Author: Maura (page 1 of 4)

WE ALREADY MISS SAIGON

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After numerous travellers told us that Saigon is a ‘get in and get out’ kind of city, our expectations for Vietnam’s largest city were very low.

It is over run by mopeds, cramped, loud and stinky, and…. we loved it! There is an air to the city that feels very unique, it has a distinctly Vietnamese feel, which is accompanied by the soundtrack of 4 million scooters. Somehow, despite it being a thousand times busier than Hanoi, it is much more enjoyable to wander through.

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Not sure what they were protesting, but definitely brave to stand in five lanes of traffic.

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The absolute highlight was our visit to the War Remnants Museum. Though highlight really isn’t the right word for it, shocking and traumatic would be a more fitting description. Focusing almost entirely on what the Vietnamese call the American War, it was mostly made up of photographic exhibitions of the different impacts of the war on the Vietnamese, including the hardest to see and comprehend: the use of Agent Orange.

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In other war-related tourist activities, we took a trip to the Chu Chi tunnels, on the outskirts of Saigon, which is a section of the maze of tunnels the Viet Cong used for communication, supply routes, defence and living quarters. The main reason to visit is to walk through the insanely tiny tunnels, which, alarmingly, have been widened for us giant westerners. I’m not claustrophobic, but as we took our first steps into the tunnel, it was very hard not to panic and I had to really concentrate on staying calm. We only walked 20 metres of the network –  and that was 15 metres too far!

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Our first stop on the tour: a workshop which employs those with disabilities, many of these a direct result of Agent Orange.

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The look of panic.

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Where’s Angela?

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There she is!

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One of the tunnel entrances, which has already been widened.

We said our goodbyes to Saigon, and to Vietnam, and, looking out over the beautiful mess of lights and traffic, we felt genuinely sad to be leaving. Our time in Vietnam has felt more like an extended holiday than strenuous backpacking, due to the spotlessly clean accommodation, easy transport and high-levels of seafood in-take. It was definitely a stark difference between the more rough and ready days of Laos. Though the touristy experience has meant that we don’t feel like we really got under the skin of the country, it has been an amazing few weeks.

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COFFEE MADE FROM WEASEL POOP & FRIED CRICKETS

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We had high expectations for Dalat, a town tucked up in the central highlands with a cooler climate and a supposed colonial ‘vibe’. It used to be a get-away for the French back in the day, but these days it’s the rich Saigon-ers that come to get-away and, well, we didn’t get much of a ‘vibe’ at all.

However, as soon as we got out into the surrounding hills we begun to understand Dalat’s attraction. We took a motorbike tour with Yang and his mate (let’s call him Bob), who drove us around to see: massive Buddhas, available in gold and green; flower farms; a cricket ‘factory’, which actually farmed crickets rather than manufactured them; waterfalls, because no tour is complete without waterfalls; and a silk farm where we watched ladies boil the little silk worms out of their cocoons and spin out the silk. I don’t know how I thought silk was made, but it certainly wasn’t like that. Still, we ate the silkworms, poor things, oh AND we had coffee made from beans which had been ingested and then later pooped out by a fox/weasel type thing. It was actually pretty good. I thought it was going to be shit…(sorry, couldn’t resist).

As per usual our favourite thing was the motorbike. Even though we weren’t actually driving the things, the sense of freedom is always a winner.

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Dalat city centre: pretty colonial town? Not sure about that.

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However, great cacti.

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Not so great on fish welfare though.

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Look how happy they both are!

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Our ‘rides’ for the day.

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Ah the Gerbera, my least favourite flower.

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The coffee beans go in (and out) of these cute things.

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This is the after photo. Yes, that probably is poop.

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Mmmmm.

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Silk cocoon with LIVE silk worm inside.

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Not so live now.

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Just before she ate the silk worm.

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There’s Bob. Bob was great. Bob was our favourite. Just wish we could remember his name.

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Inside the waterfall.

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Cricket ‘Factory’.

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Fried crickets with a side of chilli sauce.

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HOI AN, WHAT A BEAUTY!

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Oh Hoi An, Hoi An, Hoi An, HOI AN. We spent six very happy days in the beautiful-picture-perfect-Disney-style-exactly-how-you-imagine-Vietnam-to-be town of Hoi An and could have easily spent another six.

Famous for the four million tailors that can knock you up a suit in 24 hours for $100 and the four million lanterns lining the wiggly old streets, our main activities included wandering the small streets, continuing our exploration of the weird, wonderful and insanely delicious food and tweaking the tailored clothing and shoes we had commissioned.

