A Travellerspoint blog

Exploring the Ancient World

On ancient bikes!

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Our bus to Bagan was quite nice in comparison to the last few trips we'd had. The only probably was the a/c which often leaves people's teeth chattering. Regulating the temperature seems to be a fine art which in most instances has not been mastered. We did meet a very smiley and chatty man though, he approached us at one of the rest stops when we were shovelling some tea and cake into our hungry mouths. He asked where we were going but the conversation got cut short as it was time to reboard the bus. We'd meet him again though.

A little later than expected we arrived in Bagan and once again Adam had the unenviable task of figuring out where we were in the dark. With me as his over tired and slightly grumpy sidekick it wasn't easy and in the end we decided to see whether the guest house a rickshaw driver kept going on about was up to scratch. We made our way through the deserted, middle of the night streets and had to wake somebody up to open the gate. Thankfully the room was nice and fairly priced so we could happily call it a night.

In the morning we got up as early as we could manage. Our time in Myanmar seemed to be running out and we still had places we wanted to go so we could only afford one day in Bagan. Now is probably a good time to explain a little about Bagan, or rather Old Bagan. It is the ruins of an ancient city which is spread out over about 42 square kms of sandy wasteland covered in scratchy plants and grass. Almost all of the ruins are pagodas, some made of red brick, some stone and the most extravagant are embellished with gold. They range in size from 10 feet to massive structures which stand as proud testaments to a prosperous past.

Adam had been before and had told me what a magical place it was, better in his opinion than Angkor Wat and so I was really excited to get on with our explorations. First we ate our complimentary breakfast and then we went out to rent bikes from the hotel. It seems we were left with the scraps, i.e. the ones which were slowly beginning to fall apart. My handlebars were in the habit of rotating forward if I applied too much pressure on them which would prove pretty frustrating as the day continued. Both of them were incredibly hard to peddle and it felt like we were having to exert an enormous amount of energy just to ride along a flat surface, but it would definitely be quicker than walking. So off we set.

We made a quick stop at the bus station to try and book tickets to Naypyidaw, which is the new capital of Myanmar. A couple of people had told us that tourists were allowed to visit during the day as long as they didn't take any pictures and were gone by six o'clock. Intrigued about what this new city would be like in comparison to the rest of the country we decided we wanted to go take a look. No one really seemed to know why it had been built apart from suggestions that it was considered better if it was inland and away from the sea. The bus ticket sellers seemed a little bemused by our desire to go to Napyitaw and told us it was quite difficult. We would need to transfer in Meiktila and it would take about eight hours, so we knew we had to start really early in the morning if we wanted to have any chance of seeing anything before we were kicked at out 6pm. We decided to think on it throughout the day.

We started cycling off down the dusty roads and more and more little pagodas began to sprout up around us. There are over 6000 of them that have been recorded in the whole site, some of them are clustered together, and others stand alone.
As we were travelling along a man and a woman went by on a motorbike. They waved and we realised it was the man we had briefly spoken to on the bus the night before. We all stopped and he explained that he had a restaurant in a town a little further on and said we should stop in for lunch. We told him we would try and off they sped, his wife's arms full of fresh produce which definitely made us more interested.

There weren't very many tourists, just a few other couples on bikes and we spotted some small groups on buses. This meant that most of the time it felt as though we had the place to ourselves, that we alone were discovering and exploring these crumbling monuments to a great past. The tourists may have been few in number but round the larger pagodas the local people were there, eager to sell their wares. This was really the only downside to the day, as it is a double edged sword. On the one hand you find it annoying that you are being harassed and just want them to leave you be. On the other hand I always begin to feel really guilty because the items really cost nothing and there are so few people to sell things to. I think they sense my weakness and start telling me about their families, I caved a few times.

We climbed up one the largest pagodas and there was a great view out across the baron land.
There are people farming here but it seems like it would be very hard, even though this is the wet season the land seemed too arid for anything to thrive. We sat for a little while our legs dangling over the edge and enjoyed the peace and quiet. Everything felt so rushed in Myanmar, we were both hoping that we would make it to the beach for a little relaxation before we had to head back to Yangon. Once we had descended and avoided anyone looking to make us buy something we cycled off through the shrubby land, often having to dismount because the paths became too sandy and all friction disappeared as our wheels began to sink. These were the times when my handlebars would slip forwards and I would have to fight to keep from plummeting head first over them.

