A Travellerspoint blog

Burmese Days

sunny 38 °C

Ahhh, I couldn't resist the Orwellian title, it was running through my head the whole time we were there.

We spent three hot and humid weeks in Burma and it wasn't really how I expected it would be. I thought travelling there would be an adventure. The country has been pretty closed to the world for decades, few travellers have been making it there, I thought we would have been chartering new ground. But since the military has been allowing some political freedoms the tourists have been flooding in. In the 6 months prior to our arrival there had been a 30% increase in tourist numbers. Add to this that huge swathes of the country are still off-limits to foreigners because of ongoing civil wars, you end up with a very defined, restricted and well populated tourist trail. Yet, the numbers are still small and everywhere we went I wanted to stay another day.

Noodles drying in the sun

Noodles drying in the sun

The people are exotic. They dress in a traditional fashion. Both men and women, with very rare exceptions, all wear longhis, ankle length sarongs tied at the waist. The men all seem to have the same jandals with a felt like material strapping the foot in. And the spread of the toes are those of people who have never been trapped inside modern shoes. Women paint their faces, and sometimes their arms and chests, with a sandalwood paste that looks like a dry, light brown face mask. In the name of sun protection or make-up, depending on who you ask. Many chew betel nut, leaving their teeth weathered away to little sticks and their mouth permanently stained red. Because betel nut is chewed and than spat out in streams of long red spittle (done ever so proficiently by an expert), the streets look as if they are stained with blood.

Street food vendor, sandalwood paste on her face, Yangon

Street food vendor, sandalwood paste on her face, Yangon

Probably because of its colonial past there is a reasonable amount of infrastructure throughout the country, but years of neglect have left most of this in a humble state. We took a train ride that rocked so much on its old wheels I wouldn't have been surprised if we had come right off the tracks. We saw men standing on their ploughs being pulled through the rice paddy by their buffaloes and many a cart with wooden wheels. Cars have flooded into the country in the last year or so, but still a very common mode of transport within a town is the old fashioned bicycle rickshaw. But contrast all of this with the 8 lane highway running from Yangon to Mandalay, which when we were travelled on it was almost empty. This is a military show piece, a complete excess that takes the military from Yangon to their newly constructed capital, Naypyidaw, just south of Mandalay. This was just one of many examples that showed how development in Burma was a matter of the haves (the military) and the have nots (everyone else).

The wooden wheel

The wooden wheel

Rickety old train travel

Rickety old train travel

Rickshaw travel. The poor guy pedalling would have the weight of me too, facing backwards behind Dan

Rickshaw travel. The poor guy pedalling would have the weight of me too, facing backwards behind Dan

Yangon aka Rangoon was our introduction to the country. It was crowded, hot and full of smells. There is a large Indian population in the city (another colonial hangover) and they spiced up the scene with their tall, gangly dark skinned appearance and insanely cheap and tasty food (bottomless curry for 50p/$NZ1!) The Burmese are reputedly big readers and we found many makeshift book stores set up on the street. Browsing these was interesting, everything was old or photocopied, as the import of books is another restriction the people of Burma have to deal with. Street food was prolific, varied and tasty. Tea houses are where it's at, people flood them day and night for milky flavourless tea and a huge array of tasty morsels, sweet and savoury. Comically all the outside seating, which there is much of because of the heat, is on child size plastic tables and chairs. It was a sensory overload that was fun and exciting, but you definitely needed the peace and AC of your hotel room by the end of the day.

Tea house life, Yangon. Note the child-sized plastic chairs and tables

Tea house life, Yangon. Note the child-sized plastic chairs and tables

Streetside bookstore, Yangon

Streetside bookstore, Yangon

We roamed by foot and bike around rice paddies, rural villages with sleepy water buffaloes and bamboo houses and, old colonial towns, all the time meeting friendly locals. We found a natural infinity pool at the bottom of a tranquil slow paced waterfall and spent hours wallowing like a water buffalo enjoying the bucolic views. We spent hours watching spectacular sunsets. After 7 months of travelling overland across an enormous land mass we finally hit the sea! The Andaman Sea. It really felt like an achievement and it was excellent to celebrate with a sunset swim.

