Travelblog#4: Hpa-an and Mount Zwegabin – Burma

25th-28th August, 2014

The last few days we had just spent roaming around Mawlamyine had been very fast-paced, so when we reached Hpa-an – our next destination – we decided we would take a day to relax at first.

Soe Brothers Guesthouse, the place we checked into, was perfect for that. Not only did it have free wifi and a tea making station, but it also had wash-rooms and plenty of hanging lines on the balcony which meant that we could also catch up with something we had both been neglecting recently; our laundry. We did take a little walk around though to get our bearings and discovered that it was quite quaint for a Burmese town, and it had a thriving market.

The next day we went out on our first trip in the area; Saddar Cave. And another Brit we had met upon the road called Rory joined us.

We caught a bus to Eindo, but once we got there none of the tuk-tuk drivers seemed to want to drive us the rest of the way so we were forced to walk. I was glad we did in the end as we passed through some very scenic rice paddy farms which were surrounded by limestone mountains and floodplains.

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And we even got to watch some local fishermen casting out their nets to catch fish, Burmese style.

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We realised why the tuk-tuk drivers were reluctant to bring us when we had to remove our shoes and wade our way through the knee-deep sodden clay which had clogged up the end of the road. When we did finally reach the cave we were disappointed to find out that we would not be able to reach the “secret lake” on the other side because of flooding, but the cave itself – which was filled with beautiful Buddha statues and pagodas – was definitely worth the trip.

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Rory made his way back to Yangon the next morning because he was flying to Bangladesh, so it was just me and Roy again. We decided it was time to do something a little more challenging: climb Mount Zwegabin.

Zwegabin is the highest mountain in the area, but the way it juts out from the relatively flat terrain surrounding it, it more resembles a cliff. There is a monastery perched upon its highest peak which, rumour has it, occasionally lets wanderers stay overnight.

We packed some basic provisions and left the rest of our stuff at Soe Brothers, who very kindly agreed to look after them for us, and then we hired a tuk-tuk to start of the trail. We stopped at Kyauk Kalap on the way to take some pictures of – you guessed it – another pagoda. This one was perched on the top of an interesting rock formation and surrounded by an artificial lake.

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We also caught a view of what was to come.

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You see that tiny collection of buildings up there? No – probably not. Let’s zoom in a bit.

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That, was where we were about to climb to. I will admit, the sight of it was a bit daunting.

“Why are we doing this, again, Roy?” I asked. “Please remind me.”

We began the hike. It was gruelling, but the trail which skirted around the slopes of the mountain was quite well maintained. It tested both my stamina and my fear of heights but, somehow, I managed to make it up to the top. Mostly by clinging to the side of the mountain, taking many breaks, and lastly – but definitely not least – not looking down.

I took photos of some of the finest landscapes I have ever had the privilege of seeing, which can be found on my Flickr page. I would like to mention here as a side-note that I am definitely not a photographer, and my photos are generally just holiday snaps taken with a crude point-and-click digital. Roy is wonderful with a camera and the pictures he is taking of the places we are visiting do them much more justice, so I would recommend checking out his Flickr account.

There were only two monks in residence at the time we visited, and they seemed quite surprised that we wanted to stay. Once we had made ourselves understood they were reasonably hospitable and guided us to a dormitory room where we were given mats, blankets and pillows to sleep on and, most importantly, a pot full of hot Jasmine tea.

We were there just in time to witness the afternoon feeding of the monkeys, whom the monks seemed to have formed a tenuous but functional relationship with by giving them meals twice a day and keeping a dog called “Manni”, whose job it was to keep them in line. Whenever the monkeys got a bit cocky or boisterous they would exclaim “Manni! Manni!”, and she would rush over to chase them away.

Me and Roy were both sweaty from the climb, so we were guided towards some cubicles where we could wash, using buckets of cold rainwater. We then wandered around, taking pictures of the stunning views which were all around us.

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Just as we entered dusk and the sky started to turn hazy, the mountain was suddenly enveloped by a cloud and we watched as streams of white fog floated towards us, obscuring the nearby mountains until all we could see past the balcony we were sat at, was fog. It was one of the eeriest moments of my life.

Later on in the evening one of the monks went out to the central pagoda to meditate, and then he began walking circles around it while chanting. We watched from a respectful distance and caught a few photos (without using flash).

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Their dog Manni dutifully slept in our doorway all night to guard us from the monkeys, and when we packed up and left the next morning she even escorted us all the way back down the mountain. A part of me was relieved to be leaving. It truly was a beautiful and atmospheric place but my fear of heights made it almost impossible for me to feel relaxed there, as no matter where I looked I could always see a sheer drop below us somewhere.

When we reached the ground again we took a small trip to another monastery in a village called Thamanyat, where they have the embalmed bodies of two deceased monks still preserved in the lotus position. It was interesting, if a little bit creepy.

