A Travellerspoint blog

September 2009

A look at life on Inle Lake

with cat acrobatics!

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View Around We Go on LauHot10's travel map.

We arrived at Inle Lake around 5am and unfortunately the journey had not provided much in the way of rest. Spitting is a part of every day life through out most of Asia but here it seems even more common. A lot of men and some women chew something called Betel Nut. It begins with a leaf (I'm not sure from which plant or tree), then a paste is applied to one side containing lime and some spices and finally the nut is sprinkled on. It is then folded into a neat little parcel which is slid in next to one cheek, creating a kind of one sided hamster face. As they chew the nut it gives a similar effect to nicotine I think and may also give people more energy, we're not totally sure. The downside to this habit is the fact that you cannot swallow while you chew, hence the increased spitting. It also turns your saliva red and discolours your teeth. So on the bus they hand out little plastic bags for people to spit into which of course is completely normal over here but leaves me feeling a bit queasy.

Thankfully finding a room was very simple and soon enough we were fast asleep. When we awoke a few hours later we ventured down to the lakeside port area to try and see about organising a boat trip. It didn't take long for someone to approach us and he explained that really it was too late to go today. There are daily markets out on the lake which is one of the attractions, and they work on a rotation moving from site to site. By now it was about 10am and they finish around 11am so we wouldn't make it. We were quite tight on time in Myanmar so we had been hoping not to spend two days here but it seemed we didn't really have a choice. After checking out a few different places that offered boat trips we booked one for 7:30am the next day.

We then went to get something to eat and had a quick look around the local market. Last time Adam was in Inle there was really bad flooding and the bus trip from Yangon took twenty four hours instead of the usually eleven. It also meant that he did not get a chance to look around the town so it was the upside of being here for an extra day. Still feeling the affects of little sleep we slowly wandered back to the room and ending up dropping off once more. We must have been tired because ever since we arrived the local monks had been chanting on a loudspeaker from the Pagoda over the road but it didn't disturb us. I really wish I knew what they were saying, it all sounded incredibly similar and almost morphed into an indistinguishable drone at times but it must have been significant.

In the early afternoon we woke up and felt quite fresh. Although we couldn't help being tired it did feel like we were wasting the day so we got up and decided to rent bikes. We rode around the town which isn't very large at all and we covered much of the same ground as we searched for different things.
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Firstly we booked our bus ticket to Mandalay for the following evening and then we checked out some of the local souvenir shops. There was a women selling lampshades made out of handmade paper which were pretty, however we weren't sure whether we would see them cheaper somewhere while out on the lake so we decided to wait. We then went to find some food and I had my first taste of Papaya salad. Adam says it's very different to the one he'd had in Thailand and unfortunately we weren't really fans. The first couple of bites were ok but it was very samey. We bought a few other bits and bobs and took them back to the room to munch on.

The next morning we were up bright and early. We had our complimentary breakfast and I ate mine with the guest house's cat on my lamp. He was very friendly and clearly used to getting fuss from the tourists.
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After that we walked down to catch our boat. It was long and thin with a few cushioned wooden seats spaced out along it's length and then our driver sat at the back. The weather unfortunately was a little grey so when we got going it was a bit chilly and we had to put our macks on but it was nice to be out in the fresh air.
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We sped down a narrow strait of water before the lake opened out around us. As we headed to our first destination we saw people starting their working day. There were lots of fisherman and people gathering plants that resembled seaweed from the bottom of the lake.
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Adam pointed a man out to me who was rowing with his leg, something they're famous for doing here. The action looked a little awkward as he stood upright, had his leg curled round the oar and then moved it in a circular motion but it was effective.

First stop was the market which had been erected at that back of a Pagoda. We removed our shoes and went to have a look in there first.
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Woman are not allowed to approach the Buddha so I always remain around the periphery. It was not the most impressive one we had visited but as I have continued to find, Pagodas are lovely places to be. I think it may be something to do with taking off your shoes, it makes you feel a little more at home. Back outside we grabbed our footwear and wandered over to the market. As we suspected prices for handicrafts had been seriously inflated for the tourists, although I'm guessing they have dropped quite a bit because tourism has seriously declined in the last couple of years. Adam says that in the whole country there are less tourists than last time, which may be slightly to do with it being the rainy season but there are other more political factors too.

After the market we visited a couple of small workshops. Usually we would avoid this because there tends to be intense sales pressure but we had read that this wasn't the case here. At the first we were shown women weaving silk garments on a loom. It looked like painstaking work as they lined up the patterns with the correctly dyed thread. We went to have a look round the shop afterwards and there were many things to choose from including scarves and Longees. These are worn by almost all women and a significant proportion of men. They are simply a single piece of fabric which is wrapped and then tied around the waists to create an almost floor length skirt. So it is really a bit like a sarong worn by both sexes, there are no jokes here about men wearing women's clothing though.

