Burma

Observations on Myanmar.

In theory, I shouldn’t like Burma. It made me ill, at least twice; it’s full of stray dogs and skinny horses; the internet connection is like the one I had at home in 1999, which at the time was amazing but we’d moan about now in England. All the reasons I didn’t like Indonesia exist in Burma. I think there’re two differences this time though.

  1. I was prepared. I knew it’d be a bit grubby, I knew the internet would be rubbish and I knew travel would be slow and on terrible roads.
  2. The people are lovely. The local people gave up their seats for me countless times on buses, the hotel and restaurant staff went above and beyond the call of duty so many times and if people want to help you, they’re not after money!

Burma is a really interesting place to visit, and after the indecision to come or not, I’m glad I did. Here are a few things I’ve noticed;

  • The lack of internet access and blocking of Facebook, Hotmail, YouTube etc is overhyped. I was never once denied access to any of the above, although I couldn’t load the BBC or any reliable news websites. I think the government is changing, albeit slowly. The speed is sometimes annoying though. The only place I had problems getting on the internet was Bagan – which was only when there were power cuts.
  • Incidently, Bagan is the only place I’ve had power cuts – also slightly overhyped – most hotels have generators. The only thing is sometimes the air-con doesn’t run off the generator, presumably because it sucks the power.
  • Skype is always loaded on the computers and often advertised on the banners outside the internet cafes…but it rarely works and when it does, it’s only really good enough for audio only. Mandalay is the only place I got it working.
  • Betel nut, Betel nut, Betel nut. You’re walking down the street in Burma, someone walks past and smiles baring their horrible, red teeth. You look down in disgust and are met with a sea of red blobs of spit on the pavement (or more often than not, sand) below. Eww. It’s the betel nut stuff that the locals mix with tobacco, paste into a leaf with lime juice, wrap up and chew. When the flavour is gone and they’ve spat out enough phlegm to choke a small child, they pop a new one in. They can get through loads in one day. Personally, I think it’s a disgusting thing, worse than smoking. I would rather breathe in someone’s dirty cigarette smoke than walk through someone’s red betel phlegm.  But hey, who am I to judge.
  • Through The Wire. Telephones are expensive business in Burma. Mobile phones cost hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds to own and foreign SIM cards are blocked. I was surprised I saw as many mobile phones as I did to be honest. What I was more surprised by was how many of these I saw;

There are so many people who make their living from having an old landline phone or two wired up to the line from the street side! It’s amazing.

  • All That Glitters Ain’t Gold. Let me give you a bit of background knowledge first; in 2005, the government changed the capital of the country to a random town with no real historic relevance because their astrologer told them to. Wow. So they neglected poor, old Yangon and headed north with plans for a swanky new capital. On my first of many night buses, we skirted the “new” capital. It’s weird. Loads of big, new-build, empty hotels, glowing, empty shopping malls and vast, empty, smooth tarmacked roads…
  • Speaking of buses…if you get a bus in Burma, which is the only form of transport not controlled by the government so it’s recommended; your driver will honk his horn at anything. And it’s a bloody annoying horn. Really loud and honky. And he doesn’t care if it’s 3am and you’re sleep deprived. It doesn’t appear the other passengers care either because no one bats an eyelid.
  • Pure, honest kindness. I’ve already gushed over how lovely the people are here – here’s another example. In Bagan, we got horse carts. The next day, I was walking back to my hotel and I’m met with a “Remember me?!” It was our driver! After a quick catch up (didn’t take long, it hadn’t even been 24 hours) he offered me a free ride back to my hotel. When we pulled up and I gave him a dollar, he genuinely didn’t want it. I made him take it. For that I think I’m probably the mean one.
  • Despite a bizarre political history, Burma is changing. I’m glad I visited when I did. One of my fondest memories is sitting in my hotel reception in Bagan watching BBC News with the hoteliers and giving them a thumbs up at the political prisoners being released. Since returning home and seeing Myanmar all over the news, I’ve taken a real interest in how well things are going at the moment for the country and can’t wait to see what happens next.