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Travelblog#3: Mawlamyine – Burma

22nd-24th August, 2014

On the morning of the 22nd our bus pulled into Mae Sot and we made our way straight to the Thailand-Burma friendship bridge. It was fairly painless, as far as border crossings go. We had already been granted visas so it was just a case of filling out a form and being stamped into the country.

We stepped onto the streets of Myawaddy. Me, Roy, and a Swiss guy were the only caucasian people there so we immediately found ourselves surrounded by some very enthusiastic, betelnut-chewing touts, who all insisted that we would not to find a ride to Mawlamyine for any cheaper than 10,000 kyat each. It is never a good idea to trust the first people who approach you when you enter a new place, so Roy walked off a little bit further away from the main drag to see if he could haggle for something a little cheaper while I looked after our bags.

“I found a ride for 5,000 kyat each,” he said when he returned a few minutes later. “That’s half what they said.”

“Let’s go see,” I said, picking up my backpack.

Roy led me to our ride.

“It’s a bit ‘local’,” he said. “You up for it?”

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“Yeah. Let’s do it.”

The Swiss guy (Sandro) joined as well and at first it was just the three of us, an elderly lady, and a Burmese couple with three kids. We sat ourselves down on the mats, claiming the spots which would be our living space for the next ten hours. It was more than an hour before we even left because, as usual in Asia, it did not leave until all the spaces had been filled. In the meanwhile we were approached by many random passersby who wanted to greet us between the bars. Roy practiced numbers and some other Burmese words with the mother of the family we were cooped up with, while the father (who was almost certainly drunk) was very insistent that we eat some of his bhajis and biscuits.

When the rest of the spaces were finally filled the driver started up the engine and we began our journey to Mawlamyine.

Roy had spent much of that morning complaining that he was tired because he didn’t manage to get much REM time on the sleeper bus we just caught from Bangkok but, apparently, once he was crammed into the back of a songthaew this was no longer a problem.

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It was a rocky journey. The road between Myawaddy and Mawlamyne only runs in one direction (which alternates each day). Even then, it was chaos. We were held up for almost an hour at one point. We were also stopped at least four times by the army who checked our passports and asked us questions about where we were going.

Despite all of this, it was one of the most enjoyable – and most definitely, memorable – journeys I have ever been on. The first half of it was along a narrow road carved into the side of a steep mountain range, and we caught some sights of very beautiful limestone cliffs jutting out from the flatlands below. The locals we were sharing carriage with were very friendly. I began to feel like I was travelling again, after three all-too-comfortable weeks I had just spent in Thailand.

By the time we reached Mawlamyine it was almost evening so we didn’t have time to do much else apart from check-in to a guest house. Most of the landlords turned us down because they were not allowed to accept foreigners so we only had three options, all of which were a bit dingy and overpriced. We ate dinner by the waterfront and discussed what we were going to do with the next day ahead of us.

“There’s a place just south of here which has the worlds’ biggest reclining Buddha,” Roy said, as he scrolled through our copy of Budget Burma.

“How big is it?” I asked.

“About five hundred and sixty feet long.”

“That’s one big fucking Buddha…”

“Yup.”

The next morning we woke up early and went to the local bus station to find out how we could reach the big fucking Buddha (also known as Win Sein Taw Ya). We were pointed to a local service running to a nearby village which could drop us off along the way. All of the seats were already taken so I sat upon one of the sacks of corn which had been piled up in the middle of the aisle.

Half an hour later we were dropped off and, after a short walk down the driveway, we found the Buddha. It wasn’t exactly hard to miss.

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It’s not the prettiest Buddha I have ever seen, but the scale of it alone was pretty damn impressive and it was definitely worth the trip.

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We ventured inside and found that it contained a massive labyrinth of rooms and corridors. Most of them were merely empty space but some were filled with scale models depicting scenes from Buddha’s life.

On our way out Roy spotted a trail of identical Buddha statues lined up along the roadside which seemed to be leading somewhere. A procession of cows and goats were keenly upon the trail, so we realised that it must be something very important and followed them.

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We found ourselves being led through a small forest and then up a nearby mountain to where we had a great opportunity to take some photos of the surrounding area.

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In the afternoon we went to see a temple in a village nearby called Kyaikmaraw, where the monks were very friendly and keen to practice their English. We couldn’t stay there for very long though because the last bus back to Mawlamyine was at 4 pm.

On our second day in the area we ventured out to Nwa-la-bo Pagoda. We were told by the Lonely Planet that, as it was the weekend, the place would be filled with pilgrims and tuk-tuk rides to the top of the mountain would be available, but when we were dropped off by the bus the driveway was more or less empty. We started upon a gruelling two hour walk up the mountain. It was steep, sweaty, and long, but the higher we reached the better the views became.

