Tag Archives: #accidentaltourist

Friends, Fire, Food etc.

Last Christmas my best friend (The Wife) and I decided to embark upon an Aussie Road Trip; a classic journey across the South of Australia from Melbourne to Adelaide to Sydney. It was in keeping with our seasonal tradition of leaving the festivities far behind us and embarking on an adventure instead, and this one certainly embraced some of Australia’s epic quirkiness.

Friends

We met up from our distant bases in Melbourne, a city I never quite manage to explore. We drank wine, caught up on all our news, consumed glorious Mexican food and giant cocktails and met up with a mutual friend neither of us had seen for years at the Stables Café at Como House:http://www.thestablesofcomo.com.au/#!home/mainPage It is always nice to see old friends and it’s even nicer to know that when you see them you can pick up where you left off as though it were only days rather than years since you saw them last. While there was near enough a decade of catching up to do with our Melbourne friend it was a very pleasant afternoon where conversation and laughter flowed easily. Time passed all too quickly and before we knew it was time to go our separate ways and start our road trip.

Melbourne to Adelaide is a 750 km drive, which we completed in a day, in order to visit one of the wife’s friends from her time in the US. We managed the trip in about eight hours, with plenty of stops and little difficulty. Our biggest problem was the sat nav, promptly nicknamed The Bitch, who would insist on taking us the long way round when we wanted an alternative route. As neither of us are strangers to maps we sometimes navigated from the road atlas I’d bought and she really couldn’t cope. Long stretches of entertainment arose from watching her recalculate the route, time and again, only for us to ignore her.

We stayed in Moanah, a beach suburb to the east of Adelaide, and spent a chilled out day visiting the beach in the morning then hitting the near-by Maclaren Vale in the afternoon, visiting a few of the cellar doors along the way. Our favourite by far was Chapel Hill Winery: http://www.chapelhillwine.com.au/ It provided us with a couple of very nice Rose (and we don’t like Rose) and a beautiful red that we managed to save until the last night of our trip. We even managed fish and chips on the beach that evening although the Wife and I privately agreed that British fish and chips are better! It was a very sociable and relaxing time, gaining a little glimpse of a happy Aussie family lifestyle, a far cry from our usual routines and very much needed by us both.

Fire

I’d watched fire reports on the TV while waiting for The Wife to arrive in Melbourne so I was aware of the situation South Australia was facing. Months of hot weather (we’d just missed a heat wave in Melbourne), tinder dry forests and lightening storms are typical fire hazards at that time of year. But on checking our route I was relived to see that the fires were north of us, so we were going to be able to follow our plan.

Having enjoyed the hospitality of friends The Wife and I set off on our adventure proper. We were heading East again, back towards Melbourne but via The Great Ocean Road: http://www.visitvictoria.com/Regions/great-ocean-road This was a second visit for both of us – on separate occasions – but as we’d seen different things we took great pleasure in stopping off and showing one another the features we remembered: the Giant Koala and Crab roadside attractions, Umberston Sinkhole at Mt. Gambier, and discover sights neither of us had seen before, like the Blue Lake and the Land Rover on a pole in the middle of nowhere! Christmas Eve was spent sight seeing the iconic views along the Great Ocean Road and stopping at every viewpoint for cheeky selfies, wearing hers and hers Christmas T-Shirts, simply because it was funny. It was a very hot and exhausting day and we pushed on to Lorne little realising that the road was closing behind us due to massive bush fires caused by lighting strikes in the Great Ottoway National Park above us. We innocently enjoyed a lovely Greek meal at a restaurant just across the road from our hotel: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ipsos-Restaurant/772249959543934 and turned in, sun exhausted, ready for a relaxed, beachy Christmas Day.

The day dawned normally enough. We wandered down to the beach and breakfasted in the shade watching families laugh and play and swim in typical Aussie Christmas Day fashion. When we got too hot we returned to the hotel and chilled out. Our plan was to lunch on some good cheese, bread and olives we’d purchased on the road, drink some Mclaren Vale fizz we’d purchased for the occasion, and when it was cooler, head back to the beach to watch the full moon rise. We were not completely oblivious to the plight of the people back along the coast from us. When getting coffee that morning we had overheard locals discussing fires in the vicinity but had not appreciated just how close they were. At lunch we’d commented on a huge smoke cloud towering above us. Then, as we lounged in the shade that afternoon, recovering from our delicious, boozy lunch a helicopter landed in the grounds of the hotel. A man, who looked like a journalist, was met by staff, and ran inside. The helicopter waited, and so did we. By and by the hotel manager approached us and other guests and announced that Lorne was now under recommended evacuation as the fires were very close. The Wife and I were both far too under the influence to drive so, as the hotel was actually the local evacuation point anyway, we elected to stay. If the worst came to the worst we were to cross 500m to the beach and sit in the ocean to keep safe, which was kinda our plan in the first place.

All joking aside, this was a serious situation and a great many people lost their homes as a result of the fires. We were well cared for by the remaining hotel staff, with a free dinner thrown in for all those who had stayed, or who had evacuated from the further reaches of the town. We joined an Australian couple who seemed to attract this kind of drama on a regular basis, judging by the stories they told us of other holidays that had involved natural disasters. We drank, we laughed, we tried not to imagine the worst. The staff briefed us on what would happen if the direction of the wind changed and we had to evacuate over night. We retired to bed, wet towels and air con at the ready.

Much to The Wife’s annoyance I slept like a log that night. She slept fitfully and put the air con on when the room started to smell smoky. The worst did not happen but when we checked out we saw people asleep on sofas and a very worn out looking staff. The weather was grey and damp and the road was open so we set off again, relived that the fires had not reached us and sorry for all those affected by the disaster. As we departed we were told we’d experienced a typical Aussie Christmas – not the BBQ on the beach and the outdoor lifestyle but the on going threats of drought, fire and loss.

Fairy Penguins

Phillip Island, to the East of Melbourne, was our next destination. Specifically, the Penguin Parade, having booked a guided safari to see cute little fairy penguins return to their burrows in the evening. http://www.visitphillipisland.com/ Having arrived early afternoon we whiled away the time with a leisurely lunch on Churchill Island, visiting the koala sanctuary and Cowes beach before heading off to join the safari at dusk. We had front row seats on the beach to watch nervous groups of penguins run the gauntlet of gulls and kangaroos on the beach to find their well-worn paths home. We then followed the boardwalks, watching them scuttle along, almost blindly, as their homing instincts are remarkably faulty; listening to the youngsters squawk and twitter as they waited for their parents. It was adorable, and far too brief an experience.

Food

One of the main focuses of this trip was food. Frankly, no get together with The Wife is complete unless food and drink is involved. My larder is rather restricted in Indonesia and I was looking forward to enjoying wine and cheese and more familiar, western dishes that I can’t get in Surabaya. From Mexican in Melbourne to massive Thai inhalation in Mt. Gambier, http://www.wildginger.com.au/ cellar door visits and stop offs at cheese emporiums and random towns for lunch, we managed a great variety of epicurean delights.