If you come to Burma, which I’d recommend, you need to be prepared to begin or end bus journeys at unsociable hours, sit for longer than you’d want in an internet café and possibly have to go to the doctors! Above all, however, you need to be prepared to be welcomed with open arms, to chat with your new found Burmese friends and to make some long lasting memories.

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Two Nights in a Hospital, One Night in an Airport.

On returning to Bangkok from Burma, I wanted nothing more than Skype, iron tablets and rest. I was so weak however that the very thought of an hours journey on two trains with a huge walk in between and a backpack on my back was very unappealing. I headed for the airport hotel to discover the cheapest room was 160GBP. I may have been ill but I knew this was too much for one hotel room for one person for one night. So I walked all the way back and rolled straight into a taxi to roll me straight to the same hostel as before – the speedy wi-fi being a big draw after Burma’s ridiculous internet.

After 2 hours of Skype to keep me sane however, I needed out to get something to make me feel better so I headed downstairs and asked the man for the nearest hospital to go and see a doctor. I wanted him to take some blood, tell me what’s wrong, give me some pills and send me on my way. After much mmming and ahhing about the nearest hospital, the hotel man took me to a taxi.

When I arrived at the hospital, I pointed at words in the phrasebook (about 8 out of 10 on the symptoms list) and waited my turn. The nurse took my blood pressure and then took me to the “Emergency Room”. At this point, I’d like to mention I’ve never been to hospital. Well, 3 times. When I was born, obviously, and once to pick someone up and once to visit someone, but never for my own health, so I didn’t really have a clue what to expect.

I do have a basic knowledge of the rules of hospitals, however. At least I thought I did. Mobile phones, are they allowed in an “Emergency Room”? Food, drink? The TV was on for the nurses, is this normal? A man was having some stitches put in his foot, a proper little operation, curtains wide open, no privacy. Is this how it is in England?! Is this how Emergency Rooms are?!

After a dizzy wait, I saw the doctor, who thankfully spoke English. Once I’d explained my story, he said he wanted to take a blood sample. I had this sat in my chair and it wasn’t long before I must have turned pale because I was offered a bed. After a long cold wait in said bed, I was told that the doctor wanted to admit me for the night, x-ray me and take further tests. Not one to want to argue with a doctor, I reluctantly agreed and was put into a wheelchair and taken to be x-rayed. Another first! And second, and third. He had to do it a few times.

Finally, starving, thirsty and slightly dazed, I was taken up to a bed. “Maybe this will be a bit more private than the “Emergency Room”” I though. No. Even closer beds, no air-con, privacy curtains all wide open. Again, maybe this is all normal, I don’t know. Everyone around me looked like they were on death’s door, all non-moving, wired up to respirators with pipes up their noses and drips in their arms. It wasn’t long before a very nice lady doctor came over and I had to tell her all about my poo. She was very beautiful. I bet her poo smells of roses. If she even does poo. So it was embarrassing to have to give her graphic detail of mine. She said she didn’t know what was wrong, that it could be anything, cancer, but I’m very young so probably not, a tropical disease, like malaria, she didn’t know. But she’d said the words cancer and malaria. Not great words to hear on your own in a hospital bed in a foreign country surrounded by pipes and drips. I cried a little bit, not helped by the fact that none of the nurses seemed to understand what I wanted when I pointed at the Thai for “food” in my phrasebook.

Thankfully, some visiting relatives of a very ill looking woman across from me spoke English and were kind enough to go to the 7/11 across the road and get me some food. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so alone. People are nice.

At this point I got a phone call from my boyfriend, which helped in the perking me up stage I was now going through. When I finished I was moved rooms! A woman in a smaller room cornered off by glass had seen me on the phone and spoke a little English so they moved me closer to her. And this room was air conditioned, and there were no respirators or pipes or drips! In fact, I was now the only one with a drip. Which was horrible, I don’t like needles so having one stuck in my hand all night wasn’t great fun.