We rode through some narrow village streets until we came out on to a larger road. There was another pagoda here and we decided to have a look round and have a bit of a rest. As we wandered around the back we went through a little doorway and there was a massive gold Buddha lying down, it must have been more than 30 feet long. As we were gazing at it this woman entered and told us that if you looked at the face from different angles it looked as though it was smiling and not smiling. This softened us a little bit and then she asked if she could show us some paintings. We decided to take a look and ended up buying one, although I don't think she ripped us off, which is always nice.

Afterwards we got back on the bikes and cycled down the road a little until we came to what we presumed was the man's restaurant. It was near enough lunchtime so we decided to head in, it was definitely a good decision. They were really pleased to see us and we served by their son who was on his school lunch break and spoke very good English. The food was really nice and they brought out extras for us, including some fruit for desert. The man sat with us and recommended a few pagodas he thought were really impressive and where he thought would be a good, quiet spot to see the sunset. The whole atmosphere was lovely and we really appreciated the special attention they were giving us. For that reason we gave them a larger tip than we normally would and they ended up bringing out another bottle of water and the lady gave me a lovely wooden bangle. Full of warm fuzziness from their kindness we waved goodbye.

We then stopped at a couple of lacquer ware workshops. At one we saw how the items were made from start to finish, which can take months for the real top quality items. They have to be painted and then left to dry a number of times to build up the layers before the intricate designs are painted on them. We bought a nice little pot at one of them but had to reign ourselves in a bit as we were on a restricted budget with only a certain number of dollars at our disposal.

Having spent enough money, at least for a little while we headed back out in amongst the ruins. We left the bikes and walked out to some which weren't so accessible. Even walking over the soft ground was hard work and we were both beginning to feel quite tired. Still we pushed on and visited two of the largest and most impressive pagodas.
They are both made of stone and are great feats of ancient architecture, with the intricate designs carved into them. The tops are then finished with gold which gleams in the sun. One of them has four separate entrances and at each one you are presented with a large, golden Buddha whose hands are in placed in different positions, each having an individual meaning.
All doorways are linked by a dark inner passageway which is interspersed with little peep hole windows that offer glimpses of the gold statues until finally you are presented with the whole image.

The day was now getting on and sunset was not too far off so we went in search of the perfect spot. There is a popular large pagoda that you can easily climb but we were hoping for somewhere a little quieter. We cycled around trying to decipher the map we had but everything is very similar, including the pagodas themselves which although vary in size all retain a fairly standard shape.
The restaurant owner had told us of a place and we did manage to find it but we couldn't climb the pagodas and we really wanted a raised view.

A man on a motorbike had passed by a little while before and told us there was a good one which we could climb, at the time we thanked him and moved on but now we decided maybe it was a good bet. As we were searching he found us again and we let him take us to it. It was a bit of a precarious route up to the top as in a few places the bricks had fallen away but in the end we found a good place to perch. Unfortunately our quiet sunset never really happened as as soon as we were settled the sales pitch began and it was relentless. Another man then climbed up to join in with the badgering. We ended up buying a couple of items after first repeatedly saying no and then bargaining as hard as we could. There were of course the usual pleadings of 'for my family' and the looks of desperation, how can you say no?

The sunset didn't rival some of the others we had seen so in some ways that was a small conciliation being as we couldn't really enjoy it. We climbed back down, jumped on our bikes and rode back to the town. All in all it had been a good day and the magic of Bagan was obvious; a quiet place with modest glory and a wonderful example of ancient history that has stood the test of time.

As we were both absolutely exhausted the thought of getting up at 3am to catch the first bus towards the capital didn't really fill either of us with much joy but we knew we were going to do it anyway. To that end it was a quick stop at the bus station, a bite to eat and then bed to catch as many zzz's as possible.

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 04:00 Archived in Myanmar Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

A few days in Mandalay...

with the perfect guides

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A combination of headaches, an over packed bus with minimal leg room and the on board tv turned up to the max made the journey to Mandalay less than restful. To make matters worse when our tolerance levels were at an all time low the tv was showing a sketch show by the most famous and popular comedians in Myanmar. The laughter pierced through the soothing piano music I was listening to and I began to (over dramatically) wonder whether the torture would ever end.

Thankfully after a while it did but we were then awoken at around 12am when everyone filed off for a midnight meal, it would seem a snack was not sufficient. So drowsily we looked on through the bus window as people chowed down. We thought maybe they were just getting nicely full before the long hours that lay ahead but about three hours later when we had drifted off into a contented slumber we awoken once more and we had arrived. Usually it is great when you arrive places early but on this occasion I really didn't want to be ejected and have to deal with the host of people wanting to offer their services.