Our next significant destination was Beechworth, an historic little village in the heart of the Victorian wine and cheese region. We stayed at the Foxgloves Bed and Breakfast, http://www.foxgloves.com.au/ hosted by the formidable Sheila, a South African émigré with a sharp wit and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area. Her husband John also made the most amazing cakes, to be consumed with afternoon tea on the quiet, bee filled terrace. The house was artfully adorned with curios from the abundant shops in the area and breakfast brought all the guests together to enjoy a huge feast around a round table, liberally oiled with excellent conversation.

Beechworth is a little like the picture perfect village of Sandford in Hot Fuzz; superficially a lovely little community concealing a hotbed of gossip and scandal (if Sheila was to be believed) but it does have some excellent boutiques and foodie havens. We enjoyed craft beer and pizza at https://bridgeroadbrewers.com.au/pizzeria-bar/ wine, cheese, olives, honey and loads more during our stay, loading up on supplies for New Year while we were at it. [In homage to our Aussie friends and love of Aussie movies we even bought cherries in Bonny Doon along the way.] We ate, drank and chilled to our hearts content.

The final meal worthy of note was in Katoomba, where we spent New Year’s Eve. http://www.bluemts.com.au/info/towns/katoomba/ Having visited the Three Sisters and gazed across the Blue Mountains we were, of course, in search of our next meal. It came in the form of delicious Malaysian cuisine at the Unique Patisserie: https://www.facebook.com/UniquePatisserie It was so good we ate there two nights in a row, and I also indulged in huge, hedgehog shaped meringues, the likes of which I haven’t enjoyed in years.

New Year came in with a whimper (I believe I was actually asleep), we acknowledged it with more fizz and cheese and that was it, our journey was done. The Wife had to return to Hong Kong and I was off to discover the delights of Perth.

It was an adventure filled with friends, fire, fairy penguins, food and, most importantly, fun!

 

 

Advertisements

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Ten weeks of travelling. Three countries, 15 cities, and four islands visited. More photos (and selfies) than I can be bothered to count. And now it is all coming to an end. Soon, I will be repacking my rucksack for the last time, stripped of ancient, travel wrecked clothing and rammed with more keepsakes than I meant to buy. Heading to yet another new destination, but this time with the intention to live there, not just to travel.

While I have tried to blog, Instagram, Facebook, Tweet and review my adventures to create some sort of lasting record for myself and others, there’s just been so much to take in I know I’ve barely scratched the surface. With time, I’m sure more memories will emerge but for now, I just want to share some of my highlights, for the sake of posterity:

  1. Flying over downtown Yangon and the Shwedagon Pagoda for the first time as I left Myanmar for the last time.
  2. Spending a day learning how to care for elephants in Chiang Mai http://www.pataraelephantfarm.com
  3. Cycling around Sukhothai and Si Sanchanalai in Thailand.
  4. Taking the train in Thailand from north to south.
  5. Discovering Phuket Old Town is similar to Georgetown, and they’re both a bit like Hoi An. But that I actually like Hoi An the most.
  6. The utter decadence of the Renaissance Phuket Resort and Spa and their amazing buffet breakfasts. http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/hktbr-renaissance-phuket-resort-and-spa/
  7. Enjoying a variety of performances. From Phuket Simon Cabaret http://www.phuket-simoncabaret.com/ to Phare, The Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap http://pharecambodiancircus.rezgo.com/ and the AO Show in Ho Chi Min City http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/. All brilliant in their own way although my heart belongs to AO.
  8. Whizzing around Angkor, temple running, in a tuk-tuk.
  9. Rattling along on the Bamboo Train, Battambang, in the rain with my arms outstretched yelling ‘Wooo-hoooo’ as we picked up speed.
  10. Watching bats flock like starlings in the sunset skies near Battambang at the end of a great day sight-seeing.
  11. Trekking in the jungle around Dalat. http://www.ptv-vietnam.com/product.php?rid=7
  12. Conquering my fear of motorbikes and getting on the back of a motorbike taxi to visit a lovely tropical beach near Hoi An, Vietnam.
  13. Doing a posh cruise on the Dragon Legend II around the less busy area of Bai Tu Long Bay in Halong Bay and spending the night on the boat eating, drinking and laughing. http://www.indochina-junk.com/dragon-legend-cruise/
  14. Visiting some pretty amazing UNESCO sites in Vietnam including My Son, Hue, Hoi An and Halong Bay.
  15. Enjoying all the food porn – from street food and amazing seafood in Thailand, new tropical fruits such as rambutan, national dishes from all around Cambodia and Vietnam, trying weasel coffee and egg coffee, and tasting my first fried crickets.
  16. Doing lots of accidental tourism and taking a few chances along the way, all of which turned out really well.
  17. Taking indulgent selfies anywhere I fancied. I’ve made a slideshow of them so I can cheer myself up when I need to!
  18. Treating myself to a posh hotel and spa stay in Hanoi to rejuvenate at the end of it all. http://www.hanoilasiestahotel.com/
  19. All the amazing people I met along the way – locals, friends and fellow travellers who’ve chatted, laughed, shared stories and tips and made my journey all the more interesting.
  20. Most of all, I have enjoyed the challenge of finding my way around SE Asia on my own; living in the present; being self reliant and doing exactly as I pleased.

Of course, there were disappointments too, but I have to say, that once again, I have been extremely fortunate in my travels and look forward to my further adventures with great anticipation.

Cambodia

Cambodia held a sense of menace for me as a child. While old enough to be alive when the atrocities by the Khmer Rouge took place, I was too young to comprehend what it meant. The name Pol Pot was always associated with evil and I remember being unnerved by his image although I could never say why. As I learnt about what had happened it held the same tragic sense of horror I felt when learning about the Nazis or Communist Russia.

Now I’ve been there, I would encourage others to visit too. It’s a rather wonderful place and its people, who went through hell and back only 40 odd years ago, and still face many difficulties, wear their hearts on their sleeves and are some of the friendliest characters I’ve met.

I only spent two weeks there, visiting Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh and I know that they are just the tip of the iceberg of an emerging country with lots of beautiful places to offer. I would like to spend more time there, visiting the coast and exploring lesser known towns but I’d also like to revisit Angkor Wat because, although Cambodia is a small country (181,035 sq. km) it holds many delights.

I was passing through from north to south, making my way to Vietnam, so I first arrived in the country via Siem Reap, which rather provocatively means ‘Siam defeated’ from early conflicts over land in this troubled region. The airport is smaller than I’d expected and as I travelled by tuk-tuk to my boutique hotel, I marvelled at how provincial it seemed. I had, foolishly, expected an urban sprawl out to the Angkor Wat National Park like Giza encroaching on the Pyramids, but that was far from the case. In fact, Siem Reap is a like a country town, and if it weren’t for its insane traffic, I’d almost call it sleepy.