Rural villages, buffalos and all

Rural villages, buffalos and all

The colonial English club house in the old summer capital of Pyin Oo Lwin

The colonial English club house in the old summer capital of Pyin Oo Lwin

The sea! The Andaman Sea at Setse Beach

The sea! The Andaman Sea at Setse Beach

Cycling through the rice paddies

Cycling through the rice paddies

Buddhism is the national religion in Burma and they are an incredibly religious lot. We timed it nicely to catch a couple of religious festivals as it was the full moon at the end of Buddhist lent. On an overnight in a hill village while trekking we happened across their local celebration, which consisted of costumes, skits and dancing, as well as a late night slow motion conga line. The more impressive festival however was on water, on Inlay lake. The lake has many villages built on stilts on and around it. A few Buddha statues from the region's holiest temple go on an 18 day tour around these villages once a year, culminating with an early morning extravaganza where boat loads of locals and tourists come to the floating village where the holiest temple is. Decorated boats paraded through town with music and dancers. There was a rowing race in the unusual tradition where the rowers have the oars looped around their legs to paddle - standing up. The climax was the return of the Buddha statues in a large ornate boat made to appear like a mythical swan creature in gold.

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Village on stilts, Inlay Lake

Village on stilts, Inlay Lake

It was a visual feast. I think photos for Burma could be the best way to describe it, so I have put some other photos up in the album that aren't in this blog if you wanna check it out.

Equatorial sunset

Equatorial sunset

Posted by chrisgulik 28.01.2013 15:06 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Infectious smiles

The people of Burma

sunny 38 °C

It's a big call, but I'm going to make it.... no country quite compares to the friendliness we experienced in Burma/Myanmar. If I can just slip in two qualifiers: I mean on an overall basis, as in not a single person we met wasn't pleased to see us or happy to help and; we rarely visit a country where we speak the local language and if we did, I am certain the welcome would always be warmer.

Hotel room neighbours, so excited to see us we had to have our photo taken

Hotel room neighbours, so excited to see us we had to have our photo taken

Bettel nut vendor, Yangon

Bettel nut vendor, Yangon

A population that has been living through 50 years of military dictatorship, repression and horrific human rights abuses welcomes with endless smiles, the foreign traveller. I had never really realised how infectious a smile can be, see one and you cant help responding with one. Everywhere we went, that's what we got. We just walked around on a smiling high. It happened in one-on-one situations and with groups of strangers. You might be cycling along a quiet country road when a ute overloaded with women in the tray and men sitting on the roof approach you. Before they have even passed you there is an enthusiastic cry of 'Mingalaba!' (Hello!). Passing wooden long tail boats where people sit in a single file row, they would look over at us in our boat a little curiously. Bust out just one little wave and in energetic unison everyone on that boat is waving, smiling and laughing at the sight of some foreigners.

Traditional dress of Shan women living in the hills

Traditional dress of Shan women living in the hills

Local barman. It's all about the whiskey, but these are no smooth single malts.

Local barman. It's all about the whiskey, but these are no smooth single malts.

It was mostly older men that spoke English, or at least approached us to speak with us, remnants of an English colonial past. They were open and forward about their country and genuinely interested in us and ours. They would approach us while we were sitting on the street or browsing a bookshop. While checking out an old church building we were swept aside by the Pastor, guided around, introduced to people and then taken back to his place for tea. Cycling along a country road one day (yes, it was a common activity, really pleasant thing to do) we were passed by many people on scooters. One guy spotted us, saw we were foreign, and slowed right down to a cycle pace so that he could chat with us for about 20 minutes. Awesome.

The unusal style of rowing used by the people of Inlay Lake

The unusal style of rowing used by the people of Inlay Lake

Street food vendor, sandalwood paste on her face, Yangon

Street food vendor, sandalwood paste on her face, Yangon

We didn't know it at the time but one of the most interactive things we did was when Dan purchased an NLD t-shirt while visiting their HQ in Yangon. The NLD is the National League for Democracy, the political party which Aung San Suu Kyi is the leader of, which has been pushing for multi-party democracy since the late '80s. Up until nearly a year ago showing any support, talking about, or being any way involved with the NLD could cost you any number of undesirable repercussions, one of the reasons there are currently thousands of political prisoners in Burma. But, getting close to a year ago, the military junta allowed other parties to participate in politics and in the following by-elections the NLD won a number of seats. So for the first time in decades there is a whiff of political freedom in the air.

