Tag Archives: group photo

Day 12 – Mons, Monks & Monkeys

23 Mar

For some reason, my mind thought that 5:30am was a good time to wake up … two days in a row, does not make a pattern.  As the real start was due at 8:00am, this meant plenty of time for breakfast!  The made to order waffles and honey were fantastic, and went nicely with the bacon and toast.  I couldn’t get more un-Burmese than that!

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The view from OK Kyaung

We headed first to the temple of Ok Kyaung, which afforded spectacular views of a large number of other stupas and temples, after climbing only a short flight of stairs.  George’s “cousin” from yesterday was nowhere to be seen, but plenty of others had filled her spot.  I started a photo taking competition (starring me and some bricks) in which Karen, Albery and Ethna all took part.  Results will be announced later.

A short hop to the Dhamma Ya Zi Ka Pagoda, which stood in front, saw us do the now traditional clockwise tour of the outside.  This one had a large golden dome, shrouded in bamboo scaffolding, and lots of smaller golden stupas sitting on strikingly red bricks.  Instead of having the traditional 4 Buddhas, this one had space for 5 – in preparation for the coming of the next Buddha – due in about 2,600 years time. (Every 5000 years – the last Buddha was born in 600BC).  Now that’s future planning!  Also around here were a camera crew and a French presenter practicing her English speech.  That doesn’t sound like a great combination.  And it wasn’t.  Inside, next to yet another Buddha shrine, was a glass object bejewelled with rubies and sapphires, which would normally shine at the very top of a pagoda.

We moved on to the local village of West Pwazaw and met with the former village chief who was obviously a wealthy farmer.  He employed 8 people and seemed to enjoy not having to do much himself!  They farmed sour plums and we witnessed how they crushed and separated the kernels which are then sold to the Chinese for £6/kilo for unknown reasons – they really don’t know what they do with them!  They also grow peanuts, sesame, beans, pumpkin, corn and cotton.  There was a demonstration of how to spin the cotton into yarn, and of course an opportunity to purchase the final product.  Despite the rest of the village owning enough cows to keep Tesco in beef burgers for months, this family only owned two cows – because they also owned a tractor!  With 5 children, 2 sons were still at home, two daughters are nurses (one still in the village) and the fifth was obviously not important (or I didn’t listen).   Lacquerware production was also on show.  It’s made from bamboo, horsehair and the sap of the lacquer tree.  I wondered why all the horses had short hair.  Funnily enough, it’s “lucky” to buy two, rather than one.

After being offered some rather tasteless tea (or maybe it was just my cold), we walked around the village – highlights included a man painting a wall without moving the bricks in his way, or indeed, finishing building the wall; a pen full of goats who wanted to like my hand – little do they know what I have in store for their friends on Saturday; a woman with the largest cigar on the planet; and a man who made bamboo cages that confuddle George – apparently they were rubbish bins.  We saw bamboo being split, some friendly cows and a cactus hedge.

Leaving the village behind, we attempted to document any remaining stupas that we’d not yet seen.  This started with the tallest (Thatbyinnyu Temple) and then Nanpaya Temple – with a very hot tiled floor outside, I was back to doing the Burmese Waltz across the ground in bare feet.  They should at least have a bucket of water on standby, if not a full first aid team. Inside were four columns with intricate Hindu inspired carvings and a missing Buddha on the raised middle platform.  This is different from most temples, in that they normally have four Buddhas facing every direction.

Outside the temple were some ogres and haspa (sp?) “curvings” (sic), as well as a good assortment of children trying to flog some postcards.  “Very nice, but I don’t need any” was a standard John2 response.  They’ve got to try refining their technique, as the bargaining reached $1million at one point.

In the next door temple, we had four large Buddhas, who looked like they had forgotten the dimensions of the building they were in.  As a result of their size, they look down on the visitors, apparently in reference to the sorrow of the king and queen that had them built.  Saving on the traders here, they had a large gold pot where you could just throw your money away.  Unfortunately, I was suckered in on the way out – another sand painting bought!

Back at the hotel, I had a chance to freshen up and eat (chicken and cheeseburger and fries) before heading off to Mount Popa with Tom and John.  We ducked the Explore version for a local taxi (saving $17 each!).  The journey took an hour, but it completed all possible methods of transport during this trip.  And it had working air con!

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Not the real Mount Popa

On arrival at Mount Popa we faced a 777 step covered climb – 1/3 in shoes, and 2/3 in bare feet.  The steps were full of local tourists and macaques (monkeys).  Fortunately the tourists had been toilet trained.  The macaques had not.  The monkeys were scavengers and would happily grab any food from your hand.   They also didn’t respect the Buddhas.  A team of cleaners managed to mostly keep the tiled steps clean and a group were feeding the monkeys at the bottom to try and encourage them to stay there, rather than pester tourists all the way up.  This didn’t work.  There were two sections of steep metal steps which had obviously been frequented by the monkeys more than the cleaners.  Razor wire was used to try to keep the monkeys away from key areas, but they didn’t seem bothered with it at all, using it to climb up and through.

