A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: gavinbose

A STEPPING STONE TO ENGLAND

Taipei (and around), Taiwan

15 °C

Some things just don't go: choc ice and chips; fish fingers and custard; me and fashion; Big Brother and intellectually stimulating television. The same can be said for capital cities and nature. However there are always exceptions. Come to the diary room and I will let you know more.......

I arrived at Taipei airport on the Air Asia jet. As I emerged weary eyed I noticed a line of chauffeurs brandishing pieces of paper with the names of their business clients; waiting to take them to 4 star palaces (well palaces to me). For a brief moment I had visions of pretending that I was Nigel Smethhurst, Commercial Director from Amalgamated Corrugated Roofing PLC. After raiding the mini bar, briefcase full of towels and toiletries I would declare at the next day’s meeting. “Give everyone a day off”. “Next Friday is compulsory naked day for everyone”. That’s a thought!

Taiwan was an afterthought for my trip. We had been to Hong Kong at the end of my trip the previous year and loved it. I didn't know much about this small country that had been invaded by the Spanish, the Japanese, the Chinese and the odd tourist. Now it's sovereignty is debatable as Taiwan largely disputes China's claim over it. Still therefore loosely within China's grip it manages to be one of the most liberal countries in Asia and is perhaps a democracy functioning within a dictatorship. Less frantic, less crowded, greener (2/3rds of it is forest) and cheaper to live than Hong Kong, it is therefore an attractive place for people to live. I however did speak to someone who feared that this lifestyle could be shattered, that the country could face the same clampdown on democracy that Hong Kong had suffered. Let us hope not.

Just like the Made in Hong Kong stamp, anyone of a certain age remembers the 'Made in Taiwan' stickers on the pathetically unrealistic rubber spiders we had as kids that we used to hide in the girl with the sweaty palms' desk at primary school. If you are a little younger you probably think I have lost the plot and just ignore that little bit of rambling nonsense. Anyway I 'toyed' with the idea of Taipei after I discovered that Emirates charged hardly any more to fly back from Taipei and it was only a cheap and relatively brief flight away from Manila. The weather would be much cooler than the Philippines but much warmer than the UK so a stepping stone back to cold Christmas in blighty. But alas these days no cheap toys to take back.

I thought that perhaps I had made a mistake nevertheless and that exactly 6 days (less 30 minutes) in Taipei, the capital, may be a bit too long. Certainly upon emerging on the streets after the relatively short flight I was not instantly impressed. Well it was a bit overcast. For a developed country it looked architecturally drab. Although this was thanks to the usually esthetically challenging grey box approach to building of communist states (the Chinese) and the misplaced need to remove some lovely Japanese and colonial buildings. I clearly hadn't properly explored then. Despite seeing a number of homeless people in their neat boxes around the station (a vision that stays with me) it does not strike me as a particularly poor nation. It is just not as immediately appealing like Hong Kong. It does not have the glitz and the glamour of the modern Hong Kong sky line. How much did I underestimate the country?. The greyness evaporated and rich, colourful rewards of Taipei were quickly revealed.

Location-wise, unlike my accommodation in Dhaka, I had made the right choice. I had a single room in what appeared to be a converted apartment block. By no means flashy but clean, and only a stones through from the station, hence also access to the marvelous MRT network.

The MRT framework is the network of veins that pump the blood around the city. It is fast, clean, safe, a little crowded but will take you to the far outskirts of the city. The longest journey I did on the MRT during this brief stay was to Danshui, 40 minutes and a mere £1 dent on my budget. Better than the London rip similar journey. This is a historic town on the banks of the river (you guessed in Danshui). As you emerge on the train you would be surprised to see a large Mangrove forest. As it is such an accessible place, this nature reserve can be toured by bike or foot on an endless boardwalk. A short walk from the station and there is a huge dormant volcano Guanyinshan. A pleasant riverside walk past street artists and museums takes you to Fort San Domingo, was established by the Spanish; it was later controlled by the Dutch, Chinese, British and Japanese.

Back in Taepai city centre, so the skyline is not the Manhatton of Asia, though it does least have the 4th tallest building in the world, Taipe 101 at 508 metres. It took a full 37 seconds to get to the 89th floor on the fastest lift in the world. Once at the top the weather was a bit overcast but at least you come to appreciate the huge scope of the city. You can also marvel at this feat of engineering. A huge yellow ball inside the tower is a bit like something from a sci-fi movie. It sits near the top of the tower and is designed to take the impact of acts of god. Apparently it can withstand winds of up to 134 mp. I can also survive the strongest earthquakes likely to occur in a 2,500 year cycle.

