29 January 2009

Lack of technology

Apologies but we've not been able to update the blog for about a week due to the unavailability of technology! The last few posts will probably make more sense if you start from the post entitled "Kalaw" and then work your way up!

Bago's bigger Buddhas

Bago town appears to be on a quest to have more religious monuments per square foot than any other town in Myanmar. Most towns here have a lot, Bago has an extraordinary amount. However, it's not just the quantity that counts in Bago, it's also the size.

There's giant sleeping Buddhas, giant seated Buddhas, fields full of Buddhas, giant temples, giant stupas, stupas with tunnels full of Buddhas . . . You get the idea. We even went to a temple with a giant 118 year old boa constrictor.

We have a little bit of advice for anyone who finds themselves in Bago and is tempted to stay at the Bago Star Hotel by the lure of their swimming pool . . . Dudley canal may have cleaner water. The rest of the hotel is really nice though!

Our next stop was going to be a place called Golden Rock which is about 120km away in the opposite direction to Yangon. It would have been at minimum a 6 hour round to spend an hour at the site. However, after the hassle of the travel since we left Inle Lake we've decided to knock it on the head and go back to Yangon a day early. The thought of going 120km in the wrong direction is psychologically too damaging!

Yet another train journey from hell

We had mistakenly thought that when we got back onto the main train line at Thazi, which runs between Yangon and Mandalay, that it would become more sensible. However, as we soon found out, we were quite wrong.

The train we were catching was laughingly called the Yangon "express" and should have taken us meerly 10 hours to go the 350 odd kilometers from Thazi to Bago. Thanks to numerous breakdowns of the train (and subsequently a number of the passengers) it only took us 15 hours! We have now given up all hope of using Myanmar Railways again. Our advice to anyone who wants to travel long distance overland in Myanmar is don't bother. . . fly instead and keep your sanity!

An unexpected trip to the Thazi!

Ruby at the Winner Hotel may have possibly been the nicest person on the planet but she can't be trusted to tell the time! All the trains from Thazi leave between 8 and 10 in the morning. . . not the afternoon.

This lead to us being stuck in Thazi for the evening. How can I best describe Thazi? Well, it appears to consist of a railway junction and two streets. That's about it. I don't think it will ever win most beautiful town in Myanmar, in fact it would probably struggle in the most beautiful railway junction competition.

The owners of the guesthouse where we are staying, Moon Light Guesthouse, are clearly barking. When we arrived it was 30 degrees in the shade and they were huddled around the electric fire! Also on the wall is a fantastic chart entitled "the food that shouldn't eat together". Included are culinary pairings such as; frog and mushroom, chicken and Indian trumpet, duck egg and water melon, cucumber and ice lolly, and my favourite and no doubt yours too. . . gourd and parrot!

Irrespective of how mad they may or may not be we don't have a lot of choice over where we stay. The guesthouse is the only one in town that is licenced to take foreigners.

It feels a little bit like we are stuck in a David Lynch film . . . only weirder.


If we said that the last place we were staying in, Nyaungshwe, was a one horse town, then Kalaw is a no horse town!

We've met a couple of people earlier on our trip who said that we must go to Kalaw and that it was one of the highlights of Myanmar. The Lonely Planet says that it projects a backpacker vibe. Personally we are struggling to see what all the fuss is about. The only thing we can see being projected is tons of dust into the air from the main road that thunders through the middle of town.

Kalaw is a former British colonial hill station and is surrounded by many tribal villages. At an altitude of over 1300 meters it gets fairly cold once the sun sets so its out with the long sleeves again.

The hotel we're staying in, Winner Hotel, is probably the best place we have stayed in since we've been in Myanmar. It's the first place on our stay where we've had 24 hour a day electricity and hot water, a TV and lighting not from a fluorescent tube. Also the owner, Ruby, is really friendly and has been giving us loads of help and advice. She's originally from China and invited us to her family's Chinese new year party on Sunday evening where we were treated to a feast of home cooked Chinese food.

Our timing in Kalaw was fairly lucky as the day after we arrived was market day where the people from some of the surrounding tribal villages come into town. This meant that we didn't have to go treking to see them . . . and we all know how much Liz enjoys treking! The market was really interesting and another great opportunity to play "what the hell is that?" and "what's that smell?"

