A Travellerspoint blog

Return to Rangoon

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24-26 & 27-29 Nov '13
After Bagan we headed back to Yangon. A busy day spent searching for a camera repair shop culminated in a lovely final (Thai) meal with the group. Gifts of deet, washing liquid, toiletries and chocolate were gratefully received and (partly) repaid in beer.
Two days later, after a brief southern sojourn, I returned once again to Rangoon. Bad news: I was sick. Good news: the camera was happy once again. So I checked out the Chinese temple properly and caught a sunset on the Strand Road before heading once more to Bangkok.

Posted by GoonishPython 01:43 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Stupa to the left of me, stupa to the right, here I am...

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21-24 Nov '13
Bagan has around four thousand temples/stupas. Some are enormous. Some are tiny. Some are beautiful. Some are modest. Some are old and historic. Some are local shrines and are rebuilt regularly by the locals (much to UNESCOs dismay). All together they are breath-taking. Enough said. Check out the pictures (to follow shortly). Best time on the trip: exploring little temples on electric bikes.

Posted by GoonishPython 01:39 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

The Mighty Ayeyarwady

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19-21 Nov '13

Our first introduction to the famous Irrawaddy river was a morning trip to Mingun on our first day in Mandalay.

Mingun has three quite unique pagodas: 1. A stupa that should have been 150m tall, except the king died before it was finished. It is visible from quite some distance away. And what's left is only the base. 2. The world's largest uncracked bell. A number of you can stand in it quite comfortably and it's not too deafening when it's rung while you're in there. 3. A white terraced pagoda covered in waves that represent rivers and hills. Just being white makes it unusual, let alone the wavy terraces. An interesting excursion. Whilst there, the ladies were all painted with the traditional paste that both make the face white and acts as a sunscreen. This then led to a lot of comments and looks from locals. Especially bizarre when we then visited Mandalay market, and the ladies met up for an impromptu tea, which involved a mini table and mini stools appearing from nowhere for us, along with three cups of green tea, and three cups of black tea made sweet and sickly with condensed milk.

Our next encounter with this most spoken of rivers was cruising from Mandalay - Bagan. A 9-hour boat trip (on a good day), we got a good view of the local scenery, although unfortunately none of the famous dolphins appeared.

Posted by GoonishPython 04:21 Archived in Myanmar Comments (1)

