The suicide jungle trek

Catch up time!

We decided to make a few changes to our proposed route. It will now be:

Myanmar – Bangkok – Krabi (southwest thailand) – Ko lanta island – back up to Bangkok and then fly up to Vientiane, Laos. We’ll travel around Laos for 3-4 weeks, then head south into Cambodia, travel there for another 3-4 weeks then fly back up north to Hanoi, Vietnam, travelling down through the length of the country. From there,we’ll  probably head to south east Thailand before hitting Malaysia.

From Burma to Bangkok

Following our Burmese adventures, we flew to Bangkok. After spending a couple of vaguely horrendous nights there, not far from Khao San Road, (which is a perfect example of how mass tourism can utterly destroy a place’s soul), we escaped the crusty hippies and scammers to fly south to Krabi. Krabi sits on the south west coast of Thailand and is the jumping off point for a variety of jaw-droppingly gorgeous islands. First stop was Railay – a pedestrian only beachside town accessible only by long-tail boat. Driving there from Krabi is impossible because of the enormous limestone rock formations rocketing into the sky.

Railay was stunning – the western beach was a calm turquoise lagoon framed by a backdrop of jungle-clad karst cliffs. There are monkeys that tightwalk the low hanging tree branches, caves, warm seas and white Sands. We lucked out with our room, which had a wicked view of the incredible rock formations that the area is known for, with the sea beyond.

Climbing in an unusual place

Railay is a fantastic place to climb, so we of course gave it a go. (We met through climbing). We were taken by our guide to a series of routes set on a karst rock face on the southern beach. I managed to get 5 routes in, and tried out some new techniques and so was pretty pleased. Everything in view was what you’d expect from a Thai beach famed for climbing, except for this.

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Yes, it is what you think (or fear) it is: a cavern brimming with phalli… Some of which are startlingly detailed.

There are, in fact, two of these bizarre grottos on this beach. Phallic symbol enthusiasts should certainly visit. The two caves are places of worship to a female deity in command of fertility. Offering up what the descriptive tourist placard described as a ‘stick’ (i.e. model of a penis) brings the giver good luck and fortune. The deity also asks that worshippers help keep natural places clean and clear of rubbish. The faithful clearly still visit – each grotto was still full of burning incense sticks and candles. The religion seemed to be a part of the animist worshipping system common in this part of the world, which in many ways resembles paganism.

Modern Buddhism also still owes parts of its rituals to animism, especially in Laos. Their annual rocket festival involves launching fireworks into the sky, while waving more wooden penises around. This is in an effort to anger the gods, who are expected to retaliate by bringing thunderstorms and hence, lots and lots of much-needed rainfall.

Suicide jungle trek

After our climb, we had planned to visit a lagoon and trek up to a viewpoint nearby. We at first struggled to find the starting point. The sign pointed left to what we initially thought was a vertical cliff. But when we looked more closely, we realised that this indeed was the starting point for the trek. There were makeshift steps etched out of the clay cliff face and mangrove-type roots running down it which made for very nifty bannisters. We scrambled up and checked out the viewpoint first. It was well worth the climb.

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The difficulty of the climb was about to leap up from about 4 to 10 though, as we began our descent further into the wilderness towards the much-anticipated emerald lagoon. This part of our mission can only be described as a suicide jungle trek. Lowering ourselves down slippery vertical drops, clinging to equally slick clay-sodden ropes, and trying to gain purchase on elusive holds in the limestone rock was at times terrifying (sorry parents). We were as careful as humanly possible, and worked together to get through the trickier bits. The Railay suicide jungle trek is a great option for office team building exercises if you have (very) comprehensive company insurance.

After a good 40 minutes slowly edging towards our destination, during which we were transformed into strange slippery beings – coated in a thin layer of sweat and orange clay – we at last made it to the near-unreachable lagoon. Again, our efforts were well rewarded. Tall karst rock, covered in tropical trees and plants, jut up all round the enormous cool saltwater lagoon. It’s formed by underwater caves that let the sea water flow in. I floated in the middle of the lagoon looking up above me – an oval patch of blue sky edged with the slate grey rock, fringed with greenery. The peace and beauty made it seem like quite a spiritual place. There’s quite a bit of animist religion down here – the worship of nature and animals – and you can understand why. Spots as pretty as this seem almost sacred.

