15.04.2015 - 25.04.2015 38 °C
Why you may ask? Well these guys have got it all....smart phones, motorbikes, free train tickets and a free breakfast every morning courtesy of the locals as part of their morning walk around (unlike in Laos there were no tourists here, and unlike in Laos these monks weren't forced to accept out of date chocolate). OK so its not all supermodels, iPhones and free grub but it seemed a pretty good gig to me...not quite how I pictured a life of religious study and reflection...'Oi Dave, can you stop praying so loudly, I can't hear the latest epsiode of breaking bad I've just downloaded to my tablet'. More on the monks later.....
So on to Burma, or as the locals have rebranded it, Myanmar. The land of the pagoda and more monks than an episode of Cadfael...my first stop Mandalay, where on arrival it became apparent that the water festival I had left behind in Bangkok was still in full swing. This once again denied me the chance to use my camera...the kids in these places have had years of practice and are a crack shot with a water pistol, and a westerner with a camera is like a red rag to a bull. I also wondered why my drink at dinner seemed to be bottomless, but unlike the more traditional restaurant bottomless cup, where you need to get out of your seat to replenish, I had table top up service courtesy of a local water pistol sniper/future novelty bar owner!
On my first morning in Mandalay a group of us took an early cab to see the sunrise at one of the world's longest wooden bridges and also one of the many pagodas in town.... this one complete with a huge lying down Buddha, he had the right idea, far too hot for site seeing. There was also a legion of iPhone wielding monks on hand....when your not praying you might as well be on candy crush I guess. On my return to the hostel I was then convinced, pretty easily I should add due to the early start and associated sleep deprivation, to join a group and board a truck to hit up the water festival Burmese style. This was a new level of getting soaked, in particular what must have been the local fire department area where they were pumping the local lake onto everyone that passed with their hose pipes...a day off for the 999 service, not a day to fall asleep on your sofa with a ciggarette/your cat to get stuck up a tree. Bangkok had nothing on this place for quantity of water...maybe cleanliness though! Bar two others we were also the only westerners involved with the throng of locals, cue a licence to douse whoever we wanted and still get a huge grin in return...they of course more than returned the soaking and some might have to ask their English teacher to translate 'the little swine just got me right in the crown jewels' in their next lesson! The festival was rounded off at the hostel with some traditional dancing and a 'traditional' game of rice ball chilli roulette....imagine the deer hunter. Your bullets some rice balls, your weapon of choice a spoon and for the loser a red hot chilli centre!
I must be backpacking.... someone is playing the guitar at 8:30am and butchering wonderwall. This was my last morning at the excellent Yoe Yoe Lay guesthouse in Mandalay, where our host, Mama, fed and watered us (beer rather than the water festival soaking) for two days before waving us off to Bagan. All aboard the first Burmese bus! Drum roll for the road conditions...and who would have thought it, the roads were excellent. A little bumpy, but finished, and they also came with sporadically placed toll booths consisting of two semi conscious guys in sunloungers and a small outstretched peice of wood you could easily drive around, honest bunch these Burmese. The route to Bagan was scenic but showing the first signs of commercialisation.... a new highway under construction, the odd industrial park, the dreaded palm making an appearance, fingers crossed this place stays the way it is for a long as possible, I'm sure this is how the rest of south east Asia felt before the package tours rocked up.
Bagan, home to thousands of pagodas and also E-Bikes. Think your grans mobility scooter crossed with the dakar rally. The group I was now travelling with: an Englishman, a Frenchmen and an Australian (doesn't quite have the same ring to it as the usual home nations trio) hired these for the day and sped out in the pre dawn across road, dirt and sand...I'm sure these bikes were designed for the city. The bike gods though must have been on my side (about time) because unlike my compatriots who suffered flat batteries and tyres, my trip mechanics wise was incident free. The only dramas I had were getting lost and having to navigate what felt like the sahara desert following some debatable directions from a local...probably pay back for not going to her cotton making shop. This place felt like it was from a different planet and I could have stayed longer (hopefully the picture below goes someway to showing that), we had to though leave the next morning on another bus, however unlike in Laos or Cambodia, with these roads that was like waking up for Christmas morning.
