Tag Archives: taxi

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 …

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Day 7 – The Road to Mandalay

18 Mar

More papaya, pancake and toast for breakfast at a leisurely pace allowed us all to depart Kalaw for our long road trip to Mandalay.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Road to Mandalay” was read out by Graham in his best Welsh / London vernacular, to much applause.  His additional adlibs helped relate it to our experiences so far.

George was then able to launch into a bit of history of the Anglo-Burmese wars – once again all about control of the sea routes!  The Japanese briefly overran the country in 1942, helped by Burmese Major General Aung San, who was promised that Burman would become an independent country. The British retreated to India.  Unfortunately, they discovered that the Japanese weren’t any better than the British.  Aung San described the Japanese treatment of the Burmese as “like dogs”.  With the help of Aung San the British were back in control in 1945.  Aung San met Clement Attlee (British PM) in London – but had to borrow a coat from India, as he didn’t own one – and negotiated a union of the states making up Myanmar. Full independence was granted in 1948.    But in July 1947, Aung San was assassinated along with 8 or 9 others.

Buddhism was announced as the state religion, which wasn’t popular in the mostly Christian hill states.  Influence from China’s Communists was also unwelcome.  In 1962, the military took control.  At this time, the Shan people, who had also enjoyed autonomy under the British, also had to give up their power.  All the missionaries left the country, which included the running of the schools.  Everything was nationalised.  It started a period of decline.  By 1964, a socialist constitution had been introduced – very similar to communism.

George described the conditions in the 1970’s and 80’s are very similar to now, except for the freedom to talk politics.  The army and police were not noticeable on the street.  In 1988 the people took to the streets, started by the students, caused by the lack of a decent standard of living.  Lots of students were arrested, fled to other countries or hid in the forests.

1990 saw the government change name (but with the same people) and started to open up as a market economy.  Hotels were built, with the help of Russia.  Phones became available – if you had $4000. Cars had a mark-up of 500%.  Foreign travel was permitted, if you had the money.  Deforestation and natural resource extraction started in earnest e.g. Teak to China.

2007 saw the Saffron Revolution, started by the monks, which lasted a few months, again because of the cost of living.  Monks were beaten and imprisoned. This led to multi party elections in 2010, in which “The Lady” (Aung San Suu Kyi) party didn’t take part.  A “civilian” government was formed, consisting of members who used to be in the military!  At the next election of 2015, there was a landslide victory for “The Lady”, but 25% of the members of parliament are assigned by the army.  This led to more investment from foreign countries.

Nowadays, the army is becoming more flexible and discussions are taking place to bring peace to the whole country.  Freedom of expression is much easier, and the tourist industry is booming.

Over 120,000 Rohinga people are in IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps.  The muslim Rohinga have been in the country for several generations, but they don’t have citizenship.  Most have immigrated from Bangladesh. Conflict erupted and the killing started – stoked due to the political situation.  “The Lady” kept quiet on the topic, because she was in a lose-lose situation.  Long term, it’s likely that they will be given citizenship, but not be recognised as an ethnic grouping from Myanmar – more as a foreign minority.

We had passed a truck crash on the side of the road – the cab was completely crushed.  Worrying. After many downhill bends, we stopped briefly at a service station – to cool the brakes with a water hose.  Everyone was doing it.  Another one added to the list of possible ways to die in Myanmar!  During this stop, we witnessed a young novice monk with a gun.  Sometimes pointing it, but mostly trying to hide it from our cameras.  We’re not sure if it was really or imitation.  Looked real enough to us!  Another one on the list!

Although yesterday’s blog was entitled 20 ways to die in Myanmar, I didn’t actually name them … so far we have :

  1. Too many chillies
  2. Any other food
  3. Attacked by dogs
  4. Mosquitos / Malaria
  5. Snakes
  6. Toilets
  7. Domestic plane crash
  8. Train rocking off the rails
  9. Drowning
  10. Engine fume poisoning
  11. Germs from ice
  12. Germs from glasses
  13. Burnt by the sun
  14. Upsetting the Army
  15. Talking politics in public
  16. Road traffic accident as a pedestrian
  17. Road traffic accident in a vehicle
  18. Bus brake failure & cliffs
  19. Monks with guns
  20. Faulty lifts

Back on the bus, the diatribe continued with more information on “The Lady” and her house arrest and rise to power.  Also the former UN Secretary General, U Thant who helped in the Cuban Bay of Pigs crisis.  In 1974, U Than’s body and coffin were taken by students because he wasn’t granted a state funeral.  The army blew up the Student Union when they didn’t return the body.  Not the best way to make friends and influence people!