The second workshop specialised in silver and we were shown the whole process beginning with extracting it from the rock. Again it was very delicate work and these people were highly skilled. There were a few things in the shop that were tempting but it is always difficult in these situations because you know the prices have been raised. Sometimes we find that we are simply not in the mood to haggle and the items are not worth the energy. Which was the case this time.

Back in the boat we made our way to a pagoda called In Dein. It is not part of the usual tour and we had to pay a bit extra. To reach the entrance we had to climb a lot of steps which were flanked by stall after stall. The number of people running them though wasn't nearly enough and if you even glanced at something there would be a person suddenly dashing to reach you, which made you feel even more guilty when you kept on walking.

The main pagoda was basic inside and felt almost like someone's house as there were cooking utensils on a shelves in one corner, but I liked that. As usual it was very peaceful and we wandered out the back and into the open air. Surrounding the larger pagoda were dozens of smaller ones, their bases white and the stupas gold.
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The very top of a pagoda is known as the umbrella and is adorned with lots of little bells. As the wind blew the bells made a high pitched tinkle, like wind chimes and we stared out at the surrounding countryside.
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Now with slightly damp socks we made our way back to retrieve our shoes from the entrance. On the way down the steps Adam bought a little book of bamboo carvings depicting the days of the week, so he eased our conscience.

It was lunchtime and our boatman took us to a restaurant built on stilts. We had a simple but tasty meal of fried rice with a vegetable salad. I felt a bit mean as we had picked the cheapest items on the menu and they obviously expect tourists to splash a bit of cash as by normal standards things are ridiculously cheap. Unfortunately for them we're serious cheapskates. However there was another table of people in there who seemed to be indulging and another group of turned up when we left. So I'm sure they did ok.

Lunch over we went to another workshop where they made the handmade paper we'd seen at the shop in town. Again we saw the process from start to finish and it was surprising how the pulp could be quickly manipulated to form a sheet. They were very keen to try and sell us their wears but we weren't biting as they wanted three times the price of those we'd seen. Sometimes it makes you feel a bit insulted but in the end you think, if I were them I suppose I'd be doing the same. We left empty handed but knowing we would go and buy the ones we'd seen the day before. We climbed back into the boat and were taken down some narrow waterways, they divide up floating gardens which at this time of year mainly consist of tomato plants.
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Next it was time for the part of the day I had been most looking forward to, the jumping cats monastery. Which isn't home to a bunch of Buddhist cat monks, rather the monks living at the monastery have taught some cats to jump through hoops. When we arrived there was a cat waiting on the dock and as I climbed the wooden steps I saw another one asleep in a window sill and soon there were lots. Inside there was a large golden Buddha statue and round the corner I saw an old monk seated on a chair with a kitten on his lamp. He didn't look in our direction and apart from him and the cats scurrying around there didn't appear to be a lot going on. The area in front of the monk had been covered in lino and there were a few empty bowls dotted about.
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We walked down some steps where a few stalls, selling the stuff we'd seen everywhere, had been set up. Having learnt from past experience we didn't even glance in their direction but instead walked to the end, turned round and walked back into the main hall. I being me wanted to play with the cats but every time I went to touch one Adam told me not to. Apparently last time he'd been he had tried to pet one and been scratched. He had also missed the show while down at the stalls, so this time he was determined to catch it. As things stood though nothing seemed to be happening and we were getting a bit frustrated. The old monk was paying no attention to us at all. Our luck changed though when a couple of other tourists turned up and some one told them to make a donation. Soon enough the monk had banged a little gong and some other man summoned the cats with a shake of the biscuit tin. It seemed the monk's role was to observe as the other man took centre stage. I sat crossed legged on the floor and snapped photographs as the cats did their stuff.
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Clearly their were a few stars, the pros I suppose you would say or the greedy ones who didn't let the others have a chance. Either way they leaped quite high in the air to earn their treats. It only lasted a couple of minutes but I was satisfied
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After we'd seen the cats it was time to head back. We'd had a fun day out on the water and it had been rounded off nicely. The journey back passed by quickly and soon we were on dry land again. We picked up our backpacks from where we'd stowed them at the tour operators office and then walked into the town centre. We made a quick stop to buy the handmade paper lampshade and the woman we'd seen the day before was there with her young son. He was a bit of a hand full but very sweet at the same time. While we were picking things out he went in the back and poured us some green tea to drink. Then as we were negotiating the price he decided to try and hang off my backpack, and he really didn't want to let go when it was time for us to leave. So much so that he burst in to tears.

We then caught a pick up (a converted open sided van) up to the junction to wait for our bus. It was another over nighter and I was really hoping that this time we would be able to get more sleep.