The Road to Mandalay: achieving where Kipling failed

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18-21 Nov '13
The next stop was Mandalay, much famed in literature from as diverse sources as Rudyard Kipling to Nellie the Elephant (she was a much travelled elephant you see).
Mandalay is famed as the final capital of the Burmese kings, before the British took over in 1885. The last Royal Palace was burned to the ground during fighting in WWII, but it has been reconstructed recently, not totally sympathetically, with corrugated iron roofs and concrete. Despite this, the scale of the complex (the original walls are 2km long on each side) gave you a real sense of how impressive it must have looked like, something that would be greatly added to if instead of building after building of dark, empty rooms, they had filled them and decorated them with the furniture and hangings as you assume they once must have been. It wasn't even as if they were deliberately sparsely filled, as in the carefully placed pictures and one beautiful pot in a Japanese palace, but completely empty, and the lack of any real windows (presumably to keep it cooler) made it almost grim. Describing it as 'The Glass Palace' didn't really seem to fit... It was an odd mixture, with the highly ornate outsides contrasting sharply with the bare interiors.
Mandalay was not the only home of the Burmese kings - in fact it was simply the last in a succession of Royal capitals, only established in 1861, following a prophesy from Buddha, standing on Mandalay Hill, that a great city would be founded at the bottom in 1857 - a prophesy duly fulfilled by the King's decree to move the capital in 1857. We visited two of these previous capitals on our second full day in the city. Inwa (Ava) was the capital for an impressive almost four centuries, and the buildings there certainly live up to it. The area is cut off by canals and rivers, so a short boat ride is required, followed by an almost obligatory horse cart round the area. With a leaning tower, a beautiful stucco monastery and views across the Ayeyarwady, Inwa is certainly beautiful, but the real sight was Bagaya Kyaung, a monastery made of teak, that to me was far too reminiscent of a Norwegian stave church (apart from the novice monks having lessons and playing with a toy car). More off the beaten-track was a lovely little ruined temple that had open views across the fields. A couple of particularly insistent vendors followed us whenever they could, but frankly 2 million kyat just wasn't a realistic price for one of the girls to offer for me (I must be worth more?). We finished the day by returning to Amarapura, home to possibly Myanmar's most iconic sight (certainly the most photographed, and currently adorning the front of my Lonely Planet) - U Bein's bridge - at 1.2km, the longest teak bridge in the world. Despite the sun yet again setting obstinately behind clouds, even with the flocks of tourists, it was still a most impressive sight.
Sunset the night before had materialised behind clouds again, this time from the temple at the top of Mandalay Hill. From here, you get a real sense of the size of the city, and amazing views of mountains and rivers. Temples are rather a feature of anywhere in Myanmar. Mandalay threw up a few interesting ones, namely the Kuthodaw Paya, with 729 slabs retelling a famous story, Shwenandaw Kyaung, the only surviving part of the original palace, but most notably the Mahamuni Paya, whose Buddha is covered in 15cm of gold leaf and has a collection of bronze Khmer statues from Angkor Wat that people rub for luck or to get rid of an affliction (it worked for my headache). Interestingly for us, we arrived just when lots of children were processing into the temple in dressed in traditional beautiful clothes. These children, some as young as 4 or 5, were lining up to join the monks or nuns as novices for around 2 weeks. This is a particularly important part of society - pretty much all boys are expected to spend some time as a novice - and the parents were all there dressed smartly and very proud.
On our final night in Mandalay, a few of us cemented our status as Burmese travellers; after all, you haven't been to Mandalay if you haven't seen the Moustache Brothers. This troupe of comedians are so controversial to the government that the only way they can perform is by exploiting a loophole to perform in their own house, not in Burmese and only for donations. Their leader, Par Par Lay, and his cousin, Lu Zaw, were locked up and sentenced to six years hard labour after a performance at Aung San Suu Kyi's house in Yangon. A cause celeb, the Moustache Brothers are famous the world over as an example of the repressive ideological apparatuses corrupt governments excerpt over their people in a misguided attempt to control their minds. Sadly, Par Par Lay passed away two months or so before we got to Myanmar, but his cousin, and his brother, Lu Maw, with help from the family troupe, continue to perform, as they did when two of them were in prison. Considering the nature of some of their satirical jokes, you can see why a corrupt and strict government have done, and continue to, crack down on them. Despite this, the show was utterly stolen by Lu Maw's granddaughter on one of her first outings joining the family show - only 4 or so, she bravely kept up with her grandmother, great aunt and the other dancers, with her grandad unable to stop himself beaming with pride in his role as hi-fi controller just off-stage.

Posted by GoonishPython 03:34 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Burma in a nutshell

Highland tribes, Buddhas a-plenty and a full-moon fireworks festival in a British hill station (complete with giant lobster) Kalaw 16-18 Nov '13

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Heading on a local train up into the mountains gave us a different view of Myanmar today - the locals walking up the train track because its a shortcut, the railway staff jumping off the train at a precarious looking bridge, as if the weight of a few extra people is what would cause it to fall, passing through plantations and fields of flowers, before we disembarked to head to Minmathi, where you pass through damp caves (including some wading) filled with Buddhas.

Arriving in Kalaw, you could immediately see why the British liked it so much - it nestles into the lush, green hills and it is significantly cooler - so much so that our guide, used to almost stifling Yangon, is soon sporting a jumper.