Traffic in SE Asia is a curse. Some of the worst traffic, and pollution, in the world is found there. But Siem Reap is no Beijing. It’s not the amount of traffic that was the problem, although after several weeks on sleepy Thai Islands I’d got used to quiet roads, it was the chaos of it. Tuk-tuks, motos, bicycles, old and modern cars were all moving every which way, all at once. On the wrong side of the road, on pavements (when there were any), at crossroads, with the unspoken rule that if you can’t go forward you go round and if you can’t go round you stop until everyone’s shifted enough for you to carry on, and all the while wary pedestrians weave their way through as well. Strangely, horns were seldom used, everyone just watched and weaved and stopped if they couldn’t proceed. Of course, there’s less traffic as you make your way out around the National Park, and everyone has the same purpose there, following one of two routes around the ancient sights to visit the wonders of Angkor.

IMG_4598

Angkor Wat is as stunning as you’d imagine and worth several visits. Angkor Thom, Bayon and Banteay Srei are all intriguing as well, and while you can get templed out quite quickly, there are other things to do. I also visited the Landmine Museum, showing the efforts of one man who had fought in the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese Army since a child, growing to understand the error of his ways and make up for it one land-mine at a time. It was quite a wake up call about the problems many Cambodians still face as the aftermath continues to cripple them, physically, economically and politically. As an antidote to that, I also visited a small butterfly farm which raised my spirits a bit. Not surprisingly, the Cambodians are very conscious about the preservation of life, be it human, animal, or insect and there are also a great many attempts to conserve Cambodia’s heritage. Many are small, like the butterfly sanctuary, but there are also lots of NGOs in the country doing a lot of good where it’s needed. One example is Phare, a multi-arts centre for disadvantaged children. While the main activities happen in Battembang, Siem Reap has an internationally acclaimed circus branch and it is worth every penny to go along and see an amazing group of talented performers present physically and socially challenging shows.

IMG_4813

I’d planned to take the boat to Battembang, I’d even bought a ticket from a reputable source. But having experienced a stormy visit to Tonle Sap, the largest body of water in Cambodia, and seen how shallow it was in places at this time of year, I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t work out. I was told there was something wrong with the boat, but I suspect it was the instinctive desire to please that make Cambodians so easy to get along with that allowed me to buy a ticket on a route that was never going to run.

IMG_4789

I got to Battambang by bus instead, after a tricky moment when the agents organising my trip sent a tiny girl on a motorbike to carry me and two rucksacks to catch the bus. I’m terrified of motorbikes, and the weight and imbalance of me and my luggage scares me even further. Thankfully, Mr.Chi, who had driven me around Angkor Wat, came to the rescue and ferried me there instead. The bus was tackily decorated with limp fake flowers and childish stickers and I was jammed into a window seat with no leg space under the seat in front. I had to pull the DVT card when three quarters of the way into the journey the girl in front decided to lower her seat back. My knees were bruised from resting against the back of the chair  and with it back I had no way of keeping the circulation moving with exercises. Thankfully, it looks like the blood thinners I got in Thailand did their job! But not a comfortable ride, and not scenic either.

Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city yet it also seemed provincial and sleepy like Siem Reap. It’s bus station is the side of the road, just outside the city. Of course we were met by dozens of tuk-tuk drivers all touting for business. I accidentally caught the eye of one young man who greeted me like an old friend. After some banter and barter I agreed to let him take me to my hotel.

Actually, Samol turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He also ran a tour service which he’d just set up on Trip Advisor and I booked him for the following day. Like many Cambodians his story wasn’t a happy one but he was working hard to make things right and the tour I had with him was great fun. I even ended up helping him with his English homework!

Beyond the limited delights of Battambang are rice fields, fishing villages, a vineyard (I don’t think the rest of the wine producing world has anything to worry about with regard to Cambodian competition), pagodas, killing caves that are a stark reminder of the country’s horrific past and The Bamboo Train. This brilliant experience is under threat and may well close due to the possibility of a high speed line (Cambodia currently has no rail service to speak of) but I really can’t see why it should. I took a short ride on a single track between two rural stations, riding a bamboo pallet on tank wheels driven by an outboard motor. I sat on a cushion and dodged overhanging undergrowth as the wind whistled through my hair and the heavens decided to open, then watched as the ‘train’ was dismantled to allow traffic coming the other way to pass. Priority was given to greater numbers of trains and people, so I got off a lot. But I loved every second of it!

IMG_4831

Another highlight of Battambang were the bat caves. While not up to Christopher Nolan standards, the sight of thousands of bats exiting a network of caves commonly called The Killing Caves, is pretty impressive. At dusk bats start to circle the mouth of the cave, high up in a cliff, and then suddenly they decide to start streaming out in two directions, a sentence of commas across the sky. I’m told this phenomenon can go on for up to half an hour but I only stayed for 10 or so as they were late leaving, it was the day after the longest day so dusk was around 6.30pm, and Samol had to get back to go to night school. In fact, by leaving then I also got to see the mesmerising sight of them pulsing and receding across the sky like flocks of starlings, dividing and reforming before heading off into the distance to hunt, some even going as far as the coast before returning at dawn. It was a good day.

After Battambang came Phnom Penh, which was a shock to the system after the beaches of Thailand and rural idylls of more northern Cambodia. Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital, a real city with long boulevards, a tower block and a lot of noisy traffic to dodge. The tuk-tuk drivers and restaurateurs are pushier, there are more modern amenities and the riverfront is very touristy. It is nicknamed the Pearl of the Orient but I’m afraid the pearl I witnessed was paste. It’s not without its attractions, a cute museum and cultural performance theatre, some attractive pagodas and the Royal Palace, but little stood out to make it a rich and lustrous experience. Of course, S-21 and the Killing Fields are sited there too, and should be visited for a greater lesson into the Khmer Rouge and the history of the Pol Pot era, but that was inherently depressing so I was glad to move on, especially as I was lodged in a hotel room opposite the sex tourist from hell!

IMG_4922

My next stop was Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh City, still referred to as Saigon by the locals. It was another bus trip, rather more comfortable than some, and my only land border crossing. I’d got my visa in Siem Reap, ready to start for July 1st and duly arrived on that day. Getting out of Cambodia was fine, you just take your passport, see the immigration guy, go through the motions then get back on the bus. Getting into Vietnam was a little more chaotic as your bus company takes everyone’s passport and hands them over to immigration and you stand around, with all your luggage, until you are called up randomly to the desk. Once you’re through, you then have your luggage scanned before getting back on the bus. It was fine, and didn’t take too long, but I can imagine the difficulties during busier times.

All in all, Cambodia was an adventure and I thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience. I wouldn’t say I left my heart there but I am already thinking about how to return.

Thankyou for your cooperation Japan

“Everything will go smoothly. You are a lucky lady.” I was told, not for the last time, by my fortune telling friend. The Japanese are very interested in fate and fortune so it was no surprise that I had my fortune told at the Tokyo National Museum on my first afternoon in Japan.

