The Journey summarised

Well the initial adventure (the planned one at least) is over…As we have landed back in a country with no ties and a world of opportunities ahead of us…as such the adventure will continue. We will keep the BLOG going and will continue to push the boundaries of exploration but perhaps in a more localized manner…So before the Australian leg of our adventure begins it is timely to assess what we have achieved over the last little bit.

So here goes…

We left Australia on 13 October 2013 and returned on 20 December 2014…that is a 433 day Asian odyssey that saw us hit some spectacular highlights and tick off so many bucket list items that it was not funny. Some of these “Bucket List” items were the obvious ones that we all know about or have heard of like climbing Mount Everest, the Taj Mahal or walking the Great Wall of China. Others were ones that the travel channel or documentary watchers may have seen and added. And some were 100% unknown to us but in hindsight these things truly were that special. And there were others that we knew nothing about but have since learned of and now have extended our own lists.

IMG_0009-0

In total we technically visited 13 different countries…I say this because I remain jaded that Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong all just count as China. Further to this, while we zigzagged the India-Nepal border popping in and out numerous times, we cannot in all honesty claim Nepal…as much as I may want to.  We spent the night in 121 different cities while day tripping, transiting and sight seeing a great number of others. The countries and locations were:

Thailand – Bangkok and Phuket

Cambodia – Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Pursat and Battambang,

Laos –  Vientiane, Luang Prabang

Myanmar – Bago, Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay

Malaysia – Kota Kinabalu, Sepilok, Kuala Lumpur, Labuan, Manana, Penang and Georgetown

Brunei Darussalam – Bandar Seri Begawan

Vietnam – Danang, Hoi An, Hanoi, Cat Ba Island, Halong Bay, Ho Chi Minh (Saigon), Phu Quoc and Can Tho

Sri Lanka – Mirissa, Galle, Colombo, Kandy, Polonnaruwa, Pinnawala and Sigiriya

South Korea – Seoul and the DMZ

China – Beijing, Shanhaiguan, Harbin, Dalian, Dandong, Jinan, TaiShan, Qingdao, Pingyao, MianShan, WuTaiShan, Taiyuan, Datong, Hohhot, Yinchuan, Dunhuang, Jiayuguan, Lanzhou, Xining, Xiahe, Mount Everest, Lhasa, Shigatse, Kashgar, Urumqi, Jiuzhaigou, Chengdu, Guiyang, Anshun, Dali, Shangri-La, LiJiang, Fuzhou, Xiamen, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Shanghai, Kunming, Guangzhou, Yangshou, Guilin, Wuhan, Chongqing and Xian.

Kyrgyzstan – Bishkek

Philippines – Manila and Taal volcano

India – New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Mumbai (Bombay),Goa, Mangalore, Fort Cochin, Alleppy, Thiruvananthapuram, Kanyakumari, Pondicherry, Bangalore, Coimbatore, Metupalaiyam, Ooty, Kolkata (Calcutta), Bhubaneswar, Hyderabad, Hampi, Aurungabad, Bagdogra, Siliguri, Darjeeling, Varanasi, Amritsar and Shimla.

 

We explored the natural wonders of Asia, saw architectural marvels, ornately carved churches, mosques and temples, checked out exotic landscapes, vibrant cultures, gastronomical delights, languages spoken, experienced fairs and festivals and generally immersed ourselves in a world of different cultures. We stopped in on traditional tourist spots as well as off the beaten path gems (and duds). We experienced both the best and the worst of humanity…often within minutes of each other.

Some of the trips to countries were merely teasers for future travel while others were fully fledged explorations of the countries visited. Some were so fantastical that we were left needing and craving more…whilst others were more than enough. As a general rule it must be said…the traditional tourist destinations were by far our least favourite spots. They tended to be trashy, commercialised, more expensive than everywhere else, painful, full of really pushy touts and generally just unpleasant to be in.

China was the place that we spent the most time, with about 215 days in China all up. Believe it or not…this was not enough. China is like Australia…it is huge and each region is unique. So while we saw more of China than most Chinese will ever see…we were still left wanting more and ruing the fact that we had run out of time and money.

TRAINS

It became clear very early on that my wife had developed a train obsession and loved almost all things train related. As such we did innumerable train journeys…especially if there was something a little unusual or quirky about the trip. So we rode the worlds fastest train (the Maglev in Shanghai which hit 433kph), we rode the worlds highest train (through the Himalayas which includes the Tanggula which at 5,072 m (16,640 feet) is the world’s highest railway station) and we rode some of the famous railways of the world (both steam and other). We hit the rail bridge over the river Quai, the destroyed train bridge between China and North Korea and the shot up train in the demilitarised zone between north and South Korea.

Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Nilgiri Mountain Railway

Some of these journeys were truly memorable possibly the greatest for me was the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. This was a 5 hour (50km) journey in a steam powered, rack and pin train through the blue mountains of India. The train stopped at tiny little stations to refill with water and when the mountains got too steep the rack and pin would kick in and literally crank the train up the hill. As it turns out this also happened to be my mother’s mode of transport to get to and from school as a teenager.

Another of the major highlights was the Sri Lankan rail journey between Colombo and Galle. Three hours of cruising along in air conditioned comfort parallel to the ocean was simply stunning.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is a toy train that snakes its way through the Himalayan mountains as the train criss-crosses the road and runs through the heart of the towns. The train goes so close to the town buildings that you could honestly steal from the shops by merely reaching out the window and taking things off the shelves as the train goes by.

Myanmar gets the title for the worst trains in the world. The train started with an insect and arachnid riddled upper class sleeper cabin and got much worse once the wheels started to move. The train bumps, jumps and rattles its way through some beautiful countryside but will leave you beaten, bruised and bloodied.

ANIMALS

Along the journey we encountered any number of animals (at least partially due to my mini obsession with visiting zoos). We went to many different zoos in many different cities and had massively different experiences in each one. The positive experiences saw us marvelling at pandas in Chongqing and Chengdu and the negative ones saw Indian patrons abusing animals and huge tigers in tiny concrete cages.  We got to see a range of animals that we had not seen before both within the zoo setting and generally wandering about in our travels.

IMG_0246 IMG_20140113_103822 IMG_0182 IMG_0187 IMG_3469 IMG_3470 IMG_0983 IMG_1566 IMG_1766 IMG_1336 IMG_0623 IMG_20140215_141258 IMG_2704

We saw cobras in baskets being charmed by tourist hungry Indians, panda babies, rhinos, elephants, hippos, giraffes, all manner of birdlife, yaks, more monkeys than you could poke a stick at, crocodiles, orang-utans in the wild on Borneo, lions, tigers, fat bottomed sheep, incredible convoys of ducks and the usual zoo type fare.

Not only did we get to see the animals but on occasions we got to ride on them too.

IMG_0373 IMG_4133 IMG_1686

TRANSPORT

If you can imagine it we used it…almost. We used just about every type of transport available to man. From hauling along at 433kph on the maglev train to putting along on steam locomotives, to riding elephants through the Laos jungle, rubber duckies along the waters off Borneo, Junks in Halong Bay in Vietnam, tuk tuks almost everywhere, camels through the Indian desert, longboats through Thailand’s canals and along the floating markets of the Mekong, rickshaws, trishaws, trams, motorbikes, jeepneys, horse carts, camel carts, ute backs, bamboo rafts and bamboo railways and every now and then we even rode in a car or flew in a plane.

