A Travellerspoint blog

February 2016

Thailand: Chiang Mai

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After the 2 days of character-building in Ayutthaya we were happy to be on our way. We (excuse the pun) wolfed down some food at a café opposite the train station and after a bit of sweaty waiting around we were on our sleeper train; car 11, the 'lady' car.

We had booked two uppers (top bunks) opposite each other. As the train had started in Bangkok, the car was already pretty full and most people had got in their bunks and shut their curtains. While we were still figuring out where to stuff our bags a smiley gentleman asked if we wanted to order dinner and breakfast. Even though we had only just eaten we got carried away with the idea of being served a hot meal on a sleeper train and said yes to both. Shortly after we were served with our rather large meals (served on a nearby cubby-hole table) that neither of us could finish.

The train was very clean and well organised and the bunks were fairly roomy and comfortable. There were curtains for privacy, your own personal reading light and two weird seatbelts at both ends of the bed that we think were supposed to prevent you from rolling off. The toilets too were clean and well-equipped and without sounding too misandrist we think this might have been due to coach being women only.

The only struggle we had was actually getting into our beds. There were very narrow metal ladders at one end that were built into the side of the 'cabins' and for someone as ungainly and inelegant as I, ascending to my chamber while the train was in motion was not easy. In the end we came up with a better technique which involved using the ladders on both sides (one leg on each) and then diving in at the most opportune moment. Picture a fat starfish trying to walk up a drain.

We both managed to get some shut eye; thankfully the train wasn't very wobbly and there weren't any obvious noise pollutants. We were woken at 6am for breakfast which, like dinner the night before, was a pretty hearty meal. Lauren particularly enjoyed the teeny tiny orange juices that were included. Soon after our unnecessary feeding we rubbed the sleep from our eyes, packed up our belongings and squirmed our way through the narrow train doors onto the platform at Chiang Mai.

Faced with the familiar barrage of taxi touts we selected the only female we could see and were chucked in the back of a large open mini-van come tuk tuk with a load of other passengers. We were the last to be dropped off and, not one to miss an opportunity the taxi tout lady tried in vain to sell us some tours to the various animal sights that blight the region. All sorts of wildlife activities can be enjoyed in Chiang Mai; from the well-known elephant riding to stroking tigers to playing with monkeys. Needless to say we weren't sold on the idea.

We arrived at our hostel, as usual, early in the morning. After waiting on the front terrace for a while the host, Fern, came to our aid and told us check-in was at 1pm but we could leave our bags behind her desk. After watching us essentially use her patio as a changing room come bathroom come wardrobe, Fern offered us a room upgrade for only £4 - a room that was double the size, with an en suite bathroom, an actual bed instead of foam mattresses on the floor AND that was ready now. We gladly accepted the offer only for her to then wash all of our laundry (3 weeks worth), dry and fold it and give it back to us a few hours later. Needless to say we were the happiest little lesbians in Thailand.

For lunch we found a sweet if not trendy veggie café called Imm Aim where we lapped up a number of whole-food dishes and where I also bought some funky homemade woven thread earrings. On our way to the old town of Chiang Mai we stumbled across an amazing 70s second-hand clothes shop where I very selflessly restrained myself and only bought one dress. I then proceeded to buy my third pair of sunglasses (yes I lost my second pair).

One of the things we needed to tick off our list was booking our journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang in Laos. We'd done our research and knew that the trip would involve a minibus through Chiang Rai to the border, a night's stay in the border town of Chang Khong, then a boat along the Mekong for 2 days with a night's stay in Pak Beng. We got a number of quotes from travel agents for the standard, basic journey that most budget backpackers book; approx. £35 each (not including the night in Pak Beng). Being good little travellers we wanted to look into the boat company that all the travel agents were using (Aya) and sleep on the decision. To cut a long story short, after reading some awful reviews and blogs and weighing up our options we decided to 'splurge' and book a more luxury journey with a company called Smile River Cruises. For the 3 days it cost £160 each and this included a few meals, a night in Chang Khong and Pak Beng, a private chauffeur to the border that stopped at 3 sights along the way, visits to two local hill-tribe villages and the Pak Ou caves and, most importantly, included a private river-boat with proper seats and toilets and room to move around and appreciate the views.
Decision made, we felt like we'd mildly betrayed our fellow backpackers and our own imposed budget but we were excited to get the VIP experience.

That evening we checked out the Sunday walking market where, feeling newly skint we resisted buying any knick-knacks. Lauren did however find some room for 2 spring rolls an 3 samosas for her dinner. I wasn't feeling too great (slippery slope from this point) so I just had a a rather massive corn on the cob for tea.

We were up early the next day to ensure we could get booked in at Chiang Mai Women's Correctional Institution for our foot massage. We managed to get an appointment for early afternoon so to burn some time we had breakfast at an upmarket veggie hotel we'd almost stayed at (but was too expensive).

Our foot massages were very good and we both felt positive about giving our money to a space that provides an opportunity for incarcerated women to learn a skill they can then use when thy 'get out'. I spoke to one of the officers at the centre and she said (under her breath) that around 80% of the prisoners working as massage therapists were jailed as a result of drug crimes. Consider this quote from Thai Customs website; "Violators of laws related to illicit drugs, e.g., having and holding for use, or being a producer, seller, or transporter are subject to the death sentence". Yeah, it's pretty serious stuff. Although we were certainly glad the prisoners at the centre clearly weren't dead, I couldn't help but wonder whether these young, polite and intelligent women had had their lives completely fucked for the sake of a spliff, or some cocaine or, maybe even for covering for someone else. Things like this make me appreciate the UK.