We continued through the rural countryside at a sedate pace.  Small children sat idly by the roadside or entertaining themselves in the dirt, and we saw all manner of bamboo and brick shacks, carts, produce, bamboo fences, motorcycles and colour passing by.

The bus stopped briefly at a shrine to a previous governor of the province, and the assistant driver jumped out to pay respects and came back with some leaves – “Eugena”?  “Nats” are the (non buddhist) spirits that are also still worshipped in this area.  People will have two shrines – one to the Nats and one to Buddha “just in case”!

There was much evidence of road construction and we passed through a toll booth to help finance this.

We stopped off at a pot seller and two young kids were watching cartoons on their tablet.  They were good at English (even at the age of about 7 or 8) and we found out all about Iron Man, Spiderman and Batman from them.  Pokémon and Power Rangers toys were scattered about, but they seemed most concerned at the lack of light (electricity).  They were very keen to use the phrase “See you later” and we eventually got the hint and left.  At that age, they learn English from their parents.  Currently it’s the 3 months of the summer holiday (March – June) which is why they weren’t in school.

More from George – this time on funerals.  Gambling is banned, but they are allowed to play cards at funerals!  Catholics are now allowed to be cremated.   In related news, healthcare is available privately or relatively cheaply from the government, but traditional medicine is still widely used.

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We drove on, past some man made lakes to the junction town of Meiktila, where we stopped for lunch.  Almost everyone took the chips option.  Mostly on their owns.  I added prawns in a lemon sauce.  Not all of the prawns were edible, in that they had a few too many hard bits included, however the lemon sauce was fantastic.

Back in the bus, we drove on to the highway to Mandalay.  This was dual carriageway i.e. two lanes, which the driver managed to straddle most of the way to our destination.  Every so often he had to pick a lane to filter through the toll booths.  The road wasn’t exactly busy, and he was able to reach speeds of up to 60mph.  I think this was more limited by the brakes than the law.

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On the approach to Mandalay, I could see that every hillock was covered in a Golden Stupa.  Mandalay is the religious centre of the country and there are more monks and monasteries here that anywhere else in the country.  However, driving through the second biggest city in Myanmar to our hotel, we noticed that it was mostly a very modern place with large shopping centres and a buzz of neon and moving LEDs.

The Hotel Marvel was on the 4th floor, above the train station – probably in the same manner that the Dundee Train Station will look when it’s eventually finished.  I hope it’s as posh.  Once we all squeezed into the lifts, we were offered orange and papaya juice and a refreshing towel before the bell boys fought to take our bags to our rooms, show us there, turned on the air con and then came back later to offer a turn down service.  The hotel foyer also featured a spa, restaurant and enormous snooker/billiard table.  The famed karaoke bar was thankfully far away.  I could see the trains arriving from my balcony though.  Hopefully the noise won’t be too bad.

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Managed a quick snooze and then the chicken and fried rice on the hotel terrace.

We’d booked a trip to see the marionette puppets, so we jumped in a couple of taxis to take the 7 of us across night time Mandalay to the tiniest of theatres.  The lights dimmed, the band paused from tuning their instruments incessantly, and continued playing the same thing.  The curtain rose – just a little, and a harpist started the show.  Followed by a dancer.  Eventually the puppets appeared, each time preceded by some sort of story in English, but it was quite hard to follow.  I do remember that there was a horse, a monkey, an alchemist and a snake appear at several points.  Occasionally, the curtain would rise higher revealing the puppet masters themselves.  Some of the puppets had a violent fight on stage, and the masters had a few words as well.  It was unclear who was doing the singing – there might have been a cat being strangled out the back.  It was entertaining, if not necessarily repeatable.  I really should learn.  The seats were the most uncomfortable wooden slat type.  The redeeming features were that it finished bang on time and when the 85 year old puppet master’s master was introduced.  I even got to shake his hand afterwards.  He wisnae bad a’ a’.