IMG_4443 IMG_1058 IMG_3212 IMG_3226 IMG_3591 IMG_3654 IMG_20141101_114600 IMG_20141102_080604 IMG_20141102_081653 IMG_0256 Camel cart (2) IMG_0488 IMG_0489 IMG_20140111_172457 IMG_3146 IMG_20141107_071414 IMG_3015 IMG_20140706_133540

GASTRONOMY

Lets not be silly here…the food was spectacular. We had the amazing opportunity to travel through some of the culinary centres of the world and sampled the local fare every chance we got. The key meals throughout were meat on a stick and curry… whether it was Indian, Sri Lankan, Thai, Laotian, Cambodian or Malaysian…curries were a staple. And for all the differences between them…they were magnificent…all of them.

China did not have a curry equivalent (that we found)…but we did have smorgasbords full of fantastic meals all the way throughout. Each region was different and this variety just ramped up the experience. For the ultimate foodie paradise then Penang is my choice…it has the best of all things…Tibet is by far the worst…serving up a terrible mix of yak jerky, two minute noodles and hot water.

IMG_4327 IMG_4329 IMG_3874 Hot Pot at Shancheng Hotpot King, Haymarket. IMG_0463 IMG_1524 IMG_1861 IMG_1920 IMG_2155 IMG_2298 IMG_2303 IMG_2346 IMG_2446 IMG_2448 IMG_2885 IMG_3651 IMG_20131229_123426 IMG_20140329_143759 IMG_20140421_121706

Highlights

Obviously the bucket list items were highlights…the great wall, Angkor Wat, the Terracotta warriors, Mount Everest, the hanging monastery, cruising Halong Bay etc…but there were so many more. They were the unknown (to us) gems such as Jiuzhaigou (China’s blue lakes) and panda breeding centres…further to that there were the human interactions and the unexpected artistic elements that we saw along the way. I cannot fully explain the joy we felt when we walked around the corner in Datong and saw the large naked fat man hanging from the wall of the city.

IMG_2016 IMG_20140509_111957 IMG_20140603_091406 IMG_0385 IMG_2548 IMG_3087 IMG_20131119_111954 IMG_0169 IMG_20131101_122739 IMG_4455 IMG_4497 IMG_4527

The other of the great pleasures was catching up with our friends along the way…walking the great wall of China with my cousin, going to the Hong Kong Rugby 7’s with best friends from school or catching up with Canberra friends in Hong Kong, Cambodia and Thailand. Experiencing things with the wife was great…but sharing them with friends is even sweeter.

IMG_20140428_145628 IMG_3155 IMG_0654 IMG_0668 IMG_20140303_172933 IMG_0905 IMG_0301 IMG_20140112_180105 IMG_0739 IMG_0752 IMG_3729 IMG_3750 IMG_3771 IMG_3811 IMG_20140726_131741 IMG_2454 IMG_20140809_200435 IMG_20140328_184711

The journey for us is continuing…but the next little bit will be here in Australia…so I hope you maintain interest and follow along the  rest of the way…

 

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: | Leave a comment

Bangkok, Thailand

This post is well overdue for a number of reasons. reason number one is that it was written and cued on my Ipad…which died upon arrival back in Australia. This means that all of the witty quips and the contemporaneous comments are missing as I try and wrack my brain about what actually took place three weeks ago. Number two is obviously that we are at home now and have been immersed in the “real world” and have as such been busy.

 

The first thing that must be done is to add a minor amendment to the Phuket post. While we were in Phuket…we were staying at Patpong Beach which is the main tourist area…and it sucked…a lot. During our time there we made two forays to Phuket old town and they were both fantastic. The first time was on a weekend and we did the 17km tuk tuk ride to go and see the market. Now this place is a food lover’s heaven. Immediately we were overwhelmed with awesome food choices at incredibly reasonable prices.

While Thailand is generally considered cheap when compared to Australia, it is highly priced compared against most of Asia…and the tourist zones are comparable to Australian prices for most things (especially food and beers). The old town however was not. It was cheap, hectic, loud and fun. We ate, drank, cruised the rubbish tourist market stalls and generally had a ball…and paid more for the transport to get us to and fro.

Three days later we went back to try again, but a scheduling mixup meant the market wasn’t on so we wandered the streets. This time we paid about a dollar to catch the local bus there rather than the $16 that the tuk tuk drivers charged. It was hot so we stopped in for a refreshing beverage and immediately noticed the difference between this and where we were staying. Cocktails were $3-4 and beers were about $2 and the girl serving was both lovely and efficient…and a girl for that matter.

Upon ordering our second round she apologised that happy hour had kicked in and that alas our first round of drinks would be charged at the full rate of $2 per 600ml stubbie rather than the now discounted rate. As the sun set she directed us to the local street food stall area where we could get good local food. After a short walk we found this and settled in for an absolute feast. We just kept ordering from various stalls and eating and despite 5 attempts to get a bill from my little street vendor… the lady just kept saying “when you finish”. An hour or two later, the 4 of us were completely stuffed and I sheepishly headed for the bill.

As it turned out we were paying about $1 a plate for some of the most amazing food that we had eaten in Thailand thus far. In essence the entire meal for 4 of us in Phuket old town was about that which we would pay per head where we were staying. I guess the main point to be made in all of this is that Phuket does not actually suck…just the tourist beach areas do. If we had our time over again we would stay in Phuket old town and do the day trips to the beach. Had we done this we would have had a much better and cheaper time.

Bangkok

Upon arrival in Bangkok, we headed almost straight to Chinatown for dinner. Wandering the streets we found kerbside restaurants and market stalls that just could not be overlooked or bypassed. From here and on the recommendation of KAT (who spent much time living in Bangkok) we headed out to what he described was his favourite bar in BKK… Wongs Place. We arrived at about 9:30pm to find it still shut so we found another venue which charged us $10 for a little beer while we waited. At 10:30pm we returned to find it still not open so I grabbed some 600ml beer from the 7-11 (for $2) and we settled in for a foot massage across the road.

When it opened we entered this dark dingy little room with the walls lined with photographs of patrons from yesteryear. Our advice was to help yourself to the beer at the back in the fridge and they would just count up the empties at the end of the night. Alas the owner was not there to be able to pass on KAT’s regards and the beer prices had more than doubled to a ridiculous $4 for a beer. A hunt around the walls found some historical gems of photos that had to be captured and shared for posterity.

IMG_4583 IMG_4599 IMG_4600

Day 2 in BKK was the inevitable shopping expedition during the day, hitting the infamous MBK shopping centre which thankfully was a short walk from our accommodation. Add to this the late night show at Patpong Night Market and we effectively did the normal tourist run through BKK. For those that do not know…Patpong night market is where all the sleazy side of Thailand resides. So as we wandered the streets were met with the usual touts offering us the girlie shows including the firing of ping pong balls and darts from various parts of the anatomy and the offers of some unique forms of entertainment.

While cruising around we stopped into one of the venues for a beer and use of the toilets. There were girls “dancing” on stage where in actual fact they were leaning against the poles holding the roof up. The entertainment was so poor that we started to watch the fish tank as the fish were both better looking and more active than the girls on stage. This was fine for a while but eventually we had to leave when Jill (justifiably) tried to slip a tip into the fish tank thus offending the owner and the girls.