That evening we walked to the Maya shopping centre; a massive fancy mall with five floors of shopping and eating adventures to be had. We ventured to the cinema floor where we saw Joy with Jennifer Lawrence in the leading role. Unfortunately the film was a load of crap, but the BBQ/caramel popcorn was amazing. Much like Myanmar, there was a short video before the film started where the audience showed their allegiance to the country and it's King. We were shown photos of the King through the years (with all of his dogs in weird poses) as well happy New Year cards. We, like the rest of the theatre, stood up to show our respect. No way I'm going to end up giving tourists massages.

The following day we thought we should probably check out some of the temples on offer; so we did. We saw a few interesting temples, one of which housed a crystal and a marble Buddha - both over 2000 years old. After walking for a few hours the heat (and period cramp in my case) got the better of us and we retired to a place called Catta-café, which, aptly so, is a café with lots of cats in it. We enjoyed a cat fur covered brownie and some cat fur covered drinks while stroking and playing with some very cute cats.

For dinner we found a Japanese veggie place called Greendays (like my favourite café on Lark Lane in Liverpool) on the other side of town. We travelled by tuk tuk and as we approached it was immediately obvious that this area (which we think is just essentially the centre) is very Westernised. It actually felt like a slightly scaled down version of Bangkok. There were strips of bars and pubs with English names and Ping Pong shows and tat shops although it definitely had a classier more metropolitan edge. The Western clientèle appeared to be older white men as opposed to 20-something boys and girls out for a good time.

The food was lovely and once again we ordered way too much and for pudding we got pedicures on one of the strips. We were a little disappointed that a dry skin scrape and scrub wasn't included but we didn't complain. At least we got to people-watch and get a feel for the disdain the Thai girls working there felt at their shitty jobs.

Back at the guesthouse we Skyped my Mum and I tended to my ever-worsening stomach bug (trips to the toilet were involved). As the sickness took it's hold, we both thanked the lord we had booked a fancier trip down the Mekong...

Posted by advensha 01:23 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand chiang_mai travelling north_thailand pedicure cat_cafe tummy_bug upset_stomach Comments (1)

Thailand: Ayutthaya

sunny 34 °C
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The local train from Hua Lamphong in Bangkok to Thailand's old capital Ayutthaya took 3 hours and cost a princely 60p for the two of us. The ride was clammy to say the least. Out bare skin adhered itself to any nearby surface; the old leather upholstery, the metal window frame or worst of all, someone else's skin. A few of the fans in the car weren't working and so, in true Wizard of Oz style, we melted.

By the time we arrived at Ayutthaya we'd just about managed to coagulate again and, overheated and laden with heavy bags we tried to find the bicycle tour office we'd found earlier in the day that was supposed to be only a few hundred yards up from the station.

We reached the blue-dot on our Google map and there was no office to be found, so, royally pissed off, we walked back to the station and commandeered a tuk tuk to take us to our hotel; Ayothaya Riverside House.

Now by this point we'd walked past one dog on our journey to the elusive bike tour office which had sprang up and aggressively barked at us. In no position (and with no inclination) to either assert dominance or run away, we crossed the busy road to the other side hoping the traffic would put it off coming for us. Which it seemed to.

Arriving at our hotel we were dishevelled to say the least, but relieved to be checking in. The hotel had accurately named itself; it was indeed on the riverside, built of teak wood in a traditional Thai style with lots of interesting antique bits an bobs lying around. It became apparent very quickly that the hotel manager; Ya, was an undoubted muso. There were guitars propped up, a sound system and microphone and soon enough the dulcet tones of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Bob Marley and ACDC.

Our room was small and dark (owing to the wooden structure and 'hut' like quality) but it was clean and quaint and comfortable. The toilet was shared and the nearest shower was on an open deck; private but with no roof with fruits from the above tree knocking you on the head every so often.

We managed to call the bike tour office and book on for the following day. We were told that the office is where we walked to but that it's not signposted at all and so everybody struggles to locate it. For fuck's sake.

By now it was early evening we were ravenous, so we had a quick look online and saw that there were plenty of restaurants in walking distance. I must say that we'd heard a few negative stories about Ayutthaya's stray dog situation but, always keen to judge for ourselves, we tried not to let any preconceptions sway us.

After only a few minutes and less than a hundred yards, the ubiquitous presence of canines (seemingly stray or 'soi' as they're known in Thailand) became very apparent. The first few we encountered were on their own and although they didn't outwardly intimidate us they were markedly less placid than their Indian or Myanmarese counterparts. Our anxiety heightened with every step as we looked down our desired route and saw dog after dog after dog. The route we'd mapped sent us into a large open courtyard with what looked like restaurants backing onto it. We started walking through the yard and saw a dog in the distance. We then saw a woman walking towards us from the other side. She stepped past the dog without issue which lifted us a little, but as soon as we approached further (still more than 50 yards away), the dog stood up and started loudly barking and growling at us.

Now if you haven't gathered already, Lauren and I are neither confident nor very familiar with dogs. In fact we're both a little phobic. I am especially fearful as I was attacked as a toddler. Our pre-existing angst certainly didn't help in this situation, as we all know, dogs can smell/sense fear.

