Inle Lake

I have spent the last 3 days by Inle Lake. Day before yesterday I took a one-day boat trip for one around the lake. We set off at 8am when the mist was still rising off the water and visibility wasn’t so great, but the scene was spectacular. Like something from a Charlotte Bronte novel.

We took in lots of interesting stuff – a local market selling everything from jewellery and clothes to vegetables and oxen. Then it was off to a factory making clothes spun from the fibre inside lotus flower stalks – pretty amazing – where I bought a beautiful pink traditional Burmese skirt. I also saw silver being made and cigars being rolled elsewhere. I stopped for lunch at a restaurant on stilts over the lake. The sink outside the toilet was quite literally a steel sink unit hanging over the lake – the waste water just fell into the lake below. Funny. I also hoped to see some cats that have been taught to jump through hoops by monks at a monastry on the lake, but there was no feline action to be seen. Rumour was they were cat-napping (ahem…).

While at the monastry I bumped into Aussie Matthew and Dutch Arian who I had met and music’d with at the bar in Kalaw. We made plans for dinner and beers and I saw them later. We were joined by Becca from Canada, her German boyfriend Johannes and Michelle from Melbourne. A trans-continental dinner party.

The lake is stunning – it emerges out of the reeds and you are never clear where it starts or finishes. It reminded me a bit of Lake Titicaca (sp?) which sits between Peru and Bolivia which I visited back in 1997. Like its South American equivalent, it also boasts floating islands and a dreamy feeling.

I do wonder about my extreme love of being on or by the water. When my dad and I took a weekend away in Whitehaven earlier in the year to trace his roots, I realised that his family had sea-faring credentials going back generations. Can salt water run in your blood? Maybe there is some other explanation…

Kandawgyi Lake

So, many good things happened today. First off, I headed to the travel agent to pay for and pick up my ticket for a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the temples of Bagan, scheduled for circa 6am on 21 January. The photos look amazing and if the rumours are true, I’ll get a champagne breakfast before we set off. I love it when all my favourite things coincide. In the immortal words of Charlie of the Chocolate Factory fame, I’ve got the golden ticket. (If you sing it to the correct tune the joke wil almost certainly be funnier – was in my head, anyway).

The travel agents was located right next to Inya Lake so I took the opportunity for a stroll around in the crushing midday sun (mad dogs and English men…). To be honest, it wasn’t much to write home about and there was little shade. But while there, I wandered round the corner to check out Ang San Suu Kyi’s house. A flag, a photo of her late father and some barbed wire topped gates were all that awaited me. To be honest, I think in tourism terms they could have done better, and they missed a trick at not having a tacky tourist stall. While I was there for literally one minute, a packed tourist bus passed and a couple of taxis stopped for foreigners to jump out and have their photos taken. I’m being trite for comedic value, of course. It was great to be at the scene of so much important democratic reform (readers, this may be my final blog from Burma…).

From there I took a cab to Kandawgyi Lake which was stunning. Smaller than Inya Lake, but green, pictoresque, dotted with interesting lush green gardens, and a sprinkling of locals going about their daily lives (fishing, reading, taking exercise, schmooching). Speaking of which, it seems lakes are the prime spot for courting couples here in Burma. With even a modestly sized umbrella to preserve your dignity, it’s amazing what you can get up to.

I spent a few blissful hours by the lake – walking, thinking, reading. I finished George Orwell’s Burmese Days on one side of the lake – very funny and I suspect a depressingly realistic account of British colonial rule in Burma, fuelled most by alcohol rather than smart strategy, it seems. I then moved on to Letters from Burma by Ang San Suu Kyi. I’m only part way through it, but already I’m hooked. So beautifully written, and inspiring to hear from a politician willing to sacrifice their own comforts for those of her people.

Two quotes grabbed me – one about work, the other about politics but really saying the same thing:
‘People will contribute hard work and money cheerfully if they are handled with kindness and care and if they are convinced that their contributions will truly benefit the public’ and
‘Some have questioned the appropriateness of talking about such matters as metta (loving-kindness) and thissa (truth) in the political context. But politics is about people and what we have seen in Thamanya proved that love and truth can move people more strongly than any form of coercion.’

So, as long as the buses are good to me, tomorrow I will take an overnight bus to Kalaw where I hope to do some treking/walking. Then on to Inle Lake where I have accommodation booked and a date with some hot springs. 

Burmese Days

So day 1 of Burma is in the bag. So far, I love it. I landed first thing and jumped in a cab to the hostel I had booked – hilariously called The White House (nothing like it, in case you were wondering). I had been worried I might not have a room when I got here – because Burma is a cash-only economy, hostels can’t take your credit card details to secure the booking and so are reluctant to make firm plans. I had heard stories from other people about this before I arrived. Anyway, a room I do have. It’s basic and it ain’t pretty, but it meets all my needs. Actually, as I was settling in for an heat-induced afternoon nap earlier, I had a feeling of sheer happiness – there I was in a room in the centre of Yangon and my little fan was keeping me cool. At that moment, nothing else in the world mattered to me. Simple pleasures.

This morning I did what they call in Lonely Planet land a ‘walking tour’ of the city. I normally call that wandering with a half baked plan and a map, but I am learning fast. Those of you that guffaw at my poor geographical skills can take those smug looks of your faces – I managed to orient myself, find everything I was looking for, and even (drum roll) get back to my hotel again. That Cambridge education wasn’t wasted on me.