After a slight detour via a closed bar, we end up back at the hotel bar, trying hard not to hear the karaoke from the 7th floor every time someone opened a door up there.

It’s a busy day tomorrow.  Here’s hoping it will be as enjoyable as the rest …

Day 1 (Officially) – Burny, burny, taxi, taxi (In Yangon)

12 Mar

A relaxed morning resulted in a rush to breakfast at 9:45am – still only 3:15am UK time.  Four other members of group were sitting there – Gail & John has been joined by their son, Tom, who was travelling the world (heading to New Zealand) and their friend, Ethna.

I managed to find chicken, fish and some kind of thick noodle, whilst avoiding the fried eggs or anything else that looked western.  My only concession was toast & strawberry jam.  Who could resist?

After we compared itineraries, we went our seperate ways, only to meet up again at the National Museum – a short walk from the hotel.  Unfortunately for all of us, the museum was closed.  So said the sign on the gate.  But you could also walk in, and I discovered a uniformed man sitting in the shade outside telling folks like me that the museum was closed because of the full moon.  So, let’s run that through once again – they are paying you to turn up to tell people to go away, when they could have just locked the gate?  Hmmm!

I tagged on to the family group as we headed north towards the “People’s Park” – an area of some trees, either dead or over watered grass and lots of locals hogging the only shade available.  Ethna was a bit displeased about this – bearing in mind that her home in Montreal, Canada was currently at -16°C, and we were at 36°, feels like 45°C!

We parted shortly afterwards – they went to investigate an inflatable Santa Claus, whilst I headed to the House of Memories.  Now a piano bar and restaurant, that formerly housed the office of Major General Aung San – the father of Aung San Su Kyi and also known as the father of modern Burma. He was assassinated on 19th July 1947 – 6 months before independence was gained from Britain in 1948.  He was pretty much the Prime Minister at the time (but that wasn’t his title).

I tried hard not to sweat on the menu as I made my choice of pork and mango pickle curry, with some refreshing ginger ale. The ice in the drink and the air conditioned old house finally did their trick – helped on by an ice cream.  Thankfully just finished as the large tour groups started to arrive on their buses.  Very decent at £9 (including two drinks) – 15,000 khats.

Afterwards, I toured the historical colonial style villa with its genuine antique furniture and many old pictures of the Aung San family.  His wife was Khin Kyi.  Or so he said.

I decided against a long walk in the afternoon sun, and instead a taxi delivered me to a point furthest from the hotel – the Botataung Pagoda.  Outside was a throng of locals and an open entrance.  I headed towards the door, but the Tourist Police ushered me instead into an air conditioned building next door.  Apparently foreigners have to buy tickets.  Hey ho.  Some very nice ladies insisted on taking my photo – for the ticket – and laughed loudly as I spent time wiping the sweat from my brow and fixing my hair.  You’ve got to look good for any photo.  The final ticket was a masterpiece, with my very fine photo, even if I do say so myself!

Heading back to the entrance, I was robbed of my shoes and socks and ushered through airport style security.  Well, it was there – I just nodded at the guard and walked around the gate anyway.  He wasn’t at all bothered.  All the locals were religiously having their handbags searched though.  There are some perks of being a recognisable tourist!

I joined a single file queue until I had sight of Buddha’s first sacred hair relic.  It was surrounded by gold and many jewels.  There was a bit of jostling at this, and it was the only point in the day when I had to reach down and check my wallet was still there.  Personal space please.

I then followed others through a minor maze of gold plated corridors, laid out in triangles, with doorways halfway along the wall, and people praying (or using their mobiles) in the corners.  On the small outside wall of each pie slice, was a cabinet displaying various gold or other precious items.  All had large grills seperating you from seeing them properly.  One had a further cage and padlock on top of that.  Not really sure what was behind, but most people walked quickly past.  At the end of the maze, I headed out of the stupa and into the grounds of the pagoda.

