Yangon Part Two: The skateboarders dream, my final samosa and lapeiye (chai) breakfast and the emotional fair well.

I arrived at Yangon Bus Station at the usual 3am. Frozen. Air con was set to ‘arctic’. It used to take a lot longer to go from Pyin Oo Lyin to Yangon but since the road and the buses have undergone a recent upgrade the travel time has shrunk by a few hours. Not handy if you are a back packer, guest houses seem to be either full or the doors are shut at 3am. But I’ve been here almost 26 days, I’m used to the 3am arrival. Yangon however, I have previously graced. And they have street lights here too. Always helpful.

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I met a Japanese dude in my shared taxi and we booked into a cheap room in the centre of Yangon. The tall building next to that pagoda built in the middle of that roundabout. The tired and slightly dazed dude at reception didn’t charge us for the room until the following check in time. I got lucky again. Result.
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I slept. It was the usual cramped, creaky and noisy accommodation I’d grown accustomed to in Myanmar. It was hot again. I sweated. I awoke after what seemed like two minutes shut eye and walked the streets in search of my final thrill in Myanmar. The flight to Bangkok was only 24 hours away. I am greeted by the usual black market money and taxi touts on my way out of the hotel before I decided to hit a couple of markets. The weather is considerably hotter than up north. The stalls and street sellers do a brisk trade in Yangon. They sell fried foods, watches, shoes, shoe repairs, coal, fruit, tea, beetle nut, cakes, bread, noodles, indian food, cold drinks, t shirts, longhis, rubber stamps, sign makers, bracelets, flip flops, chargers, mobile phones, nail clippers, sugar cane juice, lottery cards, eighties toys, black market copied DVDs, fish, chickens, rice; cooked and uncooked,  flowers, footballs, nuts, sunglasses, dried and packaged foods, oil heavy crisps, tape measures, wool, second hand clothes, sling shots and soap.
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The most bizarre street trade was the huge posters of naked babies, with a fluffy scarf on as well as their nether regions hanging out. A little bit strange to the western world that naked pictures of adults are prohibited while naked baby pictures, dressed in a completely provocative manner, are OK. Different strokes.
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A lot of stalls had got the latest Obamo and Aung San Suu Kyi gear. T-shirts, jumpers, pencil cases, calendars showing pro-Obamo pictures from his recent visit to Yangon. The Burmese people clearly happy and overwhelmed by their new found positive attention from the west. It all seemed a bit over the top but for a country that’s been repressed by its military Government for so long, this was a huge step towards the peoples plight to become a democracy. A little hope. I felt their energy.
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I noticed a few pavements dug up and new cables being laid, maybe a fast Internet service taking them further forward. Maybe not.
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And here is proof there are ATM’s in Myanmar. I believe they were introduced for tourists only in January 2013. Brand spanking new. A $5 charge also meant that these machines were virtually unused. Myanmar don’t use Visa or Mastercard. Most people don’t use banks or have savings accounts. Here, the dark ages of digging a hole and hiding your gold still exist.
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Yangon fascinates. I’m starting to feel sad. Relishing every experience of my last day on Yangon. I have loved my Yangon experience. Wandering the streets I suddenly miss Guy and Nourdes. We did a lot. Probably the most productive 26 days of my travels so far. Reflective and exploring the streets, with the sun beating down on my face, I hit a calm note of near meditation in the craziness of the market. Myanmar has given me something Thailand can’t. My inner explorer of weird and unusual things has been satisfied. For now.
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Sun lotion doesn’t get sold in Myanmar. It’s the only product that I really needed to buy but I couldn’t find it any where. On several occasions, I was pointed towards the whitener cream that had a little UV protection. I am white enough thanks. Back at the hotel, I bump into three Swiss people and soon explain my predicament to them. The extremely nice girl then gave me a full bottle of sun factor 15 cream, my saviour. My poor pink face had taken a bashing.
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That night the Swiss people’s invited me to a premiere of a documentary called ‘Youth of Yangon’. They’d found a derelict skate park and had made friends with a local skate crew. Their local skate park was in taters and they needed a new place to practice. A couple of English guys had taken pity on the situation and after a lot of paperwork, had got commissioned by the British Council to film and direct a documentary.
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It looked like a warehouse project out of Hackney. Trendy pictures, a projector at the front and TuPac playing softly in the back ground set the scene. The skaters were trendy, with tattoos and cool threads. Their was also a free bar. The atmosphere relaxed.
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I met the crew and the guys who made the video. We went for dinner afterwards. It was all a bit surreal. I was tipsy, eating and drinking with strangers I’d not known a few hours before. I was overwhelmed by their generosity and friendliness. I left feeling fulfilled. My final adventure in Myanmar had been random and spontaneous. What a treat. A world of skating I didn’t know existed in Myanmar.
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The next morning I went for a fantastic breakfast, Shan noodles, double chai, spring roll and a complimentary chicken and pepper soup. I watched the busy street. Gutted I have to leave, not looking forward to Bangkok and the seedy Khao San Road. I really have enjoyed this adventure. Myanmar is a cool place.
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We took a hot and stuffy local bus to the airport for pennies. The bus kicked out a serious amount of smoke and gurgled and spluttered through and out of Yangon. The seats were cramped, not designed for anyone over the height of 5ft. I was extremely sentimental at leaving Myanmar. Guy and Frederique felt the same. We took a 15 minute walk up a well groomed road to the neat and tidy Yangon International Airport. A world apart from the rest of this country.I spent €5 on a cake and a milkshake in a fancy Starbucks style bar. A rare treat. It didn’t taste too great but I was determined to enjoy every dollar of it.
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Back to Bangkok. The land of western food, western toilets and piss head tourism. I’ve got a love hate relationship with Bangkok. I’m going in deep. Adios Yangon. Love you long time.
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Pyin Oo Lyin: Colonial stuff, a waterfall and strawberries.

The extremely slow train journey from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lyin was well worth the $4. Our $4 ticket got us a wooden seat. Perfectly viable for a seven hour day trip. There are stranger and much softer seats in the upper classes, but then you don’t get the lower class entertainment.

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The viaduct was particularly breathtaking, something positive the British left behind from their time in Myanmar. The views of the mountains were accompanied by the usual bumps and shakes of the ageing rail network.

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I’d met a Bristol lad called Maxwell. He used to be in a band. He was alright. We talked music and all that jazz. Former artists that never made it. We put the world to rights.

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During our journey a dodgy looking fella came to have a chat. That’s him below. He said he lost his eye fighting as a rebel against the Government. He was very happy to repeatedly open up his wounded eye and show us how mank it looked.

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A very angry and boisterous ticket inspector, who was dressed as a football coach, came and burst his bubble. A couple of swift slaps on the back of the head later and the one eyed rebel legged it down the train. Apparently, he was a professional thief.

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The views were pretty good too. Beat the bus hands down. A no-brainer. The usually open doors were blocked with chairs and locked shut with padlocks. Just in case anyone or any thing fell out. Glad to see they took our safety into consideration.

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We ended up coming into Pyin Oo Lyin just before dark and decided to share a room. The trip from the station to our hotel was a special one. Horse and carriage. Love hearts and flowers covered the ancient wooden contraption and the poor struglling horse looked like it was on its last leg. We joined my fellow trekker buddies Daz and Julie and were transported slowly to our digs with a little argument over payment from our ‘overcharging and playing dumb’ driver. Golden Dream Hotel provided us with a bed and a shower, not hot as they claimed, but I’m used to it, as long as there’s water I’m happy.

