Tag Archives: speech

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!


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!


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.


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.

DSCN2678 (2)

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 15 – Baku, Azerbaijan

21 May

What a busy day.

Started off with a last minute rush from breakfast to bus. Don’t want to waste any valuable sleeping time. Toast again.

Our new bus captain took us uphill to the new symbol of Baku – the three Flame Towers. These are glass covered skyscrapers in the shape of flames. Window cleaners were busy working on trolleys and one unlucky chap had abseiled from the very top. Not on your nelly.

Our guide, Balash, took us past the new parliament building to Martyr’s Lane where he told us of the Azeri Major General who led the Soviet troops to victory in the Battle of Stalingrad (WW2). Azerbaijan seems to have been the subject of many takeovers, from the Persians to the Russians and has only recently reasserted itself as an independent country.

More recent headstones with pictures commemorated the 19 year olds who lost their lives in the 1991/92 struggle for independence.

Balash told the story of the capture of an important German general and the suggestion to swap him for Stalin’s own son. This was refused by Stalin as he would not swap a low ranking soldier for a general – “all his soldiers were his children!”

He also told the story of Hitler’s 1940 birthday cake in the shape of Europe. Hitler cut himself a piece containing Baku, as it was all he wanted – access to the oil of the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan was providing 80% of the Soviet oil during WW2. Hitler ordered his bomber pilots to avoid Baku as he wanted it intact.

Also in this area was a stone to commemorate the British soldiers who died 1918-19, including two Scots from the Seaforth and Cameron Highlanders.

I managed to snap a cuckoo thanks to the keen eyesight of the birders. Bit bigger than a pigeon – who knew?

Up on top of the hill provided great views of Baku and we then started our descent down a long flight of stairs. These were being used by young wrestlers in training. Up and down and up and down. Apparently it’s called exercise.

Moving on to the Old City, we had a demonstration from Balash of archery through the narrow slits of the city walls and how to pour boiling oil on your enemies. If there was further resistance, a full size catapult was also present. This may cause a few problems if used during the forthcoming F1 Grand Prix. The city walls have been recently restored to their almond coloured limestone brilliance.

Nearby was the chess school attended by Gary Kasparov and several other chess grand masters.

We headed into the Shirvanshah’s Palace Complex. The walls were marked with gun shot holes from the Armenian genocide carried out in 1918.

We strolled around the various parts of the complex – Tomb of the Shah, residential building & throne room. They made good use of modern technology to recreate the missing bits. The ceramic tiles were stripped from the walls and transported to St Petersburg. In their place a projected image gave a feel for what it would have looked like.

One of the more interesting exhibits were the mustache trainer and keeper which were used to keep a mustache in shape during sleeping.

We also stopped off at tombs of the chief scientist, a mosque, a bath house and the family tomb. The pistachio tree in a courtyard was also of interest.

We found the studio and workshop of Ali Shamsi, a famous artist with a show in London next week. Wouldn’t rush to buy any of his stuff but it was interesting to see the bare foot artist in person. He was happy to do autographs.

Lunch was open air and consisted of a new dish – khingal – which was pasta, oil and minced lamb with yoghurt and pourable “cow” cheese. Much more delicious than it sounds. Also tried Qutabs – thin pancakes with meat filling.

Had to try on a few hats as we moved through the old city. The sign next to the wooden pomegranate ornaments apparently said “don’t touch”. Ah well. Passed many souvenir shops, including one selling flying carpets!

We arrived at the Maiden Tower – no agreement on why it’s called this, how old it is, or even what it was used for. However the 8 floors had some interesting exhibits, even if the top had disappointing views and a large crowd of young school children. When the building was restored they had to move out swifts that were nesting there. By all accounts more effort was put into this than strictly necessary with international ornithologists drafted in to sing sweetly at them in a new area, and shout loudly at the tower. Or something like that.

After a quick visit to the bank by Max on our behalf, we drove to the Heydar Aliyev Center, designed by Zaha Hadid, in the shape of Marilyn Munro’s dress. Only slightly spoiled by the multicoloured teletubby animals on the lawn outside.

Inside was worryingly how I imagine the new Dundee V&A to be. Lots of space, few exhibits. More hats, carpets, musical instruments and national dress are joined by models of all the new buildings in Azerbaijan.


The last tourist stop was to Atashgah Temple for Zoroastrianism fire worship. Several dodgy mannekins stared back at me. Need to do some more reading, although Balash did a great job with his tablet photos, presenting the important information. And video of Hitler cutting his birthday cake.

We managed to tear ourselves away from the fire photos and stopped off at the railway station to show Carolyn where she would be catching her 13 hour train to Georgia tomorrow.

After a brief clean up in the hotel, we headed back to Fountain Square, this time with fountains, for our final group meal.

Managed to take my signature flag photo with all three flags, although Max has a definite photo phobia.

The menu consisted of a 135 page menu, with each page featuring an exact photo of one dish. The Khan kebab seemed to consist of liver kebabs, with a pomegranate sauce and chips. Max even splashed out on desert and coffee for the first time. Chocolate tea was available, to a mixed reception.

George did his very best to sum up the trip and remind us of all we have done, whilst thanking Max for his hard work and passing on his tip. I was officially upgraded to apprentice farmer and offered a summer placement in Dorset. I suspect that may involve some back breaking work.

On the way back we stopped off at a local supermarket for some pomegranate sauce and emptied the place of it all. Baxter’s soup also available for £4.30 a can!

Fantastic day. Fantastic country. Fantastic trip. Fantastic group!