Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Following The Dream

Ever since I was last in Nepal and went paragliding I have told nearly everyone I have met that I had one thing that I really wanted to do.  I wanted to learn to paraglide.  Now that I had travelled to all countries I wished to visit I had one thing left to do.  So I returned to Nepal.

The first few days were a bit odd.  I really like Kathmandu, but having seen the sights I had little to actually do and it was also a huge culture shock after the peaceful paradise of Gili Air.  I had gone from beaches and horse carts to a busy city full of noise, smells, people & pollution.  Thankfully I was able to find a cooking class & tick off another cuisine.  While this was possibly the smallest class I have done (there were only three of us, including Dominique & Yvonne) it was one of the best.  Located in Amrit's house and using the family kitchen, there was not room for us to do any actual cooking, but we did get to make the Nepalese standards of momo's and dal bhat, a never ending buffet of rice, dal, vegetable curry and pickles which is continuously topped up in the restaurants (their capacity for eating rice is astounding!) and Celebration bread.

More importantly we were educated on Nepalese culture and truly welcomed into their home, to the extent that we were all invited to a wedding!  This turned out to be one of the best experiences of my journey so far.

After a few days getting accustomed to Nepal I headed out to Pokhara to start on the dream.  Which is also were it all went wrong.  First my backpack broke, then my clothes started to show signs of strain of travelling and slowly fall apart.  And then the worst: despite being told last year that you could paraglide all year around in Pokhara, and despite the visible signs of paragliders in the air, no one was doing lessons at this time.  The season was restricted to a few weeks in October and November.  I was rocked.  I had been looking forward to this for months, getting admittedly slightly more apprehensive & excited as the time got closer.  And now the dream was gone.  I had to come up with a new plan.

First I decided to do a small trek, 4 days.  I did not have enough time to take on one of the longer treks and still see other parts of Nepal.  I chose a trek to Poon Hill for beautiful vistas of the Annapurna range, and then to the village of Ghandruk.  Having spoken to people coming back off this trek it was apparently not very difficult with a easy to follow trail, many guesthouses along the way, as well as many other trekkers and guides so if I did get into any trouble, well, someone would be along soon to help.

Nepal likes a bit of bureaucracy in it's trekking areas, especially the Annapurna range where I would be venturing, so first I had to get my ACAP card from the office in Pokhara ($20) and TIMS card ($20), also supposedly from Pokhara but due to a strike none are being made (!?) so I was told to just ask for a receipt a the park entrance.

I packed what I needed for the 4 days into my day bag (and learning from Rinjani put my clothes and towel in a dry bag as well) and  took a taxi in the morning to Nayapul, the start point for all treks into the Annapurna region (a bus is available but I had had to wait for the TIMS office to open before leaving).  I sorted out my TIMS at the office in Berhenti, registered at the ACAP office & advised them of my route and headed off towards Ulleri at a decent pace - I was not keen on getting caught  in any heavy rains.  The road was an easy gravel road, not too steep, and with a fairly straight route up the valley I passed a handful of other walkers with their porters and guides.  Preferring my own pace I kept going.  Looking at the map I was aware that I would have a steep rise coming up so stopped for some very basic food & a bit of  a rest shortly before I felt it was needed.  It was.  The path had left the road and after crossing the river went rapidly up. Over 3200 steps led to Ulleri.  I had been given some trek poles in Kathmandu & was thoroughly grateful for the at this time.  For an hour I hauled myself up the steps, passing a few porters who clearly had better sense, but heavier loads.  The guesthouse at the top was a joy to my legs although I did think about heading for the next village, just to make the next days section shorter.  I am glad I did not.  30 minutes later the heavens opened for a good couple of hours.  Comfy & dry in my guesthouse, I dined on the ubiquitous Dal Baht but abstained from the much needed but highly expensive beer.  With nothing left to do, & finding myself to be the only guest I had an early night to prepare for the next day.

Which started quite early as I appeared to have developed an unwelcome habit of waking up at 4am.  I waited for sunrise and was rewarded with an early view of Annapurna South from my window.  No more inspiration was needed to get me going.  I spoke to the owner who told me it should take about 4-5 hours to reach Ghorepani, where I would start the next day for Poon Hill.  Wanting to arrive, again, before the rain did, I headed out a bit early.  I was also itching to be going.  There wasn't a lot to do in Ulleri.  The terrain for the second day was a bit different.  The steps continued for a short while, before the path undulated and winded through the forest and across streams.  I did not find many people ahead of me and so pushed on at my pace, mindfully choosing my steps, very much at peace with my body, my mind and the beautiful nature around me.  When I did pass people having a rest with their porters I was thankful of my decision to trek alone.  I chose my pace & when I would rest (which was rarely, just for water & photos).  In the late morning, totally absorbed in my environment, I turned a bend and saw a arch ahead of me welcoming me to Ghorepani - 2 hours earlier than expected or even intended.  I climbed through the village, signed in at the ACAP office, navigated my way through a group of pack donkeys just stood in the middle of the path and somewhat sheepishly checked in at my accommodation (which was just as empty as the night before as I had arrived so early).

After a bit of a rest and some lunch, and due to being at a bit of a loss at what to do, I decided to climb Poon Hill, just to see how long it would take in the morning (so as to optimise time in bed but not risk missing sunrise).  This is when it decided to rain.  So the view would still be a surprise in the morning.  At dinner I found that I was still the only person in the guesthouse.  With so many places to choose from we must have been thinly spread, but I can't even imagine what these small villages must be like during the peak season.

I awoke at what I thought was reasonably early, only to find it was already getting light.  I let myself out of the guesthouse and started the climb.  At the top of Poon Hill there was already quite a crowd, watching as the mountains slowly became clearer against the early morning sky.  It really does humble you to be in the presence of such enormous peaks knowing that they are still many miles, and many days trekking away (the Annapurna Base Camp trek takes another 4 days from Poon Hill just to get to the camp).

It also takes an amazingly long time for the sun to actually rise over 8000m peaks after full daylight, but it is one of the most incredible things I have seen (and fortunate - I was having a cup of coffee before going back to the guesthouse, taking my time.  I had just looked at the clouds rolling across the face of Annapurna South and thought 'well, that's it for the day...' when I turned back to Fishtail just as the sun appeared.  It took me a couple of seconds before I thought it may be a good idea to take a picture...)

If that's not enough to convince you to slow your life down & see what happens I don't know what is.  It's also another reason why drinking coffee is good for you!

After breakfast, day 3 of trekking.  Ghorepani to Ghandruk, with lunch at Thandapani.  This was the longest day, although even allowing for walking faster than the locals suggest I still got to Thandapani well ahead of schedule.  I did think I'd got lost at one point when the paths split, but after an hour or so and a few guesthouses later I was moderately sure I was going in the right direction.  I also acquired a dog as a guide for a while, who seemed more focused at trying to get me to fall over than anything else.  The morning was a wonderful walk, up and down ridges & valleys, through glades festooned with prayer flags.