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Exchanging money here proved to be difficult. The exchange rate was ridiculously low and everywhere seemed to be shut until the next day. We walked out of the town and past the night markets to a restaurant that was highly recommended in The Planet. It was in an old colonial building made by the British. It served an OK green curry and a rum and coke for a staggeringly high price, almost £7. Rich, older and considerably rounder tourists filled the restaurant as the cold night set in. Walking all the way back to our Golden Dream Hotel we met a nice Swiss guy who gave me his copy of Burmese Days by George Orwell. Lovely chap. Shame I ended up lending it Guy, who never returned it. The things men do to get women into bed.

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I slept hard and went into a deep sleep. The deepest and longest sleep I’d had since being in Burma. It was quiet in the morning, no dogs, cats or cockerels. No Buddhist loon playing mantras and prayers at 5am. Although it was cold at night, I was warm. Only a weak sounding prayer call at 6am from the Muslin temple down the road broke the silence. However, I was fast asleep and didn’t wake up. My Myanmar adventure coming to an end and I was running on empty, cramming as much of this country into my 28 days as possible.

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I ended up locating some dodgy money from a hardware store down the road at a stupidly low rate and ordered a rusty old bike to take me to the beautiful oasis called the Artisakan waterfall. It was a fair 11km ride out of town and with one gear, the bike struggled getting up the steeper hills.

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I stopped at a lovely pagoda and temple on a hill on route and rode past the military training grounds. The weather was lush and I was on top form, exploring Pyin Oo Lyin on my lonesome.

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The trek down to the waterfall took about an hour, many pathways, some large red ants and a random mini temple made the trek a nice one but the waterfall at the bottom was particularly stunning.

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By far the most beautiful waterfall I’ve ever seen on my travels. That’s right. Ever. The water started at the top of the trek and gradually made its way down, crashing into a clear and light blue lagoon.

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The waterfall was huge, water crashing from a huge height which created a number of other pools that interconnected beautifully with each other. It was paradise. The temples an added bonus. This didn’t feel like just another tourist attraction. This is like most of Myanmar’s tourist attractions. Tranquil, peaceful and surprisingly void of tourists.

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There were only a couple of tourists from Mandalay there and me. Truly special moment. Trekking with a present at the end. I was glad I made the effort.

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I met an old Canadian guy whilst climbing back up to the top. He was travelling alone. A true inspiration. We talked. He had led a fascinating life. After downing a can of my favourite Lychee drink, I clambered back on my bike to return back to the hotel so I could get my bus to Yangon.

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The route back was considerably tougher than the way home. I stopped at a strawberry stall on the main road next to a Hindu temple. I bought some small looking strawberries from an Indian couple and practised my poor Hindi. Nobody creates a strawberry better than the British. These poor imitations were just a tease. Back on the road my Myanmar chest cough raged. Either the cold nights or the large amounts of dust that the road kicked up was not good for my lungs. I persisted on doing breakneck speeds on my one gear rust bucket. PMA repeating in my mind.

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I made it back to Pyin Oo Lyin and feasted at a local food market. I was served a dosa style food and a sweet lapaye by a lovely lady while some banging Burmese pop music was distorting at full volume.

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I found a fake Safeway’s. Old English people will remember the once famous supermarket brand. Counterfeit goods are all over Asia but I never thought I’d discover a fake version of a UK supermarket that ceased trading over ten years ago.

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Watching market life go by was fascinating. I didn’t want to go. But I had Aneel, an Indian motorbike taxi man taking me to the bus station in 20 minutes. Aneel was funny, he dropped me off at the station and tried to sell me a whole day tour of Pyin Oo Lyin, even though he knew I was leaving to go to Yangon. I smashed down another lapeiye and boarded my extremely plush and extremely cold, air con super bus to Yangon.

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I had a bloody marvelous day in Pyin Oo Lyin. I love Myanmar. I don’t want to leave.

Namshan to Hsipaw: Shan rebels, opium and a bit of trekking.

The team of trekkers assembled in Lily’s courtyard. I was joined by two English couples, Daz and his Julie and Josh and Gilly. It was 9am. The sun finally decided to kick in with a small dose of warmth, justifying my ambitious selection of shorts and t-shirt. As a five-some, we were due to drive to Namshan and trek back. Four days in total, of hardcore trekking lajusy ahead of us.

