Popping into Myanmar

From Chiang Mai it was time to head to the border crossing at Mae Sai and head to Keng Tung. The scenery was amazing, especially when the sun was setting. A bit of a walk and a visit to a local village where a small community lived was great but hot and sticky. The village was up a hill, so it was a good bit of exercise after so much sitting around on transport. The community have their own calendar, but don’t know how old they are – a different form of time keeping! The people were very friendly. The ladies kept on trying to sell their goods with a nice smile which sometimes revealed black teeth. This was down to many years of chewing the black betel juice from the leaves which is a local form of dental protection. The ladies also wore what looked like a white paste brushed on their faces. This was meant to be a good cosmetic, as well as prevent the harm of UV rays and is done by rubbing the bark of a Thanakha tree with water to produce a liquid. The country is fairly religious and Buddhism is the most popular religion. Some customs are also quite strict e.g. No affection to be shown in public by couples.¬†Local sticky rice – was very sweet!An internal flight from Keng Tung to Heho was fun as it was a little byplane which seemed to take off as soon as it has landed and exchanged passengers.Then travelled on to Nyaungshwe on the outskirts of Inle Lake. This massive freshwater lake houses many different businesses and lots of families. Racing around the lake and its surroundings in a little boat was incredible. There were lots of fisherman who are famous for paddling with their legs while their arms are used to manoeuvre the nets in the water. It was an impressive balancing act.‚Äč‚Äč‚Äč

‚ÄčMany businesses include making a form of paper out of tree bark and carpenters producing lovely parasols.A group of long necked women with rings around their neck were weaving scarves. The metal rings remain on their necks all the time – even when asleep. This has been a long standing tradition of the Padaung tribe on the lake and was compulsory to do so (only until 20 years ago) by order of the tribe leader. Rings get added gradually from quite a young age, and women can have around 35 rings in total. According to a legend, this was done because a tribe leader had a dream that a tiger would have attacked his baby daughter by the neck, so the rings were added for protection. Back on the boat and it was a visit to Inlay Shewe Inn Tain Pagoda. This was a complex full of a mixture of stupas, both old and new and the site is around 1000 years old. In the main temple, there is a separate place for women to pray, and they cannot enter the most sacred part. This is because women can distract men from their concentrated prayer. On the way, I tried some little spring onion dumplings from a street vendor which were very tasty. Another business on the lake is making silver jewellery. The silver was mined in the mountains nearby, but has to be separated from the other metals in the rock. This was done by using a very high heat which makes the other components evaporate leaving the silver. Then it is combined with a tiny amount of copper for strength, as the silver can be quite soft.A visit to the Phaung daw Oo Pagoda showed five original old Buddha statues. It is said that bad luck has happened if they are removed from the sacred place. Again, women are not allowed to enter the central section. Weavers make a lot of different types of clothes using thread which has been taken from the stem of the lotus plant. These are quite thin, so they are combined together and dried out to start weaving. I got some Thanakha on my face at this point and hoped it would add to my suncream protection on my face.

Cigar and cigarette making are also a popular produce. They were made using bamboo leaves and sticky rice was the glue. There were many different flavours that could be mixed with the tobacco including star anise. Going from place to place, there are a lot of floating gardens on the lake where are a lot of crops are grown including tomatoes which are a local delicacy in this part of Myanmar. I tried a fish ‘curry’ with a tomato sauce and it was amazing.The last place to visit was the jumping cat monastery where there are a lot of old artefacts….and cats. They were trained to jump over certain things by a monk, but he had died, so they stayed at the monastery. I explored a bit of the backpacker town which had an interesting market. There were lots of local goods.A cycle into parts of the countryside in the rain was great, although being completely drenched wasn’t so great. Lots of lovely farms were seen including a cashew nut and chilli plantation. Getting the bike over a rickety bridge was a test as the bike could have easily fallen through the gaps of the rickety bendy wooden boards that made up the bridge. I sampled some amazing coffee which was sweet and a tea leaf salad which was mixed with garlic and nuts. Then sampled some Burmese wine at a local vineyard. Not sure I’d try the wine again but it was good to give it a go!An overnight bus to Bagan was windy and bumpy. But the arrival was just in time to see the sunset over the 2000 pagodas and temples that pop out from the grass over a huge area. It was amazingly peaceful and quiet, and I really appreciated the lack of tourism at this point. I hate to think that in about 10 years, there will be a McDonalds or a Starbucks popping up too. There was one large hotel complex, but you could tell that it had tried to blend into the surroundings. This complex is stunning, but is not officially recognised by UNESCO due to clashes with the government over building construction in the area, so relies heavily on donations from locals and tourists to support the upkeep of the temples. The temples were mostly funded by the royalty of the time when they were built – 11th/12th century. Food (e.g. Rice) is offered for certain special occasions, as well as supplying the local monastery for the homeless. Donations are also offered to ensure certain things in the next life e.g. Water is for peace, flowers for beauty.


