Sunday, 24 August 2014

Beautiful but Bewildering Burma

We chose to have two weeks in Myanmar (Burma), a few people had recommended shorter and some longer but with our time in certain countries in SE Asia being limited we wanted to make sure we fitted everything we wanted to do in but with a good amount of adventure, and for us two weeks suited nicely for the places we had chosen to visit and the attractions we wanted to see.

We flew into Burma, we had planned to go overland but needed to maximize time, we found a cheap flight with Air Asia and bit the bullet and booked a return ticket from Bangkok to Mandalay.  I wasn’t sure how I would find Mandalay, I had heard mixed reviews but felt it attracted us more than Yangon, Sam and I always have a two-three day rule in cities, we both love the coast and country so much more and always find after two days in a city were ready to move, we had 2 full days to adventure Mandalay so planned our time well with lots of walking, palace adventures and cycling. Our first day was literally just spent walking; we walked for miles and went to some extraordinary sites.  We visited a beautiful teak monk monastery which was hidden up the back streets of Mandalay, walking there we got to speak broken Burmese to a number of different locals and send a lot of smiles out there such happy humble faces. The monastery, is a really old monastery but had such a relaxed calmness surrounding it, we spent some time just sitting down under the shade of a tree, enjoying the silence and observing the day time rituals of the monks who lived around it.  From there we walked to the main pagoda in Mandalay, I should say that Mandalay is filled with stupas and pagodas all over the city, there dotted every few yards/miles and its incredible to see as you bumble around. The main pagoda we had read about held a huge Buddha inside that had been covered with so much gold leaf over the years it now was washed daily (this started at sunrise and could last until sundown). When we arrived we were both blown away by what we witnessed, the Buddha was inside a room which I believe couldn’t be accessed by civilians, and however there was a carpet which was filled with Buddhists worshipping, sitting and being present in his royalness statue. There were also video cameras on the Buddha which allowed you to see the men washing it; we read that this water is then kept by some as it’s seen as holy. We sat for some time in awe of what was happening around us and really took in the spritualness that could be felt in the space.  We then decided to head to Mandalay palace, due to Burma only just being opened up to tourism a lot of crazy rules still apply, one thing being that tourists are only allowed into Mandalay palace from one entrance, we chose to take the long walk to the entrance, sadly when we got there it was 5pm and tourists have to enter by 4.30pm, oucha, we turned our bums around and went and found somewhere to eat, sadly for me the restaurants don’t cater for vegetarians and everything has some sort of pork in it, meaning it was a plate of rice to end the day for me and a mutton curry meal for Sam.

The next day we decided to hire bikes and cycle out to a nearby village then onto the world’s longest teak bridge, we started cycling early but the heat of Burma got the better of us and we had to take shelter in a park, we ended up being there 2-3hrs before being able to finish our cycle, sadly the cycle didn’t end how we wanted and the teak was pretty disappointing. We commiserated our long day out over a chang and a coke and headed on the long road back, achy bums and tired heads we decided to go for pumpkin curry and a lassi to end what had been a tiresome long day.

Sadly the day had not ended and we took a night train to Bagan, the night train was possible my worst experience of train journeying in this whole trip and I won’t deny it but I was slightly broken by the end. The train was cheap, so what did we expect, we definitely paid for what we got and ended up slouched on smelly chairs, ducking (and probably swallowing) a mound of insects, being blinded by the strong bright strip lights (that remained on all through the night) and being face on to the stranger opposite you.  We arrived at 5am that morning and I have never been happier to get my bags and run off the train.

Our first day in Bagan was a total wipe out, we slept and recovered preparing ourselves for the wonders we wanted Bagan to bring. Bagan certainly didn’t disappoint and it is probably one of my top visits on this trip so far, it’s hard to explain the grand beauty of what Bagan holds and also is completely bonkers to think such a land exists and has only just started being fully explored by travelers. Bagan once held over 4000 Buddhist stupas and pagoda’s, a number of them are now in ruins but still standing is over 300, this small town comprising of old and new Bagan, is arid and dusty but a wealth of religious buildings spread across the town, they spread across a vast plain of land and can be accessed by foot, bike and some car. Most of the pagodas and temples left standing can be accessed by all and a lot have secret stairs in which you can climb up high and breath in the landscape all around you.