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After brief banter, we boarded our already overloaded pick up truck. I got a back seat place squashed in between various bags of clothing and food types, on top of a huge bag of garlic, which I’d like to add, turned out to be rather comfortable. After a few hours of travel my weight had started to crush the bag, which then emitted a pungent but pleasant odour. The road between Hsipaw and Namshan was a little rough in parts, the journey was a bumpy and slow moving one, but we expected nothing less. The road swerved over and around the Pat Do Mung mountains. The height we’d climbed started to display stunning views. The trek was going to be a lot tougher than my previous one from Kalow to Inle Lake. This was off the beaten track, completely off it.
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Our journey was slightly delayed while the mountain road was being revamped by a team of locals and their families. Hot tarmac was being cooked up in barrels on top of wood fires on the side of the road while teams of young boys, men and women laid it on the dirt road. We stopped and waited, observing the rather old fashioned and time consuming technique they used to lay a flat-ish surface. Families work during the day and then live on the side of the road at night in what seems like a never ending job. Children as young as four or five were seen digging and mothers had babies strapped to their backs using a thick blanket while they worked. Teenage boys were used for the hard labour of pouring the tarmac and spreading the dirt. We stood and watched them graft, hard, and observed their homes made from wood, bamboo and tarpaulin on the side of the road. Hard living.
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After what seemed like an eternity, the freshly laid road was cool enough for us to drive on and we moved on. Momo, out future guide, later informed us that the Government give the locals a large amount of money and the equipment to complete the road to be built, linking them to the rest of society. However, the locals have to top up the rest of the funds as well as lay the road for no extra pay. This is why large amounts of women and their children are seen laying the roads, with no guarantee of quality.
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We’d already created a good bond and the team of trekkers was going to be a good one. I was excited. The drive was a long one. Lots of time to put the world to rights. Finally arriving in the mountain top village of Namshan, we dropped off the locals and their produce and headed towards the only guest house that had a license to take in tourists. The journey had taken almost seven hours. I enjoyed every minute.
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As we approached our guest house we were given a warm welcome by the locals who giggled, smiled and waved enthusiastically as we drove slowly past. Feeling a little like celebrities in this small town/large village of Namshan we were swiftly greeted by our charming and well spoken guide Momo and his older and very cheeky side kick Shanti and introduced to our hosts.
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The guest house was basic but clean with a stunning view of the mountains out the back balcony. The altitude difference making it much cooler. We were immediately whisked off by our guides to the local Chinese restaurant with equally stunning views. The buildings in town were all made from wood. If you took away the Palau people and the shops you would have felt as if you were in the American Wild West. Inside the Chinese restaurant there were three containers on each table. Salt, pepper and MSG. That’s right folks. pure MSG.
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We were well fed, our food was made fresh and at our request, minus the MSG. After our feast, us keen trekkers were swiftly taken on a tour of Namshan before the sun set. Momo’s English was fantastic, we were in good hands.
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There had recently been a huge fire in the village. Many houses had burnt down and had to be rebuilt from scratch. He showed us Chinatown, which looked the same as everywhere else but we were assured that the reason it was called Chinatown was due to its Chinese people that inhabit this area. We visited the monastery at the top of the hill and saw the local monks and their trainees. The young monks all seemed to be suffering from a skin disease on their shaved heads. They came across as happy and were delighted to pose for pictures.
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Walking through the streets of Namshan was fascinating. As the sun set, the cold came and so did the street fires. Shops started to close, children returned home and families started dinner. Real life.
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That night at around 7pm, when the streets are dark and deserted, we met my two American friends from my previous trek, Andy and Danea. How random. We descended upon the only drinking establishment in town for Myanmar beers and banter. Finally, after watching Guy and Nourdes win prizes from the competition bottle tops on several occasions, I won a free beer and a 200 kyat prize. Double winner. If only they were there to witness my pride and the others envy.
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The toilet the bar offered was a beauty. A drain in the back room, where the food is stored and prepared, served as a number one deposit only. Confused and tipsy when the man pointed towards the drain, I became clear of the toilet arrangements after a brief demo from a local. Classy.
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After a few beers, we retired back to the guest house. I had the munchies so along with my American counterparts I searched the only open shop for something sweet to eat. The produce the shop sold looked old and out of date. It was imported from China and had clearly been sat their for a while. All food bought has to have a long shelf life as transport to these remote parts is long and costs a lot. This was representative of all the shops we encountered in this area. The peanut wafers and fake Orio’s we bought tasted stale and dry. Almost inedible. But I did find some Gangnam Style crisps.
I went to bed, slightly tipsy and excited for the next three days. Namshan fascinated me. A strange old place in my western eyes.
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The 5am prayer woke me up and I was fresh and ready to go. I even did a brief yoga routine and a hundred press ups. I was pumped. The morning was fresh, the mist lifting from the mountains as the sun rose. A man, somewhere in the guest house decided to reach hard for as much spit as possible, hocking and flemming every minute, on the minute. Beautiful.
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Shan noodles, chai and a doughnut finger saw my belly happy before we set off. The first port of call was at Momo’s house to see his wife and say happy birthday to his daughter. As we walked out the village and into the mountains, Momo explained to us that most of the villages we would see would be Palau villages. These people are only found in certain parts of the Shan State and spoke their own language.
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We learned the basic hello and thank you in Palau which the locals loved. The path we took had not been taken many times, the locals were very happy and surprised to see us. Momo had many contacts and we dropped into various houses for refreshments. Children came running to us waving and wanting to play. Local adults smiled and stared. The village visits were fascinating and the mountain views equally so. Four months ago, I never ever contemplated being here, witnessing village life in the mountains of the Shan State, off the beaten track.
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We passed many manual labourers working the fields, driving cow and carts and motorbikes taking produce to neighbouring villages.
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The first days trekking was tough going, 9am to 5.30pm with only a couple of breaks. We stayed in Om Then village at the top of a mountain in a home stay. The family spoke little English but were delighted to have us. They cooked local food and fed us well. We ate with the charming head of the house while the rest of the family served us. A feast was had. Chinese beer and Sanayet, a local rice wine, was our tipple for the night. The head of the house was a particularly tiny, happy man with a warm smile. He pulled out his rice wine with pride and have us all a shot. It tasted like a weak tequila but was five times the potency. We were instantly drunk. My head spun. I guessed it at 70% strength liquor. Hardcore stuff.
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After dinner we huddled around the coal fire and discussed life as a trekker and as a protestor and demonstrator. Daz and Julie told us intriguing tales of life on demonstration camps back in the UK. They have lead an extremely fascinating life. Like the local Palau people, they have been used to life without electricity and water from a tap. These guys are the ones you see on the demo camps on the news. Fascinating tales were told. The cold of the night set in and I was soon under the thick blankets laid out for us on the floor upstairs. No duck feather duvets here, Definitely no mattresses either.
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At 4am, the highly confused cockerel starts vocalising and at 5am the cow bells start clanging as herds start to be transported through the village. By 6am I’m up and ready. I walk through the village, families starting to wake up and get ready for the day. The locals wave and smile. I hike up to the pagoda and find a spot over looking the mountains to meditate. Peaceful. I felt great.
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I returned for a breakfast of cabbage and rice. My favourite. Not sarcastic either, it tasted stunning.
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Guy, had realised that Gangnam Style and the infamous dance routine made famous by Pys, was known the world over. In Guy’s absence, I decided to use the dance to see if the kids knew about the South Korean phenomenon. However, probably due to lack of TV reception and actual TV’s, the children had no idea why a six foot tall white man with strange coloured blonde hair was waving his arms around whispering ‘wopan Gangnam Style’. Although I got little response from the children in the villages, I decided to persist.
We set off early on another hard days trekking. We soaked up the mountain views and the Shan and Palau villages we passed, blisters and cut feet taking its toll.
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When trekking, you get into in depth conversations. Momo was extremely knowledgeable and was happy to explain life in the Shan State. We entered a deep conversation. Back to basics, no TV, no Internet, limited electricity, simple food, working on a farm. Would there be enough stimulation for someone who has grown used to western ways? Personal relationships would become closer and time to interact with your neighbours would be your source of entertainment. The difference between my complicated western life at home in England and the basic village life on a Palau mountain top is vast.
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The trek was tougher than the day before. The mountains got higher and the pathways were at points, very steep. After a 4 hour trek we stopped in Kheun Hot, a tiny village, for lunch. We were being served a beautiful Shan Noodle soup when a small group of Shan guerrilla troops walk past. Stunned. We smiled and greeted them as they strolled past us. AK 47’s in hand. I never felt threatened, I loved it.
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Momo educated us. They live in the mountains even though they do not fight against the government anymore. Six months of peace seemed to be closing in as a permanent fixture. The villagers support them and do not inform the military of their movements. They also come to villages and pick new troops that must join them. Any male over the age of thirteen can be chosen. If someone chooses not to join them, they can make life very difficult for their family. The Shan Rebels are afraid of Government revenge and are keeping strong in case of future attacks.
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We continued our trek. I got a real sweat on. I loved it. My calf muscles tightened.
Even in these remote villages they still manage to hook up a sound system. The much loved western songs remixed into Burmese lingo are clear favourites for both the adults and their children. Akon and Spice Girls remixes were particularly clever.
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The sun set as we arrive at our lodgings in Pan Naung. It is a small village on the side of a hill and has only 35 houses and 150 inhabitants. Grand Royal Whiskey and Myanmar beers were available and we laughed and joked the night away. Another guide called AO joins us. Being close to the Golden Triangle, famous for its opium growing past and present, AO discusses his wife’s job in the opium fields. He shows us a picture on his phone and tells us his wife receives 8000 kyat for one days work. That’s just over a fiver in GBP but a huge payday for the locals living in these villages.
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That night my legs were chomped on by some sort of beast with a thirst for human blood. It left huge red sores that was tough not to itch. Bastard.
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Check out the little surprise in this fellas basket of vegetables.
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The next day was an easier trek but through more jungle like terrain. Disappointingly, the last part of our trek was along a main road with lots of traffic. As a bus pulls over, we jump on board for a free lift back to the hotel. Sore, knackered and filthy it was a perfect end to our trek. Walking through beautiful countryside, jungle and interesting villages makes for a good trek, dusty roads with lorries pumping black smoke into your lungs does not. We didn’t give up. My conscience is clear.
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I manage to get a dorm room in Lily’s Guest House and their hot shower made me a very happy trekker. The filth from a three day trek always takes at least two hot showers to dispose of. Hot water felt so good. With no plans for that afternoon, I should have rested my tired limbs. Instead I take a two hour trek out of town, through a cemetery, a village and a rubbish dump, up a long path that twisted over, under and next to a small stream. It was a small trek that had it all, the beautiful and the disgusting, real life in Myanmar. The long path took me past farms, smiling workers on the fields and picture perfect views of the surrounding mountains.
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When I finally got to the waterfall, it had dried up. The walk was worth it though. I got a decent view over the surrounding fields, villages and mountains. Maybe everybody knew it had dried up, which is why I was the only tourist. I’m sure Guy told me that there was a lush waterfall here.
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I’ve taken to the squat sit which is popular in SE Asia and as I took this stance to take in the views I notice a little black object on my leg. I flick it, squirting blood up my leg. I presumed it was a leech. I notice large red ants close by. The jungle was crawling with life. I tried to sit down and read but I started to attract the waterfalls inhabitants and decided to take the short two hour trek back.
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Walking through the cemetery, I was shouted at by two children. They wave their hands in the air, unprompted by me, and shouted ‘Gangnam Style’. I’d attempted to gain this response from children unsuccessfully for the last four days and now, finally, I’ve done it. They must have been from a restaurant in Hsipaw and been victimised by either Guy or me to do Psy’s sensational dance routine. This made my day. Thanks boys.
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I spotted Josh in Mr Foods and joined him for some fine Chinese cuisine. We were soon joined by our trekking buddy Daz and the young guide with limited English, AO, for a few draught Dagon’s. AO bought us some sticky rice pudding wraps and we coaxed him into a few more beers. He got very drunk, very quickly. He started calling people and handing us his mobile. Momo was a recipient of one of these drunken calls.
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Liverpool v Man City. A perfect end to a perfect four day trek. The roads were dark. No lights anywhere. One tea shop was open showing the game, it was heaving. The game didn’t disappoint either. The majority of the tea shop were reds fans and when Stevie G grabbed a 35 yard stunner in the top corner, the Burmese Kop voiced their approval. The Burmese football fans as passionate as ever.
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A hot shower and the usual complementary egg and toast fixed me up for the seven hour Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lyin scenic train journey. Hsipaw and its surrounding beauties left me with fond memories. I love trekking. I love that they love football. I love the Burmese people. I love that I am starting to feel fit again. I love it all. Tip top.
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Hsipaw: Little Bagan, motorbikes with gears and free oranges.