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 02:25 Archived in Myanmar Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Pass through and you'll miss...

the delights of Taungoo

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The bus trip to Taungoo was uneventful but took a little longer than we had been told it would so by the time we arrived it was beginning to get dark. Due to me being a little eager and thinking a rather grand looking building was the town hall when it wasn't we ended up getting off a little earlier than we should.

On first impressions there didn't seem to be a lot to the place, and we didn't discover the hidden gems till later the next day. As things stood the town was drawn out along the highway and there were a few places to stay. We made an attempt to locate a hotel we'd read about in the guidebook but in the end we were too tired. We stopped to have some food at a restaurant and ended up staying at their hotel as well. The room was nice, a little dark due to the wood panelling that covered the walls but it was comfortable.

We wanted to go on to Inle Lake the next day and a boy who worked at the hotel asked if we would like him to purchase the tickets for us. When we enquired about the price it was the same as we'd been told it would cost to go all the way from Yangon to Inle. For this reason we decided to try and find the bus station in the morning and hoped it would be cheaper if we cut out the middle man. We relaxed for a little while and then went out to get some dinner. We opted for takeaway and a couple of young girls cooked some kebabs we picked out on a small bbq. They gave us shy smiles and other people walked by with wide eyed expressions, it would seem the foreign tourist trade is not booming here. We enjoyed our dinner and then called it a night.

In the morning we walked over to the restaurant and ate our complimentary breakfast before going in search of the bus station. Still believing the building we'd seen was the town hall made everything a little confusing and our day got off to a frustrating start. Having not found the bus station we ended up getting a rickshaw driver to take us to the train station. However after some pointing at the map we managed to gather that a train did not go the whole way and we would only be able to go so far before having to transfer to a bus. As this seemed a bit pointless we decided we would definitely take the bus the whole way.

Another rickshaw driver then took us to a few different stands which were set up in small houses/shops along the highway. They represented different bus companies and sold tickets to Inle. Unfortunately the price the boy had quoted the night before was one of the cheapest and as we were to discover it seems to be the norm to charged full fare even if you are only doing part of the journey. They also openly and covertly charge you more for being a foreigner which angers us as it I don't think it would really happen in the UK. In the end we bought a couple of tickets and were told to return at 5pm.

By now we had realised our earlier mistake and found the real town hall so the map made more sense. We returned to our hotel to check out and collect our bags and then trudged back in the heat to drop them off where the bus would pick us up that evening. The morning had been tiring and tensions were quite high as we turned off the highway and finally found what we knew had been there all along the heart of Taungoo. Slowly over the rest of the day the charm of the place and the people softened things, I think even a heart of stone could be melted by the old man we were to meet.

We went over the ancient moat, crossed some train tracks and then walked down a quiet street with a few shops. We then passed by a nunnery on one side and a monastery on the other. The nuns wear similar robes to the monks but theirs are pink instead of the dark red or orange that the men dress in, all of them have shaved heads. You could hear the chanting or reciting coming from the open windows as much of their day is spent learning. Just a little further on was the towns pagoda, called Swesandaw.
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It is said to contain a hair of the Buddha and is therefore a very sacred place. Instead of going in we continued on and came across a lake.

The lake was quite large and marshy, and there were hundreds of water lilies covering much of the surface.
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There was a little boy fishing with a home made rod and it was so quiet. We went to sit on a wooden bridge and enjoy the tranquillity. After a while an old man approached us, he was slightly stooped and had a kind and open face. He asked us where we were from and we told him, he then invited us to follow him. This just wouldn't happen at home and if it did you would be suspicious but here I had no qualms.

He lead us through a little park area to a quiet spot. Here he motioned for us to sit down. I can't remember his name which sounds terrible but he only told us once and it's always hard to register when it's not familiar but we sat and spoke to him for the next hour. He explained how his dad was a policeman when Myanmar was under British control and he seemed to have a lot of respect for the English despite our shameful history in the country. He told us that we were the first British tourists he had ever met.

His English was very good even though he kept apologising for it and he was one of the most endearing people I have ever met. He was in his mid sixties and had a wife but no children. He had only ever visited China but had lived in both the very North and very South of Myanmar. He had never seen a passport and leafed through ours as if it was some kind of treasure. Unfortunately we didn't have any sterling on us because he really wanted to see some but nonetheless he seemed happy to simply chat.

Conscious that we had to get our bus to catch we said our goodbyes and spent a little more time by the lake. Some boys were playing in to water, jumping in off the bridge and splashing about.
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We started back towards the highway but stopped to go and have a quick look round the pagoda. There were a few men seated on the ground who wanted to have a chat but we just didn't have the time. We explained and apologised before leaving for the bus.

Although the day hadn't started in the best way we left Taungoo with some lasting memories. We will always remember the man by the lake.