IMG_4601  IMG_4610 IMG_4611 IMG_4616

The next day we were joined by long term friends of Brett’s (Annette and Peter) and we did the day trip out to the Bridge over the River Quai via the floating markets. This is quite a way out of town and for most people other than military buffs or veterans is probably not worth the time or expense to get there. I came here in about 1995 with my mate Nadim and the floating markets were quite the sight…today they are just filled with the same tourist trash you get everywhere else but at a greater price than elsewhere.

We took the long boat to the market which was a zig zag through the canals to get to the market…in reality we could drive right up to them and save 40 mins. It was once authentic…now it is a farce. The cemetery was interesting but the museum was a bunch of reproduction photos with little or no explanation…an hour of googling and a printer could get you the same result. In hindsight this trip was overpriced and really not worth the effort.

Our last day was spent at shopping centres eating, drinking and having overpriced coffee while we waited for our late night flights.

Categories: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Phuket, Thailand

Our introduction to Thailand was atrocious…the first impressions were that of money hungry, gouging prices. We went in with our eyes open and were expecting it to be more expensive than the places we had recently been…but this took things to another level. To use an ATM here…any ATM…you must pay between 150 and 180 baht to withdraw funds. This is between $6-8 to get your own money out…further to this they limit withdrawal sizes…so that you must pay this fee over and over.

We arrived at the Bangkok airport (not the main one) at lunchtime and had a 3 hour layover until we could fly on to Phuket. We cruised the food options to be shocked at the prices…a subway sub was over $13 (once converted), a McDonald’s meal was well over $10 as was Burger King, a latte was $9. Now I accept that airport prices almost everywhere are high…but these prices are almost double the Australian prices…and as we all know Australia is expensive. We settled on 2 Burger King whoppers and we shared a large fries and a coke for $26 Australian.

We thought that after 14 months away a 2 week break by the beach in Thailand was the perfect way to wind down before returning back to Australia. The beach time may have been awesome…but Thailand…at least Phuket…was not it. This place is the pits. Having been through the last few countries…any one of these would have been a much better choice than coming here to Phuket.

IMG_4558Thailand is the home of the girlie-boy…officially titled the Kathoey…they are much more visible and more accepted in Thailand than the transgender or transsexual communities in Western countries. As Thais generally believe in Karma they tend to believe that being a kathoey is the result of transgressions in past lives, therefore kathoey deserve pity rather than blame. They are everywhere…you can see them working in shops, movie theatres and clothing stores…but mostly you see them working at massage joints. And mostly they are grabbing tourists offering massages with happy endings.

We settled in to an ok hotel in the middle of the tourist area near Patong beach. This is the most famous beach resort on Phuket and is tourism hell. Thousands of foreigners (mostly Russians and Aussies), bars, restaurants, touts, trinket shops, tourist shops, tailors and massage joints. Add to this the constant cacophony created by people touting for tuk tuks, massages, the nightly Muay Thai martial arts bouts or the Ping pong shows and this place sucks.

IMG_4531 IMG_4562 IMG_4563   IMG_4567

 

IMG_4553The main tourist strip is Soi Bangla or Bangla road. This is about a 500 metre long street running between the beach and the main shopping centre Jungceylon. The street is lined with bars that double as strip joints and knock shops. The road gets blocked off every evening at 6pm and the fun begins. Hookers spill out along the street, shake their asses (poorly) on poles, and sidle up to drunk, sunburnt tourists who are too under the weather to notice that 70% of the girls are blokes.

The prices reduced from the initial shock of the airport but are still about 400% higher than each of Thailand’s immediate neighbours. Jill, Cathy, Brett and I all went searching every evening on the hunt for the various culinary delights that were on offer…and there is a lot on offer. While the nightlife is scary the food scene certainly is not. We did find some incredibly good meals…but we also paid a lot of money for them.

The beach was nice…sort of…it is kinda tough to get excited about foreign beaches when you grow up in Australia. The last time I went to Hawaii I complained about crappy beaches…the beaches here are much nicer…but the water is dead flat so there is nothing surf related. As I mentioned earlier the main groups here in Phuket are Aussies and Russians. The Aussies that come tend to fit 2 categories…parents with kids… Or single blokes looking for the nightclubs, hookers, bar girls and the rub and tugs on offer everywhere.

IMG_4536 IMG_20141213_152505 IMG_4551

The Russians however fit into one category but 2 age brackets. There are the early 20’s Russians who wear tiny shorts and muscle shirts, while the girls are in bikinis or G-strings and topless on the beach. And then there are the Russians in their late 50’s who are also in bikinis or G-strings and topless on the beach. I will not say too much on this subject for fear of instilling mental images that may never leave. Needless to say…we have seen some things that cannot be unseen.

IMG_4571 IMG_4566 IMG_4565 IMG_4573

One of the more amusing aspects is the oldies…they are to afraid to get amongst the action on Bangla Road so they take up position on the opposite side of the road and just watch the goings on. We stopped in at the tailors and got a cashmere wool suit made up each…we figured that upon our return we would have to be grownups and get jobs and things. And this would mean job interviews etc…Yucko.

While here…I found the perfect shirt for my father in law but my wife overruled its purchase for fear that we may offend my mother in law. Anyway…sorry Jim…no shirt for you.

IMG_4554

Categories: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a popular tourist destination and was voted internationally as the 4 th best city of travel in 2014. The Place is a cluster of small villages along the river all built in the vicinity of the evenly spaced Buddhist pagodas (Wat). In the area there are more than 1,000 Temples of Angkor which were built from the 9th to 13th centuries during a time when the Kingdom of Cambodia was one of the most powerful civilisations on the planet.

While Siem Reap is a nice little town, it really only exists as it is the town that supports the temples. They are exceptionally impressive…they are old, they are huge and there are TONS of them. I hadn’t realized in my reading just how many of these things there are. You really need a week to see everything, and even then it’d be a stretch. We had 3 days, so were going to make a go of it.

IMG_4388 IMG_4399 IMG_4483 IMG_4491

We caught up with Brett and Cathy who had traveled from Canberra to join us here. Our first day was spent hitting the museum. miniatures display and dipping our toes into some of the many Siem reap restaurants and bars. This place gets between 2 and 3 million visitors a year and sadly the town reflects that…the prices are (generally) between 2 and 25 times more expensive than in the rest of Cambodia and the locals have all turned into pushy touts. Whether touting for tuk tuks, drinks, food, trinkets, paintings, clothing, batik or just attention.

Our first foray saw us getting ripped off by the Cambodian BBQ restaurant. They had the 50c draught sign out the front and we entered for an ale and some nibblies. Having had some spring rolls and an ale or two we called for the bill…it was $38. I checked the bill to find that they had charged us 4 times the quoted price on the beers. I started to argue the point and they claimed they had supplied us with the superior Tiger beer rather than the local drop. After a while it was clear we were not going to win so we paid the bill and used our technology to warn other travellers of the SCAM that these guys were running.

IMG_4391 IMG_4443 IMG_4360

Most importantly the Siem Reap area has been used extensively as the film site for a lot of adventure type movies and television shows…things like Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones Temple of Doom were filmed here. And having been here it is obvious why…this is an ancient city literally being swallowed by the jungle. It was a huge civilisation that was, for unknown reasons, lost to the world. The modern re-discovery dates back to around 1901 when the French funded an expedition to Bayon thus re-finding the lost temples of Angkor. They took responsibility for clearing and restoring the whole site.