Its 9pm and dark. The small town of Hsipaw look like its shut down for the night. No lights on, no activity. A taxi dude truthfully points us in the direction of Mr Charles Guest House, who give us their last double room for the night. Guy and I are relatively pleased with this. Über friendly staff and a cheap-ish but comfortable room. No mattress in the corridor job here. There’s even WiFi. Slow to the extreme but its available. And in the morning a trekking guide will be at reception. At this point it all looked a bit too easy.
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The cold was closing in and sleep beckoned. Early night with the Dalai Lama’s ‘The Art of Happiness’ and I slept well, really well.
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We woke to some hardcore Monsoon style rain. This is the dry season so everyone was a little surprised, the locals blamed a storm from China. They always seemed to blame China. They reckoned it could last three days. Trekking was in doubt. I spoke to the guide. He was a knob. He obviously had rich pickings from the older, unfit and extremely wealthy middle class contingent next door in the more expensive part of the hotel. He didn’t want my money and didn’t want to give me any information.
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I walked down to Lily’s Guest House. Here I found a charming Dr Aung. He too was unsure about trekking as numbers were low. However he did say to pop back later on as something may be arranged with a guide called Momo. He was happy to help. At this point I remembered Richard, the tall Swiss guy who asked me to pose for a fine art nude photo shoot in Hpa-an, recommending Momo as he’d used him for the three day trek from Namshan back to Hsipaw. I decided to wait. Hoping Momo would come good.
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Before Guy and I rented out a motorbike, I went and exchanged my dollars for an extremely poor rate. As Hsipaw is a relatively small town the rates drop. Bummer. Lesson learned.
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There’s good decisions and poor decisions. Back packers rarely know whether the decision they’ve made will be good or bad until afterwards. New places, different rules, forever changing goalposts make decisions difficult to make. Guy had to make a choice, does he go for a bicycle or a motorbike, with gears. We’d only driven automatic scooters before, so delving into the world of motorbikes with gears, in Myanmar, where they drive on the right, that’s the wrong side of the road, it was one of these decisions that either goes great or we crash, break a leg, permanently scar our beautiful skin and end up having to  pay some gangster dude mega money to replace the bike we just ruined. Luckily for us, the day was a success. On that day in particular, decision making was Guy’s and my forte.
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The rain magically stopped and the sun had his time. We drove around the town and surrounding villages, visiting ancient pagodas, monasteries and huge Buddha statues in what they called ‘Little Bagan’.
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A tall European needs to be on his guard when in Myanmar. Asians are small, we are not. Walking over a wonky wooden bridge I again whacked my head full pelt on a wooden beam which most Burmese folk pass underneath. Guy laughed. I held back the tears and laughed along with him. Because I’m tough like that. My hair would have once protected me from such a forceful blow to the head but my new skinhead was useless. The longer I stay here, the more damage I do to my already declining number of brain cells.
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We stopped at Mrs Popcorn’s organic farm and sipped on passion fruit juice and freshly made coffee that she’d grown herself. Nice.
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The town was relaxed and the roads were easy to navigate. We drove along dirt tracks by the railway line and went over ancient decrepit wooden bridges. Kids waved and smiled as we cruised past, stopping sometimes to high five and exchange minglabba’s with the locals. We passed through villages, with bamboo houses rather than wood or concrete that they use in the town center. We drove down back alleys, through games of football, through valleys and rice paddy fields, stopping to talk to a lovely local midget lady who spoke no English but smiled and posed in pictures with us.
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No other tourists were driving around on motor bikes. Maybe that’s why we got so much attention. We felt like celebrities. Being foreign was a good thing, everybody loved the white and the brown guy on motorbikes, a far cry from the reputation foreigners in Thailand’s southern islands conjure up. Boozed up scooter dickheads we were not.
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We were drifting through normal peoples lives, observing and discovering the houses they live in, the clothes they wore, the jobs they did, the games the children and the gambling fathers played. The bike gave us freedom.
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We stopped by a small river with a bridge for the railway line. Men were casually sitting and talking on the track, drinking a bottle of whiskey. They waved and smiled at us. There were children playing in the river. Sheets of soon to be noodles were hanging to dry. Women carried pots of water on their heads.
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Parking up outside the railway station we make friends with some non English speaking locals working at what looked like an orange factory. The girl, picking the oranges by hand from the back of the lorry (that’s a truck for you Americans out there), took an instant liking to Guy. His beard pulling in the ladies. She threw him a couple of oranges. Then I got in on the action. Result. Before we knew it, Guy was helping lift the baskets of oranges from the lorry to the factory, we were being introduced to the boss and our bags were heavy with a dozen or so oranges. No common language was spoken, just an exchange of smiles and some free oranges, they were just bloody charming Myanmar folks. We ate a couple of oranges, expressed our gratitude and sped off towards the sunset hill.
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As we drove up the hill, we bumped into Josh and Gilly, an English couple we met in Moulamyine. During the sunset and eating oranges and poppy seed biscuits I discovered that they too had been in contact with Momo and booked the trekking from Namshan for the following day. The back packing Gods again looking after me.
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I immediately went to Lily’s Guest House, talked to the extremely friendly and loveable Dr Aung (who is a real doctor with a real surgery in the guest house) and booked up my place to go trekking the next morning. I was set. A 6 hour truck drive through the mountains to Namshan, one nights sleep there and 45,000 kyat for three days of hardcore trekking through tribal villages. It seemed like a tough one to get on, one that not many did. I was game. Adventure in my eyes, exploration in my heart, I was proper excited.
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In Myanmar, this would be the first time I would be away from my team of traveler buddies, Guy and Nourdes. Guy was not coming on the trek, he was aiming to go down south to find a beach and Nourdes would be on the other side of the world, throwing shapes at the Mardi Gras in Brazil. Then, as we entered Mr Food’s diner for a bit of Chinese pork and vegetable stir fry we bumped into Isabel. How very strange this back packing circuit can be sometimes. Myanmar is a small place.
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Early rise. I packed my shit, ate some breakfast, hugged Guy, slapped his arse and waddled my way down the road to Lily’s ready to be whisked away by a truck up through the mountains to a remote village called Namshan. Game on.
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Mandalay: A very long bridge, a drunk monkey and a soon to be divorced millionaire.

