Thursday, 11 February 2016

Burma - Just WOW! Part 2

(note: I started writing this in September 2014....through many a distraction I have just gotten round to finishing this up from notes and chatting to folk).
Day 7-9: Bagan

A crack of dawn wake up and the excitement of another sweet 7 hour VIP bus ride. Couldn't have been further from the truth. A general bus, general seating and general generalness about it. Damnit. 

This bus was hell. The first few hours were spent with Myanmarese prayers being blasted threw the bus. I don't want to sound insensitive to a religion or buddhists, but it was really early and the monotonous whiney tone made me want to pull my hair out through my arsehole. Add to the fact the the bus driver needed to see if his horn was working every 4 fucking seconds made me want to pull his hair out through his arsehole. He beeps his horn to make other road users aware of his presence. But it seriously drives a nail through your soul every time he thrusts his hands onto his horn. Bastard.. I hated him. I still do. One awful journey. 

But Bagan. The red, dusty jewel in the heart of the Golden Country. By now, most people would have (should have) heard of Bagan. Nestled on the river in the middle of the country, is a wonderful place home to literally, thousands of temples of all shapes and sizes. I think some of these 'temples' may be a little too 'little' for my liking. But, I guess you gotta get the numbers up. 
The usual post-bus taxi wranglers await us as we step off the bus, and are met with the same enthusiasm as an overcooked, cold poached egg on yesterdays crusty loaf. You have to pay an entry fee to get into Bagan (bus, boat or plane) of about 25,000 kyat per person. You're supposed to keep it with you, but we never got asked to show it again. 

Bagan is up and coming and probably 'the' most popular tourist spot in Burma. We stayed in Old Bagan or Nyaung-U. The other area is New Bagan. We didn't go there so I can't comment about it. But Nyaung-U was fine and had everything we needed. There are hotels, motels, guesthouses and B&B's galore. If you wanted to you could schlep around and negotiate til the cows come home. We heard of a place....checked it out....a single and a double bed...shared bathroom...$10 per person. Fine with us. 

Max decides he needs a nap. Billy and I decide to tackle the heat..(..oh yeah...August in Bagan is effin hot. We hit a toasty and uncomfortable 45C degrees whilst there at one point. If you can find and afford a place with a pool, that time of year, then I might recommend one. Not necessary in the cooler January-February months.) So, Billy and I go for a wander. E-bike stores, travel and tourist info places and restaurants from all over. In fact, a lot of places try and offer you the globe in each restaurant. (I prefer a 'do one thing and do it well' kinda place that I think they should work on.)

Anyway, we take a random right and a random left and find ourselves in front of a nice looking old colonial building. 

We are then beckoned over by a monk (no English). The cynic in me thinks he's trying to sell us something (having not had the best monk experiences so far). We go anyway. Shoes off and in we pop to this old building. Some inaudible noises of recordings are being played in the background, and we are reliably informed that they are some type of prayer. Shortly after our arrival monk #2 springs up. He seems to be the boss. Monk #1 seems to bow and offer us up as a prize. A little confused, ,monk #2 some English and invites us into his office, a seat (on the floor....quit monkeying around and get chairs ;)) and a cool and most welcomed drink. He produces a small faux leather bound book and explains he'd like to practice his English with us for a little bit. We shoot the shit and chat about our experiences and some meanings in his book and eventually we get around to religion. Billy doesn't believe in religion and I am agnostic to the whole thing. But trying to explain that to a man of religion in another country in his place of worship was a little awkward. But he was cool...he even suggested to try Buddhism. All I need to do is renounce any religion I had and follow the 7 rules of Buddhism. There were too many on that list that Billy and I couldn't follow through with (find a list and it'll be clear which ones we didn't agree with). He then suggests that on our deathbed we can renounce and join Buddhism. That way we can be reincarnated. SWEET!!! But I don't want to come back as a mosquito......or worse, a Korean bus driver. So I smile and tell him I'll think about it. We end the conversation with monk #2 telling me that I am gonna live a long life. Billy on the other hand didn't really get a response that eased his was rather vague.

Chat all done, time for a tour. He's gonna show us his 'Boss', monk #3. He's in the adjacent building, which looks older than time itself and I didn't think anything could be older until we see monk #3. A whisper of a man, completely at peace, saying his prayers. We don't want to disturb so we say our thanks and peace out. Enough of this heat. Should have booked a place with a pool!! the reason why we are here. We get are E-bikes booked and ready for a pre-sunrise delivery (renting for the day was about $7). Off we shoot in the dark like riders of the night ready to do battle....NO. we looked pretty silly. But the bikes are good fun. 