It is true, it is incredibly touristy with way too many tailors. However, you can easily ignore the crowds when the place is as quaint and pretty as Hoi An.

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Wedding photo shoot.

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The Japanese Bridge. Never not busy. Tourists, eh?!

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A light street snack of tiny baby clams. Unsurprisingly, we felt a little ‘peaky’ the next day.

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Cycling to the beach. That’s right: Hoi An also has a beach. Could it BE anymore perfect?! No.

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Local dish of Cau Lau: pork, pork cracking, thick noodles, dash of broth, salad and herbs.

Getting clothes tailored was an adventure in itself, especially as the coat I had in mind was really only in my mind and the poor tailor only had some bad sketches from me to go on. Angela opted for a sharp navy suit and it turned out really well, perfect fit and gorgeous silk lining. As well as the wool winter coat, a snip at £57, I also managed to get my dream blazer for the bargainous price of £43 and my worn-out and much loved leather sandals copied (with a few tweaks from me) in real leather for £20.

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We also went on a bicycle day tour with some local students. The tour was free in return for the students being able to practise their English on us. We crossed the river to pedal around a small village famous for it’s boat making and we also stopped to visit a lady who makes sleeping mats from grass, a man who carves up wood into amazing things and the sweetest family who run a very small rice noodle factory out of their home.

It was lovely to see even the tiniest slither of ‘real’ Vietnamese life and ride through the brilliant green rice fields with our very friendly hosts. However, the most interesting part of the day was learning a little bit from the students of what life in Vietnam is like, especially for those studying hard for degrees with little to no job prospects awaiting them when their studies finish. Their future will probably involve leaving Vietnam to work elsewhere, somewhere like Japan or Korea. Though they all clearly loved their country, there was a palpable sense of frustration and unrest about the difficulty to find work. Tough times.

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The expert.

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Clueless.

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That’s a rice cracker/noodle sandwich.

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I’d love to go back again one day, if only to buy all the lanterns and get more clothes made. Oh and the Banh Mi sandwiches from Phuong’s, which were famously featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations documentary for a very good reason. Best sandwich ever.

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Five different types of Pork in one sandwich. FIVE.

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The production line. Note the use of chopsticks.

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HANOI TO HOI AN (VIA HALONG, HUE & THE HAI VAN PASS)

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We arrived in Hanoi late at night and shell-shocked after 16 hours in a 25 seater mini-van loaded with 45 people, bags of rice, assorted boxes of vegetables, a bird in a cage and snake in a bag. We had left the wilds of northern Laos, crossed the border and held on for dear life as the van zoomed along dusty twisting roads. In short, we were very glad to see Hanoi.

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Good morning Vietnam.

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Managed to find some pickled onions, which kept Angela happy.

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We had also gained new friends, fellow van survivors, Rikke and Thomas, with whom we spent evenings trying a variety of cheap and delicious street food, and, even cheaper beer. 15p for a glass of cold beer? Don’t mind if I do. We spent the daylight hours wandering the streets, avoiding the gazillion motorbikes zipping through the old town, getting lost and exploring the hundreds of shops and stalls. The weather almost dampened our spirits: it was grey and drizzly, almost raining but not quite. In fact, very similar to London skies. However, the electric atmosphere and near chaos of Hanoi’s streets was exhilarating.

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Grill your own. Delicious.

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The aforementioned grey weather meant that our trip to the world famous Halong Bay was equally grey. We certainly didn’t see it in it’s best light. Despite that, the scenery of emerald water cut with huge limestone karsts was mesmirising and we even got back in the kayaking saddle to get up close to the rocky giants.

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Keen to head out of the grey cloud we took a night train to Hue and spent a scorching day pootling about the citadel. After the temples and palaces of India we were left a little unfazed, which is very unfair on Hue and clearly a case of first world travelling problems. ‘Oh dahhhhling, we much preferred the palaces of Rajasthan…’

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We fed the fish. It was terrifying.

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From Hue we rented mopeds to tackle the Hai Van Pass (made famous by Top Gear’s Vietnam special) and transported ourselves to Hoi An, some 145kms away, taking us along beach roads and then up and over a mountain range hugging the seemingly endless coastline. It was absolutely spectacular. Even before we had reached the mountain road we had passed through tiny fishing villages, whizzed around bicycling students and avoided wandering cows. The Hai Van Pass itself was absolutely amazing, so many hair-pin bends, it was a brilliant mix of terrifying and exhilarating. Thankfully we only had a few fellow motorbikes for company, as the highway traffic of lorries, cars and screeching horns take the easier option of a tunnel.

