Kalow: Socks, cold and dodgy Sikh salesmen

The bus pulls in at 4am. Minimal, if any sleep. Its freezing cold outside. Guy is hanging and coughing his guts up. This dude is waiting outside of the bus for us.

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Legend. He leads us down the road to Lilly’s Guest House. My attire of shorts and flip flops seems ridiculous at what feels like minus 20C. Kalow is 1320m above sea level so at night, the temperature drops. Significantly. Golden Lily’s Guest House offers pretty clean accommodation, probably the nicest and cheapest we’ve had the pleasure to sleep in so far. Result. The forever coughing Guy was strategically placed in with Isabel. Happy. Excited at the prospect of a three day trek. Tired. I slept at last.

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Egg and chippati. Breakfast with an Indian twist. The owners are Sikh, three generations have grown up in Kalow but descended from Punjab, India. I showed one of the four brothers my Golden Temple head piece. He wasn’t impressed. I realised that they would all love to do the pilgrimage, a lifetime dream, but strict and expensive rules on passport applications has restricted their dreams to just that. Tact Michael. I must learn to hold my mouth sometimes.
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A run and a freezing cold shower was followed by a very serious sales pitch by one of the brothers. He also mentioned that all the other trekking agents had military ties and that if we went with them, then we would be sponsoring the Government. Strange claim. Strange guy.
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I took to wandering the streets of this sleepy little town. The market sold some interesting items, most notably a selection of traditional Shan knives, slash swords. Street food was good and there were also a varied selection of pagodas. Standard Myanmar protocol. Some houses had a distinctly British influence while others reminded me of the Wild West in America and summer villas straight out of the Mediterranean. The streets were extremely quiet, almost ghost like.
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I walked up a hill, through a village and into a monastery overlooking the entire town. The sun was happy today. I sat and meditated. In a vain attempt to impress the staring monks I read some of the Dalia Lama’s ‘Art of Happiness’. How topically appropriate of me. I felt good.
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I found a weird box by the toilet.
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A Shan noodle dinner and a Myanmar beer sent us to bed early, ready for our three day hike. Excited and needing the exercise to feed my habit, I slept well until the usual 5am prayers woke me. It’s time to trek baby. Yeah.
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That short bus trip back to Bago: Diggers, collapsed bridges and thousands stranded.

We’re half an hour late for our bus to take us two hours up the road from Kyaitiyo back to Bago, so we can catch a connecting bus to Kalow. South to North. We’re late but conveniently for us, the bus is waiting. Hopping aboard extremely pleased, I remember thinking luck was on our side. Thank you Mr Back Packing Gods. However, we had no idea that there was several miles of traffic that had queued up for the last two days waiting to go over the bridge that takes you to Yangon and the rest of Myanmar. We had no idea our two hour journey would transcend into a nine hour marathon which involved three buses, a lot of hiking and hours of waiting.
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Let me take you back, way back to when the four of us were sat on the bus, happy the bus had waited and excited about our future exploits in Kalow. The TV was showing the usual trash comedy the Burmese love so much  to watch at full blast. The bus then stops in the middle of no where, next to a canal. We wait. And wait. The traffic builds up on the other side. We start to question the situation when we see everyone evacuate their cars and buses.
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Conveniently, there is a stall selling freshly cut water melons. We escape the bus and join a rather large queue. The traffic jam is solid. No body speaks good enough English to tell us what’s going on. A little bit of excitement on our bus journey is much appreciated at this point, but playing on our minds is the thought of missing the connecting bus. Bus times in Myanmar can be bizarre. We’d planned our route well but if we were to be late by more than two hours, we would miss the bus and be delayed by up to 36 hours. The last thing we needed was to be late.
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After a game of charades and broken English we think there’s been a crash between two buses. Motorbikes zoom up and down picking up passengers who don’t want to wait. Mayhem is unfolding in front of us. Escaping traffic can’t move but most people are, as always, calm and relaxed. If this was England, there’d be extreme sighing fits behind the wheel, a few angry pikey’s shouting and plenty of beeping and most would be moaning about the state of life in Britain and how they’d escape if they could. But here, they just get on with it, resilient and calm. Maybe they expect it, maybe the Buddhist philosophies and meditation make these souls able to control their emotions in a positive manner, maybe the relaxed pace of life doesn’t put pressure on them to perform for the clock. Life goes on. Another route must be found.
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We wait. Everyone is out on the streets, confusion had set in, nobody was moving. More people deserted their buses and jumped on motorbikes who weaved in and out of the buses and passengers. A bit confused as to how bikes can get across the bridge and buses can’t, we figured there must be a boat crossing. Weird. Many street sellers walk the road trading food and drinks to the stranded thousands.
We hear the bridge is 3km away. Guy and I walked off to see if we can get any news.
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The road is lined with buses and large goods vehicles. All cars and bikes have given up and turned back. After a ten minute walk we see our bus drive past us. Poop. We sprint, in our flip flops after the bus, terrified of getting left behind and loosing our bags. The bus stopped and we caught it up. The bus driver laughed at our vain attempts at running. He knew we were there but wanted to park further up the road. Funny man. Real funny.

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Heated debates in Burmese pass another hour. The old man and the monks at the front of the bus were getting rather animated. We had no idea what was going on. Classic. We were certain we were going to miss our connecting bus.
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After another hour of waiting and the sun already set, a young fella on a scooter turns up. He broadcast his news and yet another full on argument in Burmese fills the bus but his time everybody starts to pack their bags and get off the bus. Like lost little sheep, our confused team did the same. Our aim was to meet another bus on the other side of the bridge where we were told, would take us safely to Bago. All hope of catching the connecting bus was lost but our solo aim was to get to Bago that night so we could all get a decent nights sleep. Hope was our friend. We walked the 3km to the bridge, past the raging traffic, the beeping bikes and stranded buses. We squeezed in between cars, the locals delighted to see us, waving and shouting the only few English words they knew. Our cries of minglabba receiving big laughs and cheers. Dust and pollution from prehistoric cars and tractors filled the air. It was a tough trek.
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When we finally reached the bridge the issue became clear. Some muppet crashed a massive digger into the top beam of the bodge job of a bridge, it lodging itself firmly, leaving only a small gap for motorbikes and passengers to squeeze by. Height restrictions clearly not enforced. Maybe health and safety checks are good thing eh. The picture below is only for guidance. Kids were not involved.
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We walked past scores of people sleeping on the road under buses and lorries. Some lorry drivers had got together, lit a fire and were merrily drinking the night away. It was like a refugee camp. Our team of walkers, mainly Burmese, young and old, finally made it to the other bus. We helped each other, some had torches, some carried the young children and some helped carry bags for their elders. The restaurants were packed full of the stranded. Business was good. Trudging along for what seemed like an eternity our tired hope turned into cheers and celebrations. We bonded. We made it together. We boarded the bus and found a seat. Comfy and relaxed we again waited. This is where the bus is meant to pull off and we finally get to our destination. Wrong.
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Another dude on a scooter entered the bus and babbled something in Burmese. Again we are clueless as to what was to be our destiny. We were all ordered off the bus. That’s right, we were on the wrong bloody bus. Nice touch. Regaining our bags we trundled down the road for what felt like another two hours. This time the bus was the correct one and we did head off to Bago. Eventually.
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San Francisco Guest House was closed when we arrived. Luckily for us, banging as hard as we could on the shutters did the trick, waking the lovely landlady who squeezed us into our usual rooms, small, clean and extremely noisy, just how we remembered them. Bago: Round 2. Unexpected but always a pleasure.
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After a much needed 10 hour sleep we had breakfast and used the WiFi in our usual tea shop. I headed off alone down to the river for a walk, discovering a huge market place. Watching life go by is still fascinating here. Ordinary people doing ordinary things.
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I joined a group of men playing a gambling game. It was a mix between subuteo and pool, but they used a wooden board with holes in each corner and numbered bottle tops and counters. Four can play. Winner takes all. I watched and learned.
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Walking on, applying my sun cream made the locals laugh. In fact, some locals just laugh when they see me. I laugh back. Just a little paranoid, I check my hair in a market stall mirror. All good fella. They were just jealous they didn’t have my masculine good looks and blonde hair.
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There were many lanes leading to various departments of the market. The dead and dried fish section made me want to vomit although the flies seemed to love it. The fruit section made me buy bags full of bananas, oranges and apples for the journey ahead. The banana man was especially friendly, telling me his love for Manchester United. We bonded. He gave me a free banana.
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Walking for what seemed like an eternity I ended up in the part of the market that was under cover in what looked like a huge wooden shack. I was confused by the buckets of brown sludge on sale.
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You could buy fresh fish, flies, clothes, spices, electrical goods from the nineties, tapes, VHS, camera films, stack systems and loads of unsold toys from UK shops. The market was by what could have been a beautiful river, however there was some shabby looking bamboo shacks and a huge man made rubbish dump.
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I met up with Nourdes and wandered down the main road. A car pulls up and a huge tattooed local man with rotten teeth pulled up in his freshly cleaned white car from the eighties. He was shouting at us to get into the car. I’ll admit it, for both us, we crapped it. He wore a black shirt with a dragon design and had a Timberland flat cap on. He looked like he came straight out of a New York gangster movie. I declined his offer. He insisted he wanted to show us the sites. We again declined, explaining we had already seen the sites and were going to catch a bus to leave. Before we knew it he had jumped out of the car and ripped his shirt off, his entire body covered in fine tattoo art work. We were a little startled. He demanded we take a photo and put it on the Internet. His words were, ”make me famous”. He hugged us. This confirmed what we expected, he was under the influence.
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He was a forceful man who we didn’t really want to piss off so when he dragged us into a tea shop next door we accepted all the samosas, cakes, tea and soft drinks he threw at us. He caused a scene. The calm and tranquil ambience of the tea shop was broken by this large, shirt less and very drunk yob shouting his demands. We were a little embarrassed.
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He tried to explain to us how he had a hardcore life with no money until he moved to Thailand and started dodgy business. His Engli,sh may have been better if he wasn’t so high. The spit that flew from his mouth whilst talk shouting was quite off putting. After he mentioned I look like James Dean and Nourdes like Charles Heston, we decided to politely tell the ranting lunatic that we had to leave. He insisted we didn’t pay for anything and again, gave us a huge sweaty hug, declaring that both of us were extremely beautiful men. A lovely fair well to Bago.
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I stupidly shaved my golden locks off via Nourdines beard trimmers. My first visit to the mirror was a shock. I knew instantly I had made a mistake. My face tanned, my hair showing how pale white the top of my head was. Twat.
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We finally boarded our bus to Kalow, 24 hours later than planned but with some first class experiences under our belt but my head was cold.
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Destination Kalow. Trekking the game. Happy happy.

