noodle stall, but it wasn't the food that attracted me (although I did have some noodles), it was the t-shirt that a girl working there was wearing.

For the next evening I'd booked an overnight bus to Inle lake. I was going to come back to Yangon at the end of my trip. Obviously the swastika 

Monday, 23 July 2012


The enormous bus to Singapore contained only me and the driver; how I craved this situation on much longer trips, so I might snooze on the back seats. The journey was swift with only a small jam on the bridge from Malaysia to Singapore. Customs, as expected, was extremely shiny and efficient, and before I knew it I was standing in a dusty car-park in the middle of Singapore, with military fighter planes screaming overhead, obviously celebrating my arrival. Google have just launched offline maps and I'd promptly downloaded Singapore before leaving Melaka. I switched on GPS and sweatily trudged in the general direction of my "starred" hostel with more planes zooming about above (they were actually practising for an Independence day celebrations). The maps work great, maximum credit to Google, this could change the world! The only issue being occasional GPS signal errors and the battery life of our power hungry devices, leaving you stranded - always have an old-fashioned back-up plan!

Goodbye Malaysia, hello Singapore
Just the two of us
You can go shopping... in a boat
All-seeing cows
The price jump, even from Malaysia, was dramatic. Singapore, as everyone knows, is expensive. I initially opted for one of the cheapest places I could pre-book on tripadvisor, a place called Empire hostel (17 Singapore dollars per night per dorm bed), tucked away in a back street in the northern suburbs. The hostel is clean and functional, and the other guests are friendly. Apart from a German girl in the next bunk all of the other occupants are from elsewhere in Asia, and working long-term in Singapore; this hostel being their cheapest living option. I wouldn't recommend this hostel unless you're on a particularly tight budget as it's time consuming getting to central, as well as costing a few extra dollars in transport that you could spend in a central hostel. 

I had three tasks to complete: pick up my replacement credit card, find $700 of unused, unmarked, sequential bank notes and catch a flight to Yangon. The first task I immediately crossed from my list. I don't know if It was the incompitence of English banks (most likely) or the postal system, but the card never arrived. I spent the first day gawking at giant buildings, freezing in air-conned mega-malls and dribbling at things I would never be able to afford. Priced out of the city-centre I headed for the Chinatown markets. In a cafe two friendly Japanese businessmen asked me to join them, one was the Asian director of Audi sales. They were very interested in what exactly I was doing loafing about in Chinatown. I explained the unexciting story of me loafing about in Asia generally. They kindly bought me a few beers and some food and gave me some pointers on "good" massage parlours. Later I bumped into the German girl from the hostel, who said that someone she knew told her how to get to the top of the Marina Sands hotel without paying the $20 non-resident fee. At the hotel we told the concierge that we wanted to go to the top-deck bar for a tipple, where we were able to slip past security amongst the hundreds of people milling about. The vista is breathtaking. Every night at 8pm and 9pm there's an opulent light and water show in the bay.

Japanese businessmen
The ri-donkulous Marina Sands hotel
View from the top of Marina Sands
The (rather expensive!) bar
Samah, who I'd met in Melaka, was now in Singapore. She told me she was staying in a nice central hostel. I checked out of the Empire and lugged my bags to the Treetop lodge (eco) hostel (SG$23 per night / dorm); a clean, chilled hostel with VERY helpful staff, and walking distance from everything. Samah very gracefully followed me while I scoured the money-changers and banks of Singapore, looking for those sparkling dollars that would get me through twenty-two days in Myanmar. Most banks weren't able to help; some banks contained sofas and gold toilets and wouldn't serve me; most money changers tried to give me old or marked cash, which I had to refuse. On a steamy night walking home from a long days sightseeing (and another glittering trip to the Marina Sands top-deck) I decided to have one final stab finding clean US dollars in the Raffles (mall) basement. On seeing a remarkably unassuming stall with a bored looking man wedged inside I'd pretty much given up hope, but he jolly well came up with the goods! Seven super-crisp, untouched, sequencial one-hundered dollar notes! I quickly tucked the envelope safely into my laptop, thanked the man profusely and we left.