I used to be very into that sort of thing: palm reading on Blackpool Pier, horoscopes and the like, but of late I have come to understand that I make my own luck. My fate is still my fate, but I can influence it in one way or another. Still, the sentiment could do me no harm on the eve of my very big adventure around Japan.

My good fortune had begun the minute I stepped off the plane. I was collected from the airport by an English-speaking driver who took me the ‘long way’ to the hotel, giving me a quick guided tour (for free) that helped me orientate myself in that vast city. The following day I met a guide who became a friend, who showed me around the city in all its glory. I got into the cat café just before they got full and started turning people away. I saw two traditional wedding parties at the Meiji-Jingu shrine, which is rare. I managed to get a ticket to watch an act of Kabuki that evening, which was very lucky considering it was Golden Week, a very busy holiday in Japan. I even successfully navigated the chaotic looking transport system with surprising ease; I tended to arrive just in time for the next train and I didn’t get lost!

IMG_3821

My greatest difficulty was finding somewhere to eat in the evenings but after a few attempts, I’d just walk into a place and eat whatever was on offer. In this way, I got to meet some very interesting characters, like the waiter who credited Sarah Jessica Parker as his English teacher, and ate some very delicious food, even if I did have very little idea what it was I was eating. Lucky really!

My use of the Shinkansen also went well. Advanced bookings were made with ease; all the stations were clearly signposted and the trains were on time, clean and comfortable. My only problem was motion sickness from the smoothness of the ride and my tendency to gaze out of the window at the passing landscapes. Luckily, I found my old sea bands in one of the pockets of my rucksack, forgotten since Peru I think, and used them for the other journeys with great success.

My exploration of Kyoto sometimes revolved around my tendency towards accidental tourism. I hadn’t really researched it properly so I would just pick a name from the guides I had with me and go. That way I got to see the 1001 kannons at Sanjusangendo, an amazing building containing 1001 (obviously) carved statues of kannon; 11 headed, 1000 armed, thousand eyed bodhisattva, that I hadn’t even known existed 30 minutes before. I tended to arrive at temples or gardens just in time to view them before they shut and even if I got to places early, before the hordes, I often discovered amazing treasures I hadn’t anticipated, like the cloud dragon on the ceiling of part of the Tenryu-ji Temple in Arashiyama, which watches you wherever you are in the room.

IMG_4022

Places rarely disappointed me. In fact, the things I knew nothing about were often better than the sights I wanted to see. A case in point was the iconic Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. I got there early, just before the hordes, and was able to experience some of its otherworldliness; something that was quickly lost with the mass arrival of coach tours. Instead, I felt the true magic of the place at Gio-ji Shrine, a moss-strewn haven of Buddhist/Shintoist tranquility that made me believe Rivendell could be a real place. It’s not an easy place to find, but sharp eyes, a good sense of direction and competent map reading skills ensured I found it. Or maybe I just got lucky!

IMG_4039

I certainly felt like I had something on my side in Hakone. Glorious weather and a happy afternoon playing in the Hakone Open Air Museum (I tend to become very childish when surrounded by art in nature) had made me count my blessings the day before. Free cheesecake for visiting Woody’s, the café next door to it, a gloriously kitsch café decorated with Toy Story memorabilia and playing the Frozen soundtrack in Japanese in the back ground, twice in one day, was certainly a lucky moment. I wasn’t sure my luck was holding though.

IMG_3888

The following day my unplanned wanderings met some roadblocks. All I wanted to do was see Mt. Fuji. The ropeway (what we could consider a cable car) route to a classic scenic view of Mt. Fuji was closed due to level 2 (out of 5) volcanic activity so I had to retrace my steps and battle with the rather confusing transport system until I reached Moto-Hakone. Convinced I had missed the only possible view of Fuji I walked along the Old Tokaido road and discovered a lovely tea house that served a tasty amazake rice drink instead. Then I caught the bus back to Moto-Hakone to try and find the second scenic viewpoint on the map. Having wasted my morning going in the wrong direction and sitting in traffic jams, I didn’t hold out much hope that I’d see the iconic mountain. So, I stopped for a street snack of corn on the cob and wandered moodily beside Lake Ashi. Then, low and behold, I rounded a corner and there was Mt. Fuji, peeking out at me from behind a fluffy wrap of clouds. As I watched, she emerged more fully and from then on, wherever I looked from, there she was, getting clearer and clearer as the afternoon progressed. I spent a long time just sitting and staring at the view, marveling at the famous shape and snowy streaks I had previously seen in paintings and drawings. Now, I was seeing them for myself. Truly a fortunate moment.

Ironically, my best view of Fuji-san came on my final train journey back to Tokyo. I managed to look up from my book at the perfect moment to see her, in almost cloudless glory, right there next to me. I glanced around the cabin to realise that no one else had noticed, I had her all to myself, and I truly considered myself blessed at that moment.

IMG_1655

In Hiroshima I discovered my hotel was right next to the Peace Park. I simply walked a short way along the river to visit the museum and visit the A-Bomb Dome. That evening I found a great little place to eat okonomiyaki, a Hiroshima specialty that is essentially a noodle pancake with layers of cabbage and seafood, and even better, got a seat at the bar where they were cooked right before me, so I could watch the chefs at work. Brilliant!

IMG_4102

My visit to Mimojima also went well. My journey to the Island was simplified by a brilliant visual breakdown provided by my hotel (lucky I asked), I walked a lovely mountain trail and saw great views of the Inland Sea before the rain came, and as I got to the bottom of the mountain the tide started to come in so I could get a clearer sense of the floating Torii Gate it is so famous for. When I’d arrived that morning the tide was out, so it, and my luck, turned while I was on the mountain. Or it may have had something to do with the lucky white cat offering I purchased at the shrine at the top of Mt. Misen!

IMG_4166

Even when my luck seemed to run out with the heavy rain in Osaka, I did manage to see the more Bladerunner style aspects of the town that I’d actually been disappointed not to find in Tokyo. Blazing neon, narrow streets and oily reflections on the stones evoked the futuristic feel I’d imagined before I visited, and thought I wouldn’t see as I got to know the real Japan.

By the time I returned to Tokyo I think I had exhausted my run of good fortune, and while nothing went wrong I had stopped finding surprises around every corner, or maybe I’d just become more used to them. But before you roll your eyes, I will say I don’t believe I actually got around Japan simply on luck. I had the support of a very good tour company whose arrangements for a self-guided tour suited me down to the ground. I also believe that the Japanese culture has evolved to enable anyone with a bit of common sense to take advantage of its fluent, organized and logical society and participate in its efficient way of life. Signs may be small and rarely translated but most of them rely on symbols that anyone can interpret. Measurements are given in time and distance so you can estimate how far you have to go. Things are logical and consistent if you think about them. I also know that travelling solo allows me to do things my way but allows me to stop, watch and learn and then go with the flow when things occur unexpectedly, so I never feel like I’ve missed out but that, actually, my adventures are bonuses instead.