Kyaitiyo: Golden rocks, dead animals and murder scene hostels.

The team, Guy, Nourdes, Isabel and yours truly, were fast asleep on the bus, when we awake to a man shouting ‘Kyaitiyo’ in our faces, shaking us. We evacuate the bus, startled and a little bit confused. It’s late, dark and some smiling Burmese dude is asking us where we’re staying. We’re in the middle of no where. Before I know it, I’m on the back of a motorbike, back pack on, being driven through the black unlit countryside towards what I hope is the guest house I’d booked for us. The ride was long. The team had no idea what was going on. Our trust was placed solely in these smiling motorbike taxi fella’s. We arrived at our destination after a 30 minute bike ride from hell. I get off and burn my leg on the exhaust pipe and find out the twat of a hostel manager has booked out our room to someone else.
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Shit.
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It’s 11pm. We’re in a strange place and have no accommodation. I’ve been in worse situations. Luckily for us the men who drove us down here are happy to take us to the next place, for free. These guys actually care whether we get a place or not, rather than lining their own pockets. We are taken to Sea Sar Guest House. They have a triple bed room and a single. Result. We accept without checking the room. Captain Hindsight says ‘silly mistake’.
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The Planet states that …………..
“The cheaper rooms look like a crime scene”
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That was an understatement. It looked like a scene out of Saw. A horror movie plus some. Weird old machinery lay in the corner. Dust everywhere. A huge green moldy slobber lay on the floor. Rubbish was scattered around the room. The bin was full. The beds had new but dirty sheets on. The bathroom had some treasures too, a pipe coming of the wall was presumably the shower and the red stain smeared all over the toilet was unidentifiable. The whole room looked like a murder scene. I’ve stayed in some holes but this, by far, out shone anything I’d ever seen before. Usually, Myanmar offered basic but ‘clean’ accommodation. This took the piss.
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To make matters even more enjoyable after a night of broken sleep and nightmares about Freddy and Jason, the truck park next door came to life at about 5am. This is when the revving started. Then, Mr Monotone decides to repeatedly yell down the microphone, megaphone, sound system thing. His call outs were savoured every 5 minutes. This hotel just kept on giving.
Do not go there. Ever.
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That night we opted to visit the local tea shop to watch the football, unable to sleep after hanging off the back of a mentalist driven scooter for half an hour and being checked into ‘Saw’ Hotel. All the tea shops were packed. They are football mad out here. More so than the Brits. I love their enthusiasm. We order a beer and Guy declares his hatred for Manchester United publicly. This was a poor move. It’s Man Utd v Arsenal and the tea shop was full of Manchester fans. I sank my beer and watched Guy insult them. He’s a funny guy. No pun intended. Down to my side was a bin. It was full of red spit from beetle nut. Nice. The power cut kicked in and so did some of the shops generators, bed was calling. What a hell hole we found ourselves in. However, this is what back packing is all about, being in weird, unpredictable and sometimes unsafe surroundings of a foreign land. Out of my comfort zone completely, I secretly loved it.
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The morning brought new optimism. We would definitely move out and catch the bus up to Mandalay via Bago. The timings would be tight but what could possibly go wrong, the roads seem empty and quite well organised.
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The first and only stop before our exit was the world famous, not sure why really, Golden Rock. There was a truck waiting for us to take us to the bottom of the hill. When I say truck, I mean a huge truck, like one they would use to take building supplies to building sites. Massive beast with a few wooden planks in the back for our seats. Big enough for small Asians, not large Europeans.
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The truck set off to take us to the bottom of the hill with that large gold coloured rock on it. This was another form of transport I’d never had the pleasure of experiencing yet. And boy was it an experience.
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The ride was a roller coaster. Again, Myanmar manages to surprise me with its methods of transport. The truck went up and down, around and over the hills at uber lightening fast speeds. Jesus. My hair swept back by the wind, I loved every nerve racking minute of it. With nothing to hold on to I hoped for the best, occasionally bashing into the toothless old lady next to me, who was smoking a huge cigar while clinging onto what I presumed was her three year old grand son. Classy.
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The truck pulled in and we escaped as soon as possible. Knowing we had a bus to catch that afternoon we decided to walk up the mountain at a fairly fast pace. Shops and restaurants lined the path up the mountain, which had clearly seen a lot of Burmese tourists over the years. We found a few little treasures on our way up, such as wooden toy guns and samurai swords. Simple things.
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At the top was a row of hotels, souvenir shops, places to donate money and shops selling flowers and candles. This place was booming, a top pilgrimage for the Buddhist people’s.
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The rock however, was merely a rock balanced on top of another one, painted with gold leaf with a pagoda built on top. If you’ve been to Hampi in India, you won’t be impressed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a special place, and I was that tourist that went snap happy but I was told that the rock was balanced in an impossible position and that it was a miracle it had balanced for so many years. Debatable but it looked good all the same.
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Many pilgrims came and offered donations and lit candles and prayed. A sacred place for Buddhists and one I am glad I witnessed, quickly. The thing that made my day special was the view from the top and the village life behind the sprawl of tourist shops and restaurants that has amassed the mountain top over the years. I walked past the pagodas at the top of another peak and down towards the villages that cover the peaks further down. Real village life embraced me.
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I passed bamboo shacks, some covered with tarpaulin. People cooked food, washed clothes and sat talking. Children played. I wandered further and further. It was peaceful here, the views pretty nice. These shacks, like most, had TVs and sound systems. Music was played loudly by one hut and enjoyed by others, singing was heard everywhere. In England, I’d have been told to turn it down. I like the vibe. I like that they like music, however bad it sounded to me.
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I met a doctor who sold animal skins, bones and medicines. I’d go as far as calling him a witch doctor of some kind. I befriended him and his wife as they gutted squirrels. There was snake skins, cows and pigs skulls, horns, stuffed squirrels shaped like the furry thing from Ice Age films and entire wild boar skins, dried. The squirrel tail key rings were a lovely touch as was the still soggy pigs hooves. Blood, fruit and animal giblets were sold in old whiskey bottles and a variety of feathers and animal skins could be purchased.DSC03061
The fella was lovely but communication was minimal which left me with a lot of unanswered questions. For example, what the hell do you do with these things? Was it some kind of medical practice? Was it based around a religious thing?
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Either way, I was fascinated, smiling and shaking hands, I departed and ran back to catch the others for our roller coaster truck ride back to the hotel of horrors to catch our bus. Time was short, I’d wandered a fair way and started a gentle jog to catch the others, to the amusement of everyone I passed.
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We board our truck late and in our minds we’d missed the bus. We were a little narked about this but when we arrived back at the town we had a rep from the hotel of horrors greeting us. He tells us not to worry, the bus is waiting for us. Ha. I love this place. A bus waiting for you. There’s a first for everything. Transport links are limited so we had to rush to get to Kalow on this particular bus, otherwise we would have missed connecting buses and lost two days in transit. Transport is a funny beast out here. It changes constantly. Boarding the bus we have no idea what journey is in front of us. Watch this space.
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Clue: the journey demands a full blog post.
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Hpa-an: Jibney’s, caves and bat crap