One of the temples was Manuha which housed some very large buddhas, one of which was a sleeping one. It is one of the oldest temples (built in 1067) and is named after the King who sponsored the construction.Gabyauk Gyi is another amazing temple which is covered in old murals inside. These included images of the Buddha, white elephants (which are an important symbol) and hermits. It was built in 1113 and has its number (out of approx 2000) inscribed on the outside – it is Number 1323. Dahammayan Gyi was also visited and this is the biggest temple which was built in 1163. Ananda temple is the largest and one of the most famous temples; built in 1105.There are two original massive Buddhas inside where the face changes depending on the distance you keep from the statue. Up close, it looks angry, while far away, it smiles. This is to distinguish the status of the worshippers. Wandering around some of these temples can make you believe you’re in a maze. Then went to Shwezigon Pagoda which is meant to house a relic of Buddha’s rib. It was an amazing pagoda and built in 1090. It was stunning and was actually covered in bamboo rugs while the gold leaf is being preserved and restored.¬†Visiting the local area was also good. A trip to Toddy Palm workshop where coconut juice is made from the fruit of the trees, and brewed into a beer was interesting. The coconut syrup is also combined with different flavours including ginger to make confectionery. There were lots of gourds hanging around which I almost walked into on many occasions. Peanuts are also farmed and collected and crushed to produce oil.¬†Mount Popa is an extinct volcano in the region and I went to the top which included climbing 777 steps and trying to ward off the cheeky monkeys who try and take your belongings – just like the ones in China. The views were great from the top. There is a temple at the base (and a temple at the top) to nat spirits, each of whom is responsible for a different aspect of life. You pay your respects to the one who you want to bless you in that particular aspect.¬†I then visited a lacquerware producer who explained the process of lacquering bamboo to craft lots of different things including bowls, cups etc. Laquer is made from bamboo sap which has been oxidised. Lots of patterns are etched by hand – it can take 6 months to make just one cup. Then got taken to Min Nan Thu Village and was shown round. I was surprised how clean it was. A sunset from a high point was spectacular. One night was on a temple and another was from a high tower where you had a great view over the land.Next, onto Mandalay: this visit included temples and a sunset at the top of Mandalay Hill.One of the sites to see was Kuthodaw Pagoda which is massive and is surrounded by lots of white structures each containing a marble slab – there are 729 in total – which depict Buddhist teachings. The U Bein Teak bridge was also a highlight which was used to connect the old capital city to where the royal palace used to be. It is 1.2km in length and the oldest wooden bridge in the world, although parts have been restored for obvious reasons, as it was a it wobbly! Then a visit to Mahagandhayon monastery to see the 1000 monks and apprentice monks (young children wearing white robes instead of red) queuing to eat their main meal of the day as food is not consumed after 12pm.2 further temples were also visited on Frock hill before an overnight bus to Yangon, the former capital.On arrival into Yangon after another night bus, it was a lot cooler as the rain has been heavy. A quick walk after a shower (both rain and actual) to see Sule Pagoda and some of the old colonial architecture was good, apart from the heavy rain starting again. Some of the nice buildings looked a little bit run down.

Shwedagon Pagoda was amazing and very big. It is the oldest in the city, and possibly in Myanmar and houses a couple of relics. It looked great lit up at night.I learnt that my Myanmar Buddhism zodiac sign is a dragon because i was born on a Saturday. Around the temples there are individual Buddhas with the corresponding animal for each day as they each mean something different. You are meant to bless the Buddha and the animal statue that belongs to your birth day a certain amount of times with water. ¬†I also walked past the building where Aung San and his colleagues were assassinated. It’s a lovely building, and only open to the public once a year on the anniversary of his death. That is one thing that surprised me when I was in the country – I heard no mention of any politics. I never heard ‘The Lady’ referred to. It’s still a delicate situation, and I guess it’s similar to Cambodia where politics is a taboo and cannot be spoken about in public too much. Visiting the Scott Market was nice – the old building houses a large collection of jewellery and wood work. Speaking to some students studying English in a monastery was enlightening. They were so keen to learn and talk to improve their language skills so that they could have more career options e.g. Becoming a teacher or a translator. Sometimes, I thought they were the ones teaching me English!¬†You see a lot of men wear the traditional clothing called a longi. This is a long piece of material which is wrapped around the waist and almost looks like a long skirt. There are ones also for women which are a bit more colourful. Chit (my tour guide) wore one occasionally, especially in the temples. On my last night, the whole group was invited to his house for a home cooked meal with his family which was so humbling.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful country full of lovely people and peace – what a great two weeks!