IMG_4385  IMG_4407 IMG_4429 IMG_4430

The main attraction is Angkor Wat, the 500-acre site that is one of the world’s biggest religious monuments and the most elaborate of the Angkor’s temples. We had a 4am wake up…to hop our tuk tuk…to go to buy our 3 day pass…before heading to Angkor Wat (along with about 2000 other people) for sunrise. Alas it was an overcast morning and our sunrise shots were less than inspiring…but the experience was worth it.

From here we left the main attraction to avoid the hoards that were peak hour at Angkor Wat. Instead we headed to Angkor Thom which houses a myriad of temples such as Bayon, Baphuon, Phimeanakas, Tep Pranam, the royal palace area, the terrace of the leper king and the terrace of the elephants along with a bunch of other ancient bits.

From Angkor Thom we hit Preah Khan before running away to hide from the heat of the day and returning late afternoon for the south gate, Paksei Chamkrong (the video of Jill climbing) and a schlepp up the hill to Phnom Bakheng for a sunset viewing (with the same 2000 people who were there for sunrise) with the same result as the overcast was still doing its thing making our mountain climb redundant. The video below should not give you epilepsy however it will give you a fair indication of why I have been whining about stairs. The stairs in Asia are a non-standard height and width and are a major effort even if there are only about 70 stairs as was the case here. So in my earlier posts where I complained of doing 1500 stairs…then just imagine this video 20 times over…and double it again for Jill’s ridiculous assault on Taishan.

That evening we headed into town for the night markets…our tuk tuk driver dropped us off underneath the fluorescent night market sign right next to another sign that read “foot massage $2”. I had sore feet after climbing up and down stairs all day….and for an extra $1, I could double the time. So I locked all 4 of us in for 30 minute foot massages. While they got settled I walked 2 stores down and organised for ice cold draught beer to be delivered to us for 50c a glass. When my beer was empty…I sat the empty glass atop my head which the astute man (rightly) took to mean that I needed more beer. Me which was delivered to me. For a ridiculous $4…I had a 30 minute foot and calf massage while drinking two ice cold beers…and so did the wife and mates.

IMG_4402 IMG_4458 IMG_4461

The next day we did Angkor Wat properly. On day one we checked out the non existent sunrise and then ran away from the hoards…on day two we went to the smaller temples early and timed our run to Angkor Wat to coincide with the tour busses going to lunch. This meant that we were not fighting the masses and we had a (relatively) unobstructed view of the place and a climb to the top with no queues. While the temperature was hotter, the experience was much better.

IMG_4496 IMG_4471 IMG_4480 IMG_4475

The next day we headed out to the floating village…that we never made it to, as it was a massive tourist scam. It cost us $17 for a tuk tuk for the day and after a fantastic drive throughout the countryside and villages we got to a ticket booth that was charging $25 a head for the boat to the floating village. We rejected this and kept going to the Rolous group of temples instead. These are lesser temples to the main Angkor group but still a nice sight and a pleasant drive in the country.

As it turned out (according to the reviews of other travellers on trip advisor) our floating village tour would have seen us paying $50 to travel about 20 minutes to some bamboo/wooden shacks above the waterline. When you stop you have 20 mins being harangued in tourist shops or being pressured to buy bags of rice for the poor villagers (at $50 per bag). This journey is nothing but a scam…it costs $40 a head for a 3 day pass of all the great temples…so $25 for an hour tour plus a $17 tuk tuk fee…no thank you.

IMG_20141130_055017 IMG_20141130_072234 IMG_20141130_072612  IMG_20141130_074404 IMG_20141130_075932 IMG_20141130_080321  IMG_20141130_081114 IMG_20141130_085339

So Jill, in her infinite wisdom, decided to spend the money we would have given to the scammers…on a spa day. We headed to town and she got down to negotiating for the required services…having never had a spa day I rolled with both the prices and the choice of services. What came was an hour long body scrub, followed by a one hour massage, followed by a one hour facial. This, she tells me, would cost between $250-700…each…in Australia and was $60 for both of us here. The scrub was good as was the massage…you can keep the facial…not a fan.

The next day we headed out to the land mine museum. This was a personal venture started by an individual named Aki Ra. The story goes…Aki Ra’s parents were killed by the Khmer Rouge and he was conscripted to be a child soldier who’s role at some point became responsible for the laying of land mines on the Thai/Cambodian border. After the war he found work with the UN finding and disarming the land mines and when that work finished he continued to find and disarm mines…to do this he used a knife, a hoe, a Leatherman and a stick…he funded his activities by selling the scrap metal from the mines. He started storing deactivated mines at his house and giving talks and information sessions about mines…this was the precursor to the museum today.

IMG_20141130_073446 IMG_20141130_102911 IMG_20141130_080701 IMG_20141130_104548

While doing his mine clearing he found many injured or orphaned children due to the land mines…which he subsequently took in or adopted. After a period he had brought home over two dozen boys and girls. This then morphed into an orphanage/school. Today the entry fee is a grand $5…$3 of this goes to feeding clothing and educating the children and the remaining $2 goes to fund ongoing land mine recovery and dismantling.

IMG_20141203_114753 IMG_20141203_114911 IMG_20141203_114205 IMG_20141203_115208

This place is both tragic and uplifting at the same time. It is a story of a man repaying his karma…while he still can. It is an informative, confronting, uplifting and eye opening experience and if you are coming here you should factor in extra time as this bit was really worth it. On the way home we stopped at the butterfly garden for a rest and sat watching the butterflies flit about.

IMG_20141130_113220  IMG_20141203_115615 IMG_20141203_115218

Overall Siem Reap was a good trip and I would recommend it to anyone to go to…I would not rate it in the top 4 places to go…but it is nice. If you head here it really needs a minimum of 5 days in Siem Reap alone. But be warned…it is very touristy. The prices for everything are high (relatively), the touts are really pushy, and the scammers abound. It is exhausting walking the huge temples in the heat…but it is more tiring fighting off the constant onslaught of people trying to get you to part with your money.

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pursat and Battambang, Cambodia

We stopped here in Pursat cos we had a little time to kill before we were due to meet friends who were joining us in Siem Reap. So we popped into Pursat for a couple of days to get a sense of what Cambodia was like away from the tourist hordes. This place is off the tourist route, so much so that when Jill asked the hotel in Phnom Penh to get us a bus ticket to Pursat…they asked…really, are you sure. And again afterwards when heading to the Battambang hotel they kept asking if we were coming from Siem Reap or Phnom Penh…when Jill said Pursat they said “no really, are you coming from Siem Reap or Phnom Penh”.

So we hopped a bus and did the 200kms to Pursat, which was quite a calm and uneventful journey. We got delivered at a rest stop about 2km from town and started to walk to our hotel but the heat of the day, and a vacant tuk tuk got the better of us (mainly me) and I paid a buck to get driven to the hotel rather than lugging the backpacks in high heat and high humidity.

IMG_4261  IMG_20141124_093930  IMG_4267

Jill had us booked into the flashiest joint in town…4 stars…had it actually been 4 stars. It was actually on a par with the 2 star place we stayed at in Phnom Penh. The main difference was that this place had a very nice swimming pool, a feature we used regularly over the 3 days. We went out on the first evening and poked around town (such as it is) and ended up eating at a little roadside joint. A nice meal and some Angkor beer for under $10 for both.