About half an hour later after a man had repeatedly told Adam there was no pick up we were standing on the back of one which was overflowing with people and I just hoped it wasn't going to take too long to reach the centre. In the dark it was difficult for Adam to get his bearings but he did very well and we got off pretty much where we needed to be. We then had an early hour faff around with a couple of rickshaw drivers who's local hotel knowledge was not up to scratch. In the end though we found a compact but welcomed room at the guest house Adam had stayed at before. Then sleep.

In the morning we still felt a little drained but we made ourselves get up. Last time Adam had been here he had met a monk on a bus to Mandalay and was eager to see him again. Through another monk he had managed to email him and so we were hoping he would reply and we could meet up. In the first instance though we needed some food so we headed towards the clock tower and then the market. As we were looking around we were approached by a young man and he struck up a conversation with us. He explained that he was trying to learn English and although in most other countries this would have set alarm bells ringing (i.e. con), here everything is a little more genuine. We told him we were looking for somewhere to eat and Adam asked if there was a tea house near by, these are all over the place in Myanmar, which means green tea is continuously flowing! He told us there was one round the corner and offered to pay if we would chat to him and we quickly agreed, of course we had no intentions of letting him pay, we just wanted to talk to him.

He was a sweet guy; a rickshaw driver and he did offer us his services but more as a sideline it wasn't the main focus of the conversation by any means. He had moved here from the country, was married with one child and he explained that times were tough. A little tougher than anything the global economic downturn is responsible for, people in Myanmar are very, very poor. We listened as he described how the competition in the rickshaw driving business is fierce and being able to speak foreign languages, especially English, is a real advantage. He told us all the places he could take us but with our plans not being firm it was a little tricky to agree to anything, even though we really wanted to. Adam explained about his monk friend and how he needed to check his email to see if he had replied. So this is how it began.

The rickshaw man took us to an internet cafe and we were both happy to see that the monk had replied. He was still saying in the same monastery and Adam knew where this was so we got the rickshaw driver to take us there. The monastery is made up of a few dorm buildings and then buildings where the monks do their studies. This is where things got a little tricky. Adam had put a photo of his monk friend on my camera as he was a little unsure of his name but when we looked it wasn't there. We asked around a bit and Adam tried to remember but it was proving a little difficult. The rickshaw driver did his best to help but it wasn't easy. Finally he asked someone and the monk smiled and said 'from England' and we nodded, he smiled again and went off to fetch someone. That monk from now on I will call Smiler because he had the best smile and even though his English was not as good as the others, he communicated well and just thinking about him makes me happy!

Then there was the reunion as Adam and his monk friend met up again after three years. It is heart warming when you think that there has been no communication in those three years but it was like long lost friends finding one another. It was clear from the outset that we were more than welcome. We went to have a little look around their living quarters and Adam took a picture stood in the same spot as he had last time. Then we were shown around the monastery and we saw hundreds of monks all sat on the floor lent over their books, reciting out loud. The dedication required was very apparent.

The next part was a little tricky as we still had the rickshaw driver with us. As we had now found the monks and they were on foot we didn't really need wheels any longer. As politely and gratefully as we could we explained this and I could see that maybe he had been hoping we would require his services for longer but I think we paid more than the going rate so we felt a little better. After this parting of ways we had a walk round an old monastery built of teak wood, which was incredibly peaceful.
Again the whole shoe removal makes you feel more connected to the experience, as your footsteps are a little lighter and more careful.

We then caught a pick up to a park which also has some fairground attractions, such as a haunted house, a small rollercoaster and a ferris wheel.
As things stood it was just Adam's monk and Smiler (are merry band would increase in number) who were acting as our guides. The park was a little shabby round the edges but it had real charm and it was clear that being here was a treat for most of the visitors. A small entrance fee was charged but being a monk, or with one provides a golden ticket to many places and although we weren't privy to what was said we didn't hand any money over before we were ushered in. We did pay for all of us to enjoy the ferris wheel though. I'm sure in England health and safety would have condemned it but their concerns would have been unfounded as our round trip into the sky went by without a hitch.
There were great views over the city and the monks pointed out several landmarks including a number of pagodas and Sagai mountain which we would visit.