As soon as said dog starting edging towards us, with head up high and hackles engaged, we hurriedly turned around and walked back the way we came. In this moment I was in full panic and, having completely lost my appetite urged Lauren to agree to go back to the guesthouse. She (still desperately hungry) compromised by suggesting we walk to the nearby 7/11 and at least get some snacks. Getting to the shop involved crossing a large highway but at least we knew the dogs wouldn't follow us into a line of traffic. Lauren got her snacks and tried and failed to cajole me into buying some food for myself.

Unfortunately on our way back, more dogs had appeared, and although not barking, they started approaching us. already highly anxious I began hysterically crying and power-walked back to the highway where in my panic attacked wisdom I thought death by lorry-flattening was far more appealing than a dog bite. Lauren kept it together but was also shitting a brick. I managed to flag us a tuk tuk and, as I was in no position to speak, Lauren told the driver to take us back to Riverside House. The driver understandably snickered at our request informing us that the hotel was "a 2 minute walk away". We reiterated our request and he very kindly obliged. In the back of the open tuk tuk I sat, semi-fetally, sobbing, keeping one eye on each dog we passed. Back safe and sound after probably only a 20 minute excursion, I spent the rest of the evening regretting our trip to Ayutthaya and longing for home.

Thankfully by morning we both felt fine. Excited for our bike tour and relieved we'd arranged for the same tuk tuk driver to collect us at the porch the night before, we pushed the previous day's silliness to the back of our minds.

This time round we found the biking office and met our tour guide Sao; a 26 year old women from Eastern Thailand who looked about 15. We were the only two on the 'Colours of Ayutthaya' tour which meant I could annoy Sao all day long with question after question. The tour spanned 30km in blistering heat through a large portion of Ayutthaya - rural, suburban and urban. We were shown villages, rivers and the famous ruins. We also rode through an elephant park (what used to be the royal elephant park we were told) where we saw plenty of white faces aback depressed animals and park workers using sticks with large metal spikes on the end to ensure obedience. We were saddened and angered by what we saw and din't want any part of it. On our way out we disapprovingly shook our heads at our fellow tourists laughing and joking, taking selfies; oblivious to the new mother elephant furiously rocking back and forth beside them.

The rest of the tour though was very interesting and challenging and it was nice really getting to know Sao. Alongside plenty of birds, we did encounter dogs during the ride, and yes, they were also aggressive. One particular pack chased us, snapping at our feet. This is when Lauren and I transformed into roadrunner and 'meep meeped' so fast on our two wheels that we could have left burn marks on the tarmac.

Our legs and heads sore and flexed we returned to our guesthouse to shower and chill out for a few hours before we head back to the train station to board our sleeper-train to Chiang Mai. For the next few hours we sat in hammocks, me writing and Lauren reading yet another book (she really puts me to shame). On the direction of Ya, we also got familiar with the hundreds of fish out in the river; I put my feet in as directed and behind me, Lauren took some fish food and threw it at my feet, making the fish collide, jump and nip at my appendages. This reduced me to a giggling teenager and washed away the dog-worries. At least there were some harmless animals in this town that don't want to give me rabies, I thought.

But then I was bit by a massive bastard fucking ant and I hated everything again. Only kidding. But I did still hate the dogs.

I don't think the dog-woes have plagued our memory of Ayutthaya. They probably would have had we not gone on the bike tour as the likely alternative would have been us hauled up in the guesthouse counting down the hours until we could leave.
if you're reading as a potential or soon-to-be traveller, please don't be put off by our experience. The ancient ruins of Ayutthaya are really worth seeing and who knows whether what happened to us is common or not. I suspect anyone with even a fraction more familiarity, rationality and common sense when it comes to dogs would be just fine.

I can't deny that we were glad to be moving on from Ayutthaya, but we also felt a little accomplished that we'd faced it; perhaps not quite head-on, but bum-on at the very least!

Posted by advensha 04:37 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand ayutthaya travelling backpackers scared rabies stray_dogs 711 riverside_house old_capital ayutthaya_biking bicycle_tour real_thailand Comments (0)

Myanmar: Yangon to Bagan and back again

sunny 35 °C
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NB: I use the term 'Myanmarese' in this post to refer to any person from Myanmar. This term is not an officially recognised one but it is used more and more commonly in texts relating to the country. I was reluctant to use 'Burmese' as there are over 100 native communities in Myanmar and although 'Burmese' make up the majority, I don't believe it's right to exclude all of the others. My use of Myanmarese does not reflect any political or ethical beliefs of mine.

When we started thinking about our trip and where we wanted to go, Myanmar was at the top of my list. The majority of people I've spoken to that have travelled around Asia have recommended it as a place not yet tainted by tourism. As a result I had high hopes for the country that up until 1989 was called Burma.

We flew to Myanmar from Bangkok and after an easy and short flight we stepped off in Yangon (aka Rangoon), the largest city in Myanmar (but not the capital).

We'd already booked a cab so we got to enjoy the flashy feeling of someone holding up a sign with your name on it.

The first thing we noticed was that our taxi driver; a young, handsome chap was wearing a long wrap-skirt. A maxi-skirt if you will. Assuming that this guy's a bit of a progressive fashionista we jump in the cab and take in our environment.