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 02:09 Archived in Myanmar Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Welcomed by a very friendly Old Asia...

where 7/11's are replaced by Pagodas

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View Around We Go on LauHot10's travel map.

A little disclaimer before I begin the Myanmar blogs – I feel that I have to be a bit guarded about what I say just because I wouldn't want there to be any chance that I get someone in trouble. However little the likelihood of that is, but better to be safe than sorry. So some of the details may be a bit sketchy here and there.

As I said I wasn't too sure what to expect from my time in Myanmar but it began as our visits to countries usually begin, in the airport. It has been built since Adam's last visit and it felt quite modern, it was a little basic but still more up to date than I was expecting. Immigration went smoothly, I was a little nervous which looking back seems so silly but at the time there was the unknown factor.

There are no cashpoints in Myanmar, so we had to estimate how much money we would need and bring in the amount in US Dollars which we would then change in to the local currency, Kyat (Chat). For hotels and stuff though you can pay in dollars if you like, it's a bit like Vietnam in that respect. We paid a taxi driver $4 to take us in to the city and began the search for where Adam stayed last time.

Yangon is not that big by international standards but it is certainly very busy. There are two main streets which run parallel to one another and then there are lots of narrow side streets connecting them. The buildings are all terraced, tall and thin running the length of each of the streets. Most of the road surfaces are riddled with potholes and on first impressions it seems the city is kind of crumbling all around you.
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Perhaps that it is part of its charm. In many ways it reminded me of India, which may have something to do with the fact that a lot of Indian people live here. Straight away though you can sense that it is a friendly place.

It was already quite hot by 9am and carrying our backpacks around made it hotter. Adam had a vague idea about where he stayed last time but as we wandered up and down he just couldn't find it. As we were still searching a young man motioned for us to sit down and have some food and I had my first introduction to the friendly, hospitable nature of the Myanmar people. We chatted for a little while as we ate the noodle soup and when we told him we were from England he immediately started talking about his love for football and the premier league. It's very big over here and most people put us to shame as they know far more than we do.

After we finished the food we continued to look but in the end had to call it quits. We found a room at a little guesthouse called the Golden Smile Inn. The room was windowless as it was in the middle of the building but it was fine and once again the people were full of smiles. After we'd had a little bit of a rest we went out to explore the place a some more. Sule Pagoda sits in the centre as the focal point and heart of the city.
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Pagodas are everywhere in Myanmar and Buddhism is quietly present at all times. It is the religion I have felt most comfortable viewing as an outsider, and wandering barefoot around a pagoda is a very peaceful and calm experience.

We walked round Sule Pagoda and located the tourist centre where we grabbed ourselves a couple of maps. Then we went off to the market to change our Dollars into Kyat. The global economic downturn has affected things here as well, so we weren't going to get as many Kyat for our Dollars as Adam had last time. That said there is no way you could grumble about value for money here, we'd just set ourselves a very strict budget, even lower than usual so we continued to be careful. If you came here on a normal holiday you could live like a king, although I think you'd miss a lot.

We checked a few exchange rates with different gem sellers. This may sound a little strange but there is no bureau de change, so it is the local people who change the money and the majority of them are in the jewellery trade. We worried a little that maybe we hadn't got the best rate but in hindsight we did and now we just had to watch what we spent a little closer because we had a fixed amount.

Next we went to the bus station to book out ticket North. Although we were going to visit some of the places Adam had been to last time he obviously wanted to see more of the country. So our first destination would be new to both of us, it was a place called Toungoo. The guidebook said it had 'temples, a long moat and hidden ruins,' so we thought it was worth an explore.

Our next task was to locate a tailors. After things went so smoothly in India when Adam had his suit made, we were hoping for a repeat and equally cheap experience. He had a name and address of one so off we went scouring the streets for the right place. We were more successful than we had been this morning and had no problem finding the tailors, the problems began when we got inside. The guy working there did not speak English and neither it would seem did the shy woman who was lurking in the back.

While we were stood there gesticulating and racking our brains for different ways to explain or act out a suit being made, a young woman crossed the street and approached us. By this point we had left the tailors as we'd banged our head against the brick wall enough and she met us in the street. She was incredibly smiley and she introduced herself and asked us if we would follow over the road to her English class. It turned out she was a student sent to invite us by her teacher and there were ten students all looking at us through the open door. Even if we'd wanted to it would have been really rude not to accept and even though I was a bit hesitant I was also intrigued.

