Burmese Days- Part One…

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I was really conflicted about going to Burma at first. Its history of human rights abuse, the ongoing issues with the Rohinga, the lesser known issues with the ongoing civil war between different ethnic groups… there are plenty of reasons to avoid the nation- boycotting it so the government won’t profit from any travel that you do in the area. But there are also so many reasons to visit the country- the people (those who are really suffering, the victims of the government’s choices and rule) benefit from your patronage of their shops, townships and villages, and when you travel to Burma, you have the opportunity to learn about the nation, its tumultuous history and how it has changed, in new and different ways to the learning you can do outside its borders.

Of course, it is all too easy to avoid learning anything about Burmese history while in Burma, I was surprised (although, on reflection, not that surprised) at how hard it was to elicit any discussion from the Burmese people I met about what life used to be like under the junta- responses from text books and newspapers that I could read at home about things that were different now were the norm but I didn’t really get to discuss any serious issues while over there and if you travel there now, unless you try to go somewhere that is banned for tourists, you would have no idea that any human rights abuses were occurring. It would be very easy to go, walk through beautiful scenery, take selfies in front of temples, eat your weight in deep fried food, and remain ignorant of Burma’s past, present or tenuous future.

I personally don’t think this is solely a reason to avoid the country- every nation- my own included- has human rights abuse in its past (and sadly, often present) which it doesn’t talk about. I think one must decide for themselves if they are to travel to “problematic” countries, and how they will do so in the most ethical and mindful way possible, if that is a concern to them (which I think it should be for everyone).

To provide you with a decision re: travel to Burma is not the purpose of this blog, I just wanted to preface my recollections with the reasons behind my choice. At the end, I’ll briefly detail what I did to ensure I felt at peace with my travel decisions and some helpful blogs.

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Burma was always with me when I was in Thailand- in the news, in my work, in my interactions with students, colleagues, friends… it loomed large in my mind and its presence dominated my thoughts.

I knew I was going to be travelling there after I finished my time at Free Bird Café and I was filled with anticipation. I kind of assumed it would just be like Thailand- Chiang Mai, but maybe a bit poorer. The place I came to know was not that of my assumptions- it was vastly foreign and eerily… old. Burma felt like the plane I had flown over in was actually a TARDIS- taking me just outside of my time stream into one which had some bits of the world I’m familiar with- thrust over with no explanation or infrastructure- but still retained the old world of Orwell, military rule, thanaka in equal measures.

When I exited the tiny Yangon airport, I was immediately taken aback by the fact that every taxi driver I saw was wearing the traditional longyi- old, young, some in uniform, some privately owned companies… this wasn’t unique to the airport. 90% of men I saw were in longyis… and looked incredible. Beau, one of the Belgians on my tour, worked in fashion and fell in love with the style- I have to admit, I did too. It was classy and comfortable- able to be easily customised, easy to move and work in, easy to dress up or down. It was fabulous. The women also wore traditional dress more often than not- beautifully tailored in silks, lotus, cotton longyis and strictly structured shirts which elongated and beautified their every move.

I arrived around lunch time and as usual when arriving in a new city, walked aimlessly around the streets. I knew the river was at one end of my street so I walked down it; pass tea shops, betel nut sellers, books strewn over tarps ranging in subject from fiction to high school chemistry text books, to cookbooks in both Myanmar and English. I may have picked up a Burmese cookbook on day one. I really do have a problem. As I passed through these streets, I never felt unsafe, but I never felt as welcome or comfortable as I do in Chiang Mai. The stench of colonialism is still present in Yangon and the tourists are few and far between. But the stares I received were not hostile, they were curious- if anything. The areas I was walking- first down back streets of the city and then along the river, a seemingly quasi residential spot, were hardly the glittering pagodas and well manicured parks that I was shown on my walking tour the next day. I was seeing the city proper, and I’m glad I did. From the rattan ball bouncing off the skilful feet of young and old men to the cool tamarind juice which quenched my thirst, even to the fight I witnessed as I walked past the ferry to the village not ten minutes away from the modern hustle and bustle I was living amongst- this was a different reality to that which I was used to.

That night, I went to a restaurant which was training young, disenfranchised Burmese people in hospitality skills. The food was delicious, the location hidden away up a flight of steep, steep stairs, and the waiters and waitresses were pleasant, eager to please and eager to learn.

