Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bangkok on two wheels

Back in Bangkok and we have plenty to do. First a visa for Laos and then off to the bike shops to find bikes. Fiona and Gordon kindly put us up again when we arrive, but as they're both travelling with work and sorting out the bikes is a lengthy process, we move to a guesthouse in Chinatown. I'm terrible at this shopping thing. We have been researching and thinking about cycling for six months off and on. Along our journey we have met a fair few cycle tourers doing incredible journeys and picked up tidbits of information from them all. (One of the first we met was a German riding across Hungary in 40 degree heat in June - he kindly donated us his washing line which we're still using.) So, in preparation, we have been e-mailing people and looking at websites and seeking advice. What's the most important thing? The saddle. The tyres. A steel frame. A good pannier rack. Decent panniers. The best comment we got was from John Harwood, who is on his last leg (not his last legs) cycling around the world, and who told us that if we asked a hundred cyclists for tips, we'd get a hundred different answers. He's not far wrong. John also reassured us that the first bike we would buy would be the wrong bike for us, so not to worry about it! We'd already drawn the same conclusion - we can get an aluminium framed mountain bike and adapt it to our needs.
sunrise from our bedroom window

For Christmas Santa brought us some quality German tyres which my Mum and Dad posted out to us with our cold weather gear. The latter seems a bit odd when it's reaching 34C here in Bangkok, but we're not sure what it'll be like camping in Sichuan in the Spring. We get our bikes from a small shop near the Khao San Road - Bangkok Tourist Central. The area is pretty dreadful and teeming with all kinds of tourists. Ae, the shop owner, is a very quiet but easy-going man - no hard sell - and I would highly recommend Velo Thailand to anyone looking for a decent bicyle shop in Bangkok. While his two assistants are putting the bikes together, we head off to look for racks and panniers and to draw cash from the ATM. This whole business looks like a large financial risk, but we're banking on travelling cheap once we get going, and much of the gear we buy we hope to be using for the next few years at least. The important thing for us is that we can cycle for the next few months back into China and over to Xinjiang province, the missing piece of our Silk Road jigsaw puzzle, before we return home.
After a week of toing and froing, we are, like a true Manc, sorted. We even have some rather weird clothing apparel. Cycling around the wide busy roads of Bangkok is quite an experience. The air is always blue - sometimes from the motorbikes and tuk-tuks, and sometimes from all the curses I utter. The drivers here are not too bad, but it's kind of hard turning right when you need to get across six lanes of traffic. At least they drive on the right side (that is, the left side) of the road. Finally we load up our bikes and do endless circuits of Lumphini Park on a Sunday, where we can ride carefree and find out how the bikes behave with all the luggage. We're amazed to find that it's much easier to ride the bikes than we imagined. Now all we need to make sure is that we have enough 'medical aids' to deal with the sores, aches and pains..........
Look Mum, no stands!

Friday, January 22, 2010


Bagan's history is a rum one. The Bamar king who ruled here got word of a new fangled religion called Buddhism, being practised in the south by the Mon king and his people. So he knocks off a request for further information from this Mon king. Soon enough a couple of monks arrive with a few brochures and photos of payas (payas being any religious building) and Buddha statues. The Bamar king was disappointed only to get a taster pack though and sent his army south to capture the Mon king, 30,000 of his people, their whole library of buddhist scriptures and a crate of mangoes while they were at it (it being mango season). Before you knew it, Theravada Buddhism was declared the state religion, the first Burmese kingdom was born and the building of stupas, temples and statues began in Bagan. This continued for about four hundred years until the late 1200's when they ran out of bricks. At this point some pongy Mongol fellas turned up claiming to represent their gaffer, Kublai Khan. They were put to the sword. On hearing news of this, Mr. Khan sent a horde south to represent fully his views on this slight. It's not known if the Bamar fought or just ran off, but Bagan was abandoned.

Many years later the site was tidied up a bit, using forced labour. A few luxury hotels were built and a whole village of people were relocated just in time for Visit Burma Year. This was the year that Aung San Suu Kyi asked people not to visit the country, and calls for a boycott on tourism have been continued by some of the Burma democracy campaigns (see Burma Campaign UK). One of the problems with sanctions against Burma is that they don't seem to cover the oil and gas industries and Burma's near neighbours, India, China and Thailand, all do big business with Burma anyway. Unless China, the biggest investor, puts pressure on the regime, things are unlikely to change. And China is not renowned for its pro-democracy stance.....

