Mingalaba from Myanmar or as they say in Burmese မြန်မာစကား မြန်မာစာ (Imagine writing a thesis like that!)
I left Kathmandu after spending 6 days of re-cooperation eating on a daily basis £1 pound fried breakfasts and about half a dozen cakes from the many bakeries on offer in the Thamel district of the city. I also spent time with some awesome peeps so big up to Kutu, Sara, Stefano, George, Tomas, Julian, Natalie and everyone else from Alobar1000! The flight to Kuala Lumpur started with a riot at check-in, as with most Asian countries it seems the Nepalese haven't discovered the fine English invention that one calls a queue. I was the only person queing and everyone was pushing in front of me, I lost my patience and ordered each queue jumper to the back to get in line. After checking in, right behind me was a perfect orderly queue of 6 people! The flight was late, unfortunately the Nepalese (bless em) don't realise that a plane is unlike a bus in that you have to be on time. They were still casually strolling on an hour after we should have left. In fairness to many of them there were a few first time flyers as when we descended their ears popped and they had no idea what was happening. The guy in front of me even going as far as hitting his ears with the palm of his hand and sticking his finger in to try and unblock it.
in Kuala Lumpur I experienced my first smooth road in 10 weeks and stepped off the bus still being able to feel my arse. You know you're back in the developed world when you don't have to carry loo roll with you and you're allowed to flush toilet paper down the pan. My dorm mate for the first night couldn't get any more cliche. His name was Igor from Russia and he was a computer programmer - straight out of a James Bond movie. He had blonde hair and a sinister set of eyes behind his glasses that said "i'm quite happy to put anthrax in your coffee". In the morning I would be eating breakfast on the balcony while he throws darts at the dart board like he's pitching at the World Series. When I asked him what he does in Russia he responded "I live"... you can't write this sort of stuff!
Christmas was spent at Ringos Foyer in Melaka, a quaint little town two hours from Kuala Lumpur. Big thanks to the host, Howard, for being such a legend and big up to the gang, you know who you are! We had a cracking time cycling to Tescos (yes, you read that right) every day buying a shit load of food and booze and making a humongous bbq which we enjoyed on the rooftop. I was introduced to a German drinking game called Flunkeball. Two teams of three at opposite ends take turns to throw a ball (or lime!) at a bottle placed in the middle. If it gets knocked over the opposing team have to run and pick it up while the throwing team drink their beer as quickly as possible and can't stop until the bottle is upright. The winner is the first team to finish their beer. THE best drinking game ever, in fact if its ok with you mum I would like to start a sunday league in your garden?
Howard let off a few fireworks on christmas eve and I saw the tail end of an Angolan woman in hysterics joking about how she thought she was back at home when she heard the exploding fireworks. I thought, for someone who has grown up with violence all around them what a great sense of humour! We were later informed that she did actually think she was under attack and ran to take cover under the table!
Next stop was Myanmar (ex Burma) which I looked forward to partly as I didn't know what to expect and surely this would be the one country in the world where that annoying Gagnam twat won't be plauging the airwaves? Myanmar is changing rapidly, in fact my Lonely Planet was printed earlier this year and most of the information is now obselete. For example, earlier this year they introduced the first readily available mobile phone network. Prior to this, having a phone was a serious status symbol as they cost in excess of £1600. Coca cola has only just been introduced this year, occassionally you get blank looks when you ask for it at restaurants.
A big issue facing travellers to Myanmar is currency. Firstly, few people know that the first ATM to accept foreign cards opened in November but as its the only one in the country you cannot rely on it. We found this ATM and we and some other forigners were surrounding it as if we had never used one before! Secondly, you cannot purchase the local currency (the Myanmar Kyat) outside of the country so you need to take in US dollars and not just any USD, perfectly crisp notes and preferably in 100 dollar bills. I had never even seen a 100 dollar bill let alone obtained enough mint copies to last a whole month of travelling.