Myanmar’s night buses are never punctual. Never. The usual trick is advising us that the 9 hour bus journey takes 12 hours. This usually coincides with you arriving at 3am at your destination. That’s especially handy as most guest houses are locked up for the night or they’re fully booked up until check out time, midday.

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Arriving in Mandalay at 4am was another one of these times. We had to wait a few hours for our room to be ready at the ET Hotel so we tracked down a tea shop that was open and feasted on fat fried vegetable concoctions and Indian chai.
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Mandalay city runs on a grid system, looks fairly modern and developers are building at a fast rate. Its a city on the up. The streets are busy with cars and bikes but is still no where near the craziness of places like Mumbai or Bangkok. However, the cow and cart from rural Myanmar is no where to be seen.
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One million people live here so there’s a big city feel. For Myanmar.
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The Palace grounds take up a huge part of the city. It’s surrounded by a pretty large wall and an impressive looking moat. It’s 10$ to get in. A hefty price for something I can witness from the outside. I swerve giving the Government any more money and head to the tourist information office.
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As I walk along the road, taking in the sight of the moat and it’s impressive looking Palace, I notice something I haven’t seen here before, a selection of outdoor gym equipment. There’s a policeman hocking up and spitting out his beetle nut. The road offers a row of electronic shops, selling fake branded goods. I see a number of buildings being erected. Dozens of workers passing trays of cement to each other, in some sort of disjointed human production line, they attempt what looks like a very long winded way of getting cement from the ground floor up to the third floor. I was amazed and happy to see prosperous city life in action after my stint in the villages of the Shan State mountains.
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The information office tells me the boat to Bhamo is a no go. Government troops have been attacking Kachin troops in the north and tourists are not aloud anywhere near the Kachin area. The Government are still sending planes into the area to bomb the Kachin rebels, even after they themselves called for a ceasefire. Civil war is ugly. Most of the country seems to be at peace but there are still pockets of unrest. The military Government are not exactly a firm favourite with its people but positive steps are being made to move closer towards a democracy and to improve the standard of living for its people. Moving out of the dark ages will take time. People still do not trust the Government. Us tourists are not allowed to witness the darker side of Myanmar. My complaints about politics in my home country of England seem almost pathetic.
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That afternoon we take a motorbike taxi ride out to the edge of the city to the old capital of Amarapura. Five people on two bikes. Buzzing with excitement at the prospect of these tiny little motorbikes exploding under the weight of its unfamiliar and larger than usual, European, clientele  The attraction Amarapura is a long teak bridge. 1.2km long to be exact and 200 years old. Impressive stuff. The sunset was by far the best I’ve witnessed on my travels. Many monks, street sellers and a fair number of tourists filled the bridge while boats and fisherman filled the river.
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Liking to keep up the image of the British abroad, Guy, Nourdes and I sank a couple of Myanmar’s and enjoyed the ambience of the tranquil setting. We even spotted a few white tourists.
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Whilst sipping on our freshly cooled lagers, a man with a monkey on a chain, dressed in a wacky too-too, walked past us. He stopped at a table full of drunk naughty looking gangster type Burmese fellas and proceeded to show off his monkey’s tricks. The tatty looking monkey could drink beer, fall over on demand and do a 360 flip whilst balancing on a beer bottle. This fascinated me yet was disturbing. A monkey drinking Myanmar Beer. Wrong. The Burmese laughed and egged on the monkey. Money was made. The monkey received his beer as payment.
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My tiny but very reliable Sony point and shoot, decides to infect the lens with a small hair, maiming every shot I take with a dark line. Extremely pissed off. The sunset being the most spectacular I’ve seen yet. The colours better than the camera could handle.
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See what I mean? The bridge may look like it is going to fall down but it was well worth the risk. Nice.
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Check out this little cutey I picked out with my stalker zoom. Kids were free to roam the bars or sit on tables.
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Returning to our hotel that night we attempt to find a viewpoint bar down by the west of the city centre. Fed to the brim with the usual oily Myanmar food and slightly groggy on a few beers we stumble down the road towards our destination. The lights go out and the entire city, including our road is plunged into darkness. Power cuts are a regular occurrence in Myanmar and his was our call to give up, go back and get an early night. With no sleep on the bus the night before and a few beers already inside us, maybe we were being a bit too over adventurous.
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Checking the shops on the long walk back while Guy was having a little ‘pit stop’, I was again unsuccessful in discovering any chocolate. I have now come to a conclusion that I will never find any real chocolate here. Until I reach Thailand, I will have to make do with the chocolate flavoured confectionery range. It looks like real chocolate but tastes fake. This product is not enjoyable, merely frustrating for the true chocolate connoisseur.
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After a great nights sleep I got up early and walked to Mandalay Hill, north of the Palace. The long walk took me to the two huge Buddhist dragon lion things that greet you at the entrance to Mandalay Hill.
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The area is surrounded by restaurants and taxi drivers. A clear favourite with both Myanmar and foreign tourists. Back in the day, this hill was climbed by Buddha. Overlooking the lands he said that in 2400 years time, this land would be the capital of Myanmar. So 2400 years after Buddha said it, they built a city. Voila, Mandalay was born. However, it is no longer the capital.
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The hill had hundreds of shops lining the steps up to the top. Food, souvenirs, flowers, books and palm reading are on offer. People live and work on the hill, some families choosing to sleep in their shops at night. There were more stalls than tourists. More children playing than visitors. I have no idea what this ‘love’ garden is about, but it looked nice.
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The walk was a pleasant one. The people smiling and happy. Many pagodas and temples broke up the long climb to the top and the view was well worth it. Apart from the hill I was standing on, Mandalay is very flat. The horizon blurred by the mist, it was still good enough to leave me staring at it for over an hour.
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Contemplating the huge effect Buddhism has on the Burmese people and their way of life, I looked at the city below. Relaxed, I started my decent.
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I am a YES man. This is why I decided I get my palm read. The slightly quirky Hindu dude, who’s parents came from India, got my custom over the others. Why there was a Hindu palm reader tent on a famous Buddhist attraction I will never understand but for less than a quid the happy head-wiggling little fella brought a smile to my face. He was a small guy and spoke relatively good English. I understood the majority of his ramblings and he smiled lots. A winner all round. I love weird things. This was weird.
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Here’s what my future holds people…
  • Two marriages
  • The first will be a two year relationship, lust not love
  • My second marriage will be to a foreign lady from a different religion
  • I’ll produce two children, a girl then a boy (this prediction was after he said I would have no more children and noticed the disappointed look on my face)
  • He even drew my wife. She’s a beauty
  • I will play football with my future son
  • February holds great luck
  • March 2014, when I’m 31, is also great luck too
  • At the age of 39, I will become a millionaire. I hope he meant pounds and not kyat
  • London is lucky for me
  • When I am 41, I will have a problem, I must treat people nicely who are below me . I think that’s what he meant
  • After a fruitful and exciting life I will die at 90 years old
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Just so you know, I genuinely believe this guy spins shit for a living. But good shit it was. He said nice things and did so with a smile. For less than a quid I was happy to listen to his made up fantasy stories about my future millions.
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I made my donation, regurgitated the little Hindi I could remember and skipped down the hill a happy laughing man. A short motorbike ride back to the hotel signaled the end to my short stay in Mandalay. Guy and I said goodbye to Nourdes. Emotional as it was, we knew the big fella had bigger plans and would go to pastures greener. He winged his way back to the UK before hitting the legendary Mardi Gras in Brazil. I however, had not finished with Myanmar yet, I was ready for trek number two. Designation Hsipaw. Just below where the Kachin rebels were being attacked by the military.
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Inle lake: Wine, hot springs and dodgy floor boards.