Hookers, boats and planes here I come!! Well, maybe not
You can see all of my photos here

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Melaka, Malaysia

I was going to go straight from KL to Singapore but as KL and me didn't gel so well I decided to make a mid-way stop in Melaka. Like Georgetown I immediately loved the place with its big culture mixes, cute colonial buildings and friendly people. Off the long-distance bus I hopped on a local bus for the 30 minute journey into the town. I met an Italian chap who was asking where I was going and what I was going to do (I had no plans). He told me how him and his girlfriend were having an argument and pointed to her scowling a few seats back. I awkwardly waved but received no response. As the bus pulled in I ciao'd and dashed off, not wanting to be in the middle of a feud. No clue where to go I strolled about in the intense heat getting some recommendations. I came across a cute looking place called Jalan Jalan and rang the bell. An older, balder, more tattoo'd version of me answered the door and ushered me in. We discussed London for ages (he's not been home in 25 years) then got into the subject of rooms; I could stay for 15 Ringgits a night (dorm) or check out the new place 50 meters down the road for 19 Ringgits a night (dorm). I opted for the new place and off we went. It was more like a house, with no reception, and no staff permanently there. Passing the 4-bed, mixed dorm it opens into a bright living room with wooden staircase up to the single and double private rooms. At the back are two showers and an open area with sinks. Jalan Jalan felt homely to me immediately. I knew I was actually home when a voice from the top of the stairs called "Stuart?". I looked up and there was Ilia - Russian partner in crime!! 

Ilia lounging about in the common room
Things quickly spiralled into a food and alcohol warp. A typical day would be duck noodles & toast with egg for breakfast (with a 100PLUS for the hangover), tandoori chicken or dosa for lunch (only after 3pm!) and, my favourite food from all of my travels, a fantastic spicy laksa for dinner. Post dinner we would sit and watch the giant karaoke stage ($3 for tourists to have a go) with the local elders, or have a go ourselves in a bar next to the stage. After this we'd go and see old Mr.Lee who would sell us cheap beer and brandy from his living room. One night we cycled around all night like a bunch of teenagers who's parents had left town. We tried to get into a club called MIXX at around 2am but it was shutting in 30 minutes and they wanted a full entrance fee. Next we caused much amusement in the McDonalds drive-thru before deciding we needed a swim on this balmy night. We eventually found one at a hotel at 4am, stating that we were going to check-in later that morning and would like to test it... I have no idea how the night-porter knew this was false! 

Hanging around on the karaoke stage
Ilia and Kat tearing up the karaoke "bar"
DELICIOUS Laksa & dumplings
Sam and his tits
Samah at the McDonalds drive-thru
Healthy living

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Off the coach, using my Scottish companions previous KL knowledge, we headed for Bukit Bintang.  The place he'd been to before was full so we ended up in a place called i2inn. The room was tiny; you could just about fit the bunk bed in! The internet was dead, and when I mentioned it to reception they didn't want to tear themselves away from the cricket! The next day I checked out and moved to a 24 bed (yes, 24!) bed dormitory called Fernloft in Chinatown, which was MUCH cleaner, much cheaper (20 Ringgits), much friendlier, and the internet was good. If you're considering a stay in a 24 bed dorm be aware that at any time of the day there's always someone coming, always someone going, always someone awake, always someone snoring... you get the message. I strongly recommend earplugs and an eye mask!

Fernloft - 24 bed dorm
I like to walk around cities, camera firmly in hand. There's many great walking cities in the world, London being one of the best. There's normally enough to hold my attention from place to place but I didn't get KL. Roadwork diversions, building sites and endless main roads left me feeling bored. I know people that love KL so I've put it down to shell-shock after being on remote beach in Thailand, then the relaxed, small-town feel of Georgetown. One day I shall return, and love it!

