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Published: December 17th 2012
Defying the laws of gravity
This amazing temple is Kyauk Kalap monastery. It looks like something from Lord of the Rings
As a traveller in Burma, there were a few slight adjustments to make. Firstly, your mobile phone does not work, since there are no affiliate networks out here. Secondly, Internet is very scarce, and when you do find it, it's painfully slow and too frustrating to use. Next there is the issue of obtaining money. Nowhere will accept your credit cards and none of the ATMs will accept international cards. Travellers cheques? Forget it. The only way to get local currency is to change US dollars. Which means that you need to decide how much money you need for your entire trip, and take the whole lot with you in cash! Zena and I were planning to spend 20 days in Burma - how much would we need? We had to come up with a daily budget, including accommodation, taxis, long distance buses, trains, three meals a day, hiring guides, and entry fees to tourist spots. Estimating this is not easy in a country like Burma, where inflation is rampant and prices can fluctuate wildly from month to month. And if you run out of money, there is simply no way to get any more. We'd heard tales of people who
Local lady selling her wares on the train
We bought lunch from this lady. Fresh, spicy and delicious!
had left the country early because they ran out of money. Burma is not cheap either. For most countries in South-East Asia you can manage on a shoe-string budget. Not here. You can eat and drink cheaply enough by heading to local eateries. It's the accommodation and transport that sucks up the money. You are extremely unlikely to find anywhere to stay in Yangon (Rangoon) for less than $30 a night. And the Lonely Planet (2011 edition) is already out of date, with accommodation prices having doubled or even trebled in some cases in the space of a year. You also need to consider having an "emergency stash", which should include cash for any hospital visits. So overall, this meant that Zena and I were carrying substantial amounts of US dollars on us. To hedge our bets in terms of theft or mugging, the cash was divided up between various pouches, hidden pockets and secret compartments. Oh, and to add to the turmoil, the US dollar bills have to be in perfect condition. Flat, unfolded and unblemished. A single tear, crease or mark will cause them to be rejected. Fussy buggers!
Our plan was to escape the heat of
A crunchy treat if you're brave enough!
Yangon and head south via train. But buying a train ticket in Yangon is neither quick or easy. Advance tickets cannot be bought at the railway station, they are purchased at another location about ten minutes walk away. And as a foreigner, you cannot buy a ticket unless you show your passport. Once your identity is proven, the ticket clerk thumps down an enormous book which looks like a cross between an encyclopaedia and a book of spells. Ten minutes of scribbling follows, and THEN he closes the book and starts writing your ticket by hand. The ticket is in local language and must have an excruciating amount of detail on it, because my hairline has receded a further inch by the time he has finished it. I wouldn't be surprised if the ticket contained details of my shoe size, the colour of the train and the current lunar cycle.
Our train was an old and battered beast that had seen many years of service and weathered many storms. We had booked the "Upper Class" coach, which got us large comfy seats covered in ripped, faded leather. They reclined in theory, but in practice, the mechanisms had long since
Monk chilling with his bird
He released it through the window an hour later
broken. The train was half-empty, so we looked around and managed to find a couple of seats which still reclined. A few minutes before departure, the train came to life with a low rumble, and juddered backwards and forwards a few feet. Presumably to test the ancient engine. Then the whistle blew, and we were off! The train clattered it's way out of the station, wobbling from side to side like crazy. We were fascinated by life on board the train. At each stop, local people came on board and wandered through the carriages, selling a bewildering variety of food and drink. For snacks there were women selling peeled pineapples, fried prawn fritters, cooked yams, spicy nuts, dried fish and assorted unknown platters. They were balancing the trays on their heads, which was quite a skill considering the manic swaying of the train. One woman had a huge tray of deep fried cockroaches, and she found it hilarious when I pulled a face of revulsion (similar to my tequila face). There were hundreds and hundreds of cockroaches on her tray, and I wondered where she could get so many from. Cockroach wholesalers? A cockroach farm? Or could it be a
Pete and Zena's grand temple tour
With so many stunning temples, we weren't templed-out. Yet.