Sign, the Chinese looking dude at the reception of The Good Will Hotel spoke amazingly great English. Just what we needed after a three day trek from Kalow. He only had two, two bedroom rooms for the six of us.cAgain, the art of persuasion saw Sign smile and laugh before managing to squeeze us all in. Two beds and two mattresses filled the room to bursting. Legend.

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We said our goodbyes to Mulan, our faithful and totally hilarious tour guide. We were exhausted from three days of trekking. Filthy. Physically ruined. The sun was setting and the cold creeping into the air. The shower was hot. There have been rare moments a hot shower has been called for on my travels. This was one of them. And boy did they deliver. They even had a separate hot and cold mixer tap so you can adjust the temperature to suit. Ecstasy. I spent a long time in that shower.
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With the bus to Mandalay booked for the following night I only had 24 hours to enjoy Naunshye and Inle Lake. The place was crawling with old, rich tourists who love to spend big. 24 hours was more than enough.
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Clean and invigorated we hit the town in search of some fine Myanmar food and a drink or two. The normal selection of tea shops and bars were available with a dusting of new tourist friendly restaurants, charging top whack to eat the ‘traditional’ food the cheaper places also sold. Apart from the price, the only other difference is the amount of oil used. Local restaurants use buckets of the stuff while tourist restaurants go easy. That night we ate good over priced food with old white people.
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Needing our dose of culture, we hit a local bar. We sit on the usual child size stools and order a beer. The usual complicated ‘run-over-the-road-to-the-alcohol-shop’ trick later and a rather cold looking couple of beers arrived. As the smiling lady pours the beer, it is apparent that the beer is so cold it has frozen. Instead of stopping, the lady continues to pour in the frozen beer to the chilled glass. She seemed a little confused as to why we didn’t want the beer and restarted her attempts at pouring the beer into another glass. Our laughter confused the poor lady. We had to get up and walk out. Clearly our service and quality expectations differ in the UK.
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That night, we drank beer and sank some Myanmar rum. Lots of it. In fact, we got plastered watching several games of FA Cup football. The bar we were in, fed us samosas, cakes and alcohol until pretty much everyone had gone home. A noticeable memory of the night was the dodgy uneven bamboo floor. Several holes were in place to test how drunk we were and we even created some of our own when our child sized stools pierced the flooring and sent each one of us flying. Priceless.
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The entire bar felt like it was close to collapse. every step sent the entire bar, which wasn’t small, wobbling and creaking. The route to and from the toilet was especially dangerous.
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However, this night was when the three of us Nordes, Guy and that good looking blond fella bonded. Man to man bonding session, with beer and football. Yeah. Boozed up Brits abroad. It dawned on me at this very moment, that sharing my Myanmar adventure with these guys was pretty special. Our discovery. I’ll never forget this journey. Or these guys.
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The football crazy Burmese love English football. I love watching them watch football. They sit in friendship groups, silently, occasionally sipping free green tea and nibbling at a cake or pastry. Only when a talking point in the game arises, such as a penalty decision or goal do they become animated, often laughing, joking and poking fun at their friends. The silence indicates a serious and dedicated concentration of the game, the players and the tactics. They are fascinated and want to learn. While most Burmese people are in bed this group of hardcore devoted football fans stay up, in the cold, to watch their favourite football teams. Premier League teams.
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Unfortunately for us drunk brits at the back of the tea shop, we didn’t practise such dedication. Breaking the bamboo floor with our stools, talking loudly and celebrating goals with noisy cheering was our way of showing the quiet Burmese how the British do football. Guy even managed to persuade the locals into believing he was Oxlade Chamberlain’s cousin. The link between Guy’s Sri Lankan decent and Oxlade’s Afro Caribbean parents not sending any doubts into the believing locals minds. Boozed up Brits abroad. Shameful antics.
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Walking back through the silent, dark and cold streets we returned to our hotel room and turned on the heating. That’s right folks, heating. During our trek, the nights were cold and long, a first for a long time. In fact, this was the first time I’d needed or even wanted such an invention such as heating since leaving Kent back in October of 2012. So happy to have this luxury we maxed up the temperature and fell asleep in what can only be described as sauna heat.
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I awoke to a sore throat again. OK I was drinking alcohol last night but this is something that was a daily occurrence. During the day my throat was dry, during the night it was painfully sore. Is it the dust? Maybe the pollution from the black smoke being pumped out of ancient rust bucket vehicle type machines. Or was it the temperature drop at night? We all suffered. The mystery of the Burmese throat swell. Can anyone shed light on this strange phenomena? Answers on a postcard please.
Yet another complimentary breakfast of egg, toast and bananas was sunk before heading off to the local market. Even here in Myanmar, Manchester United and that fella Wayne Rooney have an influence. Our trekking group still in tact as a six-some, we ordered some one gear bikes for a days exploration of Inle’s hot spa and winery.
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Riding our bikes down dusty mud roads, past floating and non floating villages and farmers was nice. Proper nice. Surreal. The sun was out and on form. Overtaking one another we mimicked commentary from the Olympics, Nourdes declaring, ‘Morocco take poll position, easing past Denmark on the outside’. The bikes were ancient beasts you see grannies riding in Europe, no where near cool enough for our British streets, but on that day, we made them look cool. The seat not good enough to protect my arse from the beating the uneven and bumpy road was giving it and the squeal of my brakes surprising even the locals, I still enjoyed every minute of it. Smiling locals, staring children and vans with happy, waving workmen passed us by. Sweat inducing fun.
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The natural hot spring spa was not exactly what we thought it would be. We pictured a spa carved out of the mountain rock. A natural spa we envisaged. Instead we paid $8 for three very nice jacuzzi’s without the bubbles. It reminded me of a gym spa, outside. Nothing natural about it, it was clearly man made. However, the spa area was luxury. Sun loungers freely available and a bar serving ice cold drinks. Us dirty packers lived it up with the elite elder package tourist holiday folk for the day. They even gave us a free towel and soap. Touch.
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The locals spa was a little cheaper but the spa was separated by gender. As we had a mixed group we opted for the foreigner only mixed gender spa. It sounded a lot livelier in the natives spa and children could be heard playing. Our pool was quiet, tranquil, typically polite and British.
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While tanning the top of my unhealthily white thighs and listening to Hospital Records finest podcast mystro, London Electricity, I manage to sit down and write this funny and witty blog, After a roasting, I decided to leave my pedigree chums and ride my beast of a bike back through Naunshye and up into the Red Mountain vineyard and winery for an afternoon of wine tasting.
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As the sun started its decent, I sipped wine, logged onto the wifi and enjoyed the view of Inle Lake. WiFi that actually worked too. A rare specimen in these parts. Today was not the usual back packing experience Myanmar offers. A rare and expensive treat. I enjoyed it. Rather.
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That night I resumed my back packer duties and started another bus journey, This time to Mandalay. Inle was nice but I avoided the tourist hole excursions and quit early, a wise decision. Personally I’m not into being lead around to places designed for tourists, where the locals who are employed see hundreds of tourists everyday. This area is naturally beautiful but has been exposed to far too many wealthy travelers for poor ‘real’ culture seeking back packers to stay any longer than a couple of days. Harsh as it may sound, I say as I see it. Myanmar so far, has shown me a land untouched by tourism and the inflated prices that come with it. Inle Lake doesn’t fall into that category.
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Word.