Hpa-an is a small town. It offers a small market, another Pagoda, a few shops and a variety of homes. It’s the lovely people and surrounding attractions that made this friendly little town a bit of a special one for me.

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Again, we had to squeeze into our new home, the Soe Brothers Hostel. Two beds for our group of seven left two of us sleeping on the floor and our new English and Dutch friends who we met on the boat, up in the spare room, occupying the last remaining parts of the hotels floor space, minus the toilets. Everywhere in Myanmar, that was classed as budget accommodation for tourists, is busy. It’s peak season. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. The staff love our enthusiasm and usually charge the mattress-on-the-floor service a little cheaper than an old creaking wooden bed. A sign at reception reminding us that not all is great in the South.

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The diner across the road served us some great traditional foods. This family run diner was representative of most dining experiences in Myanmar. When ordering the food, usually half of the items are unavailable and the person taking the order uses no form of note pad, they just mentally note what you want, usually with a very confused look. The order and any dietary requirements are either lost in translation or forgotten. This unstructured customer service also includes orders being taken at different times. If you don’t call them and tell them what you want, they probably won’t ask you. The food, like most Asian countries comes when it’s done, sometimes the gap between us polite Europeans meals being delivered, can go over the 20 minute mark. Although they were lovely smiling people, they weren’t geared up to having a large group of westerners besiege their tiny family run cafe. Bless them. They got into a bit of a caffufel, shouting at each other and running to and from the kitchen. However, their food was good, oily, but good. When ordering drinks they pop over to the shop across the road and get them in. Some are cold. Refrigeration has not hit the mainstream yet.
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Another trick I learned from this gem of a cafe, a personal favourite of ours, was that you can fill up your water bottle for free from the purified water tanks doted about the place. Not just in this cafe but in the hotel, other shops and restaurants did this too. Brucie. You could top up for free anywhere with the water tanks. Sometimes there were clay pots full of water with metal bowls that you could use to drink from.
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Although the accommodation is expensive for what it is, everything else can be cheap. Food for a quid and free water. Sometimes it’s the small things in life. Learning about the new country I was in was extremely pleasurable. Do not take my sarcasm as cynicism. I love their eating traditions and their oily foods.
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Refuelled with my tea leaf salad and a Star Cola, I wondered down to the local market and bump into a friendly local man called Joseph and his non English speaking friend, Momo. Before I knew it, I was sat down next to the coinya (Indian paan) chewing pair, discussing their respective love of Manchester Utd and City. Joseph spoke good English and was the one of the first Burmese people I had a good and lengthy conversation with. We covered a variety of rich topics such as the vital info on the local temples and pagodas, his countries politics, and England’s, Americas and India’s, the military, civil war in the north, the school system and his lack of faith in the ability of my beloved Liverpool FC and their manager Brendan Rodgers.
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According to Joseph, mobile phones only became affordable in Myanmar two years ago. The Government lifted their $2000 charge for a SIM card so ordinary people can communicate. Now things are changing rapidly, most people can afford them. Internet is not affordable to most people and the town only had two shops with slow connection speeds. Internet is more accessible for residents in the larger cities. It is classed as a luxury item. He didn’t have an email address, most people don’t but the youth are starting to change things. He said the internet was only for sex. These sights are also blocked by the Government.
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He also said peace has spread across most of the country, the mood here was good. He looked concerned about the troubles in the North and warned me against going. He said even in the Shan State, where there are still rebels living in the mountains, there is peace. He looked happy and proud that the Mon State was quiet and peaceful again but his hatred, like all Burmese people, for the Police, the corrupt Government and the military was loud and clear. He was happy to share his opinions on worldwide politics too, strangely, he was a big fan of Margaret Thatcher. He helped me nail some key Myanmar phrases and taught me some slang.
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I was introduced to their kids who’d just come back from school. Momo’s twins were his prized possession. A crowd of friends and family had gathered to see what was going on, everyone impressed with Joseph’s English language skills and the big white guy with ridiculously blonde hair and blue eyes sitting down, chilling out with the lads in the market. They all smiled and giggled.
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After an hour had passed, we took pictures, shared hugs and hand shakes and departed ways. A mysterious country had just been opened up to me, hearing Joseph’s opinions and feelings had cleared up some questions in my mind. An encounter with a local is what makes journeys special. Joseph was one of these special guys, an average married man with two children who owned a market stall. He sat and talked with his friends on that market everyday, chewing coinya and earning an honest living. Humble and proud. He didn’t even try to sell me anything, he just wanted to talk. Having an English man sit down and talk to him was an honour.
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Sitting by the river with some new back packer buddies, we sank a cold beer and watched life go by. The local ladies washed their clothes in the murky brown waters while the men drove big, dirty, industrial looking boats kicking out a constant bulge of black smoke. Fishermen used traditional means to make a catch and long boats took workers back from a hard days work with their various crops. Life rolled past.
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Pace of life was slow here. We walked the streets, taking in the architecture, the street animals, the people and their traditions and the onslaught of smiles coming our way. People stopped us and practised their limited English skills. Some seriously happy vibes were being created, resonating around the small town of Hpa-an, infecting everyone. Relaxed and discussing back packer things with my new backpacker buddies, I realised how the path I was on was a full filling and special one. This type of travelling is what turns me on the most. Real life. New experiences. Meeting new, interesting people. I’m being educated all day long. Learning is fun. Knowledge is power.
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We all regrouped that evening and went to the restaurant The Planet recommends. It’s information was on point this time. We were served free green tea, soup, salad and the table was covered in little bowls of side dishes, the theme was distinctly fishy with a sprinkling of spice. Our curries, noodles and rice dishes were thrown in to the mix, then the pots of sweets started to circulate and a hefty helping of Myanmar Lager kept conversation swift and full of banter. The food was good, buckets of oil, but we expected nothing less. The table was covered with local delicacies, they looked after us, we were fed very well.
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Bottles of Myanmar Lager offer a prize, if you peel back the lid a small message declares if you are a winner. Richard won a free beer and Guy won 200 kyats, that’s 20 pence. Guy was extremely happy with his winnings. A proud man.
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I went to bed that night, full of oil and beer. The diet here starting to make me feel a little sick. I think I need to look at the fat content of my fuel. There’s a rich and varied range of foods available here, the surrounding countries foods adapted to become Myanmar’s very own. Plus oil. Lots of it. Everything is fried. The Chinese influenced soup and noodles are the healthiest option but even these dishes have added oil. My cholesterol will be through the roof. Am I getting old?
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Early Morning prayer and life starts early. The cockerels start first then the cars and market get going leaving us no other option than to wake up. Somewhere near our hotel, in fact, near any sign of human activity any where in Myanmar, is a local monk and his sound system, blaring out tapes of some rambling dudes prayers. Monotonous, lethargic, croaky prayers with minimal musical content. This usually wakes you up at 5am. Sometimes earlier, sometimes later. I’m not a fan of this part of Buddhism. Thrown into the mix is Guy’s persistent coughing throughout the night, this making him a favourite sleeping companion in our cramped digs. I especially appreciate it when he forgets to cover his mouth and coughs in my face. The charms of life as a back packer. Love you really Guy. And your diseases.
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After breakfast, ten dirty back packers jumped on board a trishaw heading towards Mount Zwegabin. This is a motor bike with a carriage on the back. That’s right, six people should be its maximum capacity but we squeezed in ten large and well fed Europeans so it was no surprise that when attempting to climb a small hill the entire vehicle started to capsize. Luckily for us all, Richard and Nordes instinctively jumped out the back to restore a manageable weight so the trishaw regained balance. We were saved. Jumping into the front, the weight was distributed a little more evenly and we plodded on. Admittedly we did struggle on the hills, occasionally having to get out and walk up the hill.
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It took us just over an hour to get to the top of this little beauty. We passed a field of Buddha statues, a lot of talkative students from Yangon and a fair few pagodas before got we got to the top. The steps were steep and they kept coming, I broke a sweat. It felt good to do exercise, even if I still had that sicky oily taste in my stomach.
