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In Summary

So that's it. Our advensha is over. I'm writing this while sat in my mum's living-room back in my hometown of Liverpool. We have been back for exactly one week now and it still doesn't feel entirely real. Every time I pick up my phone to message or call someone I do a little calculation in my head to figure out the time difference and whenever I look at the price of anything I halve it (thanks Australia).
It is taking some time to get a 'normal' sleep pattern back - I'm averaging about 5-6 hours of sleep at the moment but it is increasing every night.
It actually feels like we've only been away for a long weekend - mainly because nothing has changed back in Manchester and Liverpool. Actually that's probably a bit unfair; 3 of our friends have had babies, but aside from that, everything else is just as we left it.

I think it's going to take a little bit of time for us to really appreciate what we've done and where we've been. It's all a bit of a blur at the moment.
I've just re-read my 'The night before' blog post and it feels like I wrote it a lifetime ago. I said I was feeling numb, and to be honest, that's kind of how we feel right now too. We're in limbo - tired, confused, apprehensive and lost. We've been going through boxes of our stuff with a fresh and ruthless eye. After all we've been living out of a bag for 6 months so our definition of NEED has narrowed greatly.

I'm afraid I don't feel able to write a comprehensible 'conclusion' to our advensha, so instead I've done what I do best, formulated a list...

Best and Worst

Favourite country:
Aisha - India
Lauren - India

Favourite place:
Aisha - Bagan, Myanmar or Penang, Malaysia
Lauren - Udaipur, India or Penang, Malaysia

Favourite street food:
Aisha - Poh piah (Malaysian)
Lauren - Gobi manchurian and bread pakora (both Indian)

Favourite restaurant/café food:
Aisha - Annen Hoi in Hội An, Vietnam did the most amazing tomato tofu. Hui Yuan vegetarian buffet in Melaka, Malaysia was by far the tastiest buffet I have ever had. Also Capitol Satay, again in Melaka was both delicious and fascinating.
Lauren - The first place we had Thali in Jaipur, India. Also Millets of Mewar café in Udaipur, India.

Favourite people:
Aisha - Myanmarese
Lauren - Myanmarese

Favourite activity:
Aisha - Being sat in the sand dunes of Pushkar, Rajistan while watching a dance show, magician and the setting sun.
Lauren - Trekking through the rainforest of the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia.

Favourite swimming:
Aisha - In the crystal clear waters of the Andaman sea off Koh Ngai island in South Thailand.
Lauren - In the Arabian sea off Patnem, Goa, India.

Favourite accommodation:
Aisha - Jungle House in Vientiane, Laos followed closely by Tordi palace in Rajistan, India.
Lauren - Luna Villa Homestay in Hội An, Vietnam closely followed by Old Town Guesthouse in Melaka, Malaysia.

Favourite religious/spiritual site:
Aisha - Swedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar or Ta Prohm in Angkor Cambodia.
Lauren - Wat Ounalom in Phnom Penh, Cambodia where one of Buddha's eyebrow hairs lives (ahem).

Favourite journey:
Aisha - I loved the Indian sleeper train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai in India. It was cramped, dirty and public but it was a great experience.
Lauren - The private transfer from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong (Thailand to Laos) in an air-conditioned, swish people carrier.

Favourite beach:
Aisha - Otres in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
Lauren - Patnem in Goa, India

Worst experience:
Aisha - The scary stray dogs in Ayutthaya and my camera breaking for a second time in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (it's still not fixed).
Lauren - Our experience in Mali Mali Guesthouse, Langkawi, Malaysia (pervy man).

Worst accommodation:
Aisha - Our hotel in Mumbai, India that had no windows, a toilet that didn't flush, a strong smell of petrol and there were ants everywhere. BTB Battambang hostel was pretty awful too - no security, really dirty and rude incompetent staff.
Lauren - Mali Mali Guesthouse in Langkawi - dirty (fungus growing in between tiles in bathroom) and unsafe (bedrooms were accessible from the main strip).