We chose two mornings and one evening to really get the full beauty of Bagan, during the day the weather was too hot to be out and about so you really had to start as early or in the late afternoon. We read a few blogs on which temples were recommended and looked in the LP at what the main temples were, we also enjoyed a few that we just came across as we cycled around. The splendor of Bagan is that every temple is magnificent to see and for me I wouldn’t have cared if I had got to see the top temples as some of the most beautiful ones we looked at where smaller ones. Sam had told me how each temple held a Buddha statue in it and in my mind I had a Russian doll sized Buddha, how wrong I was when every temple we visited had giant ones in, some being up to 30ft. The grandness of the statues blew me away and at times we just sat at the front of one in awe of this amazing creation in front of us.

The evening we chose to head out was one of pure magic, we visited some incredible stupas, climbing high and exploring these dilapidated buildings, Sam had picked a temple called North Guni to watch sunset, the temple was behind a main temple recommended and therefore we hoped wouldn’t be as touristy. We got there for around 6pm and managed 30mins alone at the top of this temple, in front of us was a mist covering the plains and peeping out the top was oodles of pointy pagodas and stunning stupas, I sat silent for some time just watching and smiling at the experience we were having and how blessed we were to be witnessing such a beautiful moment of stillness and serene peace. At that moment my heart felt so content at what we were doing and why we were on this discovery of new worlds, at that moment in front of me was this mystifying magic world that my brain couldn’t comprehend how these buildings got there and had survived so many years of destruction and change but were still giving and allowing people like us to enjoy and embrace such special experiences like watching a sunset over a plain of glory. That night we ate tea and were both filled with content, overwhelmed at the evening and what Bagan had given us. We could have stayed longer in Bagan but had a night bus to Inle Lake, we caught the bus and arrived in good time to our hotel, sadly the time was too good and we had to snooze out in the owner’s office until our room was ready the next morning at 8am.

We got our room and again snoozed off catching up on lost sleep, we had planned 2.5 days in Inle Lake so had that afternoon wandering and eating, planning the next day to take a trip onto the lake. The town you stay in is right next to Inle Lake, all the boats go from Nyaungshwe driving up the river onto the lake, you mostly have 5hrs out on the lake, doing touristy trail stuff, visiting certain points, factories, seeing certain village lake life’s, as much as I enjoy this I also find it quite cringe as I always feel it would be so weird if tourists paid to watch me at work. For me the beauty of Inle Lake was just being in the boat and observes life on the lake and the rolling hills surrounding the lake. Sam and I you could be in the lake district the scenery was so beautiful, the difference was is that Inle lake is used to survive, life grows in the lake from the fish being caught to the hoards of tomatoes growing in the middle to the orchids growing for the fabric factory it’s a way of living for these people and not just a tourist hub like other lakes. We did visit one amazing factory, an umbrella factory and I was taught how to make homemade paper with pressed flowers, something I will definitely be crafting when home. The whole day was so fun and the surroundings was spectacular to see, the colors of the lake and the green of the hills just left such a palette of shades in my mind and it felt great to see life and beauty in the surrounding of Burma.

The next day we took a day train as Sam wanted to explore the countryside some more, the train was a 8hr train and the first 6hrs were so glorious, like Inle Lake the colours were beautiful and for 6hrs it was just constant landscape and colours to fill the mind, I was so pleased to be on the train and experiencing the iridescent countryside as just never imagined such a thing in Burma. Sadly the train was delayed and without going into it too much it became the journey from hell with drunk train workers, urine stench, toilet flow into the train, wet backpacks and the standard overcrowding, we got into our destination 4hrs late and exhausted, ready for bed, we tried to remember the train for what it had been and not how it ended as it had been utter glory to start.