I didn't actually care if I was lost or not.  The path would end up somewhere.  Thankfully it was Thandapani (where I managed to lose the dog while it slept) and then on to Ghandruk, a sizeable village perched on the top of the valley.  After coffee & a shower I relaxed for the afternoon, and a couple of hours later the unexpected happened - the dog turned up. It had followed my scent through the valleys for 2 hours.  It was now over 10 miles from where I had found it.  And very confused as I was clean, changed and it couldn't find the stench of the grimy trekker which had suddenly disappeared.  So it fell asleep again.

By morning it had (I assume) gone home.  And I was to as well.  Following the route along the side of the valley it soon went rapidly downhill via steps serving the village here.  It is said that it hurts more going downhill.  This is definitely true when it's steep.  Without my trek poles I don't know what state I would have been in.  I could barely drag myself back to Berhenti as it was. I fell into the first taxi I could find (still with energy enough to haggle a decent fare), slept back to Pokhara and went straight for a massage.  The most painful 2 hours I have experienced (I only wanted 90 minutes but apparently the masseuse felt this was not going to be enough time for her even start to help me) but it worked - the next day I could walk again! Kind of!

Leaving Pokhara I went south, to the plains, to Lumbini.  I wanted to see the birthplace of Buddha.  Lumbini seems only to exists due to this reason and has a few basic guesthouses.  There is little to see here to warrant more than a couple of nights.

The birthplace itself is marked by a flag stone inside the Maya Devi temple, itself situated within a beautiful garden with bodhi trees covered in prayer flags that Gautama Buddha would have meditated under and a pool where his mother went into labour.

It is very serene and I spent quite a while here before heading towards the World Peace Pagoda at the other end of a complex of international Buddhist monasteries.  The pagoda itself was quite nice.  The rest however beggared belief.  In what could be a monument to global peace, many countries have built monasteries here, some based on the designs you would expect to find in their on country.  The result is a collection of poor pastiches resembling little more than ornate embassies within a large building site.  Quite disappointing and no doubt largely due to the fact Nepal is not wealthy enough to realise what could be a very beautiful dream.

The next stop was Chitwan National Park for a bit of safari.  Getting there was a nightmare.  While tourist buses go straight to Chitwan from other places in Nepal, not so from Lumbini, its closest attraction.  The local bus was not built for western size people so for several hours I was a bit cramped.  It took 2 hours longer than expected, stopped everywhere for ages (once they even went looking for a passenger who wasn't at the stop they expected him at - a definite first as most drivers would just have left them behind).  The local bus does not go all the way either.  Dropping you at the nearest large town you need to change to a local minibus (nor does it drop you where the buses are, but where the taxi drivers stand who deny all existence of the buses).  This bus doesn't take you all the way either.  Another, even smaller, local bus takes you to the village where the safari resorts are located.  As they all have similar names, and I was supposed to be picked up from the tourist bus park, I did not risk being dropped somewhere randomly.  As it turned out I need not have worried.  That happened anyway.  The bus did not go to the tourist bus park so I was deposited, in the middle of a very hot afternoon and already a bit grumpy, 1km away.  When I finally stumbled in there was no one waiting for me.  I found a nice local man who called my resort & a driver promptly turned up & whisked me away.  I apologised in case I had delayed the days events for other people.  Not to worry, he said.  It was low season.  For the next 2 nights I was the only guest...

It was a full itinerary.  As it was just me I could drop things if I wanted (so no washing elephants as I had done this in Chiang Mai) and do other things instead (such as a jeep safari - it goes further than the elephants and gives you more chance to see more animals).  Over the next 2 days I saw lots of rhinoceroses, some within 10m, elephants, crocodiles and a vast array of birds.

Although I made it clear that I was not interested in doing an elephant trek, and much preferred the jeep safari I paid a little extra for, it was evident that the resorts have an agreement with the elephant farms to take people out.  So it was that on my last morning I found myself on top of a platform climbing onto a seat o the back of the elephant.  When I was in Chiang Mai a friend had told me she went on a trek like this after going to Woodys Elephant farm and found it to be a painful experience.  I fully agree with her.  The elephant was clearly not comfortable with us strapped to the back of her and the mahout had little interest in her well being, routinely beating her with a metak stick when she stopped to eat.  The trek itself was uninspiring, the route going through maze of paths within a relatively small area close to the village.  Little wildlife was to be found this close to human habitation, just a couple of herds of deer.  The jeep safari was much more interesting, and more importantly humane.  I was glad I had chosen to do this.

I was fortunate to be invited to a second Hindu festival whilst in Chitwan.  The child of a family close to the owners of the retreat was to celebrate Anna Prasana - a rite of passage to signify the first solid food that the child will eat.  This was held at the familys house in a small tribal village nearby.  The ceremony itself was only for the direct family, but I was honoured enough to be invited in the home of another Nepalese family at such a sacred time for them and share in their meal.  Including, finally, chickens feet (it wasn't worth the wait).

My second visit to Nepal was not what I had intended, but it did not disappoint with the surprises it gave me.  I have found the Nepalese people to be among the friendliest I have met and I am sure I will visit here again.  I still want to learn to paraglide and now I want to do even longer treks to more distant valleys and get closer to those peaks.

But I'll definitely go in the opposite direction.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A Nepalese Wedding

I usually write my blog after I have visited a country but this weekend an exceptional thing happened.  Avid readers will note that I do a cooking class in almost every country I visit, and with my return to Nepal I wasted no time finding one in Kathmandu.  More on that later.  What I was not expecting was to be invited, along with my fellows cooks Dominique & Yvonne, to the wedding of the brother-in-law of Amrit, our host.

The day before heading out to the celebrations we had a bit of preparation work to do.  Dominique & Yvonne had been able to borrow saris from Amrit's wife, but I needed a dhaka topi, a traditional Nepalese hat.  These are commonplace in Kathmandu, but finding one with an even remotely tasteful design takes a bit of work and a helping hand (always take a woman with you when shopping for random clothes for weddings!).

Additionally we needed a large supply of biscuits and sweets as a present to the grooms mother as a thank you for inviting us into their home, and of course a present for the happy couple.  Some good haggling in the lanes of the Thamel area of Kathmandu saw us walking away with a simple picture frame with a peacock motif.  Not knowing exactly what we were doing, I thought we had done pretty well.

In the morning we met Amrit and his daughter, Anu, and got an early bus for the 3 hour ride to Falante, a small village where the grooms family lived.  There we met Amrit's wife and his sons, Aksh and Asis, the groom, Birendra, and his brother, Bimal.  We were treated to a welcoming plate of fresh buffalo curd and celebration bread, a local delicacy only made on special occasions.  The houses were stone with dirt floors comprising few rooms, beds everywhere, a simple kitchen but large compared to others in the village.  Animals were kept outside, unlike villages I had been to in other countries, and they had a garden with lychees, mangos, bananas, coffee and much more.  In addition they had a flock of around 700 chickens.  Clearly well to do in the community.

We were taken to visit Amrit's sister-in-law and her children, who were very excited to meet us, before the rest of the village arrived to begin the celebrations.  A feast was laid on for the whole village to celebrate the marriage as only the men and close female relatives were to attend the actual ceremony the next day.  Dominique & Yvonne were indeed privileged to witness the following days ceremonies.  The food was plentiful and delicious - mutton curry, potato curry, bean stew and much more, washed down with Nepalese tea, thick, heavily spiced and brewed over a wood fire for a unique flavour.  The children were fed first and then the adults, scattered around the buildings anywhere we could find a seat.