The next day we hit the tourist sites…20 minutes later we were finished. A temple, a market and a garden. We were back to the hotel for a swim and we found the only restaurant listed on trip advisor. It was a pizza joint of all things…and the pizza was good. Not Cambodian good…actually good. We have dipped our toes into the odd western dishes intermittently on this trip and have been disappointed every time…until now. This place served good pizza and the owner was lovely as she hung out chatting while we waited for our food. We found out she was a school teacher by morning and a restaurant owner in the afternoons and evenings. At the end of our meal she offered to give us rides back to our hotel on the back of her motorcycle…but we assured her we could make the 700m walk. In all honesty after a big feed the walk was welcomed.

IMG_4263 IMG_4264 IMG_4266 IMG_4268

Our hotel managed to get Jill into a rage as she sought two bus tickets to Battambang…4 requests and 2 days later still no tickets. She ranted, she raved, she swore, she asked for the manager (who had conveniently gone home)…and we walked down to town (5mins) and got the tickets ourselves…from a woman who spoke zero English…but could still provide better service than the hotel. The next day we took our $3 bus ride to Battambang.

We were picked up from a dirt patch opposite the servo (which passes as the bus stop) by Bodan (pronounced Bowrain) who was to be our personal guide and tuk tuk driver for the next few days. He dropped us at our 2 star joint which was immediately better than our 4 star one (but minus a pool). The owner was waiting to greet us and could not do enough to help. We locked in a 4pm trip to the Bamboo train and dinner afterwards.

IMG_4280 IMG_20141126_165828 IMG_20141126_170449

The bamboo train is a series of small bamboo rafts, for want of a better term, that sit on two railway axles, powered by a law mower engine that run along the out of service railway tracks. Originally this was for transport and goods movement but is now almost entirely for the tourist. There is one track, so if a competing raft comes in the other direction one or other must cede the track. To do this, both drivers pick up the raft, dump it on the side of the tracks, move the wheels and after one has passed then ( hopefully) the other driver will help the raft that ceded back onto the tracks.

WARNING: Jill’s video may induce epilepsy

This was fun. Jill has developed a love for all things train and this was yet another experience for the train journal. As we left our hotel at 4pm this was designed to be a sunset trip with a 30 min tuk tuk ride followed by a 20 min bamboo train ride to a village manned solely by stores (grass huts more than stores) for tourists and a 20 minute bamboo train ride back (pausing for some sunset photos across the rice paddies). I repeat…this was fun.

IMG_4285 IMG_4288 IMG_4295 IMG_4296

The next day we locked in with Bodan for a day exploring the southern areas around Battambang. This included the odd temple, fishing village, bat caves, winery and Wat Banan a run down group of 5 temples atop a hill with about 500 stairs that needed climbing. The best bit was cruising around the real Cambodia in the back of a tuk tuk. The day saw us heading about 50k out of town so we passed actual villages and villagers going about their daily business (not the tourist version at the end of the bamboo train).

The highlight of the day (other than the general immersion in the local lifestyle) was the visit to Phnom Sampeu. This is a series of hilltop temples, a monastery and two Buddhist stupas. The other thing of note was that it was the location of three Khmer Rouge killing caves, which is exactly what you might imagine (especially after reading the Phnom Penh post). These were deep crevasses where people were forced to kneel at the top, were killed and were kicked into the crevass. The one I went into was one where over 10,000 bodies were found.

IMG_4313 IMG_4314 IMG_20141127_111015 IMG_20141127_111831 IMG_20141127_131750 IMG_20141127_133314 IMG_20141127_133602 IMG_20141127_134955

The next day Jill booked us into a local cooking class run by a young Cambodian guy, French trained, chef in his own business (Coconut) that was staffed by his family. A classically trained chef being aided/overseen by his mother (who at times takes the mortar and pestle off him) is funny to watch. He may have all the skills but mum still sometimes knows best. We made 3 different local dishes (spring rolls, Fish Amok and Beef Loklak) and a desert and they were all incredible.

IMG_4329 IMG_4331 IMG_4333 IMG_4332

From here Bodan picked us up and we went touring the north of the city to Wat Ek Phnom an 11th century temple that is hanging on by its fingernails. This place will be rubble before too long. On the way we stopped at some local village businesses like the rice paper factory (underneath somebody’s house) and the fish sauce and fish paste factory. It is said you should never let people see how laws or sausages are made…this goes triple for fish sauce and fish paste.

IMG_4340 IMG_4345 IMG_4344 IMG_4352

These items have distinctive smells…but at the factory (a shanty shed with no walls) watching the filthy conditions, the man kicking the fish into piles, the vats of compressed (by big rocks) salted fish, the 15-20kg catfish having their heads chopped off (to be sold to the crocodile farm down the road), the shrimp, the ass fish that were too small to be eaten. Some things you just never needed to know…this was one of them.

IMG_4334 IMG_4338 IMG_4336 IMG_4337

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

I came to Phnom Penh on a work trip about 8 years ago and hated it. It was hot, smelly, dirty, neglected and mosquito infested…the two main tourist attractions were the Pol Pot killing fields and the Genocidal museum… add to this the fact that the Mosquitos carried dengue fever and it just capped off an ordinary trip. I am happy to say that things have changed significantly for the better. The streets are clean, the place has been developed and there are much more interesting things to see and do here.

Phnom Penh is on the banks of the Tonlé Sap and Mekong Rivers and is the capital of Cambodia. It is interesting to note that while they have their own currency (the real) it is basically not used and all things are priced and sold in $US…to the point that ATM’s dispense $US. The only time the local currency comes into play is as change for an item that requires coins (one $US being worth 4000 real). The other thing of note is that the streets are numbered, however not numerically. The streets running N-S are (notionally) odd numbered and the ones E-W are (sort of) even…but once again…not numerically. This makes navigation a touch difficult at times.

IMG_4174 IMG_4175 IMG_4178 IMG_4179

Quick history lesson – Back in the 1920s it was known as the “Pearl of Asia” and was one of the loveliest French-built cities in the region. During the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong used Cambodia as a base and Phnom Penh became a refuge for almost 3 million people trying to flee the fighting. In 1974 the Khmer Rouge cut off supplies to the city and on April 17, 1975 the city fell and the Khmer Rouge took control of the country. Their first order of business was to revert to an agrarian society, classifying city dwellers as “new people” and country folk as “old people”.

In power, the Khmer Rouge carried out a program that led to isolating the country from all foreign influences, closing schools, hospitals, and factories, abolishing banking, finance, and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all privately held property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms. By 1976 it was estimated that 80% of the population suffered from malaria. One of the Khmer Rouge mottos about the new people was “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.” Money was abolished, books were burned, teachers, merchants, and almost the entire intellectual elite of the country were murdered to make the agricultural communism (as Pol Pot envisioned it) a reality.

Over the next three years, the Khmer Rouge killed many intellectuals, city-dwellers, minority people, and many of their own party members and soldiers who were suspected of being traitors. Nobody knows how many people were killed by the regime but various studies have estimated the death toll at between 740,000 and 3,000,000.

IMG_4208 IMG_4212 IMG_4215 IMG_20141121_110505

So anyway…as part of our tourist run we hit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum which was a former high school that was turned into the Security Prison 21 (S-21) where most of the torturing took place. Out of around 17,000 people imprisoned at S21, there were only twelve known survivors. The first bit was pretty lame with an entire building full of rooms with a single metal bed in them. From here the world got very real with photos of the prisoners, the cells, images of the torture machines and a room full of human skulls and bones.