Despite having a needle in my hand and my translator being sat watching TV ‘til the wee hours, I slept very well. Until I was woken for pills and two more blood samples. The morning was less stressful than it could have been. When I rang the hotel the night before to ask if they could bring my stuff to the hospital, the man wasn’t very helpful.

“And how am I supposed to do that?”

“Well…I don’t know, get a taxi? I’ll pay when you get here.”

“Well we can keep your stuff here until you are finished.”

“But the doctor said it could be a week! I need my stuff!”

“Ok..well..I can’t do anything tonight. Tomorrow? Maybe 1 o’clock.?”

“Yes, that’s fine. 1 o’clock tomorrow? It’ll be here?”

“Yes, yes.”

I had to ring him the next day at 3 to remind him. Thankfully, he eventually delivered my stuff just in time to keep me sane.

It was a mind numbing experience being in that hospital. I left less than 12 hours ago from writing this and it feels like a distant memory. It’s kind of hazy, a bit of a blur. A dull, repetitive blur. So I won’t bore you with the details that at the time were momentous to me but now are minimal.

The important thing to know is that consequently, I’ve decided to come home. If you’re sat reading this thinking “Oh my God, how stupid” then shut up. Unless you’ve been alone on the other side of the world, starving in a foreign hospital where you can’t speak the language and you don’t know what’s wrong then your opinion on my decision doesn’t matter to me. It is lonely, miserable and not fun. I’ve already learnt from Bali that this experience is not going to be all fun and games and happy, smiley photographs, but to be ill on and off up and down for 2 weeks and then to have to spend two nights in hospital really is enough to send me home. The thought of getting ill again in Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam, where the healthcare is not quite like Thailand is just not worth the risk for me. I’ve decided to go home and rest and return in December to Hong Kong, which is when my boyfriend has his ticket to “come and meet me”, now to come out with me!

I’m not claiming this was an easy decision. I’m just claiming I don’t want any criticism for it. If there is one thing I have learnt above anything else over the past few months, it is that there is no right and wrong when it comes to travel.

If Little Bobby Joe has been travelling since he was 23 and never looked back then who’s to stop the 45 year old? If Jimmy wants to come to Thailand and go to a full moon party and get utterly out of his face because he’s just turned 18 and discovered alcohol, then good for him, I hope he has a blast. If Mary wants to go to spend six months in Belize and watch X Factor while she’s there, then so be it. If I want to come home for 6 weeks and rest in one place where I know I’ll always have a hot shower and healthy, safe food then good for me. You can sit and criticise my decision but I don’t care. There’s no right and wrong way to travel, just your way. And this is my way.

Addition 19/10/11: I’m home now, in the comfort of my room and feeling much better. A little sleep deprived but almost fully recovered from the illness and hospital. It feels good to be back.

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Burmese Days – Part Four

Bagan – Sand Paintings and Sandy Feet.

Day nine.

Day nine began with a seven hour bus journey on the worst road I’ve seen in this country. I didn’t feel great before I got on the bus. I couldn’t stomach breakfast. I was sick at the first stop. I wanted to come home. I arrived here. I went to two guesthouses. Hassled by taxi  and horse cart drivers all the way. I wanted to come home. I got lucky with the third guesthouse. I slept from 3.30 to 5.30. I woke up. I felt a little better. But really, I still wanted to come home.

Day ten.

Exactly what I needed after yesterday. I’d agreed with a British guy I met on the bus, who from now on we shall call Chris for ease, to meet at 8 and if I was feeling better share a horse cart for the day – half the cost. After a solid twelve hour sleep from 5.30pm ‘til 5.30am I felt ready to take on the world! After a brilliant breakfast, I set off to meet Chris at the bus station.

There were two American girls on the bus too, who from now on we shall call Brihanna and Rebecca, and it turned out they were staying in the room next to Chris, so we decided to get two horses and spend the day as four.

After spending just three days in Thailand a week ago, I’m still pretty templed out. You get the big ones like Borobudur in Indonesia and Wat Pho in Bangkok but once you’ve seen one mediocre temple, you’ve seen them all. Think about it, you may go and see Salisbury Cathedral, or Canterbury Cathedral on a little day trip but would you really cruise Northamptonshire for a tour of it’s village churches?