Worst food:
Aisha - Jaljeera juice in India - which was basically curry flavoured juice and the 'pork satay stick' on Vietnamese train which was covered in wiry hairs and was probably a week old.
Lauren - The poh piah in Kuala Lumpur mall food court that was drenched in sticky tamarind sauce.

Worst journey:
Aisha - The double-decker bus we took from Bangkok to Surathani with the crazy drunk lady and her boyfriend who ended up getting thrown off.
Lauren - The journey from Sihanoukville to Battambang on which poor Lauren was vomiting throughout.

What We've Learned

About ourselves:
One of the main things we've discovered is that we both love animals much more than we thought we did. Wherever we were in the world we always seemed to find a cat, dog or bird to cuddle and coo at.

That we love each other - a lot! We have spent 24/7 with each other for 6 whole months. We've not had to text/call one another for 6 months because we've always been beside each other. We've been together 2 years now so for a quarter of our relationship we've been travelling. And, aside from a handful of very insignificant arguments (usually due to hunger, exhaustion or being lost) we've loved every second with each other. And of course we've grown stronger as a couple as a result of all the experiences we've shared.

That although we do really enjoy architecture, history and art, we mostly love people - talking to them, learning about them and seeing things through their eyes if only for a short time. We definitely enjoy a good balance of high and low culture and there's also no denying that we appreciate our creature comforts and time to ourselves.

About each other:
Aisha - Lauren is far braver than she lets on and although she can be softly spoken and avoid confrontation, when she feels it's right she will stick up for herself and for me.
I already knew that a hungry Lauren was an angry Lauren but this has been cemented during the trip. Excessive heat also doesn't make for a happy Lauren; but to be fair sometimes the temperature was pretty unbearable even for the locals. Thanks a lot El Niño!

Lauren - Aisha was not as fussy or meticulous as I thought she would be. She was quite happy for me to make decisions about what we were doing or where we were going.
Aisha's also the best person in the world (besides my lovely mum Joan) at looking after me - my physical, emotional and mental well being.

About travelling:
We always managed to form some semblance of a base or 'home' for ourselves. I reckon this is part of our human survival instinct - to feel safe and secure. I (Aisha) was a little concerned that on days when I might be feeling down that I would struggle because I couldn't go 'home' to lock myself away, but thankfully this was never an issue. Our hostel/guesthouse/homestay always became our temporary 'home' wherever we were and, as such, we always felt snug.

Packing

Things we would have been lost without:

  • Keen sandals - Even though they gave us the most ridiculous Croc-style tan lines, these comfortable, waterproof and durable sandals were amazing and I must say, after a while we even grew to quite like their appearance too,
  • Stolen shampoo - If we were ever in a hostel that had shampoos in a dispenser in the bathroom we were straight in there with one of our empty tubs filling them up. I count it as a small victory that we didn't buy shampoo once in 6 months.
  • Pens - I found two mini biros before we left and put them in our passport wallets and they were invaluable.
  • Oats - Most of the breakfasts we had while we were away consisted of porridge oats with some local fruit and/or seeds and nuts that we made ourselves. Of course when free toast / pastries / yogurt was available we made the most of that too but we always made sure we had some oats and soya milk with us (neither of which were hard to find).
  • CEX laundry bag - The large drawstring plastic bag I got when I bought my mini laptop from CEX in India served as our dirty washing bag throughout the 6 months and, whenever we handed it over to launderers we always made sure we got it back.
  • Bench dress - Lauren brought a light cotton dress by Bench with her and it served as a brilliant nightie for when we were in private rooms without an en suite and needed to go to the toilet in the middle of the night. As it was so hot whenever we had the opportunity we slept naked which posed a bit of a problem when we were sharing a bathroom. This dress was the perfect throw-on item.
  • Tiger Balm - This wonderful potion (which was invented in Singapore) was an amazing for a whole host of skin ailments - insect bites, rashes, itchy bits, spots, blisters and even worked as a decongestant when we were bunged up.
  • Google Maps - As much as I hate to admit it, the internet, specifically Google Maps, saved us many times. Every traveller will tell you that getting lost is an inevitable and accepted eventuality and, without the help of Google Maps I'm positive we would have ended up stranded on more than one occasion.