The rest of the day was comparatively uplifting after the genocide museum. We went to the Palace, the silver pagoda, the Russian markets, Independence and Liberation Memorials, the museum and Wat Botum.

IMG_4192 IMG_4202 IMG_20141121_083212

The next day we got up early and grabbed a tuk tuk to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek which are about 17 km south of the city and were about as uplifting as the genocide museum. This is just one of over 300 such fields scattered throughout Cambodia. I came here on my first trip and it was a sobering experience with human bones and clothing protruding from pits in the ground. If possible it has become even more confronting.

IMG_4248 IMG_4249 IMG_4240

The roads on the way to the killing fields have been fixed and paved (largely) and the insides have benefitted from the tourist dollars. Your six dollar entrance fee includes an audio guide and people wander the grounds silently listening to the commentary as they reach certain key points and pits along the way. This commentary includes victims and soldiers stories and recollections of what went on there and how it happened. Key stops along the way included the killing point, the torture shed, pits of perceived traitors remains, pits full of women and children’s bodies and the tree used to smash the children’s skulls before they were thrown into the pit.

IMG_4237 IMG_4244 IMG_4246 IMG_4247

This was by any standards a confronting place to visit… the addition of stories, facts and commentary on the audio guide has just added to the experience. Generally everyone was silent throughout the couple of hours it takes to get around and listen to the commentary. The images, stories and sights that you see in this place are incredibly sobering and don’t really lend themselves to chatting, laughing or joking. You could hear the occasional sobbing as people listened along, one woman started wailing at the child pit and the tree otherwise everyone was silently absorbing what was going on…except for the French and Russian tourists…they were the only voices that we heard in over 2 hrs… And we heard them consistently.

From here our tuk tuk driver dropped us at the Wat Phnom temple (which was right next to where I stayed last time) then we headed off to the central markets for a quick shop to replace some festy items. Dinner at a local joint that cost under $US5 for both of us (including a beer each). And our Phnom Penh visit was at an end.

IMG_20141121_163422 IMG_20141122_114440 IMG_20141122_115507 IMG_4186

While by no means was this an uplifting experience…it was enlightening…the city, the people and the infrastructure have improved considerably and both Jill and I agreed that we preferred this to Vietnam (with the exception of Halong bay). This is quite a turnaround from my last trip where I named Phnom Penh as the worst place I had been. I would come back here without hesitation now

Categories: Cambodia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Luang Prabang, Laos

We hopped a flight from the capital to Luang Prabang, the former capital and a UNESCO listed town at the junction of the Nam Khan and the Mekong rivers. Our first impressions were quite similar to those we had in Vientiane…it was a tourist centre filled with foreigners and with very little to see or recommend it. Add to this the fact that prices were jacked up high for the tourists and I was expecting to not enjoy the experience…I am happy to say that my initial impressions while technically accurate…were wrong.

IMG_3895 IMG_3897 IMG_3911

On day two we toured the local sights and saw everything that there was to see in town in about 3-4 hrs. This tour included Haw Kham, the former royal palace and now national museum, Vat Xieng Toung, the oldest monastery in town which was a stunning wooden temple with inlaid mosaics everywhere you look, a few of the minor temples and finally a trip up Phou Si/Chomsy Hill the main hill in the city. Thankfully we climbed this hill from the palace side which meant we only had to climb about 250-300 stairs. We went down on the other side which was about 900 very steep stairs.

Once at the top you had a nice view of the town and surrounds. We wandered along the river banks to get back to the other side of the hill passing expensive shops, hotels, restaurants and what appeared to be some very impressive cooking classes set up for the tourists. That evening we visited the Main Street which turns into night markets each evening. They sell the usual tourist trinkets, handicrafts and snake and scorpion infused booze.

IMG_3902 IMG_3903 IMG_3906 IMG_3933

Still fairly unimpressed, we booked a day trip into the surrounding areas and all of a sudden Luang Prabang was incredible. We were picked up at the hotel and driven to a local traditional village (highly focused on the tourist dollar) where you can watch them distilling the local hooch and weaving the clothes and materials that are sold in the night markets. You get to see and buy bottles of local whiskey with snakes, scorpions, bears feet, geckos, lizards and just about any other critter you can imagine inside the bottles. I thought about buying these for the nieces and nephews etc but there is no way Australian customs or quarantine would let them in the country. From here you set off to the Nam Ou Elephant Farm which is a Sanctuary for Asian elephants. And the day got fun as went for a one hour elephant ride through the jungle.

IMG_3949 IMG_3950 IMG_3961 IMG_3944

There were 5 elephants and 4 of them were perfectly behaved while our one on the other hand had personality. It started with going bush to retrieve food by pulling leaves and branches off trees mid way along the trail, intensified when it stopped at a stream for a drink and sprayed Jill with the trunk/water thing you see in all the nature shows. The poor little mahout was pulling on the flimsy string but our flump had his own thoughts. At one point he stopped and held trunks with the girl elephant behind then they entered into a trumpeting session with their trunks in each other’s ears. We were having visions of two horny elephants going for it…all of this with us seated on their back.

IMG_4007 IMG_20141118_111708 IMG_20141118_112655

A bit later on our flump spied the banana trees and decided a snack was in order. So off the track, up the hill and into the banana trees he went…out little mahout was doing his best but had no chance. The flump started with a couple of banana leaves but they would not rip off the tree…so he took the whole tree…ripped it out of the ground…and carted it along behind us, munching away, while he walked along…all of this with us seated on his back. From here we popped out to the Pak Ou and Tham Ting caves and back to the elephant joint for lunch.

IMG_4069 IMG_4081 IMG_4125 IMG_4133

It was not included in the package we paid for…but the elephants were due a bath in the river and we happened to be there at the time…so they offered us to wash the elephants. We all got changed into out swimmers (a waterfall and swim were planned for later in the day) and climbed aboard the flumps. At this point I need to confess that bareback riding of an elephant is not for me. On my first attempt I had my legs in front of his ears, so when he flipped his ears forward (as they do to cool themselves) my legs flew forward and I started sliding off his neck. The second attempt he decided to put his head down to grab some sugar cane and a-sliding I went again…I gave up and walked along beside him instead.

Jill on the other hand was in her bikini, mounted on her flump, and off. Down the hill, into the brown murky waters of the Mekong and splashing around in the water with her flump… she was grinning the entire time. I and the others in the group who were not mounted upon a flump had an awesome time watching, photographing, and laughing as the elephants dropped water mines that floated downstream towards the others who were frantically trying to splash the huge piles of elephant dung away from themselves. A good time was had by all.

From here we headed to the Kuang Si Waterfall park and the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, which is contained within the waterfall park. The park is a series of waterfalls and rock pools, the water is cool (cold), clean, and full of tourists dipping in the ponds. Most of the tourists were great but the usual suspects, as identified in the earlier post! Decided that their enjoyment would occur at the expense of the others who were there. After an hour here our time was up.

IMG_20141118_162046 IMG_20141118_160239 IMG_20141118_161436

If we had our time over and knew a little more about this place…the waterfall park really deserved a full day…and the elephants did too. There are longer tours you can do and, if it suits you, you can do a one, three or five day mahout course where you get to learn to be a mahout and hang with the flumps for your chosen period. This includes the washing, feeding, riding and general care and maintenance of the elephants. My bareback elephant riding skills deficit considered… this would be awesome.