NLD HQ in Yangon, faces of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father General Aung San

NLD HQ in Yangon, faces of Aung San Suu Kyi and her father General Aung San

The t-shirt that had every body talking

The t-shirt that had every body talking

The NLD has come to represent both the political party, but also the movement for change and that this foreigner was showing his support for this political freedom was intensely appreciated. Whenever Dan wore the t-shirt (and he tended to do so often) he got countless positive reactions. Many people wanted to shake his hand in gratitude (one guy even stopped his scooter as he spotted us while riding past) and made comments such as 'So you are with us.' Sitting in a busy bar one evening Dan was approached by some enthusiastic locals so pleased to see his support for the NLD a photo shoot ensued. I thought one of the more telling comments which he often got was 'Do you know Aung San Suu Kyi?' To me the answer is a resounding yes. She is an international icon of political freedom, her years of house arrest an example of the repression the Burmese military junta inflicts upon its population. But Burma has been so closed for so long, the people within the country have no idea what the rest of the world knows about it and how a lot of the world, through sanctions and beliefs, supports the freedom of the Burmese people.

Full moon festivities

Full moon festivities

It may sound cliched, but then cliches tend to exist because they are commonly true, but the people of a country really do make a tremendous affect to your experience there. We had an amazing time in Burma.

Little Buddha

Little Buddha

Posted by chrisgulik 12.01.2013 17:30 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Treading water in Kupang

sunny 31 °C

Happy New Year everybody! or as the say here, Selamat Tahun Baru!

On account of the East Timor embassy being closed for 'Christmas celebrations' on 11th of Jan, we found ourselves spending the weekend in Kupang, West Timor. The city is a pretty standard Indonesian city. Sprawling, noisy, traffic choked, no pavements, rubbish everywhere, no public spaces or parks, and public buses with obnoxious car audio systems going past every 2 seconds.

It's finally stopped raining and so we had to get out.

We hired a scooter for 4 quid, and headed off into the beautiful country side.

First stop was Baun for the morning market where we found these lovely pieces of meat for sale. Can anyone guess what they are?

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After chris purchasing a new dress and cap, we downed a quick 'Nasi Campur' and headed down the bumpiest road i've ever driven on (one for you there Christiaan and Shanna)

An hour later we are swimming at a gorgeous beach. Just us... almost. There's 12 guys at the entrance with 3 trucks who seem to have job to dig up the sand and take it somewhere, and they do a nice comedy routine driving the trucks, one by one into deep mud and somehow being surprised each time they got stuck.

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Finished the day with a meal and a few beers over a game of pool at a waterfront bar. There are worse places to be passing time.

Posted by dantheperson 12.01.2013 22:56 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

The Golden Triangle

By motorbike

sunny 35 °C

Arriving in Northern Thailand was an unpleasant shock having come from quiet, rural Laos. Our ride from the Loatian border dropped us off in Chiang Mai on a corner with Starbucks, McDonalds and Boots (a ubiquitous British chemist store). Ugh. It was late and dark and we wondered the streets looking for somewhere to stay. Everyone we passed was a foreigner. Every shop, restaurant and cafe had ugly boards in front advertising the different trips and services they could provide to tourists. It was tourism saturation and we didn't much like it.

The intention wasn't to stay in Chiang Mai, but to hit the road by motorbike to ride the Mae Hon Son Loop. Taking in quiet country roads that go up and down and round and round (more than 1,600 bends) the mountainous green terrain of Northwest Thailand, part of the infamous Golden Triangle. At Mr Bear's bike shop I chose a scooter for its classic good looks, Dan chose on mechanics. A few hairy loops around the busy streets of town to run errands got us warmed up, before we hit the back roads.

Classic good looks

Classic good looks

All about mechanics

All about mechanics

Day one we started off gently curving up and down many jungle hills, with so many corners it kind of felt like snowboarding, hardly any straights, just constantly putting in your turns. Swish, swish, swish. Slowly it got dark, the cloud set in and it started to rain. But we were both in the groove, took it slowly and really enjoyed it. I was feeling pretty happy with my riding, and confident on the bike. Which is why it is so surprising what happened the next day....