sideline of a cockroach removal business? Catch the cockroaches in people's houses and then sell to people on trains. Several gentlemen came around selling hot tea and coffee, which was the three-in-one packet mix found everywhere in Burma. Drinking the coffee was a hazard because of the bumping motion of the train. And then there were the main meals. Women were carrying pots and cauldrons of delicious curries and fried fish. We tried one of the curries, and she gave us packet of cooked rice wrapped up in banana leaf over which we poured the curry. We had an eleven hour journey in total, and ate plenty of different food. But we had a strict rule - only buy from the ladies who boarded the train at the most recent stop. This meant that their food would be freshly cooked, rather than sitting around in the hot train for hours. There was one lady who boarded the train accompanied by the deafening sound of squawking. She had a cage of live birds, and walked around the train selling them to people. She was carrying them by gripping their legs, ten at a time, hanging down together like a bunch of
How many people are crammed into here?
flowers. The poor things were terrified. Normally the sound of birds chirping can be lovely, but these birds were distressed and their chirping had a desperate edge. The idea is that people buy these birds and release them. By setting a captive bird free, you get merit. This is like an eternal system of brownie points; you increase your merit through good deeds, and it increases the positive force that shapes your life (or something like that). But this releasing of the birds is false merit. Yes, you are releasing a captive animal, which is good. But because you are paying for it, you are actually encouraging an industry of capturing birds. So in this case I think your merit should be reduced!! We were sat near a monk who bought a bird from the lady. As soon as he took it off her, he cupped it in his hand and it calmed right down. The soothing power of a monk! An hour later he brought it to the window and gently released it. As well as wobbling from side to side, the train periodically bounced up and down for several minutes at a time. Not just a gentle bounce,
Enjoying the view
The train was ancient, the journey was long, but the sweeping views were magnificent
but with enough force that we all left our seats and flew in the air. It was quite a comical sight at first, and everyone on the train was laughing. All the way down the carriage you could see people flying off their seats in unison, a rhythmic bounce where everyone was in tune. After the first few occasions though, it got seriously annoying. I spilt hot coffee over myself on one occasion and scalded myself. The bouncing was also accompanied by a metallic clanging sound. This was the sound of the train physically leaving the tracks and then slamming back down again. This realisation put a more ominous tone on the journey when the bouncing started. We then learnt that a few days ago a train had derailed. I am not surprised. No-one was killed immediately because it had been a fuel train, not a passenger train. However, local people ran towards it with buckets to collect fuel from the leaking tanks. The whole train caught fire and exploded, killing all the people who were scavenging the fuel.
Over our 11 hour journey we passed through the most amazing scenery. Flat grasslands stretching for miles, with the silhouette
Spot the temple
Can you see the golden stupa on top of the mountain?
of stupas in the distance. Vast mountains covered in trees, with stupas adorning their summit. The stupas were everywhere, and it put things in perspective about the extent of Buddhism over here. Eventually we arrived in the port town of Mawlamyine. I had real problems pronouncing this name. Mawl-a-mee-ine is how it should be pronounced. Try saying that now. It doesn't flow very easily. Zena just called it Milwaukee instead, and everyone Western seemed to know what she meant. We had real problems finding accommodation in Mawlamyine. We tried several guesthouses but they were fully booked. This was to become a common problem on our travels. The number of tourists visiting Burma was increasing exponentially, and there simply weren't enough guesthouses to go round. When Zena applied for our visas in London, a lady told her that they'd received more visa applications in the last month than they'd received in the whole previous year! Eventually we found the last room in town. Literally. We were very lucky. Our next destination of Hpa-An was meant to be even worse. We'd heard tales of people who had travelled two hours to reach Hpa-An only to find no accommodation. They had to turn
Temples and Jungles
Hundreds of these stupas were scattered through the countryside
back and return to Mawlamyine and hope rooms were still available.
Our guesthouse was like a rabbit warren. A maze of wooden corridors led to dozens of tiny rooms with paper thin walls. We were shown to our room, and we didn't realise how lucky we'd been in back Sumatra. At the start of our trip we'd had a comfortable, spacious room with private bathroom and veranda, in an isolated location right on the lakeshore. The cost of that had been $4 per night. But now our room was grubby and basic, with a two minute walk to a shared bathroom. It had a tiny window, and was next to reception which meant we got all the noise and hubbub of people coming and going. The cost for this drab little room was about $20! Prices have rocketed in Burma because of demand and inflation. This was not going to be a cheap trip.