With bear feet, the ground was incredibly hot and I headed towards the shade.  I was met there by a man who started chatting.  He was called Tin, and was obviously wanting to be my guide.  He said that his [–insert random family member here–] had been trained by Scottish Police and that POLICE stood for Polite, Obedient, Loyal, Intelligent, Courageous and Efficient.  I immediately doubted that any relation of his had been trained in Scotland.

Anyway, he walked me through the Buddhist customs when visiting a pagoda.  Based on my birth day (Monday), I had to use a specific shrine (facing East) and he asked me to pour 5 cups of water on the Buddha (as a Christian) – once for Jesus, once for the bible, once for the bishop, once for your parents, and once for a teacher.  As a Monday child, I also had a small statue of a tiger at my feet which got the same treatment.  The cooling effect of the water splashing on my feet was fantastic.  I could have done this all day.  And it began to look like I would … as Tin asked me the birth days of my parents and siblings (he had a book to look up the days).  We visited each appropriate shine and watered them all.  Thankfully, after 4, he gave up.  They obviously can’t cope with large families.

He then showed me a Buddha with LED lights incorporated into the gold shrine.  Also, Buddha’s footprint. And 4 divas(?) representing East, West, South and North.  I had to have my picture taken with them all several times – for each member of the family.  Next time, I’m saying I’m an only child.

Did I mention that the entire surface of this pagoda is made of heat reflecting tiles.  They stole my shoes at the entrance and now expect me to literally burn the soles of my feet whilst contemplating Buddha’s work.  What kind of religion is this?  The Catholics would have had some place selling you feet shaped ice packs.

He wrote out “horoscopes” for my family members listing their planet, animal, good direction, lucky number, amulet and sleeping bed head direction.  Quite specific.  Thankfully my parents had the same bed direction, or that could have proved tricky.  Now I’ve just got to make sure the bed faces west.  As we walked away, the burning surface of the tiles got the better of me, and a water patch and my big toe had a disagreement as to direction, leaving my toe the worse off.  It hurts!

Another large Buddha showed Knowledge and Awareness – the example he gave where these traits were necessary was crossing the road.  Having seen the traffic in Yangon, I get his point.  It also applies to walking on hot tiles.  I discovered that the pathway tiles were not so reflective, but keeping up with Tin required not using the pathways.

Whilst I was almost Googling for an ambulance, he finally found some shade – admittedly in the middle of a building site – but at least it was cool.  The feet were now black.

He showed me a WWII tank track left over by the British.  It was in the shade, so I was genuinely interested.  Also a few statues of Buddha standing under a tree (he was a smart guy!) and passing on his wisdom to a former king and some monks.

Last on the list of the pagoda tour was a trip to the turtle pool.  Lots of the blighters not doing much.  Cute though.  And cool.

Tin and I parted ways, having insisted that in Buddhism he would normally get [– insert double the amount I gave him –].  I caved in.  He had been very good.  But it cost more than a meal!

Retreiving my shoes, I briefly wandered down the waterfront – almost as nice as Dundee’s! – until the thundering trucks from the industrial port made me change my mind.  I found the main post office, British Embassy and the Strand Hotel – 12 blocks down.  By this point, with 38 blocks to go, I found a taxi and appreciated the speedy return to the hotel for a shower and freshen up.  Sun tan started.  Sweating in cold rooms commenced.

At 5pm we met the Explore group in the hotel foyer.  As well as the tour guide, known as George, the group now consists of [John, Gail, Ethna, Tom], [Karen, John], [Graham, Claire, Rosemary], Cassandra, Julia, Manny, Albery (?) and me.

George managed to pad a 20 minute intro into a 50 minute marathon.  At least 3 people nodded off.  But they all had partners who were doing the listening anyway.  Considering that some of them were just off a plane, I think they did very well!

We then almost all headed to a local restaurant for dinner.  Missing the “Class” restaurant, we headed to a greasy spoon across the road.  Food was cheap and cheerful, with picture menus.  Not the best so far.  I did manage a Yangon speciality – hot and spicy noodles with chicken (easy on the spicy).  The prawn and pork that came with it were obvious extras.  And a banana smoothie.  Karen had travelled extensively and had brought John along for the first time in their 7 months of dating.  He was staggered to hear that the only hotel pool was several days away and that he wouldn’t see a beach for weeks.  He also doesn’t like rice.  Karen must be really special!  Great couple though!