Another observation we made is that the cars are all right-hand-drive, but strangely, they also drive on the right. This means when they're turning left there's one hell of a massive blind spot. Weirdly enough though, buses and vans have left-hand-drive! We've never come across this driving system before and it perplexed my English brain. But I'm sure it exists elsewhere (please let me know).

After a few minutes our driver put on some long polka-dot sleeve/glove things. Again we weren't sure why, but took a guess that it was some sort of sun/heat protector.

During the drive it quickly became apparent that A LOT of Myanmar's men wear 'skirts'. We found out that the garment is called a longyi and it's essentially a large, rectangular piece of material that you wrap around your waists/hips and fold under to secure - much like you would with a towel. I can't imagine they're very comfortable as in my experience, unless you've got some seriously skinny thighs you're gonna chafe somewhere along the line. But perhaps they wear trunks underneath. Then again, the air circulation may actually be a good thing. The skinny jeans that all of us Brits wear just aren't good for your crotch-health. You're basically asking for scrot-rot.

I digress...

We were immediately struck by the sincere and warm smiles that appeared on every single person's face we clocked eyes with. When I was taking photographs out of the taxi of market traders, beggars, children; if any of them saw me, they flashed a huge smile and waved or posed accordingly for the photo.

Some of said smiles were noticeable for their bright red-stain. We later found out that it's fairly common for people in Myanmar (usually men and usually people in lower socio-economic groups) to chew on betel nuts; a leaf containing a number of ingredients including betel nuts (which are red) and two types of tobacco; dried and alcohol-soaked. You will often see taxi drivers in traffic opening their car door to spit out the blood-like residue onto the road.

A lot of Myanmarese also wear thanaka on their faces; a yellowy paste made from ground up tree bark. It's typically applied to the cheeks and nose (of mainly women and children) and supposedly protects the skin fro the sun, while also acting as an anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory. Soon enough we were converts and would try and find a lady to put it on us whenever we could.

Anyway; we arrived at our hostel eventually (we learned pretty quickly that Yangon traffic is horrendous which led us to walking the rest of the time). The hostel (Agga Youth Hotel it calls itself), was pretty basic but did the job for 2 nights. The shower was cold and the staff were pretty noisy but we managed to sleep and wash away some of our skin diseases so no complaining here.

After a quick freshen up we got straight back in a taxi to head to the train station. We were desperate to get the sleeper-train from Yangon to Bagan in 2 days and we knew that the advance booking ticket office (as it's so called) was only open until 3pm. We had checked and knew that the train station was only 3 miles away so presumed we're be there in 10 minutes max. At this point we didn't anticipate being in standstill traffic for 20 minutes. We arrived at the station at 14:50 and scrambled around asking people where the advance office was. The man at the ticket booth pointed that the office was around the corner but that it was now closed and we needed to come back tomorrow.

Not fully disheartened we took a trip to Bogyoke Aung San Market (aka Scott's market); a large, old bazaar leftover from colonial times and famed for its selection of Myanmarese arts and crafts, antiques, jewellery and lacquer-wear. We had a look around but shopping isn't one of our fancies, food is. It turns out that said massive market doesn't house food establishments. We found the nearest restaurant we could (that we think might have been Chinese) and pointed at a few semi-palatable dishes from the picture-menu.

Most of what we got was ok, but my chicken fried rice definitely contained chicken bits I'm not all together used to. As Lauren would say; earholes, bumholes and eyeholes - and probably some feet thrown in for good measure too.
Lauren got by on some vegetable tempura and a noodle soup that appeared to be sans animal carcass.

Wanting to avoid the traffic, we walked back the half an hour to our hostel (now much lighter without our bags) and chilled out with a tall-neck Myanmar beer.

At 8am the next morning, armed with our Google Map navigation, we walked to the advance booking ticket office which, incidentally, isn't anywhere near the main train station. Feeling accomplished for finding this vaguely signposted, cattle-pen-like place we confidently approached the ticket booth and asked for sleeper-train, upper class tickets from Yangon to Bagan for the following day. Without even a suspenseful pause, the man said 'sold out' and offered us the standard class which is wooden seats for 13 hours on a very bumpy train. We declined and accepted that we'd have to get a bus instead.
We were pretty pissed off as we'd read that quite often tourist agencies buy up all of the tickets and sell them on for a premium. We thought we were being really organised going the day before (the tickets are only released 3 days before travel) but clearly not.

A Travel Agent was hanging around (waiting for us to receive our bad news no doubt) and we ended up buying some 'VIP' bus tickets from him for only a pound or two more than the train. Weirdly, the bus is actually 5 hours quicker than the train and apparently a lot more comfortable. I just wanted to experience the notorious Myanmar railway; built by Japanese POWs. Oh well, at least we were sorted for our onward journey,

The next day we completed the Yangon rite of passage; Shwedagon Pagoda. We enlisted a very smiley, giggly tour-guide called Win who gave us all the facts and anecdotes we needed. I even got my very own longyi on the way in (I'd failed to cover my knees - pfft). We were astounded by the ancient stupa (supposedly the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world) and then dumbfounded by the heat - even though Win told us it's 'cold season' in Myanmar.

For lunch we stopped at a little unassuming Myanmarese vegetarian restaurant. The menu was a bible of every artificial meat imaginable; pig's hearts, eels, chicken feet, you name it. Their slogan was 'be kind to animals by not eating them', which seemed reasonable. The food was really good and we were certainly grateful for not having to worry about mystery meat.