While Luang Prabang has very little to see, is full of tourists, is about twice the price of Vientiane and my initial thoughts were accurate…we ended up loving the place. It is set amid the mountains (hills really), is pretty, the people don’t hassle you and it is generally a nice place to be. You will be overcharged for everything you see, do, eat or try to buy…but by home standards it is still cheap. And the elephant experience is not to be missed.

Categories: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vientiane, Laos

I had very little knowledge about Laos prior to this trip…the little that I did know left me uninspired but hey…it was right next door and we would be crazy not to go. We hopped off the plane and cabbed it to a really nice hotel where we settled in for he next few days. Now Laos was a former French colony and (at least in Vientiane) it has benefitted from this in the usual manner. Waterfront esplanades, cafés, coffee shops, baguettes, cheese and some pretty damn fine architecture.

Possibly one of the first things we should mention is that Laos has more western tourists than almost anywhere else we have been so far. Everywhere you look. Vientiane has a small town feel about it rather than that of most of the other Asian capitals. We relaxed through the heat of the day and headed out to the Mekong riverfront esplanade and markets for a lovely stroll followed by the hunt for a local restaurant for dinner. A few beer Lao’s, a bowl of soup and some spring rolls, all for next to nothing, our introduction to Laos had begun.

IMG_3846 IMG_3847 IMG_3850 IMG_3852

So the next day we plotted our course on the map and set off on the journey to hit the usual tourist haunts. The heat was high…about 38 degrees… but unlike the last few places, the humidity was low. So despite high temperatures it was quite pleasant walking around doing the tourist schlepp. We hit the usual haunts, temples, monasteries, museums, markets, stupas and yet some more temples. Possibly the most impressive was the Laos version of the Champs Elysees on the street leading up to the Palace. Having blitzed the town we found we had done 90% of the tourist thing in about 4 hrs…there really isn’t too much here.

The things they call museums are really just old things…the actual museum was saved for the next day. We found the local delicacy on day one and went back the next two days for more. It was a baguette filled with pate, cheese, vegetables, mystery meat and mystery sauce and cost a total of 10,000 kip (about $1.30). The next day we hit the actual museum which enlightened us to the war history of Laos…something that I at least was unaware of. These guys have been systematically smacked by almost everybody. Starting with the Chinese, then the Thai’s, the French, the Brits, the Japanese and then the French once again.

IMG_3874 IMG_3875 IMG_3877

While there was not massive amounts to see or do, there was a relaxing atmosphere about the place. The traffic was calm, there was no honking, the esplanade alongside the Mekong river was nice, the food was pretty good and was cheap. We hit the esplanade for a sunset walk along the banks of the Mekong river and just generally relaxed taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a new country.

Vientiane did spark the conversation of who was the rudest nationality when it came to tourists. It came down to a split decision between three different nationalities and this varied entirely depending upon the circumstances. What we did determine was the factors that made a rude tourist…this was essentially those that are ignorant and arrogant, ignoring those around them at all costs. I am sure that using this criteria the First Nation that pops to mind for most of you will be he USA…but they do not rate in out top three as there are many worse examples of ignorant and arrogant tourists, ignoring those around them.

IMG_20141114_083902 IMG_20141114_085213 IMG_20141114_090700 IMG_20141114_092216

Our pick of the worst three tourist nationalities that we have come across are… The French, the Russians and the Israelis. The French seem to have a sense of colonialism to them where they seem to think that this is still a colony and the locals are here entirely for their subjugation, and that other tourists are irrelevant to their particular needs and wants. The Russians have had their tourist doors closed for too long so a Russian tourist is (generally) either oblivious or totally disregarding of other people trying to experience the same things.

The Israeli tourists you tend to meet are all around 25 years old and have just finished their national service. They are young, brash, fit and cashed up. They will drink, dance, party and listen to their doof doof at any volume they see fit, at any time and to hell with anyone around them.

IMG_3868 IMG_3869 IMG_3871 IMG_20141114_103004

Our three favourites would have to be the Dutch, the Germans and Canadians. These three are generally quiet, reserved, respectful and genuinely interested to learn about and experience other countries and cultures.

Categories: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bago, Myanmar

We left Mandalay on yet another train journey…the last train journey I was conflicted but after a second nightmare journey all I can say is NEVER get on a train in Myanmar. It is without a doubt the worst experience that you can have. This one was every bit as bad as the last one but did not have the human interaction to rescue it. Our trip began with using half a can of bug spray to kill the 200+ spiders in our sleeper cabin…and the broom from the toilet to rid ourselves of the multitude of webs etc all over our room. Add to this the jumps, bumps and body wracking bits from before and this was another 15 hrs of hell.

We got off the train in Bago in he early hours of the morning to find that English and transport were not as prevalent out in the sticks. We tried to get a cab or a ute or whatever passes for a taxi or transport…we ended up as two fat westerners, with luggage, on pedal trishaws, being driven around by 50kg skinny Asian guys…who had no idea where our hotel was. After a couple of false starts, a rider change for Jill, and me walking up the hill of the bridge cos I was too heavy we got to our hotel.

IMG_3728 IMG_3733 IMG_3736 IMG_20141107_071414

The main reason for coming to Bago was that it was a good launching point to head to the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda more commonly known as the Golden Rock. It is pagoda built on the top of a granite rock that has been covered with gold leaves pasted on by visiting male pilgrims…I say male because women are not allowed near the thing. According to the legend, the Golden Rock which is precariously perched on the mountain is held there by a strand of the Buddha’s hair. It is said that a glimpse of the “gravity defying” Golden Rock is believed to be enough of an inspiration for any person to turn to Buddhism…I on the other hand had different thoughts.

Now to become a Buddha you must reach a level of enlightenment to raise yourself to such a position. To achieve this the bodhisattva (living future Buddha) an aspirant to the full enlightenment of Buddhahood generally become monks and train themselves, through altruistic deeds and meditative effort, to acquire the qualities essential to a Buddha. I have seen a lot of these monks…in a lot of countries…they have shaven their heads and are all bald…but the rock is held up by hair…my thought…how curly was this hair.

IMG_3739 IMG_3750 IMG_20141108_091008 IMG_20141108_091632

The trip to the rock was entertaining enough initially as we cabbed the 100km to get there passing some stunning rural sights along the way.  Upon arrival at Kinpun (the town at the bottom of the hill we were met with our transport to get us to the top of the hill. It was (without word of a lie) a dump truck with rows of seats bolted to the sides which they jammed 6-7 people per row. Five per row would have been relatively comfortable six was silly and seven was just lunacy. Add to this the fact that the rows were so close together that you had to go almost side-saddle to get in and this was less than ideal. Having reached the top there were dudes with bamboo poles and seats offering to carry me up the stairs to get to the rock.. for a very reasonable fee. Before I could formulate an answer I was clipped across the back of the head and told not to even think about it.

IMG_3742 IMG_3756 IMG_20141108_100859

The rock was certainly cool and we headed back to town and had another huge Burmese feast for basically nothing. This was a pattern in this place. We could go out to dinner and have a huge feed, generally washed down with some Myanmar or Dagon lager and we would get change from $10. The next day we locked in to see some of the local sights around town with the skinny old dude who pedalled us to the hotel on day one…but in a motorised transport version this time. By motorised transport it was a Burmese version of a tuk tuk with the same level of suspension as that which existed on the train.