 

Tourism vs Culture: striking a balance in Myanmar

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Image: KX Studio, Creative Commons licence: CCBY

Something that really stood out to us after travelling through Myanmar was how welcoming the people were. They would usually greet us politely, and seemed to express genuine interest in us – we’d be asked questions all the time about where we were from and where in Myanmar we planned to visit next. From the minute we first arrived, we got the impression that we were being taken care of by the Burmese people. At Yangon airport, we were personally escorted to a quiet, air-conditioned taxi. This feeling of being almost hand-held throughout our travels was omnipresent during our time in Myanmar, and I mean that in a very positive way. For the most part, at each stage of our trip, whether it was a coach or a tuk-tuk, we felt supported. They were understanding of any Western ignorance and it was as if they were easing us into their culture.

Aung San Suu Kyi, arguably one of the key figures behind the country’s burgeoning tourist industry, is pushing the country forward and the Burmese people are delighted. Her picture is displayed reverently in most guesthouses and restaurants, and the couple we chatted to were very proud of their new leader and looked forward to a freer, more democratic Myanmar. For the people here, seeing foreign visitors is a symbol of progress.

Tourism has been encouraged by the government since 1992, but it’s only in the last few years that the numbers have really started to move. In 2010, the year Aung San Suu Kyi stopped being under house-arrest, 791,505 tourists entered the country. By 2015, this number had vaulted up to 4,681,020. (1)

But, as you might imagine with this pace of progress, there have been substantial growing pains too. In the Myanmar Times newspaper, there was a story about how the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Culture is clashing over a supposed ban on sunset tours of the Bagan pagodas.

It all began after the Ministry of Culture discovered that one tour group had allowed tourists to dance, drink and party on a pagoda at sunset. In an effort to prevent this sort of cultural insensitivity and disrespect, they proposed a ban on sunset tours of the Bagan pagodas on February 1st this year, which was supposed to come into place the following month.

The Ministry of Tourism were irritated that Culture had pushed forward a ban without proper discussion and pushed back against it. They said it would substantially lower income from tourism in the area – visiting the plain at sunrise or sunset sits comfortably at the top of any tourist’s Myanmar agenda.

To the relief of the Ministry of Tourism, the ban has been completely ignored, a ban which would be near-impossible to enforce anyway – patrolling the thousands of pagodas across a 26 square kilometre patch of land is nothing short of an expensive and logistical nightmare. It also seems an excessive reaction. A fellow traveller I spoke to described her group visit to a Bagan pagoda at sunset. She said the sheer peace and beauty of the place instantly reduced everyone to silence, even the usually more rowdy travellers enjoyed the spectacle quietly and respectfully. Our experience was similar and we didn’t see anyone behaving inappropriately. 

I feel lucky to have visited Bagan when we did. We were free to roam the area on a hired moped, exploring any pagoda we liked. We were able to climb up the brick steps of pagodas to enjoy the views across the plain whenever we wanted. Perching atop a pagoda that we had entirely to ourselves and watching the fuchsia-stained sun sink behind the horizon was one of the best parts of my visit to Myanmar and a moment I’ll always remember. I hope future visitors will be able to enjoy moments like this too.

But, it feels unlikely that the Ministry of Tourism will be able to retain this level of freedom for their tourists as the numbers continue to grow. It’s important that a balance is struck between giving visitors enjoyable, authentic experiences; and protecting and maintaining the area’s cultural integrity and precious architecture.