We spent the next hour in the class talking to the students and answering questions about our selves. The students capabilities were quite varied, some had only been learning for a month and others for up to and over a year. About half the class were Buddhist monks and it was the first time I had ever met one. I don't know why but I never expected them to be so chatty or involved with people, I guess naively I always had an image of them meditating in the confines of their monastery. This however is what the trip is all about, meeting new people and learning new things.
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Everyone was incredibly friendly and eager to learn. The teacher was this slightly hippy-ish guy with long hair and a few odd quirks. It was kind of like he was on speed as he spoke very quickly and his actions were quite erratic and jerky but he was very engaging and I could see why the students liked him. By now it was approaching 5pm and we hadn't eaten lunch so we made our excuses and agreed to come back the next day. Adam had explained about the suit to the girl who had first approached us and she guided us to a cheaper tailor who spoke better English. We looked at material, discussed the style and the price and then Adam decided to sleep on it and told them we would come back the next day if we wanted to go ahead.

We said goodbye to the girl and a monk who had come too, then made our way back to the room and bought some refreshments on the way. After a bit of rest we went out for a proper dinner and then purchased desert from a street seller. Adam had always raved about these sort of pancake/chapatti things which are shallow fried in front of you and then covered in sugar, so we bought some for me to try and for him to retry. I had to agree they were really good, not sure how many I could or should eat but we've had them several times since.

The next day we ate breakfast, and then went to the market in search of an umbrella. The students had taught us a little bit of Myanmar and we put it to use which people really seemed to appreciate it. Everyone was full of smiles any way but making the effort is always important. We made a few purchases and then headed back to the tailor to make the final arrangements for the suit. We are going to be a little less involved than we were last time as it will be being made while we travel but still for the money it will cost I think it is worth taking the risk.

After that we walked to Swedagon Pagoda, probably the most famous pagoda in all of Myamar and definitely the largest. It sits in a raised area with many other small pagodas and Buddhas, and there are four main entrances each guarded, as almost all pagodas are, by two seated lion statues.
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These ones are giants and some are in better nick than others, those at the main entrances are well maintained while others fall in to disrepair. We walked round almost the entire perimeter without actually entering and then we sat down to have some lunch.

Once we were refuelled we find our own way up into the area designated for the pagoda which includes some grassy patches which are very peaceful. We then made the final climb and came out on to the marble tiled floor and I got the full impact of the golden structure for the first time. It took my breath away a little bit, the size of it is quite imposing and the colour in the sunlight is very striking indeed.
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The atmosphere was tranquil and there was a warmth about the place. It was a day of Sabbath so many people were sitting crossed legged under small open structures repeating the chants of the monk they were all facing. We sat and soaked it all up for a little while before making our way down to the street once more.
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Adam guided us down a road where you get a really good view of the pagoda from below and then we got a taxi to take us back in to town. We changed a bit more of our dollars and then made our way to the English class. They seemed slightly miffed with us because they thought we were late even though we arrived exactly when we said we would. One student said he thought Adam has he was German the day before and everything was a little less comfortable. Still it was nice to feel like we were helping and many of the students were happy to have us there. There is not that much chance to speak to foreigners and any one who we have met here who is trying to learn English says pronunciation is the biggest problem so they are always keen to hear us talk.

After class we went on the internet to let our parents know we were safe and well and then headed back to the hotel. Later we ventured out in the rain to grab a takeaway dinner and then called it a night.

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 02:00 Archived in Myanmar Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Back to the Big City

shame about the sniffles

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View Around We Go on LauHot10's travel map.

Our flight to Bangkok went smoothly. Ha Noi airport was pretty basic though and the food was ridiculously expensive so we were quite hungry when we touched down. Bangkok airport is relatively new and there is a direct bus into the city which takes about 45 minutes.

It was Adam's seventh visit to the city which alleviated the pressure of finding our feet as he already had a good idea of where we should be heading and what we should do. I was really looking forward to exploring a completely modern city and doing some shopping. We were both in need of some new clothes as the ones we brought by now were one or two sizes too big.

The main traveller area in Bangkok is in and around Kao San Road, although we had no intentions of staying there because it is really, really busy. Instead we headed to a place Adam had stayed in before which was a few roads away. The room we got was a little cell like and reminded us both of the one featured in the book and film 'The Beach' which begins in Bangkok. However it had everything we needed and we didn't intend to spend too much time there.

One of the main things we had to do while we were here was fix Adam's laptop. Somehow the screen got cracked in Ho Chi Minh which has made writing the blog, and taking advantage of any WiFi a little tricky. So for this we caught the bus in to the city. Almost every large building that we passed was a shopping centre, and we passed a lot of them. Bangkok actually lived up to what I had imagined; lots of high rise buildings, lots of traffic, lots of people – a modern city that still felt very Asian.
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I instantly liked it and Adam was happy to be back.

We located a mall completely dedicated to all things electronic. It took a lot of searching before we finally found a Samsung repair shop and we managed to get them to drop the price a bit which was kind of surprising. However we were both a little miffed that the insurance wasn't going to cover it as they had some get out of jail free card which we couldn't get round. Still it was done and it was nice to have the laptop returned to us once again fully functioning.