Later that evening we treated ourselves to a Myanmarese massage for which our hostel had a discount voucher. We were seen by two young and friendly girls called Bunny and Yiyi and I will simply recycle my Facebook status describing the experience here;

"Just had a traditional Myanmarese full-body massage by a cute young woman called Bunny who had a haircut just like John Lennon circa 1960. It was amazing but at one point when she was working on my face, I was pretty convinced she'd fractured my skull. Not willing to show weakness when she asked if I was in pain, I politely shook my head trying not to make it obvious that I had lost vision in both eyes. For a minute there I thought that was it, but now I feel bloody wonderful. Thanks Bunny - and good luck in the next Myanmar's Strongest Woman competition."

While navigating the bustling and lively streets of Yangon at night, we indulged in a strawberry jam milkshake (amazing) and found our way 'home'. Bunny and Yiyi obviously worked out a lot of stress as that night we slept like babies on our 2cm thick prison mattress.

On our last day in Yangon before heading to Bagan that evening, we decided on visiting a traditional tea room and another temple. Yangon is very well laid out in terms of roads and streets. Much like Bangkok, everything is in 'blocks' and the major streets are numbered. This was incredibly helpful for us getting around and saved us a lot of inevitable navigation arguments.

The tea room was called Lucky 7 and there Lauren finally sampled a 'Burmese salad' - sliced samosa on a salad with a lentil gravy. The tea consisted of evaporated milk and a lot of sugar. Much like masala chai in India it's served in a tiny cup and is very sweet. Unfortunately, it just didn't match up to our beloved chai - a bit too sickly for us.

On to the Botataung Pagoda; another ancient and holy site which apparently houses a single strand of Buddha's hair. Ahem. Not much to report with this place; again lots of impressive gold structures and sculptures, all dedicated to that one fella from Nepal. One thing that continually perplexes me is the contradiction in Buddha's teachings vs. what we've seen and read about. These grandiose gold and gem-stoned temples and stupas that we've been visiting seem to essentially be large-scale offerings to Buddha (who, as you may already know, was/is not a god but an earth-dwelling human-being like the rest of us). Big, fancy tickets to a nice life, good karma and a positive reincarnation - built by very powerful and wealthy (and normally royal) men throughout history. Obviously this is completely at odds with Buddha's assertion that material things have no meaning and that we can't take them with us when we die. Within the Botataung Pagoda we saw the glass 'case' that was supposed to house Buddha's hair (even though the pagoda was entirely destroyed in WW2) and there were literally millions of kyat that had been thrown in. Religion always confuses me.

Within the Pagoda walls was also a lake where a whole bunch of terrapins were sunbathing and chilling out. Clearly this amused us greatly and we happily watched while giving them names and voices, laughing when they struggled to climb onto the wooden float.

On our walk back we took a detour to an old rickety pier at Yangon river, and then Baha Mandoola Garden park where we sat and bemoaned the the litres of sweat saturating each square centimetre of our bodies.

Arriving back at the hostel, semi sun-stroked and not particularly looking forward to our sleeper-bus, we met a bubbly Filipino girl called Juna (sp) who shared a taxi with us to the bus station. The bus station could be more accurately described as a bus-town; a large area with it's own streets and roads filled with restaurants, shops and many many light and heavy vehicles. We had some time to grab some food (which was cheap and gorgeous) from one of the greasy spoons and we were on our way.

The bus was better than we anticipated; it came with blankets, neck pillows, seats that reclined to 120° and a free can of Coke with a sweet bean cake. Luckily it was pitch black by the time we set off so although we could feel the maniacal driving, we couldn't actually see it. In the end though said driving got us there an hour earlier than expected at around 5:30am (yawn) where we crawled to a taxi, stopped briefly at the tourist office where each visitor of Bagan must pay an 'entry' fee of $25 and made it to our hostel.

The hostel had a good vibe; chilled but sociable with plenty of freebies on offer including books, tour information, tea and coffee, water and the all important WiFi. We quickly learned that a sunrise trip to the ancient Bagan temple site was leaving in half an hour so, too early to check-in, we hired ourselves a scooter (something I never thought I'd do) and scooted 5km down the road... in the friggin' dark! That's the last time I ever call myself a boring big girls blouse!

The sunrise was pretty spectacular, reds and oranges gradually washing over the thousands of temples enveloping Bagan's desert-like landscape. In the distance we saw 20-odd hot air balloons rising out of nothingness and eventually floating above the temple's points.

We rode back to our hostel and we were edging back into our familiar exhaustion-induced delusion when a nice member of staff from Carlisle offered us a shower in a room that had just been vacated. Needless to say the powerful, clean and HOT shower almost brought us enlightenment.

Later, after some umming and ahhing and discussions with other travellers, we decided against getting the sleeper-train back to Yangon and booked another bus instead. The train takes 16 hours and because of the violence of the journey you're pretty much guaranteed to not sleep a wink. As much as I'd wanted to experience it I realised that at this point, rest and time was more important to me that ticking a train ride off my list.

The scooter gave us a lot of freedom (who knew!?) and for the remainder of the day we zoomed around, eating at a wonderful little vegetarian restaurants for lunch and dinner (the tomato and peanut curry we had rendered us speechless) and driving past lots of old-looking brick things.