It’s time the two ministries sat down and had a long, realistic talk about the future of tourism in Bagan, otherwise it will go one of two ways – both of which are far from ideal. Either Bagan will be reduced to rubble by droves of tourists, creating a deep sense of resentment among locals, or visits here could be leeched of all colour. Carefully counted hordes of tourists will be quietly packaged into overpriced mini-vans and driven around a set circuit around the plains, pressing their faces against the vehicle’s windows to get a glimpse of just a handful of the plain’s incredible monuments. Maybe they’ll be an overpriced viewing platform too, but visitors will pay, albeit reluctantly, as that will be the only way to truly experience the spiritual beauty of the plain.

Whatever happens, there must be balance and there must be diplomacy. Based on Myanmar’s impressive progress so far, I’m hopeful that sustainable tourism in Bagan is a very achievable goal.

 

(1) Source of figures: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tourism_in_Myanmar

Bagan

The plain scattered with over 2200 temples and pagodas more than lived up to expectations. We hired an electric moped and zig zagged across the dirt tracks of the plain, stopping by to step inside bigger temples. We watched the sunrise and sunset over the plain, which was absolutely incredible.

Words don’t really do it justice so here are some pictures. And, if you choose to go to just one place in Myanmar, GO HERE!

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Lunch with locals

A taste of Burmese lake-side culture 

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While staying by Inle Lake, we did a boat tour for a day. We were out from 10am-6pm, traversed most of the lake, and were taken to various little stop-offs including visiting Burmese cigar women and learning how they roll sweet cigars*, trekking along farmland to see pagodas, and visiting a factory that weaves fabric from cotton, silk, and lotus thread.*

For lunch, we pulled up to a small jetty built of bamboo, were greeted by a friendly Burmese woman, and led past little scurries of free-roaming hens with their chicks to her home – a traditional lake house on thin, rickety-looking stilts. Upon stepping up into the house I was surprised by how sturdy, spacious and comfortable it was, despite first impressions.

We were led upstairs to two tables close to ground level, already laden with food: there were several small plates of salads*, vegetables, and for each person: a whole fish marinated in curry spices, a mountain of white sticky rice and a little bowl of vegetable soup.*

We sat down cross legged on the floor and got stuck in. After we had managed to pick as much flesh off the fish as we could, and had pigged on the salads, rice and veg, we were given slices of watermelon and squat, fat bananas which tasted beautiful – tangy, smooth and sweet. Xav and I wondered whether this was how bananas were actually meant to taste, and for our entire lives had been duped by pale yellow, bland imposters.

Although the people were welcoming, and the food was tasty, initially I felt a bit awkward essentially being waited on by this family – I knew they would be being paid, but how much? Enough? Do they somewhat resent having these flocks of foreign tourists (often dressed inappropriately by their more conservative standards) bustling through their home every day, eating their food?

But any initial social discomfort eased off a lot when one of our fellow travellers, a jolly, 63-year-old man from Naipur, India, offered one of the family’s children a gift. As she took the offering, a sparkly pen, her face lit up with sheer delight, a huge grin across her face.

A little after the meal, two other children turned up, clearly having heard the news from their excited sister, and were also beckoned over and given gifts. They weren’t much – the pen, sweets and a little wallet – but they were so happy and surprised to receive them. It was as if ‘Christmas’ had come early.

After the man gave the first child her gift, he turned to the rest of the group, and in response to our cooing over the adorable little girl, said:

‘Everyone always loves a surprise because there is no expectation – a surpise is always wonderful. I am the happiest man in the world because I live life with no expectations.’

The whole little scene left me feeling rather blurry-eyed. After this little ice breaker, I think everyone felt more comfortable. After dinner, we all went to the lower level of the house where it was cooler, and sprawled out on the floor, relaxing. We chatted as much as is possible with their limited English and our basically non-existent Burmese: about the children’s school, which they get to by boat; where we were all from; and we learned that Inle lake’s version of Father Christmas planned lavish Indian weddings for a living.

I thought I’d focus in on this part of the boat trip in particular, because after a few days, this was the bit that stuck with me most. It is an early indicator that it will be the people we meet here that will make up the most memorable experiences.

Glossary

* Sweet cigars, properly known as Cheroot cigars are wrapped in a banana leaf and packed with an enticing mixture of tamarind, dried banana, star anise, honey, cinnamon and of course, a little tobacco. It was testament to their deliciousness that us non-smokers decided to buy five.