Now! Bagan is insanely beautiful. I cannot explain, nor REALLY show you how amazingly beautiful it is. It's stunning. Everything your eye looks at is an amazing postcard you'd send....if people still sent postcards. I am by no means a photographer, and my camera is not amazing. Not one picture I took truly reflected what I could actually SEE. 

Here are some ... I'm sorry they aren't the best. (I have actually added some of Max's photos cause they are better than mine)

Still a lot of original paintings inside.


It ain't all pretty.
1990's Boyband Cover photo
The temple in the middle is the most popular for sunrise and sunsets. Avoid it like the plague. Go find a temple for yourself. 
 Despite having thousands of temples Bagan is great cause it gives you some options to get away from people. Yes, if you go to the most well known, with 'the best' views people will be there in hoards. We managed to find a temple for sunrise with maybe five-seven other people. Had we had a little more time I'm sure we could have found a temple all to ourselves. For sunset we came across a place that (through my super lens) you could see hundreds of people on one temple. Yes, the view from there is really nice. As long as you don't mind someone's selfie stick in your eye and 98 other people in the background of your photo. We were lucky enough to find our own (apart from a dude who would not take the hint that we weren't going to buy his sand painting) temple with lovely views.

Our own sunset temple view
Between sunrise and sunset we just zoomed around on the bikes. A quick bite here....water break there.....pee break kinda wherever. Just explore. Some of the more popular temples are a little overwhelmingly crowded with locals trying to sell you stuff. Like a lot of Asia. If you like something you can haggle away until you reach a price you want. I'd say that you might be paying a premium here...but most things are cheap enough....and if you're happy with the price then it doesn't matter how much it costs. 

Bagan is by far one of the coolest places on Earth. 

Up next Mt Poppa.....cause there isn't that much else to do. 

We asked our guesthouse to arrange a driver to take us there. Nice and easy to do for the three of us. If you're on your own there are share taxi options to get you there. Our driver (and almost all drivers we've had. Not bus drivers!!) was a nice guy and chatty. It's great to talk with them about the history of their country. This particular chap was saying he wished the Brits were still running the place. Less corruption and things seemed to be running better at grass roots level (not gonna lie...almost teared up. God Save the Queen). 
You see a lot of people begging tourists for money along the street. Sweeping the roads and having their hands out. Or just kids running along with the car to try anf get you to stop to give them some money.....stay in school kids! The driver (not that I wanted to give my money away anyways) recommended not to hand over money. "It's lazy!" he would say. I couldn't agree more...but I do understand it is MUCH more complicated than that. 
He was also telling us how the Chinese are buying up a lot of land. Confirming what we heard from our driver in Mandalay. He wasn't too happy with them. So right now me and the driver are getting along splendidly. Loads in common. 
The other memorable topic he brought up was the level of corruption with the monks. "monks are driving BMW''s crazy". There is a lot of money that goes towards the Buddhist monks and some of what he was talking about seems so foreign to me compared to other Buddhist countries I've been to. 
The moral of the story to you drivers. Full of opinions and knowledge. Let them lead the conversation so as not to offend anyone or bring up taboo topics. 

Mt Poppa. A temple on a volcano with a gazillion piece of shit monkies. 

Hope you like stairs. 

Stupid monkeys everywhere....fearless. Stop feeding the monkeys people. This is how Planet of the Apes is gonna start. 
I'd say it's worth a trip up but if you had a tighter time schedule then you wouldn't be missing a huge amount here. There are a lot of steps! The views are nice. The building at the top a little average. 
I most enjoyed the ride there and back and the discussion we had with our driver. 

It takes half a day to go there see it and come back. So back in time for lunch. This is the 45C degree afternoon, and I don't care if you have experienced this temperature or not. It's fucking hot and it doesn't sit particularly well with me. 


Having had lunch I had begged Billy for him to buy me an ice cream. Begged may seem like a strong word, but I think I actually begged. Between eating, leaving the restaurant and the guesthouse, things took a turn for the worse. Ice cream all of a sudden did not seem so important. 

No one needs to know the details of the next 38 hours or so. But I'll share one moment which makes me chuckle. I was not feeling well. By this point I had put on my loungie for simple ease of access and speed to be able to squat. Remember this was a shared batahroom. Also by this point Burma Belly was saying 'hello' from both ends. Having run to the outhouse...I have to pick a side and choose to vomit first. Just as whatever is killing me decides to leave my body, a poor young girl opens the door to see a waterfall of vomit and a look of horror as we gain eye contact. I try and 'murmur' an apology through the puke. But now I really need to poop. She screams a surprised disgusted "AARGGHH" and leaves just in the knick of time. Poor girl. More than likely ruined her day. 