We booked on a bicycle tour (Grasshopper Adventures - highly recommended) the following day and rode 20km through all three regions of Bagan; Old, New and Nuyaung U. Our Myanmarese guide was called Akka (sp?) and he kept us interested and entertained throughout the 5 hour tour. We saw a morning market, villages, bamboo preparation, plenty of pagodas, a bean factory and tea shop. And the best part, we got snacks and lunch throughout! We were with two American women and a Swiss woman. Two American men appeared for the last half an hour (pretty pointless to me) after moaning about the quality of the original bikes. They were a bit superior but when the left us 5 girls enjoyed speculating about their situation; we reckon they were secret gay lovers holidaying together while masquerading as bike enthusiasts.

Our evening meal was at Seven Sisters restaurant; a place owned and run by seven sisters from the community that had only been open for a year. Once again, delightful food (either we've been really lucky or we're just really fucking easy to please)! Before bed we wandered to a little street shop and bought some typical backpacker stretchy, floaty light trousers with elephant and peacock prints. We had to succumb to looking like twats at some point.

On our last 'day' we decided to do nothing except veg out on the hostel's amazing roof top; complete with hammocks, a 'napping zone', a bamboo hut and sunbeds. Those hours were well-spent leading up to our sleeper-bus that evening.

This time round we'd picked the slightly cheaper bus called Elite and, expecting a shit pile we were amazed to find it was even better than our previous, more expensive 'VIP' bus. Better reclining angles, better AC, a heart-shaped cake AND TVs in the seats. For a while we entertained ourselves by watching hilarious K-Pop music videos followed by 12 Years a Slave but then, having both developed awful travel-nausea we gave up and slept.

At around midnight we stopped at a big service station where I bought some bean-filled moon cakes hoping they would satisfy my sweet tooth (chocolate bars aren't really a thing in Myanmar). Alas after one bite I realised I must have bought some sort of punishment confectionery; all I could taste was slightly sour beany cement. Serves me right for wanting a midnight snack.

Again we arrived at our hostel (Pickled Tea hostel) pre-sunrise and, again too tired to do much, sat around on the WiFi for a while. The lovely hostel manager saw me falling asleep on the bench and rushed his cleaners to clean the dorm for us to rest. We really can legitimately say that the people of Myanmar have been the most lovely of all so far.

After a much needed nap we traipsed through the local market, eyeing up the various fresh animal parts on display. We stopped for lunch at a trendy little joint called Sharky's where we had a pizza and burgers (please don't judge us) which were nice but incredibly overpriced. Clearly our minds weren't all there because we then got pudding too.

Fed up of pagodas we went downtown to the cinema to see the Revenant. Expecting it to be a rip-off we were over-the-moon with the £1 tickets and equally cheap popcorn. The film was brilliant and the theatre a massive relief from the soaring temperatures outside. At the start of the film an animated Myanmar flag appeared, blowing perfectly the wind. Suddenly, everyone in the cinema stood up and stared solemnly at the screen. We followed suit, trying our best not to giggle during the 2 minute ovation. I looked around afterwards and saw some smirks on some faces. At least we provided some laughs with our insolence.

And that was it for Myanmar. We flew back the following morning, sad to say goodbye and wishing we'd have stayed just a little longer. But no worries, I'm pretty sure we'll come back.

Posted by advensha 04:16 Archived in Myanmar Tagged temples sunrise bagan pagodas burma yangon travellers myanmar scooters backpackers burmese shwedagon lesbian_travellers grasshopper_adventures bike_tours Comments (0)

Thailand: Bangkok

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I'm sure you'll be enthralled to hear that our journey from India to Thailand was full of interesting if not mildly distressing goings-on. Our first flight was from Goa to Mumbai, and as we waited in the queue for our hold baggage to be scanned before checking-in, we noticed a bit of a commotion. The queue stopped dead and a number of airport security staff had appeared at the other side of scanner. After a bit of scrambling for a viewpoint Lauren noticed an Indian man at the front of the queue lifting a revolver out of his bag, followed by a magazine and some bullets. He then pulled out a load of paperwork.

We weren't sure whether to be scared or amused but eventually we all got moving again and later saw the same man on our plane. Evidently the Goan security officials were satisfied he wasn't going to cause a scene with his fully-functional deadly weapon.

Our second fight was Mumbai to Bangkok, and as we were waiting in the long queue at immigration (very poorly organised), a little boy in front of us (approx. 3 years old) started pissing on a lady's suitcase. After a few seconds of public urination the boy began crying and his grandmother shouted and grabbed him away to the corner. The lady didn't seem too concerned with there being piss on her bag - she just smiled and carried on.

As I went through security at Mumbai (there are always separate enclosed booths for men and women), one of the security women looked at me and started laughing her head off and telling her colleagues something in Hindi about me. She then let me in on the joke telling me that I looked just like the Hindu God Krishna. Said God has blue skin, plays a golden piccolo and is a man. I must have a godly presence about me.