The ubiquitous road sign

The ubiquitous road sign

We were on our bikes after breakfast, heading out of the town we had stayed in. The traffic lights turned green and Dan headed out into the intersection to turn left. Something didn't quite work for him and before you know it, I'm watching him slow motion skid into a turn and fall onto the road. My reaction was to get to him as quick as possible and get him off the road before any traffic might hit him, but in doing so I somehow went full throttle careening around the corner. Cue comic skit. People calmly sitting at their road side cafe on a Saturday morning having breakfast. It has a wall only about a metre high so the customers can look out onto the street. Into the scene comes out of control motorbike with foreign girl flying off the back trying desperately to reach the brakes. This is when Dan, shaken from his own accident, has gotten up off the road. Just in time to see me skidding, ever so narrowly missing the restaurant wall, but smashing off the planter box and all the other pot plants that were nicely lined up along the street, before falling off my bike.

We were both lucky. I had literally been dragged through the mud, and was covered in it from head to toe. Other than that, we suffered a little shock, a couple of decent grazes each, some bruises, and a minor crack on my bike which Mr Bear made me pay 20 quid for. Not bad considering.

Roadside munch on noodle soup

Roadside munch on noodle soup

That little accident aside, the 5 day trip went off without a hitch! We rode through, and stayed in, little rural villages. Rode down narrow roads to reach beautiful waterfalls. Ate delicious Thai food and enjoyed the smiles and friendliness of the locals. Marvelled at the scenery, including more of those green rice paddies I love. Enjoyed watching rural life, including the corn de-husker machines which had the dramatic effect of shooting streams of corn debris into the air.

Scenes from the country, corn harvest time

Scenes from the country, corn harvest time

waterfall

waterfall

Posted by chrisgulik 17.12.2012 06:17 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Luscious Laos

The beautiful tropics

overcast 34 °C

Entering Laos took us into the tropics (and out of China!) It was hot, humid and sticky, I loved it. We spent most of our 10 days in the country (having been there for a month previously) in the north east, a gently mountainous area covered in thick jungle. Each morning would be misty and the hills would steam until the afternoon as the clouds slowly evaporated off. Wherever there was flat land there were rice paddies, right at the point of harvest, which meant they were as tall and green as they would ever be. Waving fields of luminous green. Gorgeous, I couldn't get enough of them. Such a wonderful contrast to our last trip in Laos which was at a different time of year when the rice paddies were just brown mud.

Rice paddies and krasts

Rice paddies and krasts

We did a few days hiking through the jungle, staying in the village of the local hill tribe. There is only one good word to describe walking in the jungle - moist. We got soaked through and both had our blood sucked by the numerous leaches. It was so damp and humid. But that led to the comical experience of having a wash at the communal tap in the village we stayed in. As etiquette required, I maintained my modesty by wearing a sarong. Dan however, was able to wear just a pair of shorts. And by the reaction he got, I don't reckon the locals had ever seen a skinny white chest before!

Lady from the Akha hill tribe, wearing traditional/day-to-day clothes

Lady from the Akha hill tribe, wearing traditional/day-to-day clothes

Moving south we travelled by local wooden river boats over three days, down the Nam Ou river. The odd rapid would get everyone excited, and those at the front of the boat wet (we learnt fast, always heading to the back seats). The scenery started out rural, little villages perched high on the river bank, locals washing in the river, water buffalo floating in the water with just their heads and horns poking out. After a while green jungle clad krasts - jagged limestone mountains - did a spectacular job of dominating the scenery. We spent four days of bliss in a timeless village in this setting.

River boat travel, down the Nam Ou

River boat travel, down the Nam Ou

Life along the Nam Ou River

Life along the Nam Ou River

The village, Muang Ngoi Neua, has no roads in it or to it. The bougainvillea and village temple provide bright splashes of colour in amongst the wooden and bamboo homes. We lazily spent the time hanging in our hammocks watching the villages go about life on the river and the cloud slowly lift each morning to reveal a dramatic krast background. We managed to fit in an afternoon walking through a sea of green rice paddies and finished off every day chewing the fat with other travellers during happy hour at Riverside Bar and Restaurant. It had a ridiculously extensive cocktail list considering the size and remoteness of the village, but once we got a taste of Riverside Number 3, there was no need to diversify.

Muang Ngoi Neua street life

Muang Ngoi Neua street life

Happy hour at Riverside Bar and Restaurant

Happy hour at Riverside Bar and Restaurant

There is something so charming and alluring about the developing world in the tropics. Travel in Laos was uncomplicated pleasure.

A constant pleasure

A constant pleasure

Posted by chrisgulik 16.12.2012 19:52 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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