At the top, it was a bit confusing, as there was a collection of shrines, no open space, lots of plaques and lots of people.  We worked our way around, admiring the views from all sides and were asked to star in a few photos by a monk.  We then persuaded a monk to take part in the photos as well.  Fair’s fair.  Anyone can sponsor anything for any reason – a few restaurants had plaques – from Beijing and San Francisco!

As a side note, we didn’t actually climb Mount Popa, but the rocky outcrop, half its height, officially called Popa Taung Kalat.  But known to the casual tourist as Mount Popa.

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Monks slapping monkeys

Descending and using all the available wet wipes to clean the monkey pee and monkey poo off our feet, we rejoined the taxi driver for the trip back to the hotel in Bagan.  My Pringles and Haribo were cracked open and eagerly finished off by traveller Tom.  I may have helped a bit.  The road back had some roadworks, the men making the tar and the women carrying it to the road for it to be applied by hand by more men.  Time consuming work!  In the middle of nowhere, we also ran the gauntlet of some people, mostly young, begging along the road.  They did this by trying to run in front of the cars to get them to slow down.  We sped up.

After dressing for dinner (well everyone else did – I put clean socks on), we met in the hotel foyer and the group flag photo was done.  Hotel staff are better photo takers than I am!  Disappointed to find that I’d been sold a dirty flag though!  George seemed to have a problem knowing which way up it went!

For our final group meal, we headed to the Star Beam restaurant, and after the meal Graham led the group thanks with a speech he’d spent all afternoon preparing for.  George replied.  “Yes. Yes.”  I hadn’t appreciated this was his catchphrase until this moment.

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Cassandra then led us on an ice cream hunt ending, very easily, with a peach and guava variety.  Delice. An early night as we all have planes to catch tomorrow – some of the group are heading to the beach extension option, and the rest of us have a couple of days in Yangon before our flight home.

Still plenty to come from me …

Day 14 – Vilnius, Lithuania

7 Oct

This morning I managed to miss the breakfast queue.  No one believes that late breakfast is good.  Tauno joined me for the last time.  Can’t really believe that this is my last day here.  It feels like forever, but yet such a short time.  I can’t remember what we did at the start of this trip.

Anyway, we met Margherita, our Vilnius City guide in the foyer of the hotel.  As it was drizzling steadily, she decided that we should get the public bus into town and not walk from the hotel.  The local trolley bus was crowded and I’m sure an old lady’s hand went walkabout as they squeezed past me to get off.

We started in the Jewish Big Ghetto – as opposed to the Small Ghetto on the other side of German Street.  The Jews were mostly all originally German, but were hearded into ghettos by the Nazis.  There was a statue of a doctor here who had also turned his talents to killing animals.  The entire group heard the story like this.  Actually, it turned out that the doctor was good at healing animals!

Margherita warned us of stepping the bike lanes painted on the pavements/roads as cyclists sue the pedestrians if they step in front and cause them harm.  Quite right too.

Only 5 minutes into the tour and she was congratulating us on still listening.  She was really funny, but I’m sure she was carrying her knitting in her bag.

She did stop or point out a few shops that we should really investigate in our free time.  These included a cheese shop and a blown glass (ornaments) shop.  I’m not that old yet!

We headed past several churches as she spouted off many interesting facts – like 4% of the population are currently Russian Orthodox, but there are far too many Orthodox (and other) churches.  This is generally because rich people sponsored the building of a church with their name on it to ensure that they got to heaven.

At the Gates of Doom, she meant Dawn, we turned around and headed back again, passing through the Writer’s Street where art and objects are regularly added to the wall.  We also stopped off in a random shop to find something to do with winding wool.  Becky to answer for that one … Anyway, we found painted hollow eggs, Easter style.  Just a bit crushable for my liking, but several were bought for Australian Christmas trees.

Some random courtyards were also on the “must visit” list.  She obviously had pride in her city, but it was a bit tenuous at times as to the relevance to the group’s interest.  Some interesting art though.  They really like their wood carvings here.

When walking past some Italian branded clothes shops, she did comment that she didn’t know how they managed to survive as “no-one buys stuff there”.  I think she meant, “none of her friends at the local bridge club”.

I asked what “Gintaras” meant as many shops had it above the door.  It means “Amber”.   She managed to mention that her husband was actually called Gintaras – his mother though he might have had “amber” coloured hair (but he doesn’t).  She says that she has a 100kg lump of amber at home!

Amber and linen shops are very popular – the flax is grown locally.  Can’t imagine that linen outfits are totally suitable to the Baltic weather though.

We visited the outside of a gothic cathedral, together with the entire population of Japan and South Korea.  First time I really felt we might be on the tourist circuit.  Nearby was a tree covered in knitting.  She described it as “junk”, rather than art.  Each to their own.  To be honest, it was a bit soggy in the drizzle.