We arrived in Hoi An high on the Hai Van Pass, but completely exhausted. 145kms had taken us 7.5 hours, which gives an idea of just how slowly I was taking those bends….!

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Elbow and knee pads? Yep, we are the coolest.

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See those hills in the background? We only went and drove up and over them.

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Angela managed to co-ordinate with our lunch stop.

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The top of the Hai Van Pass and also the perfect place for your wedding photos apparently.

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See that, we drove that.

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And that.

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Back on level ground.

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Massive Mary.

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Once again, the coolest.

MEKONG DAYS

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The journey into Laos started with a two day slow boat ride on the mighty Mekong river. Our party of two had become three after bumping into Jane, an entertaining long-legged redhead, who we first met in Cartagena way back in September. Getting to spend extra time with her and hear more of her hilarious stories was definitely the highlight of the boat ride, which is saying something as the scenery was pretty stunning.

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Jane!

Even before we got on the boat, Laos had won our hearts. The border town of Huay Xai was full of crazy (and drunk) people. It made for an eventful first evening as we joined/were forced to join two very screechy women as they did shots of beer, fell over a lot and told us they loved us… again and again and again.

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Genius sales technique. It worked on us.

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Our new best friends.

The boat spluttered along past villages tucked into forests as we chatted to fellow passengers and gathered a bit of a gang, so by the time we arrived at our destination, Luang Prabang, we were rolling ten deep.

The week we spent in Luang Prabang was fantastic, we slowly explored the gorgeous colonial town and the surrounding area with our new friends. I was really excited to return to this town – it had been my highlight of Laos on my last visit all those ten years ago. Of course it has changed, though not too dramatically, it is still disneyland cute with lots of orange-robed monks roaming the streets.

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Girl band.

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The cook at our favourite restaurant – she even cooked for us in the middle of a rain storm. What a woman.

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Two seconds later this joker tried to bite me.

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The highlight was definitely the waterfalls, which were almost too stunning to be real. They looked like a screensaver from Windows97, with the colours turned up bright and somehow smudged around the edges. We climbed up to the top and swum in a natural pool of icy cold water, which was refreshing at first and then teeth chatteringly cold after a while. There was also a Moon Bear sanctuary at the bottom of the falls, which was interesting, if a bit odd.

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This is real. Promise.

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The view from the top.

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Da Crew: (L-R) Jane, Jon, Richard, Chris, Eric, Debbie, Jess, Emily, Me, Angela (obvs)

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This is a Moon Bear.

As the days went on our gang members dwindled and finally we had to say goodbye to Jane, which was sad, but brilliantly she lives in East London so we will be catching up in not too distant future. In losing Jane, we did gain a Chris though, and he was to be our third member for next part of our journey: the north. More of that soon…

 

OH MY, CHANG MAI!

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After the mean(ish) streets of Mandalay, Chang Mai with all it’s charm and endless delicious Thai food was a very welcome change. We ended up staying for nine days and loved exploring the pagoda-lined streets and the surrounding endless hills.

For me, the obvious highlight was seeing an actual real-life panda at the Chang Mai zoo, however, the 3D museum/gallery, incredible street food and our day moped-ing around the hills were all amazing too. We were also there during the annual flower festival, which was pretty impressive.

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This is not a real monk.

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This man makes the best Papaya Salad in the world.

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Cha Nom: the hostel dog.

THREE CHILLIES

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A cooking class was top of my Chang Mai to-do list; the town is famous for it’s food, cooking and the numerous schools that line the streets.

It was such a fantastic day, a group of nine of us went to the market, bought the ingredients for our day of cooking (read: a lot of lemongrass and a big bag of chillies) and then set about making them.

I chose to make Pad Thai, Papaya salad, Tom Yum soup, Green Curry and a dessert of Mango with sticky rice.

My favourite dish, Papaya salad, can be made as spicy as you can handle (or not, in my case) and I discovered that I am a two to three chillies kind of a girl, which is still pretty damn hot. The lady teaching us how to make it? Not two or three, but TEN chillies, sometimes 15 if she’s in the mood.