So, thank you for your co-operation Japan, I came to love your quiet, well-mannered ways and found everything I wanted and more during my trip. I might not believe in luck but I do consider myself a very lucky lady.

OK KL!

I’ve been trying to get to Kuala Lumpur for almost two years. Initially, it was just an exotic sounding city in South East Asia and not on my must see list. Then, when I started looking for international teaching posts, it kept coming up so I researched it a bit more. Suddenly, it sounded right up my street! So, I applied for and even interviewed for, teaching positions, but I was persistently unsuccessful. The closest I could get was Myanmar, a 2.5-hour flight away. So, close, but no cigar!

When I got to Myanmar I didn’t book KL straight away either. Singapore came first, a place I’d wanted to visit for about twelve years. Instead, I chose to book a long weekend at the end of February. But that went awry when I had to renew my passport in February in preparation for my travels later in the year. So I rearranged, and finally got there in April, escaping Myanmar’s Thingyan Festival.

And I’m so glad I did. My instincts were correct. KL is great; modern, clean, logical, friendly, everything I’d want in city living. It’s not perfect. I’d been warned by friendly Malaysians I’d met on the circular train in Yangon, months before, that it was a dangerous place for a woman alone. ‘Hold on to your bag, don’t walk about late at night.’ I took all the usual precautions and felt no more at risk than I do in London. Less, in fact, as KL is not as crowded, at least, not in April. There are still dodgy taxi drivers (mine tried to take me round the entire city to my hotel when actually it was right up the street from where we’d dropped my friend off. Luckily I have sharp eyes!); old, dirty busses, broken pavements and heavy traffic but they fade into insignificance when I consider the positives.

First and foremost, the people are lovely. Malaysia is a cultural melting pot of Malay, Chinese, Indian and, of course, expats, which creates a diverse but thriving cultural identity that lacks the pride of Singapore and the reserve of the Burmese. I had lots of chats with people, on the train, in the street, in restaurants. They engaged with me, not to practice their English but because they were interested in why I was in KL and were keen to talk about their country. Malaysia’s economic growth has been impressive over the past few years and the country’s plans for the future are huge, and they are understandably proud of that.

Kuala Lumpur radiates a cosmopolitan and laidback atmosphere that beat’s Singapore’s haughty detachment hands down. Like Myanmar, people do smile at you although, as I’ve found with all Asian countries, they’re not so great on spatial awareness! Also, they are not too bothered about rule following, which was refreshingly normal compared to the restrictions I’ve felt in both Singapore and Myanmar. The only time I was disturbed by this was on the train home from Batu Caves. I’d noticed that there were ladies only carriages so I entered one for the journey home. You couldn’t miss the pink signage and images indicating ladies only (small children excepted) yet males persistently entered the carriage and remained there. Some, on looking around, realised and moved on, others resolutely remained despite tannoy reminders and a ticket inspector (who did little about them except check their ticket). As I’ve got older I’ve come to accept that you don’t have to follow all of the rules all of the time. I’m even getting better at breaking some of the sillier ones myself (don’t laugh, those who know me well know how far I’ve come!) But for something like this, where religious and cultural sensibilities are at stake, to disregard another’s wishes seems disrespectful, and an unnecessary breaking of the rules. How hard is it to move to the next carriage and allow people to travel comfortably as they choose?

In my conversations with fellow train travellers the usual questions were used to open communications (‘Where are you from? Are you on holiday?’) but while in Myanmar they often stop there, in KL they are maintained and developed. One man, after enquiring if I came from Liverpool (like Gerrard), then told me he wished to holiday in Bournemouth, because it was cheaper than London. (I hadn’t the heart to ruin his ambition!). Another, Sam, adopted me on the train to Batu Caves, had a long conversation with me about the instability of some ASEAN countries and gave me an impromptu tour of the caves, simply because he was a good man, proud of his country and his heritage. He was on his way for his weekly blessing and I was conscious that I was delaying him well beyond his usual visit as I prevailed on his kindness.

IMG_3635

Another instance of this amazing kindness happened, again, at Batu Caves. Having visited the temple and climbed and descended the 272 steps, avoided the monkeys and taken the requisite photos, I felt quite peckish and entered one of the nearby cafes in search of lunch. I chose a place that offered north and south Indian cuisine and I chose a 10RM platter of curries and rice. The waiters brought me my choice, on a banana leaf, and served me steaming dhal from a stainless steel bucket. I’ve no idea what I was eating with my poppadums’ (replenished regularly until I had to say no more) but it was delicious and I suspect my face said as much. Part of the way through my meal there was a bit of a commotion as a Malaysian gentleman finished his meal and requested his bill. He pointed at me and the waiters waved a piece of paper in my direction then handed it to him. I paused, looking quizzical, and was told, first by a waiter and then by the gentleman himself that he had bought me my lunch and there was no need to pay. I was flabbergasted, and touched, made my profuse thanks and shook hands with my benefactor before he made his benign way out of the cafe. I didn’t know what else to say and I didn’t like to ask why and seem like a suspicious Westerner, as I could find no agenda to his actions. I think I was the lucky recipient of a selfless gesture, but never having experienced such genuine kindness before I was unsure how to respond except to make me feel even more affectionate in my regard for Malaysian people.

It also made me realise, once again, how lucky I am to be able to travel and interact with others on such a level. To be honest, it was the people who made the place for me. KL was a very welcome change of scene after three solid months in Myanmar. There isn’t actually a lot to see there, after the Petronas Twin Towers, KL Bird Park, Batu Caves and the Hop-on Hop-off bus tour I’d done pretty much all I needed to do for a first visit. More importantly it provided me with Westernised food and shopping and a reassurance that actually I can navigate my way around a strange city (something I’ll never master in Yangon). But my abiding pleasure came from the smiles of the people, the conversations and the generosity of spirit I encountered everywhere I went. And that wasn’t reserved just for when I was in KL. Penang made me feel the same, and my greatest regret was not thinking ahead enough to extend my stay and visit Langkawi before heading back to Yangon.

When I think about the future and the notion of settling somewhere, Malaysia seems like a very good possibility. But until that happens I’ll simply have to keep going back to visit.

Travel Anxiety

Why, oh why, can’t I sleep the night before a trip?

I could put last night’s sleeplessness down to my full bladder, or the tinny music being pumped out around the neighbourhood at 3.30am, but I’d been restless before then. No, it’s something else.

I’m well accustomed to travel, and to travelling on my own, but for some reason sleep always evades me the night before I go. It could be anticipation, the excitement that I will get to do what I love doing with no interference. But I fear it is the eternal worrier that breaks into my subconscious and troubles me. Have I set the alarm? Have I got everything? Where did I put my passport? It has my mother’s voice; which both infuriates and saddens me.