Our last few days we headed back to Mandalay, we still wanted to explore the palace and climb Mandalay hill and I was dying for more of the pumpkin curry I had relished in when first there. Mandalay didn’t disappoint and we ended our Burma trip with a lovely day exploring, climbing and eating. It was great to see the palace as I was reading the glass palace (a book about Burma and Mandalay palace is a main part of it), I could see the books descriptions in the palace grounds and enjoyed seeing the photos of the king and queen and felt a real understanding to the events in my book now I was at the place it talked of. The pumpkin curry didn’t disappoint and we enjoyed a long evening in the restaurant soaking up our two weeks, writing in our diaries and talking out the highs and lows. 

Both times in Mandalay there was a curfew on meaning we had to be in by 9pm, this didnt affect us as much the first time but did open up a number of conversations about the limits and boundaries and the effect we felt at not being allowed out after a certain time. It also led us to discuss the reason for the curfew which was a religion war between Buddhist extremists and Muslim extremists, it was crazy to think that there was such danger that caused the army to man the street corners and although we never felt unsafe the presence was felt. Our 2nd visit to Mandalay really hit home when on the afternoon coming back from the palace we witnessed a number of people crowding round the moat which surrounds the palace, we couldn't work out what was going on and being intrigued took a look, only to find a floating body, our belief was this was a just one example of the behavior taking place late at night.

Burma has been a country I am so pleased to have come too, explored and experienced, I am not sure it’s one I would come back too but would be one I definitely recommended to others. It holds places of such joy, delight and wonder but for me it was hard and strenuous at times and really unenjoyable.  However the beauty and feelings Bagan gave me can never be taken away and without Burma I wouldn’t have experienced that uplifting high and pure joy as sun started to set over the vast plains of an enchanted land. 

Temples of Bagan

Inle Lake

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Monday, 11 August 2014

Marvelling in Malaysia

We flew straight into Malaysia from Bali, heading to Kuala Lumpur for 2 days, we both wanted to visit KL as I have never been and we decided it would be nice to have a 2 day city adventure before we headed to the Perinthians, we managed to find an okay city guesthouse that was clean (standard no window) but the room was clean and so was the bathroom, it was really central so allowed us to have a good two days of adventure.

We spent our first day out at Batu caves, which is a Hindu shrine in a series of huge cave, they’re based just out of main KL city, the caves are filled with deity’s and it’s a really interesting site. Obviously studying deity’s on my course it made the even a whole lot more interesting than it once would have and we spent ages walking round talking of each deity and singing the gyatri mantra outside the tacky shop selling clocks with the tune coming out, all my learning was flooding back from inside a cave, just beautiful.

We strolled the streets searching for local laksa, very different to the Kuching Laksa (in Malaysian Borneo), the KL (Asam) one having more of a curry taste to it and fish is used instead of prawns, however it was still a tasty eat and with a coconut to accompany it I was in my element.

We visited the Petronas towers both in the evening and in the morning to compare the differences in how they looked, it was incredible to see such huge vast buildings in the middle of a city centre but also how they were such a tourist hub, right next to the shopping centre but also busy at all times of day and night. The evening we went we spent some time just looking up, taking photos and generally being overwhelmed at the colossal size of them.

KL was perfect as it give us two days back in the city to do a few errands we needed to do, take a tour of this busy metropolis but also enjoy two days back in normality in a fast moving city. We took a night bus on our 2nd day to the Perinthians ready for a week of reading and relaxing.

We arrived at 7am into the bus station next to the Perinthian islands and felt excited and ready to explore this island we knew very little about. It was Ms Stonestreet who had recommended the Perinthians, Ben and Claire both stating it was one of their top spots of travelling and somewhere they both highly recommended, with this we added it straight into our list of places to go, we read a small bit in the lp but apart from that hadn’t really done much more then send a few emails to secure accommodation. Sam informed me he had found the perfect desert island spot for us, he just hoped they had received our email stating we would be arriving today. When we arrived on taxi boat, Kerry came out to meet us and informed us sadly both the rooms were booked but we could have the tent for the night and move into one of the rooms the following day when it become available. With that we agreed, it had been a while since we had camped so felt no better place than a beach to get back into it. 