After dinner we were shown the rest of the village and the school.  We were joined by what seemed every child in the village eager to talk to us and practice their English.  They were very good, although conversation was generally limited to 'what is your name?', 'where do you come from?'.  They loved to play and act for our cameras, loving the photos we were taking when shown.

One girl was so taken by us she asked if we would come back to her house for tea and to meet her family, which we more than happy to oblige, the pleasure it gave her to be taking the westerners to her house truly heartwarming.  It was a smaller house, with only a couple of rooms but clearly a house full of love.

With an early start the next day and little to do in the village we had an early night.  Due to the number of people staying in the house at the time, this meant that Aksh and I had to sleep outside on the balcony.  Thankfully the night was neither cold nor wet.

Then it was the morning of the big day.  While Dominique & Yvonne were dressed in their saris by Anu, I dressed in a smart shirt and trousers (for a backpacker I am unusually prepared for these occasions) and donned my topi.  We were decorated with tikkas on our heads before being introduced to the groom.  Birendra looked suitably nervous as he began his marriage rituals  Before he left his home to go to his brides village, he paid respect to his ancestors for peace and received gifts from his family, and of course the picture frame from his honoured guests.

Then it was time for us to board the party bus for another 3 hour journey to the brides village, Bhorle.  This was really entering rural Nepal as the roads gradually turned from tarmac, to dirt and gravel.  Arriving at a couple of roadside huts we waited a short while.  Music could be heard approaching down the road - this was the welcoming party from the brides family come to carry the groom to the brides house on a palaquin.  It was quite a sight as we wound our way along a forest path to the small collection of houses, a very beautiful setting halfway up the hillside.

In a small yard outside the house there was a buzz of activity, the brides family and villagers having already gathered awaiting the groom, the women all dressed in their finest saris, the priest preparing the jagya around which the various parts of the ceremonies would take place.  And without much fanfare at all the bride, Chamedi appeared.  The ceremony takes several hours, as the groom is welcomed to the brides family, the bride given to the groom thus joining his families lineage, and their feet washed by any people.  Birendra was still looking a but nervous but Chamedi was clearly delighted.  As these rituals take some time another feast was held, fairly similar to that at the grooms house but much more richly spiced.

In the meantime the happy couple had preceded indoors for their own meal and further rituals, and so the band started playing and the local villagers entertained us with dancing.  Soon the final stages of the ceremony commenced, with the bride and groom making offerings to a fire in the centre of the jagya.  Armit explained that all this was in order for the bride to say goodbye to not only the traditions and beliefs of her family but also to her family itself as she was now a member of her grooms family.  The time had come for her to leave her home and journey back to Falante.

Now comes possibly the daftest part of the proceedings.  Aksh convinced me to ride on top of the bus.  It is not comfy and the roads are fairly bad.  Hanging on for dear life as the bus wound its way up and down the hillsides, through clouds of dust thrown up by the preceding marriage car, ducking and dodging tree branches and low hanging power cables, I was somewhat concerned I may end up at the bottom of one of the 100ft cliffs that loomed below me.  How the 30 or so Nepalese boys riding up there with me acted so nonchalant I will never know.  And just when I thought things couldn't get any worse room was made for the grooms wedding gift - a wardrobe and a bed.  In all honesty it was great fun and I would happily do it again, but I'd like to have a cushion.

Back at the grooms house we were greeted by children chasing the bus and singing and dancing from the women who had been waiting for the arrival of the married couple.  A short ritual was performed to welcome the bride to her new home and family.

By this time it was late and we were all tired.  We had another early start in the morning to return to Kathmandu.  It was emotional in the morning.  We said farewell to the family who had welcomed us into their home and honoured us by inviting us to this special occasion.  The ceremonies were not over for Chamedi however.  She would perform more rituals to be worship the ancestors and deities of her new family and their ways an traditions.

I am truly grateful to Amrit for inviting us all to participate in this joyous occasion.  I will never forget the children who showed so much joy in our presence or the generosity and hospitality shown to us by the families and friends.  In a way it was a privilege in their customs to have us as guests, but I felt much more privileged at the opportunity to experience real Nepalese culture.  This was one of the most wonderful experiences of may travels so far.

Monday, 19 May 2014

How To Spend 5 Weeks On An Island Doing Not Very Much...

Indonesia.  South East Asia's largest country.  The worlds largest archipelago with over 17000 islands.  So how on earth did I only see 5 islands in 7 weeks!?  And not even any of the big ones!

We start this mystery in Kuta Bali, a beach resort mostly populated by Australians as it is closer to them than anywhere else and has plenty of surfing, which they seem to like. I was only planning to be here for a couple of days, meet up with a friend, Gunnar, who I had met back in Mandalay outside a temple.  In waiting for him though, I ran into an unusual problem - Nyepi.  Balinese New Year.  New Years Eve was celebrated in style with a 'monster parade', where statues of monsters, or Ogoh-Ogoh, made by the townspeople, are taken through all the towns on the island supported by a band and dancers to ward off the evil spirits for the coming year before being burned.

This was pretty exciting stuff, and a nice surprise to walk into.  New Years Day however was a different issue.  This is a day for self-reflection.  Silent Day.  No sound must be made, lights, TV's, radios are not turned on.  No one is allowed to leave their homes.  Even tourists.  For 30 hours we were confined to our hostel.  While we could go out on the terrace, we could not get close to the railings in case we were seen by the few police officers who enforce the proceedings.

For the couple of days following this we enjoyed what Kuta had to offer - mainly the beach, before heading north into the hills and rice paddies to Ubud.  My summation for Ubud is it's OK.  It's nice.  This may be because I have been a bit spoilt so far.  When you've seen 2000 year old rice terraces you know it's going to take something special to impress you.  The same goes for temples.  Especially when you can't go around them, which seems to be a trait peculiar to Bali.  The food, though, was turning out to pretty damn good.  So nice as it was we turned our attentions to the next island, Lombok.  Or to be more accurate the Gili's.

Our lack of real exploring was partially due to Gunnar being at the end of his travels and he wanted to spend his last days mostly relaxing.  After having travelled Malaysia, Myanmar and Philippines pretty much solo I was tired too and was generally in agreement.

We headed to Gili Trawangan for a few days first.  This is the largest of the Gili's, 3 islands (or Gili) located to the north west of Lombok.  It is supposed to be the party island, and while definitely busier than the rest we did find it difficult to find any late night parties.  We also tired quickly of the horse carts, locals selling dubious substances, and the general clientele.  I did however find a cooking school here which was very good & cooked so much food I had to get Gunnar in to help eat.  Which he wasn't complaining about...