Recently I have worked on getting my travel OCD mostly under control, in daylight hours at least. I only check my bag for the correct documents, camera, phone and purse once (or possibly twice) now, instead of repeatedly. I get to the airport in plenty of time, having shed travelling companions that enjoy the frisson of the last minute dash. I’m content to relax with a coffee and people-watch rather than rush around and begin my adventure grumpy. I’m confident that everything is booked because I have booked it and checked it, and I have a loose plan about what I’m going to do, with plenty of scope for accidental tourism, ONCE I GET THERE!

It is not the act of arriving that troubles me, but the act of going. My subconscious reminds me that I am stepping into the unknown once more; challenging myself further; taking previously undreamt of opportunities. But conversely, I fear it also asks me if I should? If it’s Ok to do these things and enjoy them? If I’m being selfish?

And I do wonder. Am I ready to let it all go?

Not quite. Not yet.

But I’m working on it.

Temple Run

The aim of the game: to see as many of Bagan’s ancient temples and pagodas as possible, maneuvering the hazards and gaining merit as you go.

Level 1: Getting Started

Getting started is very simple. Step out of your hotel and choose your mode of transport – taxi, e-bike, horse and carriage etc. Negotiate your price and off you go.

We elected to do the horse and cart. Our driver, Aung-Aung, and his young, bitey but much loved pony whisked us off at a brisk trot to visit all the major attractions of Bagan.

Level 2: Temple Running

Running the gauntlet of hawkers is usually the first hazard you encounter. Our first stop was the Shwezigon Pagoda. We were greeted by ladies directing us to the entrance (via their shops of course) but Aung-Aung had already pointed us in the right direction and informed us the wifi here was better that at our hotel, so we avoided our first hazard and gained the wifi bonus with ease.

I can’t say we were so successful at other stops. I’m a bit of a sucker for a smile and a joke and the pagodas are full of helpful people directing you to the best bits in exchange for a visit to their stall full of job-lot souvenirs or sand paintings. I’m afraid I lost a few lives by stopping and shopping with nearly everyone I spoke to. I didn’t always buy but I did make a considerable contribution to the economy during our stay. I’d like to think I was gaining merit instead!

Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoyed the exchanges. Stock phrases were delivered with charming smiles and it was in no way the aggressive selling I’ve experienced elsewhere. It’s also the only income the people have, as the ticket for the archeological zone, purchased at the airport, finances the Government not the local people or their families, and the only source of employment is within the tourism industry; so I was happy to fail and repeat this level a number of times.

Level 3: Left or right?

This bit is always tricky, choosing which way to turn to see the best bits of a temple. Again, Aung-Aung, in helpful hints mode, explained the significance of the temples we visited and told us which way to turn to see the best paintings or statues of Buddha. Although his English was limited we always got the gist, and his twelve years experience of guiding certainly enabled us to see the best bits. Serene Buddha’s, cartoon like paintings and dramatic, dusty vistas abounded on our first day exploring Bagan.

Level 4: Hazards

Of course, there are many small hazards to be aware of here. Taking your shoes off to enter temples means stones, bat poo and, on one occasion at a lesser-known site, snakes.

Then there’s the stairs. Most of the temples are out of bounds for tourists and some are just too eroded to attempt but a few are prime locations for viewing the 50 square kilometer archeological area. However, to get up them you have to navigate the steps. These are often steep, narrow and oddly leveled to create an uneven rhythm when climbing. Sometimes they are on the inside of temples, resulting in pitch-black leaps of faith, or, they are climbed in the dark before sunrise or after sunset.

IMG_3098

When allowed to navigate them in a timely, cautious fashion they are surmountable but throw in gung-ho Americans with no brakes, narrow spaces with no handrails and people jammed in, heading in both directions and it becomes a terrific feat of balance, especially in the dark. Thankfully, my accident-prone companion and I both managed to survive these hazards with (some) grace and humour!

Level 5: Increasing the challenge

IMG_3131

Our second foray into Bagan was by e-bike. Neither of us are big fans of bikes, roads nor traffic as both of us are a bit accident-prone but these electric bicycles presented us with an opportunity not to be missed. We managed to find a repressed, reclining Buddha and a fantastic view of the Ayeyarwady River by simply heading off the beaten track and wobbling our way cautiously down unfrequented tracks. Sandy routes, other inept riders and unpredictable traffic did keep us on our toes but we survived this challenge unscathed and saw plenty more of Bagan as a result.

Level 6: Rewards

IMG_3118

Apart from the fact that we got to explore an amazing archeological zone, the rewards from this experience were plentiful. Dusty, leafy vistas and red brick stupas were everywhere we looked, the sunset was only marred by other people(!) and the sunrise was truly breathtaking, and only enhanced by the twenty or so balloons floating majestically over the misty landscape. We met a wonderful array of locals and had fun chatting and bartering with them. We challenged ourselves, treated ourselves, and rested too. The greatest reward of this visit was Christmas Day by the pool with a book, a real treat!

All in all, I think we mastered our version of Temple Run, and we certainly had fun playing!

Singapore Fling

After nine weeks of settling into Burmese life it was time to blow the cobwebs away with a quick visit to the outside world, to remind myself about alternative realities, and flirt with possibility.

Singapore was a breath of fresh air. Seriously. After the grime and pollution of Yangon, stepping into a clean, efficient environment was a very welcome break. It was a relief to see familiar shops and products, eat and drink familiar (and much missed) meals and walk without having to watch every step. (Although a quick visit to Chinatown showed that some places are still immune to the clinical aura of the modern city and if I hadn’t been paying attention I would have had a rat the size of a kitten run across my feet!)

In fact, Singapore is a fine city. Literally. You can be fined ridiculous sums for smoking in public, spitting, littering and jaywalking (I was guilty of, but not caught for, one of these ;-)). Polite but firm notices using the assertive ‘thank you’ are everywhere reminding people to have a better life by observing the rules. At first it felt like being at school; motivational phrases, friendly cartoons and video guides abound to help you to live up to the high expectations these rules create and make your life stress free and efficient.

Yet few people smile here. If you catch the eye of an Yangonite and smile you are always rewarded with a beaming response, but in Singapore, as with London, eye contact is rare and if made you’re most likely to be subjected to a hard stare. One evening we were approached by a couple of different hawkers while we were eating. I’ve always objected to being interupted while I’m enjoying my meal (!) but I’ve always respond politely. Their responses to our polite but firm ‘No, Thank you’ was a long stare down their noses that could have turned our dinner to ice, and I’m pretty certain the second guy, a Chinese gentleman, cursed us to all nine levels of hell!

Yet most Singaporeans are friendly, helpful and polite to a fault. It just seems to have a harder edge than in Myanmar. Perhaps because they’re busier, have more cares and woes or possibly because they’re desensitized and disconnected by all their privileges compared to the poorer country. The more I travelled the MRT the more I was reminded of the scenes in WALL:E where the ignorant and passive humans are gliding by hovercraft around perfect, sanitized conditions, glued to their TV screens and unaware that their lives were being masterminded by a sinister computer. Most people were glued to their phones and the announcements were made in using a pleasant female voice reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver’s dulcet tones as the Ship’s Computer. Such a contrast to the automated, slightly grating voice that announces ‘MIND THE GAP’ in London’s Underground, and ultimately, a little creepy.