Things we didn't end up using/needing:

  • The majority of the first aid kit - To be honest, this isn't exactly a bad thing, it just means we didn't have any major health issues. It's now going to live in my car.
  • Cable ties - I do think we used one or two of these along the way but, for the most part, they weren't that useful for us.
  • Pliable camera tripod - We should have realised that we weren't going to be attaching one of our expensive cameras to a random wall or pole away from us - we would have been asking for it to get stolen.
  • Travel notes - In the run up to the trip Lauren had handwritten some notes on places of interest and transit information for various countries we were visiting. Unfortunately these notes ended up packed deeply away in Lauren's backpack only to be found after we'd already visited the countries that the notes were on.

Things we wish we would have brought:

  • Sudocrem - The wonder-cream. Luckily we had Tiger Balm as a backup but I would have loved some Sudocrem too.
  • Dental floss - I did actually bring some of this but it ran out quite quickly. A lot of the foods we were eating had lots of 'bitty bits' in them - herbs, spices, veggies, fruit, meat etc so dental floss was a bit of a necessity to avoid tooth decay. I ended up buying a packet of toothpicks as dental floss was ridiculously expensive in Asia.
  • A proper hairbrush - We'd bought a small travel hairbrush that unfortunately broke after a few months leaving us with crap plastic combs we'd gotten free in a hotel. Thank god I'd had my hair cut short.

What We'd Do Differently
We wouldn't beat ourselves up as much about feeling fed up and bored sometimes. Losing momentum periodically is inevitable and not the end of the world. We've learned that it didn't make us ungrateful or dull - just human.
I (Aisha) do wish I'd have bothered to do some diving. We were in some of the most well-known diving spots and with hindsight I should have splurged on doing my PADI. The upside is that I'd now realised I'm interested in it and so can pursue it back at home and when I next go away.
There are also quite a few things I wish we could have done in Australia. We weren't really tourists in the country as we were mostly visiting people not places. If we'd have had more money (our budget only allowed $80 per day which is approx. £40) we'd have definitely visited the North of the country and seen the Great Barrier Reef. But this has at least given me a thirst to return and this time, in their summer!
Lauren wanted to add that if she could have, she would have gone around Southeast Asia when it was slightly cooler - but I do think it was a fluke that we were there while El Niño was throwing its weight around.

Stats

Have a look at our travel stats here: https://www.travellerspoint.com/stats/advensha/

Final Thoughts

As a final thought I want to express my thanks for everyone that had joined us on this journey by reading this blog and/or watching our videos on YouTube and looking at our photos on Facebook. I'm really proud of myself for starting and finishing this blog project. It has helped to build my confidence in pursuing a creative/media career in the near future.

I also hope that we have inspired one or more people to at least think about taking the leap to quit the job you hate and go see some of the world. We haven't regretted our decision for a second and as much as being unemployed for the first time in my adult life is fucking terrifying (especially for an overly sensible gal like me), I know in my gut that I've done the right thing - whatever happens.

For now we're going to give Bristol a try and see how it suits us. Thank you so much for reading and I hope you go on to have your own advensha!

Posted by advensha 03:06 Tagged adventure best travellers scary backpacking backpackers worst favourites final_thoughts list summary unemployed its_over Comments (0)

Vietnam: Hà Nội and Hạ Long Bay

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Mike dropped us at Vientiane airport late morning and luckily we'd given ourselves over 2 hours because we were waiting on the check-in queue (of only 10 people) for almost an hour. While we were waiting Lauren tried to change our Laotian kip to Vietnamese dong at the two different money-shops. She was told by both of them that they'd run out of dong and could only give US dollars so, reluctantly, that's what we got. When Lauren brought the exchanged money over we quickly realised that the assistant had miscounted our kip and given us an extra $50... which was nice.