*Lotus thread is produced by teasing the long, thin, fibres out from the stem and rolling them together to make a silk-like thread. It’s dried, dyed and woven to make scarves, clothes and bags. It’s super strong and pretty expensive, too. The lotus plant flourishes during the wet season (which was just about to hit when we arrived) and apparently parts of the lake become covered with it.

*Two traditional Burmese salads (actually often made with cooked vegetables) that feature a lot on menus here are tea leaf salad, and pennywort salad. Tangy fermented tea leaves or bittersweet pennywort leaves are mixed with sweet pink onions, finely shredded white cabbage, little bits of tomato, peanuts and lime juice. There are other ingredients I can’t quite identify – probably other herbs I’m not familiar with. All I’m sure of is that they’re refreshing, tasty and incredibly moreish.

*These bowls of thin, tasty broth come with most meals here, and help top up all the salts you lose through sweating buckets throughout the day. They are often fragrant chicken or vegetable stock, flavoured with lemongrass and coriander, and packed with cabbage, pak choi, tofu, and sometimes slivers of chicken.

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Pond beside a monastery inland by Inle

‘Very young and beautiful!’

Meeting Myanmar people

For our last full day in Yangon we were up at dawn to go and see the most famous site of the city – the Shwedagon pagoda. Covered in 273 tons of gold leaf, it’s an impressive example of Burmese people’s devotion to Buddhism. To get there, we climbed what felt like an endless flight of stairs surrounded by well-kept tropical gardens.

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After soaking up the peaceful and spiritual atmosphere, set to a backing track of young Buddhist monks chanting and singing with the tinkling of the little gold bells that cover every edge of the pagoda’s roof, we headed to a restaurant round the corner called Feel Good Myanmar Food (another charmingly named restaurant). It’s a posh area, with its main residents being embassies and well-to-do Yangon people.

We were lucky enough to be seated opposite a lovely Burmese  couple who told us they lived down the road. They sympathetically helped us with the menu, and politely turned a blind eye to our slurpy, western, slightly haphazard way of eating noodles. The conversation really got going when they complimented us, saying, ‘Very young and beautiful!’ when gesturing to our sweaty white faces. Flattered by this, we chatted as much as we could – the wife spoke a bit of English. They were good-humoured and kind. At one point they even declared ‘We invite you to our home.’ We smiled and nodded, unsure of whether they meant this literally or figuratively, as in ‘welcome to Burma’ and not ‘come over for tea.’

They also recommended us a place to visit near Mandalay called Pyin Oo Lwin, which I’m happy to say we did later go on to visit.

 

 

Day two in Yangon

 A basket of owls

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Morning: Bo Gyoke market

Breakfast the following morning was a mountain of egg stir-fried rice with vegetables and raisins, served with sweet orange juice and bananas.

We headed out to Bo Gyoke market, a vast two-storey maze of little shops. One floor is devoted to clothes – with hundreds of rolls of fabric stacked against walls and people whirring away on sewing machines, electric fans thrumming and blowing rags of cloth and thread across the floor. Xav bought a white long sleeved shirt which the owners photographed him in because he looked so ‘handsome’.

Outside we saw mountains of fruit and delicious-looking street food, tiny birds in cages, a basket full of barn owls and even a box of white fluffy puppies. One tourist who bent down to pet one we heard replying to the vendor ‘Oh no, no- I don’t want to buy one!’

Lunch was at Aung Mingalar Noodle restaurant, where we each had Shan Noodle soup – a common dish in Myanmar. It’s made with rice noodles and cooked in a mild but beautifully spiced broth with lemongrass, Thai basil and more. Add your chosen meat or tofu, et voila.

Street food

On every street, there’ll be at least one or two vendors offering something tempting (unless it’s insect or organ-based…see below).

Larger outfits are called teahouses and consist of a cooking area and a dining area that takes up most of the ‘pavement’ – usually lots of small colourful plastic tables with tiny stools. Each table will have a flask of Jasmin tea which you can help yourself to. These are the outlets that are open the latest. Official restaurants close around 7pm, (only later if specifically catering to westerners).