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At the top, the view was impressive. The pagoda was alright. Pilgrims lit candles, gave donations and kneeled to say their prayers. More importantly the monkeys turned up for a feeding session. Not as charming as the monkeys at the Hanuman Temple in Hampi, India, but I was still amused by these little fellas. I like monkeys. The big monkeys here were bullies and picked on the wee cute ones, stealing the food that was given to them.
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Again we were the highlight of the Burmese people’s day, striking up basic conversations in English and having to pose in their pictures. If I’m honest, I like the attention. It was like I was a cool DJ again, back in the day everyone wwanted to be my friend. I even had to pose with a group of giggling girls from the Yangon University. Thirty and I still got it.
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We all ate well in the cafe and hobbled down the other side of the mountain. Our under exercised legs starting to shake and tremble as we sang our way down to the waiting taxi truck.
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We were a little surprised when we arrived at the Kyan Ka Chaung caves in the early afternoon. What I thought sounded like a natural spring pool in a cave was actually a Buddha themed water park for children. The pool was indeed a natural spring but no adults went in, just us silly tourists. The children jumped in fully clothed. How very strange. Everyone seemed happy to see us and several groups of young local men and families besieged us at the cafe. We shook many hands, exchanged minglabba’s and posed for photos. The ladies in our group were a big hit with the teenage boys. After exploring a couple of temples and caves we were hurried back on to our truck. Apparently we weren’t allowed into one of the caves as a monk had shut it after finding a used condom on the floor. At least it was safe sex. Shame.
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After eating some of Myanmar’s finest foods and beers we went down to the Internet cafe. I got through to my lovely family and finally had a good talk with my loved ones back home. Its difficult being so far away. Not being able to help or talk face to face with people who you love. The only part of my home country I miss is my family and friends, some things we all take for granted, sometimes. It can all become a bit overwhelming.
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The Liverpool game against Norwich was on and there was a large group of young men gathering to watch it. It was on live but with a six and a half hour delay. The football culture is huge in Myanmar. They love it. They are passionate and at times almost overly eccentric about it. I enjoyed sitting at the back of the Internet shop, watching the lads huddling around the TV, sitting on the floor. There were intense moments of silence and concentration when the ball was in play but they mocked and joked with each other after a foul or goal. Typical lads. Friends came and went. Some showed approval at my love of Liverpool FC, some were bewildered at my poor choice and told me how Manchester United were top of the league. I love football banter, breaks all the language barriers. My enjoyment enhanced by the five nil thrashing we inflicted on Norwich.
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On route home alone, very tired, I managed to be followed by a large group of trouble making street dogs. It was late and the streets were eerily quiet. As I turned to face them, I walked straight into a low hanging wooden sun cover in front of a shop. It hurt. The whack to my head managed to wake up a dude who was sleeping outside his shop. He was startled. I felt stupid. The street dogs passed me by. I had a wounded forehead but I was safe. Asians don’t cater for us tall European folks in their shop design plans. It’s a daily occurrence now, hitting my head on something like a low door frame, low hanging sign or low ceiling.
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Returning to the hotel safe, I spot three of the team drinking beers on the balcony. When showing the team my photos of the day I realise that my SD card has failed and wiped off all my photos of the last four weeks. A bit of a sinking feeling happened at this point. A real low. But help was on hand. A Swiss gent called Richard, had a MacBook Pro with picture repair software on it. He was a camera pro and had had this problem before. He restored most of my pictures while plying me with alcohol. What a legend. He was an interesting guy. He’s been a professional opera singer, a fine art nude photographer specialist and is currently a full time traveler. Intriguing and extremely helpful, I hit the sack happy that most of my pictures have been saved.
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My morning run took me through the market and down to the river. Morning life is busy and hectic in Hpa-an. On my way back through the market I see a man sitting by a pot. This little fella had long hair and a long beard, both tied at the end. He looked like a traditional Chinese pirate and he was drawing quite a crowd. Animated, he talked a good talk in their native Burmese tongue. Before I knew it, he had pulled out a snake, a raging python with an inflamed head. I crapped myself. I had no idea that would happen. The crowd laughed at me. I laughed back. I love Myanmar.
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Uncomfortable and a tad embarrassed I carried on my run back to the hotel, where I bump into Richard. I thank him for his help last night and he tells me about his nudist fine art work. I’m invited to model for him. Naked in a sailors outfit? Or maybe a fireman? Hmm, I told him I’ll consider it. I love Myanmar.
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Our final day in Hpa-an sees us pay a visit to the Sadder caves. It’s a good 27km journey from the centre of town and we need to take a jibney, a pick up truck converted with two wooden planks as seats, a metal frame and a roof rack on top, to Eindhu and grab a trishaw to the caves. The jibney was full so we let the women sit down and joined a few local men on the roof rack. What a great way to ride. Guy, Nordes and I loved it, wind blowing through our hair and beards, smiles on point, waving and shouting minglabba’s to the locals we passed. The journey was rough and bumpy, our arse cheeks and backs bruised by the ride but it was worth it.
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The entrance to the caves had stunning Buddha statues and pagodas and inside, the carvings and naturally formed stalagmite formations were impressive. We removed our shoes and walked through the dark, poorly lit caves with our trishaw dude leading the way. There was no entrance fee and the lady from the stall outside lent us a torch each. Touch.
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The echoes of the hundreds of bats that lined the ceiling of the cave was a little unnerving. The floor was covered in bat crap and we were walking directly underneath the big furry chaps. We moved quickly, crap falling freely.
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We’d been in the dark for over half an hour and the light at the end of the tunnel was almost blinding. There was a lake with a couple of small long boats, being captained by happy fishermen dudes. The atmosphere tranquil, the lake almost dream like, perfect. We were the only ones there. It’s beauty captivating. A monk joined us. Surreal.
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We took a ride around the lake and through more impressively formed caves, passing through narrow rivers, past beautiful rice paddies and fishermen using traditional methods to catch their dinner. This place was unreal. We saw no other white tourists, only a small Burmese family and a couple of monks that lived on the lake. What a great experience.
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The drive back to Soe Brothers brought us back to reality with a bump. Being thrown around the trishaw, we cleared air several times. To our delight, we got the roof rack seats for our return journey on the jibney. Driving through the fields on the roof rack, with the limestone mountains starting to block out the setting sun was a great experience.
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This country has many treasures and we keep discovering. I’m having the time of my life. I don’t want to leave this town. Our 28 day visa doesn’t give us enough time to stop and stay, we must move on, good to leave on a high.
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Waiting for our bus, the bus ticket ladies son is lively and animated. Playing with him and his sword, I let him play on my drum. He loved it. Music breaks down all language barriers, even with three year old’s. I love the little Burmese kids, they are so cute. Guy wants to take one home. We agreed this may be a little strange.
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My first bus ride in Myanmar was relatively expensive, but it had air con and was clean, comfortable and even donned reclining seats. However, all buses in Myanamr have big 32 inch colour TV with a loud speaker system installed. This could be a good thing if they didn’t play dodgy Burmese comedies and romantic drivel pop music at full blast. Headphones and an iPod is a must, in order to survive the journey a sane man. Pop music in Burma is usually a cheesy remix of American and English songs with Myanmar lyrics. The Burmese version of ‘Mother’ by The Spice Girls was one of my personal bessies.
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We drive through towns and villages on our way to Kyaitiyo where the Golden Rock is our next target. Street fires line the streets, towns full of smoke fumes from the plastic and waste that isn’t collected by anyone. The excellent recycling and rubbish collection service in my home country seem a long way away from ever being implied in developing countries like Myanmar. The air is thick with smoke. The litter continues to build in man made rubbish dumps.
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Our journey is disrupted occasionally, road blocks collecting toll money and the Government keeping tabs on who is travelling the roads of Burma. Sometimes when we stop, men holding silver bowls walk the bus, presumably collecting for a monastery. The young dude collecting tickets, asked for our passports. He stopped at a shop and photocopied them. The Government also wanting to keep tabs on the tourists. The drive is a relatively smooth one and sleep was even an option.
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I loved Hpa-an. Bloody great stuff. Bring it on Kyaitiiyo. Show me your magic.
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Moulamein: Boats, cow and carts and marriage proposals