Eventually we got through check-in and security and boarded our nice little short flight on Cambodia Angkor Air to Hanoi, Vietnam. On arrival we picked a taxi and took the hour journey to GA hostel, right in the middle of Hanoi's Old Quarter. Our first impressions of Hanoi were the weather; in stark contrast to Vientiane it was overcast, misty and cold. As we approached the centre the roads became frenetic; beeping cars and motorbikes aplenty, twisting and turning around each other on huge crossroads, roundabouts and narrow little side streets, all while avoiding the hundreds of tourists and street stalls. As soon as we were in the Old Quarter the sheer volume of noise also hit us; the people, the cooking, the driving, the beeping and the distant sounds of sirens and construction. Thankfully our hostel was down a 2 foot wide, maze-like back alley (guarded by a large cockerel), which meant the noise wasn't an issue.

Our 8-bed dorm (up 3 flights of narrow stairs with very low head-hitting ceilings) was world's away from our jungle cottage but perfectly suitable. As per I took the top bunk and after some familiarisation and the usual awkward hellos to our dorm-mates, we wriggled out into the crazy, polluted space of Hanoi Old Quarter. Lunch was at a cheap (but yummy) Vietnamese greasy spoon called Noodle and Roll where we got stuck in to the traditional phở soup (hold the beef) and Lauren had her first taste of the North Vietnamese beer Halida.

We had a short walk around the Old Quarter; eyeing up the street food, counterfeit underwear and trendy T-Shirt shops. Crossing the roads took a bit of getting used to. We tried to put our India heads back on but everything was moving a bit too fast. We wrongly invested trust in the traffic lights and pedestrian crossings which were always ignored by road-users and pedestrians alike. The key seems to be a certain level of confidence coupled with a certain level of obliviousness. In fact I think we would have been better off blindfolding ourselves and just going for it; using the force to ensure the traffic goes around us.

Back at the hostel we sat for a couple of hours in the communal area, injuring our coccyxes on the wooden floor in the process. We did some forward travel planning and eavesdropped on some fellow backpackers' conversations. We particularly enjoyed the very political and historical chat between an Aussie and Swede (who were passionately agreeing with each other).

The next morning we were met outside our hostel by Xeo; a university student/tour guide who volunteers for Hanoi Kids free tours. Xeo walked us round a large portion of Hanoi, stopping at Hỏa Lò prison (originally French but later on used in the Vietnam war), the Confucius Temple of Literature and Kem Trang Tien (a popular ice cream parlour). Xeo was a very lovely, intelligent and interesting girl. She asked us as many questions as we asked her which made the half-day tour fly by. Two curious things she told us were Vietnam's policy on 'family size goals' - if a family wishes to have more than 2 children they can face benefit cuts, fines and even termination of employment. She also talked a little about Vietnamese superstitions. Although the country is generally quite secular, many middle-aged and elderly Vietnamese people believe in superstitions such as not marrying someone born in the same year as you as it will bring bad luck. Another topic Xeo touched on was dog meat; she told us how her beloved golden retriever was poisoned and that a day after they buried him, his bones were dug up and removed, likely being sold on for food. I expressed my disdain at so-called Western animal activists deploring East Asian's consumption of dog meat while chomping on bacon sandwiches and I said that as a carnivore, it would be hypocritical to turn-down dog. Xeo agreed with my stance but told me to avoid the meat because of the risk of ingesting poison.

After saying our goodbyes we chilled for a while and then head out to hipster veggie joint Hanoi Social Club. the food was pretty good but it was way overpriced and we felt a bit like we were back in Manchester's Northern Quarter. On our way out of the restaurant I discovered that my DSLR camera had decided to break. Great. In opposition to my usual knack of catastrophising, I took the breakage in my stride knowing we'd eventually get it fixed or replaced (if budget allowed).
Back at our hostel we got chatting to the Swedish guy we'd nosed at the night before who played around with my camera for a while before confirming what I knew, it was completely fucked.