Our first day was just beautiful, I have never felt so remote and like I was living on a desert island. Petani beach only has one guesthouse on it (the one we were staying at Mari Mari), it has quite an interesting story as previously Hash (owner), had worked next door at another guesthouse for 10yrs, the owner of Petani beach guesthouse decided to take management back but sadly his attempts failed and the business ended up closing for good in April. Hash however was given the land next door and has since started to build Mari Mari resort on this land, the build is still ongoing, hence why all the rooms weren’t ready (the 3rd room was in the progress of being built) whilst we were staying, the plan is for a tree house and a longhouse, meaning in total there would be eight rooms.

We moved into our room on our 2nd night and our lovely friend Mike turned up with his friend on our 4th meaning we ended up staying on Petani beach at Mari Mari for 6 nights it was just blissful, our days consisted of eating, snoozing, reading, sun baking, snorkeling, drinking beer, playing poker and more eating. It was so laid back staying there and it was like being part of a family with group eating at meal times, painting our shack with Ganesh and being involved in the life of the Mari Mari family.

Kecil Island is made up of loads of different bays, one of them being romantic bay which is only accessible by taxi boat or canoe; obviously we chose the latter and took to the 40min canoe around the island. We took to the open water full of energy and managed the canoe out easily, it was a sheer delight canoeing through such clear blue waters, seeing the marine life below and excitedly watching like on a tv screen as they fish went by with their daily living. I spotted romantic bay as soon as we came around to it as the beach was just white sand and there stood a tree in the middle with heaps of coral hanging from it, there wasn’t many people on the beach either and we felt excited about our day there. We brought the canoe into the bay and jumped out finding a spot of the smooth white sand, the day was just heavenly, we snorkeled and saw sharks, we saw rainbow fish (parrot fish), clown fish and so much more, the snorkel was great and with my new life jacket whilst snorkeling I was able to stay out longer and really enjoy the fish and coral below (yes I wear a life jacket whilst snorkeling, with my poor swimming its perfect for staying out longer, I threw my ego out and got my life jacket on). I don’t think I have ever been to a beach so pristine and idyllic; it’s the beach I imagine in my Hawaii dream. We stayed until about 4pm then chose to head back before dark, sadly the tide wasn’t on our side on the way back and although we made it, poor Sam was worn out as the paddling was just ongoing, however it felt good to make it back and we both had our hearts full from a day at this little bit of paradise.

Back at Petani, snorkeling was part of a daily routine, we would take a morning and evening snorkel, hoping to catch the clown fish that would swim up at our masks or catch the sting rays sweeping slowly across the sea bed, we were even visited by a reef shark and her baby one morning, she passed in the blink of an eye but wow what a split second sight to see. Sammy was lucky enough one morning to go out early and see them feeding which he was pretty chuffed about.

We also chose on our last night at Petani to swim out to the pontoon, which was quite a swim out to see the phosphorescent which is incredible at this part of the beach, however the tide was low and the coral was a pain to get through, however we made it out in the pitch black and got to the pontoon (me in my life jacket again), it was stupefying to see all the plankton, it felt like I was in a snow dome as every time someone jumped in with the goggles on the wows of astonishment were just brilliant, the sea was lighting up around us and we were all taken aback with the beauty and intenseness of the light shining below us. I jumped in with the goggles on and kicked my legs about and the darkness went and only light sparkled, it was like something from human planet the vast amount surrounding us.
After 30mins or so we chose to head in which sadly turned out to be a nightmare, a storm started approaching, it was so dark and the tide was low, which resulted in two of us being spiked by sea urchins, scrapes of the huge coral bed and a lot of panic. We made it in just in time, then the storm hit, bad, if we had been 10mins later I am fearful what the outcome would have been.

We shared a cup of tea after listening to the storm and smiling at our luck of making it back in time, all agreeing though that the phosphorescent was totally worth it.

Sam, Mike and I left on the 7th day to head across the border to Thailand, with a 20hr train ahead we readied ourselves to leave the beach behind and head back to the city, Bangkok, next stop. 

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