So we soon got the boat to the Gili Air.  And as soon as we stepped off we knew we were home.  Smaller (but not the smallest) Gili Air can be walked around in about an hour.  Accommodation is a bit more expensive, food and drink cheaper.  It is also quieter.  So we settled in.  At this time I found out that Sandra & Saskia, who I had met in Sagada, were also heading here.  Liking the idea of more friendly faces I was not inclined to leave my little paradise.  After  few days of lazing around they arrived.  On Gili T.  I headed back for a day to celebrate Sandra's birthday before convincing them life was much more fun on Gili A.  They followed me back and seemed to agree, staying for a number of days.  It was through them I found H2O Yoga, somewhere which was to become very important to me.  They also brought with them Laura, a lovey, crazy, Italian girl who was to join me in a really fun adventure.  And a really adorable one.  This one first!  We went on a snorkel trip around the islands hoping to see one of the many turtles that live in the waters here.  We saw 8.  I got to touch the shell of one as it swam below.  But even this didn't come close to what happened on my first trip to Gili Meno.  One day every 6 months they have a turtle release, where for a donation to the islands hatchery and conservation program you can release a baby turtle into the sea.  This was that day.  I felt like a proud father as I placed Myrtle, her little flippers wrapped around my fingers, into the sea, saw her get hit by a big wave and disappear.  I really hope she's ok...  Right, now the other adventure.

Fully visible on Lombok is Mount Rinjani, an active volcano.  Sat on the beach on Gili Air I had stared at Rinjani for days, slowly becoming more and more entranced by her.  I just wanted someone to join me, share the experience.  Laura was mad enough.  So the day after we said goodbye to Gunnar, Sandra and Saskia, we ventured off Gili Air (not an easy thing to do) and went to Senaru at the foot of the volcano.  The trip was 3 days.  It started badly.  As soon as we set foot on the trail it tarted to rain heavily.  It barely let up for 2 hours.  It was hard work going up through the forest on the lower slopes, but even worse higher up with minimal visibility.  When we finally found the tents for that nights base camp it took ages to found which was ours, they were so spread out in the low cloud.  Finally in the tent it started to rain again.  I checked my bag.  All my clothes were soaked through.  This did not bode well for the early morning climb to the summit in two days time.  We shivered through the first night...

To find a beautiful morning.  We had camped close to the rim of the volcano.  A quick peek over the top revealed a wonderful sight - the cone of the new volcano in the bottom of the old, surrounded by a lake, and opposite the rising peak of Rinjani.  The days trek was much nicer.  First we went down into the crater for a swim in the lake, then around the shore to natural hot springs for a quick dip.  The weather was sunny and warm, and a few wardrobe changes got all my clothes dry before lunch.  The afternoon saw us climbing back up to the rim, to base camp below the final ascent.  We were treated to an almost otherworldly sunset as clouds drifted through the crater below us.  But as we got back into our tents for the night the ominous patter of rain started once more.

At 2:30am it was still raining.  The guides said it was up to us to decided to attempt the summit or not.  They felt it was too dangerous.  Occasionally you have to know when to accept defeat.  We went back to bed.  At 4:30am I was awoken by what sounded like an army marching past the tent.  A German couple in the next tent 'knocked' on ours.  It had stopped raining.  The clouds had gone.  Laura was enjoying her sleeping bag but I decided to have a run at it.  And run we pretty much did.  It should take over 3 hours to reach the top from where we were.  It took us 2.  We scrambled in the dark up the side of the crater to the rim, chasing the last torches in the distance and just kept going along it.  Sunrise came just as we hit the final climb and it was impressive enough to halt us for a few moments.  Then the last slog.  600m up a 30 degree slope.  Thankfully the rain had caused the ash surface to compact under all the other feet before us making it easier than we had been led to believe.  Eventually the summit was achieved and the view was spectacular.

All the way to Bali in the west and Sumbawese in the east, my beloved Gili Air clear far below.  And then down.  All the way.  2 hours back to the tents (to find Laura had gone down ahead of me), and a further 4 to the village below.  My legs and feet were screaming in agony at every step, but I felt nothing but joy at what I'd done that morning.  Unfortunately, stealing a summit like that comes at a price, and Rinjani proceeded to chuck it down on us once more for the final hour leaving everything, once again, soaked.  And cold.  This was my second mountain, and much more difficult than Mount Kinabalu but also a much more enjoyable experience.  I liked camping out rather than staying in the lodge, and much preferred the almost untouched climb of Rinjani to the manicured steps and staircases of Kinabalu.  And there were more of us all chatting together through the days and nights, keeping the jokes going between us all the way back to the boat to Gili Air.

And so we did return to Gili Air.  Laura left me the next day.  After such an intense experience together there were plenty of tears.  I climbed both mountains with a Laura.  I highly recommend people take a Laura with them when they climb a mountain.  They were both amazing fun and kept everyone going through their inexhaustible positivity.

Before going on the volcano I had just managed to get my passport in for a visa extension before the first ran out.  There are two ways to do this.  Either go to the main town on Lombok, Mataram, and apply in person (250,000 IDR for a couple of days turnover, 400,000 for same day), but this means at least a couple of days doing not a lot in the town.  Or you can give your passport to one of the many travel agents on the islands who for 600,000 will sort it out for you in 3 days.  This option would seem a bit daft if you're on a budget, but if you time it with a 3 day trek, thus negating any extra accommodation, travel and food costs in going to Mataram it becomes a very canny idea.

This should have been the end of my stay on Gili A.  But news had filtered through of another imminent arrival.  And one which I was not going to miss out on.  I had met Katie 8 months before in Xi'an and again in Pai.  Now she was slowly crossing Indonesia towards Lombok and Gili Air.  So I waited.  Although it was starting to become a bit of a joke with everybody: 'How long have you been here?  Doing what?  Are you ever going to leave?'

To pass my time in this period I started doing yoga every day.  H2O is a fantastic place.  The teachers, Sarah and Anya, are brilliant, never taking themselves seriously but always there with help and advice.  It didn't take long for my weary body to start feeling the effects.  I was starting to feel much better.  My mind slowly followed and a zen like state was achieved for the first time since Pai.  I didn't care that I wasn't seeing more of Indonesia.  It's a big place.  I was going to have to come back anyway.  I was doing what I had to do at that moment.  This, I realised, was what I had come to Indonesia for, even if it was not what I had imagined when I got off the plane on Bali.

And finally Katie arrived.  Wifi is bad on Gili Air so no messages were sent.  I was having dinner with some Aussies who had taken pity on me.  I had just sat down and looked across to the next table where an almighty laugh could be heard.  'Er, hi Katie!'  So the final couple of weeks were spent doing equally not a lot with Katie and her travel buddies, Chris, Florian and another Katie.  Ok, I'll be honest.  Mostly with the other Katie.  The stories, as amazingly beautiful and amazingly innocent as they are, are ours alone.  To say that saying goodbye to her at the harbour the morning they left was the hardest yet is a massive understatement.  You'd have to go all the way back to when I said my last farewell at Norwich airport to even get close to this. Maybe saying goodbye to my Dad...

But with their departure I felt nothing was keeping me here and it was time to leave.  I only had 1 week left of my extension anyway, so no time to really go anywhere.  The last couple of days were spent hanging out with the guys at H2O, now as much friends as teachers, and wandering around having  few 'lasts' - last ice cream (amazingly good - at the start we had one nearly every day), the last dinner and happy hour at Zipps (our regular haunt - only on one day did I not spend any time there), playing in the sea under the stars...  Everything held fantastic memories, but was also tinged with sadness.