The following morning we were collected by Viola Cruises and spent the next 4 hours on a mini bus with our fellow cruisers. After doing a little bit of research into Halong Bay excursions, we'd decided on a mid-range 'cruise' as opposed to the cheap ones. With over 1000 'junk' boat companies offering 1 day and 2 days trips out to Halong Bay from Hanoi it can be a bit of a minefield selecting one. We were introduced to our tour guide Lucky, who sounded more Australian than Paul Hogan (his English teacher was an Aussie) who was incredibly warm and smiley. Our cruise colleagues were made up of a 5 Brazilian guys, a German couple, a Swiss couple, a French couple, a Uruguayan couple and a large group of middle-aged Indonesian woman (approx. 10 of) and two long suffering men.

Halfway through the journey we stopped at an interesting sort of drive-through service station. The buses drive up to the side of this large open shopping mall, let you out and then drive around in a semi-circle to meet you at the other side for pick-up. So, much like an Ikea you have to walk the entire shop floor to get out. On offer are all the goods that tourists and holidaymakers lap-up; clothes, marble garden ornaments, lacquerware and imported confectionery (Toblerone, M & Ms etc.).

It became quickly apparent that the large Indonesian group of mostly ladies were, how can I put this, a bit mental; they spent most of the 4 hour journey screaming, laughing, taking photos of each other, loudly chatting (or maybe it was arguing) and playing crap pop on their phones. My sort of women.

Arriving at Halong Bay we were escorted onto a small boat that took us all to our cruise-boat. Now I've never been on a cruise, and I suppose one night's stay on a boat is hardly a cruise, but I was quite enamoured by our little floating home. Our bedroom was quite plush; comfy double bed and a very impressive bathroom with a hot and powerful shower. Plus we had our very own deck to look out onto the water and karsts; shame it was really friggin' foggy so we couldn't see shit.
After a yummy lunch in the dining hall we got on a small bamboo boat to sail around the last few remaining floating villages. The woman on the boat with us were clearly very excited by picturesque surroundings and many photo-opportunities;

We then visited an operating fresh-water pearl farm where we were educated on the pearl-cultivating process. We actually were treated to a live kill where an oyster was picked from a tank, forcibly opened and had its ovary cut open for a shiny pearl to pop out. We learned that for all of the oysters farmed, only 30% actually produce pearls. Which all seems a little unnecessary for so many to be killed and disposed of. I forgot to ask if the dud ones are sold on for food - I hope they are. Needless to say Lauren and I weren't interested in buying anything from the jewellery shop attached to the farm.

For dinner that evening we were overwhelmed with food. There was plenty already but because we had Lauren and a vegan on our table, we were treated to loads of extra dishes too. As if that wasn't enough, it was International Women's Day so the few men on the boat were instructed to serve us all cake and wine which made the Indonesian woman fall into hysterical laughter.

After a long sleep we woke up to find the sun had burned through the mist and clouds. With our new tour guide Phong we sailed over to Sun Sot caves where, filled with solar energy, Loz and I giddily clambered around the stalactites and stalagmites into nooks and crannies. The cave is known to the locals as 'Surprise' cave and the story goes that these caves and all of the karsts came into being as a result of dragons descending and spitting out jade into the water.

At the foot of the cave is a little cove were we paddling in the turquoise water and took some group photos for the Brazilian guys.
Back on the boat we checked-out and watched the head chef creating some impressive decorations out of vegetables;

That was it for Halong Bay; it was a shame about the weather but the water and islets really were a spectacular sight and the boat along with the Indonesian's provided me with much amusement. I even managed to read a whole book in the two days; which isn't like me at all.

The drive back was a little terrifying as our driver had a habit over overtaking vehicles that were in the middle of overtaking someone else. For a lot of the journey we seemed to be on the wrong side of the road. Cue lots of frantic screaming from the women.