Singapore is a rich city. A major commercial hub and the world’s fourth biggest financial centre, the well heeled population of 5.4 million exude wealth and health. Glowing, pregnant women are everywhere, shopping is a national pastime and socialising is a serious business. But none of this is cheap. Once I’d understood that the exchange rate was S$2 to the pound I realised it was ‘London’ prices. Quite a shock after my inexpensive existence in Yangon. But actually, not as bad as I thought. The only difficulty was stopping spending once I’d started. After a few months of enforced frugality (I can’t buy decent clothes or treat myself to a Starbucks in Myanmar, they don’t exist!) I found I gave myself permission to spend a bit more each day. I did need to buy myself more clothes and shoes, (my 20KG luggage from the UK didn’t allow me to bring much with me) and I wanted more Western pharmaceutical products than I can find in Yangon and all that added up to more than I wanted to spend. But I couldn’t avoid it, even though I found budget haircuts and promotional beauty experiences to ease the pressure on my wallet.

We did wonder how the city got so wealthy and where the seedy underbelly you would expect to find was. One of our waiters laughingly told us it was through money laundering, and I do wonder if there is a hint of truth in it! Although any corruption (and poverty) is very well hidden.

On the surface it seems very Western. Branded shopping and eating; preparations for Christmas had already started even though the majority of the population are Chinese, Indian or Malaysian; cleanliness and wi-fi availability reminded me of London or New York. But underneath? As one Australian woman I bonded with over a Starbucks questioned ‘You think this is Western do you?’ I did have to pause for thought. Underneath all that is familiar and soothing to me are the Asian principles of efficiency and respect that are, perhaps, more overlooked (and abused?) in the West. Maybe it is my Western prejudices that seek an underbelly that does not exist and this city is simply the result of hard-work and good management. Maybe this is the Utopia I’ve all been looking for. I can certainly see the attraction, but still, I’d hesitate to jump in.

Don’t get me wrong. Singapore is a lovely place to visit. I did the tourist thing, finally tasted a Singapore Sling at Raffles and enjoyed good company. I have every intention of coming back and doing it again, with a better understanding of the city and its facilities. But I’m not sure I want to live there.

Bago Road Trip

Road trips are synonymous with freedom, adventure and the exploration of, not just the places you visit, but also landscape within yourself. While I’m not sure our road trip to Bago enabled us to do all that, it certainly opened the landscape of Myanmar up to us.

7am on a Sunday morning with glorious sunshine beating down upon us, we set off north to visit the town of Bago. The night before we had been uncertain if we were even going to make it as our original driver, a local taxi driver and friend of one of the group, texted to say that he’d been involved in an accident and couldn’t make it. Thankfully, he was unhurt, but his car wasn’t and therefore unsafe for us to use. He did however pass us on to another friend who was able to drive us instead and so our road trip was rescued and we set out optimistically, anticipating a day filled with giant Buddhas, golden pagodas and lots of fun.

Bago, or Pegu as it was once known, is a little over an hour north from Yangon. The roads, while still busy on this holiday weekend, were wider and smoother than the road that had taken us east a few weeks earlier. The traffic remained consistently inconsistent in its lane use, speed and accuracy, but we learnt that if you start to use your horn about 100 meters up the road from where you want to pass, then the traffic knows you’re there and will stay out of the way. I use pass advisedly because you can both over and undertake here, depending on which side has the most room and the least obstructions to the driving line!

We arrived in Bago at about 9.30am and quickly began our exploration of the former capital. Our first stop was one of numerous giant reclining Buddha’s that inhabit the town. Many of them are quite ancient yet they all look new and shiny due to extensive restorations. This was evidenced by the bamboo scaffolding encasing our first Buddha, yet we could still clearly see his face, and the men working on whitening his features and repainting his eye-liner. We also met a postcard seller who serenaded one of our group with The Beatle’s ‘Let it Be’ before selling us the oil-painted postcards ‘his father’ had painted!

IMG_2341

A second reclining Buddha (the Shwethalyaung Buddha) was even grander in scale, all 180 ft. of it a monument to doomed love. My feeling was that the Buddha looked a little bit too much like the cat that got the cream, reclining with gay abandon on a gigantic mosaic pillow rather than representing the conversion of King Mgadeikpa from cruel, tyrannical parent who tortured his son for falling in love, to a good Buddhist like his new daughter in law. He was rather splendid though.

Here, we also learnt the bumpy route of tourism. Foreigners pay K10,000 ($10) to get a pass to visit all the sites in Bago. Straight forward enough, except when you realize that that money goes straight to the government and is not used for the upkeep of the sites. However, if you want to take photos you are charged another k300 (20p) and that money does return to the people. You are given a little ticket to attach to your camera and woe betide you if you don’t have one, you will get politely hassled by men with varying degrees of English trying to explain, unclearly, what you need to know. As we had walked in and missed all the signs and booths relating to payments we were immediately targeted and it took some careful interpretation before we got it all straight, but we got there in the end.

A short but hectic ride across town lead us to the (very) golden Kanbawzathadi Palace. A lesson in Myanmar architecture, it dates from the Mon period and lay overgrown and forgotten until the 1990s when it was restored. In my opinion you CAN have too much gold but it was certainly an impressive building and the huge teak pillars, foundations sent from all over Myanmar hundreds of years ago, which were uncovered during the excavation, were something to behold.

IMG_2370

Of course, we also visited Shwemawdaw pagoda, Bago’s answer to Yangon’s Shwedagon. It is, in fact, very similar to Shwedagon in style and layout (I got as lost here as I did at Swedagon) although its faded, golden stupa is taller, standing at 114 meters high. I always find that it’s the shrines around the outside of the stupa that are the most interesting things. On this occasion I found a few that were more like fairground attractions than prayer spots, with a merry-go-round of little boats which people threw money at and another with undulating money pots and silver rotating rods that represented waves. Both seem strange ways to become closer to enlightenment, but I think the strangest is to be seen at the Snake monastery.

Here, people crowd around to see a century old, nine-meter long python believed to be the reincarnation of a Buddhist abbot. They lay money on its body as it rests in its, rather small, enclosure. I found it rather bizarre and not a little disturbing to see such an enormous reptile, resting with its head in touching distance, being revered by a stream of people.

IMG_2387

Less creepy, but just as strange, was the Japanese war cemetery. Hidden away within the confines of a monastery we found a small, unloved memorial that hid a mass grave of Japanese soldiers. Not what we had expected at all and in stark contrast with the British War Cemetery at Taukkyan, which stood proudly by the side of the road and was definitely well kept. I guess the losers really don’t like reminding of their history.