Bagan remains Burma's biggest tourist attraction. Old Marco Polo made it down here, and if it was good enough for him, it's good enough for us. We stay in a quiet guesthouse and each day take bicycles to ride around the huge plains where the ruins of payas still stand. The cycling practise is good for us, even though the bikes are old Chinese ones
and the dirt tracks are mostly too sandy to ride easily. Gayle gets punctures two days running. When we get the first one fixed at a village bike repair shop, everyone bursts out laughing when they see the inner tube. We count over 24 patches. I, meanwhile, am practising how to fall off a bike safely. This takes me a few attempts and a few cuts before I perfect my technique. Many of the buildings have been restored to varying effect and only a few of the bigger temples are still used for worship. There are some startling details dotted around, but it's the collective sight of countless stupas that impresses most.

In the evenings we catch up with Gertrude and see if there are particular places we might visit the next day. There is more than enough to keep us occupied for a few days. The 15th January is a special day though because a solar eclipse is due and Bagan turns out be a good spot to see it, what with such clear skies and all. A tourist has been selling dark glass to view the eclipse and the locals are all very excited. We meet two fellas who have both come here especially to view it. One of them learnt about this one twenty years ago, and booked his Air Asia flight then for the bargain price of 6 dollars. In July he's off to Easter Island to catch another. The other eclipse junkie is a Muscovite. He tells us that once you have seen a total eclipse you become hooked. Fortunately then, this one proves not to be a total eclipse, as at this time of year the moon is much smaller than the sun. (I know this cannot be technically correct as neither of them changes size, but this describes the visual effect.) The light certainly dims, and the birds get confused. And while we await our turn to look through someone's dark glass I meet a Canadian with the same family name. It was written in the stars, obviously.

We spend our last days back in Yangon. The month has passed quickly and it's time to move on. It's been a bit frustrating having to commit ourselves to flights and sticking to these dates - we much prefer the freedom of overland borders. It's also hard to say whether coming here has improved our knowledge about the situation here. On a simple level it hasn't - we have not been able to have open conversations with people about their country, and the government restricts access to many of the areas where problems are at their worst. But this in itself is something for us to think about when we look back.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Back and Forth

In Mandalay we meet up with Andrea and Gerhard again before going separate ways. We are heading up to Hsipaw (pronounced Seepaw) with Judith, another German we met in Mandalay. The bus journey is our first in the daytime so at least we get to see some of the scenery. This 'cinematic experience' can be best enjoyed with a soundtrack of your choice on the i-Pod. If the bus is fitted with a TV and speakers the length of the bus you may find yourself suddenly distracted by tepid mushy Burmese pop videos or, as today, footage of a Rolling Stones concert in Toronto. The latter is quite a culture shock but it comes to an end when Judith asks the bus boy if he has something more typically Burmese. He puts in a dvd of some traditional Burmese vaudeville which is meaningless to us tourists but soon has the all the locals laughing out loud.

We climb off the central plain and back into the hills. The rice paddies lay fallow now but there are plenty of vegetable crops being grown. The fields look fertile and abundant. Hsipaw is a little town on the road heading into Yunan, China. It's supposed to be a pleasant sleepy little place, but because of a road diversion there is a constant stream of giant lorries trailing through the town and kicking up dust storms that can be seen for miles. It's noisy and filthy. We meet Gertrude at our guest house and the four of us take a hike into the surrounding countryside. We get lost a bit but finally find some hot springs, which are not as hot as hot springs should be. As with many trips though, it's the journey that is the highlight rather than the arrival.

There's a rumour that our guesthouse is run by a government-friendly owner. I'm not really sure what this means but we all become slightly paranoid at breakfast when a Burmese man blatantly pulls a chair next to our table and sits down with his back to us, all the better to listen in. We're back in Shan State and apparently many Shan separatists have been arrested in this area. One man did speak to us about the forthcoming elections. He said the results had already been decided and that he knew who would be their local governor. But the Shan people were not interested in the outcome across the country. They will go their own way, whatever the Bamar people do. Afterwards we wonder if this man was simply speaking about what he hoped for rather than what may happen. It perfectly illustrated how the minorities view the majority and also how divided they are. There's no hint of a united opposition to the military regime.