Moulamein train station was very much station like. Platforms and ticket people and stuff. We located a row of restaurants outside and ate a rather tough beef curry with rice and a fabulous tasting lapeiye while the sun set. We’d spent the whole day on the roller coaster express from Bago so this was a fitting end to the day. A lot of restaurant stroke cafes in Myanmar have large silver pots full of curries sitting outside them on a make shift table, slowly getting cold. They are not kept hot and have more cooking oil in them than actual sauce. Healthy.
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Recharged from the mammoth roller coaster of a train journey from Bago and refueled, we decide to let the trishaw dude, who’d been patiently waiting for our custom while we ate, take us to the largest meditation centre slash monastery in Myanmar. We weren’t enrolling. The Planet claimed we could stay for a night for free, so we decided to take the 14km ride out of town to see what the fuss was all about.
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We arrived, sore arses from a particularly bumpy trishaw ride, at the monastery. A quick conversation with the chief Monk dude signaled that ‘The Planet’, again, had slightly misleading information. His response was a quick and swift ‘no’. On offer was ten days solitary meditation, or nothing. The Planet had obviously sent a lot of free loading dirty back packers, like us, his way. I’m guessing we weren’t the first. He spoke a few angry words in Burmese to our driver, smiled and hushed us out. Mission failed.
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Our hopes dashed and it was bloody late so we braved another trishaw journey back to the main town where we were dropped off at the Breeze Hotel, a clear favourite with the backpacking community. To be fair, it is the only backpacker hostel in Moulamein, so favourite, on this occasion means ‘no other choice’. They had three beds left and we squeezed in a mattress on the floor. Any where will do eh Guy?
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These extremely efficient, helpful and friendly guys had a lot of rooms squeezed into a relatively small space. Everything internal was made from old creaky wood, the floors, seats and even the walls. You could hear the person in the next room breathe. Like everything in Myanmar, it was designed for midgets, I was overwhelmed but not surprised by the short beds, the tiny door ways and the low ceiling. I bashed my head regularly. However quirky this hotel was, Mr Anthony and his team looked after his guests and treated them well. He claimed he had a steady flow of foreigners every year but the last year had seen foreigners flood the place, tripling his footfall and, presumably, his profit. He looked a happy but busy man. A walk around the local area culminated in the tasting of a few of Myanamr’s finest lagers. Tipsy and with a bed to sleep in I believe this is what we call ‘mission successful’.
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The creeping floor boards and beds, the snoring, the laughter from the cleaners, the chatter from the early risers, the dog howls, the cats screams, the cockerel cries and the noise from reception gave me a slightly disrupted sleep and gave me no option to get up early. I slipped into my running trainers and took in the sights of the river, boat jetties, boats unloading and fishermen going to work while running at a steady pace.
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However unfit I am becoming, I still enjoy a good run. I’m used to the locals laughter and the banter gets me in a good mood. I smash out some push ups and rest by a dirty looking muddy river next to the hostel. Stretching my once firm but now wobbly calves, a women approaches the river to throw out the bin from the toilets. That’s right, she chucks the soiled toilet paper tissues into the already polluted river. She stops and smiles. Disgusted, I smile back. She asks my name. Then my country. Nothing unusual about that. Then she asks me if I’m married. I truthfully reply ‘no’. I ask her if she’s married. She says ‘no’, with a little giggle. She asks where I’m going next. I reply ‘Hpa-an’. She asks if I want to stay with her instead. I pause. It’s not even 9am and I’m being propositioned by the cleaner lady with a big hopeful smile and a face, covered in yellow paste, only a mother could love. I smiled, nervously, and declined. She said sorry and ran back in to continue with her duties. Later on in the shower, her repertoire is repeated, this time Guy is the lucky man. I love this place.
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We meet a couple of fresh out of uni lawyers and head off as a group of six to Bilu Kyun Island. A place that time forgot, even for Burmese standards. The local ferry takes us up the river and delivers us to our destination an hour later. We haggle a good price for a trishaw guide, it was actually a five wheeler motorbike, tuk tuk, taxi thing but I don’t know what to call them so I’ll use trishaw.
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The day saw us zoom around the island that time forgot. The main means of transport was cow and cart. Our guide took us to a variety of crazy places, hat makers, walking stick and wood craftsmen, a rubber band factory and a place that served us a rough tasting coconut drink, a locally made delicacy.
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The island was scattered with quaint little villages, stunning scenary, farms and bamboo huts. Thrown in for free was a motorbike crash and a cow who’d given up the fight and collapsed in the middle of the road. The other cow, the crowd that had gathered and the owners were confused as to how to resolve the tired cow issue.
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The island boasted a good trade history, locally made produce using only traditional methods make this place famous in industry and also for an ideal day trip for us tourists too.
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Returning on the last ferry, 3.30pm, we took a short hike up the hill to a pagoda for what was promised to be ‘the best sun set in South East Asia’. The Planet, again, making glamorous claims. The sun set was awesome, not sure if it was the best in SE Asia but it was nice. The view of Moulamein, it’s river and surrounding islands and hills was a beautiful sight. The pagoda was just another pagoda. Nicely kept but I’m on pagoda overload. Myanmar has a lot of pagodas. They are on every hill top and down every street. Wherever you are in Myanmar, you can see at least one sitting gracefully somewhere.
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A Myanmar curry, a couple of beers and some good company saw the night off. Like every town in Myanmar, it was dark and deserted by 8pm. We returned to the Breeze Hostel just before the doors shut at 10pm.
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I like this place but it’s time to move on. We got up early and boarded a small boat that took us down the Thalwin River to Hpa-an. We floated past villages, fishermen, women washing clothes, kids playing and various boats. The three hours drifted past, tranquil and relaxing, I lay back and witnessed life on the river. Waving at the locals who were delighted and surprised to see us.
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Roots Manuva, Netsky, Camo and Krooked and The Roots supplying me with some much missed musical beauty, I floated into a state of meditative bliss for the entire four hour journey. This place gets better by the day. I’m continually on a high. I am looking forward to every part of this journey. Me and Burma are pals now, I think I’m in love.
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Deep moment:
The media, rightly so, report about the cruelty of the Government, ethnic cleansing and the civil war in the north but where tourists are entitled to go has no signs of repression or of civil unrest. Funnily enough, I feel really safe here. Crime is almost nil. Shops are left unattended and no one steals. Drug abuse is unheard of and extremely minimal. There are numerous signs asking people to take care of tourists and to help them. Tourists are welcomed here. Collectively, as a nation, these people, not the Government, are the nicest people I have ever met. Maybe in my travels I will see some signs of the unrest but it’s only the ethnic cleansing in the North West and the Kachin movement north of the Shan State that are still causing concerns in a country once dominated by social unrest and civil war. I’m planning to head to Bhamo near the fighting in Leiva, I’m intrigued. But for now, it’s destination Hpa-an.
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Roll on  Myanmar, show me your magic.

