Month: February 2015

HISPAW, A SHAN PRINCESS & THE ROAD TO MANDALAY

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We decided to extend our stay in Burma in the hope that we could see a slightly less touristy side of the country and that Burma might redeem itself after Inle’s rude-a-thon and meet our (perhaps unfairly high) expectations. 

Our favourite travel equation is definitely: small town + easily walk-able x lots of places to explore = happy times, and Hispaw, a small town in the Shan state, certainly had all of our favourite things, even a bacon sandwich!  Almost a one road town, it was dusty but beautiful in it’s rough, raw and rural way. We spent three very content days pottering around the town, having a much-needed refreshing beer as the sun set on the river and trying the weird things on sale in the market.

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We also signed up for a one day trek to various villages and a waterfall, though the latter turned out to be non-existent, just a damp bit of rock, the rest of the walk around the valley was absolutely stunning. It was almost as if the locals were employed by the tourist board to be photogenic. The farmland was dotted with people hand picking rice in straw hats and buffalo sitting in the shade. Plus, we were joined by a brilliant guy called Yutah, a Japanese-American, who had lots of stories of life in LA and Tokyo.

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Most villages do not have access to electricity and running water so it’s solar panels and wells all round.

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Our highlight of Hispaw was definitely meeting Miss Fern, guardian of the Shan Palace. The gently decaying estate is tucked in next to the river at the end of a dirt track. Complete with an over grown and unloved tennis court and gardens the palace looks like an old English country pile. The Shan Palace was home to the last Prince of Hsipaw, Sao Kya Seng, and his wife, Inge, an Austrian national. In the Prince’s absence, Fern and her husband, Donald, the Prince’s nephew, welcome tourists into their home to share their family history.

Fern’s softly spoken account in near-perfect English was surprisingly candid and she didn’t shy away from talking openly about the military junta that ruled Burma until 2010 and who still have a strong hold now. She talked to us about the imprisonment of the Prince in 1962 and how he was never seen again – when all the other princes were released, he was not. His family later learnt that he died in custody, though the government continues to deny that he was ever imprisoned in the first place. His wife and two daughters left Burma not long after his arrest and have never returned. Every year on the anniversary of Sau Kya Seng’s imprisonment the family write to the government asking for confirmation of his whereabouts. They have never received a reply. Inge later wrote a book about the whole saga, called Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess.

Fern’s husband, Donald, used to show tourists around himself but in 2005 he was also arrested, this time on the charge of ‘operating as an unlicensed tour guide and defaming the state’. For this he received a 13 year prison sentence, though he was released in 2009. The palace only reopened in 2012 as part of Burma’s slow emergence from paranoid military rule.

It was an absolute pleasure to spend time with Fern and hear her story. I was blown away by her calm stoicism. The fact that they continue to welcome tourists after Donald’s arrest is quite something. Turns out she is also a Shan Princess from a neighbouring state, so we can legitimately say that we have met Burmese royalty. She also has a love for reading, especially the English classics, on account of the fact that modern romance novels have too much ‘boom boom’ for her. I promised I would send a copy of my favourite book, Jane Eyre, which she hasn’t read yet.

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Family photographs including the Prince and Princess Inge’s wedding photo (top).

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To continue our journey and reach our final stop, Mandalay, we chose to take the train part of the way. It was a slow and bumpy ride. Scary at times too. The carriages literally swayed on the tracks, though I managed to have a nap, it was almost impossible to read. Mind you, the scenery was stunning and the locals smiling and waving as the train bumbled through was an incredible experience.

The icing on the proverbial cake was certainly the Goteik Viaduct. Given that the train seemed to be only just managing to stay on the rails going over a high metal structure was pretty terrifying. 

Though our destination, Mandalay, was probably one of our least favourite places we have been so far, the extra week in Burma was a breath of hot and dusty air, and one which helped us understand this complicated country a tiny bit more.

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Our train companions.

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Teaching me how to write in Burmese. I think.

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We’re going over that?!!

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Open door policy. Sure.

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BAGAN: TEMPLE TOWN

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Bagan is a mind-bending town in the middle of Myanmar with over 4,000 Buddhist temples in a few square miles of land.

The classic beautiful shot taken of Bagan is across the green fields with the red temple tops piercing through. Having seen this image a squillion times I was a bit anxious that the reality would not live up to the photo. I needn’t have worried though as being there surpassed any feelings conjured up by a picture.

Our first foray into the temples was on bikes with a fold out map. We got up ridiculously early and set off in the dark, looking cool with our head torches on, to capture the sunrise. We found a decent sized temple and clambered up bare foot to join some other early birds; one of whom was a middle-aged American, only too pleased to narrate his thoughts and feelings on the world to a captive audience.

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The sun came up and lit up the foreground to reveal the pointy tops of a never-ending array of temples. Shortly afterwards dozens of hot air balloons launched off and drifted all around us. The balloons were so close that we were able to shout hello to the passengers and hear their reply.

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We spent the rest of the day following our noses to explore the back paths between temples and running across small villages. We felt very privileged to have such easy access to a wonderful world and without hordes of people around us. The equivalent in Europe would be roped off and guarded with a hefty entrance fee.

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The second time we ventured out we treated our bums and legs to E-Bikes, which are basically electric powered mopeds. The bikes were easy to ride and hilarious fun. Again, the freedom to roam and get lost felt whilst “speeding” along at 30mph was great.

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We also did a little exploration on foot to find a small village community tucked between the town and river. There was not a single tourist in sight and the locals were a little bemused to see us, however the kids playing on the riverbanks were too engrossed in throwing mud at each other to notice us.

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To top things off we were wise enough to try out a restaurant called Wetherspoons as our wisdom was rewarded with amazing BLTs, salads and whisky sours. Needless to say almost our entire food and drink budget was spent here.