We take the old train back the way we came with Judith to Pyin U Lwin, the old summer capital of the British. The train plods along quite slowly, rolling from side to side, through lovely scenery. At each small settlement we stop and hawkers appear, selling their food. An old fella is sitting with us and asks a few particular questions about where we're from and our itinerary in Burma. The usual things. But is it harmless enquiry or is he a government agent? If he's the latter, then his codename must be Breaking Wind, judging from his behaviour. The most notable part of the journey is crossing a huge old steel viaduct across a gorge - when it was built this was the highest railway bridge in the world, so it says here in our guidebook. And it's still standing. The train loops slowly around to gain or lose height over the hilly countryside.

In Pyin U Lwin there are a few buildings left from the colonial days, grand houses built of red brick with tiled roofs, and botannical gardens. We find a cheap guesthouse that has rooms that, to quote a guidebook, look like crime scenes. It'll do - we're only stopping for a night. The food offerings are poor but bizarrely there is a fancy cafe and bakery selling croissants and good coffee, which makes for a very nice breakfast change to the usual eggs and toast. Here we say goodbye to Judith and return to Mandalay by pick-up before continuing on to Monywa a couple of days later.

Our bus from Mandalay has only gone a hundred metres out of the bus station when it stalls right in the middle of the street and goes no further. No-one bats an eyelid. Me and a monk finally get off to see what the problem might be. The bus crew of three have their heads stuck inside the engine, buses and trucks struggle to pass around us. Eventually we have to push the thing to the roadside and almost immediately, with one tweak of a wrench, we are going again. The flat landscape on the plains surrounding the Ayeyarwady reminds us so much of India. It's dry season and there's not a lot to see, just the usual dusty villages, with tea shops and paan stands. Houses are built from wood and most look basic but in good nick. There are pumping stations taking water from the river to irrigate the fields. We might be on the link road that heads north into India, but it's hard to tell, it's so narrow and pot-holed. Piles of rocks are stacked up for huge lengths of the road in anticipation of a new road building programme. Most of this will be done by hand, with a steam roller being the only other equipment.

In Monywa I suffer the indignity of falling out of a rickshaw when we arrive, sprawling on the pavement like a drunk. The town doesn't see so many tourists, but there are a few sights dotted around, including the huge standing Buddha which we saw some distance out of town on our approach. We're catching up with Gertrude who is also here and with whom we're travelling to Bagan. She has been here a day and visited some of the sights. I'm feeling a little worn out with stupas and Buddhas and payas and transport seems a little expensive too. As it is, there's only time to stroll The Strand, a fancy English name for the road running along the riverbank. It's a busy place though, with lots of boats being loaded up with all kinds of goods. There are no docks. The boats moor up at the shore, and gangs of men carry or roll their loads down the steep embankment and over gangplanks and onto the boats. The rivers are still a useful transport link.

In the morning, after a large and elaborately presented breakfast, we take a bus southwards to another town where we can pick up a boat to Bagan. Thinking the bus stop is close to the 'port' we start walking. About one sweaty hour later we arrive at the dusty shore where a small boat toots its horn to attract our attention. The ride down the Ayeyarwady is a slow windy affair with little interest except for being on a boat. Still, it makes a pleasant change from the hectic bus rides.

Friday, January 8, 2010

It Happened in Mandalay

The road to Manadaly. Another night bus. Another crap film. Another pit stop in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night improbably crowded with about seven busloads of bleary-eyed passengers wondering whether to eat the chicken curry or just have a quick coffee and a fag. It ain't like Kipling wrote it. We arrive at Mandalay's Highway Bus Station at about 5 a.m. Like Yangon, this bus station is just several blocks of bus offices and teashops. Plenty of locals are watching English football live on TV in the teashops. We hop into a shared pick-up that takes the long road into town. Apparently when the British swanned into Mandalay in 1885 they came by boat up the Ayeyarwady because it got them nearer to the city than the bus station.