Being in Myanmar is like stepping back in time and being shown round by a couple of monks at times felt a little surreal. Next we were headed the for Ubin Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world. Best views are to be had at sunrise or sunset, as the suns descent was still a little way off we stopped to rehydrate with some much needed cold drinks. The sun was beating down and it was taking its toll on all of us. We then caught a pick up and I had my first proper conversation with Adam's monk. His English is really good but conversation was a little tricky over the sound of the engine and the other passengers. Pronunciation as I have mentioned seems to be the main problem and so understanding each other was at times difficult and we had to resort to spelling words which was really effective. Adam was helping Smiler, as he would continue to do with basic things. He is a big fan of English and European football so that was always an easy and light hearted conversation.

Once the pick up dropped us off it was still a bit of a walk to the bridge so the monks hailed down a horse and cart to take us some of the way. Knowing a local is the way to experience a country, you do and see things you never ever usually would and this was one of those moments. After we'd climbed down from the cart we stopped for some dinner. Since meeting the monks we hadn't eaten and all we'd had for breakfast was a few little cakes at the tea house so we were starving. The monks eat very little, it seemed to change and we couldn't quite figure out whether sometimes they have to fast. Everyday though, all monks go out around 5am with big lacquered bowls that have straps which go over their shoulders. They walk round and ask for food donations; sometimes there are stalls set up to give out food and there are long lines of monks waiting for their portion in the early morning light.

In this instance the monks did not eat but helped us order what turned out to be an abundance of food. We felt so guilty when our shrunken stomachs could not consume all that was placed in front of us and we asked them to apologise for us. As we walked to the bridge we asked them about their robes and whether there was a reason why some wore orange and others dark red. They told us that it was just a choice and as it turned out the colours of their robes changed over the next couple of days. We were also informed that they did not wear dark red or burgundy as we suggested but true brown. Not sure if there was some significance in this.

We came to the teak bridge which has a very basic structure, and it resembled a pier but as it led to an island it is of course a bridge. The simplicity was once again charming, it blended into its surroundings, which was a placid lake without needing to make any large statement.
There were a couple of leafless trees which stood out of the river, and as the sunset they became stark silhouettes. The monks asked me if I liked them and I told them yes, although I found it hard to tell them why in words I thought they would understand. Adam's monk had written a poem about one of them and I could see why.

It was quite busy on the bridge and we saw some Westerners, all of them with guides. Both the tourists and their guides seemed a little confused by us and our monk escorts. We waited for the sun to set, casually meandering our way to the end and then back again. By now we were both extremely tired, the lack of sleep on the bus and an action packed day had really caught up with us. I was also beginning to have a bit of trouble with my knees, (for those that don't know I have arthritis in both, not only the oldies that get it!) and really needed to rest. Unfortunately there was no horse and cart around and it was quite a long walk in the dark, as there were no street lights to speak of, back to the pick up stop. When we made it one soon turned up but it was rammed full of people, there was a week long festival which people were making their way back from, so we had to stand at the back. I was very pleased when we finally reached our room. The day had been really, really enjoyable though and we arranged to meet the monks the following morning at 6am. As we planned to visit a town a little south of Mandalay.

Too soon the alarm was sounding and then we were trudging zombie like down the road to meet the monks. There were plenty of them up and about with their lacquered bowls, going from place to place asking for donations.
Our monks were a little late but in the end it didn't matter. The pick up we were planning to get ended up sounding like it was going to be too expensive as we would be paying for monks too. It also turned out Adam had been to the place before and so we decided to change plans and just stay around the city.

After some breakfast in a tea house we went to the largest pagoda in Mandalay. Inside there is a massive Buddha whose size has increased over the years as people have placed sheets of gold leaf over his body as an offering. You can see before and after pictures over the years to see how much he has grown. Adam and I walked round the statue while the monks prayed and then they joined us and we explored the other parts of the pagoda. There were a series of paintings depicting the transportation of the Buddha from one kingdom to another centuries ago and also there was a large map of Asia floating in a shallow pool which highlighted the Buddhist countries. We then fed some popcorn to these enormous catfish which were occupying an outside pond with a couple of terrapins.

As we were leaving the pagoda Adam's monk bumped into a friend and he invited us back to his monastery. Here we met more monks and we sat for a couple of hours drinking green tea and helping them with their English. Adam was helping Smiler with sentence structure and I was given the task of looking through a book on idioms and then highlighting and explaining ones which I thought were relevant/actually used. I really enjoyed myself because it is not often that you actually think about the English language and how wonderfully descriptive it can be and it was nice to discuss this with people who were genuinely interested.