The next couple of days were a combination of shopping and sniffing as both of us had caught a cold. We soldiered on though and both bought some new clothes. I have never appreciated having new things this much, just knowing that I was no longer going to look like a tramp was great. It felt like we walked for miles and miles round these malls which can become quite disorientating.
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Lots of the are connected by walkways which are high above street level, this really helps with getting around because the pavements are quite congested with street sellers.

On our third full day our colds had really taken hold. My eyes began to stream as soon as we stepped outside so we decided to take it easy for the day and stayed close to the hotel. We used the time to do a bit more research into renting a campervan in Western Australia. It is going to stretch our budget a bit but we really think it will be worth it and we're looking forward to having the same freedom we experienced on the motorbikes.

Our final day in Bangkok was spent tying up the loose ends. We had all of our purchases from Vietnam to send home, so we lugged them to the post office. It ended up being a bit of an expensive business but when we considered how much we'd bought and what we'd paid for it, we knew we could sleep easy. After that I headed back and began the slow and painful process of putting the latest blog entries on the net.

I really do enjoy writing this, and I am pleased to hear that people at home also seem to enjoy it but I have to say that getting it online is the bane of my life at the moment! A combination of the website, the connection speeds and my procrastination means that it can take me up to three hours to get 6 or 7 entries uploaded. Still it is always a satisfying feeling when it is done and I know I will look back and be really pleased that I persevered.

By the time that task was completed I was ready for bed. We had planned to visit a night market but we were both exhausted and had to be up nice and early to catch our flight to Yangon, the capital of Burma/Myanmar. I was excited and somewhat apprehensive about the next part of the journey. I knew Adam was looking forward to returning to the country he had most enjoyed on his last trip and I just hoped I was going to love the place as much as him.

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 01:04 Archived in Thailand Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Motorcycles Diaries - The North

I think I say it all...

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View Around We Go on LauHot10's travel map.

Having taken the night to sleep on it we decided we would get the train North as we had planned. It meant spending the day in Ha Noi with our bags though and so we decided it wasn't realistic to be too active. First off we went to the train station to buy another couple of tickets, then to the Burmese Embassy to get our passports and then after a little bit of a search we found the cinema. First off we saw the new Harry Potter film, Adam fighting the urge to drop off through out and I had to admit that it was the film version of a filler track on an album. Next we saw Public Enemies which I enjoyed a little more than Adam, which may have been due to my deeper appreciation for Mr Depp.

It had been a rainy day, which made our double feature experience more justifiable. As we made it back outside we were treated to the best fork lightening I have ever witnessed and Adam managed to get some good snaps.
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As we still had ages till the train we began to make the long walk to the station, grabbing a kebab on the way. When we were about half way there the heavens opened once more and we found a bit of shelter to wait it out. It persisted for quite some time and as we stood there my parents called, so I managed to have a brief conversation with them over the sound of the ground being consistently pummelled.
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When it stopped we walked the rest of the way but still had some time to wait at the train station and all we wanted to do was be on our way. Finally it was time to go and we found our seats, being cheapskates we had decided against getting beds. To begin with it seemed it had been a good choice, we'd got seats with a bit of extra leg room and the carriage was fairly empty. Unfortunately just before the train left we were descended upon by a large group of men who all seemed to be part of some club or organisation. They filled the half of the carriage which was empty and despite it being gone 11pm they appeared to have no intention of going to sleep. Behind us the lights were turned off and people began to drop off, in front of us (as we were in the middle) the fun was just beginning as packs of cards were produced and the men chatted noisily. The air con wasn't working well so they opened the windows, even when it was fixed they kept them open until they were told to close them. Safe to say it was not a restful night.

Despite a distinct lack of sleep I was pleased when it was time to get off. We had arrived in a town called Lao Cai and we now had to get a bus to a placed called Sapa, the Northern Vietnam tourist hub, and here we hoped to rent a motorbike. Getting the bus involved the usual negotiation and then waiting as they try to fill it to the absolute max. The journey was quite pretty although it didn't really alert us to the kind of scenery we were going to get to see.

Sapa is quite a nice little place, it shares a certain damp quality that we have experienced in all mountain towns but it is a little more established than some. People flock here for the mountain air and to interact with the hill tribes who come out in force to make the most of the tourist trade. Most of those that visit Sapa are Zao and even though they follow you around you can help but find them endearing. The majority are women and they are all dressed traditionally in dark blue and have their incredibly long hair pulled up on top of their heads and encased in a hat/thick hair band.
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It used to be that they held a 'love market' on a Sunday where the tribes men and women would come to try and find a partner, but now it more seems to an every day market. However we did arrive on a Sunday and there was a certain atmosphere and buzz to the place.
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It was this fact that made finding a hotel a little tricky, everywhere seemed firstly fairly full and secondly expensive. We ended up finding a room which was ok and also had a bit of a view, we only planned to stay one night so it didn't matter too much. Renting a bike was a breeze in comparison to the troubles we'd had in Ha Noi. Next door to the hotel the man was very eager to get us on our way and gave us some advice on a route, the price seemed fair so we arranged to get the bike at 8am the next morning.

