Greetings trend setters and losers!
So, I'm now back in Yangon after a 2 hour train ride from a small town called Bago. Today I learned that you can get travel sick from being on a train. I'm not surprised it was so bumpy, in some places the gaps between the rails was in excess of 2 inches. The rails must also be warped as the train was swaying from side to side, I've never been on a train quite like it and I'm sure at some point we got some air!
Since my last blog I stayed in Mandalay for a few extra days, perhaps a bit too long as I even had my own local beer station, the waiters becoming accustomed to my evening beer and journal writing. Who doesn't have a hard time turning down draught beer for 40p?! When in a restaurant or a beer station in order to get the waiters attention you make a kissing sound with your lips. Its a little embarrassing at first especially when they don't hear you and its made all the more difficult when you don't know who the waiter is - all Asians look the same! I'm not sure why its such an effective way of getting people's attention but then again if you make a kissing sound to anyone in the street its sure to get someone's attention. Of course you have a completely different reaction depending on where you are in the world, here you get a beer, at home you get a smack in the mouth. I was curious what music my waiter was listening to in his earphones as he was wearing a Def Leppard t-shirt. Yep you guessed it, Gagnam. As I've learned, the Burmese wear all sorts of band t-shirts but have no clue when you ask them about the band. This is re-assuring as it explains the Nazi t-shirts and the motorcycle helmet I saw which had a swastika and the Nazi coat of arms emblazoned on the front!
From Mandalay I made several trips to the surrounding villages and towns. I took a Hi-Lux pickup truck to the town of Pyoo Oo Lwin which is about 5 hours drive from Mandalay. It should have taken 2 hours but our driver stopped every 5 minutes for betel nuts. Betel nuts are seeds from a plant which are wrapped inside a betel leaf and sealed with lime paste. When chewed, aside from giving the chewer a high they produce a blood red liquid which you see being spat out everywhere leaving the pavements stained red. When you chew too many betel nuts it stains the teeth so a lot of Burmese males look as if they've been in a punch up down the local beer station. Anyway, back to Pyoo Oo Lwin, not a whole lot going on in this town, the most notable event was some kid who came up to me and started talking about Manchester United. He then said I looked like Wayne Rooney... f**k my life. This isn't the first time someone has mentioned Wayne Rooney to me, the Burmese love their football and idolise Wayne Rooney. I met a monk, the most moral of all human beings and he loved Wayne Rooney. He should read the tabloids....In fact whenever Burmese people hear where i'm from the first words to come out of their mouth are "Manchester United" which of course is the worst thing to say to me because I hate football. If its not football they say "Gagnam Style" which is the second worst thing to say to me, I don't even look Korean!
The next trip was to a small town called Saigang and its hills carpeted with golden stupas which are used by Buddhists as a place of meditation. Each stupa contains a Buddhist relic or the ashes of the deceased. Transport to Saigang was a pickup truck filled with around 25 people (!) including a class of school girls and their teachers who were all delighted to see a foreigner with whom they could practice their English. They asked the standard "what is your name" to which I responded then asked each of them in turn their names to which they shyly replied. There was a lot of giggling then a few of them would confer with each other and their teachers for the next question. Sheepishly one would ask me another question before quickly hiding behind another classmate embarrassed at their English which considering they were only 7 or 8 was actually quite good. They started sharing their fruit with me and laughed hysterically when I ate it (think the pig noise probably set them off as opposed to my eating manners)
In Saigang I climbed up a few hundred steps to one of the larger Stupas which overlooked the Ayewardy river and the hills around Mandalay. This particular stupa housed 3 Buddhist monks and I was greeted by the chief who invited me inside for a Pepsi, bananas and some biscuits. I have been reading a book by the Dalai Lama and recalled what he said about Buddhists not being greedy so I proudly restrained myself around the biscuits. We sat in silence save for the sound of boats chugging along the river below before he gave me a tour around his monastery answering my questions as we walked around bare foot. I donated around £2.50 to the Monastery's cause but I was unsure whether I was too generous or whether the monk was too generous as he offloaded yet another can of Pepsi on me along with a bunch of bananas and enough biscuits to stuff in my pockets leaving me to stagger down the steps of the monastery like John Wayne.
For the entire day I saw one other foreigner and only a handful of local people so I really had this place to myself. It was one of those "moments" you search for as a traveler, having an amazing place all to yourself which sadly is not something which happens often.
I stopped for some lunch in a small village where tourists were obviously not a common sight as no one spoke English. To get food I had to gesture with my hands in a shoveling motion towards my mouth. The lady went off to the kitchen to cook up what I hoped would be a storm. She came out 2 minutes later and this is what I got served to me on a metal plate.....
The guy next to me gave my menu choice a strange look and I had to agree with him. I even went as far as to dip my bread in coffee to save face and more awkward glances from the other punters. Coffee and bread, not actually that bad.....