The English lesson over we decided that we would like to go to the festival that was being held and the monks arranged for a taxi. There were now six of us in our group and we all cramped into a tiny taxi. The festival was in no way religious, in fact it was quite the opposite and none of the monks had ever been before. It was in honour of a spirit called a Nat which takes on many different forms and is borne out of folk legend and superstition. By holding the festival and giving offerings the people believe that they will enjoy good luck. We had to get out of the taxi and walk the rest of the way because it was so busy. When we finally made it to one of main areas where stalls had been set up we saw lots of people carrying flowers into a kind of small shrine, this is where they placed their offerings.
There was also music coming from an area which seemed to be the main focus and the monks managed to clear a path for us so that we could see what was going on. There was a little room set up with people sitting at a table or on the floor, there were bottles of liquor dotted about and in the centre there was a man dressed in drag dancing about and people were giving him money. He/she was supposed to represent the Nat I believe although I must admit this is where my understanding ends.
We saw another display like this a little further on but it was a bit strange and the monks didn't seem too taken in by it either. It was interesting to see but it was so busy and it didn't seem easy for us to just join in, so we decided to move on.

The taxi found us again and drove us out of the city where we stopped for some lunch and the monks did eat. Once we had filled our bellies we headed for Saigai Mountain and a pagoda which sits on top of it. It was a long climb up the steps to reach the top and we all had to rest a couple of times. Adam and I were pleased to find that our fitness levels had improved though as we were first to reach the top. It was well worth the physical exertion though as the view was lovely and there was a refreshing breeze.
We relaxed for a little while and everyone took a few photos to document the great day we were having. On the way back down Smiler struck up conversation with a couple of Americans and we chatted for a little while. They had been to over 70 countries and since retiring were living a kind of nomadic life, and they seemed very happy for it!

In the taxi once more we headed back in to the city and said our goodbyes. We still had one day left in Mandalay though so we arranged to meet the following morning for a trip to Mingun. This massive pile of bricks would have been the largest pagoda in the world if it had been completed but a high fatality rate during its construction brought things to a halt. Once again Adam and I were both knackered and were very ready for sleep when we got back to our room.

We had to catch a boat to Mingun so we headed down to the little port area. The cost of a ticket was a little pricey and Adam noted that it was definitely more than he'd paid when he visited last time. Still we were here now and we knew it was worth seeing. We had lost one of our companions from yesterday as he had prior engagements but there was still Adam's monk, Smiler and one of the monks we had met the day before. His English was the best out of the lot, he seemed to have a real ear for it and remembered everything I said. He'd come out with phrases like 'not my cup of tea' which made me smile. The boat trip took about forty five minutes as we slowly chugged along. There were a few other tourists on there and I recognised a some of them. As the traveller route in Myanmar is pretty set and there aren't a lot of tourists in the first place you tend to see the same faces.

We docked and walked up to enormous plinth like structure made of red brick. The reason the King was going to build one so large was so that he and his wife would be able to see it from where they lived many, many miles away.
We climbed up to the top which was quite hard going but again worth the effort because the view was even better than the one the previous day. As we gazed out we saw the green hills which surround Mandalay, all of them intermittently dotted with the dozens of golden pagodas. We walked round the whole of the top of Mingun which was falling to pieces in places. It was a bit treacherous at times and definitely violated healthy and safety but that was part of the fun.

Once we had descended we made our way down the road to see the second largest bell in the world. The largest is in Moscow but it has a crack in it, so technically it is the largest intact bell in the world. We stooped down to get in underneath it and it was covered with scratched in graffiti which seemed a bit of shame but also gave it a little more character.

The day seemed to have gone by very quickly and it was soon time for us to board the boat. Back in Mandalay we had to say goodbye to the monks as it we had a late afternoon bus to catch to Bagan. We were both sad to say goodbye to them, but Adam especially felt sad about saying goodbye to his friend. I think meeting up again had meant a lot to both of them. I'd learnt a lot and I was so grateful to them for showing us around as it gave us such a unique experience. We all said we would stay in touch and then they headed back to their respective monasteries.

We saw little point in hanging around in the city and simply went back to the hotel to get our bags before making our way to the bus station.

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 03:45 Archived in Myanmar Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

A look at life on Inle Lake

with cat acrobatics!

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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.
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.
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.

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

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.

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.
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

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

View Around We Go on LauHot10's travel map.

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.
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.
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.
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

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.
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.
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.

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.
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.
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.

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)

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