Other Buddha’s that we visited included the four Kyaik Pun Paya Buddha’s just outside Bago. These 100 ft. tall effigies sit back to back, pointing to the four cardinal points. Certainly impressive, and all slightly different, they were worth the burnt feet we suffered as we walked barefoot on the marble around them in the midday sun.

As we returned home we also stopped off at a nature park, which we had managed to, mistakenly, up grade to National Park. Therefore we were somewhat surprised to find skinny Disney characters and some sad looking bears and monkeys in rather concrete, uninspiring enclosures. We were looking for elephants, promised in the guidebook, but sadly invisible. We had got onto a very dilapidated bus to find them. The seats moved and the engine smoked having literally been kick-started by the driver. We were thankful to get off at the first stop, where the elephants were promised, and ended up having a short, semi- scenic walk through a part of the forest, the highlights of which were the loud group of teens who insisted on joining our photo shoot and having their picture taken with the albinos; and the enormous monkey who headed us off on a very rickety bridge.

IMG_2408

We arrived home just before dark, hot, sweat soaked and dusty. We had seen a lot and had a lot of laughs, and while it might not have been a road trip in the truest sense of the word it was a Myanmar road trip, and that was good.

A Change is as good as a rest

I gave my Sec 3 (year 10 for the British amongst us) students a speaking activity on Friday, to discuss and reason the phrase ‘A change is as good as a rest’. Some struggled to grasp the concept as they explored it but I knew I was looking forward to illustrating the answer with my weekend away.

At 3am the following morning I woke up bleary eyed and grumpy. I had barely slept and after 12 straight days of work (I’m counting a weekend conference as work) I was exhausted. Still, today a group of us were heading to the beach, Ngwe Saung to be precise, to sunbathe and pamper and relax.

The 3am start was essential because Ngwe Saung is a 5 hour car ride away and we wanted to maximise our time on the beach. The driver had arrived early so, after a brief detour to pick up the last in our party, we were on our way.

Yangon in the early morning is still a wakeful place. Shops are open, rickshaws are available and trucks full of sleepy eyed men trundle their way along the bumpy roads. Pagodas shine under their disco lights and there is movement of sorts in all the townships we passed through, but you could tell that the town was resting. The street stalls were empty, rickshaw drivers slept in their seats and the smiling faces were more serious at this time of the morning.

Having been in Yangon for five weeks already I was itching to see more of Myanmar than simply my side of the city. I longed to see greenery and open spaces and life of a different ilk. I wasn’t disappointed.

Sunrise is about 6.00 here. We were crossing the Ayeyarwady River at that time on a huge metal, machano bridge whose sister sat a short distance upstream. It was a smooth but brief respite from the potholed road we were travelling.

Traffic had been consistent all the way from Yangon, a steady stream of trucks and cars in varying states of repair. Some looked like they should have been retired from the road after WW2 yet they were still rolling along at a steady speed.

The road itself could only be described as an ordinary A road by British standards. Wide enough for traffic on both sides, everyone drove straight down the middle where the potholes are fewest, beeping their horns at the traffic in front to move over as they came through. This is made more difficult due to the slower traffic at the side of the road. Bicycles laden with merchandise, mopeds laden with families and pedestrians wending their way to… Well, who knows where?! So a series of darts, swerves and sharp breaking, punctuated with flashing lights and blaring horns, characterised our journey.

As the daylight grew we discovered we were free of the city limits and travelling a straight road followed by telegraph poles and surrounded by green paddy fields. Yet, in spite of all the wild land and space around us, this environment was even more alive than Yangon.

The road seemed to be the main artery through the Delta Region. Long, linear communities congregated beside it with plenty of houses on stilts sitting crookedly above fields of water. Wherever you looked rural life was going on. Every field seemed to have at least one inhabitant, usually in a conical wicker hat, bent double to work the rice crop or wending their way towards the road. Men fished the broad ditches, by rod, from a boat or by dragging a net up through chest deep water. Children and families gathered by the road side to chat, or sell things, or eat. Every bridge had people sitting on it, watching the world go by.

Strangely this world seemed set apart from other places. It slowly dawned on me, as we passed rusty trucks and dilapidated buses, bamboo bridges and strange vehicles that seemed to be mini passenger tractors, that this world wasn’t tainted by modernity, it held on to its charm and authenticity because it hadn’t been exposed to the outside world for very long. It was, very definitely, still in the Twentieth Century.

We arrived at The Emerald Sea Resort in good time. Once checked in, and fed and watered, we headed to the beach.

Ngwe Saung is the cleaner, quieter, tropical beach of choice for middle class Yangonites to visit. Out of season, it was virtually deserted with just a handful of guests and only one Burmese family in sight. The beach itself is 13 km of blonde sand and palm trees facing the relatively clear waters of the Bay of Bengal. Monsoon season made the sea a little rough but we were lucky enough to arrive on the first sunny day they had had all week. Clear blue sky and miles of empty sand invited us to stay.

IMG_2273

It only took me an hour in the sun to get burnt. Even with suntan lotion on (factor 35 as well) I could feel myself burning very quickly. Shade was at a premium and even when I retired to the pool side I could still feel the heat. Lunch and a full body massage at the Spa brought some respite and I was certainly relaxed by the end of the day but the damage was already done. A touch of sunstroke put paid to my plans of a seafood banquet for dinner and I was passed out (almost literally) by about 7.30 pm.

Twelve hours later I slowly woke to the sound of the sea on the shore. The sky was less clear this morning and the palm fringed beach was not quite as inviting so I spent my time around the resort. The white, slightly aged bungalows nestled amongst tall palms and were separated by brick pathways snaking through verdant lawns. The pool and restaurant were at the heart of the site and were tranquil places to sit and read or take another spa treatment, where the only sounds were bamboo wind-chimes and the whisper of the sea.

Reluctantly, we left the resort after lunch. The landscape was just as alive at this time of day as it had been in the early morning, in spite of the heavy rain that had set in.

This time we took a detour via Pathein, Myanmar’s fourth city and home of the workshops that produce the famous hand painted parasols . After a few false turns and several long conversations that characterise the Burmese method of asking for directions (why give simple instructions when four or five of you can discuss the best route at length?) we came across a small family workshop tucked away up a side street.

Typically the front of the building was the workshop and a small cluster of rooms at the back was the family’s home. The workshop was filled with umbrellas of all sizes and colours and states of completion. Colourful cotton was being painted on the floor before us as we gazed in admiration at the workmanship. Intricate patterns appeared before our eyes in no time at all and handles were fixed upon our chosen purchases while we waited. We learnt that silk parasols are for the dry season to protect you from the sun (a bit late for me this time) and the cotton are sealed with a persimmon resin to make them waterproof in the monsoon.

IMG_2303

Happy with our purchases we continued on our way back to Yangon and all too soon we reentered the fug and bustle of the city. While our visit to the beach had been all too brief I felt I had illustrated the idiom I had taught Sec 3 just two days before: a change (of scene) is as good as a rest!