Car fire
The Petronas towers: for years I've wanted to see them. They're such iconic objects that it's one of those 'am I really here?' moments when you arrive. Masses of shiny steel and glass soaring into the sky. The actual need for such things are questionable but you can't deny that they're an amazing feat of human design and engineering. I reluctantly stumped up the $18 for a visit to the top and the view was astonishing, but the tour a little clinical. I wanted to see the real guts, like the offices and working spaces. We were only taken to the plain top deck, then to the empty sky bridge.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Georgetown, Malaysia

Leaving Ton Sai I grabbed a boat with the lady from the Ting Tong coffee house, who's coffee machine had broken from our overuse (she was getting a repair in Au Nang). I got a tuk-tuk to Krabi and hopped on a bus to Trang to catch a train into Malaysia. I woke up on the bus WAY later than my expected arrival time in Trang. I got up and explained to the conductor and in a second the bus has stopped and I was on the side of the road. The bus ditched me at the side of the road. I crossed, stuck my thumb out and started walking. Within 5 minutes a little car stopped containing a man, a woman and two kids (who eyed this big ugly beardy man with much suspicion). The father was most interested in practising English so we spoke of countries and football most of the way until a police checkpoint meant he had to swap driving positions with his wife, as he had no licence. At Trang we exchanged email addresses (as you do) and they waved me off. I then found out that there's no train from Trang to Penang. My research was slightly wrong. I booked a coach for the next morning. I decided to have a look around a busy food market but soon wished I hadn't when extreme tiredness kicked in, and people looking, smiling and trying to talk to me went from being entertaining to a paranoid nightmare. I went straight back to the hotel and slept.

Next morning an 8am bus took me to Hatyai where I changed to a minibus at midday. The border was painless, although an eyebrow was raised and a chin scratched at why I had a 30 day visa stamp, but he realised it could not possibly be my error and set me loose into Malaysia. The three-lane, left-hand drive, raised motorway with metal barriers, hard tree-lined shoulder, European/Asian expensive cars and light rain dramatically reminded me of England. The only thing that brought me back to reality were the three Indonesian kids singing twinkle twinkle little star to me.

Someone recommended Penang to me. I had no idea what to expect when I got there; I had no hostel booked; I didn't even know the currency. The bus dropped me off and I found an ATM. I took out 500 Ringgits as it seemed like a good amount! I then found wi-fi and checked where I was and where I could find a dormitory. I was fortunately very close to  the old area of Georgetown. I strolled up Love Lane in ridiculous heat, noticeably hotter than Thailand. I had a good feeling about a hostel called "Red Inn" and I was greeted by a beaming receptionist called Lyn. When I was there the whole place was being run by three staff: 1 day reception, 1 night reception and 1 cleaner / breakfast cook. The Chinese owner didn't give any recognition of their hard work. He had CCTV and could monitor the staff from his cell phone, occasionally calling if something wasn't right or he thought the staff should push beer and snacks to the guests!

The lovely Lyn, pushing beer!
There's tons to do in Georgetown anyway, but with a week of music, arts, performance, street shows and food stalls under the banner of  the Georgetown festival, coupled with all of the great people I met, I ended up staying for two solid weeks. The food, oh the food! I'm dribbling at the thought. I don't even know where to begin with it. Georgetown food is so good, and varied, that you can actually get a (slightly confusing) food map. Me and my good Russian friend followed this map to come extent,  slurping delicious Chinese noodles, scoffing chicken tandoori's, munching Malaysian Laksa and topping with spicy samosa when peckish.

At the Ros Mutiara tandoori restaurant the garlic naan tandoori set is second to NONE!

Urban sketchers were in town
Family photo at the Myanmar temple
Between the scorching sunshine it rained... a lot
The beautiful houses of Bangkok street and the Thai temple
The Manganiyar seduction at the local theatre - amazing!
Circle of Sound
Prizes if you can name them all
The most famous street-art in Georgetown
My birthday this year was particularly worldly with attendees from Russia, The Philippines, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Switzerland, China and Japan. On the menu was some Chinese rice with some Malaysian satay, washed down with some chilled (Lyn insisted it should be chilled), imported French red which was reserved for this occasion, even though I had to pay for it. A drunk street artist from Singapore very kindly gave me a great little picture he'd painted on his phone and printed. From the Chinese wholesaler behind the hostel came some rum and brandy, which, for soaking-up purposes, forced a 3am rainy raid on a burger trolley called "Old Trafford". Keeping with the tradition of football related meat outlets there wasn't really any meat in the burger, and what meat there was looked highly suspicious, but with more alcohol than blood in the pipes it was a damn fine burger!

Rice, satay and chilled red wine
Antique bicycle
Beautiful lantern
What? LAP SAP?
Postcard artist - maybe there's one winging its way to you? ;)
Breakfast: Omelette, toast and the internet