The next day we headed on a tour to Ogre Island, to visit several villages. Foreigners are not permitted to stay on the island after dark, possibly because this is when the ogres come out. We headed to the port early in the morning
I climbed this mountain!
If you look closely, you can see a monastery at the top right
and boarded a large cargo boat. On the docks were women selling various snacks, including fertilised chicken eggs. Basically, these eggs are left in a warm place for about nine days to allow the embryo to develop. Then they are hard-boiled and served as snacks. When you bite into them, you geta mixture of set egg, soft flesh and crunchy bones. Disgusting! Zena was herded downstairs on the boat with all the local ladies, and I was ushered upstairs onto the roof. It's a Burmese custom that women are not allowed to ride on the roof above men. I asked a local man why this was, and he said "because the man is more important". Another custom is that women's underwear is not allowed to be hung on a line above men's clothes!
There was a monk on board who came around passing envelopes to everyone. Apparently this is for cash donations. They aren't allowed to earn any money, but they need money for the monastery, and to pay for transport. There didn't seem to be much response from anyone, and they all handed back empty envelopes. If you are a Buddhist in Burma, it's compulsory to become a
The view as we pulled into town by train
monk twice in your life, for at least a year each time. It's kind of like National Service, but instead of learning to kill, you learn to be at peace. You have to spend a period as a monk novice before the age of ten, and then again after the age of twenty. Monks aren't allowed to have possessions, except for a robe, a fan and an alms bowl. But not everyone sticks to this. I've seen a monk riding a motorbike wearing sunglasses. I've seen a monk carrying a briefcase. And I've sat next to a monk who was listening to an MP3 player! I wonder what he was listening to. Some soothing classical music, or some screaming thrash metal?
We waited on the boat for close to an hour, while they loaded it with assorted supplies for the island. Boxes of chickens, cartons of eggs, bags of fruit and vegetables. There were also rice sacks containing giant blocks of ice, packed with rice husks as insulation for the journey. Packages and people kept coming and coming, including five motorbikes. Finally the boat could take no more, and we set off chugging across the sea to Ogre Island.
Did you steal my banana?
Monkey gives me an accusing look
When we arrived we were transferred to a minivan, and I noticed something curious. The driver had a piece of paper which listed all our names and passport numbers. How did he get that, and why? Make no mistake about it, while in Burma, the government is tracking you. You have to provide your passport details every time you buy a bus or train ticket. Furthermore, the government requires all guesthouses and hotels to submit a compete list of their guests every day. And not only one copy either - they have to provide ELEVEN copies. Photocopiers and computers are not common, so most guesthouses have to write these lists by hand. Eleven times over! Who do these lists go to? Presumably one copy goes to the police station, and another goes to the local office of the Ministry of Tourism. And the rest? Who knows. Maybe the "Ministry of Knowing Exactly Where You Are". In addition, the Lonely Planet states that "sometime during your Burma visit, you will be observed by government spies". This sounded like a far-fetched James Bond plot until a friend told me about his visit to Burma. A local man started talking to him and
Where there's a will, there's a way
asking questions. At first it seemed like general friendly banter. He wanted to know where he'd been, where he was going, what his plans were. But soon his questions became a bit too probingThe questions became beyond friendly interest, and my friend Omar became suspicious. Then over the next week, as he travelled around Burma, he kept seeing this same man. In a market, sitting in a corner of a restaurant etc. I leave you to draw your own conclusions. Why would a taxi driver need our passport details for an innocent day visit to an island?...
Our Ogre Island visit was a disappointment. We spent most of the day cultivating sore butts as our van bounced along rocky roads. We saw a few local crafts such as hat weaving and carving, but it was pretty lame on the whole. The highlight of the day was visiting a rubber band factory. Ever wondered how they are made? Neither have I. It's never been one of those burning questions. But it was fairly interesting. Large rods are dipped into liquid rubber and left to dry. Once set, the bands are peeled off like giant elephant condoms. Then they are put
Rubber Band Factory
The rubber sheaths are pulled off and sliced into bands
through a cutting machine to be snipped into bands. Who knew?
Another nearby island was called Shampoo Island, so called because during the 13th Century, the springs on the island would be used for an "Annual Royal Hair Washing Ceremony". I don´t know if the Burmese Royalty only washed their hair once a year, or whether this was a really special wash. Can you imagine that happening today in England? The Queen heading to a remote island with her entourage once a year for washing her hair?