Upon leaving the safety of the tower I fancied a walk to get a perspective of this unusual temple inspired structure. I took a walk half way up a hill and then just carried on walking for a full 3 hours plus, accompanied by 2 Taiwanese born guys. One was retired and now living in the states. It was good to get two different insights on the country.

Taeipi is therefore an urban walker’s paradise. The paths are so well signposted that you hardly need a map. There are walks everywhere, often encompassing nature reserves, including a wetland nature resort popular with birdwatchers. A different walk, this time up the highest mountain in the locality, took me to a height of 1100 metres after 3 hours on a rainy Sunday. It was good to see a stream of stoic walkers braving the constant drizzle. Getting to the summit, the trig point was crowded with locals taking selfies were taken over the backdrop of a white. Too cold to stay long, I descended and was shortly alerted by the mighty whiff of eggs. No not the annual walk of the Taiwanese Flatulent Society. It was the mountain that farted. This was sulphuric steam coming off a fissure, reminding me that it is a volcanic, potentially volatile island. A byproduct of this geological activity was much welcome. After finishing the walk I boarded a bus and immediately started to feel a little cold. Fortunately I was reminded of some hot springs on the outskirts of town. After 3 hours in a 37 degree pool I had certainly warmed up.

There is plenty else to see in Taipei including exquisitively carved 17th century temples. There is Longshan Temple, Taipei City Baoan Temple - Taipei City Baoan Temple. You can explore some of the old streets and wander around the night markets and get assaulted by the stench of stinky tofu. There are the glitzy bright lights around the Ximending district. Other impressive sights include the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Zhongshan Park National Palace Museum (Check out the ming Vases) Ming vaces. Did I also say that there is a Museum of Drinking Water?.

If you do want to grab a drink between attractions you can also check out a ubiquitous 7/11 store, a kind of Co-op late shop with cafe pretentions (ie sit and eat your purchases). Sometimes there is one every 100 metres. They are welcoming places though. Upon entering the shop the assistant will say something that sounds like "meeow". Please do not reply with a "woof woof". Do not say "here tiddles". It is just the rather high pitched chinese accent uttered by the polite and civilized people of Taiwan.

Alas I had to leave behind those cute smiles from convenience store ladies. At about 11.30 pm on Christmas Eve my Emirates flight was ready to take me back to the UK. I felt like a dog being forced back into its kennel after a run on a sunset bathed Philippines beach; or sprinting through colonial Indian park, or just a walk through an oriental city where the street corners are humming with the essence of incense, fresh and fried noodles. I was not ready to go back. I flipped through my passport one more time. There is one consolation though. There will be another trip ahead. There is no way that my passport will gather dust. The airport bus was waiting. Then maybe 16 hours 2 flights, 6 movies later on Christmas Eve I arrived at Manchester Airport. As the 369 took me through the depressing streets of Whythenshawe on my way back home, “there will be another trip” was playing in my head like a Buddhis Mantra…….. Soon I hope.

Posted by gavinbose 11:54 Archived in Taiwan Comments (0)

THE ANTIQUE ROAD SHOW

White Beach, Boracay to Iloilo via the Antique Province

sunny 24 °C

Field marshall montgomery, Haig, Kitchener, Hitler, Stalin all had contingency plans. Churchill had contingency plans in place for a German Invasion. Any trip to Asia needs a contingency plan. As the writer Penelope Lively said "It seems to me that everything that happens to us is a disconcerting mix of choice and contingency".

The 2000 year old Banaue Rice Terraces are a National Cultural Treasure of the Philippines and are considered to be the 8th Natural Wonder of the World . Alas Ruby's action meant a booked flight from Kalibo to Manilla was cancelled. A crucial delay of 2 to 3 days would mean my time in the aformentioned world wonder would be compromised too much. Better to shelve it for another occasion when I have more time to savour it. A few hours were spent in the internet cafe considering the options. Nothing defines Palawan more than the water around it. With seascapes the equal of any in Southeast Asia, and wildlife terrestrial and aquatic, the Philippines’ most sparsely populated region is also the most beguiling. Oh bugger. Recommended by so many other fellow travellers but alas yet again not enough time left to truly do it justice. Shelve that for another trip. At last an alternative. For years this rugged province hugging Panay’s west coast has been a somewhat forgotten entity, difficult to access and even more difficult to get around because of poor infrastructure and a soaring mountain range that effectively cuts it off from the rest of Panay. But as roads improve and as nearby Boracay continues to swell in popularity, Antique (an-tee-kay) Province’s time may finally be about to arrive.
That's the place!