Just as with Pai, Gili Air was as much about the people I shared the experience with as the experience itself.  Not only did I make new friends but to get to meet so many friends that I had had fun with before was fantastic.  And this time it was for days on end rather than just a few hours.  It is true what they say, that if you travel long enough you will meet the same people again and again.  I just don't think anybody meant it to happen so much on an island barely a mile long.  Here's an example of how small the travelling world is: when I was staying at Bedbunkerz in Kuta a few days after arriving in Bali there was a girl in the bunk below me, Ramona.  We spent a great couple of days with Gunnar and Peter drinking and relaxing, going through the usual retelling of our travel stories.  It was only when we finally got around to adding each other on Facebook that I noticed an anomaly.  3 mutual friends?  Well, Gunnar & Peter I understood.  But who...?  Oh yeah... that'll be dear old Katie...

Sunday, 6 April 2014

It's More Fun In The Philippines

With volcanic eruptions becoming quite fashionable in Indonesia at the start of this year, I decided to make my next port of call the Philippines.

Whilst they don't have any visa to apply for, their entry requirements insist that you have an flight booked back out of the country before you enter. This is checked when you check-in for your inbound flight, so no getting out of it. As the initial entry pass only allows 30 days, and as the Philippines is a large & very spread out country, there was no way I wanted to be tied into a particular flight before I even got there. Thankfully Air Asia had a remarkably cheap flight from Cebu to Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia, quite possibly the emptiest flight in the world as everyone seems to book it but never turn up.

After a couple of months trekking around Malaysia & Myanmar I decided I needed a holiday, so headed straight to the paradise island of Boracay. A trip involving a delayed midnight flight, a rip off taxi journey around Manila to change terminals before just making check-in for a second flight to Kalibo (which at least lessened the pain of the taxi charge - buying a new flight would have been much more expensive), a bus journey, a boat across to Boracay island, and finally a tuk-tuk to the hostel, where I was welcomed with a beer at 11am. I highly recommend Frendz Hostel...

There is little I can say bout my time on Boracay. There was much alcohol involved. And lazing around. There is quite a lot to do here, such as parasailing, kite-surfing, mountain biking, and diving. I just didn't. White Beach is quite beautiful. It is just that – pure white sand with crystal clear sea lapping against the shore, sunsets of unbelievable colours reflected off the calm surface of the ocean. As soon as you turn around you notice the problem – resorts line the beach, bars and restaurants filling the gaps. They even have room for a shopping arcade! If it wasn't for the people I met at Frendz I would not have stayed as long as I did, or partyed quite as hard. Especially on the last night before flying out to Puerto Princessa on Palawan.

I was only in Puerto Princessa for one night,but I did get to see one of the most beautiful sights on a firefly tour. The boat cruise took us into mangrove swamps where they had phosphorescent plankton in the water, which glowed as the boat passed through them, along with the fireflys in the trees and a clear sky with all the stars visible, it was as if everything was sparkling.

Then I was headed north to El Nido. Whilst trekking in Myanmar I had been told about a boat expedition from El Nido to Coron with Tao Expeditions. It sounded like an unmissable experience and I was lucky enough to get myself booked onto one, so arrived in El Nido a couple of days early to make sure I had everything I needed. This was a good idea, as El Nido is a lovely little fishing village. It may not have the beach of Boracay, but it has much more character.

On the morning of the expedition I met the rest of the passengers and the crew. Most were couples, and a couple of friends travelling together, just me as the sole single traveller. Sometimes this can get weird as the couples tend to revolve round themselves (especially when they're on honeymoon!), but this was not the case this time. By the end of the first day we were all getting along, which was a relief to the crew who admitted they often get nightmare cruises where people just don't get involved.

The days took on a simple pattern: we would be taken to an island to snorkel around the corals, kayak into lagoons, have amazing food cooked for us by Alejandro, the boats cook, in the tiniest of kitchens which was constantly rocking, more snorkelling, before finally being brought to a basecamp for the night set on a remote island where we stayed in bamboo huts on the beach, usually without any electricity, showered from a bucket, gorged ourselves on yet more astounding food before whiling the evening hours away with beer and rum (stupidly cheap at $2/litre), telling stories round the campfire and gazing at the stars in a pristine, unpolluted sky.

As the days went by, and we ventured to more remote islands, so the coral and fish we saw got better and better. One of the basecamps had a shipwreck just off the shore, providing a welcome morning swim and a glimpse of how corals use wreck to create new reefs.

One of the highlights was actually on land. One of the basecamps, which we did not stay at but I think everyone gets to visit, was the home of Tao Farm, a self-sustaining organic farm set up to be able to provide all the boats with fresh fruit and vegetables, and with an aim to supply fresh meat, especially pork (one of the days games was to see what Alejandro was going to turn his fish into, although he was amazingly inventive). They want to provide for their communities – piglets are sold to villages on the islands for minimal amount with the intention that the boat crews can buy the pork back at full cost when they visit. They have also set up a womens group with the aim of teaching women a new skill, such as weaving or food production, with which they can make a living for themselves and move away from the traditional role subservient wife.

We also got to visit the island villages where Tao help by supporting schools, building basketball courts for the children (bizarrely this is the number one sport in the Philippines, where the people are quite small). They have also provided assistance to communities affected by Typhoon Yolanda, which devastated the area. Getting to meet the children here, see them in school, play volleyball on the beach with them (they were much better than us) made us wonder who the lucky ones were. They have a hard life, very few will have a future outside the islands, they had few possessions, yet they were amazingly happy and seemed to want for nothing. With the assistance of Tao they are being given opportunities (all the crews are from the islands).

By the time we arrived in Coron, after fives days together, I don't think there was anybody who was not affected by what they had seen and experienced. It was a most magical time, capped off with a final snorkel around a sunken Japanese gunboat and final round of rum and pineapple as the sun set one last time.

After a couple of nights in Coron (unless you dive there is nothing to do here) I decided on a change of scenery and headed to the main island of Luzon and the mountain village of Sagada (20 hours, one delayed flight, a taxi across Manila via the iStore to replace a power cable left on a remote beach, an overnight bus to Banaue and finally a minibus. This was a very different place. Much cooler than the islands, at least at night, and hillsides dominated by firs that would not be out of place in Germany if you ignored the palm trees and rice terraces. I had come here primarily for one thing – the Hanging Coffins. I had seen these on TV many years ago, and realising I was coming to the region had to see them.

The local Irogot tribes did not bury their dead. Instead they hang them from cliff faces on wooden beams or occasionally placed in small caves. The idea is to bring the dead closer to heaven. The body is placed in a foetal position to mimic a return to where they came from, and occasionally a chair will be suspended next to the coffin in case the spirit feels the need to stretch their legs. This custom has died out over the years with the introduction of Catholicism by the Spanish, and the last coffin to be raised was in 2007. There were actually far less coffins than I recall seeing on TV due to an earthquake in the 1990's that brought many of them down which are now stacked in a cave entrance. Even so it was good to see something that had always fascinated me.