We got back to Hanoi much too early for our 19:30 sleeper train to Hue so we hung out at a café for a few hours trying to tackle our land-sickness.

Posted by advensha 22:20 Archived in Vietnam Tagged fog beach caves cruise vietnam travellers hanoi south_east_asia halong_bay crazy_driving overtaking selfies broken_camera hanoi_kids_tour viola_cruises indonesian_tourists sun_sot_caves pearl_farm Comments (0)

Laos: Luang Prabang

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Eventually we arrived at Sa Sa Lao; a hostel-style accommodation set right on the Nam Khan riverside and overflowing with luscious tropical foliage and vegetables. We had our very own hut (we're getting pretty accustomed to bamboo boxes by now) complete with a netted double bed, en suite bathroom, fan and plenty of geckos, ants and mozzies.

The cloudy and comparatively chilly weather we'd been introduced to on the Mekong was hanging around and so we were still wrapped up in long pants and hoodies. Still feeling like shit I was in no state to eat dinner so Lauren ate something at the hostel's little bar/cafe and not long after we went to bed.

One of the interesting things about staying in a hut is the orchestra of multifarious noises you're serenaded with of an evening. Geckos are common culprits; making sounds ranging from squeaks right up to loud high-pitched meows. Here at Sa Sa Lao, the familiar geckos were joined by the resident dogs (who were actually very cute and friendly), the occasional cat, a smattering of birds and the eternally open karaoke bar opposite. So each night at around 7pm, all of the dogs within a 10 mile radius would start shouting at each other and a Lao gentleman with a hugely inflated sense of talent would start screaming into a microphone. This was our lullaby. Although mildly annoyed by our aural experience, it didn't for the most part affect our sleep; either our tolerance is increasing or we're going deaf.

I wasn't feeling much brighter the following morning but I could still muster up the energy to do some exploring of our new destination. With the help of the French hotel manager and a badly photocopied map, we found our way to Luang Prabang centre. Getting to the centre meant crossing the bamboo bridge which, shockingly, is a walking bridge that crosses over the Nam Khan river made entirely of bamboo. This bridge is built, maintained and dismantled by a local family every year who charge 5000 kip (approx. 45p) per person for a return journey across it. It only exists in the dry season and in the wet season, it is either removed in advance or washed away. The bridge is rudimentary to say the least, but it functions perfectly well and makes the journey to town much quicker for those on the 'wrong' side of the river. Here's some moving pictures of our first bamboo bridge expedition. If you listen carefully you'll hear Lauren berating me for taking 'deep steps'...

After a crap, overpriced breakfast, we stomped about the town a bit, taking in the colonial buildings, the tourist-centric souvenir and craft shops and enjoying the mild temperature and chilled-out atmosphere. The town actually felt a little Wild Wild West in terms of its layout and aesthetic. There is a thriving tourist industry in Luang Prabang and this is very apparent. The majority of the people we walked past weren't Lao, and the streets were overrun with travel agencies, European cafés and shops. We didn't mind this too much as the demographic seemed to be older than your average backpacker (25+) and a little more middle class. Not completely our crowd but the placidity was both enjoyable and infectious.
On our way back to the hotel we stumbled past a well-reviewed little pizza restaurant owned by a Lao-American couple (called Pizza Phan Lung). It was literally in their back garden with a handful of tables around a proper outdoor stone pizza-oven. A small amount of shame washed over us for buying Italian food on our first proper day in Laos but we quickly forgave ourselves as by this point I just really couldn't stomach Asian food.

The next day, a Sunday, we had another disappointing and expensive breakfast in town, redeemed by a great visit to the Laos Ethnology Centre. We also hopped on a mini bus to KouangXi waterfall 30km away. The waterfalls were incredibly beautiful; bright turquoise water surrounded by the green of huge trees and plants, decorated with hundreds of colourful butterflies. Unfortunately we hadn't packed our swimming costumes so we couldn't jump in but we did a little bit of paddling and that was enough for us. The water was too bloody cold anyway. There were lots of tourists of all ages splashing around in the water, mostly taking selfies, and a few were back-flipping off high rocks into the pools.