The Island of Panay lies next to it's much smaller cousin Boracay. On the South East of this island is the city of Iloilo which offered an alternative airport to get to Manila for my flight to Taiwan on 17th December. It is 7 hours away by road Along the Antique (pronounced Ann Tee Kay) province in one stint from the ferry port of Caticlan. With the help of Joelle I was able to devise an itinerary that broke the journey up on the way over a few days. So from Caticlan I began my journey starkly contrasting from the tourist mecca of Boracay. For several days this was an excursion in which I hardly met a fellow tourist. I felt I was back in the Bangladesh territory, travelling with the locals. As with most public transport journeys in the Philippines, it all started with the familiar bright yellow Ceres bus to my first stop Culasai. These buses appear in good condition, even of western standard, although the seats are somewhat slender. This is surprising considering that the Filipinos,, who in appearance seem crossed between Thai and Southern Americans, are certainly bigger and more portly than the average SE Asian. It was therefore a relief to jump off the bus after 2 hours since I was in danger of being involuntarily welded in the heat to my fellow my fellow passenger on the conjoined seat.

In any other setting Culasi would be an insignificant little town with a bland but brilliantly white washed town square. A small little fishing village with hardly any tourist infrastructure. So nobody selling sunglasses, no beach bar, no restaurants. Only little cafes selling local fare. No beach music. Not even Bob Marley suggesting "Let's get together and feel all right (like me on the bus)". "Why the hell am I here?" I asked myself as the bus spun off into the horizon, no doubt vacating my one seat to a family of six. Well the journey here was a clue. Having been to the Philippines before I must declare that the region has some of the most stunning scenery that I had seen. From the bus the rugged coast was on one side, and on the other side paddy fields and souring 2000m peaks that form a spine through the region. As John Lennon sang "There's nowhere you can go that isn't where you're meant to be".

The suggestion of Antique came with a hotel recommendation, which I followed, for a guest house Anna, named after the proprietor's grand daughter. Dodging some extensive painting of the property, I opted for a clean 2nd floor room with a tremendous panoramic view of the mountains and the cultivated fields below. The water supply was a bit touch and go. I was however provided with an impressive 360 degree sunset from my room.

Two nights in Culasi were bookended the next day's trip to Mararison island. The only way to get here was to charter a small boat for the 15 minute journey. Undiscovered paradise! One tiny community shop. No restaurants or hotels, no real roads. Just a 2 mile or so long slice of golden sand paradise topped with a little hill, fit for climbing to marvel at its view. I followed advice of the guest house and brought food with me, a large feast from the market. The whole afternoon was spent swimming and just enjoying peace, tranquillity, and vendor free bliss. The luxury of nature is the only luxury so said some famous Chinese philosopher. Probably. Paradise however was rocked the previous year when it was largely evacuated during another typhoon. The numerous new builds it transpires were reminders of the devastation. Reflecting on the resilience of the nation, I did take a break from the sea and sat on a communal, shaded bench. I was then musically accosted by a growing crowd of school kids between the ages of 4 and 14. In a moment of pure sponteneity they started to sing (very well )to me a series of philipino and western songs . My personal concert seemed to last 30 minutes or in my memory much much longer.

After Culasi it was a mere 1 hour to Tibiao. I arrived in what appeared to be an identical town square although this town was more bustling,. There was a sizeable market, a few more eateries and even a small cafe that was open 24 hours and sold a decent coffee. A guest house had been recommended again./ Just as well because accommodation was apparently scarce. I asked a local and he took me to the very place. Everyone seemed to know it. A large ancestral home (and guest house) stood next to a doctors surgery. The current owners had lived in America for 30 + years. Now really at retirement age they set up a doctors surgery to serve the local community. I arrived in this lovely home and was the only guest at the time. The running of the place was divested to the very helpful Edmund who cooked a delicious breakfast for me. Whilst watching the TV one evening, he pointed to an American/filipino presenter who had stayed at the guest house. The next day I followed the footsteps of this presenter and I visited the spectacular jungle set Bugtong Bato Falls. Oh I also gave some fish an all you can chew dead foot skin buffet at a fish massage place. Hopefully no food poisoning. I hope they had strong constitutions! The remainder of the time was spent on a stony but beautiful beach with an impressive mountain backdrop. After sharing the beach with half of Asia in Boracay, only a few hours away I felt that this was my beach. After reading and swimming I was only disturbed by the occasional fisherman and rumble in my stomach telling me it was time to eat.