With that task complete we had some lunch, then some sleep to make up for the lack of it on the train and then in the evening had a proper mooch around the town. We had a bbq dinner, including lady fingers which are a thin, long, green vegetables and Adam wanted to try Chicken's feet. I had a bit of a taste but I couldn't quite get the image of a live chicken darting about on these pointy, clawed, talon like feet out of my head, plus there was the fact that it just didn't taste very nice. Apart from that though it was very good and the lady cooking was very sweet. We then had a bit of a wander around the market and soaked up the atmosphere for a while. Adam bought himself a new mack to replace the one that had been tumble-dried to death in Ho Chi Minh courtesy of a careless laundry service. After the long and drawn out haggling process we were both exhausted and headed to bed.

In the morning we had a quick but expensive breakfast (we were looking forward to finding some cheaper food on the road) and then we went to pick up the bike. The guy had told us it was a new bike, which had made us more inclined to go with him, Adam was definitely keen to make sure we got one with good brakes this time. It was a semi-automatic which meant it was a bit smaller but we were expecting to have to endure sore bums no matter what and it would be beneficial on the steep climbs.

We pulled away and straight away that sense of freedom rushed back, what happened over the next few days was completely up to us and we could go where we liked. Once out of the town we headed West and it didn't take long for us to blown away by the scenery. We have been in the mountains a few times on this trip but this beat all that we had seen. Maybe it was being on the motorbike, as you are able to view the complete panorama as well as take in so much more than when you are just walking, it was a bit of a sensory overload. I categorise the first day as Misty mountains, as the majority of it was spent circling the highest mountain in Vietnam, Mount Fansipan.
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Its summit was shrouded in cloud but gazing up from below now and again there would be a break and you would get some indication of how large it loomed. The hills rose and fell all around us, offering up large valleys for us to stare down into. 3DSC00013.jpg

Waterfalls were a common feature, ranging from a trickle of water snaking it's way down the hill side to a significant torrent shooting to the ground below.
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We stopped to have a look at a few when we got further away from the town as they were quieter. Soon enough we had left the tourists behind and we were out on our own and open to the surprised looks once more. Just the way we like it. We stopped for lunch in a small town and they were amused by our presence.

The man who'd rented us the bike had described a route that we could do but based on the miles we had covered so far it seemed a little conservative. He told us not to go one way because the road was a bit bad but it made the most logical sense as it provided the right sized loop, so off we set. We were heading for the town of Lai Chau which would take us the closest to China either of us had ever been. We had read that it could get quite chilly in the mountains but we were being treated to glorious weather which just made the colours of our surroundings even more amazing. The deep, rich green of the trees combined with the bright, vivid green of the grass and all set against a blue back drop. On days like this nothing beats mother nature.
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We were dirty, sun burnt and sore by the time we reached Lai Chau, a very strange place indeed. From what we gathered from the guidebook and the surroundings I think the town is being rebuilt after the old one was flooded (on purpose) when a new dam was erected.
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We drove around for a while trying to find somewhere to stay and a few places, despite advertising themselves as hotels turned us away and we ended up returning to the first one we'd seen which was firmly in the being built part of town. Still the room was nice enough and we were happy just to be off the bike for a little while.

In the evening we drove down to a man made lake which was really quite pretty and gave nature a bit of a run for it's money.
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The sunset was really pretty, as the low lying cloud which hugged the mountains was tinged pink and orange. I am definitely a fan of misty mountain sunsets. The finale was strips of warm orange light which streaked across the darkening sky.
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As we stood photographing it the locals looked on and I asked Adam if he thought they took something like this for granted and he said 'yes and you probably would too if you lived here.' That probably is true although I find it hard to believe.