The next day I went across on the ferry to the island village across the river. Again, the boat ride was a portal to the past and the poor- the poverty was shocking and striking when held up against the neighbouring city. The longyis were tattered and the faces were grubby, the children’s hands outstretched, the rickshaw riders and tuk tuk drivers more insistent and intrusive than I’ve ever experienced. I walked for a while along dusty streets before I realised this was one place that I not knowing where I was going was probably a bit of an issue. I hailed down a rickshaw rider (poor lad. Must lose rice fat) and he biked me around the island to the temples- a patch on the pagodas on the mainland- fishing communities, rice growing communities… conversing in few words “picture?”, “you buy?” before taking me back to the ferry where I hid from the touts and the fruit, pickle, betel nut sellers- staring out across the murky water which separated the two pieces of land in so many ways.

That night I met my Stray crew- 3 other travellers and our guide. The whole tour was Belgian and all extremely lovely. We shared BBQ together, trying new and strange things, and at the end of the night I walked back to my hotel with a bag of watermelon and a cup of sugarcane juice, content and excited for the 10 days to come.

Woops. Burma is not Thailand and one can probably not quite trust the watermelon that one sees on the street. Or maybe it was ice. Regardless, I did not feel well the next day and as we walked around one of the biggest pagodas in Burma, snapping photos of gold and jewels, each other and other people taking photos of us- locals amazed by our pale skin and the height of my Belgian companions, I began to feel worse and worse. Luckily, the afternoon was ours to do with what we will- I collapsed onto a bed- praying and messaging prayerful friends to ask them to pray I would feel better by that evening when we were travelling by bus on unknown roads.

By evening, the rest, prayer and lack of food paid off- I was feeling marginally better, ate a few mouthfuls of plain rice and some Burmese yakult, and slept through the evening despite the horrendous roads. Miracle.

That morning we arrived in time for our first Bagan sunrise and high tailed it to an ancient temple to watch the first rays of light break. Even though it was cloudy, it was magical and upon the crumbling chedi I reflected on how blessed and lucky I am to be here. The sky was changing fast and we drove to a few other temples- some more intact than others- before settling down for breakfast where I felt well enough for some toast. The rest of the day we spent scooting around on electronic scooters, checking out the dusty plains of Bagan- temples scattered everywhere and the history nerd in me just wanted to walk into their walls- see those who worshipped, lived amongst and revered these temples, before they were victims of time, war and tourism. I didn’t think about it at the time but if I went again, I’m not sure I would climb the chedis. While they were clearly meant to be climbed, originally, I’m not sure how damaging my footprints were.

I also went walking in this town- exploring the river and the roads- experiencing much more of Bagan than I was intending when I got completely lost with no data, wifi or physical map. It’s not that big of a city and I quickly found a vaguely familiar road, but I discovered a few more backstreets with their cows, goats and children washing in creeks, in amongst the temples I was used to. Sunset saw us back amongst the old temples and it was just as beautiful (more so…) than the rising sun.

Day 2 of Bagan was another sunrise, this time with balloons punctuating the unsure sky. The pictures speak for themselves and a thousand words were spawned in my poets mind, some spewing onto paper- or Instagram caption. We got bikes again, scooting to surrounding villages which specialised in different handicrafts. Our guide knew the families we visited well and set aside my worries of going to “model” villages. These people were craftsmen of the highest quality and it was a pleasure to see them work. After riding through the villages, I suggested a boat ride down the Irrewaddy which took us to another temple, a fisherman’s house on the banks, and allowed us to settle in for a spectacular sunrise over the water- different to anything we’d seen so far.

The next day was a long bus ride- hair raising for many reasons, the bends, break neck speeds, blind over taking, average food at the pit stop… but it took us to Kalaw where it was chilly, rural and most importantly, the starting point for our two day trek which would take us to Inle Lake- the thing I was most looking forward to on my journey through Old Burma…

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Doi Pui- a day to remember.

There are some days that you’re just not going to forget, no matter how long it’s been since that fateful day and how many bumps on the head you have endured in the passing years. Yesterday was one of those days. As you know if you’ve been following this blog at all, I’m a bit of a fan of hiking and I’ve been loving weekly hikes to various spots in Chiang Mai. I’ve done Doi Suthep a few times, last week was a hike to PhuPing Palace and then yesterday, my walking group and I did the big one- Doi Pui. Over the course of 6 and a half hours, we traversed 16km of jungle terrain, both up and down (mostly up) and saw not only beautiful landscapes, views and villages but we also got to see some 13th century ruins, local farms, and insane trail runners taking part in a 160km “fun” run which lasts for three days.

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The hike, as usual started at 7:30, so I hopped on my bike around 6:45 so I could make it with plenty of time to pop to the market for a carb loading breakfast of plain sticky rice and boiled pumpkin (BEST.) and grab some snacks (almonds, apples and dried mixed fruit) for our epic adventure. I would later regret riding to our start point, but to be honest, it was nice to run the legs through the motions on the way home as a bit of active recovery!