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Here’s some of the street food or tea-house food we came across in Yangon:

  • Baskets of deep-fried crickets
  • Crunchy mango slices tossed in chilli and other spices
  • Little mountains of white cabbage, limes, and tea leaves ready to be put together to make the famous Myanmar tea-leaf salad
  • Offal of varying description – avoided this
  • Piles of freshly-made noodles to be put into a noodle soup
  • Huge vats of aromatic curries

Blue and gold

Evening: Batataung pagoda

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Our first visit to a Buddhist pagoda was magical. The pictures we took speak for themselves, really. One big faux pas we made was trying to go in through the side gates. We were promptly shooed out, and barked at for walking on sacred ground with our flip flops on. We did know to remove our shoes in any temple, but just hadn’t realised we were already inside… After finding the proper entrance and paying admission, everything ran much more smoothly!

The walk to this pagoda was interesting too, as it took us along the dock area where there are lots of shanty-style housing. It’s clearly a really poor area. For Xav, this was pretty eye-opening as he’d never before seen this level of poverty.

Everyone was very friendly though, greeting us with interest – ‘Hello! Mingalabar!* Where you from?’ We didn’t feel threatened at all, only perhaps by the odd mangy-looking sand-coloured dog: one of the dozens of stray dogs that wander the town.

People so far were polite, attentive and interested in us. I got the sense that they were happy that we were there. Perhaps for locals, seeing tourists visiting the country is a sign of the progress Aung San Suu Kyi is pushing for.

Glossary

*Mingalabar- Burmese version of ‘Buenos dias!’ which literally translates to ‘Have an auspicious day!’

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Yangon: a baptism of fire

For inexperienced travellers, Yangon was certianly a bold choice for first stop.

Myanmar’s growth has been stifled by a military dictatorship (1962-2007) for several decades. This means that continued, good quality development and restoration of urban spaces just hasn’t happened. This is particularly obvious in Yangon, where years of humidity, insufficient road repairs, and a lack of street cleaning has resulted in a city that looks (and smells) like it needs a lot of TLC. Ancient looking colonial buildings are often tinted with hues of dark green or black, roads are potholed and there are no perceivable pedestrian walkways, and it’s, well, dirty.

Despite all of the above though, it was utterly charming, as we would find out over our next few days there.

We arrived at 9pm to a calm and peaceful airport and were kindly escorted to an airport-recommended taxi, avoiding the jostling mass of taxi drivers vying for our attention. (This was an early sign that tourists are really taken care of here. Luckily for us, there is a lot of hand-holding by Myanmar people when arranging any part of your trip.)

The heat enveloped us as we stepped out of the airport and I remember the smell of sweet spices (sounds tacky I know, but true). I could see tropical trees with huge trunks and gnarled roots, which seemed to line every road on the way down to our hostel.

After we’d checked in to Chan Myae Guesthouse, we decided to head out into the streets for dinner. We were in search of a nearby cafe which we’d scoped out before arrival. Navigating the larger roads was manic, with traffic hurtling chaotically. There are no pedestrian crossings or dedicated footpaths. Quieter streets are dark with funny warm smells and incriminating looking puddles all over the place, with the odd enormous black rat scurrying across the road every now and again. My mother woud have had several small heart attacks.

Our pilgrimage for noodles was sadly unsuccessful as 999 Shan Noodle Shop was closed. If we had been clever enough to ask our guesthouse about this before heading out, they would have probably laughingly told us that most restaurants close at 7pm, with the city pretty much shutting down (apart from the streetside ‘teahouses’) at 9pm. Ie: no chance mate – just go to bed!

So we headed back. After an exhausting 30+ hours travelling – from London to Dubai to Bangkok, we were absolutely delighted to shower and step into an air conditioned room, albeit a windowless one!