Day 9-10: Inle Lake

A crack of dawn bus 12 hours. Was I feeling better/good enough to travel. I think so...nope. NOPE. Green and tired with a chaffed butt and a sore throat we make the journey. It's hard to remember...and at the same time...very hard to forget. I did not feel great. I was at the hands of Max and Billy. We find a place to stay. Similar gig, single and a double bed. $10. Just let me lie down. At this point Max is feeling sick...flu like. Fortunately for him, everything is staying in him. 

Billy, the ever compassionate, says he's gonna pop out, explore a little and come back with some orange juice and water for everyone.....................................hours go by. Half-cut Billy stumbles (literally) through the door. He had brought some OJ with him, bless. Turns out he grabbed a bite at a local watering hole and got to talking to some dude with tattoos. They got to talking and drinking and drinking and maybe a little more drinking and agreed that the local guy would show us his mate who could do some Burmese tattoos for cheap. Well....OK. Hadn't planned on getting any tattoo work done. I'm feeling a little better but don't want to be going out on a boat all day tomorrow. Max agrees. We all agree. If I'm not leaking, we get tattoo...Burma Ink. 

We all wake up fresh faced, puke and squit free and able to hold some food down. OK. Let's find this guy and see if he's for real. We find him. He's real. He has a few things to tidy up and get ready for work...but after that. It's a walk to the tattoo! HAHAHAHA. His mates house. 
Welcome to Inle Lake Ink/some guys house. Outhouse is round the back.
 Well now....alarm bells obviously ring...but so does our sense of adventure. He seemed to know what he was doing. Made sure the needles and ink were sterile. As it always works out, we all want the same one. Billy goes first...he got first pick. Max and I then want the same one. I was next I got to pick first. Max going last picks a beaut that made me kinda jealous. Price was agreed, beer and whiskey was bought. Fruit, water, cookies and booze was passed around for the next few hours as we got tattooed in someone's house...on the floor...kareoke tunes in the background...oh, and a rooster on the front porch.

Here's kinda how it went down:

Whilst not something I'd go out and recommend, this was probably my favourite day on our trip. It was a lot of fun and includes everything I hold, whiskey, tattoos and friends. Tomorrow we head to the lake.....

It's pretty easy to oraganise a boat. Every hotel will get on that for you. You can book a full day, up at sparrows fart or a half day which pick you up later. We didn't need another early start. We were also told it would just be us on the boat too, which I think we'd prefer. But turns out a German couple and a Frenchman (or a French couple and a German) boarded our vessel. By going a little later we missed out on a market I believe but that's about it.

Now, Inle...It's gone the way of Bagan as being one of the 'to do' things in Burma. So, it is starting to get rather touristy. But, what you gonna expect. It's only gonna get worse. The difference with Bagan is that you aren't in control of the boat. So you have to endure being taken to pre-selected sited that sell tat. Some of it was nice. They take you to a 'silk factory'...never seen that before. Thought it was kinda interesting. You get to see how they make their Burmese cigars. Again I thought it interesting. I wasn't so keen on the blacksmiths we went to. Or the general silverware and tat.

Other than these minor (and they are minor in my opinion) it's a really nice day out. People actually live on the lake. There are a number of different dialects on the lake. It's interesting. And the scenery is very pretty. Just sit back and relax and go with it.

NOTE!!: make sure you pee before you go on the boat. It doesn't stop for a while. I needed a pee before I got onto the boat. I thought there would be a nice loo where we would be getting the boat. There wasn't.
At one point I was running through scenarios...these were my options:

1) Just piss over the side of the boat....but there were three random people behind me. The breeze was not in my favour.
2) Piss in a bottle. OK. But this was a lot of pee. I only had a small bottle. I would probably have to revert to 1) and worry about pissing on the French and Germans (although...they should be used to it by now ;))
3) Piss myself.

I didn't want to do any of these. We ask the guy and it isn't much further....I set a new pee record of 2 mins 15 seconds.

 So here's some Inle Lake....

DAY 11: Bus to Yangon...
We pretty much did the same thing in Yangon for the last night. 19th street food. Flight was early morning so we just packed and though about the trip. Kicking the shit outta Billy in Shithead. Won 8 times in a row. BOOM!

DAY 12: Yangon - Bangkok (14 hours) - Seoul

Now what to do in Bangkok for a really long time....well we had to go and meet Sylvia in Khao san we go. We eat....we laugh...oh and drink a years supply of Chang. Billy eats a scorpion and I electrocute Max. We get a massage...a bad one...too pissed to continue we head to the airport 4 hours early. And that's that.