At the bottom of the falls is a bear sanctuary that rescues Asian black bears and sun bears from poachers (their gall bladders are used in Chinese medicine) and animal shows. The bears were gorgeous and seemed to have been provided a brilliant habitat. We were a little irked by the fact the WIRE fence protecting us from these bears (or vice versa) was only about 5 foot high. We didn't hang around too long.

On the drive back I started to feel really dodgy again so when we got back to town Lauren had a quick (and crap) plate of fried rice in the first restaurant we found, followed by a street crepe and we hurried back so I could climb into bed. That evening I felt really ill. I couldn't regulate my temperature and I had a horrible throbbing nausea and banging head ache. Although nothing was coming out of me I had all the symptoms of a stomach bug or food poisoning. As I'd gradually gotten worse over the last week we decided it would be best if I spent a day in bed, starving and feeling incredibly sorry for myself. So nothing to report on this day except Lauren having to go out on her own for lunch only to find the bamboo bridge closed off because of fast running water - ha. Luckily there were a handful of cafés on our side of the river she could make-do with.

The day of abstinence really did help and the next morning I felt super-perky (and hungry) so we headed to town but this time had to take the long-route across the motorbike bridge as the bamboo bridge was still closed. This motorbike bridge is as described but has a narrow pedestrian walkway tacked on the side of it with only crude wooden floorboards separating walkers from the river 300 feet below. We finally had a decent (but still pricey) breakfast at Novelty Café and then burnt it off by walking the 300 steps up Phousi mountain to see all of the Buddha images, temples and, most notably, the Buddha's footprint. It turns out Buddha was an actual giant as his footprint was 7 foot long... An interesting part of being up there was that we got talking to a very charismatic 19 year old monk who was soon to be leaving the monkhood after 8 years. He was very excited at the prospect of drinking and being with women and was asking us falangs (foreigners) all about our life experiences. We didn't tell him we were a couple as we thought his head might explode. This was the first time we'd had a one-on-one conversation with a Buddhist monk and it was great. Turns out (as we suspected) they're pretty normal guys. And, contrary to what I though, they're not all vegetarians. They eat whatever they're given (with most of the time is meat).

Back down at ground level we made our way to Big Brother Mouse; a charity centre where Lao children can go (for free) to learn English from both educated Laotians and foreign volunteers. Unfortunately we arrived at the wrong time and so couldn't get involved in the storytelling session we'd hoped to. Instead we bought some books that were written by students and published at the centre and I also poked my head into a Lao sign language class and showed the deaf students some BSL signs. This amazing spontaneous interaction really made my day and also brought a little tear to my eye (I'm a wet fish I know).

Clearly a little concerned that we weren't being selfish enough we then went for a hand and foot massage at a nearby centre which apparently gives 20% of its profits to local villages. During the massage (which was very good), one of the ladies asked Lauren "do you have a baby?" and pointed to her stomach. Upon hearing that Lauren was carrying a food baby and not a human baby the girl was very apologetic but luckily neither of us are easily offended. If anything it gave me a good laugh for the rest of the evening. Later that evening, in an effort to diminish said faux-foetus, Lauren demolished a burger and french fries at a local trendy joint called Utopia. We're kings of weight loss.

High on MSG and feeling brave we walked the 30 minutes back to our hostel in the dark (but we had a torch) and tried not to get mowed down/eaten by dogs/kidnapped by guerillas. You'll be glad to hear dear reader that we made it back without even a mosquito bite and were greeted by our favourite little puppy too. The rest of the night was spent packing up our things and preparing for our early morning bus to Vientiane.

Posted by advensha 03:11 Archived in Laos Tagged monk laos luang_prabang travellers bears backpackers mekong_river utopia big_brother_mouse stomach_bug kuang_si_waterfall Comments (1)

Myanmar: Yangon to Bagan and back again

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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)

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