Sunday, 21 January 2018

Part VI - Pai and Myanmar

Pai is a little hippy town in Thailand's northern highlands. Certainly one of my top five destinations so far. To get there, minibuses have to cross a mountain range and it's not for the faint hearted. Just as we were leaving, the driver handed everyone a small plastic bag. Always on the look out for a bargain, I grabbed a couple, 'Ooo free plastic bags, cool'. It was only later when the relentlessly windy mountain pass claimed its first vomit victim did I realise their true purpose. 
So I vomited in both immediately.

One of Pai's best features is the nightly street food market. Every imaginable nationality of food is available, making dinner decisions surprisingly stressful. I say 'imaginable', incredibly there is no English Pie & Mash stall. Even if you don't like or want to cook pies, surely it's worth setting up shop for the plentiful pun opportunities alone. Also the town is crawling with hungry Brits potentially seeking a taste of home after weeks of Pai Pad Thai. 
NB: Could this be my calling; the job opportunity / glutton opportunity I've been craving?

Suandoi Backpacker Resort is a fitting name for such an expansive complex of chilled out brilliantness. Free yoga session every morning? Yes please. 
Update: No thanks. I never actually made it to any sessions. Part illness, part late nights, mostly the discomfort caused by the basics: even the standard crossed leg sitting pose is troublesome. Anyway, I will cherish this place. We made some lovely American and English chums and had a lovely time. 

Finally, after months of sleepless nights, cold sweats and Grace having to explain to strangers why her companion is slapping his body, slapping the table, I got that sweet sweet hit I had craved since records began (October 2nd): approximately 5mins behind a drumkit at Mojo Bar's Wednesday night Jazz & Blues jam. Ooo mumma it felt good. Laying down a groove for some old timers to sax, strum and keys all over. I even got my own solo. What a treat. 

With something you're passionate about, once you pop you just can't stop. However on this occasion, once I popped I just had to stop / was stopped by the MC. Frustratingly several drummers had showed up and time was a factor. Like an alcoholic given one solitary shot before being sent back to The Priory, I left the stage fruslated (frustrated and elated, look it up). 

From Pai we made our way to back to Chiang Mai to fly on to our final Asian country, the much anticipated Myanmar. Every time I write 'Senior Researcher' in the 'occupation' box of each country's arrivals card, I get this worry that my former title is at best ambiguous and at worst conjuring up investigative journalism connotations. If questioned further at Immigration, I'm not sure how I would describe my previous job without mentioning the 'e' word - explosives. Not an ideal name-drop at any airport, let alone one in Myanmar, a recovering paranoid schizophrenic of a country. 

Thought of the Day: 
On entering each new country we Google the local currency exchange rate and the results so far have made for grim reading. In mid 2016 the once strong and proud pound collapsed like a disappointing soufflĂ©, bumping up the price of our trip considerably. Even Myanmar's never ending military controversies (most recently genocidal) do not appear to have dented its currency to the extent that we have sabotaged our own with Brexit. Thanks again 'Vote Leave'. 

With the Rohingya Muslim genocide making front page news in the west, we witnessed the impact on tourism immediately. Our plane, which to be fair was a small, propeller driven one, wasn't even half full. Excluding our two cabin crew, I counted 27 passengers. It felt more like a coach load of school kids on a field trip, albeit an ambitious one. A Parisian passenger later gave me Myanmar's recent tourism stats. In 2016 there were 7-8 million arrivals and last year's forecast for 2017 had been 10 million, however this has since been recalculated down to 2-3 million. International tourist boycott back on it seems. 

The most messed up aspect of the country is the fact that the government does not control the military. They are two separate entities who function together in a sort of deluded synergy. As long as the latter has the weapons, the former cannot tell it what to do. Imagine if Theresa had no authority over our armed forces, who for years had been raping, pillaging and murdering Scots and / or Welsh with impunity. Yes yes not that useful or accurate an analogy I know. Still, it's a scary thought. NB: Not for the first time on this trip I'm considering myself incredibly fortunate to have been born into middle class 21st Century Britain. 