After the market we had a walk a few kilometers out of town to visit the Shwe Oo Min Paya and Caves. We also tried to go to see a 500 year old Buddha made from bamboo but couldn't find it and managed to get lost around an army base and golf course instead.

On past blog postings we've lamented the state of the public transport in Myanmar but in Kalaw the lack of integration has reached a new low. We planned to leave Kalaw by train and go to Thazi, which would then allow us to transfer back onto to the main train line to make our way back towards Yangon. The distance from Kalaw to Thazi is only 93km and yet the train takes . . . wait for it . . . this is good . . . seven and a half hours! That works out to a mind bending 12km per hour, surely the slowest train in the world. The other bit of genius is that the trains are scheduled so that by the time you get to Thazi you have missed the all of your connecting trains!

There is one bus a day to Thazi which leaves at around 8 in the morning and arrives at midday. Leaving you 8 hours to hang around the train station before the Yangon train arrives. In the end we have had to splash out on a taxi, a lot more expensive but much less painless!

The fun doesn't end once we get to Thazi. There are 4 trains a day that go from Thazi to Yangon. But rather than them being spread out throughout the day they are all crammed into a two hour window between 8 and 10pm. Which means the joys of another overnight train journey which will arrive at stupid o'clock in the morning. That is of course assuming that we can get a ticket. There are only 4 seats on each train that are for tourists and you can't reserve a ticket over the phone. The only way to get a ticket is to go in person to the station from which you want to leave and buy it there. It makes the train system back home look like a Utopian dream.

24 January 2009

Inle Lake & Nyaungshwe

We have just spent the last 4 days staying in a town called Nyaungshwe which is about 3km from Inle Lake. If Nyaungshwe was in the wild West, and believe me it feels like it is, it would be classed as a one horse town. Conditions here are somewhat basic. It's also very quiet.

Most of Myanmar has been fairly tourist free but there's virtually no one here at all. We thought that it may have been because most people were staying at the luxury resorts on the lake. However, we bumped into a couple we shared a taxi from the airport with who had to check out of their lakeside resort because it was too quiet. They went stir crazy with the lack of human interaction so we ended up having dinner with them on Thursday night. They have been traveling on and off (mostly on) for the last 3 years on the rental from their South Kensington flat in London. We guestimated that they get more rent in one week from their one flat than we get in one month from our four properties combined.

We've spent the last two days going out on boat trips onto Inle Lake to see some of the sights. The boats, which are made from teak, are quite something. About 30 feet long but barely 3 feet wide with what looks like a giant lawn mower engine perched on the back.

The lake is about 11km wide, 22km long, nearly a kilometer above sea level and surrounded by mountains, giving the place a slightly strange Alpine feel.

Dotted around the lake are the stilt villages of the Intha tribe who are famous for their unique leg rowing. To enable them to see obstructions, weeds and fish in the lake they row their boats standing up balanced on one leg. They then wrap the other leg around an oar and propel themselves across the water. It really is quite surreal to see but also incredibly graceful. They must also have an incredible sense of balance. It's hard enough just trying to get in or out of the narrow, unstable boats without capsizing them, let alone rowing it whilst balanced on one leg.

The Intha are also famous for their floating gardens. The gardens are made on top of masses of water hyacinths out in the lake and used to cultivate fruit and vegetables. Cutting through the gardens are a series of canals that give the feeling you're in a kind of tropical version of Venice.

We also paid a visit to Nga Hpe Chaung, which translates into English as Jumping Cat Monastery. Here, for some strange reason (probably boredom), the monks have trained the resident cats to jump through small wooden hoops. And they say you can't train a cat!

The other trip we have made out was to a place called Indein which is a collection of Buddhist stupas on a jungle lined hill. A lot of the site is ruined and overgrown which made it feel like something out of Indiana Jones or Lara Croft film.

Later today we start our overland journey back to Yangon. First stop a town called Kalaw.

20 January 2009

Not letting the train take the strain

After two days of dashing around the plains and climbing the temples of Bagan we were thoroughly "templed out" and in need of a day out of the dust. So today we again headed back to the luxury accommodation of Old Bagan to make the most of relaxing in someone elses expensive hotel and swimming pool.