We walked through the University area, with a welcome break in the warm university bookshop.  This was worth a visit for the frescoes on the roof.  And the books were interesting as well.  She bought one.  I also finally found some stamps, and so the last of the postcards are now on their way.

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We did visit the university church of St. John.  Wow, what a sight.  Designed in a very unique way, the impression of depth was fantastic.  The colours were so vivid and the gold shone brightly.  The side chapels were just as impressive.

Further on was the President’s work place – no security in sight (and none needed).  That lass has done nae bad for hersel’.

Margherita finished the tour in the main square, outside the cathedral, reminding us that she wasn’t a tourist terrorist, and that she hadn’t been trying to torture us.  Thoroughly enjoyable, if slightly damp.

Tauno then led us into the cathedral which was quite plain in comparison to the university church, but did contain a chapel to the only Lithuanian saint – St. Casimir – which made up for it.

Heading off for a tuna crepe and coffee with Ruth, Karen, Yok Leng and Steve, we then headed our separate ways.

I tried a couple more churches – St. Casimir’s and St. Theresa’s before climbing the steps to see the icon of Mary, the Mother of Mercy, at the Gate of the Dawn.  Small space and no photos allowed.

Wandering back through different parts of the town, I ended up at the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania.  Wandering into the courtyard gave the impression of another museum, and I’m totally museumed out.  There were also far too many restrictions on getting in.

Trotted around the New Arsenal, which is now the national museum, and the Old Arsenal (an art gallery), to find the funicular up the castle hill was not in service.  The slippy stone path was the only option.  Barely pausing for breath, I scampered up the hill (honest), and wiped the rain from my brow to take a few photos of the outstanding views over the city.  One of the towers in the high castle had been restored and had some displays as well as the all important viewing platform.

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Vilnius Old Town, from the Higher Castle

One of the exhibitions was about the Baltic Way – I may have mentioned this before, but it really is a most important event in the history of the Baltic States – where 2 million peopled joined hands in a show of solidarity against the Soviet regime on 23rd August 1989.

Walking down, past the Hill of Three Crosses, I managed to find the post office – otherwise known as Paštas.  Think Sean Connery saying “pasta”.  The last of the postcards have now gone.  Good luck in the lottery.

Jacky’s recommendation of Pinavija, a well rated bakery and coffee shop, was top of the visit list.  Unfortunately my first choice of drink wasn’t available, so they forced me to drink cranberry kissel.  Nope, I’d never heard of it either.  Apparently a sour berry drink, thickened with some kind of starch.  It tasted … sour.  The cake with pink icing was going to make up for it, but it seemed slightly alcoholic.  Not how pink icing should taste.  Different, but nice!  Ish.

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Last stop of the day was to the former KGB building which is now home to the museum of genocide victims.  Nothing like a relaxing end to the day.  No really, it wasn’t.  If I had confined my visit to the exhibitions on two floors, I might have gone away wondering what all the fuss was about.  The subject matter was very similar to the stories I’d read in the other similar museums in Riga and Tallinn.  What made the difference here was the visit to the KGB prison underneath.

From the initial 0.6m² boxes where prisoners were held standing upright, to the 15-in-a-cell where one would now barely be allowed.  The pictures of the hangings carried out by the Nazis, and the solitary confinement by the Soviets.  The padded cells, the interrogation cells and the room where prisoners where held in solitary confinement on water – balancing on a small disc or fall into icy water.

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The partisans that were caught were executed and the bodies laid out in town squares, famers markets and anywhere that might frighten the locals.  The exercise yard and execution chamber were side-by-side.  Videos on loop showed prisoners being shot in the back of the head, body dumped and the blood washed away as the next one was led in.  1038 people died here.

I quickly left the museum and headed back to the hotel.

Freshening up, we headed out by taxi for the final group meal of the trip.  Lokys (the bear) had both wild boar and beaver on the menu.  Choices, choices.  Settled on the wild boar, although Steve was kind enough to share some of his beaver stew with me.  Both had a strong flavour.  Wild boar is to pig, as venison is to beef.  Beaver – tastes like rat.  But very nice, and very strong flavour.

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Tauno, our fantastic guide

We reminisced about the trip, I had the job of thanking Tauno for his help and support, before passing over his tip.  Waffling is my speciality, but I tried to keep it short.  Following that, I managed to persuade the bemused group to pose with my flags for my traditional group photo.

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Goodbyes were said and some took a taxi back to the hotel.  I remembered to request the 3:30am alarm call. OMG.

I can’t believe it’s all over.

Fantastic trip, with the weather only turning bad in the last few days.  Seen so many things, learnt so much and had a relaxing time on an unhurried trip.  Credit must go to Ruth, Karen, Steve, Yok Leng, Becky, Lindsay (finally figured out the spelling), Tauno and Clive for putting up with me.

All three are fantastic countries.  In order of recommendation – Lithuania, Estonia then Latvia.

Assuming there are no travel issues, this will be my last blog until 10th March 2017, when I’m off to Burma / Myanmar. See you then.

Thanks for reading.