It was time to drag myself away back towards city life and make my way to Iloilo (pronounced Ee low ee low - like an old style greeting from a policeman). Breaking the journey up visiting a famous UNESCO endorsed Spanish colonial church in Magao, I arrived in a large, scruffy student city. Back to civilisation. Not exactly an obvious tourist destination but it was lively and brimming with a seasonal atmosphere. This is the first time that I sensed that Christmas was round the corner. The shops were in full swing, the streets seemed to have a pre Christmas festival air as many were closed for the odd seasonal procession. So this is emphatically Christmas although in the 27 degree heat. In keeping with the city itself, my guest house for 3 days was bedraggled and neglected to say the least. Nevertheless I did get a warm reception and there seemed to be a decent bit of live music every night. The town itself was crammed full of decent eateries with some very good fish food and street food. It is a good base for a day trip to another island. This was the tropical island of Guimaras. I took the trip, visiting a huge mango orchard then settled down on a beach, again just patronised by Philipinos splashing around and sipping the odd rum.

I took an afternoon flight to Manila from Iolio. Not my favourite city although it does have one or two points of interest. I only had ;just over 24 hours there . I had been before and was immediately reminded of the appalling traffic. Getting a taxi from the airport was like paying money to sit and chat with a driver in the car park. 4 miles took 50 minutes. I was glad to dump my stuff and explore. This was my one night in a dorm room (an acceptable but soulless YHA). I stayed in a region next to an endless market with endless eating options. The next day to avoid the traffic I adopted to walk everywhere including to Manila Bay. On route I saw the famous white elephant (or Millenium dome) of its day, the Coconut palace. Apparently Imelda Marcos spent $17 million dollars on this to entertain the pope whom she thought would visit. He was apparently appalled at this gross extravagance and wisely decided not to visit. He made the right choice although he did miss out on this marvellously laid back country. His Holiness could have perhaps, taken off his shoes and socks and topped up his tan on a beach, perhaps sipping his Tanduay (rum) and coke. If there is one piece of advice in the Philippines just relax and kick off your shoes. Imelda why did you need so many though?

Posted by gavinbose 23:34 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

THE TROUBLE WITH RUBY

Top floor, room 2, Trafalgar Cottage, White Beach, Boracay, Philippines

storm 28 °C

"Any news?"I asked the host of the White Beach guest house on the island idyll of Boracay. I was enquiring about the status of the impending super Typhoon Ruby. Joelle showed me on his computer screen. An ominous grey mass was filling the screen and heading for this tiny 7 km strip of vulnerable paradise. Oh shit!

Having gorged on a 2 week cultural buffet of temples, monasteries etc in Burma I felt it was time to loosen the belt, disengage the mind and just chill out on a beach. I had left Yangon, flown to Kuala Lumpur airport, arriving just before midnight. After one night in a Japanese style 'pod' ( a novelty - bit like one of those corpse drawers you see in a movie morgue) I was off to possibly the most popular destination in the Philippines. So it appeared a logical destination. Weather not to extreme. The storms will be in hibernation until the summer. That is what I thought anyway.
Apart from the storms I kind of knew what to expect from Boracay, one of 7000 plus islands in the Philippines. I knew it would be very touristy, I knew that it is a hedonistic paradise for many Asians and Europeans. If you expect much more you may be in for a disappointment. Despite some seedy undercurrents, it is rendered a safe place (and pretty litter free) to be due to a heavy police and security presence. There is an endless stretch of eating and drinking establishments for them to patrol with many open 24 hours.

Despite the popularity it is fortunatley not as noisy or as full throttle as Ibiza and you are more likely to hear Bob Marley telling his woman not to cry rather than high energy hip hop frankly trying to make me cry. OK it is touristy and on every square cm there seems to be someone trying to sell me something. "OK I believe you. the sun glasses are genuine Gucci and the necklace is made from genuine pearls, Father Christmas exists and the moon is made from cheese".