I feel it necessary at this point to justify this part of our trip. After all, the $50 each visa fee goes straight into government coffers, funding a military with the worst human rights record on the planet. We had indeed met backpackers who had recently canceled their Myanmar trips on moral grounds. For us, after a bit of research into ethical ways to travel and spend money in Myanmar, we decided we should still go. We would be helping none of the millions living in abject poverty by not supporting their fledgling tourism industry.

Plus, on a more selfish note and from what we have heard this former demi North Korea provides a different traveller experience and so, the opportunity to get into such a fascinating country before the global tourism tsunami makes landfall was just too good to miss. Indeed, some might say we've already missed the boat. Although a boat isn't necessarily where you want to be when a tsunami hits so yeah, take that uber backpackers. 

Thought of the Day: Asians can't make pizza. 
Ok yes there has been several occasions in the last three months that we have succumb to the culinary comfort zone of our European cousins. Before traveling I was all, 'I can't get enough of rice and noodles. Bring it on'. Well, they brought it on and it turns out, what they brought (unrelenting rice and noddles) was a bit much. On more than one occasion we have visited a restaurant boasting 'the best pizza in town'. And each time we've left disappointed. 
To be fair I should probably stop ordering the 12 inch rice noodle deep pan.  

On our first evening we wandered the blacked out back streets of Mandalay, the country's second city. There were people washing themselves in the street with buckets and aside from that the place seemed deserted. Our hostel host tells me that with the one exception of Yangon, there is actually no such thing as night life in Myanmar. By 22:00 all is eerily quiet, save for the wolf like cries of a million stray dogs prowling the urban jungle.  

Although officially a democratically governed progress-making state, some old totalitarian paranoia persist. At each hostel 'Government Rule No.6'* requires foreigners to fill in a form with personal details and details regarding our previous and future plans. There is also a foreigner curfew law which means we all need to return to our registered accommodation by 11pm. 
*Rule 6? I like that this one seemingly insignificant rule relating to one specific industry within one of the least libertarian regimes ever has made it to the top 10 of Myanmar's rules. 

Lying in bed on our first night I read about how up until very recently the private lives of the whole population were spied on and scrutinized by the state. For a fleeting moment a thought pops into my head and I scan the walls and ceiling for hidden cameras and microphones. Hmm. Perhaps that investigative journalist pipe dream is getting a bit out of proportion in my mind. 

With little time left before our second chapter - South America - we headed straight to Bagan, the centre of the ancient Kingdom of Began, where modern Burma began. This relatively small area of desert is littered with about 2,500 temples and smaller terra-cotta brick pagodas. Myanmar hasn't yet let UNESCO gets its protective / destructive claws into Began so you only need to ride a few minutes off the main roads before you are completely alone, skidding through desert sand past the numerous smaller pagodas many of which are crumbling and overgrown with grasses and cacti. The magic of this place then really becomes apparent. 

On day two we were alarmed, by our alarm, at a terrifying 4:30am! This was the starting whistle for the famous Bagan sunrise experience. Grace and I joined a possy of fellow hostelers riding off into the night on silent electric scooters. Our guides' favoured vantage point (several stories up on top of a pagoda) commanded a 360 degree view of the numerous domes penetrating dawn's mist. Lucky for us there were some spectacular clouds reflecting the sun's rays. A beautiful morning indeed and reminiscent of our Angkor Wat experience. Ancient religious architecture and morning sun is clearly a winning combo. 

The only shame is that I managed a pitiful two hours sleep in preparation. Was I out partying with the gap years till silly o'clock? No, I had stomach cramps and a heat itch attack. The latter being so ferocious I ended up texting my, in her words, 'Facebook Messenger GP' for advice at 2am. Thank you again Laura Storm, you're a life saver. Literally. 

Thought of the Day:
Mobile reception antenna have been the bain of my purist brain on this trip. There's always at least one of the ugly bastards ruining each photogenic vista we come across. NB: you are technically traveling Oliver but don't forget you are also very much on the beaten track. If you want to go all Chris Columbus, hire a pedalo, head up the Amazon River and shut up. 