Touchdown in Yangon (ex Rangoon) mother nature calls and I have my first taste of Myanmar hospitality. A nice young chap welcomes me in to the toilet and directs me to a urinal - nice touch Myanmar, think i'm going to like you. I changed half of my USD at the airport and was presented with 346 1000kyat notes which I had to count! Arrival at the hotel the three staff behind the counter leap to attention and before I know it I have a welcome glass of......orange squash in my hand???? Cottonbuds in the room! Ohhhh Myanmar.... The next morning when I come down for breakfast the 2 girls behind the counter spring up once again and greet me with their hands placed together as in prayer and raised upwards towards their face. It was all a little embarassing and they did it again when purchasing a bottle of water so I just had to say "at ease ladies"
Walking around Yangon you notice the pavements or lack of pavements - its far safer to walk on the roads as the sidewalks look like an earthquake has struck with the odd hole for drunks to fall into. In fact the sidewalks seem to be used for everything but walking so they are full of bikes, street stalls selling food or anything else so long as it stops you from getting to your destination safely. The shops are arranged in clusters so rather than have a certain type of shop spread all over the city they seem to be grouped in the same street, for example there was a whole street dedicated to opticians, then another for water pumps and another just for video and film production. I have yet to find the street dedicated to cakes.... My friend and I found a small bar or as they call them, beer drinking stations (cool or what!) We had a couple of beers for around 35p and whats that I can hear?.....behind me on the table was a small kid dancing away in front of the TV screen which was blaring out Gagnam, no one is safe from this evil Korean man.
People here are unbeleivably friendly. They come up to you because they want to talk to you, not because they want anything from you. In fact its the other way round, people want to give you something, be it a thank you for visiting my country or a small gesture of offering you a biscuit (is there any wonder I love these people?). One lady gave me discount at a shop as I didn't have the right change and just yesterday at the Hot Springs a Myanmar family came over and gave a couple of us a hard boiled egg, a mandarin and a can of coke to enjoy while we scolded ourselves in the pool.
Taking a local train was a chance to see Yangon from the rails. The carriage must have been from the second world war, it had wooden floorboards with cracks so you could see the rails and the train moved painfully along the rails at running pace. Half way through the journey we pull into a station and chaos ensues as a dozen farmers drag all their produce onto the train, within 2 minutes we are surrounded by vegetables! Oh and someone was playing Gangam on their phone.
From Yangon I took the night bus to Kalaw. The Burmese are very proud of the new Burmese highway between Yangon and Mandalay but unfortunately its a steam roller short of being a great stretch of tarmac. For the entire night journey I was tortured to some dreadful acting from Myanmar movies. Every now and then a bump would pause the DVD, relief would set in as I think they're turning it off, then the torture resumes as the road smooths. If this wasn't enough to contend with, the air conditioning was full blast so everyone was in winter gear making it look like a bus to Verbier. Not once did the driver turn the aircon down or did anyone think of telling the driver that their nipples had turned to stone. The guy next to me changed his seat so that a medical student could sit next to me and practice his English, lucky me... thankfully I was saved from 12 hours of small talk as his English wasn't so good so I could rest in peace until a lady brought her cat on board screeching away inside a black plastic bag! Poor buggar....
From Kalaw I made a 3 day 2 night trek across the hills to Inle Lake sampling local fruits, passing through tea and chili plantations and small tribal villages. The children would run out and greet us by giving out flowers they had picked. Again, nothing is asked for in return, they are just happy to see you. The two girls I was trekking with brought some bubble mixtures and it was adorable seeing the kids reaction to the bubbles. Our first night was spent in a small village and I managed to get lost at night trying to find the village shop so I asked an elderly lady where I might find it. Unfortunately she couldn't speak any English. Whenever I said "shop" she just repeated what I had said and laughed as if I was there to give an impromptu English lesson. I then rattled off a list of beverages to see if she would click, she didn't and just repeated "coca-cola" "sprite" "water" followed by howling laughter. You really had to be there....