Although the amazing food and brilliant teachers were great, the best bet of the class was my fellow classmates, such a lovely bunch of people from America, Taiwan, Philippines and Israel. I know you are not allowed favourites, but meeting the Kotowski’s from America was pretty inspiring: the family of four with two gorgeous kids, Will and Kate, are on a year-long trip around the world.

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Fresh fish….

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Pad Thai

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Mixing/smashing up the Papaya salad.

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Papaya salad with three chillies.

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Prawn Tom Yum

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Chilli and garlic chopping

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Green curry

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Mango and sticky rice

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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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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NOTES ON INDIA

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DELHI > RISHIKESH > DELHI > VARANASI > AGRA > JAIPUR > BUNDI > MUMBAI > MANDREM > PANJIM > PALOLEM > GOKARNA > HAMPI > MYSORE > BANDIPUR > COIMBATORE > FORT KOCHI > ALLEPPEY > MUNNAR > KOCHI > PALOLEM > MUMBAI

We did it! We ‘survived’ India and even escaped a bout of the infamous Delhi belly. India is close to undefinable, but the best description would be a total sensory overload. Nothing can prepare you for the smells, confusion, shocking sights, startling efficiency and bonkers disorganisation, deafening street sounds and the explosion of colour. Nothing.

However, we had heard so many horror stories before we had stepped off the plane, that, not only were we prepared for all the scam methods, it just wasn’t as ‘bad’ as everyone said. Begging wasn’t as in-your-face as you’d expect, I’ve seen much worse toilets on the M4 motorway, we ate anything, everywhere and anywhere, yes, including meat and, apart from one morning of stomach cramps, we had zero illness, we loved being asked for our photo and no one tried to touch us up on the train.

Without a tiny whisper of a doubt, the highlight of India is the people, yes, the food is a very close second, but the people are the friendliest, craziest, silliest, kindest and hardest working-est people we have come across on our travels.

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We absolutely loved it and are already talking about when we can go back. Here are some of our observations from the 75 days we spent in India:

PHLEGM: hocking up the contents of nose, throat and lungs occurs loudly and regularly. Particularly bad in the mornings.

NAMASTE: the beaming smile you often get when you say ‘Namaste’ to an older Indian lady that has been staring at you inquisitively.

THALI: different in every town, the best way to try lots of different curries, and they give you free refills. In the South, it is served on a banana leaf which you have to actually fold up to stop them piling on the food. Average price £1.00.

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LIES: ask an Indian anything and he will give you the answer he thinks you want or the answer he can be bothered to give. eg: ME:Is that the Amber Fort (whilst pointing at Blue Fort)? THEM: Yes. OR, do you know where we can make international calls? THEM: No. ME: what about this place that you are sat outside of that has a sign saying international calls? THEM: No.

POO: staring wistfully out the train window as Indian countryside glides past only to spot a man crouching down doing a poo. This on repeat for much of Northern India. 

1.21 BILLION: people. People everywhere. Personal space does not exist and queuing can be unpredictable with lots of pusher in-ers.

PANEER: Paneer. Paneer Masala. Paneer Kati Roll. Paneer Pakoras (or Pakodas as they call them). Paneer Tikka Kebab. Paneer with Paneer and some more Paneer on the side please.

WARM AND WELCOMING and so friendly. Indians are a chatty lot and, because the majority speak at least basic English, it is very easy to talk with people and find out a bit about their lives. Plus, they are super inquisitive and want to know everything about you too.

MONKEYS: more common in Northern India, they are pretty aggressive and freaking scary. However, when they do human-like stuff such as turning on a tap and drinking from it – that, THAT is amazing.

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BEDS: oh the beds, the beds are awful. Thin mattresses are commonplace – well, not really a mattress, more of a 8cm thick piece of material.

MEN LOVE MEN: technically homosexuality is illegal in India, which is pretty ironic given how tactile men are with each other. Holding hands, stroking each others faces, leaning on each other. Guess that is what happens when you make public displays of affection between the sexes is taboo – you have to get your physical contact from somewhere. Mind you, the ladies aren’t at it…

WATER: geez, it’s not until you cannot drink tap water that you take for granted how brilliant clean drinking water is. I started dreaming of the day that I could brush my teeth without a warm and old bottle of mineral water.

BREAD: Naans, chappati, parartha, roti and puri all served hot and with optional delicious fillings or covered in butter and garlic. They are light, thin and not doughy like the squidgy ones we get at home. One naan will set you back 30p, 10p extra if you want garlic.