Many of the venders are ladyboys. There are so many of them that I was considering opening a gender realignment clinic on the beach. I will call it the first cut is the deepest. It takes all sorts but for me Boracay was just the tonic, just a place to relax, to swim, to drink, to read and surrender to it's charms. White beach was on a classic sweeping curve of white powdery sand, palm trees swaying in the breeze. At sunset as the fishing boats come in the sea is illuminated in a brilliant crimson red. Amidst this great beauty, my days were easily filled by reading, drinking, eating, chatting to the eclectic characters that I met. These folk ranged from 20 something Polish backpackers to 70 year old Dutch divorcees looking for someone to justify their Viagra purchase.

At £6.50 a night the accommodation was perhaps the cheapest on the island but was a lovely, clean, comfortable guest house with a communal area where I could share a drink with a multinational group of tourists including Phillipinos. In the sterile luxury of the resorts you would not be exposed to such a sociable mix. I made a drinking companion in Herve (from Switzerland). He introduced me a bar run be a German so corpulent that he made Jabba the hut look like Karen Carpenter.

I sure felt that I was on top of the world looking down on creation. But the almighty’s eye was clearly off the ball when the sky started to get greyer, the sea choppier as news of the typhoon arrived. Fish supplies in the restaurants were running out. Coconuts were being removed from palm trees. A trip to the bar on a windy evening was tinged with danger. The atmosphere was changing like the first act of a disaster movie,. You knew something was about to happen. All the subplots were being unwound. The waitress turns out she had changed her identity to escape from her abusive husband. The curmudgeonly old women loosing her pathetic poodle to a fallen branch from a palm tree.

Like a big movie anticlimax however the storm was downgraded to a level 2. So fortunately nothing like the typhoon that hit the country the previous year at about the same time of year. Enough damage however to result in flight delays. Hence an extra 2 days on the island. I can think of worse places to be stranded. Nevertheless when the ferries and planes were ready to depart I felt that it was time to depart from this spiritual comfy armchair of a place. Time to depart on the road to Iloilo. Any city pronounced ee low ee low deserves my patronage.

Posted by gavinbose 13:55 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

THE RIVER TO BAGAN

Ayeyarwaddy Waddy

sunny

Cheadle Heath conjures up images of cricket and Pims on a sunny Sunday afternoon in a quaint little village green in the home counties. The reality could not be more removed from that, not just geographically. Mandalay creates all kinds of exotic images of magical kingdoms and slain dragons. The reality is more boring I am afraid. Mandalay is a rather sprawling city with large, wide featureless streets. If it was populated by fire breathing dragons they would somehow be rather dull. Like a culinary pancake disaster, it is flat, sprawling and hot. There seems to be no nucleus to the city despite the fact that there is a huge moated fort (once occupied by the British) in the middle of the city. Even that looks bland. It isn't an unpleasant city but unlike Yangon has no real character. It is nevertheless an excellent base for day trips. There is Amarapura, a former capital. Spanning the gorgeous Taungthaman Lake is U Bein Bridge. It is 1.2-kilometre long and was built around 1850. It is believed to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. So plenty of things to fill 3 days as well as the obligatory temples of course.

Despite the city being generally flat there is a hill to award you with a perfect vantage point. Mandalay Hill is a 240 m walk past a number of pagodas. It has to be done barefoot. Sunrise therefore is a camera friendly and foot friendly (ie cool under foot) time to do the walk. So this is what I did. The young monk novices often talk to foreigners at the summit to improve their English. I am always happy to oblige in such circumstances since the conversation does not revolve around sales. It is at this point that I got to know more about the monks. Often boys as young as 6 or even younger commit themselves for a few years and learn the teachings of Buddhism. During this time of course they get free board, lodging and general schooling. Often after say 3 years they will leave the monastery and resume a conventional life. Some will commit themselves for longer. I spoke to a 16 year old who had been a monk for 4 years. He intends to stay for another 6 years. In this tenure he will apparently not see his family as they cannot afford the trip.

It is humbling when you speak to some of the monks and the locals about their sacrifices and experiences. I spoke to the elderly caretaker (one of the many Indian immigrants) at a colourful Hindu temple in Mandalay. He remembered the very day that the Japanese invaded. Scary times!.

