Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Bagan, Myanmar

I hadn't seen another tourist in a week so the Italian coffee, wi-fi and burgers of Myanmar's most touristic destination were welcome! I spent over a week here in a friendly guest house called Shwe Ni Di - I had a room for $7 a night. I had a bicycle to get around on - by far the best way of getting to and around the 2500 Stupas that pepper the desert-like terrain just outside old Bagan.    

My hairdresser
My bicycle

A few of the many many many many temples!

He supplied the postcards you received
The guest house had wash-basins outside - it was fresh to have a wash in the morning sunshine!

I found a little cafe with the name "Wetherspoons" and had to investigate further (Wetherspoons is a chain of cheap pubs in the UK). The owner, Winton, trained as a chef in Bristol, in the Cambridge arms! I've been in this pub several times when I lived in Bristol. He learned to make burgers - very very good burgers! The burgers here are the best I've had anywhere on my travels - It's surreal coming across a place like this!


An advertising board on the main street costs $3000 a year to hire. You can only hire it for a year - there's no weekly or monthly options. The board has been empty for years!

Burmese curry set and a fake 7eleven

Friday, 3 August 2012

Monywa, Myanmar

The overnight bus from Lashio to Monywa (6,000 Kyat) was ridiculous! We stopped at a usual restaurant at midnight and everyone deserted the bus to get some food. Half an hour passed and most people had finished eating and were watching some bad Burmese karaoke TV. By 1am a few people got back on the bus and went to sleep, I couldn't sleep. At 1:30am I had a look for the driver but couldn't find him anywhere. 2am came and I tried to ask people what was happening but no-one could explain what was happening, or if they even cared! 3am came and went - no driver still. People either eating again, watching TV or sleeping on the bus. I tried to get some sleep but still couldn't. I was bored of this restaurant now, and bored of not being able to sleep so I sat outside, watching other coaches come and go. 4am - still nothing. It wasn't until 5am when the driver appeared from nowhere, started the engine and sounded the horn several times like he'd been waiting for us all along!! Everyone got on without question and off we went. I still, to this day, have no idea what happened there. I've since explained it to people I'd met and they said it was odd, but maybe the driver was sleeping.

Now I had to catch a local bus to get into Monywa town. With 30 minutes to go a Burmese girl got on and sat next to me. She immediately put her head on my shoulder and seemed to sleep. Wired from lack of sleep and hyper-aware of all the locals that had now turned around to look I smiled and looked out of the window, accepting that I was now a headrest - although I can't imagine my bony shoulder being particularly comfortable. At journeys end the girl woke up on cue, smiled at me and left the bus. I asked a tuk-tuk driver to take me to the cheapest place in town. I knew there weren't many options, few tourists come here. He took me to hotel Shwe Taung Tarn which was a lofty $13 a night for a big double room with balcony overlooking a smelly, man-made, mosquito infested swamp!

My own swamp
Bags dumped I wanted a look around and left the hotel. Within one minute a local student came up to me on his motorbike and asked if we might have some food together so he can learn about England and practice his English. His name is Zeya and took me to a delicious local noodle joint. He wanted to know everything about anything that was happening in England, especially business and banking - the two things I'd rather forget about when travelling! He was fully preparing for the coming fortunes of Myanmar.

After another sleepless night, this time from being a mosquitos pincushion. Zeya picked me up on his bike and we drove out to the Moenyinsambuddhae temple, containing no less than 600,000 Buddhas of various sizes. Visitors can replace broken or stolen images with newly cast ones for 200 Kyat - I chose one and chose a nice place to put him.

1..2..3..4..5..6..7.. (five years later) ..599,999... 600,000! Yep, you're right.
My Buddha

Norris McWhirter would be proud as we then rode past the worlds largest reclining Buddha and up to the worlds largest standing Buddha (470ft high!) - you can see it from a LONG way away! Inside the standing Buddha is pretty much a thirty-storey building, containing seven levels of Buddhist hell, some earthly levels, some heavenly levels then, in the head, there's Nirvana - but ironically you can't go there as it's not complete. Each level contains paintings related to that scene and are designed to teach lessons of life. The hell paintings are gruesome and fascinating; watching families tell their kids the stories behind the picture maybe even more fascinating.


Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Lashio, Myanmar

4am at Mandalay station. I feel exhausted. The first-class carriage has covers on the wooden benches! This was to be my home for the next 18 hours (320km), but at least I have a whole bench to myself. The train is quite empty, there's no other tourists here. As soon as the train whistles out of the station I curl up on the bench and grab three hours sleep. I'm woken up by hot beams of sunlight and general noise as the train pulls into a station. I get off the train and blunder about amongst the chaos looking for something to feed my western caffeine habit. There's school kids everywhere, laughing and running about. Food and drink sellers push away hungry dogs.

The long journey to school
One stop wasn't a station stop. I leaned out of the window to see what was happening and heard clunking and scraping noises. Shortly afterwards we started going backwards, and uphill. I noticed that we were leaving the other line we'd arrived on. Assuming this was a one-off I sat back down, but 10 minutes later we stopped, clunked and groaned and started going backwards (forwards), and again steep uphill. This zig-zag continued up the side of quite a large, steep hill! An hour later we plateaued and the view down the valley we'd climbed was magnificent! We continued on through countless villages with amazing names, dropping kids off as we went.

Me taking a picture of Chris taking a picture
My favourite station name, containing my favourite Burmese character
Monks and horse-cart taxis at Pyin Oo Lwin
The workhorse train - this thing is noisy
The train slowed right down to a crawl for ages. We were in a carved valley, barely wide enough for the train to fit through. Out of the window in the distance I could see two men down by the side of the tracks. As we got closer I could see that they were inspecting the tracks, as the train went over a ditch. I can only assume the old tracks were replaced and they were using us as a guinea pig! The train creaked and rocked safely over and the view opened up revealing an enormous gorge, spanned by the even more enormous Gokteik viaduct (the largest in the British empire when it was built in 1901). As we rounded the corner we passed a soldier (who refused to smile or wave) in a bunker, guarding the strategically important viaduct with a large fixed machine gun! The train once again slowed. Over the bridge everyone leaned out of the windows for a glimpse into the chasm! Far below is another track, possibly the old line before the viaduct was build - or a secret military line to somewhere unknown :)

Crossing a huge canyon

Cutting through the bushes

We past many villages and got further and further east. The train was now cutting through jungle, if no train were to come I'm sure the tracks would be covered in weeks. Most of the foliage was coming into the car and landing at my feet. The train was also now rocking and jumping a LOT. At times you could leave your seat or get thrown into the wall - a couple of times I was convinced the train had left the track! We cruised into Lashio at 10pm and a tuk-tuk driver took us to Thi Da Aye (Cool water). The room was dirt cheap at $5 each. It was a tiny, dim room, in the basement of a posh business hotel. It was right next to a squat toilet! Completely tired we took the room and crashed.

Next day we wanted to hire motorbikes. Asking around it was clear that there was no tourist rental places (or indeed tourists). We asked some locals but they were reluctant to lend us their bikes. We were told that we would attract a lot of attention on bikes, and we wouldn't be able to go far as there were military checkpoints to the east on the road to China. We bailed that idea and went for a walk instead. Possibly every person we passed said hello and wanted to talk, or just looked on like we were two aliens fresh from Mars! There's not exactly much in the way of tourist attractions in Lashio, and we  noticed a sign for an amusement park!  Entering the park kids scattered into groups and laugh-whispered about us. There's was a tiny pirate ship, a large statue (which we climbed), an amusement arcade with some seriously old games in and a roller-skating rink!! We popped on some boots and prepared to break our legs, or arms, or both. The local kids were highly amused and raced us, winning every time of course. My boots were so old and worn that the wheels each wanted to go different directions, which meant I did also! Battered and bruised and extremely sweaty we got talking to a local student called Wai Yan Moe Tain (English name: Terry), who wanted to practice English and show us around his town. That afternoon he took us to some of his favourite food haunts.

My second travel mascot, Woody, was abducted by a little girl from a wedding - I didn't have the heart to take it back from her, she liked him so much.

The girl on the left - Woodys new owner

Next day I woke early - Chris wasn't in bed. I went to reception to see if he was there and the receptionist said he'd come in the middle of the night and wanted a room with toilet, the only one they had was a $30 room and he took it! I went up to see him. He was violently sick in the night, and had spent hours in the small dirty squat toilet next to our room before deciding to get an en-suite! He was still feeling rough so I got him some water and salt-powders. He slept most of the day, checking out of the $30 room at the last minute - any longer and he would've been charged another night. 

English name "Terry"
Lasho rollerskating park
Yan time Aung Pagoda