Kalow to Inle Lake: Trekking, Mulan and Myanmar Rum

Bag ready. Camera charged. Trekkers up for it. Breakfast egg and chapati was accompanied by Sky News. The first time in four months I’d caught up on world affairs. The main story was Chelsea’s Eddie Hazard kicking a ball boy in the stomach. How I miss the real world.
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We waited an hour watching the same 10 minutes of news re-read in a variety of ways before we were summonsed. Our promised, mature and knowledgeable guide, was replaced with a young Burmese kid with a cap on sideways. He was smiling and spoke broken English. Although these Sikhs were born and brought up in Myanmar they sold us a trek using traditional Indian methods.  Hugely exaggerated truths.
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We walked out of town and into the mountains. The team was six strong plus our young and trendy guide Mulan. The A Team was as follows…
  • My close and valued compardres, Guy and Nourdes
  • A young German girl, Isobel 
  • Andy and Deyna, a couple of Americans from Oregon
  • Yours truly, the man, the legend, the unit, Michael ‘Trekker’ Craig 
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Leaving Kalow we started to climb a mountain path. This being our first ever trek we were a little unsure of proceedings. If there was trekker eticate, we didn’t know. Mulan seemed to walk ahead but I called him continuously to gather information about the area we were walking through. I’d like to think I was inquisitive but maybe the rest of the team thought I was a little over talkative and maybe slightly insensitive in my choice of topics. I discussed various Burmese issues with Mulan our guide, most was lost in translation. We talked about the Kachin fighting in the north, the Government and his home village. He told me Bhamo is not safe and it is a restricted area, tourists are not permitted there. Another destination crossed off my wish list.
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Trekking the mountain range from Kalow to Hsipaw will take us three days and two nights and will take us through various villages inhabited by a number of different tribes.
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The first village we come across was a Bolan village. There are only 100 folk that live here and they still use there own native language. Choosing to isolate themselves from the Shan and Burmese people we were not welcome to stop. They only talk and marry within their own community. A little like the Isle of Sheppey. I think Mulan thinks they are weird. He also tells us that although their is now peace in the Shan State, the Shan army still works and lives in the mountains. I want to see some guns. No violence, just guns.
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Walking through the mountains we see a variation of different crops and locals working the fields. The weather is a respectable 25C. My newly shaven head starting to turn the same colour as the rest of me. Smiling, talking and walking we were having fun being away from the rest of civilisation.
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I quizzed Mulan regularly. We paid a decent amount to our guide so I thought I’d make the most out of his services. He told me that the Government education was free but most villagers left school at 12 to go and work with their parents. Farming and agriculture is their main industry but opium growing has been pushed out of the area. Opium is still a huge industry in Myanmar and pays extremely well but he seemed reluctant to talk any more about it.
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Mulan quote of the day:
”I want to grow opium but it is not good for the human race.”
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Funny guy.
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We ate at the top of a mountain. Our cook drives ahead, prepares our food for lunch before we arrive and again drives to the next destination in order to prepare for our dinner. The food was always varied and delicious. He provided plenty of carbs. Us white folk need the energy.
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The afternoon saw us enter a larger and more friendlier village. We played with the novice monks at some monastery. It was school kicking out time and we were again besieged by excited children of all ages. I introduced the snotty little terrors to my high-five trick, which they then hounded me to play for the next half an hour. Another fun game was seeing how many little Palau children we could lift on each arm.
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Getting this close to the children was fun. The language barrier was not an issue. Their dirty unwashed hands, snotty faces and the occasional untreated wound and eye infection should have deterred us but we all politely entertained the children. They were lovely.
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A game of football broke out using a torn, flat football. Who needs an xBox? Exhausted we said our goodbyes to the school children and trainee monks. Little bundles of joy. Wreckless and smiling, they played hard. White people must seem so much fun to these wee ones.
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Check out the Liverpool shirt. An instant bond was formed. Dude for life.
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Late that day, in some other village we passed through, Mulan took us to see the local Shamen. The traditional villages usually had a Shamen to sort out any illnesses via traditional, herbal methods. Turmeric seemed to be his cure for everything but he had a few other potions knocking about. We sat in his wooden house and drank green tea. Mulan translated for us. For a small donation to the cause, I was gifted a bracelet accompanied with a blessing for the trek. The bracelet was a bright red string sealed with what looked like a treasury tag but I was assured it was a traditional Shan bracelet. Good enough me.
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We continued our trek through fields and across a variation of different mountains before following a railway track to the station. We stopped at the station cafe. A long days trekking was rewarded with a sweet cup of lapeiye, a sweet tea with added condensed milk. A close relative to Indian chai.
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A short one hour walk later, just as the sun was setting, we arrive at our friendly home stay for the night. A small farm with several fields, a small two-story wooden house with a great view of the village, valley and surrounding mountains. What a treat. Water buffalo, chickens and some hot Shan ladies greeted us. Almost immediately, our food was served and we feasted outside.
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We were cooked traditional Shan fish, a potato curry, a selection of various beans, roasted peanuts and purple sticky rice. Desert was peanut brittle and fruit. A side helping of Mandalay rum, a fire and some high quality drunk conversation made the very cold evening pass quickly. The temperature dropped considerably. Sharing our rum with Mulan was a great idea. He was hammered. A real treat of his classic one liners entertained us all night. Our new friends from the States were a welcome edition to our pack. Trekking was fun.
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We retreated early to our beds, a blanket on the floor with three thick blankets to keep us warm. We needed them. This is the coldest I’d been for many months.
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The monk in the village has a massive speaker system and wakes every one up at 6am playing a prayer tape, LOUDLY. Thanks buddy. The cockerels start soon after. Awaking first, I step outside into the freezing damp darkness. My breath viisably freezing. The cook prepares our breakfast.
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The sun hasn’t quite come over our side of the mountain but life started to blossom. Birds cheeping, the water buffalo shifting around and the children start to play. Life in rural Myanmar starts to unfold around us. To our amusement, as we eat breakfast, a buffalo lays a huge steaming poo.
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To start the day, we set of on a four hour trek leaving the farm at 8am. On our travels we see many village people using the old cow and cart as a reliable form of transport along the bumpy dirt tracks as well as farmers, manual field workers and random kids on water buffaloes.
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We pass through a couple of villages, the locals happy to see us, waving and shouting kids greet us enthusiastically. I will reiterate that the folk, young and old, from Myanmar are collectively the nicest nation on earth, minus the military.
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We meet a lady making a bright pink bag using locally sourced wool and traditional methods. We drink green tea with her and watch how she works. No factory machinery on sight, she makes a bag. Nourdes is so taken in, he purchases one of her masterpieces. Fair play. No middle man involved, all proceeds go straight to the little lady. Supporting local trade, Nourdes has not only bagged a top quality bag but a lashing of karma too. This old lady below, continually talked at us in her native tongue. Nobody knew what she was saying. She was pissed. I’m sure of it.