For me this place matched the awe felt at Machu Picchu and its surrounding villages; it has a powerful vibe and immense beauty accompanied by low-key locals just getting on with daily life.

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INLE: BOATS, BIKES & WINE

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Inle Lake is the main event in the Burmese tourist trail and it’s easy to see why: a huge glassy lake surrounded by hills with villages on stilts hugging the water’s edge. We spent 4 days pootling around on bikes exploring the area and, of course, went on a couple of boat trips.

We booked a whole day trip, starting before sunrise, which took in a nearby village with some crumbling temples, a lively market, and also avoided some of the more touristy stops. The boat journey took us almost the whole length of the lake past the infamous fisherman who paddle and steer their tiny boats with one leg and then through twisty little corridors of rivers. We cruised through what can only be described as a 1950’s style Water World, but without Kevin Costner. However, it was a bit of a mixed bag of a day, as we also stopped at ‘workshops’ which were little more than a room with some dusty souvenirs and a pushy sales person, the general vibe of these places was a tiny bit negative and a few people were actually quite rude to us.

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Little bit chilly.

Little bit chilly.

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Crumbling temples at In Dein village.

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One of these workshops was also home to some ‘long neck’ women from the Kayan tribe who were weaving in the back room. The women are from a community south of Inle where they wear thick gold rings around their neck, gradually increasing the number until their shoulders are pushed down, making it look like they have very long necks. Obviously these women were relocated solely for the purposes of tourism and, whether it was their choice to move or not, it’s hard not to feel like a voyeur. It was a very complicated feeling and, whilst it is great that via tourism they have a new means of income, I can only hope that it really was their choice to leave their community. 

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Our tour also stopped at an incredible market that was bursting with life, flowers and food. We wandered around the stalls, which were often no more than a blanket on the floor and their latest harvest of corn or this mornings catch of fish – still slightly twitching. We also popped into a tea shop and joined the locals for a breakfast of tofu salad and rice crackers. Weird, but actually quite delicious.

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Spot the tourist.

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In Burma children, women and sometimes men paint their faces with Thanaka, a paste made from ground bark. It is used for cosmetic reasons, but also gives a cooling sensation and provides protection from sunburn.

Rudeness and voyeurism aside, Inle had three very big redeeming features, the first was the company we kept, David and Tom. We had such a great time chatting, trying out Inle’s various restaurants and playing their favourite game, Quirkle.

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The second bonus was a lovely winery perched on the hillside looking out over the lake. The wine was medium to okay and the garden area was fantastic – it was like we had been transported to Tuscany – we even had a plate of pasta to celebrate.

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And the third: a village on the lake called Mieng Thauk, which was the perfect antidote to the touristy boat trip and definitely the highlight of Inle.  To get there we cycled for about an hour along winding country roads until we reached the long wooden jetty which takes you to the village edge. From there, a local women offered to paddle us around the village. It was absolutely incredible: quiet, but buzzing with life. Women pulling buckets of lake water up into the house on pulleys; a tiny kid paddling a boat out to the outside toilet; cats perched on window sills; families paddling home from work; and kids being taken to the only dry ground so they can run around and play. Our guide dropped us off at her family’s restaurant and we had a beer watching the world float by. Oh and I made friends with their small child. Absolutely perfect.

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Arsenal fan off home after a long day on the water.

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Off to school.

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Angela keeping us afloat.

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Best bar in the world EVER (so far).

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My mate pootling around her home.

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The view on our cycle home. Perfect end to a perfect day.

Oh and we also took a boat out onto the lake for sunset, which meant we got treated to a bizarre and touristy acrobatic show by the fishermen.

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YANGON: FROM THE STREETS TO THE STRAND

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We travelled into Myanmar (aka Burma) from Thailand using one of the land border crossings that recently re-opened. We walked over “Friendship Bridge” and into the town of Myawaddy. The town, like I suspect many other border towns, has a wild and dangerous feel to it. There’s a tense buzz in the air and an unfriendliness that exudes from the men milling about and making onward arrangements.

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The next morning we took a minibus from Myawaddy to Yangon. The entire 13 hour journey wound through the hills and countryside and we got to experience for the first time the views of vast plains with small hills plonked here and there. We also saw the serene old-fashioned way of life lived by most people: teak huts; bulls pulling ploughs; and chickens and children running amok.

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After our scenic journey from the border our first impression of Yangon was that it’s a traffic choked city with a dilapidated feel and all the usual grime. We decided to try and lift our spirits by visiting the city’s most revered sight: a giant gold Buddhist pagoda called Shwedagon. However, on arrival we discovered that the top part of the building was covered for renovation. It didn’t help that we had also stepped back into a world where we were the main focal point and source of amusement to many locals (my delicate ego struggles with too much pointing and laughing).

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We spent the rest of our time wandering the city on foot. We saw markets with dodgy-acting  gem traders, oodles of street food stalls, people mingling in the park, a pavement lined with makeshift homes and protest banners, young men playing football in the wide backstreets between grand decaying colonial buildings and night-time beer guzzling outside restaurants.

One evening we rewarded ourselves with a few cocktails in the imposing Strand Hotel and its sophisticated bar. Our initial concerns about being kicked out for our dusty shoes and the “we’ve-been-travelling-in-these-clothes-for-8-months” look seemed to melt away by the time we had finished our second drink.

Despite the slow start, we fell in love with Yangon; it has a personality unlike any other city we have visited  – with its occupants’ simple lifestyle at odds with the majestic colonial buildings and a feeling of safety and friendliness despite its chaotic roads and footpaths – all of which means I have been hankering to go back ever since we left. 

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