One of my most enjoyable times I have had with two of the best people on this planet.

Best Beardy Buddies a guy could want to travel with. 

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Sunday, 31 August 2014

Myanmar - Just WOW! Part 1

With the prospect of starting my Post-Grad and the looming knee operation coming, my plan to head back to the UK was scuppered. My buddy Max mentioned he wanted to go to Burma. Well now, cheap flight there through Bangkok and the seed had been sown. Decision made Burma here we come.

First up research....Myanmar has only opened it's borders to us lot for about 3-4 years. There are bits and bobs out there but really only about the general here is my contribution.

First up, there was so much bullshit on the internet about how expensive it is. We over-budgeted and for the first time in a long time I came back to Korea with money still swooshing around my bag.  Yeee-hhaww.
The Myanmar currency is called Kyat (Chat). approx 1000Ky = $1).

Here's what we did

Tourists being tourists

Day 1-3: Yangon.

Our AirAsia flight from Bangkok had us land around 5pm. A small international airport, getting through immigration was easy. We only had carry on so with our bags on our backs we head to the currency exchange at the airport. Normally you don't get a great rate at the airport, but all the research suggests this is your best bet. You get the best rate on 50-100 new, crisp bills. You gotta be careful cause banks won't take older bills, especially if they are ripped. With a mix of a fat stack of Kyats and some crisp Benjamins we head out. Well, we walk three steps to an information booth. A lovely, polite young woman, full of smiles and with a great understanding of English informs us we can get a taxi for K8000 or K9000 if we want aircon. $3 each...quids in, that's fine, let's roll.

I had expected Yangon to be a little like Bangkok. Busy streets, high buildings everywhere, the hustle and bustle you kind of expect to find in a South-Eastern major city. Nope! Driving through from the airport, with an extremely helpful, informative and polite cabbie, you really don't get a sense of that organised chaos in Bangkok. You drive through and see a real mix of old colonial Burma and the new Myanmar that is up and coming.

Not really sure what to expect, I had booked a hostel (Sleep Inn) for the first night for the three of us. Nestled in China Town on 9th Street, it's a simple place with everything you need from a hostel. At $10 a night we were more than content, and we found ourselves in a room with two bunk beds. Clean and comfortable beds with a shared bathroom just down the corridor, again our expectations were exceeded.

First things On the corner of 9th street is what you'd describe as a meet up cafe. I always say that a busy restaurant is one you should check out. Hankering for some local food (courtesy of Anthony Bourdaine's hints and tips) we order some sweet tea and mohinga. Simple tables with red plastic chairs and a small menu (written partially in English) we order. The atmosphere of the place is all go. The adolescent staff shouting orders back to the 'kitchen', who are all cooking and making tea. We don't wait long for our first sample of what will be the start of our excellent culinary adventure around Myanmar. Time to pay....there weren't any prices on the menus so we were a touch worried. K2500. K7500 total for the three of us. Errr no, K2500 total. $2.50....for three meals. Who said this place was expensive.

We spent the most of our days walking around Yangon. The weather was fairly good to us. The overcast conditions kept the furnace like sun off the back of our necks and the sporadic rain kept the temperature to comfortable walking conditions. With no motorbikes/scooters allowed in Yangon you feel more at ease crossing the streets compared with Vietnam and Thailand. You just need to avoid the big muddy puddles and the old fellas spitting out their blood red beetlenut juices. The simple grid/block system allows you to navigate easily, and meander around the city taking in all their beautiful colonial buildings. 

Sule Pagoda

There is almost a 'postcard' picture everywhere you look. We hit up markets, India Town, some pagodas and the lakes. 

The highlight is the main pagoda, Shwedagon. It's as fabulous as it looks in a picture, but you don't get the sheer size of it. You need to make sure you have shorts/pants teh at least cover your knees. Singlets are frowned upon and you have to walk around barefoot. No socks. As a sight, people recommend to go at sunset. They whack the lights on and it imposes itself on the skyline. We went during the day (due to a slight miscommunication and some bad advice regarding the circle train) and although there are other people around it didn't feel too busy. As you walk around you can see where they have set up a staggering amount of LED lights around the majority of the shrines. One would almost go so far as to say they had gone OTT. Nevertheless, it's astonishing to think how this was created so long ago in such meticulous detail. A real highlight.

If you didn't want to go round Shwedagon in the evening then I'd recommend heading to the nearby lake in the evening. K2000 to get in you (damned white tax) but you get a cracking view, and it's a nice walk too. Head a little further (and another K300) you can sit down with a beer, get some sushi if you want and wait for sunset. Await to be dazzled when the pagoda lights go on.

View of Shwedagon from the Lake.
Really worth a look in the evening.