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The locals gathered to stare at the white foreigners who’d turned up in their village. They wore brightly coloured head scarves and traditional longhis. Guy used his Gangnam Style dance to entertain the youngsters before we were treated to lunch in one of the villagers home.
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Fascinated by village life, we stopped to talk to locals and waved and played with their little ones. They were very welcoming and as long as we interacted in some way, they were happy for us to take pictures. The ratio between walking and village stops was perfect. Mulan, although he was young, was a top guide. We all warmed to him.
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Continuing our path out of the village and through the mountains we bump into many locals working the fields. Trekking over bridges, through fields, past buffaloes, through rivers, over hills and down them again. No mountains but Mulan worked us hard.
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We stumble across a coal mine. Initially, we met a local fella baked in black suit. Then we saw a set of bamboo sticks above a small square hole in the ground. Unbelievably, a man was down there chopping away at the coal and sending it up in small buckets. Just the two of them worked there. Health and safety minimal. Their tough and grueling job shocked us.
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We plodded on. Conversation was random, varied and at times deep. The team was a good one and Mulan was slowly taking to my barrage of random questions about life in Myanmar. I was a sponge, soaking up the culture that was on offer.
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Bunyan trees were a common sight. Some had sticks perfectly placed to keep up the low lying branches. Mulan told us that if a baby is ill or somebody needs some good luck, they will strategically place some support for the Bunyan tree branch, a holy tree for the Buddhist lot. Someone had randomly placed a light bulb in one of the trees branches too, an energy efficient one. They are a spiritual bunch here and they believe in keeping the spirits happy as much as they do their opportunities in their next life. Buddhism is for their future life when they pass away and keeping the spirits happy will make their day to day life full of good luck. Mulan insists the belief in spirits is nation wide but each ethnic minority has slightly different spiritual systems in place.
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We stopped briefly at a tea shop shack in a village for beverages. We met a couple of retired British couples who were slightly tipsy on the stronger than they’d anticipated Dagan lager. They educated us about their Thailand border crossing experience. We thought entry into Myanmar with a 28 day tourist visa was only possible via plane but these guys proved us wrong. Things are changing fast in Myanmar, they’re starting to catch up with the rest of SE Asia. These old folk were a laugh.
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Pictures in the locals homes could have done with a bit of colour. Every village home we visited were proud of their family portraits.
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We walked 25km in total that day, before we reached the Buddhist monastery up on a hill village. The monastery was a large place, one of a few in the village. It had a huge courtyard, a house for the monks in training, kitchen area, toilets up on the hill, a well with fresh and very cold water and of course the main monastery and place of worship. It was a wooden building, Chinese and Thai influenced, with a corrugated iron roof. It had seen better days, the floor creaked loudly but it still looked impressive.
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We quickly had a wash by the well outside and dashed up the mountain to watch the sun set with a monk and his trainee. Perfect timing.
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We ate another top meal served to us by our cook in a small open area with a roof next to the monastery. Surprisingly, we were allowed to consume our alcohol here. Feeling a little disrespectful, we ate and drank quickly before crashing out inside the main monastery building with the head monk and another small group of French folk at the early hour of 9pm. It had been a long day.
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At 5am the kiddie monks start their prayer chanting. Their little voices are sweet and soft on the ear. One kid is clearly the leader and knew the words, while the others were softly copying him a split second behind. Reminiscent of a younger me watching ‘Top of the Pops’ on a Friday night back in the nineties, attempting to sing to songs I’d never heard before. Their voices were a pleasure to wake up to. They finally gave up but I was wide awake. We greeted the head monk dude, who was a little under the weather, and gave him a donation for our stay over. He blessed us. Nice guy. Even though he was ill he still smiled. I like Buddhists. A 7am breakfast of pancakes and banana and we were ready for our last day of trekking. Sore and stiff from the last two days walking, sorry trekking, we start our descent down towards Inle Lake.
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Although we could see Inle from a distance it still took us over four hours to make it through the fields and down to our final meal prepared by our talented cook.
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The first thing that I noticed about this place was a huge presence of tourists, mainly, no, completely, old and very wealthy. No back packers to be seen. It was a strange presence. None of us had been anywhere in the previous two weeks that had so many tourists. The market stalls next to our restaurant sold pretty items at extortionate prices, even compared to prices back home. I felt young and poor in comparison to my other tourist folks. It was a culture shock, especially when we’d hanging out with the ethnic minority lots in the mountains.
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We sat eating our tea leaf salad and rice, exhausted and dirty. The orange dirt made us look like the chavs at home who love a bit of cheap fake bake. Glad we had all made it one piece, we reflected on our journey. The scenery constantly changed, the village life fascinating and the local food made fresh was some of the best, and least oily we’d tasted in Myanmar. All in all, the trek was pleasant and a great introduction to the trekking scene for us all. At this point of my journey I decided to head to Hsipaw and do another multi-day trek, I was hooked. Physically testing and out of my comfort zone I wanted another slice, maybe loads of slices, maybe even a whole cake, or bakery. The explorer in me discovered. Michael ‘Trekker’ Craig they call me.
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We were just about to leave for our boat to take us along the river and down to Nyaungshe to our accommodation when a small child, no older than 10 years old scuds his scooter past the restaurant, smoking a fag and drinking a can as he goes. I love this country.
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The ‘popular’ Government charge foreigners a $5 entrance fee just to enter the area. How nice of them. We reluctantly pay and jump on board a long boat with wooden seats in them. The boat took us down a river past villages, bamboo huts, monasteries, small bridges, fishermen and families washing their clothes.
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The river opened out onto the mega huge Inle Lake. I inserted my headphones and let Netsky, Grafix and High Contrast take me to a new level of niceness. The sun was shining, muscles aching and a glow of satisfaction from completing my first ever trek left a growing smirk on my slightly pink face. I sat back and enjoyed the never ending boat journey from heaven. The area is naturally beautiful and I can fully understand why so many tourists come here. Achievement is such a buzz.
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When we pulled up to Nyaungshe, Guy spotted a posh restaurant and darted off shouting ”now is the time”, clutching his bag. Guy has a fear of squat toilets. He hadn’t passed motions since Kalow. I presumed he was happy to see a Western toilet. I presume the western toilet wasn’t so happy to see him.
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Before I started this trek I wasn’t sure of the difference between trekking and walking. I still have no idea. We just walked for 7-8 hours each day. Is it the distance or the terrain that turns walking into trekking? Or is it the foot wear? Talk to me.
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Mission complete, Good Will Hotel squeezes us in and we all enjoy a hot shower. The feeling of warm water and soapy bubbles on your skin is almost … it was nice. Trekking has added a whole new experience to my tour of Myanmar. I fucking loved it.
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