Bon voyage

Jetting off

My boyfriend Xav and I were living in London in a 1 bed flat. Our lives were generally fantastic, but we both felt we’d come to a natural interval. Xav had decided to change direction in his career, and I had nearly finished my year’s internship, and wanted to take time out to be with my family as my dad hadn’t been well.

Since we got together we’d said we’d go travelling at some point, and it seemed like a good a time as any to do it. So, we’ve escaped the big smoke and are heading to South-east Asia tomorrow.

Two months ago, we handed our respective notices in, ended our lease, and started planning our trip.

You can follow our progress here on this humble blog.

Lifemin (life admin)

There have been a fair few bits and bobs to sort out, and as far as we know it’s gone well.

Visas are sorted, some internal flights are booked, and we’ve been prodded with various needles that will protect us from a range of worrying-sounding diseases. We’ve even taken the first half of a cholera vaccine, which strangely consists of an oral suspension which tastes like raspberries – into which you empty a tiny glass vial full of CHOLERA and other ICKY BACTERIA.


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…It sure is, strange online quote! That’s why we’re taking extra care over how we pack!

This has involved Xav sending me lots of pictures of his hand beside things, so I can see how big the things are and whether they’ll fit into a bag/camera.

It’s been entertaining. Perhaps it will become a running theme on our travels. Picture Xav’s hand on an elephant/pagoda/wonton.

Xav’s approach to packing is also considerably more organised than mine…

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My bed looked nothing like this – a shining example of order and neatness. Nevertheless I have finally managed to pack my 40l rucksack. So has Xav.

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So we’re all set. Very exciting stuff.

The route

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We’ve only got this down as a rough idea to avoid the various monsoons sweeping across the region at this time of year. It’s subject to change.

First we’ll be in Myanmar (10 days), then we’re heading back into Bangkok and up to northern Thailand (Chiang Mai, Pai etc.), then east into Laos. After a few weeks there, we’ll hop on a plane to Hanoi, Vietnam, spending a month travelling down the length of the country. Then we’ll head into Cambodia, then back into Bangkok. For the last month or so we’ll be travelling down southern Thailand, finishing off in Malaysia. We’ll fly out of Kuala Lumpur on the 15th August.

*And breathe*

The short version:

Myanmar, Thailand (north), Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand (south), Malaysia.

The disclaimer

I am acutely aware that travel blogs can be, well, boring. They’re somewhat overdone, especially by people in our age group: the gap ‘yah’ has become the latest rite of passage for generations X and Y. I will probably end up writing cringey, gushing accounts of how places we go to have ‘like, totally changed how I see the world, man’, but I hope there will be elements of this that are a little more original. We’ll see. I’ll give it a go, anyway. And, when I’m feeling lazy, I’ll just show you some pictures. We all love a good ol’ scroll through some photos. Especially of smug tanned tourists…right

Do stay for the ride!

Anonymous apps – advice for young people

Anonymous apps like Kik, Whisper and Yik Yak are ballooning in popularity among teenagers. Sometimes the anonymity these apps offer can make teenagers feel invincible, and able to do and say what they like. Anonymous apps are good in many ways: they are often safer and offer an opportunity to express yourself more freely. But, there are things young people need to bear in mind in order to make the most out of them, while staying safe too.

Here’s a poster I created at work with top tips on how teens can do this.

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Mindfulness – a solution to frantic modern life?

David Goehring, CCBY

Image: David Goehring, CCBY

I recently wrote a blog post for Parent Zone about how mindfulness could be an effective way to cope with the always-switched-on, often frenetic, modern lifestyles many of us now have.

The fact that we’re always connected, always contactable, can make it difficult to switch off – it’s hard to be disciplined enough to ignore notifications; to not click on that interesting-looking pop-up. Our friends know when we’ve read a message, so we feel compelled to reply instantly.

We read our emails while writing an essay, or check our phones while watching a talk. Multi-tasking like this has been proven to be ineffective – actually making us less productive and more prone to making errors. Mindfulness helps us to stop multi-tasking as it encourages us to focus on our breathing, to disconnect, and really be in the present moment.

Have a read of my full blog post here.