19th Street BBQ

Now food. We spent every evening on 19th street. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. A street completely dedicated to small restaurants that bbq street food and serve beer. Simple and delicious. We certainly enjoyed a few Myanmar Beers (order draught beer...much cheaper at K600 a glass compared to the K1500 for a big bottle) and you are looking to spend about between K6000-K8000 per person. Our favourite spot was about 7 restaurants down on the left hand side opposite the Green Dragon. Excellent choices, but it doesn't really look like you can go wrong.

Mohinga....mmmm gooooood

Thank you off to Mandalay.

Day 4: Overnight bus Yangon - Mandalay

We grab a K9000 taxi to the bus station having pre-booked our VIP bus to Mandalay for K18,500. 830pm bus and about a 9 hour bus trip on what can only be described as the most amazing bus I've ever been on. Seats to rival business class and for those of you who have been on a Korean intercity bus will know how comfy these buses are....Now add in seatback tv's and comfy headphones, a snack box, water and a bus attendant. Great fun. They had the Rambo quadology (if that's a real word) on which made me chuckle.


 Day 5-6: Mandalay.

We go into Mandalay (Myanmar's second biggest city) aware of their civil unrest they have been having. Fighting between Muslims and Buddhists had meant a curfew of 10pm had been put into place. Subsequently this has been lifted.

What to do in Mandalay? Well, in Mandalay not a huge amount. There's the palace, which is nestled in the middle of the city and is surrounded by a moat. Quite impressive from the outside. After trying to get into it from two entrances and being rejected by signs saying "Foreigners not allowed to use this entrance!" we called it off for the morning cause the sun was starting to bake down on us and we were pretty knackered from the bus journey.  Apparently, us foreigners can only use one entrance. But further reading about it we decided that the K10, 000 entrance fee wasn't worth it. Chatting to people and reading reviews of the palace turned us off the idea.

A spot of lunch and time to go and explore the city. Scooters are allowed in Mandalay, so there was a little more of that hustle you get in Bnagkok, but the grid system still makes it easy to get around. We checked out some markets and attempted to head to the lake but the 40 degree heat put us off this also. I really wanted to check out the night market, but I believe the curfew put an end to this cause it wasn't there. Oops. Another delicious bite to eat and a quick stock up of some local rum, snacks and we head to the roof of the hostel. The next few hour are a touch blurry.....thanks Mandalay Rum :)

 Taxi service.

I was impressed with Mandalay Hill. At the top of this 240m hill lies a monastery and better than that some pretty spectacular views of the area. Now, you can walk up it.....those of you who know me know how I feel about stairs....but our cabbie advised us to take the shuttle up to the top and walk down. Smart fella. He also waited for us at the bottom of the hill to take us wherever we wanted. The shuttle is a pick-up that holds about 10 people and costs a mere K1000. All was going swimmingly until we here a loud bang and a violent stop that could only suggest a flat. After being blamed for it for being a fatty we have to walk the rest of the way. Fortunately we were almost at the top.

I was impressed with Mandalay Hill. At the top of this 240m hill lies a monastery and better than that some pretty spectacular views of the area. Now, you can walk up it.....those of you who know me know how I feel about stairs....but our cabbie advised us to take the shuttle up to the top and walk down. Smart fella. He also waited for us at the bottom of the hill to take us wherever we wanted. The shuttle is a pick-up that holds about 10 people and costs a mere K1000. All was going swimmingly until we here a loud bang and a violent stop that could only suggest a flat. After being blamed for it for being a fatty we have to walk the rest of the way. Fortunately we were almost at the top.

Mandalay Hill would be an epic place for some kind of horror movie. It's stunning as a place. And the main areas you go to offer breathtaking views and some real fine architecture and attention to detail. You have to pay a foreigner camera fee when you get to the main shrine with the panoramic views. K5000 I believe. For some reason no one asked me for any money so I managed to avoid this tax.

But what we discovered on our walk down was bizarre. Firstly, I would have to guess that there were thousands and thousands of stairs. So thank Buddha we didn't walk up. As you walk down there are shrines all along the way. Some are enormous....and completely empty. Some are miniature....and jam packed with people. Some look like they're in some kind of concrete warehouse packed with plastic chairs and there are some basic shrines made out of wood and look fairly rickety.  There are people splashed all along the stairs, some having a nap, some having a chat and some trying to sell you stuff. .But it always begged the question of why? why are you here? just having a chat up about 1500 stairs.  How did you get your scooter up here?

The final result is that Mandalay Hill is really worth a look. Onto Bagan though and this is what I was really looking forward to coming to Myanmar. Very excited.