I had one of the most fun days out of my travels in Sagada. While trying to find the route to the hanging coffins on my first attempt (nothing is signposted so that you need to employ a guide to help) I bumped into a couple of German girls, Sandra & Saskia, who had been on the bus to Sagada with me, who were heading off to a nearby cave with Federico & Moon who they had met a a tour the day before. Deciding to give up on my planned trip and have a bit of fun instead I joined them. One of the best decisions made so far. What I hadn't taken into count was that this wasn't a basic cave trip. We were going caving. We spent the next almost 3 hours squeezing through tiny gaps between fallen rocks, descending knotted ropes into near darkness (I won't call it abseiling – no harness or belay was provided), wading through rivers, and climbing back up with standard Filipino health & safety (none), with only the guides gas lamp to lead us, and poor Moon stuck at the back with his phones torchlight. If anything had have happened to us we were generally screwed, but as with the moped ride in Vietnam, these situations tend to make close bonds between people. The rest of the day was spent exploring various cafes and the rice terraces for sunset. It was a great day, but alas only one.

I left Sagada to go back to Banaue and then to Batad to see the 2000 year old Ifagau rice terraces built in a natural amphitheatre. I spent a couple of days trekking around, first to a nearby waterfall, then all around the terraces and also to a viewpoint on the other side of the valley to see the amphitheatre lad out in all its glory. No matter where you viewed them from, the terraces were a mesmerizing sight. At night all that could be seen were the lights of the villages in the bottom and the occasional fire as the farmers burnt the stubble to prepare for the next crop. It was so peaceful.

I had time left to have one ore adventure here, so returning to Banaue I got a bus back to Manila (10 hours overnight), a taxi to the bus station to go south, got the cheapest bus I could which I sat on for 3 hours before it set off to Legazpi (13 hours) for an overnight stay before a final minibus to Donsol, where I stayed in the swankiest backpacker beach resort I ever did see, spending a couple of days doing nothing by the pool, because there is almost nothing to do there. What I was doing there was waiting for Marie (remember her? From way back in Kota Kinabalu?). It was an unexpected but very welcome catch up, and interesting because she was the first person I had spent a significant amount of time with that I was now meeting again after many months on the road. Had I changed? Apparently so. Good.

What we were both doing there was to see whale sharks. The largest fish on earth, up to 15 metres long, it is not definite that you will get to see one. Sightings over the last few days had been good, although some people had reported going out for 2 days and not seeing anything. There were lot of boats out, each with a spotter looking for the tell tale sign of the shadow in the water. Officially only one boat is supposed to be with a whale shark at any one time. In reality as soon as a spotter spots one all the boats descend on it, wanting to make sure that no one goes home disappointed. This has the affect that the whale shark may sound before some people get there and that the interaction is very short. It also means that every time we went into the water we got to see one. The feeling of putting your face underwater to find yourself staring into the gaping mouth of the shark as it swims directly underneath you is one that will never leave me. The next day a tropical storm set in and the boats were cancelled. We had been very lucky.

We left Donsol, and going in our separate directions said our farewells again. I got an overnight bus back to Manila to catch a flight the next morning. But these islands had a sting in the tail. The tropical storm slowed the bus & caused another to crash ahead of us. These combined meant we approached Manila in rush hour, four hours late and no chance of making my flight. I managed to book another flight out that night (overstaying would have resulted in a hefty fine and a interrogation by immigration long enough to miss any flight I booked to leave later) and then found myself needing to change dollars over to pay an airport tax to leave the country.

This was one of the more annoying things - hidden charges.  Not content with high rates for local guides, without which it is easy to get lost or injured without any aid, most regions in the country have 'Environmental Taxes'.  In Banaue, Sagada & Batad they are small fees, usually less than 50p, without usually charged on entrance to the town & without which you cannot employ a guide.  Sometimes, as in Banaue, the 'tax' can be avoided as it is not checked.  In Boracay the fee was a couple of pounds and unavoidable.  Donsol levied 7 pounds before you could get a boat to go whale spotting (free extra rant!: at Donsol they have a maximum of 6 passengers per boat.  While it would be easier for the office administrators to assign people to boats, you are expected to find the people to make up the rest of your entourage.  Marie & I spent ages trying to find 4 people to share with.  We found 3 Koreans and ended up having to pay extra to allow for the empty spot...).  And don't get me started on that airport tax! (Although some don't charge it & smaller airports charge less than a pound.  And could do with the money - Busuanga at Coron had no x-ray screeners for luggage and no baggage carousel - it was just put on a table shaped liked one...).  Along with taxi drivers refusing to put their metres on this slow leeching of money slowly became infuriating.

I found the Philippines to be a massively diverse and beautiful country, but being so large and spread out it is possibly the most difficult I have travelled. While buses and minibuses are usually waiting at all locations, it is near impossible to pre-book anything other than planes as phone lines are never answered and added fees abound. There seem to be no tour operators providing linked transport like most other countries. In a way this adds to the charm of a country much less developed than others, but also makes it exhausting and somewhat frustrating to research. You just have to dive into it and hope. Do and the rewards are massive. And I barely touched the surface of the Philippines...

Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Road Less Travelled

Myanmar.  A country still struggling with it's military dictatorship past & ongoing civil war.  It is also a country of immense beauty and complex history.  Rapidly changing, it is a country I have wanted to see since seeing images of the temples on Bagan Plain in Ron Fricke' Samsara, and one I want to see before tourism ruins it like so many others (I am aware of the irony).  It is also a destination I seem to have been putting off going to because it just hasn't fitted into my plans.  And because I spent so long in Pai...

It is not an easy country to gain access to.  While it has several border crossings into Thailand, these can only be used for day visits into the country, nominally for renewing your Thai visa.  So the only way in is by air - via either Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur (exiting is far easier).  These cities are also the only places you can get a Myanmar visa in South East Asia, although thankfully the ever increasing number of tourists seems to have forced the embassies hands a bit and this process is easier than a few months ago.  I got my visa from Kuala Lumpur in a 'same day' process - this used to take a couple of days.  Also, in order to obtain a visa you must provide proof of both your inbound and outbound flights, thus setting a time limit on how long you wish to stay (unless you but another flight).  I gave myself 21 days.  The maximum allowed on your visa is 28.

In addition to this, not all of the country is open to foreign visitors yet, either due to civil unrest that could be dangerous for us to wander into the middle of, or maybe because there's something that the government would rather the world doesn't see just yet.

It is also not an easy country to organise anything in either.  I have a tendancy to use Hostelworld to book my hostels through, usually only a day or so in advance.  They had nothing, although I put this down to places being fully booked and a lack of awareness from hostel owners that this service exists.  My saviour on many occasions would turn out to be Agoda, through which I got some decent rooms at acceptable prices.  Myanmar is an expensive country to stay in!

The final thing which was noticeable was the lack of information, or rather how outdated it was.  My trusty Lonely Planet guide advised to take US$ (crisp, new notes) as there were not many ATM's available and also not to use the airport or banks for changing money - the black market apparently had much better rates.  I acknowledge that the information in the guides is usually a couple of years out of date, and Myanmar is changing quickly, but even scouring the internet did not present a greatly improved picture - there seemed to be a few more ATM's, but only in the big cities, and they may not accept foreign cards.  So, armed with a fistfull of dollars and my now quite battered cash card I set off for Yangon...

To find it's a complete load of rubbish!  ATM's were everywhere - even in temples - and more than happy to chuck their Kyat (pronounced chat) at me.  Airports and banks exchanged dollars at the market rate, much better than hotels.  If the black market were doing even better rates then they clearly haven't got the concept of Capitalism.