I read a Myanmar newspaper, state owned of course. That was a weird experience. In stark contrast to British print media, where each news exclusive is exclusively bad news, the New Myanmar Global Light is just a report on all the country's good news. Plus all its bad news reconstituted as good news. As Grace put it; 'progress progress progress'. I particularly endured, sorry enjoyed, the very last page; the sport section. It comprised one solitary full page article describing Myanmar beating Thailand in a college league football match. Nice one lads. Of course this does suggest that not one of Myanmar's adult professional sports teams won anything that week. 

Enjoy of the Day: Bagan's tourist map. 
Our hostel is located immediately opposite 'Shit Myathna Pagaoda'. 
If it's that bad, why advertise it?

Team Grolly is now so well versed in fellow backpacker small talk we finish each other's... 
(Grace just shouted 'sentences'). It's really great traveling as a pair because you can share the (at times) tiresome verbal workload. Traveller doctrine states that one must regale each and every new hostel pal with the same well drilled spiel. Today I was telling a French guy about our time in Vietnam, however I needed the loo. Without even looking at Grace, I entered the ensuite, closed the door mid-sentence and immediately heard my ying or yang complete the anecdote to the exact same script, as I mouthed it into the mirror. Magic. 

Fact of the Day: In 2008 a SIM card in Myanmar cost $30,000. By 2014 it was $1. This ridiculous tax was one of the ways the old military junta tried desperately to blinker the population and cling on to totalitarianism in the age of smart phones and the internet. 

We had heard a lot of good things about the Kalaow to Inle Lake trek and the trek itself plus the two nights staying in remote villages with Burmese families in their traditional farming huts was an amazing experience I will cherish. The crap pair of old trainers I thought were trek worthy, I will not cherish. 

The crisp mountain chill and rolling hills were actually reminiscent of my annual winter hols in the Lake District where, as a child, I was dragged around the beautiful countryside kicking and screaming until I finally began to appreciate the beauty of nature. The main difference here in eastern Myanmar is that the sky is consistently cloudless and we are currently walking through endless fields of little red crescent chilies. 

Its harvest season and as such, millions of these little sickle cell fruits are spread out on tarpaulins, left out to the elements for a whole month before they are dry enough to sell. The fact that this so called "food" can be left unattended for so long in the presence of myriad fauna who won't go near it with a barge pole left me feeling vindicated. If the rest of the animal kingdom, not to mention the notoriously un fussy diners of the bacteria kingdom, don't want to unnecessarily ruin their curries why do so many bonkers humans? 

We passed a few schools on our trek. Here's a strange comparison, the first grade kids were all wearing old colourful, patterned mismatching pjs and jumpers which reminded me instantly of East London. Wandering around Shoreditch, this same look adorns most twenty somethings. I believe it's called vintage. Seems to me that the less you apparently care (i.e really care) the better. The more ridiculously mismatching and old looking your outfit, the cooler you are? Which is why I will be pairing a caveman's loincloth with Henry VIII's pantaloons when I get back to London. 

On our trek I became wary of poverty porn. A sad phenomena most often propagated by celebrities wheeled out by charities to make painful TV adverts that at best completely miss the point and at worst cast African villagers as freaks to be gauped at. I witnessed another western tourist on a different trek with his phone on a selfie stick videoing an elderly lady just going about her business. He was stalking her like Attenborough witnessing a new species. Hmm. 

I was worried that staying in these villages would feel like we were at some sort of poverty theme park, like the favella tours you can go on in Rio. However, I'm pleased to say it wasn't like that. After all we felt pretty integrated; huddling round camp fires for warmth, outdoor bucket washes in the freezing cold, sleeping on the floor, toileting in an outhouse complete with earthen hole. 

Our first night was a chilly wake up call for two tourists used to 30 degree jungles and beaches. The situation was thus; a wooden shed peppered with holes on the side of a mountain. For bed Grace had gone with her whole nuclear winter collection; vest, t shirt, her woolen jumper, my hoody, leggings, trousers, sleeping bag, blanket No.1 and blanket No.2.