Continuing our exploration of Buddhas and pagodas, we see a bamboo Buddha, swathed, as always, in gold leaf, but still recognisable in shape, unlike the four in the big temple on Inle Lake - now just snowman-shaped blobs. It is considered a good deed to venerate a Buddha or a stupa by placing gold leaf on them, and it seems very popular, although women are not even allowed in the immediate vicinity, let alone to add gold themselves, and must ask male friends/relatives to place gold for them. It seems strange to western eyes not to allow women to venerate something themselves, but it is repeated in lots of shrines, where women are not allowed in certain areas and the dress code seems more strict for them than men.

Diving into Kalaw market is a real assault to the senses - alternating dark and light, walking through tiny passages between stalls stacked high with flip-flops or toiletries or with amazingly appealing fresh fruit and vegetables, and smelling the meat and fish quarter before you round a corner and see multiple chickens being cut-up with a machete. A real difference to Yangon, which seemed far too civilised in comparison.

The market is close to what has quickly become my favourite pagoda - while all are pretty blinged up - covered in gold, carvings and mirrors - this takes the biscuit, covered from top-to-toe in gold and silver glass mosaics, meaning it doesn't just shine, it glitters from every angle.

Attempting to view sunset, which resolutely hides behind clouds (something to be oft repeated), a few of us instead have a conversation with a monk, who we discover used to work in a shop at the railway, and has a friend who studied physics in Aberdeen and who's abiding memory is of being fed potatoes in a multitude of forms. I think we could say the same about rice. We discover the next day is something of a celebration, where new robes are donated to the monks, and on heading down, we discover the locals preparing their own celebrations: a giant lobster full of fireworks is being put-together on the roadside.

A lovely dinner follows where we discover zyat byat byat -  minced meat with tomato and shan basil - much recommended if you can ever find it.

Kalaw is now known as the trekking capital in Myanmar, and we oblige with a relaxing hike up to a Palaung tribal village, where the ladies insist on dressing up the girls in traditional outfits - Sian's hat complete with pompoms and tassle, and me swathed in a wedding headdress (pictures to follow). The scenery is breath-taking and makes the trek down more of an amble than a hike.

After an afternoon relaxing on the veranda (a very British colonial moment), we spend the evening caught up in the full-moon festival, where the locals are really letting their hair down. The November full-moon festival, marking the beginning of the cold season, is celebrated in this area with masses of fireworks. Each area prepares a frame of fireworks which is paraded through the streets - first come the children and ladies in beautiful brightly coloured clothes, clutching matching paper lanterns, then come the men with the firework tube, some sort of lit-up sculpture - normally religious, and a group of musicians. While the women and children are rather refined, the men are drunkenly dancing and singing, including one gentleman who had appeared to have lost his trousers. Once at a big field the firework competition begins - each area parading and then setting up its frame in turn, with the monks providing a little much needed order. Each frame is formed of different layers that set off each other in turn - but most of what we see is immense clouds of smoke and fireworks shooting in all directions - exciting, but definitely better to be far enough away. We stay until the lobster has made an appearance, and it even gets a round of applause.

Posted by GoonishPython 23:41 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Waterworld: boating on Inle Lake

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13-16 Nov '13

Inle Lake is pretty much the only accessible part of Shan state, where the mountains hide rebels, drug dealers and warlords. We arrived at Heho airport (a name that I think is apt to cause spontaneous singing) and headed to Nyaungshwe, where we tried some traditional Myanmar food. Myanmar curry is very mild (at least to my Birmingham trained taste buds) but came with lots of tiny side dishes to add to it. The minute dried fish were (needless to say) unappetising, but the spicy unripe mango was delicious. We were also given a suspiciously purple potato and sesame dish - slightly sweet but mostly bland - and lumps of yummy jaggery (palm sugar).

The next day was mostly spent on the lake itself - visiting local craftspeople and seeing the lake disappear among floating gardens and villages on stilts. Although stunning, I have never felt so much like a tourist - everywhere was full of tour groups and it felt like we were being shepherded from one selling opportunity to another - even the local fishermen, known for their distinctive one legged rowing style and conical nets, know when the tourists get to the lake entrance and were clustered there, posing for photos and expecting tips in return. They weren't so much in evidence later on...