The individual temples of Bagan are just mediocre temples. Like I said, seen one, seen ‘em all. But once you climb to the top and look out, the collective view is amazing. Why you would need to build so many temples in one place is still beyond me but it makes for a good view.

I am undecided as to what I saw more of today; temples, coin collectors or sand painters…. Every big temple you go to is surrounded by stalls and people who will follow you up and inside for the chance of selling you their wares. At the beginning of the day, it’s plain annoying, by lunchtime you play the game, and by sunset it’s back to plain annoying. Our horse cart driver even found us a fab place to watch the sunset, not a tour bus in sight, not even a lone bicycle. But guess what? A family waded through the puddles and up the dark stairwell to try and sell us their lacquer ware.

Then there’s a different breed of temple-hanger-around-ers; the money collectors. I’d discovered early on that my trick of answering “Where you from?” with “No English, sorry, parlo italiano” was redundant in Bagan when a woman replied with “Buongiorno, molto bello!” This discovery was reiterated later on when I saw some Burmese kids babbling away in Spanish to a Spanish tour group! So I was trying a new tactic, picking an obscure European country they definitely wouldn’t have heard of. I’d already used Andorra, now it was Liechtenstein’s turn.

“Where you come from?” asked a little boy towards the end of the day.

“Liechtenstein.”

“I know your country. Very nice.”

“You know it?!” Damn. “Where is it?”

“I don’t know. Do you have money from your country?”

“No, I’m in Myanmar. I only have Myanmar money. I leave my Liechtenstein money in Liechtenstein.”

This is one of many examples of this conversation.

Another conversation I had a lot today;

“Hello, where you come from?”

“Andorra/Liechtenstein/England (if I liked them and was prepared for another Manchester United themed conversation)”

“Very nice country. You want to look at my sand paintings?”

“I’ve already bought two, sorry!” This was true, I had, and they came in very handy to wave at the seller at this point in the conversation.

“But one more? It is different design.”

“I’m sure it is, but I already have two!”

“But three is the lucky number!”

“I know but I have no more money. Sorry!”

These people don’t give up easily.

Despite the persistent pestering and seeing more 45 Kyat notes than horse carts and more copies of George Orwell’s Burmese Days than Waterstones’ British stock, it was a very good day, one of the best so far. I met three lovely people (Chris, Brihanna and Rebecca, not the sand painters) and it really was exactly what I needed after yesterday.

Day eleven.

I’m writing this during a second evening of power outages. Thankfully my laptop was fully charged so I’m sat here before dinner with my headlamp on typing away! But without air con. Can’t have it all I guess! I’ve decided Burma is a country they should send ungrateful school kids on a trip.

Anyway, I was going to start with an apology for 13 pages worth of reading material for you. I’m sorry. And it’s not over yet!

So without further ado, here’s a brief description of my day: I relaxed, watched some Karl Pilkington clips on my iPod, and even had breakfast at NINE! Well late for Burma. I read some Stephen Fry, I set out to meet Chris and possibly the American girls for lunch. I ate a ridiculously small amount of my noodles and then we hired bikes for the afternoon. Sadly the American girls couldn’t join us because they had to get their bus to Yangon, to arrive at 4am, to fly to India at 8am!

So in a nutshell, we got bikes, saw some temples, saw some postcard sellers, saw some money collectors, had some sugar cane juice….that was pretty much it!

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Burmese Days – Part Three

Mandalay – The Road To Mandalay

I will now tell you some interesting tales of the road to Mandalay….