Considering it was now the early hours of the morning and we hadn't slept a wink, we had started to feel like we were in a weird dream. And to substantiate this feeling there was even more craziness. On our second flight to Bangkok, as we were making our descent, a man a few rows up and to the right of us started having a fit. Naturally the flight attendants had to unbuckle themselves and run over to help him. Worryingly, the staff were very obviously freaking out (not great practice) and they didn't seem to be properly first-aid trained either as as they started throwing water on the guy, slapping him on the head, shaking his arms and shouting at him. Now I'm no expert, but I do know that you shouldn't really 'interrupt' a fit, you should just remove any nearby danger, put the person in the recovery position if possible (not possible in this instance) and keep an eye on them to ensure they don't choke or bite down on their tongue. After what felt like a long time (but in reality probably only 2 minutes), the man did come round, to everyone's relief.

Lauren had never seen a fit before and witnessing it while in a state of exhaustion (and being a nervous flyer anyway) made her quite emotional. It also isn't very reassuring when flight attendants are panicking.

Thankful that we arrived in one piece (just about), we got our bags and walked to the Skytrain (BTS) station. I had written down detailed instructions on how to get to our hostel and was confident we would make it with no problems. We got to the correct train stop without any issues, but on the walk from the station to the hostel we got lost. While carrying 20 kilos each. Tired, hungry, emotional and in the capital city of a new country we just wanted to curl up on the pavement and spontaneously combust (which could have been possible in the heat and humidity).

After 20 minutes of walking and stopping and asking and walking and stopping and checking and swearing, Lauren resigned to switching her roaming internet on in order for us to sat-nav ourselves to the bastard fucking bastard hostel. It turns out we had been on the right road but at the wrong end. We made it eventually and what mended our broken spirits was Lil being there in reception to welcome us.

Unfortunately we were far too early to check-in, so we did our best to freshen up in the hostel's downstairs loo, met Becky, Kate and Crimmy and toddled off to breakfast. The food was pretty shit and pretty expensive compared to India, but we were so dazed that it didn't matter. We had some beers and caught up on each other's lives and travels - it was so nice to see some familiar faces. Half way through breakfast Lauren had to go and nap in Lil's dorm room.
After a couple of hours we said goodbye to Becky, Kate and Crimmy and after a short rest, Lil, Lauren and two of Lil's friends went over to China Town. We'd actually arrived on Chinese New Year (year of the monkey) and so there was apparently a lot of fun to be had. There was meant to be a parade through the streets but after a lot of waiting (and eating) it never materialised which left us all a little deflated. We did however see the Thai princess being driven through the crowds (yay... ahem).

We went back to our neck of the woods and Lauren and I tried to stay awake as long as we could; we had street Pad Thai for dinner and walked through a chorus of touts selling 'Ping Pong shows'. By 9pm we threw in the towel and went to bed for what was to be the deepest sleep of our lives.

The next morning, feeling much more human (although still not 100% - could you imagine how shit we'd be if we had young kids!?), Lauren, Lil, Crimmy and I went for breakfast in a place called Bistro 95. There we got randomly acquainted with a Belgian guy called Erick Maloir who was not shy in telling us that he was an executive pastry chef that has travelled around the world, worked for royals and celebrities and now lives in Thailand with his Thai wife and little baby. Clearly enamoured by us travelling white-faced youngsters, he paid for our beers, which was nice.

Lil left soon after to catch her flight back to the UK after 5 weeks in Thailand. Lauren and I reluctantly got back on the BTS to go to Hua Lamphong station to buy our sleeper train tickets from Ayutthaya Chiang Mai in advance (they sell out quickly). We tried a few bits of street food along the way but generally everything is very meaty, which put both of us off and amazingly, despite almost a month in India, it was only now that my belly was starting to feel a little bubbly. Still not caught up on our sleep we went to bed early; I myself was pretty devastated that I hadn't managed to eat any pancakes (my fav food) on Shrove Tuesday for the first time in my life. Woe was me.

The following day we got on one of the Bangkok river boats for a little cruise around the city. We were headed to the Siriraj Hospital Forensic Museum and somehow managed to get on the standard public boat instead of the swish, friendly, English-guided 'tourist boat' that we'd paid for. The boat was cramped, incredibly hot and we had no clue whatsoever which stop was which as we were too low down to see the signs when we stopped at each pier. On top of that there was an angry Thai lady pushing everyone up to the front of the boat. After a few unknown stops we took a wild guess and got off; at the wrong place of course. We waited a while for the next bus which thankfully was the sexy tourist boat. This boat was roomy, air conditioned and had a lovely camp guide giving us historical facts and information about the stops and nearby sights. By this point we were more than happy to be wrapped up in VIP cotton wool.

We made it to the museum and spent a good hour shuffling around all of the truly mental exhibits. I won't ruin it for you all as I'd urge you to visit but put it this way I don't think I'll ever see so many dead babies, murder and suicide injuries and anal prolapses ever again.

All of the gruesome death had really built up our appetites and in an effort to placate my persisting absence-of-pancakes-bad-mood, we found a French crêperie downtown called Breizh where we indulged in some flour, egg and milk deliciousness.

To balance out the food pleasure we had just experienced we then decided to punish ourselves with a Thai massage. Weirdly for this massage they didn't want us naked, instead they gave us some over-starched pyjamas to put on. Our nice masseurs then clambered all over us in an attempt to crunch the Western privilege right out of our over-fed, over-indulged carcasses. And they did pretty good job. Our backs had been feeling pretty fragile from all the bag-carrying and walking and we left the parlour feeling as light as feathers. The hand job went down well too.