Far removed from the tyranny and oppression that has blighted this country, as a backpacker in Burma now you certainly have choice, For example dining experiences can be pretty broad because of all the external influences, be it Burmese, Thai, Chinese ,western, plus a huge array of street grub from literally grubs to roasted sweet potato (simple, healthy, I love it) . Also in terms of travel, after 3 days in Mandalay I wanted to travel to the temple town of Bagan. The choices were flying, a 4 hour bus journey, taxi, pogo stick, slow boat (2 days) or fast boat (9 hours). I was on the verge of hiring a pogo stick but decided at the last minute to take the fast, very comfortable and memorable cruise down the Ayeyarwady river.

Bagan is often referred to as the Angkor Wat of Burma. There are 2000 of the 10,000 temples remaining that were build between the 9th and 13th century. Some of the restoration work is however far from subtle which has meant UNESCO has refrained from giving Bagan it's stamp. It is still all very atmospheric especially in the way it positions itself within the landscape. You are constantly aware of the rugged hills in the background. The roads are fairly safe, easy to negotiate, pleasantly tree lined and quiet. It is perfect for cycling, hence for me the hiring of a bike was a must, as it was the only way to do justice to the sites. Of course the temples vary a lot in size, the biggest (in terms of volume) being Dhammayangyi. The tallest is Thatbyinnyu at 60 metres. A number of temples give you a good panoramic vantage point. Even with 3 days, of course you can only see the major temples in this time period. It has to be said that I knowingly cycled passed bits of ancient architecture that in another situation you would travel half a day to visit. You can almost take it for granted. The best way to see it all is on a hot air balloon however. At $320 however it was clearly not in my budget. At that price I would expect to keep the balloon anyway.

Talking of budgets. In Bagan I had up to this point booked my only dorm room (3 nights). This was a necessity due to the generally high accommodation prices in Bagan. I nevertheless no longer have much tolerance with sharing a room with strangers. It is the fear of waking people up. It is also the assault course that you often have to negotiate to get to the loo. It is the torturous stench of unwashed feet of the locomotive snoring (often mine) that 'enhances' the experience. Fortunately the guest house had double booked and had had to put me in a single room at no extra charge.

A single room I had most certainly secured for my my next destination: Inle Lake. I arrived via overnight bus. I left Bagan this time more equipped for my journey, complete with arctic wardrobe. I was perfectly snug this time although I was rudely awakened at 3.30am the next morning as the bus had the nerve to arrive on schedule. As you can imagine this was several hours before official check in at the guest house and I did not want to pay for an additional night . On arrival at the nicest warmest, friendliest accommodation of my entire trip a kind young lady at reception let me sleep on a seat at reception and placed a blanket over me. Such service! Not wishing to waste any time, after breakfast at 7.30 I joined 2 Germans and a French Canadian on a one day boat tour along the 13km Inle lake. And what a journey, albeit it was interspersed with some very tourist market trips. This did not detract from the beauty of the lake however. The lake is interspersed with stilt-house villages, island-bound Buddhist temples and floating gardens. You can spend all day marveling at the fisherman controlling the steering of their wooden boats with one leg. The obligatory temple stop including what could only be described as a surreal walk through a dense forest of tall Stupas.

Once again, like Bagan, Inle has a nice low key mixed age backpackers vibe. There are plenty of small bars and restaurants selling ridiculously cheap but ridiculously good river fish. Once again I hired a bike. other sites |I visited a vineyard and tried some very acceptable white wine. Another day was spent walking with two Italian brothers (they seemed as tall as the dolomites. One of the brothers had been given some money from an aunt to donate to a local orphanage so we all went to make a donation. This of course was run by a monk. We visited this after the walk. It was on a weekend so there were no lessons. Even so it was great to see kids running around and well being kids.

