Bagan… Bikes, Buddhas and Balloons

After the turbulent time on the overnight bus to Inle, we opted for a day bus to our next stop, Bagan. The journey to Bagan was less awful, since Sarah found some anti-sickness pills that we also sedatives so could be asleep and not sick whilst everyone around us was, but on the negative side it was unpleasant to be the only ones in the bus not vomiting. Luckily we also had earphones and never before has so much intent listening been done to any podcast than on that journey!

Bagan itself was beautiful (thank god!) and totally worth it. It was once an ancient settlement made of mostly temples as each King tried to prove how much better he was by building more and more Buddhist temples. All of this has resulted in an astonishing amount of temples, in varying quality and upkeep. We had been warned before to get e-bikes to get around the temple area on, as they are quite widely spaced. We assumed these were those bikes with batteries and a little motor, the type that you see cheeky bulging middle aged people who decide to go for a ride but can’t be bothered to cycle uphill on. However we were faced with something that looked very much like a scooter. Let’s not exaggerate, the acceleration didn’t make us Lewis Hamilton but it was pretty interesting to manage epecially when team work was required after we decided that one between two would be fine.

Neither of us having ever driven a scooter on our own on a road, meant that sharing one and driving off-road down the sandy tracks more suited to a Land Rover (sadly none of those available for hire) was a fairly testing experience. Sarah’s strategy of slow and steady was proven a winner over Alex’s faster paced, accelerate-out-of-trouble philosophy, but the bike made a big difference in the number of temples we could get to.

With over 3000 temples to choose from, we stuck to the highlights and best enjoyed the ones you could climb up to the top of for a view over the plain. Some were gigantic, some small, all with giant Buddha images and lots of tourists in the main ones. Off the beaten track a bit were some gems, with things like hidden stairs up to the roof to explore, and monks going about their daily business. We watched sunset from a temple shaped like a huge pyramid (with a crowd of other tourists) and looked forward to the highlight of the trip: a hot air balloon ride over Bagan the next morning.

The balloon ride was excellent. A bus picked us and others up before dawn and took us to the launch spot for a coffee, and we took off. The sun was coming up when we took off as they’d had to move the launch site, but the view in the early morning haze was amazing. We had an Aussie pilot who had plenty of stories to tell and pointed out some great details of temples, and ones we hadn’t seen the day before. We drifted over a village and peanut fields, getting lots of waves from people below. Landing was pretty serene too despite Sarah’s worry after a previous bumpy landing. Unforgettable experience topped off with a glass (or 3) of champers and some breakfast! Thanks Bagan!

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Lake Inle

It became apparent after a couple of hours on the spaceship-like coach from Yangon that the luxury interior could do nothing to change the quality of the roads. From the amount of jolting, bumping and shaking, we reckon the roads stop at the edge of Yangon. Even there they’re not great but after that it’s little more than dirt track interspersed with tarmac.  It was like being put in a comfortable padded box and shaken in the dark for 12 hours. Many occaisions we were lifted out of our seats and Sarah felt so travel sick (although what we now think may be giardia probably didn’t add to it) that we couldn’t do much but collapse when we got there!

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JJ Express

We arrived at 6.30am and it was pretty cold – the first time in Asia we’d been cold without the aid of air-con! We had socks and shoes and fleeces on and were still shivering, as Inle lake is in a more mountainous area. It was good to be out of the city though, and our hotel in Nyaungshwe (Aquarius Inn) was lovely. In the afternoon we rented out bikes and followed a route around the top of the lake through lots of villages and passed some hot springs. We found a chap who put us and our bikes into his teak gondola (with outboard) and ferried us across the lake. The sun was shining, the sky was blue and the lake was beautiful. There were thick reeds at either side so it was difficult to tell where the edge was, but once through the reeds, there was a vast expanse of blue-black water with fishing boats skimming across the water. The local fishermen have a unique style of fishing, that mainly seems to involve posing for pictures. We managed to cycle back before sunset and had some local Shan food – essentially BBQ skewers.

We were glad there was a thick blanket on the bed and that this was one of the only hotels we had been in that had hot water! At least that was much more dependable than the electricity or any form of Internet. This second day we took a boat trip across the lake. We visited the floating markets, floating gardens, weavers, boat-builders, cigar makers and a beautiful monastery at the bottom of the lake. It was a wonderful trip, shared with fun middle-aged French couple on holiday for 3 weeks in Myanmar.