  1. A woman dropped her baby. By that, I don’t mean she gave birth, I mean she dropped her already living, breathing, screaming baby. There was a thud, I turn around, and a woman is picking her (quite rightfully) screaming child up off of the floor. I didn’t know whether to laugh or tut. I chose to laugh, a lot, and on the inside.
  2. They played bad music videos with lyrics running across the bottom of the screen – nothing new there – but one of them was HILARIOUS. There was a man, I assume sad and depressed and in love as they always are in these videos, and then he laid eyes on a woman, I assume his girlfriend, in a wheelchair. He looked really sad, as if she’d had an accident and then he pushed her and there was a close up of his hands on the chair and everything as if he was having to swallow some serious pride to push that chair. Again, I didn’t know whether to laugh or tut. Again, I chose to laugh, on the inside.
  3. Around 1.30am, after hours of bumpy riding in the rain with people being sick all around me, we stopped. I hot footed it out to pee and hot footed it back to the bus so as not to miss it. Only, it turns out we were going nowhere fast. We had a puncture. What do you do when you have a puncture on a tyre that big? It’s not like you can carry a spare, surely? Do they not have an AA equivalent in Burma? (By AA I mean the car related acronym, I don’t think Alcoholics Anonymous would have been much help. Besides, they’re probably all drowning their sorrows at 1.30am.) We sat for 2 hours and 45 minutes. As painful as it sounds, it was actually a bonus 2 hours and 45 minutes sleep on solid ground with no one being sick around me – oh no, I’m sorry I retract that last bit, one woman was still puking up a weeks’ worth of dinner. If you’re that ill, get off the bus and get some fresh air while you can! Crazy.

Day seven.

I arrived, gladly, nice and early and made my way to the hotel. I settled down, had a shower and headed out for breakfast – but the hotel has no maps! So I had no idea where to go, which meant after 2 banana pancakes and seeing Daniel and Sarit from Yangon again, I had to head back to carry the Lonely Planet around with me all day. So I got my backpack, which means sweaty back. So I hired a bike, if I’m gonna get a sweaty back, I may as well make it worth it.

I am by no means of the definition an urban cyclist. I suck at riding a bike with cars, motorbikes and lorries all around me. It even takes a bit of courage to ride on the road on my tiny, quiet, 20mph estate. So to get a bike in a city like Mandalay was quite brave of me! Luckily, there appears to be no rules of the road here – there are definitely no traffic lights at 90% of the crossroads – so I fit in just fine!

I set out for some food and ended up in the midst of a market. A lovely woman offered me some sweet, sickly lemon thing, which I tried and was then met by a homeless woman with a big bag on her head and her little son. The lemon lady told me to go and that the woman was crazy, but I wanted dinner across the street! So I pulled up my bike, put on the padlock and sat down for some 50p laksa. All the time the woman with the bag on her head was watching me. I was beginning to feel sorry for her, but knew I wouldn’t cave. Eventually she pulled out some bread and had a nibble and left! If she has food, what was she after from me?! I’m not gonna buy her a house!

In the evening, I went out for dinner with Daniel and Sarit and we ended up at the chapatti stand recommended in the Lonely Planet. It was really good food, and just like last time we ate together, we got a table full of the stuff! I need to find Daniel and Sarit more often!

Day eight.

Today has been nice. After an easy (but sweaty) morning meandering around the market, which was rubbish, I headed to the post office to buy some post cards from the vendors I’d seen yesterday. I counted on my fingers how many I’d need – eight – and she said they were 100 Kyat each (10p, so 80p all together – bargain!). Then she said she’d give me 10 for 800! Woo!

So I settled down to a lovely papaya juice a few blocks away and spent an hour writing them all out. Speaking of blocks, I’m useless with them. Blocks, grid systems. Can’t cope. Give me windy little country lanes any day.

I decided to set out for a slow lunch, and I found a little side street café selling noodles. I hovered over, not literally, and said hello and asked how much it was in Burmese. The older woman was unphased by this and answered back in Burmese with the price. The younger one, however, looked shocked and amazed that I was speaking Burmese! When I nodded in agreement with the price and went to sit down, her face was a picture.

The following conversation took place in Burmese, but I’ve put it in English so it means something to you!

She said, “Three hundred?”

I nodded, “Yeah, three hundred!”

She laughed in amazement.

I said, “One, two, three!”

She laughed some more, even more amazement!

I spent the next hour or so chatting away in Burmese with the three ladies (the third was a customer). For that I whipped out the phrasebook!