That said, highlights were the stunning scenery and Nga Phe Khaung - the jumping cat monastery where the cats are no longer allowed to jump. The cats seem to have it sorted now, lounging in the shade while people fuss over them, but you have to wonder what was so bad about them jumping through hoops that it was banned? Especially since you expect no cat would jump if it doesn't want to.
Indein was the next days stop - where we caught the market that rotates round the lake on a 5-day cycle - and got a mini-preview of Bagan, with 1000 or so stupas clustered on a hillside, these from C.17/18.

On a free afternoon, us 3 ladies opted to try a traditional Burmese massage - in the side room of a local house, we were repeatedly pummelled, pulled and stood on. An interesting experience to say the least.

Posted by GoonishPython 08:30 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Two tales of one city: temples, pink elephants & green worms

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My first experience of Yangon markets was busy but not too noisy - in fact, Bogyoke Aung San (or Scott) Market reminded me most of all of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul - purpose built permanent stalls in neatly tiled buildings and the surrounding streets. I was particularly taken with the paper umbrellas, but I also got my first view of an Asian speciality...
We didn't partake, and instead headed on downtown to the bustling Indian area - very similar to Chinatown with its tiny streets crowded with precarious looking buildings and open gutters crossing the pavement - and settled on an excellent biryani, that to me at least, was a big reminder of home. Two of us also indulged in a local delicacy - falada - essentially milkshake with ice cream and rose syrup (normal so far) but also green jelly worms, pink jelly balls and a piece of cake floating on top - tasty, but definitely an oddity.
Having already seen a church, a mosque and an Indian style temple, next stop was Sule Paya, a 2000 year old temple forming the centre of a roundabout, and a further wander to Kheng Hock Keong, a brightly coloured and ornately decorated Chinese temple.
The next day saw the temple introductions rise to a new level: Shwedagon Paya, a symbol of Burmese identity for 2500 years, with a zedi currently 98m tall, covered in 53 metric tonnes of gold leaf, 2000 precious stones and 5000+ diamonds. Here, I was introduced to the animal for the day of the week I was born, so I duly washed the tigers accompanying Buddha at the Monday corners. A further walk through colonial Yangon was followed by an enormous reclining Buddha, and a brief stop to see the white elephants so entwined in Myanmar culture. Unfortunately the bull had recently had a fatal misunderstanding with his mahout, so we were presented with two docile female elephants that were actually a dusky shade of pink.
To me, Yangon was full of contrasts - split between old and new, busy and quiet, dirty and clean, ugly and beautiful, backpacker and tour group, but none mutually exclusive. The old town was beautiful in its own way, while the clean modern hotel area was comfortable but a little soulless - reflected also in the food, that was bland and touristy in a restaurant near the hotel, but vibrant and spicy downtown.

Posted by GoonishPython 04:55 Archived in Myanmar Comments (2)