'Christmas' morning came and the bus to Kalaw (the next stop where me and the Frenchman had planned a three day trek) provided a new form of torture for the weary traveller.....the Asian version of the Eurovision Song Contest on TV and in full surround sound. At least the roads were smooth, unlike the voices of most of the entrants! After picking up half of rural Burmas population enroute and the usual Asian bus routine where right before your destination your bus turns into a local taxi service / vegetable/livestock delivery service, we pulled in to the hill station of Kalaw, some welcome relief from the furnace of the lower lands, and headed straight into town to book a trek. Our choice of agency Uncle Sam, no connection to the US government although with a face/pose like this Hilary Clinton best not count her chickens just yet.
The trek started the next morning, the destination Inle Lake, the distance 58km, the group made up of yours truly, two Slovenians and three French...a distinct Gallic feel. Apparently this is one of the most popular treks around and I could see why. For the next three days we wandered through rural Burma, meeting the locals, taking in the scenery and for me listening on why French food and wine is the best in the world....I dared suggest that British cheese was better, sacrilege! 'Off wiv iz ed' the French cried! On the two nights of the trek we stayed with local families in their homes, a real insight into local life and also a chance to get to know my group even better owing to the cosy sleeping arrangements. I must have looked half Arctic explorer with my sun browned face and icicles hanging from my beard (it was a bit chilly believe it or not) and half Peter Stringfellow with my long tussled locks and new French bossom buddy cuddled up next to me (a chap in case you wondered) .
A special mention to the monks we met on this part of the trip as promised earlier....Chesterfield FC, aka the mighty Spireites, need to get their scouts to the village of Setkya Kone asap. We chanced upon a game of football with skills fit to grace any pitch back in the UK. The Chinese firework research team also need to get themselves out here, as whilst one lot of monks did their best Lionel Messi impressions, the rest were busy demonstrating to us their ability to blow this small part of Burma back into the stone age!
The final day of the trek complete, we travelled across Inle lake by speedboat. Cue more photos of both picturesque scenes and locals performing everyday tasks, which back at home we wouldn't look twice at, but all of the sudden a man fishing or a woman picking cabbages becomes the must have shot in the Panini sticker book of Asian photos...If anyone has the great wall of China shiny, I'll swap them 5 blokes plowing Vietnamese fields.
The next morning, aching limbs rested, we boarded our home for the next 30 hours, the non-sleeper (at least they are honest around these parts) to Yangon formally known as Rangoon. I'd been told previously that the train was a bit bouncy as the track wasn't in the best condition....that was an understatement, they should call it the trampoline express and remove the word express while they are at it as the average speed is around 20kmph to make sure the the train stays on the rails! I should also mention the price of the ticket, a bargain at 9400 kyats (9.4 US dollars) made up of the fare 9395.96 kyats and life insurance at 4.04 kyats, beat that price moneysupermarket! The royal wave was also back out in force, with hoards of locals waving at us at the various pitstops the train made, this was made more hazourdous though by the windows being open to the elements, ideal for waving, not so ideal were the low hanging branches/brambles....where are the ground force team with their hedge clippers when you need them! We finally 'bounced' into Yangon the next afternoon and were greeted by a city full of character, old British arcitecture and the biggest temple to date, covered in enough gold to deck out an army of jewellery wearing rappers. The temple seen, it was time to head to the airport. A lay over in Kuala Lumpur and then the Philippines awaits!
One final note on Myyanmar. The people here have the worst teeth I've ever seen, even worse than Vietnam, even worse than Nobby Stiles. They have a habit for eating betel nuts, which are red in colour and among other nasty side effects make you look like a part time vampire...one chap in particular doing his best Dracula impression for me, red marks at both sides of his mouth and looking rather too closely at my 'succulent' neck whilst serving me lunch. No need for any sweet nothings to be whispered into my ear/neck here!