As the clock ticked over to 7:30, our extremely efficient and organised leader hustled all 26 of us onto two songtaews who drove us to Huey Tung Tao Lake where the hike would begin. It started reasonably innocently; a flat field of ripening bananas stretched before us, leading to the base of some… significant… mountains. These were our destination. As we walked toward our start point, we joked about snakes until someone pointed out a, thankfully, headless one on the side of the road.

Right. I would NOT be advertising my Australianness nor would my eyes be straying from the trail too much. That said, I wasn’t overly concerned as our group was huuuuge and with the amount of noise we were making, I’m impressed we saw any wildlife at all. No live snakes materialised through the hike and the only encounter we had with any sort of animal was a leech on someone’s pants, mosquitos for days every time we stopped to wait and the obligatory rivers of ants which crisscrossed along the trail.

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Far too quickly, we reached the trailhead and started our relatively easy ascent to our first stop- the Helipad. This section of the hike was reasonably well marked, steep but smooth, and reasonably easy. For those playing at home, it was about the level of the lyrebird track in the middle… and the view was worth any discomfort. It was beautiful from the helipad and we all enjoyed snapping selfies, sharing our snacks and swapping stories about our backgrounds and what brought us to Chiang Mai. I always love this part of the treks- meeting everyone and hearing their stories. So many different people from different walks of life come to the mountain and trekking binds people together in a way that nothing else seems to. It must be the fact we see each other in all our sweaty glory- any pretence, language barrier or class fades away on the trail. All that matters is that you put one foot in front of the other and keep on walking.

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After a while, everyone started looking much too content and relaxed so our fearless leader prompted us to continue up the trail… and this- he warned us- was the hard part. And the snakiest bit.

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His warning was not unwarranted. BUT our next stop was the hill tribe village which had coffee so many people were definitely spurred on by this promise. It was an extremely steep climb and it was unrelenting. There really was, at many points, no end in sight, and it felt like you were just going to have to climb forever. At this stage, most conversation was at a minimum as we all focused on the path in front of us, the person in front of us, the poisonous snake that COULD be in front of us… But then we reached a ridge and we were suddenly between two valleys, overlooking fields and jungle. The views were unparalleled and completely different to those at the helipad, even within the same hike!

Image may contain: sky, cloud, ocean, plant, mountain, tree, outdoor and natureAfter a while, including many false finishes, we reached the hill tribe village were some workers deemed us crazy (we all agreed with them at this point) and we all had some coffee or tea. Some hikers also partook in some Thai energy/electrolyte drinks which they said certainly had an effect on them! The coffee the shops was using is grown in the hilltribes themselves and is apparently, excellent. Some trekkers bought some beans to take back with them. It was really amazing to visit the hill tribes- it wasn’t touristy and there was barely anything catered for “farang”, just the few coffee shops we spread ourselves between. It was clear that these people weren’t being exploited by trekking companies and being “sold” as living monuments but this was just their life and they acknowledged that sometimes, insane hikers would come through and coffee is always a big seller!

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After this, we set off to our highest point- the view point of Doi Pui. Our leader warned us that this part was also extremely steep- but that we wouldn’t notice because of the view. Now, to be fair, I think my legs noticed, but my breath wasn’t just taken away by the hike but by the landscape which stretched out far below me when we reached the top. We were above the clouds and the serenity was overwhelming. It was very peaceful and the mountain vistas were seriously calming. A cool breeze was ever present and all of a sudden, I felt like I could hike for days.

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Luckily, because we still had more to go.

Most of the rest of the way was downhill (not my fave) but this trail offered its own surprises like 13th century ruins and a cute little campsite which seemed to be basically abandoned- not many people came all the way up here. We eventually scrambled down to Phu Ping palace, slipping on muddy slopes and making me extremely glad that we had all agreed to take a songtaew from PP back to our meeting point. I hate down hills and today’s hike only confirmed that they hate me too.

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So, we hopped in the back of our red trucks, trundled down the hill and finally, after 6.5 hours reached our original start point. It was an incredible hike, a beautiful day, and an experience I’ll never forget. Many thanks to our fearless leader, the lovely Aussie I borrowed a long sleeve shirt from when it started to become EXTREMELY chilly and to the whole group who constantly encouraged each other through the hard bits and the easy bits.

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Next week, I’m going on a paid trek to Doi Inthanon and I’ll be honest, it’s going to have to be pretty amazing to beat this one, but I’m sure it’ll be incredible in its own spectacular way.

Missing you all. Will post a general life update soon.

Mwa!