I took another night bus this time to Bagan which is famed for its temples. Yangon's bus station is like a small town and hundred's of buses are spread out over a large area. I spoke to no fewer than 16 locals who each directed me towards my bus which turned out to be the wrong bus. Many Asians have this odd quirk in their culture, when posed with a question it's more polite for them to give a wrong answer than it is for them to simply say "I don't know". Ironically we find this rude! The upshot of this is it's bloody annoying when you're trying to get somewhere, so when you finally make it on to Who Wants to be a Millionaire think twice before you chose your Burmese mate as a phone a friend. Bagan is an area of 20 square miles and contains over 4000 ancient monuments, pagodas, temples and monasteries. I will confess, I'm not a huge fan of temples and in most instances would rather eat my own face than look at temples all day, but Bagan is different. Firstly there are so many buildings that apart from the larger temples you get most of the sites to yourself. Secondly, hiring a bike means you can explore off the beaten track and see temples which have been left just as they were discovered. Of course, riding a bicycle with no gears is not a whole lot of fun especially in sand. I occasionally had swearing fits as I got stuck and when my tyres got punctured I unleashed a string of expletives at my bike. It was only when I had my first puncture that I realised their were bike repair men everywhere! They must do good business as my inner tube had no fewer than a dozen existing repairs and 3 more after the man had sealed up the new holes, for this he charged me 80p! The highlight of Bagan was the flat roofed temple where I sat watching the sun rise over the stupa studded skyline as six silhouetted hot air balloons flew across.
The Golden Rock is situated about 5 hours outside of Yangon. My travel buds and I took the 4 hour hike to the top, a thoroughly enjoyable hike but the rock has to be a contender for the worst attraction I have ever seen. That's 9 hours of travelling, 4 of those sweating our respective genitalia off and we were confronted with a golden egg shaped rock balancing on the edge of a small ledge. It does however have a huge religious significance for the Burmese but its failure to impress the three of us non-locals does explain the 20 or so foreigners who had signed the entrance book compared with the 5000 or so Burmese who were present. Here's the rock in all its golden glory:-
I've had some incredible food since i've been here, some of the best Indian food and even the snacks have been delicious. The crisps are fresh and crunchy, none of this dabbing the grease of them to make them more healthy in fact I can feel my left ventricle clogging up just typing this. I had goats brain curry which really wasn't that bad, it had the texture of a dumpling and a very subtle meaty taste.
The local food is an acquired taste, have you ever had a taste in your mouth which reminds you of something you have smelled? One Burmese dish tastes of cow shit, no joke! Chicken skin salad was a bit of a let down. Ever had ice cream sandwiches? White bread with ice cream spread in between. Talking of ice cream, I somehow ended up inside the Mandalay zoo thinking it was the botanical gardens. I asked for a soft scoop ice cream in a cone from a small stand so the lady shouted over to a man who came running over to start the diesel generator so fatty could have his ice cream. It took him almost 5 minutes to start the thing, then it came to life in a puff of smoke filling the air with diesel fumes while I stood there feeling quite frankly, a bit of a wally. The ice cream stand came to life as the CD player starting playing music, the ice cream came out of the machine then the generator went off followed by silence. All a bit much for some ice cream isn't it?
I fly back to Kuala Lumpur tomorrow and am sad to leave Myanmar behind, it really has been a breath of fresh air. I will admit a lot of the attractions are very similar and I really don't care if I never see another temple or stupa again. What has made Myanmar beautiful is its people, I don't think I've had one hostility with a local and every single person I've spoken to has been incredibly warm and happy to see you in their country. You almost feel bad for traveling their country on a budget as you want to give more to the people in return for their hospitality. So many times I've had to hold back spending to keep within budget but the people never rip you off so you feel a bit of a tight-wad when you chose to walk somewhere instead of using a motorcycle taxi which costs less than a pound (non-backpackers will read that in horror, backpackers will admit that's a tidy saving)
Following the plane crash in Myanmar last month you will be pleased to know that I am not flying back to Kuala Lumpur with Air Bagan. The story doing the rounds is that the pilot thought a road was the runway and unfortunately landed on some poor chap riding the weekly groceries home on his motorbike. I particularly like the slogan's for the airlines operating in Myanmar. Air Mandalay have "Safety, reliability, comfort" Myanma Airways have "safety, image, comfort" and then there's Yangon Airways "you're safe with us" ...These slogans manage to take all the romance out of flying but at least you have the assurance that you're not going to meet an untimely end in a kerosine fueled inferno.
Myanmar internet is notoriously bad, its like using an old 28.8k modem and is a great opportunity to reacquaint oneself with Solitaire! Having said that the Burmese don't half stream some porn in the internet cafes, they are so relaxed about it too, men just laying back sipping a can of coke while watching some poor girl getting stuffed....Anyway! On that note, probably best I wrap things up...
Next stop after Kuala Lumpur is the Philippines. I then have a month in China. Flying home from Singapore so that will be 16 countries in a year which I guess makes me a bit of a b*****d, right?