Making my excuses early, I headed back to the hotel and starting preparing for the early start tomorrow.

I saying preparing, but that did include Haribo …

(WiFi not liking photos, so they may be added later)

 

Days 0 & 1 – Travelling, Sleeping & Rugby

11 Mar

Must start with a special thanks to my brother-in-law (and sister) who are currently car sitting for me.  In return for a couple of weeks of Prius showroom display quality in their drive, they also got the pleasure of dropping me off at the airport.

Glasgow airport seems to go on forever!  Managed a lunch at elevenses time.  My stomach isn’t going to like me today.  A mostly uneventful Emirates flight to Dubai (DXB) happened smoothly.  Very nice plane.  Plenty space, lots of films on offer, and an individual socket to charge my phone.  Not only that but they give you free WiFi – well 10Mb or 2 hours, whichever comes first.  I can tell you that a smartphone gets through 10Mb in far less than 2 hours – about 10 minutes actually.  Despite being Scottish, I paid the $1.00 fee to get a further 500Mb for the rest of the flight.  At least I hope that was the cost.

The air stewardess did manage to drop water and ice (not destined for me) all over me.  After many cloths and an apology, the next one asked me if I wanted a drink.  “Water, with ice please.  In a glass”. Was met with a large smile.

A fantastic chicken curry kept me going through three films – Fences, A Street Cat Named Bob and 95% of Jackie (JFK’s wife, not the the DC’s magazine). Despite not landing for another 30 minutes, and with only 7 minutes of Jackie left, they whipped the headphones away. (It’s OK, don’t panic, I finished it on the tarmac whilst waiting for the second flight to Yangon to take off!)

Arrived in Dubai to a “remote landing strip”.  The bus to take us to the terminal should have been another plane!  As a DXB first timer, it was a pleasantly sized terminal.  Gate B22 was very close to a McD’s, and I sampled my second of the year.  A very nice employee took time to describe the differences from the UK menu to me.

Confusingly the next flight was going to both Yangon, Myanmar and Hanoi, Vietnam.  I wondered if, like trains, you had to sit in a certain section to get to the correct destination, but it thankfully turned out that everyone was going to Yangon first.  The couple next to me were French with early signs of Alzheimers disease.  No seriously, they were.  Filling in the landing forms (in English) turned into a real problem for them, but they were travelling in a large group, and several passes of the bits of paper, up and down the plane, got the whole group through the process.

Managed to watch the Pierce Brosnan film “I.T.” – from another script writer who obviously only uses a manual typewriter. Also stuck on “The Producers (1967)” and missed the middle section due to visiting sandman issues.  I did wake up to the sight (near the end of the film) of a large number of folks singing “Springtime for Hitler”, whilst dancing about in Nazi uniforms.  I could literally feel the tension from the French folks sitting next to me.  Someone will have to tell me how it ends.

Before we landed (only a few minutes late), breakfast of noodles, chilli sauce and chicken was served (in those relatively decreasing quantities).  The chicken was not immediately visible.  Should have gone for the scrambled egg – at least that’s guaranteed chicken content.

Very modern airport in Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, but there were some further building works taking place.

At passport control, with only two queues out of 20 for “Foreigners” – defined as not Myanmar citizens (8 desks) and not ASEAN (South East Asia) citizens (another 8 desks) – we were a very long queue.  Thankfully someone had employed someone with a brain, and we were quickly shuttled into other queues.  No problems, and no speaking required, during the process of being admitted to the country.  They took my picture.  That’ll be another one for the CIA to track me.

Walking straight past the “customs” desk, where a dis-interested man collected our forms, we met our transfer driver.  Ethna (pronounced Etna) was the first of the Explore group I met – she was travelling with Gail and John who were strangely whisked away in a different transfer.  We waited for Cassandra, the third person on his list.  And waited.  And waited.  After many phone calls, we gave up.  Did manage to change some money – the first place would only change if I wanted US$5 worth.  Very strange for a currency exchange company – they had no money.  Even in this country, I don’t think that’ll get me far.  The booth next door was much more helpful and gave me enough notes to start a small campfire.  1000 = 60p.  Must remember.