Rangon feels like stepping back in time – it is jam packed with beautiful old colonial buildings, many still sporting their vivid colours. Unfortunately, most have not been maintained, so large parts of the city are quite literally crumbling in front of your eyes. A classic example is the former High Court – a presidential type building that was no doubt designed to send a clear message about colonial law and order. Empty, crumbling, and with forna and flora sprouting from every available nook and cranny.

One of the things that strikes you immediately about this wonderful city is its colour. Around every corner, you are confronted by golds, aqua blues, and bright persil-like whites. Exhibit A is the Sule Paya, a giant golden monument that is the geographical and commercial heart of the city, and around which the British-designed grid street system was designed. Inside there were a proliferation of buddhas, some distinctly disco with their colourful flashing lights.

For lunch, I found a tiny hole in the wall in a dusty back street, and for dinner tonight enjoyed the tastiest chicken biryani of my life. All the more delicious after a busy day of exploration, a long nap, many chapters read, and a full gig set on the roof terrace of the hostel. There was high drama indeed when the man at the table next to me did a runner without paying – this commotion kept the restaurant’s staff amused for the whole of my stay. Everything in Rangon shuts early so it’s 8.30pm and I am tucked up blogging in the communal area of the hostel surrounded by a United Nations of fellow backpackers, some who have brough their whole family with them. Nice to see people coming to places like Burma with small children – what an adventure and education for those kids.

Right, photos to follow separately as the wordpress app on my tablet is playing up – sometimes it includes them, sometimes it digs its heels in and refuses. I’ve heard about smart technology, but the fact my app is editing out my poor photography skills on my own blog makes me angry. 

Burma bound…

It’s 05.30 and i’m waiting to board my flight to Yangon.  Excited? Yes. Anxious? A little. But strong coffee seems to be helping.

I have treated myself to lounge access – perhaps the last little luxury I will enjoy for a while. Actually, I am quite enjoying this back to basics lark – you strip away all the clutter and quickly realise what you need and what is non-essential. And having to carry everything on your back certainly focuses the mind. I have also established a packing/unpacking routine. It’s quite a luxury that I have nothing more important to occupy my thoughts. Or maybe this is how OCD starts….

The flight leaves in exactly an hour.  Time plenty for me to feed my caffeine addiction.

Final day in Bangkok

So it was a rather slow start to the day after dancing until dawn last night/this morning with new friends I will never see again… Anyway, it was all good fun and my knowledge of the Top 40 (do we still call it that) is growing fast. And talk about not being able to leave your work at home – in one bar I got chatting to what I thought was a nice guy – turned out to be a member of a Swedish white power movement. He showed me his tattoes and talked me through his views. I said I needed the toilet and made a polite escape… Maybe a case study when I’m home?… The gettaway led me into the arms of a group of gay guys from Australia who took me with them on their quest for a club with a pumping dance floor. Oh happy days.

A late breakfast followed (actually, it was more like a late lunch). And as I sat on the Khao Sarn Road, it struck me it’s sort of the Asian equivalent of Magaluf. Lots of tattoes (when I say lots….) and heaps of excessive daytime drinking. Maybe it’s just because I am here over the xmas period.

I took a stroll around Bangkok this afternoon and found myself a little park right by the river where I sat, thought a lot about anything and everything, and started reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days to get myself in the mood for the next 3 weeks. It’s had a promising start so far, but then I am already a huge Orwell fan. This was my view – nice.

Bangkok is truly a city of extremes. In just a short stroll this afternoon I saw everything from the backpacker excesses of the Khao Sarn road…


…to the gated house of one of the Thai princes…

…and a row of houses next to the river that might be a bit of de-cluttering…


I haven’t ventured into the central business district and smart areas of Bangkok yet, but will do that next time I’m here on my way home (deep breaths, supress those tears…).

And so to Burma! My flight is at silly-o-clock so it will be an early one for me tonight. The hostel is confirmed for Yangon (keep your fingers crossed readers), and I’m trying to line up a guide for some trekking between Kalaw and Inlake Lake. Very very muchly excited…

2013 travel plans…

So the last two days have been spent locked in a darkened office at Dan’s place trying to organise the Asian leg of my grand tour. I seem to be making progress. I leave for Bangkok tomorrow and have a long weekend there with accommodation booked. I’m going for the flashpacker option.

Then on 8 January I fly to Rangoon and out again on 28 January. I’m hoping while I am there to take in the capital city, the golden boulder at Mt Kyaitiyo, do the 2-4 day trek from Kalaw to Lake Inle, head up to Mandalay, take a boat from there to Bagan, fly over the temples of Bagan in a hot air balloon, and then if there is time fit in a few days on the Bay of Bengal before flying to Siem Reap in Cambodia on 28 January. Just hope I fit it all in and that Burmese hotels and transport systems are kind to me.

I’m starting to get a little nervous about how difficult it may be to get around and find my feet in Burma. As it’s a cash only economy it’s difficult to book much ahead of time as they have no means of guaranteeing your stay. But a challenge is exactly what I wanted, so I’ll give it my best shot. This is where the quartergapyear adventure really starts – just me, the guitar, some pristine US dollars, and a Lonely Planet guide.