Bago, motorbikes and the Big Bad Buds.

I know, my last post was huge. Myanmar fascinates me, every minute of every day, Being weird myself, I am subconsciously attracted to the weird. Myanmar is weird, to the western uneducated eye. It’s so different from what I and the average westerner know. Every car, every person, every smile, every stare, every dog, every monk, every thing I see is interesting here. I want to somehow fit it all in to this blog but no words can describe how this country makes me feel. It’s a strange bond I’ve built, but one I am enjoying. Team: Guy, Nourdes, Isabel and yours truly do Bago.
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The train from Yangon was nuts. A roller coaster ride that made Indian trains look like the Orient Express. Stepping off the train and straight onto the floor gave us an indication of what we were to expect from Bago, a small town just south of Yangon. No platform here. This place was rustic, a thrown back town from the wild wild west. It’s our first town visit, so when we made our way out of the station and straight onto a busy mud road we were taken back. Yangon was pretty modern and westernised compared to this place. Soviet style wooden houses, market stalls, packed vehicles of all shapes and sizes and mud roads greeted us.
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A local motor bike taxi driver wanted to help direct us but our natural traveler instincts kicked in and we tried to lose him. Never trust a taxi driver. We told him we needed to go to the San Francisco Guest House. We didn’t believe his directions. Why would any taxi driver want to lose money to tell tourists that the hotel was only down the road? We studied The Planet. We then realised he was right and genuinely trying to help us. A genuine taxi driver? The scam must be coming later on.
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However, Burmese folk are actually nice and helpful. They don’t harass if they can sense you don’t want help. Maybe, through the lack of tourists over the years, they haven’t learnt how to rip us off yet, maybe, these people are just nice. Either way, maybe, I need to drop my suspicious eye and take these people for what they really are, which is nice.
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The woman at the San Francisco Guest House was extremely helpful, a proper legend. She had a yappy little dog on the reception table. One of those dogs only an owner can love. Before we knew it we had a room, had been fed handsomely and were on the back of a motorbike being shown the sights by her brother Mojo and his gang of biker buddies.
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Bago offered us a busy main road running through the town, with busy shops and traffic but it also boasted a plethora of interesting and well maintained Buddhist pagodas, temples and statues. Myanmar is mostly Buddhist and their faith has shaped their everyday life. Lavish, over the top and sometimes made of pure gold pagodas and statues lie next door to poverty ridden villages built solely from bamboo. However, from what I was aloud to see of this country, the influence Buddhism has had is a positive one and has produced an honest and extremely friendly nation. We’ll not venture onto the subject of a corrupt, restrictive and cruel military Government just yet. I’m writing about Bago.
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The beauty of having Mojo and his gang take us around the town was his knowledge of where to go and when to go. The bike rides were as fun as the sights. Freedom, exploration and adventure flowing through our hair we realise that there are hardly any tourists or white people here. We visited the 55m long reclining Buddha and a slightly smaller one, many golden pagodas, a giant stupa, the back streets of Bago, Buddhist monasteries and the original Hanthawady Palace.
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We were taken through interesting villages on the outskirts of town and we visited a monastery with a huge holy python snake. According to Mojo, this little 19 foot bad girl, had eaten six men in her time but was regarded holy as it was a reincarnation of a holy princess. Sure buddy, sure. The room with the python was besieged by pilgrims paying their respects and their donations. Weird, but I like weird.
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We were also taken to a temple where a traditional Buddhist blessing was taking place. As in all religions, a donation must be received and in return, they receive a ceremony from the priests, music supplied by a traditional Burmese orchestra and a couple of lady dancers to get the show on the go. It was loud and extravagant. Broken down, the music was a bunch of men bashing some weird looking drums. The melody and rhythm was reminiscent of my music class back in Primary school when everyone goes nuts on the percussion. Large frowns all around but we respected their culture. Bizarre to the uneducated eye, extremely fascinating.
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Mojo was doing his best to take us off the beaten track. But then we realised everywhere in Bago is off the beaten track. There were only two guest houses in the whole town. And the six rooms they had each, were no where near full.
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Outside a particularly large looking Buddha statue, we saw a group of men playing with what looked like a small football. They stand in a circle and try to keep the ball up in the air. This is a popular game in Myanmar and at sunset, all over the country, groups of men, young and old, congregate to play the game. Sometimes a volley ball net is used.
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During the day we saw many pagodas and even more Buddha statues. We also ate some street snacks with our drivers and drank lapeiye (a milky tea with condensed milk, similar to Indian chai) after the days activities. Mojo knew I loved the Burmese samosa so he stopped and bought me a bag, presenting them to me at the end of the day. What a bloody nice fella. He was enthusiastic in his explanations all day long, as well as chewing his way through a good few paan’s. Either way, we all grew to love this little guy with the stained red teeth and the silly looking second world war helmet he wore.
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That night, the children and the young girls at the hostel found my little dool drum from India fascinating. I played it for them and let them have a go. Music can bring together anyone even when language is a barrier.
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Sleeping in the noise of Bago proved difficult. Early fall means an early rise for the dogs, cars, buses, horns, school children, monasteries, temples and eager back packer. The first noises wake you up around 4am, The creaking floor boards are soon to follow and by 6am, I’d be wide awake. Maybe, all the walls in this country are thin. Maybe I’d never get a decent nights sleep here. Who cares, this is what a signed up for. Bring it on.
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My healthy breakfast consisted of samosas, spring rolls, Parotta with sugar and a couple of lapeiyes. Fried food and sugarheavily influenced by those Indian lot that emigrated here back in the British days of rule. Delicious. Walking through the market I loose the team. A man with a mega phone on a bike let me use his system to locate the crew. The look on the locals faces was priceless. An extremely white looking white man shouting “Oi, Guy, Nourdes! Where are ya?!” must have been a first in sleepy town of Bago. Easily located and the team fully restored, I stocked up on some fruit in the local market before we jumped on the train to Moulamein. The adventure continued at a quick pace. We only have 28 days in this country and we want to see it all.
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Discovering life in rural Myanmar is fascinating by train. We pass many villages, rice paddies, waving children and try local foods from the sellers jumping on and off the train. The trains have not been updated since the British gave Myanmar its independence, a tatty wooden interior polished off with wooden seating should give you a glimpse into the jaded and extremely basic rail service that’s provided.
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Digesting life in Myanmar from the train window is fascinating. Hanging out the door of a prehistoric train has its charms.  I could watch their world go by all day.
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We trundled slowly for almost eight hours. To put the slow speed into perspective, most bus trips, even though they go along crumbling and uneven roads are actually faster than the trains. Every passing minute taught us more about life out of the city. The train swayed and we were even shook out of our seats, the train occasionally throwing us all into the air every time it hit a wobbly and uneven part of the track. These bumpy sessions were frenzied and wild, sending us into fits of giggles and uncontrollable dancing actions while bags fell from the top shelf.
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The train started to slow as we crossed a huge bridge leading into Moulamein. The river, the city and the surrounding hills topped with pagodas were breathtaking. I stood by the open door, hanging out, looking at scenery with the air flowing threw my sweaty golden locks. The train was slow enough to see into people’s homes and gardens. Smiling and waving to the locals we knew Moulamein would be a special place. This was the real experience I traveled to the other side of the world for. Myanmar has it all. Bloody marvelous stuff. At this moment in time we were all buzzing. Extremely high on life. This country is special.