Next stop: Thailand

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Laos: a country of beauty in a week

A four hour flight took me from Hanoi to Vientiane. You are explicitly informed on entering the country that possession or consumption of drugs carried the death penalty.

Having only approximately half a day to explore the country’s capital, it was a quick trip to a few places. This included a massive Buddha park where you could climb inside a structure to the top of it and get a good view of the park – these included several steep steps and narrow crevices which were quite tricky to get up and down. This was built in 1958. Then a trip to Pha That Luang which is the national symbol of Laos. Built in the 16th century, it is a grand stupa covered in 500kg of gold and probably contains the ashes of a very rich family. Then went to Patuxay Victory gate which is a gate with great panoramic views from the top. It reminded me of the Arc de Triomphe and took 10 years to construct using funds from the US government as they had initially planned to build a runway there. The last stop was a temple called Hor Pha Keo which used to house the Emerald Buddha that I saw in Bangkok for 200 years until 1779.¬†Then a journey to Vang Vieng which was amazing – the scenery is stunning. It’s very luscious and green with lots of mountains. But it was another drive through torrential rain. Apparently 75% of Laos is mountainous. After arriving in the town, it was time to wander down to the river where there was a good view and a good bar for a sundowner. The town was nice to walk around – there were lots of small businesses. The next day was a day of fun – I went tubing inside a cave where the current was quite strong, then a 5km kayak down the river – I hadn’t kayaked since I was a child but it was good fun and the weather was nice for it. A blue lagoon finished the day and I jumped from the highest branch which was terrifying! I’ve never been great with heights so it was a real challenge, especially with no ‘Health and Safety’ protocol. It was fun though, even with getting water up my nose! A nice evening out and a bit of a boogie was good to finish the day off. Heading out the next day for 8 hours along winding roads was a bit tricky, but at least it was great to look out of the window at the gorgeous views. Arrived at Luang Prabang and explored this lovely town. There was an extensive night market with a little street full of street vendors. Wandering around the town with the French architecture and French bakeries was quaint. I managed to find some great French baguette which cheered me up a heck of a lot! It only occurred to me here how extensive the French colonialism was and how much of Indochina was dominated. I visited the Grand Palace and a couple of temples as well as getting up a few steps to Mount Phousi which had a fantastic view at the top.¬†Up bright and early to witness the local women giving Alms to the monks. This was mainly rice, and was expected to last them for the day ahead. This was quite a humbling experience as this shows you a glimpse into their lives. This sect of Buddhism allows young boys to become a monk if they wish, and this doesn’t have to be a lifelong commitment. They could partake in the way of life for a year only. I did see a monk smoking a cigarette though. The next leg of the journey was two full days along (approximately 20 hours) the Mekong river to get to the Thailand border at Bokeo. It was a lovely slow boat and a stopover for the night was at a local village half way at Pak Nguen. The people were very welcoming and the kids were friendly and playful. Sleeping with a mosquito net, basic bedding and no electricity gives you some perspective – something that I’m all too familiar with. Bed time at last light was done to ensure an early start for farming. The villagers all live until they are around 100 and it was easy to see why – the way of life was hard work, but happy, healthy and relaxed. The scenery along the Mekong was amazing. Little villages and large fields line the mountains along the way with parked boats popping out of the water. The different shades of green and variation in forestry make it look like a carpet or a quilt. Speed boats fly past occasionally disrupting the peace. Fishermen catching food from we also a regular sight. Crossed the border by foot back into Thailand at Chiang Khong and witnessed an almighty storm that evening whilst staying in the town. The black sky frequently lit up, and the wind was so strong that lots of lights wobbled and torrential rain pelted against the buildings for what seemed like ages.¬†Laos has been a country of peaceful beauty. Only having a week to see some of the country has made me appreciate the scenery more. Would definitely like to return – this ‘return to places’ list is growing…..