Stepping outside the airport terminal and the heat hit instantly.  Only 34°C, or so.  Our driver tried to introduce some phrases to us, but when asked any other question, the answer was always “10 miles” – apparently the distance from the airport to the hotel.  A short (30 mins?) ride in a minibus , with a free bottle of boiling water, took us to the Panda Hotel where we were met which a much more refreshing welcome drink (and a WiFI password!).

Checked in, tipped the bell boy, washed the travel off and collapsed on the bed (having made sure the air con was on and working).  6 hours later and I awoke to remember that it was time for the England v Scotland 6 Nations rugby game, and that my stomach was now wanting food.  Devices charged, using one of the available wide assortment of electrical sockets, I ventured out to the Fat Ox in a taxi.

The Fat Ox was the only “British / Scottish” bar according to Google /Facebook.  As it turns out, it had recently been taken over by English owners.  Getting there was easy – the hotel offered to get me a taxi, and a woman for my room.  I only took them up on the former.  Ah, the dangers/pleasures of travelling solo.  For £1.80, I got a 15 minute taxi ride through the streets of Yangon.  Floodlit billboards, but not a lot of neon.  Overall, very dark and quiet.  The driver had to ask for directions to the place, but I used Google Maps to assure him that he was at the correct location.  Only a discrete LED sign advertising the 6 Nations showed the location, and on entering, it did indeed remind me of ever other pub that I’ve ever been in, pre smoking ban.  France were busy humping Italy quietly in the corner.  So I ordered a mutton curry and pulled up a stool.

A local Myanmar lager was pleasantly chilled and, unusually, I could indeed have drunk many of those.  An older couple from London – Gerry and his Malaysian wife – pulled up a chair beside me, and she was obviously rugby mad.  “Come on Scotland”, was all I could muster, as she started briefing me on the English team selection.

The mutton curry was delicious – just pleasantly spiced and not too hot.  I checked that it was sheep and not goat, as it is common to be described as mutton here.

After a short while, Chris, Briggsy, staggered in – he’d been in the 50th street pub to watch the previous game.  He was obviously a regular, and throughout the match we chatted about all things British, Scottish, Army and Brexit.  He was originally an army officer – the Ghurkas! – but had spent many an hour defending his squaddies in a Paisley court after they had been accused of slashing folks.  He was currently working as the country manager for a Dubai company, doing – as the other locals said – not very much.  He reckons that without heavy industry, the only sales opportunity here is for consumer white goods!  As a regular, he had his own bottle of Bombay Sapphire behind the bar (with his name on it) – cheaper than individual drinks!  Every so often, the loud cry went up, “more tonic please!”

John, the bar manager in an English Rugby shirt, interrupted the gentle click of pool table balls to introduce himself.  Dave, one of the 4 owners also waltzed in occassionally.  Everyone was very friendly – even the drunk English guy who had just moved there last week.  John and Dave had words with him regarding his apparently obnoxious shouting and pointing.  Nothing that everyone in The Glens wouldn’t expect as a regular occurrence. Not here though.  Quiet and civilised was all that was tolerated.  Very English.

Didn’t actually see too much of the game, as the Briggsy conversation was very interesting.  The 4 rum sours – apparently very traditional – also helped to transfer my attention.  However, I believe we got humped 61-21.  Enough about that.

I escaped at the final whistle to find that at 12:45am, the only things on the streets were dogs and taxi drivers.  The second taxi driver got the idea that I was setting the price, not him, when I walked away.  We agreed on the same price as the outward journey, and I was quickly whisked through the deserted streets to the hotel, avoiding as many dogs as possible.  Am now doubting the definition of “mutton” again.

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Almost as bad as smoking in the hotel lift – No Durian fruit!

A free day tomorrow, until I meet the Explore group at 5pm, so with a few Briggsy suggestions under my belt, I think I’ll manage a visit to the House of Memories.

However, tomorrow is another rum sour …

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.

Day 1 – An introduction to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

7 May

Arriving early in the morning, meant that breakfast lasting until 11am was a great idea. I made it for 10:40am after a few hours sleep that were only interrupted by housekeeping trying to make up the room. Barely used it deary.