When we finally reached the top the resident monk was very surprised to see us. Apparently not many people bother to make the journey during the wet season. We had a look around and took lots of photos of its main feature; a pagoda precariously balanced upon three golden rocks.

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After eating lunch, refilling our water bottles, and having a quick rest we began to make our way back. Two men who happened to be riding down the mountain offered us a ride back so we jumped on the back on their motorcycles.

We reached Mawlamyine again in the late afternoon and we had just enough time to stroll around Mahamuni Paya and watch the sun set at Kyaikthanlan Paya, which was a perfect ending to the day.

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As usual, more photos can be found on my Flickr account, here.

 

Travelblog#2: Bangkok & Ko Chang – Thailand

10th – 18th of August, 2014

On the 10th of August I left sleepy Kanchanaburi for bustling Bangkok to meet Roy. We found each other at around about midday and, after a quick catch up, began making our plans to sort out our visas for Burma and Indonesia.

We then found out that the embassies were going to be closed for half of the week because it was Queen Sirikit’s birthday – which meant that total processing time was going to take nine days.

We both looked at each other.

“I am not spending nine days in Bangkok.” I can’t even remember which one of us said it first, because the feeling was very mutual.

It’s not that we hate Bangkok. It does have lots of interesting things to see, such as the palace, Chinatown, and numerous temples. The weekend market is very good. If there is one good thing about Bangkok it is definitely the shopping. Wave enough bhat at one of the many touts lined up along the touristy streets and you can get anything you want, and, I really mean, anything, in Bangkok.

It’s just crazy. Crowded. Noisy. Cluttered. You constantly come across people sprawled out across the pavements or stumbling around because they are drugged up, drunk, or both. It’s the sort of place that will drive you insane if you stay too long. And, as Thailand is pretty much geographically central to SE Asia, it’s a place you often find yourself passing through.

Me and Roy have already “done” Bangkok, several times. And we’ve seen enough.

We decided to get a travel agency to sort out our visas, so we could spend our time somewhere else while they were being processed. Tickets to Ko Chang, an island not too far away, seemed to be quite cheap.

We handed our passports over,  and at 7am the next morning we put our backpacks on and walked towards the bus stop to make a hasty exit. We were forced to navigate our way through Khao San road – Bangkok’s most infamously touristy street – where last night’s debaucheries were still petering out. Drunken Brits and Americans were making loud displays of themselves from the still-open bars with a self-gratifying air. As if what they were really saying was; “Look at me! I am still drinking! Look at me!”

“Can I just say something to you?” one of them said as he stumbled over to us. He had a bottle of beer in his hand, which he was waving around like it was a trophy. He put his other arm around Roy’s shoulder. “Bob Marley… he is the king, right?”

His eyes went to Roy’s dreadlocks.

“Actually… I don’t really like Bob Marley,” Roy replied.

We carried on walking, and the drunken reveler looked crestfallen.

“I think we’ve made the right choice,” I said, dryly. Once we were out of earshot.

Often when you are travelling around Asia you encounter locals who are just plain rude to you. Farang (a Thai word which roughly translates as “Caucasian foreigner”) is not a racial slur in itself, it is a word most often used playful, tongue-in-cheek way, but you do occasionally hear it being spat out, like bile. In those moments, you do think to yourself, “why do you hate us so much?”

This is why some of them hate us. For many westerners, Asian countries are not a place they want to come to experience culture, nature, or even just a relaxing holiday. It’s a playground. A place where they can wave money around to attract younger and prettier girls than they could ever get at home, drink cheap beer, and generally act in ways that they would never dare to on their own doorstep.

When we reached Ko Chang we decided to head to Bang Bao, a fishing village to the south of the island which is away from the all party-beaches. We were there for eight days, in total, and most of them were spent relaxing. I did some writing, and Roy has been updating his blogs and doing other internet-related things which were neglected during his four months in India. You should check out his blog as well by the way – he has been to lots of interesting places.

Ko Chang doesn’t have a great reputation for marine life: most of the coral near its sandy beaches has been ruined so you have to go a bit further out to really see anything worthwhile. I went snorkelling around one of its rockier coves and saw lots of tropical fish, but nothing spectacular. I am waiting for when I am in Indonesia and the Philippines for that sort of thing.

Towards the end of our week there we hired out a pair of motorcycles for the day so we could explore more of the island. It had been a while since I had last been on a scooter, and within the first twenty minutes I fell off, skidding into the ditch. Twice. I got the hang if it again eventually though, and we managed to do a full circuit of the island without any serious mishaps. Roy has cuts and bruises on one of his legs, and I walked away with a slight limp which lasted for a couple of days. It was worth it. I took many pictures along the way of the beaches, mangroves and fishing villages we passed, which you can view on my Flickr account here.

Tomorrow we will be heading back to Bangkok to collect our passports which will (hopefully) now have the visas we need. After that we will be heading straight to the border and crossing into Burma. First stop will be Mawlamyine.