Country Number 3: Myanmar. Yangon City.

Getting off the plane shattered, Captain Hindsight tells me I should have attempted a power nap during the one hour long flight. I’m tired but buzzing with adrenaline. New place. New land. New people. New language. New stuff. Yay. Guy, Nordes and Danish have arrived in Myanmar. Boozed up Brits on tour.
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The airport in Yangon, the capital, is surprisingly nice, it is very modern and pretty clean compared to my low expectations. I was expecting military with guns guarding an old and run down airport, taking innocent passengers aside to interrogate them before putting them in jail for eternity. The greeting we received was warm and friendly. Smiles everywhere.
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Bags collected, we immediately had to change some of our crisp, new USD notes up into kyat (pronounced chat), the currency used in Myanmar which you can only get in Myanmar.  The airport had a couple of counters and changing money was safe and relatively easy, don’t believe The Planet. You can change money on the black market but it can prove dodgy. Remember, believe me, not The Planet. Throughout Yangon, people will approach you in the street and ask to change your money. Dodgy touts. Stories circulate about robberies, poor rates, short changing, fake notes and mis-selling as much as stories of high rates and successful transactions. Best be safe. The touts who approached us looked wired on paan, their teeth stained red and their eyes big black holes. Most advise to use the banks, hotels and exchange shops as they have just as good rates as the black market people, with the added safety bonus that they wont rob you. Money is a funny thing is this country. At present, 1 USD equals 852 kyat. I got a very large wad of notes for my two 100 USD bills. During the money exchange we pick up a couple of girls to share the taxi ride with. Isabella, the young German girl officially joins the boozed up Brits on tour team.
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The taxi to central Yangon was old, but the man was overly helpful and very smiley. The ride took us into the heart of Yangon near the river. The five of us were smiling, large excited smiles, anticipating the adventures of a new country. Even taking pictures of buses was fun. We ran around the first few guesthouses with little joy. In Myanmar you must have a foreigner license to house foreigners over night. This puts the price up for us and limits the guest houses we could actually stay in. Some couldn’t take us because they were full and others didn’t have a license for foreigners. However, a little guy called Johnny, a honest tout, was happy to show us around a few places. When I say honest, I mean he openly told us he gets commission. How refreshing, a tout who knows he’s a tout. He, like every other person we saw, smiled heaps and nodded his head a lot, even when our conversation was completely lost in translation.
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We did the usual walk around five different guest houses and as usual, we all went for the cheapest. We and the other guests all crammed into what seemed like a huge wooden house split with stupidly thin wooden walls, bed sheets as doors, that was stuffed full of beds and mattresses in no particular order. One room had four single mattresses lying on the floor, the next room had a double bed, but in order to get to the four mattresses you had to go through the double room. The influx of tourists in the last two years means hotels are trying to cram in as many of us as possible to keep up with demand. Tourism looks set to boom here but luckily for us, I think we may have caught it at the beginning of that explosion. I hope for the people’s and future tourists sake it doesn’t go like Thailand did. Expensive for what it was but clean, we were happy sleeping in this guest house, we dropped our bags and walked the streets.
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Ecstatic with every little part of our day, we find street food stalls, smiling men and giggling girls. ‘Minglabba’ is hello in Myanmar and this little phrase puts shear delight into the people it is directed at. They smile, laugh and reply the gesture  My initial thoughts take me back to India but these people are different. Somehow, I feel safer. I feel like these people are not desperate for my money, no cons, no scams, no begging. People are genuine. Johnny and the black marketers are the only touts, but they understand what ‘no’ means the first time. OK, I’ve just got here, but already, I think I’m warming to this country like I have no other. Just a gut feeling I got straight away. My expectations exceeded in every way possible. I am just as fascinated with Myanmar as I was with India, but I feel safe, I’m not looking out for the scams, there isn’t any. The people are overly friendly.
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A wide spread cultural symbol of Myanmar is the yellow paste people put on their faces. Although it looks and seems ridiculous to me, a stupid white guy from England with limited knowledge of their customs, traditions and Aung San Suu Kyi, the face paint is something that the Burmese people use to protect them from the sun, moisturise their skin and they also consider it to enhance the persons beauty, male or female. The definition of beautiful changes from country to country depending on what the media tell us is beautiful.  The yellow paste can be smothered to cover the entire face and arms but can also be applied in a variety of designs and patterns. The majority of boys, girls, men and women slap this stuff on daily, it’s a big thing out here. I’m not immediately won over, but I’ll give it a chance. I’m an open book.
OK, that’s not true. I think it looks stupid.
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Ordering my first samosa and buying my first bottle of packaged drinking water I notice that there’s no haggle needed. The price is cheap, the price is the same for locals and the produce is of good quality. Easy, straight forward transaction. No hassle. I buy a drink of freshly squeezed sugar cane. I sit on plastic garden chairs that have had the ends sorn off. I feel like they are adults chairs modified to children’s size. How bizarre. Still, the price is right. Weird but nice. The service is impeccable and they genuinely seem happy to see me, take note Thailand sales vendors. We are all buzzing from the small precious things in life, life in Yangon, Myanmar, where all the horrid news stories of ethnic cleansing and civil war come from.
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The streets are clean and the buildings in good shape. My expectations of a run down war torn country with Police torturing the locals in the streets was no where to be found. I’m surprised. Everything is amazingly relaxed and happy here. No signs of civil unrest or a strict military regime.
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The street ambience is relaxed, the pace of life here is neither frantic nor fast. Community spirit seems strong, men talk in groups in the tea shops, women chatter whilst selling fruit on the market and small games of street football bring the young lads together. Indians love cricket, the Burmese love football. I don’t like cricket. Burma is in serious danger of slipping into the top spot for Michael’s favourite country award. My expectations have been blown away, purely by the friendliness of the people in this ascetically dull looking city.
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The English and Spanish football leagues are clear favourites for the youngsters of Myanmar. Wearing fake Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Barcelona shirts is popular here. Burma is football crazy. The icing had just been put on my cake. Me and Burma, we’re going to get along. We’re going to be good friends, no, great friends.
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We even saw a Monk playing football. On his own. Practicing his ball control. Legend.
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And to top it all off, after I sunk a curry flavoured mutton soup with Parotta in the local cafe, that’s Indian food, I love Indian food… the bar by the market was showing the Man Utd v Liverpool game live. We sunk full power 8% volume Dagon beers that night, with a fat guy from Finland. We were buzzing with excitement at the prospect of the next 28 days in Myanmar, so not even Utd spanking us 2-1 lowered our spirits. Anyway, football’s for losers.
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Leaving the bar a little tipsy and still smiling, we noticed that the busy market had disappeared and the streets were nearly empty and the shops were shut. Yangon is Myanmar’s largest city so we were surprised to see the central parts streets deserted at only 10pm. However, this is a country wide thing that we discovered that night, I’d have to retune my body clock to an early rise, early fall Burma timetable. However we spotted signs of life down a side street, where they had a TV showing the football. The fans were sitting on mini chairs, just like the ones we’d sat on earlier and huddled around drinking green tea. Chinese tea, as they call it, is free in all eateries. Great if you like tea I suppose.
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Another beautiful discovery, Myanmar’s answer to Indian chai is called lapaye, is available from all good tea shops, but it’s not free like it’s poor tasting sister green tea. Big in the game. The milky tea is not as good as my beloved masala chai but it’s damn close, it’ll do. For me and my pedigree chums, Myanmar just kept getting better, beyond any of our wildest expectations. It’s these small things in life…
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Today’s cultural news bit:
Researching the Burmese history, I found out it is formed of many different cultures and ethnic minorities. Myanmar borders Laos, India, China, Tibet and Thailand, the people and the food influenced by immigration from these surrounding countries. Even my English ancestors had their part to play, giving independence back to Burma around 1948. Burmese people come in all shapes and sizes. Some look Chinese, others have come from Indian decent and others look like they have Thai blood lines, and keeping in line with most of Asia, they are pretty short. Chinese style stir fry and Thai noodles are on the menu along with Indian curries. This country appears to be a fusion of a number of different cultures. I like it. The doors to tourists were opened back in 2011 so tourism is relatively new. I believe business visas were accepted before this but were tough to negotiate.