Quietly confirming that she was still cold, our host allowed us access to the auxiliary blankets cabinet. NB: cabinet doesn't do it justice as it actually occupied the entire wall of our living / dining / bedroom. This feature would have been the envy of any hotel's linen store. Once Blankets No.3 and No.4 were added and I had burrowed inside this weighty cocoon to lend additional body warmth she was finally stable enough to drift off. Quite a relief, I've never seen someone under so many layers, remain so stubbornly cold.

Critter Watch (returns): 
On our trek there were spider's webs everywhere and very big spiders to patrol them. Webs that spanned meters of space and some weaved so dense that they comprised more Gossamer than air. Basically, a terrifying time for a critter watcher-outer. Indeed I was careful to maneuver myself to the back of the group when single filling down some infested gauntlets. In a sinister break from what i'm used to, these exjotic species group their webs and hang out together, literally. I managed to squeeze 12 individual arachnids into one camera shot. Could they actually be hunting / trap laying as a team? Is there even a collective term for spiders? A pack, a herd, a shoal? I doubt it. Consequently I here by coin a new collective term: A Disaster of Spiders. 

Update: Trek over and I'm back on WIFI, fact checking. I was too quick to assume. There is a collective term. A group spiders is a cluster or a clutter. 

I would now like to take the opportunity to give a shout out to my brilliant girlfriend who completed this trek whilst riddled with ailments. Blisters engulfed toes on both feet, a nasty knee graze made leg bending painful and last but least least, she endured a four day parasite which meant she hardly ate. And all this during three days of 30 degree heat, below freezing cold and very primitive living conditions. She uttered no complaints, just quietly pushed on with a grace only Grace could muster. 

By the end of the trip our clever little iPhones told us that we had each taken >100,000 steps. It's a funny thing. Had you told me before we left that I would have to put one foot in front of the other that many times, I may have taken the bus instead. Joking. 
Or am I? 

Our final Myanmar destination was the miniature sea that is Inle Lake, where several traditional fishing communities live in villages suspended on stilts. The amphibious population relies entirely on boats to get everywhere. We stayed for five days and this, our final proper destination in Asia, didn't disappoint. 

On Christmas eve the hostel put on a several course festive dinner for the 40 of so guests. After a few less traditional starters we were served what I assume was baby turkey (possibly chicken), gravy and all the trimmings (three potatoes). But the highlight of the night was a surprise visit from a local orphanage choir who had been secretly booked to come and sing us Christmas carols. Most of these children didn't appear to speak English so it was particularly touching that they had learnt all of Jesus' biggest birthday belters in a foreign language. Needless to say every one opened their hearts and there purses. There were even some tears amongst the backpackers. 

Like everyone else I was moved, however I also had mixed feelings.  We had read some awful things about orphanages in the region. For example, >70% of the kids have parents who are still alive. Unwanted children are sometimes sold to orphanages and exploited; forced into manual labour and worse. It's not uncommon for orphanages to pocket generous donations, whilst the children see little benefit. 

Like many people, I love being on the water. In another life, one without a moral compass, I would have joined the Royal Navy. So our hostel's 'Full Day No Bulls**t Boat Tour' was a must. That's right, they used a naughty word to advertise a boat trip. Brillo. #hosteliving. #hashtagsactuallymakemecringe. 

Christmas day. We woke early with excitement that morning (Christmassy). We all wrapped ourselves up in blankets because it was cold (Christmassy). We donned Christmas hats because it was Christmas day (Christmassy) and then we got into two boats in the pitch black with a couple of Buddhists to go and watch traditional Burmese fisherman on a lake in Asia (not so Christmassy). 

I was sitting right behind Grace for the duration. Her blanket covered shoulders and little Christmas hat with a backdrop of morning mist, still lake water and mountains was quite a picture. A picture that I took several pictures of. This was the strangest Christmas morning of my life and I've had my fair share of strange Christmas mornings let me tell you; 
Hertfordshire 1996, Hertfordshire 1997. The list goes on.
Hertfordshire 1998 for example. 