The next day we piled into a small boat containing eight car seats, and headed on a four hour river trip to the town of Hpa-An. As we cruised upstream we passed a multitude of fishing villages and remote wooden huts. Little kids would see our boat and come rushing to the shore to wave enthusiastically. Waving is the national pastime of Burma, and soon my arms were sore from waving.
Our room in Hpa-An was a significant upgrade from our last establishment and had air-con. However this was completely useless because the town had power cuts most nights, so we sweated ourselves to sleep each night in the oppressive
A fishing village on the riverside
heat. Our room also had two interesting features. A red light in the ceiling, and a one-way mirror which showed our reflection inside, but allowed people to peep in from the outside! A former brothel maybe?!
One morning I arose at the ungodly hour of 5am to climb a mountain, Mount Zwegabin. The weather was simply too hot during the day, so I was planning to make the ascent and get down again before the midday heat. Someone had set out the previous day at 7am, and even that had been too hot apparently. The chap had to take his T-shirt off several times and wring it out from his sweat. The mountain was about 10 miles away, so by 5:30am I was on the back of a motorbike taxi, flying along the country lanes in the darkness. On the way I saw a smaller mountain with a trail of lights leading up to a monastery. Typical. There wasn't enough electricity in the town to power our air-con, yet someone had provided enough juice to light up a path to a Buddhist temple. Talk about priorities! The motorbike taxi dropped me off at the starting point, called the "Garden
How is this boat managing to stay afloat?
of Buddhas". His engine faded into the background, and I was completely alone in the wilderness, with the dawn light starting to emerge. The Garden of Buddhas was a forested path containing over 1,000 identical Buddha statues. They were peeping out from the undergrowth with the morning mist hanging over them. It was extremely eerie. There wasn't anyone for miles around, it was deathly silent, and I had 1,000 Buddhas staring at me. I felt like drawing a little moustache on one of them to lighten the mood. But that would be disrespectful.
I started my ascent, and it was tough going. Endless steps.... Apparently there were 3,000 steps to reach the top. I started counting the steps, and I had only reached 100 when I was already panting and sweating. Only 2,190 steps to go!! As I climbed, the sun started to rise and the heat came with it. How many steps had I climbed? Five hundred? A thousand? After an hour of huffing and puffing I was rewarded by one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. I sat there for a good fifteen minutes, just admiring the view and the solitude. Just me, the
Halfway up the mountain at 7am
view, and a cool breeze through my hair. Sometime around 8am I reached the summit, where there was a monastery, and hundreds of monkeys running around the place. I took off my shoes and entered. One of the monkeys tried to steal my breakfast, and I had to smack him with my shoe. Again, the view was magnificent, and I had the place to myself. Where were the monks? I thought they had to be up at 6am for meditating and doing all that other monk stuff. (I read an account of a monk who said it was extremely hard work doing all that meditating). Eventually a few monks started to emerge. I reckon they were having a lie-in because it was the weekend. Cheeky. Being on the top of a mountain, who's going to know?
Zena and I spent some time exploring the surrounding countryside via motorbike taxi. We went down into a vast cave filled with dozens of Buddhas. No surprise there. I'd be more surprised if there weren't any Buddhas. Where are they all made? Is there a Buddha factory somewhere, with a line of Buddhas coming off a conveyor belt? As we ventured deeper into
A few Buddhas
"Let's see how many Buddhas we can fit in this cave"
the cave, we had to switch on our torches. We could hear the chirping of hundreds of bats overhead, and it sounded like a giant game of Angry Birds. The ground was covered in decades of bat poo, trodden into a thick layer by thousands of tourist feet. Because it was a Buddhist temple, we'd had to leave our shoes at the door. It was a bit squishy in places, and so you ended up with mushy bat poo between your toes. Nice!