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Everything this country offers is interesting, I’m fascinated by the happy, smiling people and it’s current and past human rights issues. This country has already given me the WOW factor. Well played Michael. Burma was a good choice. I’m sure I’ll learn more, I’ll keep you updated.
This is me in a wrestling mask that johnny had. Strange boy.
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The following morning was spent eating breakfast out on the street. In most guest houses breakfast comes gratis. The service is happy and helpful. The whole family who run the guest house are involved with keeping us happy, young and old.
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For all it’s behind the times charms, one modern invention sparked a huge interest, an umbrella that looks like a gun.
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Taking a stroll down the road, a lovely man asks us softly if we like Indian chai. Hello. I do. Strange thing to ask but before we know it we enter into a discussion about Myanmar, travel concerns and the no go areas of the country still gripped with civil war, over a few cups of chai, sorry lapeiye, with a Burmese man from Indian decent who spoke bloody great English. I notice again that all seats on the street were little kids size plastic stools. Interesting. His friends were thrilled to see us and although they did not understand English, they smiled and nodded their heads eagerly. He paid for our teas and wished us well on our journey. Welcome to Myanmar. What a gent.
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Shredagan Paya is the place for all tourists, Buddhist pilgrims and monks to visit when in Yangon. We walked the streets, past malls, street stalls, markets, shops, the train station and parks. Their winter season hit us with 30 degree heat. At home in England, it’s snowing. I applied my sun lotion. A pink face is inevitable.
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Inside this beast of a Buddhist complex are 82 temples, a shed load of pagodas and a fair few monks. The entire complex is extravagant, peaceful and breathtakingly beautiful. The centre piece is a huge pure gold pagoda. That’s right, that massive huge gold thing is not cement painted gold, it’s real gold. The gold was donated by rich Buddhist dudes seeking excellent Karma and future business wealth but to top it off, somewhere in there was some of Buddhas hair. The actual Buddha himself, the man, the legend.
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I walked the temple area all day, mesmerised by the calm and tranquil surroundings. I was caught bashing several of the huge bells, three times each for luck. I felt the urge to meditate, even though it was getting late and more tourists were coming in. I found peace in a corner. Cliche. But a great choice. This place was surreal. I floated. I’ve never meditated in public, but this felt right. I am turning into such a hippy.
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When I came to and arrived back on planet earth, I was approached by an over enthusiastic young monk with good English skills. He talked the talk. Before I knew it, his teacher, who he called Papa and kissed many times, joined us with another monk in learning. I saw genuine passion and interest in their eyes. Why were they talking to me? After explaining about their monastery and the good his teacher, Papa, has done for the children of the school, he explained how Papa had lost his family in the cyclone, which the Government famously gave no or little aid to help, had killed his family. He then chipped in with a story about that his sight saving operation would cost lots of money. Oh I see. I get it. Scam ahoy. They got me good. Ten minutes in and I only twig at the punch line. I decline for a donation, smile and agree to come and visit them at their monastery  They didn’t look too enthusiastic but played along with me. Silently, I told them with my eyes I knew their game, they replied, also with no words, that they knew that I knew their game. They gracefully bowed to me and wished me well, gave me a blessing and departed swiftly. Funny world, religion and tourism always bring out the most elaborate of scammers.
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This experience didn’t ruin the magic of this palace of beauty. As the sun set, the lights eliminated the gold draped temples, stupas and pagodas. It was stunning. The complex strangely offered free wifi for tourists only. A rarity anywhere in Yangon, not exactly the place I’d imagine picking up my emails at.
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After we shrugged off a weird Dutch dude who couldn’t pay his dinner bill or the taxi, we retreated back to the guest house for a good nights kip before we were to set off for a place called Bago in the morning. The night was again disrupted early in the morning by the city sounds, a rogue cat making death curdling screeching sounds and randoms walking through our room.
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On the morning of the fifteenth of January, we were woken to another finely prepared breakfast of noodles, fruit and tea. We said our goodbyes, I practised some of my new found Burmese lingo an we toddled off to the station for our ride to Bago.
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This little walk confirmed my first negative experience of Burma. The Burmese love to chew on Paan. The red beetle nut that contains a small hit of amphetamine and stains your teeth a painful looking blood red. Once thy have finished sucking the life out of it, they spit their red saliva on the street floor. As you may already have read in my previous Indian blog posts I feel this habit is not exactly charming. Rotten teeth and spitting on the floor regularly is something I’d rather not pay money for. I’ve tasted it too, it’s rough. I’d say the majority of men do it and a fair few lower class ladies do too. It’s every where. Even monks do it. And certain kids. It makes you look evil, honest, check yourself out in the mirror. My dentist would have a field day over here. Their red spit covers the pavements. Dog rough. Apparently one of the kings of Burma once upon a time chewed it, so, a great excuse for the entire country to get hooked on this disgusting habit. Rant over with.
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My first Burmese train journey was destined to be in upper class. I tried my hardest to get ordinary class but I was refused. On certain trains tourists are not allowed to get ordinary class. No idea why. No questions asked, we were shown to our seats by a porter. Chewing Paan, he grabbed our ticket and wouldn’t give it back. I told him I wouldn’t tip him and he was wasting his time. Once sat in our seats the guys paid him a tip. I refused. Tight arse me. We could have worked it out without his help. He smiled, with his mouth still full of minging red paan and left.
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As in India, the train network was installed by the British and unlike India, nothing has been updated or renewed. It was something from the dark ages of the forties. There were food sellers of all ages and genders pacing the train, most left us to it, smiling and giggling as they passed. Unfortunately small children workers hoped on and off the train. While in Yangon, I saw little poverty and no slums. As the train departed, the poverty that breeds by the railway lines was evident. We watched the train tell the full story of Yangon, a city we only paid brief time and attention to.
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The train was slow and rocked from side to side as we left Yangon and drifted out into the lush countryside passing bamboo shacks, farms, villages, work houses, rice paddies, ponds harvesting unknown greenery, loads of sub tropical plants and waving children hoping to catch food thrown to them by passengers. Most villages outside of the cities are bamboo huts built at least a metre above the ground, protecting them from the monsoon rains. The people seem to lead a simple life out in the sticks, staring and waving in excitement as we pass by.
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Rubbish is thrown carefree out of the window, the railway lines are scattered with litter. That’s annoying but part of the short sighted culture of certain parts of Asia. With no rubbish collections, most people use their front doorstep or back garden as a rubbish dump. Some burn rubbish fires daily. Burmese people, like many Asian countries are uneducated in regards to pollution or have a poor rubbish disposal system, if any. I’m reminded of what a great and privileged bubble the people of Britain live in.
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You’re allowed to smoke on trains too. Not a big fan of that. No rant, just saying that’s a bit rough.
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After we pick up some speed, and that didn’t happen a lot, something amazing happened. We hit the bumps. The train threw us into the air, repeatedly for 30 seconds. Bags crashed down and people held onto their belongings. Alien to us but quite normal for the hardened Burmese passenger, we jumped and laughed hard as we were thrown into the air. The tracks clearly not realigned since the Second World War, this occurred many times throughout our journey. The bumps added another thrill to an excellent seven hour train journey. I watched, I learned and appreciated the beauties of an under developed country. A lesson in the reality of life in Burma. I am absolutely loving this experience. Thailand sucks in comparison. Burma has me. She’s sucked me in.
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They even have signs up everywhere, telling the locals to look after us tourists. Nice touch.
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This is going to be one hell of an adventure. I’m ready.