Then guess what? I saw Daniel and Sarit walk past!! What are the chances?! They came over, sat down, had them some noodles and then we agreed to meet again for dinner tonight. I’ve seen three people twice so far but never two people thrice! Incredible!

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Burmese Days – Part Two

Inle Lake – Flooding and throwing up.

Day four

Day four technically began in the same situation as day three ended – on a bus!

By the time I got to a hotel it was 7.30am, and I’d decided that sleep was a waste of time, despite being tired, so I asked the man for details on the area. I was considering hiring a bike in the rain when an Australian popped his head round the door asking if I wanted to join him and a Danish girl on a boat trip – the more people, the cheaper the trip. Not sure how much wet cycling I could handle, I opted for the boat not the bike.

This turned out to be an excellent decision. Our guide was wonderful – she took us to all the different craft workshops but with no hard sell, took us to the market and even bought us each a betel leaf tobacco thing, which if you know me at all you won’t be surprised to hear I declined. We went to a silverware workshop, floating market, hand weaving workshop, pottery village, a monastery where they’ve taught the cats to jump, and her home village for lunch – all on a motor longboat!

Later that evening as I waded down the street through the flood water that had risen during the day, my concentration was interrupted by a familiar sounding “hello madam!”. It was our guide from the day!

“Where do you go? For food?”

“Yeah, I was going to try the market? I can get good food there?”

“Yes but I think because of the rain it will have closed already.”

“Oh no!”

“But if you want, you can have dinner at my house. Only fried chicken or fried fish and rice but if you want?”

“Ooo, yes! How much?”

“800 kyat.”

After a thoroughly filling meal and meeting at least half of her 24 grand children, I paid up with a 1000. I’ve been informed that the extra 200 will go towards university fees for two of the girls, which I’m quite happy with. I’m doing my bit!

Day five

7.19am. I have diarrhea. I woke up at 2am feeling not so great, so I headed to the bathroom and was sick in the bin and sick in the toilet at the same time. If you get me. I think my water purification tablets could be redundant in this country – I looked at my “purified” water and there was loads of black sediment in the bottom of the bottle. So despite wanting to spend the day with my guide from yesterday checking out the festival and climbing some hill she was telling me about, looks like it’ll be a trip to the shop for fresh water and a day in bed within close proximity to the bathroom. Thank God for the ensuite.

9.08am. I decided that I should probably head down for some breakfast. The more I wasn’t sat or lying down, the more wobbly and sick I began to feel. By the time I made it down to the kitchen, I’m sure I must have been positively pely waly. The man was very nice and got me some fresh water, insisted I ate some boiled rice porridge/gruel and sent his son to get a bike taxi to take me to the doctor.

The water level is even higher than last night. The man peddled his way through calf deep water, avoiding people and other bikes. Just about. When we got to the doctors, he made me lay down and took my blood pressure with an old school pump and stethoscope before putting the stethoscope to my stomach before determining that yes, I do in fact have diarrhea and vomiting.  He then consulted his nurse and returned to me with more pills than a 90’s rave. 4 different packets of HUGE pills. I hate pills.

“Take one, one, one, one now. Then one, one, one, one in 2 hours. Then one, one, one, one tonight. Then tomorrow, the same. One, one, one, one morning, afternoon and night.”

WHAAAT?!

11.10am. Just had to swallow three huge pills with plain water. Gross. I finished my last Ovaltine carton with my first set of three so just have water left. Urgh. I can still taste them.

I’ve discovered the joys of Acer GameZone free trials. Back to World Of Goo…

3.44pm. The family here are lovely, they brought me more rice gruel for lunch and they’re gonna make me dinner! I’ve almost used all of my free demos on Acer Game Zone, killed an uncountable number of little bugs and read a lot of Stephen Fry. Back to Farm Frenzy: Ice Age…

7.16pm. If you are ever with a computer without connection to the internet and you’ve finished all your free game demos then go to Accessories and click Ease Of Access and click Microsoft Narrator – potential minutes of fun!