The restaurant wasn’t exactly crowded. In fact I was the only one in the ornate,  heavily decorated hexagonal room. Eggs, bread, mini pizzas (which would have been OK at 7am) and some meat in the the shape of small balls. Decent enough.  Wide selection of yogurts, cereal and cold meats and cheese.  Peach or pomegranate juice.

Read up on Ashgabat from the only travel guide I could find. Studied the map intently. Couldn’t quite open eyes fully yet though. Braved the outside. Surprisingly OK temperature,  but it was early. Warnings of 40 degrees later.

Surrendered my passport to the authorities for some box ticking.

Chatted with Carolyn who didn’t seem to have had much sleep.  In a past life she looked after children and farmers. The other two couples on the trip are apparently farmers, so they may need to watch out.

Max showed us to the local corner shop and we had a browse. Lots of sweets on offer despite a warning in the tour guide that there wouldn’t be.

Also browsed the local hotel shop which was offering camel hair scarves (70%) for £15. No problem finding fridge magnets either.

Agreed to meet later to have a walk into town and food together. But before that I managed to indulge in a siesta.

The hotel is right next to the circus – not a big top, but a huge round building.  Wandered around the outside in my shorts with white legs proudly on display.  Got a few stares from the few locals that were out. It’s like a ghost town. Does anyone actually live here?

Joined Max and Carolyn and walked slowly into town trying to stick to the shady spots where possible. It wasn’t always possible and I think the temperature was touching 38°C by this point. I am developing a pinkish glow.

We arrived in a park with fountains and statues of men in strange hats.  The live women also wear strange head gear.  Lots of junior jehovahs witnesses walking home from school.  It may be a Muslim country but figure hugging green dresses seem to be de rigour for all the young woman.  As Max delightfully pointed out, the only other people wearing shorts were 13 year old girls.

In the centre, the streets were earily quiet. Four lane highways have the odd car only.  Preppie would have been so easy. (You need to be a certain age to understand that one.)

We headed to the Russian Market where I asked Max if it would be OK to take photos.  No sooner had he said yes, and I did, than a rather stern looking man supervised the deletion of the aforementioned photo from my camera. Oh well, the photo count may be less than normal.

On leaving the market I asked one of the 4 souvenir stalls if they had a flag.  Two minutes later he was back with a flag at the agreed price. He did refuse a photo with him though. Change was in fridge magnets.  An unexpected currency.

We walked a bit more, being careful to avoid showing cameras to any uniformed person. In particular, photos of the multi golden domes of the presidential palace were strictly out of bounds.  I did chance my arm by asking a policeman if I could take a photo of an as yet unidentified monument in the middle of the road with horses on the top.  He said yes! Wow.

Max led us to an outdoor cafe with music blaring – karaoke style. Efficent waitresses showed us to seats underneath a mulberry tree. A cat prowled the ground. Misters doused water at regular intervals over everyone and their food.

We browsed the menu whilst the kitchen set themselves on fire.  Smoke billowed everywhere.

I ended up going for a traditional Turkmenistan meal – Kakmach, which was very nice pieces of beef with onions, soft and raw, in oil. Tasted better than it sounds. Max introduced us to some dip for the bread. As the food was served, the mulberry tree started to shed. Hundreds of tiny balls of sticky green went everywhere.  Into the salad, beer, rice and dip. As it continued, other tables asked for umbrellas to stick in the plastic tables. Our table had no hole.

As we had just about contained the damage, the rain started. The other diners rushed under cover leaving us as the only table to take the brunt of the brief storm.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed the meal. Despite also suffering chip envy from one of the neighbouring tables.

Trying to catch a taxi back proved a little harder than the guide book would suggest.  Official yellow cabs drove on by with their light on. Eventually a random car stopped and took us back to the hotel.  3 people, 5 minutes – £1.20 (TM$6). That’s the official local price – no tourist surcharge.

Although Max was off to the airport in the early hours to pick up the rest of the group, I persuaded Carolyn that a Turkmen vodka to finish the night was a good idea.  A random woman at the bar suggested shots followed by apple juice. The waitress delivered these to the table not quite believing that they were for Carolyn and I.

Kharasho. Spasiba.