For dinner we found a lovely little Japanese vegan restaurant called Bonita Social Club that was round the corner from our hostel. We got chatting to an older couple who were on holiday. Weirdly enough the guy was from Bootle an even though he's a woolyback I still enjoyed conversing with him. His wife was from the Isle of Wight but they both now lived in Southport for some bizarre reason.

The meal was wonderful and it was especially nice for Lauren to be able to pick anything from the menu. After pestering the resident cats for a while we called it a night and got ourselves prepared for the next venture to Myanmar.

Posted by advensha 05:03 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand bangkok backpacking travelling exhausted gun_on_plane fit_on_plane lost_in_bangkok losing_the_will_to_live Comments (2)

India: Observations and Curiosities

Musings on certain Indian eccentricities from one sheltered, semi-ignorant English girl. WARNING: may contain sweeping generalisations.

As we were travelling around India, like a good little pretend-journalist I noted down any little things that peaked my interest and I have listed them below. I don't know whether these idiosyncrasies are exclusive to India or whether or not I just haven't noticed them elsewhere before.

  • In the hotels/hostels/guest-houses we stayed in, one very small roll of toilet paper is provided which between two people lasts barely a day. You have to ask for more toilet roll and even then they will only give you one at a time.

Obviously this will be related mainly to the fact that most Indian's do not use loo roll and instead use the 'bum gun' or, as we saw more often, a tap and small bucket arrangement to clean themselves. I also presume that because of this (and the fact India is a poor country), toilet paper must be relatively expensive. The other explanation is that the plumbing systems perhaps can't handle much if any paper and Western tourists like us are notorious for clogging them up.


  • The staff at hotels (concierges, cleaners etc.) seem to live in the hotel's corridors and landings. In many of the places we stayed, when we came back late in the evening, or if we left early in he morning, there were men sleeping on the corridor with a few blankets and some food around them.
  • There were many more trees in India than I expected, especially in the cities. The trees are also painted near the bottom of their trunks so that people don't cut them down and try and sell them.
  • No two horns are the same. Whether it's a car, a tuk tuk, a bus, an articulated lorry or a motorbike, each horn has its own personality and flair. Whether or not this is down to vehicle manufacturers, age or wear and tear I don't know, but I like to think that there are big horn stores where people go to select their favourite model. Think the doorbell shop from that Simpsons episode.
  • Everything is cheap (at least compared to Europe) but for some reason, laundry is expensive.

Perhaps it is only expensive to us tourists but the system that seemed to be the norm was you pay a price per item of clothing. So different clothing items have a slightly different price; regardless of their weight. This means that a very thin linen jacket will be the same price to launder as a big heavy coat. We only had laundry done for us twice, and to give you some idea of the expense, we had one medium sized paper bag's worth of clothes washed in Goa and it cost us £15! And, when the clothes come back, they're not 'clean' to our standard anyway - stains are still present and they don't smell great.

  • The coffee-shop phenomenon has not escaped India.

There's a chain called Café Coffee Day that is fairly ubiquitous in most of India. We went in a few and they're really basic, with a few coffee options along with some breaded items (not fresh) and a few soups etc. The ones we went into were always pretty empty and had no atmosphere. I'd guess that they're still building custom - although they must be doing ok otherwise they wouldn't keep popping up everywhere. Costa and Starfucks exist too, especially in Westernised areas.

  • Indians love to decorate things.

Whether it's their car, their house, their baby, the tarmac outside their house, Indians certainly aren't afraid of adorning their possessions with all the colours of the rainbow. We often saw babies with dark kohl under their eyes which I hate to admit made them look even cuter. They're also fond of personalisation; the taxi drivers particularly like to put their names and a little phrase or saying on their back window.

  • Even though there are (approx.) 2000 rupees in £20 and notes start at 10 rupees (i.e. A LOT of notes), no one ever seems to have change. We were forever trying and often failing to 'break' 500 and 1000 rupee notes. This meant we often overpaid (not by much) for things just because it was easier.
  • There's a whole language in head bobbing.

We didn't get chance to research this body language but we definitely immediately noticed the side to side (ear to shoulder) head bob which means yes. It was a little confusing at first because it's a bit similar to our negative head shake. There is a whole alphabet of head bobs in Indian interaction and it's fascinating to watch and also quite contagious!

  • Indian's use A LOT of sugar in their food.

Whenever we got any drink, whether tea, coffee, juice etc. we would always be served with a bowl of sugar and/or honey. This would be on top of the sugar that was already in the drink. The masala chai tea was sooo incredibly sweet (which is probably why we loved it so much). But it wasn't just drinks, food was often sweetened (curries too). It was also incredibly difficult to get diet or 'light' drinks like Diet Coke - and when you could get it, it cost anywhere between 50 - 100% more than 'full fat' coke (I'm presuming the demand is a lot lower). It's also worth noting that Pepsi is much more common than Coca Cola in India. We did see a lot about diabetes being an issue and I can see why. However, for someone with a sweet tooth like me it was pretty amazing!

  • Barcadi Breezers are the go-to bottled drink (besides beer).

This was very nostalgic for us and our early clubbing days. If only they also had my favourite (but extinct) alcopop; Reef.

Posted by advensha 03:18 Archived in India Tagged india indian adventure goa ahmedabad backpacker lesbian mumbai delhi backpacking traveller jaipur udaipur travelling agra pushkar observations musings tordi g_adventures curiosities Comments (0)

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