Cambodia: Siem Reap, Phnom Penn, Sihanoukville

Another early start and a bus journey to the Bangkok/Cambodia border at Krong Poi Pet was next. Walking through the border was a bit unnerving – you could easily get stopped and questioned if you looked a little suspicious. I did find it a bit odd that it is still referred to as “The Kingdom of Cambodia” even though the King has no power, and is often detained his Palace in Phnom Penn.IMG_7171After another long coach journey, I arrived at Siem Reap late afternoon after having been on the road since 06:30. Exhausted and hot, it was time to get out and about. Taking a tuk tuk around was easy enough (even with a beer to go). I walked up to the night market in the evening and had another fish pedicure.¬†‚ÄčThen it was off to Angkor temple complex! A 4:30am start was necessary to get to see the sunrise. Although, I did oversleep a little and woke up when I was meant to be leaving. But the early start wasn’t regretted! It was a great sight. It was also a lot cooler in the morning and there weren’t too many people in the temple, as some would only come for the sunrise and then go again. Angkor Wat is the biggest temple and is originally a Hindu temple, but now used for Buddhist worship. It was built in the Khmer Empire and was only discovered about 150 years ago by a French nature explorer.¬†IMG_7200IMG_7227IMG_7232IMG_7237IMG_7277Visited Ta Prohm which was where Tomb Raider was filmed (although I have never seen it), and Bayon where there are a lot of Buddha faces are in the structure. Ta Prohm was a great symbol of how nature can overpower man made structures as well as working together with them – trees were growing out of the tops of the roof of certain buildings and the roots had grown down the stone bricks. This was due to the weather being rainy and sunny – moss had grown on the stones and this was a perfect breeding ground for when seeds fell from trees up above. The three temples visited are only a small part of the massive Angkor city.¬†IMG_7311IMG_7328IMG_7364IMG_7375After returning to the town and having a Khmer massage, it was time to head into the rice fields for a bit of fun on a quad bike. The paddies went on for ever – the colour of them was as if they’d been painted. It was a completely different green. Travelling on the dusty roads with busy traffic was a bit mad – lots of tuk tucks zooming in and out of small spaces and mopeds with at least 3 people on them, possibly with groceries too. The main source of money comes from agriculture, as well as tourism – you are surrounded by fields and cattle.¬†IMG_7175IMG_7183IMG_7387IMG_7391IMG_7394IMG_7398Then it was out to Pub Street and the YOLO bar. I have to confess that I felt my age a little bit, although I did dabble in a bit of fluorescent face paint to try and blend in. I think it worked? I do keep getting looks of surprise when people know my age – they think I’m a lot younger. After a few strong caipirinhas ($3 each!) and a “squat off” (don’t ask), I felt it was time to go home. Woke up the next morning with a slight headache and it was an 8 hr bus ride to Phnom Penn. Stopped off at a local market in Skuon and spotted a lot of edible creepy crawlies. I did eat a spider which had been cooked in garlic – it was quite crispy. IMG_7443IMG_7446IMG_7445Phnom Penn, the capital of Cambodia, is quite a bit city. I was staying fairly centrally, near to the Royal Palace. Here for two days to explore. The Choeung Ek killing fields are symbolic of the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge. It’s hard to comprehend the grand scale of the atrocities until you enter the memorial and see the amount of skulls upon skulls. I was taken around by a guy who was born during the period of the Civil War, and he never knew his father as he had been taken away. It was very moving to hear a personal story. The suffering of the people is still evident. Pol Pot is responsible for the deaths of up to three million people, most of who died in one of the killing fields, so many families in Cambodia have their own story to tell.¬†IMG_7456IMG_7459IMG_7460IMG_7468IMG_7469Visiting the S-21 prison was a real shock. It affected me more than I thought it would. Seeing the actual rooms where important prisoners were tortured, and most died, was horrible – there were still blood stains on the floor and ceiling. These were kept mostly in the same condition as they were found when the city was liberated in 1977, but the prison was only discovered in 1979. There were a lot of photos of both prisoners and their captors, who were mostly young boys who were forced to do horrific things to people in order to save their own skin. 14,000 people were have thought to have been held here, but only 7 survived. The Khmer Rouge kept the photos as records. I was fortunate to meet one of the last survivors – Chum Mey – who is in his late 80s. The positivity of this man is overwhelming. He didn’t stop smiling and was grateful for people coming to visit. He described how he was tortured and that he now has no hearing in one ear because of it.¬†IMG_7479IMG_7480IMG_7487IMG_7492I visited the Royal Palace which was very extensive and highly decorated, and the King was there, as there were certain parts of the Palace that were not able to be visited, as he is basically under house arrest. The country is fairly corrupt – you can’t talk about politics in public, the same political party has been in power since the Khmer Rouge, and it is meant to be a ‘democracy’. IMG_7494IMG_7500Then onto Sihanoukville where the torrential rain did not stop for two days. This town on the coast is meant to have lovely beaches, but the weather did not do it justice. Did a bit of a trek through the Ream National Park, where I walked through a little fishing village to Thma Thom beach – this would have been idyllic if the rain had stopped. Nevertheless, the scenery was still appreciated. Then off to see the Kbal Chhay Waterfalls and have some lunch. The water was so powerful!IMG_7525IMG_7535IMG_7558IMG_7559IMG_7570IMG_7573

Next stop: Vietnam!