We had dinner in a restaurant/banquet hall, it was completely deserted and in this town I wondered if it ever got full or whether these people are just waiting for the place to be full re-populated. The people were really friendly as we communicated via the guidebook list of handy words when ordering food. After that we went to bed all excited about what we would see tomorrow.
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The next day was our one year anniversary and it was the perfect way to spend it. It was more tropical than the first, as the road dropped down to follow the river as it carved its way through the rock.
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The trees and vegetation became more jungle like and the humidity raised a little. The weather continued to hold as the sun shone down brightly and it really was making the trip for us. Not having to bother with the ponchos as we had done in the South was a blessing. We saw a little boy riding on top of a water buffalo which is one of my favourite images from the trip so far, no matter how many times I see it.
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It just seems to encompass the beautiful simplicity of life for these people and I find myself envying them. We then saw an elephant on the back of a lorry which I have to say I wasn't expecting, not sure where it was heading but I managed to snap a quick photo when the driver slowed down for us. I hope it was going somewhere nice.
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As we drove along side the muddy waters of the river we saw lots of butterflies, some of which were really large. We stopped and Adam took on the role of David Attenborough/Bill Oddy as he remained perfectly still and with a bit of perseverance got some great photographs.
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The whole flapping of butterflies makes me a little jittery so I thought it was best to leave him to it and quietly observed. Being able to stop like this in the middle of nowhere is what makes the bike the best thing we have done.
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By midday we had made it to the town we had planned to spend the night in but there was really nothing there. We stopped for a drink and bought a few snacks but we would have to continue on. It meant about 90km more which would take roughly 3 hours. The road climbed back up a little and we were in amongst the rolling hills, all of it being farmed.
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It reminded me a little strangely of the Windows XP Desktop background with the image of that rolling green hill. With the little villages of simply erected wooden buildings in these lush surroundings it made me think that this would have been a perfect Shire for the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings and the movies could easily have been filmed here.
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Finally we reached a place where we could stay the night. We had a quick bite to eat, bought some fruit for desert and headed back to the room for another early night.

The next day on the bike started out with us passing a quite significant landslide
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and then we or rather Adam had to navigate his way down and up a small track where I am guessing the road had completely fallen away.
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I got off the bike to make things a little easier and followed behind, pushing him at one point when things got a bit steep and the ground didn't provide enough traction. Perhaps this is what the man had meant when he said the road was not very good.
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Having covered a lot of ground the day before we took things quite slow and had an easy target in mind. The scenery became more reminiscent of a forest and we saw one tribes person on the back of a bike with a gun strapped to him.
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Adam thought it looked home made and we presumed he was off to do some hunting. The mountains here were quite narrow in places and cut through the valleys like knives, I thought the tops of them looked like the islets at Halong Bay and wondered if maybe there was some connection.
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We stopped to snap a few photographs of ourselves there as we hadn't really had much opportunity to get a picture with both of us in it.
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We continued on and then suddenly Adam came to a halt, apparently he had spotted a grasshopper on the road and he wanted to go and have a look.
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It seemed to be very subdued as it sat there motionless and very much in harms way. We took a few photos and then Adam got it up on a stick, it was actually quite cute when you looked at it up close.
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After the human-insect encounter he popped on the grass and we were on our way once more.

By early afternoon we reached the town of Than Uyen and we decided to stay the night here. There were lots of hotels to choose from and we even saw another Western couple so we knew we were getting closer to Sapa once more. We picked a hotel because it seemed to have a nice view of the mountains and then we had a brief walk around the town. We got a lot of quizzical looks and some young people called us over to sit and have a cold drink with them. English is not that widely spoken in Vietnam, not like other places we have been too so the conversation was really limited and it was a shame because it would have been nice to have a proper chat.

After we returned to the hotel the heavens opened and it began to pour with rain. We stayed in the rest of the day and ate in the hotel in the evening. We didn't have too much ground to cover the next day but with there being little else to do we made it another early night.

The next day it was raining lightly and it was quite misty.
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We decided better to be safe than sorry and we bought ourselves a couple of ponchos, we didn't want to be caught out if it started to pour. The bad weather didn't really matter because for the majority of the trip we were covering old ground, in some ways it made it more interesting. At times when we were climbing higher into the mountains the valley below was completely banished from view and it just looked like a white abyss stretching on into the distance.
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Now we experienced the cold weather of the mountains and we were so thankful it hadn't been like this the last few days.

We made it back to Sapa by late morning and returned the bike. Reflecting on the trip Adam said that the road must be one of the best in the world for motorbike exploration, with it continually twisting and turning and a surprise around every corner. Back on two feet we walked round the market and ended up spending quite a bit of money. The local tribes girls pulled at my heart strings and they really are so sweet, one was my age and had three children. Such a different life.
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We bought some handmade decorations they use for their clothes but we thought would look good on a Christmas tree. A few more purchases having been made, we knew it was time to leave. Our train back to Ha Noi was not until later that evening but we decided we'd go and wait at the station.
Only one more day in Vietnam and then it was off to Thailand. Time seemed to be passing by quickly these days.

Our last day in Vietnam was spent looking round the shops in Ha Noi. The value for money when it comes to bits and bobs for the house is amazing and looking back we may have gone a bit over board, still I think it was worth it.

We had really enjoyed our time here, and the differences between the North and the South seem to compliment each other. If I had to pick I'm not sure where I would suggest people visit, perhaps if you can only experience one, then go North. The scenery is breathtaking and you'll still find lovely people who will make your experience memorable.

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 01:00 Archived in Vietnam Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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