There has been a language barrier. I agreed a price with a motorcycle taxi to take me to a small village near Mandalay called Mingun. There was also a boat to Mingun which had stopped running for the day so I made it painfully clear to the driver that I wanted him to drive me to Mingun. "We go to Mingun" I said, miming us driving along complete with a brum-brum noise to represent the bike. I continued "Mingun boat? NO! NO BOAT!" again using body language to say the boat was not an option. He replies "Ok, we go Mingun" we set off and we appear to be heading toards the boat so once again I say "no boat" which he repeats back to me. So we end up at the boat. I sincerely hope the 1000 kyats I paid will be put towards an English lesson.
Anyway back to the trekking, the nearest village to ours was around 2km away and they were in the middle of a 3 day celebration of a family members wedding. The music is continually broadcast over a loudspeaker for the 3 days with a few hours break in the early hours of the morning. Come 10pm they rigged up the TV to the PA and we went to bed listening to what sounded like Bugs Bunny translated into Burmese which sounds very very funny, again you really had to be there....
The second night, also New years eve, was spent in a Buddhist monastery inhabited by half a dozen boy monks, their chief monk who was on his last legs and some thug catapulting rocks at pigeons. Despite it being a monastery somehow beer became readily available... beer and opium! By 9pm a few people had got quite drunk and messed up on opium. Two Australians (sorry Ozzies, you don't come out too well in this!) were inside the monastery being abusive towards each other and the light..... the light which no-one knew how to turn off! Seriously, there is nothing more pathetic than aiming all your hatred towards a bulb! Outside, one of them threatened to smash a bottle in the other persons face then in the early hours of the morning came the sound of retching from outside. All of this took place in a deeply religous monastery, in a foreign country, 30 other people were trying to sleep along with 6 small monks and an old man who was just about to can it. It was disgusting and i'm pretty hard to offend. We were woken at 5AM by the monks who were kneeling in front of a Buddha shrine chanting away. All very surreal and amusing when mixed with the chanting was the sound of snoring and the occassional fart!
Because of the recent soar in demand for hotel rooms getting a booking or even a room has been a nightmare. The only hotels you are aware of at a destination are the hotels listed in Lonely Planet and because everyone is in the same predicament all these hotels are being booked up well in advance. There are no online facilities for booking hotels as most of them don't have websites and some aren't even mentioned in a Google search. On two occasions I have turned up in towns at 4am with no hotel room booked and had to wake up staff in 5 or 6 places to see if they had room. Luckily in Kalaw the hotel was full save for one bed which was booked in a twin room by some German guy who was happy to have someone share the cost of the room. In Mandalay the bus arrived at 3:30am and I had to walk the dark empty streets by myself. It wasn't long before touts turned up determined to take me to a hotel where they would earn commission. The tout who picked me up actually ran out of hotels to take me too as they were all booked then thanks to another traveller I found somewhere to stay otherwise it would have been a night on the streets! This wouldn't have been a problem, Myanmar has received bad press because certain regions in the north are dangerous due to border conflicts but I can honestly say this is the safest country I have ever been to. Everywhere you see the sign "warmly welcome and take care of tourists" and its true. I think a lot of this is down to intimidation from the government who severely punish their people if they mistreat a tourist, tourism being a huge industry which they want to encourage. Maybe things will change when democracy comes in.... A Burmese lady we were speaking to was talking about the recently freed political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi. Before she said anything she paused and took a quick uneasy look around the room as the government used to plant spies in public places to listen in on people's conversations. Anyone spreading ill will towards the government would be arrested. Things have now changed, I hope so anyway as I checked the spelling of Aung San Suu Kyi in Google so if this blog doesn't get updated you know why!
Anyway enough of my ramblings. For those of you who haven't heard I will make my epic to the rock once again on 16th March so look forward to seeing you all in a few months.