It's not a beautiful city. It had only been the nation's capital for thirty years when the British arrived and made Yangon the new capital. The reconstructed palace stands in large grounds surrounded by a moat and overlooked by Mandalay Hill. We head up here for an overview and to catch the sun setting through the smog (nice, red sun). To the south lies a tidy grid of low-level buildings, to the north are just fields and to the west is the fat Ayeyarwady snaking past. We're trying to be selective about our sight-seeing but there are payas everywhere. In one old monastery the buildings are made of carved teak. There are only a few monks and in the room next to the temple lives a family sat around a telly. Laundry is strung up across the room. In the 'monk's district' we amble into a large monastery complex which really just looks like student accomodation. There are hundreds of monks all probably discussing the match results. They might be discussing the government's election announcement - but we can't really ask them.

My favourite past time is sitting in a teashop watching the life on the streets. Coffee is always a 3-in-1 affair. You get to know the best brands and usually a cup of hot water is brought with the unopened sachet, so that you know what you're getting. Milk tea is an alternative, and there's always a flask of free green tea. The better teashops offer snacks - something fried. It's quite Indian, but a bit better than a chai stall. A small bucket can sometimes be found at your feet, for expectorating paan-chewers to use. When it's hot and dusty and your nose is running from the traffic fumes, and you're just a bit sight-weary, there's nothing like a dame, nothing in the world. Or a child's seat at a child's table and a cup of 'Premier' instant coffee.

We wander the streets, shops selling all the same things - flat screen TVs, motorbike parts, onions. The women everywhere have faces painted with thanakha paste - a face powder made from something like sandalwood that's part suncream and part make-up. Sometimes it's a discreet smudge on the cheeks and the nose, in some cases it's a big white-out. It seems every woman and girl in Burma uses the stuff. The traffic is not heavy around town but there is always chaos at the junctions as there are no signals. Usually the bigger vehicle wins the right of way, but sometimes a herd of scooters prevails.

One afternoon we catch a pick-up heading out to Amarapura to visit the U Bein bridge - an old teak bridge that spans across a lake. Is it the longest teak bridge in the world? Who cares. The setting is lovely, and the locals seem unfazed by the presence of every tourist in Mandalay present to catch a good sunset shot (perhaps half the tourists - the other half being on Mandaly Hill). So many tripods, but only one view. Across the bridge is a small village and monastery. We spy a large westerner walking past with no shirt. Must think he's in Thailand..........

Evenings are quiet in the city, especially when the electricity's off, which is a lot of the time. Suddenly I remember a dreamlike place we passed through on our bus ride north from Yangon. It was nighttime but a city of light appeared out of the blackness. Roads, hotels, housing blocks all had lights. Large houses and gardens were covered in fairy lights. Brigadoon? We realised we had arrived in Nay Pyi Taw, Burma's latest capital city. The junta relocated here in 2005 but it had the look of a very empty place. 24 hour electricity though.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Auld Acquaintance

Our night bus journey north to Kalaw begins with some negotiations. The woman at our bus office is selling us on to another company. We're offered two back-row seats. We express horror and outrage. So we're taken to another company and offered seats on the penultimate row of a bus leaving one hour later. We demand an immediate refund or better seats, which gets us somewhere safely in the middle - not too far back to have a bumpy sleepless ride, nor too far forward to reach the windscreen should the bus hit something. It hasn't taken long for us to realise that all the vehicles in Burma have the steering wheel on the right-hand side. But they also drive on the right. The government decided to switch over from the left - a hangover from British imperialist days - so now nearly all the truck, bus and taxi drivers can't see ahead when they're overtaking. There's another thing going on with our bus tickets - a government dual-pricing system for foreigners. We see how this leads all the locals to conclude that foreigners are rich and will pay over the odds for services, therefore it's okay to overcharge them. Of course, foreigners are rich and are willing to pay more. (Word is the bus journeys are hellish and many choose to fly.) But the overcharging can be irritating. Ultimately though, it's up to us to haggle and choose accordingly.