So 3 days was not really enough for Inle lake, my favourite place in Burma. My third and final overnight bus journey took me full circle back to Yangon for the final 2 days/1 night. 2 weeks was just about enough time to see my well trodden limited itinerary. I wish I had had more time to explore the beaches, the jungles etc. I also felt that it had been a bit too slick and perhaps I had not been exposed to the rawness of public transport travel that I experienced (some say endured) in Bangladesh. To make amends I took a local boat to explore (via chartered rickshaw) villages on the other side of the river. On the other day, also using public transport, I visited ancient Bago (formerly Pagu) about 50 miles from Yangon. It is a gullavillian (OK not a real world) region of giant Buddhas gullavillian. This included SHWE-THA-LYAUNG RECLINING BUDDHA, and incredible 55 m long and by the Mon in 994. A big Buddha! Of course using public transport was not as straight forward as I had hoped. The journey back took 2 1/2 hours through the gridlocked carbon monoxide carpark. Getting the right bus there was helped by a local guy who wanted to assist. He also wanted to visit Bago so he joined me He was able to get a good rate for a chartered rickshaw. Despite his offering I would not let him contribute. Before we embarked on the excursion he took me to his village which can only be described as a very neat and tidy shanty town of bamboo huts.

So the poor who were not so visible on the streets of Burma were nicely tucked away from the periphery of the tourists vision. There are still documented incidents of villages being evicted from their cities to make way for tourist developments. On a positive note next year the gentle natured people of Burma could have a future as bright as one of their gold topped Pagodas. I hope that this is the case and I hope to visit it again.

Posted by gavinbose 16:19 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

THE ROAD TO MANDALAY

You Buddha Believe It

"Welcome to Myanmar". In what would become characteristically friendly greeting, the taxi driver let out a broad smile revealing his blood red beetlenut stained teeth. I had stepped out of Yangon Airport and straight into a gleaming white AC taxi. An unusual touch of luxury but taxis are very cheap in Myanmar.

But yes indeed welcome to Myanmar or Burma as it was and indeed should be called. Welcome to the land of pagodas, stupas and monasteries. Welcome to the giant white, brick, teracotta, multi coloured, slilver, gold, or candyfloss stupas towering over the trees; welcome to the land of giant Buddha statues: some standing, some sitting, some reclining, some hopping, some hopping mad. Welcome to the many monasteries liberally dotted around the landscape; some disneyesquely garish, some exquisitely carved and teak (dating 200 + years). Welcome to the thousands of chanting orange robed monks, an integral part of the everyday human landscape. Yes indeed welcome to Burma, Buddhism on acid.

Just to recap, I arrived at Burma (God damn it as I will call it now) after I left the land mosques (ie Bangladesh) and after I left the land of Hindu temples (India) for the final time on the trip. Incidentally Kolkata seemed positively western after I returned from Bangladesh for 4 days. Any buildings that prior to my trip appeared to be dilapidated and crumbling seemed, in Estate Agents speak anyway, to be merely possessing charm and character. The traffic seemed orderly (comparatively of course). The parks seemed greener and cleaner. Even the odd cow standing in the middle of a side street seemed to know where it was going. I still missed the Bangladesh people however. Kolkatarians seemed cold, abrupt and even surly by comparison. I missed the level of friendliness which was prevalent all over Bangladesh (even Dhaka). Anyway it was nice to get back to see my family again in Kolkata. They were not rude. As I only had 4 days it was also a chance to say my goodbyes. As usual my uncle took me shopping for clothes to take back to family members back home. So many that they were shipped back via the post. It could take 4 weeks but things should get home in one piece. Here's hoping anyway.

Of course I had to say goodbye to the adorable rottweiler puppy. [Adorable rottweiler, that's like saying cuddly dictator]. Mojo had got noticeably bigger in the intervening 3 weeks. He was clearly getting more and more demanding. It was if he was giving me an option. Will you play with me or do you want to be eaten? I was not in the mood for playing or being eaten, alas playing proved to preserve my digits.

The dog clearly needed a walk and so did I. I met up with a chap Sam and I encountered on the Darjeeling trek and 2 of his friends. We walked around the Victoria monument museum for a second time. They seemed to by quite historically clued up so they seemed to take turns in giving me a commentry.

Sad to leave everyone as I embarked on my next adventure. After being seen off at the airport I took a flight from Kolkata to to KLI2 airport at the lovely hour of 12.40 (ie after midnight). I arrived at Kuala Lumpur at 7.30 am approx. A further flight to Yangon was at 5.30 pm that day, so a long time to wait. Fortunately this airport s equipped with the broadest choice of tantalising Asian cuisine that you will find anywhere. It is also pleasantly laid out and very cheap. I almost didn't want to leave. bit time for the next flight.