Day six

Another day has been mostly spent in my room at Inle Lake. At breakfast, the man told me we’d have to leave at 2 to get the bus to Mandalay at 4.30 because we’d have to go the long way round because the road is flooded to the junction where the bus stop is. Fair enough, won’t rush, I thought. Slow morning packing, checking internet, buying bus food and then having some lunch and that should see me ‘til 2 nicely, which it did.

1.30, I head down and he says “oh, I forgot to tell you, the road is ok now, we can leave at 4.”

So basically, I could have got a bike or done something today! To be honest, biking with diarrhea isn’t a favourite hobby of mine so it’s probably best I did stay in.

After hanging around playing Spider Solitaire for another two hours, I set off downstairs to try again. Off we trot at 3.45 to the pick up spot to take me to the bus junction. We arrive, about 4 o’clock, and I hop on. The driver tells me it’s a 45 minute ride. My bus ticket says 4.30. I show him. He offers to take me on a motorbike for an extra 1500 Kyat. I say I can’t go on a motorbike with my huge bag. So with angry tears in my eyes and the other passengers thinking I’m mental, we set off, potentially to spend the night at a T-junction.

We arrive at the junction just after 4.30 and there are no big buses in sight. I show my ticket to the bus travel desk lady, she says it’ll be between 6 and 7. And I eventually got on a bus to Mandalay between 6 and 7 – with the same ticket. Whether or not it was my original bus I’ll never know.

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Burmese Days – Part One

This is two weeks worth of blogging. I’ve tried to make it as short as possible and break it up to save your eyesight and sanity! Here goes…

Yangon – The Neglected Capital.

Day..well, night one.

After a long flight with a very annoying American who reeeeeeally wants to go to Nepal behind me, I eventually arrived in Burma at about 6 in the evening. Immigration was a slow one as expected, but once through and ready to get my bag, I was met with a “Are you travelling alone?” and not from a local!

“Yes,” I replied.

“Would you like to share a taxi into town? I ask because I was travelling alone and I know how it can be quite expensive sometimes, but now my girlfriend has joined me. Do you know where you’re going?”

“Ooo, that would be good. Not really, I just wrote the first one in the book on the visa form! Do you?”

“We were thinking of trying this one.” Out came the Lonely Planet. It looked like a pretty good hotel so I accepted, and we even managed to barter the taxi price down from $12 to $9 so it was a right old saving! When we arrived at the hotel, I offered if they wanted to meet for dinner later.

We followed the guidance of our hotel man and found ourselves in a Burmese cuisine restaurant with buffet trays of various, ominous looking meats. I opted for the vegetables. Not wanting to be caught out before I’d begun, I checked the price before settling down, it was 500 Kyat for the veg, 500 for rice and another 500 for a lime juice. 1500 = just over a quid! Not bad.

When the food came, wow. A feast is the only way to describe it. We were given a plate of vegetables (for free), a selection of fish pastes and chillies (for free) and a bowl of soup each (for free). The table was full!

Day Two

I agreed with Daniel and Sarit to meet at half nine the following morning for breakfast, and what a breakfast it was! As far as hostel breakfast goes, you’re lucky if you get a choice of jam. Here however, you’d be hard pushed not to have a different jam each day for a week!

After that brilliant start to the day, we headed for a stroll around the city. We soon found ourselves in the midst of a market full of the biggest prawns I think I’ve ever seen, the weirdest looking vegetables I think I’ve ever seen and the most adorable little badminton players I’ve definitely ever seen! This led to Aung San Market, where you can indulge the tourist within with jade, longyis and tat to gather dust on your mantelpiece. The thing that I can’t get my head around is how these people make money when their neighbouring stall is selling exactly the same thing. I’ve been baffled ever since Bali on this one. The most confusing was four shops in a row in Kuching selling personalized rubber stamps. How much demand can there be in one city for personalized rubber stamps? Are four shops really necessary? And if so, would it not be better for the customers so they don’t have to travel so far and the shop owners so they had cornered a gap in the market if they spread themselves out a little? Just a thought.