We were heading back to Yangon next, to pick up some luggage we'd left behind. We'd purchased our night bus tickets but were down to our last few pennies. We needed taxi money when we arrived in Yangon at 3am, and also needed to buy food for the evening's travel. But more importantly, it had been a hot afternoon, and I needed an ice cold beverage from the local Beer Station. Yes, Beer Station! That is the closest Burmese equivalent to a pub. Unfortunately the banks were closed, so our guest house directed me to the local Chinese dentist, who also served as a black-market money changer. I arrived to find a young Chinese boy peering
Working on his tan for the ladies
at me from behind a locked metal grille, sporting an industrial-sized bumfluff moustache. "Money change?" I asked hopefully. He replied "my father is not home." I tried to find out when he would be back, but the boy just repeated "my father is not home". This was the full extent of his English, so I went back to the guest house, penniless and defeated. In the end, the guest house agreed to change a small amount of emergency money for us.
We boarded the nightbus and had a spot-check by the Big Brother police shortly afterwards. The bus got stopped at a police checkpoint, and two officers got on board. They walked down the bus looking left and right. Once they spotted me and Zena, the only Westerners, they nodded at each other and got back off without checking further. The bus company obviously submitted our passport details to the police, and they were double checking that we were on the bus!
Our night bus was not a pleasant experience. There were a number of local men who were utterly inebriated. One of them was swaying around in his seat, eyes rolling in his head, ranting to himself
The local buffaloes meet up for their weekly book club
like a crazy man, his lips flecked with saliva. There was something quite unnerving about him, the kind of drunk who could turn nasty. Occasionally he would direct his ranting at us, but we refused to catch his eye. He ended up sliding off his seat into the footwell and unable to get back up, he fell asleep snoring on the floor curled up in a ball. Later during the journey he somehow manoeuvred himself out into the aisle, and slept spread out, legs and arms everywhere. The bus assistant and new passengers just stepped over him. Another guy was sat a few seats forward from us, and he kept turning back and looking at us. Again and again. It was really creeping me out cos there was something not quite right about him either. He was carrying a small plastic bag with a red liquid inside, which he kept raising to his mouth. At first I thought it was a drink which he was sucking up with a straw. But soon we realised he was chewing betel nuts, and was spitting into the bag. So the bag was full of a pint of blood-red saliva. Gross. This turned out
Local ferryman having a smoke break with the most enormous home-rolled cigarette
to be a common sight on buses, men having a plastic bag as a personal spittoon. Keep your filthy habits at home boys! For those of you who aren´t familar with Betel, it´s a nut from a tree that acts as a stimulant. You mix the shredded nut with lime paste and a few other bits and pieces such as cinnamon and cloves.The mixture is then wrapped up in a special type of leaf and chewed. But you have to keep spitting out the savlia! As well as being an intoxicant, betel is a "vermifuge" which means that it kills parasites in your digestive tract. I don´t know how much of a problem this is in Burma, but I do know that there is a recorded case of a tapeworm being pulled from an elephant that was 25 metres long!
Our bus was due to arrive in Yangon at the unspeakable hour of 3am. We needed to pick up our stored backpacks from a hotel, and then catch another bus at 7am. Buses in Burma are well known for being late, and on this occasion this would suit us fine . In fact, we had our fingers crossed for
Deep in thought
"What shall I have for dinner tonight?"
major delays, because rolling into Yangon at 5am instead of 3am would be a blessing. But Sod's Law came into play, and our bus arrived early at 1:30am!! So we headed to our hotel and woke up the night attendant, who was asleep on the floor behind the front desk. We had 5 hours until our next bus left, and it wasn´t worth paying for a room. He kindly offered to let us sleep in an upstairs social area. Zena curled up uncomfortably in an arm chair, and I slept on a hard floor behind her. Not my most comfy night´s sleep.
A few hours later we were at the Aung Mingalar bus station to catch our 7am bus. The bus station is one of the most chaotic I have ever seen. There are about a hundred different bus companies, and finding the exact one you need was a nightmare. There were some mighty impressive buses with descriptions down the side like "Asia Express Power 5 Mega Coach", and "Super Sunrise Turbo AirCon Comfort". You´d think you were about to blast off to the moon in something with a name like that. All the companies were keen to tell
These Buddhists will build anywhere!
people how big and posh their coaches were, but they were less keen to actually tell you where the bloody things were going or when they left! Everything was in the local language, not English. Our taxi driver helped us thankfully. And 8 hours later, after a grand total of nearly 24 hours since departing Mawlamyine, we reached Mandalay! To be continued...
(more photos at the bottom)
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