On the third day we decided we needed a break, we had a great lie-in and cycled to the local vineyard to try out their wines. The tasting selection was, well, not tasty, but we found some nice red wine on the menu and it was set in a beautiful location with the sun shining on it and over looking the lake. We even managed to cycle back although quite how Alex didn’t fall off his bike when he went at 100mph downhill with his stand down is amazing.

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Once we had sobered up we went to a cafe and watched a Myanmar-made film set at Inle lake with English subtitles that had recently won a best international film award. It was about a monk leaving the monastery for the first time and having a son with a patient in the hospital he went to work at, but as long as you didn’t get too bogged down in the ethics of it or the wooden acting, it was a pretty heart-warming story!

Yangon: I like…gold

We had been really looking forward to Myanmar but there were more than a few concerning sentences in the travel guide that made us slightly apprehensive, so we entered with cash in pristine US dollars, all covered up and determined not to discuss politics. We found a taxi with a kiwi girl into the centre to our hostel, which was more than an hours drive. Plenty of time to realise the city was actually much more built up than we had expected and there were lots of cars (no motorbikes allowed in Yangon) – not that that improved the road safety much! We were in for a lot of re-evaluate preconceptions about Myanmar, as we found english was widely attempted and actually local currency was ordered everywhere. On the way in we caught a glimpse of the gleaming golden Shwedagon pagoda which was magnificently lit up, and huge golden boats and other stupas all flew past.

Our hostel was…interesting. We stayed at the Shannkalay hostel; the very first hostel we booked after an inexperienced 5-minute search on Hostelworld before even leaving England, simply to have an address with which to apply for the Burmese visa. The staff were very friendly, our room was basic and stank badly of paint, but there wasn’t a window, and we had wooden string puppets dangling above our heads which looked pretty sinister in the dark.

We spent the next morning exploring the Shwedagon pagoda with a guide. Alex was considered inappropriately dressed and made to wear a Longyi (a sarong which everyone in Myanmar men and women alike wear) which he was very proud of and we had to carry everywhere from then on. The guide talked to us a lot about Buddhist beliefs and a little about the politics including the recent elections which was a real surprise.

After that we made a pilgrimage for Sarah to Aung Sung Suu Kyi’s house, where she spent her years of house arrest. Although we only managed to get to the front gates – the building now seems to be the headquarters for her party – it was worth it. We spent the afternoon sampling some Burmese curry, looking around the mix of left over colonial buildings – some of which had been kept up and some hadn’t, and just happened across the new stock exchange which was about to open – progress in Myanmar!

Our hostel helped us book a bus to Lake Inle, our next stop and a 12 hour bus ride away. We took a taxi with some friendly Germans to the bus station which in rush hour traffic took us nearly 2 hours. Given the option by the hostel of the regular local bus or the luxury bus for only about $4 difference, we opted for the JJ Express luxury coach, hoping to avoid a repeat of  the vomit-filled journey in Vietnam. The coach itself was more like the business class end of a plane, and we settled in for a smooth ride, pleased with the choice!

Kuala Lumpur

 

So in a moment of madness at home we had decided a detour of 24 hours in Kuala Lumpur seemed like an excellent idea! Some of this is justified as flights in and out of Myanmar aren’t that widely available without going through Thailand or Malaysia first, and it was cheaper to go via Malaysia.

We arrived flying over the sea and palm oil plantations at KL airport at sunset. We left our main bags at the left luggage and so were free to navigate with just daysacks – in future, when we decide to travel (rather than travel and emigrate) we are packing as little as possible – makes such a difference.

Sarah immediately loved Kuala Lumpur as the airport ended in an air conditioned shopping mall with fresh Bretzels and even the train to the city centre had wifi … How good is that?! We found our hostel and headed out to explore. Malaysia was just as sticky and hot as the other places but felt very western and some of the Chinese food stalls were replaced with Indian ones. After a quick visit to chinatown in search of food and a night market, the next aim was to head to the Petronas twin towers. On the way we stopped at a Malaysian curry place and they made us fresh chicken and lamb roti to take on our walk – they were delicious and Sarah could not stop talking about it all the way to the towers.

We first passed the Menara or KL tower and then to the Petronas towers. They were pretty impressive and brightly lit up you could see them from almost anywhere. We took a dodgy taxi who took a short cut through a car park back to the hostel and promptly slept.

With no window in our room we slept for ages and nearly missed our complimentary tea and toast. The first cup of tea for weeks (it wasn’t that great actually, but Sarah insisted on having 2) and then headed to the concord hotel which we had checked on trip advisor did excellent dim sum. Sarah wasn’t feeling that perky after dim sum so we took the train to the airport, picked up the bags and headed off. Next stop Myanmar! Kuala Lumpur was great to have a taster of though and we can’t wait to come back.. Especially as the pilot has just announced the Myanmar temperature in the night is 38 degrees… oh dear, wish us luck.