So, to Yangon.  It is a vibrant city, on the surface much like any other.  But walking the streets you see signs of it's personal past - abandoned edifices of British rule left to rot, decaying old colonial buildings inhabited by the need for  roof over ones head, and many buildings less than 30 years old showing worse signs of ageing.  On the streets you cannot move for food vendors selling generally unidentifiable but delicious food - noodle soups, a vast array of fried goods - just take the risk and enjoy, it's so cheap!  Fruit and veg stand side by side with DIY stalls and hifi stores.  I have never seen so many speakers for sale.  Or heard so many being tested.

But for all this there is little to actually see.  There are, of course, a few pagodas, the main attraction being the vast Shwedagon Paya.  Sitting 99m high, covering 14 acres, and surrounded by 82 other shrines and buildings, covered in gold leaf and jewels, this is pure excess.  The highlight for me was stumbled on by chance.  While flicking through Tripadvisor trying to find something to do I read about the circular railway.  Costing a mere $1.20, and lasting 3 hours, this is a train journey through the Yangon that lives by the train tracks, from city slums to colonial neighbourhoods, to railway station markets, and out to the surrounding countryside and villages.  A first glimpse at the everyday lives of the Burmese people.

Next stop was Mandalay.  This was like a quiet Hanoi.  Wide boulevards, lined with trees, humming with scooters, make up the downtown area, showing signs of large Chinese investment in building projects.  But step away a couple of streets and you get a feel for what it was like only 5 years ago - dirt-packed roads lead through wooden houses and shops into monasteries and temples.  Just outside my hotel was a hue market selling nearly everything you could think of.  Except food stalls, which I found insanely difficult to find anywhere in this city.

A $10 ticket will get you entry to some of the main attractions in  Mandalay, such as the (reconstructed) Royal Palace and the worlds largest book (a large temple complex where 729 marble slabs tell the Tripitaka canon - covering several acres).  You can avoid paying this though if you go late in the day, or go through the wrong entrance.  The fee goes to the government, and it is clear that while some people are happy to take money off their government in working to collect the fee, they are much less interested in helping the government by actually doing their job.  Which is good for us!  It became a mission to avoid as many camera fees and entrance fees as possible as this money does not go to the people.

Outside Mandalay are 4 historic cities, former capitals of Myanmar in themselves.  Mingun is a half-day trip by boat up the Ayeyarwady River and it's main sight is the Mingun Paya.  Destroyed by an earthquake before completion this was to be  massive 150m high stupa, which huge elephants providing a gateway from the river.

The other cities - Amarapura, Sagaing & Inwa - are generally done in a touristy day trip.  The tourist trail starts with Ganayon Kyaung, a monastery where 1200 monks gather in  procession to lunch at 10am everyday.  Watched by 500 tourists.  I felt very awkward at this sight.  The younger monks still showed an excitement at being the centre of so much attention, but you could tell in the eyes of the older ones that by the time you get to about 15 years old, thousands of mornings of this takes its toll. I saw many monks walk back to their rooms to eat their meal away from the prying camera lenses.  Even mine, I am ashamed to say - but I did try to use maximum zoom rather than shove my camera in their faces.

Sagaing is home to many temples on a hill, and, frankly, is barely worth the walk up the hill and around the top.  Inwa was much more interesting.  Only a few signs remain of it's past - a ruin of a temple, crumbling city walls, a watch tower on the verge of falling over. Being taken around the site in a horse cart (a necessity born from it being late in the day and the size of the site - I kept an eye open to make sure the driver didn't use their whip excessively, but I feel the horse would have stopped without it) it felt much more like a village,  farming community, which is essentially what it now is.  My favourite stop was a teak built monastery, still in use, in need of a bit of dusting, and complete with it's own cat.

The final stop of the day was U Bein's Bridge, a 200m long teak bridge.  It was a stunning sight at sunset, not lessened at all by something which had become apparent during the day - the hundreds of tourists being bused about on tours seeing the same things at the same time.

As I had been in a private taxi with a friend I had been able to take my time seeing various things and had become distanced from them in a way. But here they all were.  In their inglorious hordes.  A sight which would be no less familiar at my next destination - Bagan.

Quick travel tip: don't get night trains in Myanmar.  The seats are uncomfortable, the train rocks crazily and the loosely bolted seats make it even worse.  I barely got any sleep.  Saved a few bucks on taxi fares to the bus station though.

Bagan was my inspiration for coming to Myanmar - over 4000 temples and pagodas scattered over a plain next to the Ayeyarwady River.  Just one shot in Samsara, of the sunrise relfecting back off the brick structures was enough for me.  And it didn't disappoint.  Although I could never get out of bed in time to see the sunrise.  Plenty of sunsets though.

It took a couple of days of exploring to be satiated.  First I went around most of the main sites by bike, marveling at the stupas and buddhas, in various states of disrepair or reconstruction, but found it difficult to escape the crowds or tall owners, who wanted to show you 'their' buddha, or 'their' temple, and then force 'their' unique trinket on you.  I hate to be cynical on this, but it really gets on your nerves after a while.  The following day I rented an electric bike to cover more ground and find a few more remote sites.  And was thoroughly rewarded.   Not only was the bike very capable at being being thrown around sandy dirt tracks, it got me to some quiet temples with amazing views over the plain to see temples at sunset, silhouetted against the setting sun, or other large but remote temples that had not been as extensively renovated as other easier to get to places.  These were the delights of my stay.

After a couple of days of temple-ing though, I was in need of a change of scenery so headed to Kalaw and the start of a 2 day trek across the hills to Inles Lake and Nyaungshwe.  This was exactly what I needed, although the countryside was a bit bemusing.  I had come to Myanmar in the dry season.  It was hot and dusty by day, bitterly cold at night, the leaves were turning orange and there was a definite autumnal feel in the air around dawn and dusk.  But when the sun blazed down in the afternoon the scrub trees, cacti and agave made it feel as if you were in South California or Mexico.

Our guide spoke amazing English, self taught over 2 years as a trekking guide, but she herself only knew bits of the tribal languages spoken in the villages we walked through.  This was very much unlike the experience I had had in Sapa.  These were real farming communities.  They survived growing crops and making local handicrafts for sale in the nearby towns.  The homestay we stayed at also had a more authentic feel - our hosts invited us to sit with them around their fire after dinner and slept in a room partitioned off from our sleeping area, as is the norm in Burmese households.  But still the signs of encroaching tourism could be seen.  Most of the treks overnight from Kalaw to Nyaugnshwe stay in the same village, and just outside this village large hotels of bamboo bungalows are being built by businessmen from Mandalay and Yangon to feed the demand of the growing number of tour groups for whom staying in an authentic homestay would be anathema.  That the land these hotels are being built on was sold by locals after being given to them by the government does make you scratch your head a bit, but then, the land being used could not be farmed on so how else could they make money?

The trail meandered long cart tracks and footpaths through some beautiful countryside before descending beside a river to Inles Lake, where villages have been built on stilts in the fertile reed beds for centuries.  People here have made their living the same way all this time, until the tourists got here.  The lake is dotted with fisherman in their canoes, balancing precariously whilst maneuvering their fishing traps to better spots; a floating garden has been built over the years, a layer of compost that grows everything needed from flowers to tomatoes.