It turns out that we sleep so well on the bus that we miss the stop for Kalaw and arrive at Inle Lake instead at five in the morning. There are people around even those it's still dark and cold - we've climbed off the plains and into the hills. The village of Nyaungshwe is a quiet peaceful little place at the north end of Inle Lake, which is accessed by boat along one of the many canals. I've got a dodgy stomach so Gayle heads off to nearby Taunggyi to visit the market. Taunggyi is the provincial capital of Shan State, which reaches to the border with Laos and Thailand. This is the infamous opium-growing area and the Shan have been fighting on and off for independence since the British left. The people and their dialect are closely related to the northern Thai. Burma has many ethnic minorities and those in the hills along the edges of the country, like the Kachin, the Kayin, the Mon and the Shan have long sought to be separate from the Bamar-led Burma. A democratically elected government in Burma would not necessarily be the end of Burma's problems, but at least it may begin to address these unresolved claims.
petrol and diesel, not Sprite and Coke

When I'm fit we hire bicycles and head along the eastern shore where fields of sugarcane are being harvested, ploughed and replanted. Bullocks are being used to pull ploughs. Everyone wears wide-brimmed straw hats to keep the sun off. In some of the villages there are small monasteries and stupas dot the landscape. There are stupas all over Burma - more than we've ever seen before. We have developed snotty colds and coughs which won't go away. It seems all the Belgians we meet are similarly afflicted - they all say they're phlegmish. There are plenty of Europeans around but few British, presumably because of the boycott.

The next day Gayle finds a woman who has short hair who promises to take her for a haircut. I'm enjoying a stout in the late afternoon and wondering if she'll come back with the nun look when two cyclists go past - it's Andrea and Gerhard, the two Germans we met in Xiahe in China. We have kept in touch and arranged to meet here for Silvestre - New Year's Eve. The next day we take a boat with them out on the lake for a day. It's a tad touristy in parts but still a great day out. The lake is huge, surrounded by hills and marshy at the shore. There are lots of small stilt communities living beside and on it. Locals paddle their narrow boats with a strange upright technique, using one leg. A small boy is fishing with a large basket net. There are floating gardens the size of fields, where tomatoes and other vegetables are growing. At Inthein village it's market day. There are some tourist stalls but most of the business is between locals. Blocks of brown sugar, tobacco leaves and cheroots, spices, flowers, rice cakes that look like popadoms, DVDs, pharmaceuticals, all those little Chinese knick-knacks we rarely saw in China itself, modern and traditional clothes, and vegetables galore - possibly the best spread we've seen for ages and quite impressive for such a poor country. Behind the market is a paya on a hill surrounded by a petrified forest of crumbling brick stupas.

After lunch we are taken to some 'workshops' where there are the inevitable tourist stalls. But there's no hard sell. Boats made from hard wood, weavings made from silk and a thread from the lotus plant, cheroots rolled with star anise. We are taken around Nampan, a very pretty stilt village right on the lake.
Schoolkids are coming home in long narrow boats, farmers overloaded with produce paddle past. As we head back home the sun sets on one side of the lake and the full moon rises on the other.

In the evening we buy a small bottle of Mandalay Rum and a large bottle of Coke (it's come from Thailand and costs more than the rum) and celebrate the New Year with Andrea and Gerhard. There's also Franca, a Swiss Italian woman who looks uncannily like my aunty, and Helmut, an Austrian, who carries a card describing himself as an 'Adventure Traveller'. Helmut provides plenty for us to talk about as he flies around Burma on his second visit, taking photographs to illustrate talks (it's called Multivision) which he gives back in Europe. Helmut is prepared to pay for posed photographs and after a successful day he kisses his fingertips and declares with satisfaction "I got the picture!" This becomes a running joke as we too want to capture on camera the beautiful people and landscapes. But is this the only reason we visit places? It was very noticeable during the day how many tourists just seem to look at things through their camera and in the market I felt very conscious that the locals always had a wary eye out for the foreigners with their cameras. Gayle generally asks before taking photos of people, especially portraits. Some say no and some ask for money, in which case Gayle won't take the photo.

It's cool at night and by midnight we're freezing. We hurriedly toast the New Year in and walk back to our guesthouse. Out on the dark streets local youngsters are also celebrating, sitting around fires and singing songs. Firecrackers explode and then all is quiet.