IMG_3761 IMG_3764 IMG_3743 IMG_3782

The first stop was the Kyatkhutwine Monastery which houses about 700 monks. We got lucky and arrived at meal time and wandered through the dining hall being amazed by the size of the rice pots. From here we headed into the kitchen and got a sense of what it took to cater for 700 people on a daily basis. From here we headed to the snake temple which in essence is a small temple with a huge snake. The snake is said to be the 120 year old reincarnation of the former head of a monastery in Hsipaw. In reality it is a massively over fed 7 metre long python.

IMG_20141109_112521 IMG_20141109_112224 IMG_20141108_120410

We hopped around to some lesser pagodas and temples then hit the Shwethalyaung Buddha which is the worlds second largest reclining Buddha at 55m long and 16m tall. Then on to Kyaik Pun Pagoda the home of the Four Seated Buddha shrine. From here we hid in the hotel during the heat of the day before meeting our dude at 5pm for a trip to the Shwemawdaw Paya pagoda, the tallest pagoda in Burma at 114 metres. We got lucky and were here for a festival that saw thousands of people attending and setting up for the after dark festivities.

IMG_3785 IMG_3791 IMG_3792 IMG_3794 IMG_3801 IMG_3803 IMG_3809

This involved the designing and laying out of tens of thousands of little clay pots into words and images and putting in candles for the nighttime lighting. Jill is a bit of a local celebrity here in Myanmar with everyone smiling, grinning and waving at the white woman in the funny hat. I get the hellos and the waves but Jill is by far the star of the show…especially with the kids. At the festival a small boy was on his fathers lap and was excitedly pointing at Jill as if she was a rock star, she noticed and waved which incited a level of excitement rarely seen.

IMG_3807 IMG_3808 IMG_3819 IMG_3830 IMG_3835 IMG_20141109_123436 IMG_20141109_112558 IMG_3776

This kept going for about 10 mins as we looked at the pagoda, the candles and the people generally. By the end the small child was blowing kisses to her and nearly fell over when she blew one back. This level of friendliness here in Burma is ubiquitous. The warmth and welcoming that you receive from everyone is something that must be experienced. Let’s hope that this genuine quality does not get replaced by mercenary overtones once the tourism kicks in.

With Bago finished we hopped a cab back to Yangon  where we spent a night before saying farewell to Myanmar. We had a flight to KL where we crashed for a night and then started the next leg of this little adventure…Laos.

Categories: Myanmar | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mandalay

A short flight from Bagan to Mandalay and we were off on our next leg. Tiny airports really do add a whole new level of interest to a journey. We were on a baby prop plane that required the weighing of everything that went onto the plane. We were originally booked Air Bagan but were changed to Asian Wings airline…but still had to check in at Air Bagan. There was no assigned seating…just first on, first seated. Despite all of this it was a relatively uneventful flight. We arrived and ended up in a share taxi to town… And on to our accommodation which was really nice…and our taxi resembled a passenger vehicle…no ute taxi this time.

Mandalay is the second-largest city and was the last city used as the royal capital. The palace was originally the former royal palace of Amarapura which they dismantled and moved here by elephants. The palace is at the centre of a 1020-acre citadel surrounded by four 2,032 m long walls and a moat 64m wide, 4.6m deep (thanks wiki). The walls originally had three gates on each side, and five bridges to cross the moat…at present there is one bridge per side.

IMG_3681 IMG_20141105_102746 IMG_3682 IMG_3693

We were staying about 2km South-west of the palace so decided on an early start to avoid the heat of the day. We walked the 2k to the corner, then the other 1k to the bridge…only to find the south gate was closed to foreigners. So we walked the 2k to the east gate, to find that they no longer accepted US$ but only the local kyat. So we walked one K to a big hotel, changed our money and walked the one k back to the gate. Having paid we walked another k to the palace where we poked around for a while.

Buddhism reigns supreme here and about 15km out of town in Amarapura Township is the Mandalay Swedaw pagoda celebrating the tooth of Buddha. Not the actual tooth because we saw that in Kandi, Sri Lanka…but a replica. This is one of four such temples in Myanmar…celebrating the replica of the tooth of Buddha and they are all high atop hills and mountains, this one was on Maha Dhammayanthi Hill. Needless to say we did not attend.

IMG_3694  IMG_3689 IMG_3695

IMG_3701 IMG_3703 IMG_20141105_103326

Having seen the palace we headed back the 1k to the east gate and headed north for the 1k walk to the bottom of Mandalay Hill (anyone keeping count of our little amble…god knows I was). From the bottom of the hill we started the climb up the covered staircase (called saungdan). At the top of the hill is the Sutaungpyei (wish-fulfilling) Pagoda. The guide book told us that for those who are fit to make the climb, it is considered a rewarding experience and a meritorious deed at the same time. What it also told us…in fine print…was that it was a holy site so the shoes came off and we did a 45 minute stair climb barefoot.

For those that have been following…my darling (mountain goat) bride did the 1200 stairs to get to the Great Wall in Mutyanyu in 15 mins…this climb took 45…admittedly I am certain I slowed her pace…buy hey…just a bit of context here. Did I mention that it was barefoot. Any guesses as to what the local dogs do on the staircase…yep…a new degree of difficulty. Anyway up we went. We intermittently hit plateaus with pagodas or temples on them. The most impressive was the hermit U Khanti’s dazaung hall. This was about one third of the way up and was spectacular with views over the palace complex and the religious sites below. This hall once held three fragments of bone of the Gautama Buddha (a different Buddha to the toothless one) but they were moved in the 1940’s.

IMG_3706 IMG_3707 IMG_3713 IMG_20141105_105626

The stairs went up…so…so did we. We climbed hitting the odd plateau of religious (or commercial) significance. As we neared the top we popped out onto a road as taxis ferried those tourists who were not interested in rewarding experiences or meritorious deeds in 37 degrees and 80+% humidity. We kept climbing and passed some Germans who were looking ragged but un-sweaty who warned us that there were many more steps and there was still a long way to go. On we went…as it turned out there was only about another 200 stairs and they weren’t that tough…these Germans were clearly not doing the meritorious deed.

Having reached the top we found that the view from the top was actually considerably worse than the really good one we had 1/3 of the way up. We later learned that the road dropped tourists off at an escalator which in turn had a lift to take you to the pagoda at the summit. Anyway…we took some pictures and headed back down the stairs.

When we hit the U Khanti’s dazaung hall, 1/3 of the way up we saw a shiny gold pagoda surrounded by hundreds of white stupas. We found at this was the Kuthodaw Pagoda, and would be our first stop upon reaching the bottom of the hill. Upon reaching the bottom we found that this was the site of the worlds largest book. Surrounding the pagoda were 729 kyauksa gu or stone-inscription caves (not the stupas I thought that they were). Each of these contained a marble slab that was 5 foot tall, 4 foot wide and was inscribed on both sides with a page of text from the Buddhist holy text…impressive.

IMG_3711 IMG_3719 IMG_20141105_133915

And our Mandalay visit was over…I was tired so we hopped a cab (back of a ute) back to the hotel for a shower and a crash before we woke for a day of killing time waiting for our train ride to take us to the next port of call…Bago.

Categories: Myanmar | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.