Tomorrow we are catching a flight to Inle Lake which about 200km to the East of where we currently are in Bagan.

One of the things that makes Myanmar so different from the rest of Asia is just how difficult it is to get anywhere. We have always found travelling in most countries throughout Asia to be a fairly simple task but it sometimes feels like it is made difficult on purpose here. Particularly if you want to go anywhere using public transport.

Nothing ever seems to run at a sensible time. Every bus or train we have caught or looked at catching in Myanmar has either left or arrived (or both) at at stupid o'clock in the middle of the night or morning. The other problem is that it takes forever to go even a short distance. This is partly due to the road conditions but also due to the Mad Max type vehicle that you usually find yourself traveling in (or balanced on).

A good example of this is the journey from Bagan to Inle Lake. Instead of flying we could have caught the bus. The bus leaves at 3 in the morning and and takes 12 hours to go roughly 200km. That averages out at 16km per hour! Only marginally faster than hopping . . . backwards. Also, rather bizarrely, taking the train is often slower than going by clapped out local bus. And dirtier too if you're on the Bagan line!

The other option for long distance travel is to hire a car and driver. To go to Inle Lake would cost $130 in the luxury of a 1971 Nissan Sunny and take 8 hours. $16 more than two seats on the 45 minute flight in a shiny aeroplane.

The temples of Bagan

We've spent the last couple of days temple hopping the sights of Bagan.

On Sunday we hired a horse and cart for the day and headed out into the South, Central and Northern plains. Trundling around in a horse and cart is a great fun way to get around some of the more scattered sights on the plains. The cart also helps to provide some much welcome shade. We're doing this in the middle of the Myanmar winter and the temperature still reaches into the low 30's every day. It must be really hard going in the summer when it hits the mid 40's.

There are some problems when traveling at 1 horsepower that do not materialise when you have over 100 under your right foot. We had to stop at one point to extract a nail from the horse's hoof and were again plagued with a windy horse. Not sure what they feed 'em with out here!

Yesterday we headed over to Old Bagan and spent the day exploring the sights there on foot.

Rather than waffle on we thought we would just post a few pictures to try and give you a flavour of what it's like here. Although, due to our limited photography skills, it's quite hard to capture the scale and scope of the place.

18 January 2009


Bagan is probably the main reason for us wanting to come to Myanmar.
The Bagan Archaeological Zone is 42sq-km plane that contains over 3000
ancient temples, most of which date from the 10th to 13th century.
Over a period of about 230 years the Kings of Bagan reportedly built
4446 temples. The Lonely Planet describes the scene as being like "all
of the medieval cathedrals of Europe sitting on Manhattan island - and
then some". It's thought that the Bagan was abandoned at the end of
the 13th century when the Mongols of Kubli Khan sacked the city and
the Bamar kings moved their capital to Sagaing then Inwa.

Bagan is supposedly one of the few ancient sights that can rival
Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which is the most amazing place that we've
been to, so we thought we would have to give it a go

The temple hopping was going to have to wait for 24 hours though.
After Liz's few days of being ill and the horror that was the
night(mare) train to Bagan we needed a bit of luxury and pampering. So
we hopped on a horse and cart and made our way over to the Bagan River
View Hotel in Old Bagan where for the price of a drink at their pool
side bar you can enjoy the facilities of their 4 star hotel.

Mandalay malady and the night(mare) train to Bagan

Liz went down with a good old dosage of the "traveler tummy" in the
early hours of Wednesday morning and was really ill for all of
Wednesday. We won't go into any details in case you have just eaten.
Thursday saw a significant improvement and by Friday she was back on
her feet again and ready to move on. The guide books warn that about
half of all visitors here usually end up with some sort of bacterial
stomach trouble. It's a good job that Liz managed to talk that useless
GP of ours into (reluctantly) giving us a prescription for some

As well as nursing/annoying the sick I have been keeping myself busy
with the excitement of preparing my tax return for 2008/9. There's no
let up from Her Majesties Revenue and Customs even if you're a few
thousand miles out of the country.