Next stop was Sule Paya, a monument of some description in the middle of a roundabout. It cost $2 to get in and a “donation” to leave your shoes. When you’ve seen one mediocre temple, you’ve seen them all, so we gave it a miss. Not before almost having a sparrow thrust into my hand by a woman sat on the pavement with a closed basket full of the birds.

“It’s lovely but I can’t take it home! What am I going to do with it?!”

Seriously, why was she trying to sell me a bird?! That’s worse than the ones who try and sell you an oversized wooden dragon that would definitely be classed as excess baggage on Air Asia. How do they think we can get these things home?!

After a chat to decide whether or not we’d go in, I turned back around to be offered another sparrow by another girl. What’s going on here?!

“I can’t get a bird home! I travel for a long time. And my country won’t let it in!”

“No, you take and it fly away. For good luck. Please, you want. Take it.”

Now there’s a business plan – rubber stamp sellers take note – collect something from nature that will cost you nothing, cage it, sell it to a tourist to put it back where it came from. Dragon’s Den would love that one. No spending, 100% profit! Needless to say, I didn’t buy a bird.

In the afternoon, after Daniel and Sarit had left for their bus, I headed to Shwedagon Paya, which is supposedly where eight of Buddha’s hairs lay. I decided to get the bus, which was nice because someone gave up their seat for me – people are genuinely lovely here. The Paya was very impressive! A big gold stupa surrounded by uncountable individual temples. Oh – and there’s an elevator, just as Buddha would have wished.

When I got the bus back, someone gave up their seat for me again! It seemed too early to go back to my hostel so I headed back to the market for some food and found a little noodle woman, who gave me a big bowl of noodles, fried onions, chili sauce and two bowls of soup for 300 Kyat! 30p! My phrasebook came in very handy when locals gradually made their way over. I can’t help but think I did wonders for her business that night. I left just after dark, thinking my chatter with the locals had brought in the night – it hadn’t – it was only 6.15pm, but pitch black! I walked back through the market, the fish heads now stuffed with candles to illuminate their goods, and came back for some rest ready for my bus tomorrow night to Inle Lake.

Day three

Day three was spent in a supermarket getting food for a long bus journey, relaxing in my room before a long bus journey and trying to get comfy on a long bus journey. Nothing much happened of interest other than my iPod lasted well over its stated battery life and we stopped for dinner at a restaurant where all the waiters and waitresses were children, they must have been aged between 10 and 16. Is that child labour?!

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Categories: Burma, South East Asia | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Techno-obsessionado and not ashamed.

I have to be honest, I was pooing my pants a little about Bangkok. Watching The Hangover 2 a couple of weeks before arriving here wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had. I was imagining a city full of drunken eighteen year old Westerners on their “gap yaar” and hungry for some sex tourism.

Thankfully, it’s not like that! Or I’ve just managed to avoid the dodgy areas. Either way my experience of Thailand so far has been better than expected. I love the food, love the Buddhas and have even treated myself to a Southeast Asian phrasebook so have been able to have little conversations. It’s a lovely place!

Did I mention I’m leaving the country tomorrow?

I will be back, but Bangkok seems to be the best place to get a visa for Burma (or Myanmar, call it what you will) so tomorrow I’m heading to Burma! Hooray!

That may seem a controversial decision, but from reading about it since planning my trip I became rather intrigued. On top of that, everyone I’ve spoken to about Burma since I’ve been away has either been, loved it and recommended it or desperately wanted to go. Which made me desperately want to go.

I was a little torn because foreign phones are blocked and internet access (and more so speed) is potentially not up to much, which would mean potentially no communication with family, boyfriend or friends for two weeks. Thinking how lonely I got in Bali when I was away from the internet had me torn. That was five days, could I cope with two weeks?! I know that makes me sound like a real 21st century techno-obsessionado but when you’re travelling alone, I think it’s nice to have a bit of communication.

I’m hoping that the difference between Bali and Burma will be the local people. They are reputed to be amongst the friendliest in the world so hopefully I’ll never be lonely!

I’ll report back, be it tomorrow or two weeks time…!

Categories: Burma, South East Asia, Thailand | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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