Amy xx

We’ll all float on okay… Day 2 of BKK

 

After waking from my food coma, I found myself excitedly waiting for the floating market tour. Initially, I intended to walk down the road a bit, grab a bag of freshly sliced fruit before heading back to the bus but due, I assume to the tourist led nature of Khao San Rd area, there was a distinct lack of vendors out and about and I was starting to fret that I wouldn’t be back for my hotel pick up at 7:30am.

I needn’t have worried because today was my first experience of Thai Time! I don’t think the tour left until around 8ish which resulted in me becoming increasingly stressed as I loitered in front of my hotel, eyeballing any tour guide which came close to looking like they were leading a floating market tour.

Eventually, my van arrived and accompanied by a lovely mother and daughter from the US (interestingly, most of my tour companions have been US or UK based… the glut of tourists in CM seem to be Chinese, Korean, US, UK… not nearly as many Australians as I was expecting- probably because they go south to the Islands) I hopped in for another whirlwind morning.

We headed out of the crazily busy city along the highway until we reached a train track! I was a little confused at first but the tour guide explained that we were first going to a market which was set up along a train track… a working one! At 9am the train would come chugging along through the market and all the vendors would lift their awnings, shift their goods and pull stupid farangs and their selfie sticks out of the path of the train. It was very bizarre and I felt almost like I was in some sort of surrealist, Inception style landscape where things weren’t as they should be but everyone just accepted them as normal.

The market sold lots of fresh, cooked and dried food (including fresh coconuts which I gratefully consumed) as well as touristy souvenirs and clothes. While it was centred on the train line, it definitely spread further but we didn’t have time to explore a lot. We had a schedule and it must be kept. Well, as much possible. We had a couple on our tour that kept turning up late. It was infuriating and I felt slightly comforted by the fact my teacherish frustration was shared by the Thai tour guide who actually admonished them at one point because the man decided it was a great idea to go to the toilet when we were next in line for the long boat tour… after already arriving 10 minutes late to our meeting point.

Anyway, after the train market, we hopped back on the van to travel to the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, the best known market and the most touristy, but a really great opportunity to see what the traditional markets were like. We hopped on a slow boat tour which led us around the canals to see all the spice shops, the carvings, the fans, the carvings, and the sarongs. I felt kind of bad because I decided not to buy anything/ couldn’t fit anything into my already overstuffed bag so every stall we went to, I just had to keep saying “no, thank you” over and over again, but I’m sure they’re used to it by now.

After the boat tour, we alighted to explore the rest of the market on foot. By this stage, I was getting pretty hungry (no breakfast=unhappy Amy) but the prices were RIDICULOUS. At the street food tour, the pad thai we ate (remembering that it’s been dubbed the best in Thailand) was between 40-90 baht for the normal sizes depending on what meat you got etc. At the floating market, it was 120-170 baht. INSANE.

Anyway, after wandering around for a while and eating some mango, we hopped on another boat- this time a long tailed speed boat which took us around the canals to see how many of the locals live. It was fascinating and very relaxing. Upon reflection, it became a bit more poignant. I’m probably the last generation to see this way of life being lived in Bangkok. BKK is sinking- the poor management of crops throughout northern and central Thailand has led to immense flooding every wet season in BKK and coupled with rising sea levels, this is spelling disaster for those who live in this chaotic but charismatic city. Many who can are leaving Bangkok but for those who can’t and for the myriad of business and companies based in the capital, this environmental problem is going to lead to disaster. Nothing much has been done either which is doubly concerning. Let us hope and pray that soon, those who can do something, will.

After this sobering boat ride, we came back home and I decided to enjoy my massage which was also included in my welcome pack. Divine, and perfect after a long semester and a long bout of air travel, sleeping on the floor/curled up in a chair in Changi and then a morning of bus travel. It wasn’t super hard (not like my AMAZING experience in Chiang Mai) but I was too afraid to say “harder” in case the tiny man on my back broke me (not a euphemism. He literally sat on my back when massaging me).

The day ended with me chilling out on my rooftop, next to the pool, reading my book. I’m learning to take everything a bit easier while I’m here in Thailand and I think this has been something God’s been wanting to teach me for a while. So, while I was annoyed at the lateness of the van in the morning and the tardiness of my fellow traveller, it didn’t ruin my day. It wasn’t the end of the world. It certainly doesn’t matter anymore and to be honest, the only reason I remembered was because I wrote it down in my journal.

I’m just so thankful to be here and my time in BKK, while brief, was such fun. It set the tone for the rest of my trip and so far, it’s only gone north…

Literally.

Next time, I’ll fill you in on what I’ve been up to in CM and eventually, I’ll write about Ayuthaya too. Let me know if there’s anything you want to know, specifically and I can try to answer J

Love, love, love!

Amy x