New friends

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The approach to Yangon (Rangoon) airport is a curious sight. As you swoop down lower you can see the rice paddies and straight angled lines of irrigation spread out in stark contrast to the sinuous curves of rivers crossing the plains. Hillocks catch the sun and resolve into glowing golden stupas rising out of the landscape. Almost skimming the top of flooded rice paddies, you touch down and come into sight of a quite pretty looking airport. Not so big, with what looks like a little old hall with huge windows and gold decoration, nestling side by side with a more modern looking extension. For the main airport into a country it is surprisingly small inside.
Completely unexpectedly, when I head out at 6pm it's almost dark. Yangon appears in a stream of lights and madly honking motorists, including my taxi driver, who seems to have an anger problem with everyone driving. Apparently it's very easy to get a licence here and the sudden affordability of cars means the roads are packed with traffic and mildly dangerous drivers.
Arriving at my hostel, I am quickly subsumed into a group fancying dinner, so we headed off to 19th Street, at the recommendation of a French journalist living on and off in Burma. 19th Street is the home of various purveyors of grilled goods, so a few of us blithely select a number of skewers that are then barbecued and delivered to us in a local bar, where I have ordered rice and a soft lime drink. The skewers confusingly arrive in two batches - I've selected spiced tofu and asparagus. The tofu, arriving first, is very spicy (the sort to destroy any taste but hot), and kind of dry - not a great introduction to Myanmar's food. The.asparagus is much tastier, and doesn't seem to have the strange, slightly repulsive smell that seems to exude from either the food, the cooking method, or the open drains that are a regular feature of Yangon's pavements.
We continue the evening with interruptions from various mosquitos (including the suicidal beast flying into a face covered with repellent) and for the first time, I come face-to-face (ish) with a rat in a bar. Something I am assured is not going to be the first time. And the rat is certain to be bigger next time too.

Posted by GoonishPython 09:08 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Enter country number 1...

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12:00 Bangkok
Arrived in Bangkok to 30 °C heat at 9.45 in the morning. This does not bode well. First impressions? Grey. Lots of grey concrete under a grey sky, at least until you see the sun shining and there's a hint of blue up high. I don't think I've been somewhere before where I can visibly see pollution.

Posted by GoonishPython 17:53 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Up, up and away

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So here I am waiting in the airport for my first flight. I can't imagine why anyone would like airports. First of all I'm always exhausted from a combination of bad sleep/starting early/coach travel/running round madly to find those last bits. Then you sit around. For hours. To pass the time you attempt to wander round shops. But airport shops are not for the common person (how many people do you know who can afford Gucci even when its duty-free?). Then your flight is delayed. And everyone is in the same boat. Everyone is tired and fed-up and bored and knowing they face many hours cooped up in an, admittedly streamlined, metal box in the sky. What a way to start a trip.
Grump over. The good news: my bag only weighs 12kg. Result. It seems the ridiculous baggage allowance in PNG will not foil me!

Posted by GoonishPython 17:52 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Three weeks and two days to go...suggestions welcomed

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So the hostel is booked in Hong Kong. I have a start and end to my trip, just 4 months in between to fill in...

Current plan is:
11-29 Nov: Burma
29 Nov-1 Dec: Bangkok
1-15 Dec: Cambodia & Laos
15-17 Dec: Bangkok
17-28 Dec: Vietnam
28-30 Dec: travelling
30 Dec-7 Jan: Thai islands
7-22 Jan: Malaysia & Singapore
23 Jan-10 Feb: Indonesia
11-18 Feb: Kimbe, New Britain, Papua New Guinea
18-22 Feb: Kavieng, New Ireland, Papua New Guinea
22 Feb-1 Mar: Melbourne, Australia
1-2 Mar: Hong Kong

Any suggestions?

Posted by GoonishPython 04:50 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

Visas visas visas

overcast 13 °C

So today I was awoken by my passport coming back with this, and I was in buoyant mood:

Well I'm heading here at least...

Well I'm heading here at least...

So, merrily I preceded to package up my precious passport for its next journey to London, only to discover that I now need more bits of paper to visit Myanmar. They like to make it tricky don't they?

At least I know I'm going to Vietnam...

Posted by GoonishPython 05:39 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

So in November I disappear off for four months...

rain 14 °C

During my travels I will wander across this bridge, through here, and recuperate somewhere like these bays…

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I will hopefully see some of these flamboyant characters in Indochina and Papua New Guines…and if I’m extra lucky, these slightly more elusive beasts in Sumatra…

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I will get immensely fat eating street food and dim sum, but will definitely be avoiding these eight-legged beasties…

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And of course in-between seeing lots of beautiful and interesting things…

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I will remember to enjoy myself with snorkelling, a little partying, and catching up with good friends. Here's to four months away (and a bit more sunshine than today)

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Posted by GoonishPython 13:34 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

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