HOLY COW: if one thing defines India, it has to be this. Cows. Every where (apart from Mumbai). Seriously. Cows lying down in the fast lane on busy main roads, cows knocking at doors with their horns to get food, cows causing traffics jams down narrow lanes, cows, cows, cows.

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CURRY: think you’ve tried them all? Nu ah. It’s impossible. My favourite was Kadhi Paneer, which is a spicy red sauce with tomatoes and red peppers. Mind you, the best bet was often just vegetable curry. One portion will set you back 80p. Add in a chappati, that’s a £1 for your dinner.

LIME SODA: is the national drink of India and costs 30p. Approx 1 whole lime goes into each glass which is almost enough for me, the lime enthusiast. Rubbish for Angela as she is allergic to citrus. I drank her quota.

MOPEDS: the transport o’choice for the modern Indian. Unlimited amounts of people allowed on at one time and tiny children actively encouraged to ride precariously perched on the back or on the handle bars and definitely with no helmet.

THE SUN: due to pollution, the sun turns into a big orange red ball at about 3pm every day. Very ‘end of days’ and very beautiful.

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SHOPPING: This happens at least 27 times a day: “Hey madam, come see my shop, you look, you like, you buy.” Oh great, thanks for explaining the concept of shopping.

LOVELY JUBBLY: and other really old English sayings. Also popular is no worry, no hurry, chicken curry. Or, in Goa, fish curry.

BRITISH EMPIRE: the majority of the Indians we met were very complimentary about the British occupation. Weird. Initially we were a bit cautious about telling people where we were from but further conversations proved that they credited British with some of the things they love about India, which is basically the railways.

TRAINS: one of our favourite things about India. It really is just like a Palin documentary: you do meet amazing people, you can hang out of the open doors and the chai is the best in India.

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DRIVING: like they want to kill you. Yup, it’s bad and we’ve seen some crappy driving in South America. If there is a car in front they must overtake. Even if the car is going normal speed, you are on a blind bend and there are five cars in front. 

BREAKFAST: very nearly became my favourite meal. Particularly in Southern India where Masala Dosas are involved. Paper thin pancake things wrapped around spicy potatoes and onion and served with sambar, a spicy and sour curry, and coconut chutney. Add a masala chai into the mix and that’s a dream breakfast right there.

PRINCE LENIN: an actual person we met on a train from Dehli to Varanasi. He is a lawyer who devotes his time and money to taking cases against the state, basically the Indian Erin Brokovich, and he has been quoted in The Independent. Hero.

MASALA CHAI: chai, lovely chai. Controversial, I know, but Indian tea is better than English. Hot, milky, sweet and spicy, it is served in small glasses or paper cups. The best chai is from the chai wallas on the trains and costs between 10 – 20p.

BUSES: see above about driving and then add in rickety old bus with no suspension and from the sounds of it no break pads either. Also, seats are scarce and when available require squeezing three people into a two person seat. Well, mind you, Indians are much smaller and thinner than us Westerners, so probably is a three-seater for them…

HOLY MEN: the dudes with the long beards, hair and dressed in orange are men who have renounced their worldly life, said goodbye to both their possessions and their families, and now lead a life of celibacy, ascetic yoga, and a search for enlightenment. Except the ones that are actually criminals on the run…. Also, Indians swear that Sadhus never ask for money, but almost every Sadhu we saw held his hand out for money.

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TOILETS: not as bad as we thought they’d be. More Western crappers than expected too. Sure, there were some shockers, particularly at train stations, but not the horror show we had imagined.

HONK YOUR HORN: In India you beep your horn to let the driver in front know you are there. It’s almost like the rules on ski slopes – you basically only have to worry about what’s in front. There are a lot of cars and there is a lot of mental driving manoeuvres, ergo a lot of horns honking. In Delhi, when we were fresh off the plane, it was overwhelming to the point of exhaustion.

RUBBISH: everywhere. This has got to be the most shocking part of life in India. Refuse collection is almost non-existent, bins are a rare site and the sun heats it all up to nice stinky levels. Seemingly a community agrees to all dump it in one area, at the end of the road or a random corner somewhere. Mind you, people drop litter everywhere. Once on a train, Angela asked the train guard where we should put our thali trays and he simply opened the door and flung them out. 

CLEAN: means something different in India. There is a lot of washing, rinsing, sluicing but not much scrubbing. 

YOGA: despite it being absolutely everywhere, Angela and I managed to get to just two classes in two and a half months.

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