A bit of a background. Mayanmar or Burma, as it was called, is a place I had boycotted for so long due to the brutal military regime. It is slowly but surely making steps towards democracy. Quite often however it is 2 steps forwards and on step backwards. In 2010 a democratic election the most banana republic sense was held and the same old hard line party got in. Many of the MPs of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party are still military cronies of the old regime unfortunately. Next year is a deciding time as another general election will be taking place. The National League for democracy, the current opposition headed by Aung San Suu Kyi will be standing. The ruling government however are constantly putting obstacles in the way. Aung San Suu Kyi is fighting for reform of the current system or she may never win. She cannot officially become leader as she once married a foreigner apparently. Only the the most cynical nevertheless could concede that Burma is not moving towards democracy. Posters of Aung San Suu Kyi and her even more revered father (assassinated after being elected leader) openly adorn many shops and houses.

Bangladesh is by no means a model democracy, however people regularly openly discuss politics. In Burma however I gave many people the opportunity to air their views although they remained tight lipped over politics (I did not attempt to persuade them apeak). They are still so used to the Government control which below the surface is probably still there. Positively though, even human rights organisations are suggesting that people visit the country as an independent tourist. I felt completely free to go wherever I wanted which surely is a good sign. There is still a big step to becoming a true democracy. Only when the West puts pressure on the ruling elite to stage a fair election will the people be truly free.

I did expect a fairly mixed political scenario. Everything else about Burma was a surprise. Poverty was certainly less evident then I had expected. Well in the towns and tourist destinations at least. It was only after exploring the villages on the outskirts that I saw people living in tiny wooden 'sheds'. Still they did not resemble the kind of shanty towns I had seen elsewhere in Asia. The streets were cleaner than I would have anticipated though far removed from say Kuala Lumpur levels. The accommodation standards were much better than I had expected even though I had generally booked budget rooms. The restaurants were cleaner than could be expected. Apart from accommodation everything seemed much cheaper than expected. There was no need to dine as the locals did on low plastic chairs on the pavement eating deep fried entrails. Even after upgrading my dining habits it cost only about 2 pounds 50 for a good meal. Most noticeably, and this is the double edged sword, the country was more tourist friendly than I would ever had expected. It was simply very easy to get around and to organise excursions etc. Communication was seldom an issue. Taxis were cheap and certainly the overnight long distance buses were of Western standard. Of course this cannot be said of local buses however.

There is a bit of a guilt factor with all this "easy backpacking'. I had read horror stories of locals (20 years ago) being forcibly evicted with a days notice to make way for tourist developments. There compensation, a measly 2 pounds. Am I benefiting from this Government ruthlessness? I kept asking myself. Whatever the case now the locals seem to be exploiting this tourist explosion for all its worth. Outside every temple the hawkers are at it trying to sell you drinks, snacks, souvenirs, pecks on the cheek. OK I lied about the last point. Some of the handicrafts are admittedly of good quality, especially the lacquerware although haggling fatigue affected my desire to purchase anything.

My first port of call in Burma was Yangon, formerly the capital and formerly Rangoon. Much of the historical part of the city can be explored on foot. As asian cities go, despite the appalling traffic it was actually pleasant to walk around. It was an interesting mixture of pristinely intact and crumbling architecture. There's also a couple of really good parks, including one with a massive 2km boardwalk through a lake,

A short walk from the guest house is a 200 year old golden temple literally on an oversized traffic island, Sule pagoda. Even more impressive is the Shwadagon Paya, one of the most sacred sites in the country. It is a gilded pagoda and stupa 99 metres that seems to tower over the skyline at many points. Legend has it that it is even over 2500 years old. To give it more contemporary significance Aung San Suu Kyi addressed a mass rally of half a million people in 1988 in during some of the darkest days of the military regime.

More recently (February this year), in fortunately more open times, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the Literary Festival in Mandalay. I bet you there was no book entitled The Road to Mandalay is f*c*i*n*g cold. Well it is, if like me you traveled to the second largest city on a luxury overnight bus. OK there was plenty of legroom; it reclined almost right back and generally it was akin to a first class flight. The AC however was stoked up to the max. I am sure I could hear the chattering of 25 pairs of teeth throughout this 10 + hour journey. We arrived at 5.30 in the morning and immediately I did an inventory on my frost bitten fingers. "Welcome to Mandalay" said the motorbike taxi driver as I jumped on the back. |"Th th th thankyou was my shivering response.

Posted by gavinbose 03:09 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

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