So on Friday evening we bid farewell to our friend and tri-shaw driver
Zeze and left Mandalay for Bagan on the overnight train. We've said on
previous posts how it's great catching the train in this part of the
world. We now have to add an exclusion to those previous comments -
It's great catching the train unless you are on the Mandalay to Bagan
line. We have never been on such a complete heap of a train. It was

When we arrived on the platform at 8pm to board the train it was in
complete darkness and we thought maybe they hadn't turned the
electricity on in the carriages. On closer inspection we realised that
it was on, it was just that the only illumination for each car was
provided by two ten watt bulbs. So with our torches on we clambered on
to the train and fumbled our way to our (grubby) seats. As well as
there being virtually no lighting there was also no luggage rack so we
had to cram all of our baggage (about 150 litres worth) into the space
around our feet.

Things didn't get any better once we set off on our way as the
suspension on the train felt like it was made of of Zebedee's legs.
Boing! The slightest undulation of the track would leave the whole
train bouncing along like an electrocuted kangaroo. There were several
occasions where just staying put in your seat was a real physical
challenge. Getting up and moving around was neigh on impossible.

On the one occasion when I did move from my seat to go to the toilet I
wish I hadn't of bothered. Upon opening the loo door I was treated to
the most unusual sight of three two inch long cockroaches racing each
other around the floor of the toilet in my torch light. I decided to
return to my seat and cross my legs instead! Maybe it's for the best
that the lighting was so dim on the train.

Whilst we're talking of dim we aught to give a special mention to the
two local girls who were sat opposite us for the first couple of hours
of the journey. They kept us thoroughly entertained with a torch light
sing song jamboree. For the second time in four days Liz was on the
verge of violence.

As a tourist we had the privilege of paying $9 each for a seat. If we
had paid the same rate as the locals, $0.50, I would have still felt
overcharged! The man in seat 61, the best resource out there for train
information, warns that once you get off the main Yangon to Mandalay
line things can get a little more challenging - I think we may drop
him a little update!

We arrived in Bagan at 5 in the morning and made our way to our
accommodation for a quick disinfection before crashing into bed. We're
actually staying in a town called Nyaung U which is about 5km from Old
Bagan. We're staying at a lovely place called New Park Hotel in a cosy
little teak floored chalet.

14 January 2009

The Mustache Brothers

After saying on the last blog entry that Thursday's dinner at the
Chapati Stand was one of the strangest dining experiences, last night
with the Mustache Brothers was possibly the strangest evenings
entertainment ever. I'm really struggling to put into words to explain
the weirdness that we observed.

The Mustache Brothers are a kind of Burmese, traditional, vaudeville,
folk, dance, music, history, political, satire, comedy show. However
telling political jokes in Myanmar is quite a risky thing to do and
can often result with you ending up is jail. In 1996 two of the
brothers were sentenced to 7 years hard labour for telling jokes about
Myanmar's generals. The leader of the Moustace Brothers, Par Par Lay,
has been arrested and jailed 3 times for joke telling, the last time
as recently as 2007.

The Brothers are banned from public performances and now only do
"demonstrations" of performances for tourists in the front room of
their house. To keep things on a slightly surreal edge the show is
performed from a stage made of pallets with you feeling like the
police could burst in at any moment and whisk a Brother away. A very
strange evening indeed, but at least I now know how to make a
traditional hat and how to tie a longyi from a cubit of cloth!

Earlier in the day we again met up with our friend an tri-shaw driver
Zeze for a tour of some of Mandalay's other sights. First we saw a
couple more temples, the best one being Shwe In Bin Kyaung teak
monastery, before we headed into the "monk quarter" to see the marble
workshops where they carve countless Buddha and other images.

We finished the day at Mahamuni Paya which contains one of the most
sacred Buddha statues in the whole country. The Mahamuni Buddha image
is a 4m high bronze seated Buddha that was cast in the 1st century AD.
Over the years worshipers have applied gold leaf to it so that the
gold is now 15cm thick.

Today we were going to catch the ferry for a day trip to the ancient
city of Mingun, about an hour up the Ayeyarwady River from Mandalay.
It's also supposed to be a good opportunity to try and spot the
endangered Ayeyarwady river dolphins. However, our plans are on hold
at the moment as Liz has fallen ill with our first bout of "travelers
stomach". Must dash as I have nursing duties to attend to!