Now this life is starting to change.  Boats that taxied local villagers from one side to the other have now been joined by boats full of tourists being taken around the usual sights - a lakeside market selling all sorts of trinketry and handicrafts(but nothing remarkably different from each other),  small factories making local cheroot cigarettes, gold & silver smiths, and a large weaving mill producing high quality scarves and clothes from cotton, silk and lotus threads, all significantly out of the affordability of the villagers, but bringing in lots of money from the tour groups (if not the travellers, who still strive for a good bargain).  Te most annoying sight though were the 'fishermen'.  Discernible from actual fishermen by their lack of fishing and spending most of their time posing for the tourist hordes, showing how well they can balance on their boat, one leg wrapped around the oar and the other holding up the fish trap in a very inefficient manner before holding aloft a clearly long dead fish for a photo op, hoping to get some money for this charade, and then retiring out of the way to wait for the next gullible boat load to come along.

To combat this I went on a second boat trip the following day, this time a private tour in a boat paddled by a restaurant owner who offered to take me around her village.  Without the sounds of the motors coming from every direction this was much more tranquil, drifting on the glass like surface of the waterways between the houses that make up the network of streets for these communities.  Everything is here for them - schools, temples and even post offices!

Also in Nyaungshwe I managed the unexpected - a continuation of my ceaseless quest to do a cooking course in every country (thanks Tripadvisor!).  And this was a special one.  With a severe lack of internet access, and communication issues with the locals, finding Bamboo Delight and arranging a class was not easy.  And with less than 3 hours cooking time it seemed a bit short.  But Su took us on a wonderful tour of the local market, a very rural experience (contrary to what I said in my last post, sometimes buying fish & meat is a bit different - in depends on the existence of health and safety regulations.  Not for the faint-hearted this one.), making up the days menu on the spot depending on what was available and what we liked the look of.  There were only 5 of us in the class and Su's husband, Leslie, ensured that we all got to cook at least one dishes each.  Given that most of the dishes had the same methods this was not an issue, and being a small group we were always milling around seeing what was going on, having a look at Su's house and talking about the dream she made come true.  As a child in the early 1990's her father had opened a restaurant when people started to come into what was then still Burma. Rather than advertise, he simply drew passersby in off the street, who invariably wanted to know how to cook what they were eating & take these recipes home with them.  Over the years Su was able to learn to speak English from their guests and when her father died she took over the business turned it into a cooking school.  And she was able to give back to her neighbours.  We made a lot of food - much more than we needed.  Anything remaining is taken to the local orphange to help feed the children there.  Su also takes time out to help teach them English and cooking skills, as well as assisting the community financially.  By any standards she would be a success, but what she is doing in Nyaungshwe is truly a wonder and I am so glad I found her and grateful to have been part of this experience.  We actually convinced her to sell some of what was remaining to a French couple who had dropped in thinking this was a restaurant - something she had never thought of doing.  The couple thought our cooking was excellent.  It was.

I then had to go back south again (flights out of Yangon are cheaper than from Mandalay, so this sort of makes sense) as I wanted to see the Golden Rock at Kyaiktyo.  From the base camp it is an 11km hike up the mountain to this site of pilgrimage, mostly through a forest, with little to see except stalls selling food and drink to people going up.  Of which there were decidedly few, as there is a truck which will also take you up for just $2.50, but as always I wanted to do it properly.  I also decided to make it a mental test as well as a physical one by acquiring a drunk Thai gentleman who claimed he was a guide but only wanted a friend so he wouldn't charge me (which he didn't) but just wanted someone to talk to.  I was thinking, cool, I get to have a chat to someone about the area and Burmese culture.  Wrong.  He was so drunk that the conversation revolved around how he wanted a friend and someone to talk to, whilst hanging off my arm and making it even harder work.  After about an hour and half of this, and the conversation not really getting any further, I decided that Buddha would agree I'd done as much as was reasonable and not frown on me too much, so sat him down to rest (for the umpteenth time) ans strode of up the hill at a pace I was sure he couldn't keep up with.  The hike proved to be more memorable than the rock, which is a big rock, covered in gold leaf, balancing on top of another rock, overhanging quite considerably.  They say they are not sure how it balances.  I reckon it's to do with the large quantity of gold leaf stuck on one side of it acting as a counterbalance.  But I could just be being cynical again.

While this would have been an impressive sight it was lessened by the temple precinct which again seemed created for tourists rather than devotees, with tiled walkways and shops.  I decided to get the truck back down the hill which was one of the scariest things I have done so far.  The truck is filled with people sitting on benches on the back of a flatbed lorry.  At the back of this is a caged enclosure for people who have to stand.  Which included me.  With nothing to keep me in except holding on for dear life the truck descended at sometimes silly speeds down the steep slopes and hairpin bends, and along the twisting roads of the valley floor.  It was so much fun I wanted to do it again.

I spent the night in what the Lonely Planet call 'a crime scene', but at $8 it was the cheapest place I had found all trip, and the next day headed for Bago.  Not originally on my itinerary, I had passed through on the way to Kyaiktyo & felt I could fit it in on the return rather than spend another day in Yangon.  Home to not a lot except the tallest stupa in Myanmar, at 114m, and the longest reclining Buddha, 55m, it is a small town with a little charm, but does have an exceptional cafe for breakfast.  This is what places not geared up for the tourist trail feel like, and I guess the closest I will get to how it would have felt just a few years ago. I caught the train back to Yangon, catching me somewhat off guard by being a whopping 90 minutes EARLY.  I thought the British had given them their rail network?  We surely didn't teach them this...  The journey back was far more relaxed than by bus (where karaoke is played at full volume no matter what time of day it is) and as I looked out on the countryside one last time I had chance to look back on my 3 weeks in this country.

It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and special countries I have visited.  The people, on the whole, are friendly and want to talk to you and help you without any expectation of personal gain.  But still I have found it difficult to fall in love with Myanmar as so many have done so before me.  Maybe I have just got here a couple of years too late, when the streets were full of bicycles instead of cheap Chinese motorbikes, before large scale development had taken place and towns like Nyaungshwe were a community of villages with a central market rather than a collection of suburbs.  Maybe it's because you feel as if you are on the tourist trail, going to the same places as everyone else because it's too difficult to get to some of the more distant cities, or that we can;t have access to.  Or maybe it's because, due to both these factors, that the infrastructure for travellers, rather than tourists, isn't as comprehensive as the rest of South East Asia, resulting in a lack of reasonably priced hostels with dorm rooms, forcing you into more expensive twins or double rooms in hotels of which there are still not enough (tales abound of people having to sleep in the streets in Nyaungshwe at times last year because even the monasteries did not have rooms to fit everybody in); that lack of haggling in recent years by more affluent tourists has set expectations higher for the locals of what they are able to make for accommodation and transport.  This makes Myanmar an expensive and sometimes trying place to visit, and I happy to settle for one of those, but not both.

Maybe in a few years, with more investment, things will become cheaper or easier.  Maybe I would return, at a different time of year to see the lush, green rice paddies and jungle, and when the authorities have opened up more of the country.  But maybe, most likely, the country will have been radically changed by then.