Seriously though I've never felt such magic. Gliding through the stillness of this massive lake in a little boat at 6am with endless mist and lilies floating past. Visibility was down to maybe 10m at times and then out of the gloom the famous balancing fisherman of Inle would appear, seemingly defying gravity with their ancient skills. The sky evolved beautifully from pitch black until the sun finally crested the nearby peaks and hit us in the face like a welcome wall of warmth. Quite an experience. 

These aforementioned stilt villages make Venice look like the Atacama Desert on a particularly arid day. Cruising through the aquatic streets is reminiscent of the 1990s blockbuster Waterworld, where the star of the show, Kevin Costner (me), goes on a nice festive boat trip. The end. 
Something like that. 

Just kidding guys. The film portrays a time when global warming has caused the flooding of entire continents and the survivors compete for limited resources. That boat trip did indeed feel like a glimpse into a possible future for some low lying parts of the world. Let's hope it doesn't come to that. 

Riding in the back of an Asian Tuk Tuk it's easy to feel like a bumbling Boris Johnson type, a massive whitey Brit sticking out like a sore thumb, chronically out of depth in some foreign land. Perched on a cushioned throne, protected by a fancy canopy and raised above the millions of local moped riders. On the Inle Lake narrow boats, you also feel very on show. Each vessel contains a column of five wooden deck chairs that wouldn't look out of place in a Chelsea garden. It's comical witnessing a line of awkward looking caucasians flying past on their garden furniture at 30mph. 

No one gets a hair cut on holiday so you know you're really traveling when you visit the local barbers. What I took away from the experience is that SE Asians can't get enough of massaging. They love it. Urban centers throughout the region do massage parlors like Harringey does betting shops. I've even seen what must have been pop-up massage stations (garden chairs under gazebos) where weary travelers can pull over to be groped at.

My haircut included before and after hair washes and surprise surprise, on both occasions each girl chucked in a free head massage. The cheek! Give them the opportunity and Asian people will massage you. One evening, around a campfire in a rural village I witnessed a young lad with his hand between a buffalo calf's legs, massaging its balls. These people just can't help themselves. I scanned the faces of his family members, trying to make eye contact with someone equally as incredulous, however to no avail. So as it happens our guide later explained that this is how you domesticate a young buffalo. Showing it who's boss essentially. 

Oh and if you're wondering how much my hair cut, two hair washes / massages, hair dry and product was...
A budget busting £2.70! 

Our last activity in Asia was a trip to Shan State's very own hilltop winery, where we treated ourselves to a wine tasting and continental cheese board against a beautiful backdrop of rolling vineyards. Our first proper taste of England (i.e France) for months. This most European of experiences provided a confusing finale to our three months on a continent worlds away from Europe. 

So what will I miss about this continent I hear you ask. This sounds bad, but maybe I won't miss temples...
There are a ridiculous number of temples in SE Asia and I feel like I've seen several people's fair share. Don't get me wrong, I've got nothing against people spending their leisure time worshipping a man who, during his time on earth said do not worship me. It's just that they are all quite samey. Or as they say in Asia 'same same but different'. Everywhere you go the big fancy temple is heralded as the region's No.1 tourist attraction. Like it's the only one on the continent.

Plus, many of them have excruciatingly tacky interiors. The gold painted seated Buddha statues are often lit by cheap LED lighting in ghastly colour combinations. It's weird. 'Yeah that's definitely how he would have wanted to be immortalised, as an androgynous, golden, podgy couch potato with a halo of sex shop lighting'. In Cambodia one of our hostels even offered the 'No Temples on this Tour Tour'. That's how much of a problem temples are within the backpacker community. 

Facetiousness aside, I will miss the people the most. In every country we felt so very welcome and there was a gentleness that seemed to posses everyone we interacted with. Ok, nearly everyone. 

Oh and of course the crazy low prices for almost everything. I will miss them until the day I die. I will miss the people for a few more years perhaps. 

Thank you so much for tuning in everyone. Today's offering has taken a bit longer to publish, which I'm attributing to massive American culture shock. Today marks the beginning of South American leg Week 4. Yikes time is flying by. 

P.s look out for one of my anecdotes soon to be published on:

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