Tourists behaving oddly

While going round the many (so many) temples of Angkor, we saw lots of examples of tourists doing odd things for photos. It became more fun to photograph those posing than the monuments, and a new game was born: Chinese Tourists.

We’re not above a bit of posing for a photo ourselves, and before we get on to the Chinese, here are a few of us looking naff for the camera. The irony of commenting on the others hasn’t escaped us, but we thought it was hilarious anyway.

The real prizes go to these prime muppets:

Tourists en masse are also a sight to behold

Phnom Penh

Leaving Vietnam behind us, we bumped and swerved our way down the road to Cambodia on a bus booked through the hostel in HCMC. The border at Bhavet was the only land border crossing we had to make, but the driver of the bus we went on ushered everyone through the border into Cambodia with passports stamped and, eventually, returned fairly uneventfully. Country number 3!

The bus took us past some pretty idyllic and very flat countryside, with rice paddies and small farms with rice drying on tarpaulins outside. Phnom Penh seemed to be a pretty typical southeast Asian city; without the skyscrapers of HCMC but with the added drone of hundreds of tuk-tuks in the streets. Our hostel (ST 63) was pretty swish for hostel standards; a 4 bed mixed dorm with the sturdiest solid wood bunk beds that were basically four poster beds with an extra bed on top, and really good showers.


We didn’t have much time in Phnom Penh, and decided to fully immerse ourselves in the misery that Cambodia had seen during the Khmer Rouge regime by visiting Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison and the killing field at Cheung Ek back to back. The scale of the atrocities that took place, and the vigour with which it seemed they were done left big impressions on both of us. The fact it was all so recent, with the trial of some Khmer Rouge leaders ongoing since the war stopped in 1998, was also hard to believe.


We finished a contemplative morning with a return to modern, relatively happy Cambodia to see the Royal Palace’s grandeur and rounded the day off with a fancy Singapore Sling at the Raffles on Sarah’s mum and dad’s recommendation from when they came earlier this year. Despite eating all the free bar snacks we then headed to pnomh penh’s night market which was a more lively scene and we sat on straw mats and ate some local fried cuisine. No one had seemed to have heard of our hostel so Alex and Google maps directed a lost tuk tuk driver back. The hostel owner had an expensive looking iMac but had yet to hear of Google (‘I am Cambodian’ was his reply) so Alex set him up on gmail and Google maps!

 

24 hours in Ho Chi Minh City

It’s been a long while coming but unfortunately the original copy got lost in the matrix and as Charlie and Shaggy aren’t available we can’t find it so we’ve redone it!

So with our previous experiences of bus and train journeys in Vietnam, and Sarah’s suspected giardia, we decided a 24 hour train journey didn’t really sound that appealing! It also meant we wouldn’t spend any time in Ho Chi Minh city and so we opted for a (ludicrously cheap) flight instead.

As we arrived in Ho Chi Minh city it already felt much different to the more poor, rural northern Vietnam. There were huge high rise buildings brightly lit up and shops open way past 6pm and selling luxuries like shoes and handbags!

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Our hostel was tucked away down a back alley behind a market which meant you had to wade through washed away market waste whenever you walked down it (nice..) but the hostel was nice and the staff were friendly and we even bumped into some people we had previously met in Hoi Ann.

That evening we tucked into some pho bo just in case we didn’t see it again and had a look around. In the morning we got up early and walked through the park watching some locals doing their early morning exercise. We had a go and were most disappointed the exercise bikes didn’t have any resistance! We walked over the the reunification palace and then spend a good few hours at the museum of war remnants, formally the museum of American atrocities and American war crimes. To say it was one-sided is an understatement but it gave an interesting alternative point of view to the one fed from America and there were some truly awful pictures and scenes.

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To brighten things up Alex drank some weasel poo coffee – an apparent delicacy but likely didn’t really taste any different. On the map the jade pagoda looked much closer than it turned out to be and it wasn’t really worth the walk to it but we felt like we had basically walked the whole city. To treat ourselves we walked over to one of the newly built towers that has a sky deck with a bar that looks over the city. We had some fancy cocktails that we made last extra long so we could see sunset and the city lit up afterwards! It was great. After a weary walk back to our hostel through the night market we put our feet up. 13 days of our 14 allowed on the free visa – it was time to leave Vietnam.

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