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Daily Life, Myanmar

Bagan

Bagan

The thing I like best about travelling independently is having the freedom to adjust things as we go along. Of course, there are some constraints imposed by time, it would be lovely to be able to go somewhere and just wander until I’ve done everything, but like most other people, I have neither the resources nor the freedom to do that. So given what is available to me and my travelling companions, we try to see as much as we can by being travellers, rather than tourists. We eat in local food stalls and cafes, we talk to the people we meet in shops, in the markets and on the streets and we walk, catch trains and trishaws, tuk-tuks and so on. So far, we’ve never had any dreadful experiences and apart from a couple of unwise eating choices, have generally had no major tummy upsets. We were a bit concerned about going to Myanmar, since there’s not a lot of information available, but sites like Trip Advisor, The Man in seat 61 and other similar sites are sharing more and more information about what used to be a big unknown. We found the people to be pretty much like us, the country is a melting pot of people from all over, with all the major religions well represented as well. We didn’t go to Myanmar for any political reason and that didn’t keep us away earlier, but we were very interested to see photos of Aung San Suu Kyi widely in display in shops and on the street.  The general cleanliness and maintenance of infrastructure of the cities, particularly Yangon and Mandalay, isn’t wonderful, but that could be partly attributed to the fact that it’s the dry season and very dusty. With the new interest in the country lots of foreigners are going in looking for ‘opportunities’.

railway side market, Yangon

railway side market, Yangon

Hopefully the old buildings will be refurbished rather than replaced and it would be a blessing if the waterfront along the river could be renewed, there are currently lots of rather ugly godowns taking up the space which could be beautiful boardwalks and parks.
Life is obviously pretty tough for a large proportion of the population and there is a clear division between rich and poor. Yangon is much larger than we expected and is really a collection of townships which are sort of merged together, with the centre of the city more or less around the Sule Pagoda, south of the railway line. Some of the highlights and observations that made impressions on me – the huge avocados for sale. They were good too and we brought three home with us.

watering the fields, Yangon

watering the fields, Yangon

The turf growers along the railway lines. I was particularly intrigued by the watering cans – a pair of 4 gallon drums with a spout attached which had holed drilled into it. Slung across the shoulders, the water-er could water double the space within the same time. We watched farmers ploughing, planting, harvesting and winnowing rice at various locations and we saw the toddy palms with their ladders to the tops which grow around the edges of the rice fields. Because we were a bit late leaving our hotel in the morning we were to depart from Bagan, we were lucky to find ourselves in the middle of a celebration – the young boys going off a monks. A little bit of serendipity.

Festival in Bagan

Festival in Bagan

We were equally interested in the hawkers along the roads as we wandered about. They looked very familiar, though selling slightly different things. There were sugar cane juice sellers, people selling all sorts of kueh (cakes) and people sitting on small stools dipping meat on sticks into bowls of steaming broth. There were a few people selling Eu-char-koay, but they were selling it with curry, though we didn’t try it because the roads were very dusty. One thing we saw in a number of locations was someone with small birds in a basket. They were obviously selling the birds for release, but they also sold corn for you to feed the many pigeons flying about.

Public telephone, Yangon

Public telephone, Yangon

We knew before we arrived that our phones would be useless for calling, though we had internet, not brilliant, but it worked, in all the hotels. Some of the cafes had it available as well, so we were able to stay in touch. It was quite nice to be ‘cut off’, sort of, for a week or so. Because mobile or public phones are so non-existent in Mynmar, the locals have come up with an innovative response using land lines. Here and there around the city, you will see a few regular house phones set up on small tables (or sometimes in a booth, with advertising!) where you can go to book your calls. They probably won’t be needed for too much longer, progress will come fast, including in the provision of the communications systems.

 

Getting about in Myanmar

trishaws in Yangon

trishaws in Yangon

Getting from place to place in Myanmar is not really that difficult, but it does require some tenacity and a large pinch of faith. This is because finding out information before arriving in the country is a challenge, there are no official websites apart from the ones belonging to the airlines. We quickly crossed off the airlines, flights were plentiful but expensive. Fortunately, unlike our flight in Laos when we returned to Vientiane from Luang Prabang by air to avoid 12 house cramped in a minivan, we would be covering new ground and could catch trains. Assuming, that is, that they would be running when we wanted them to. The ‘man in seat 61’ had the most up to date information available about long distance trains, buses and ferries, but even he had a rider to say things might have changed. Upon landing at the new and modern airport, first order of business was to change currency. This took some time, so I made it my job to identify the best way into the city and our hotel. That was easy, they have a coupon system (pay in Kyat though, it’s cheaper) so we set off with our taxi driver through the rush hour traffic. Yangon is much larger than we expected and it took us nearly an hour to get into central Yangon, though we did see quite a few back streets as we went along a few ‘shortcuts’. Our taxi driver was a very chatty fellow and explained to us that they do drive on the right, despite his taxi being a right hand drive vehicle. Apparently left had drives are much more expensive and it is cheaper to import second hand right hand drive cars from Japan. The country used to drive on the right until the seventies, when the government decided that it would be good to change.

Yangon bus

Yangon bus

Some of the buses still hark from that era, though most of them have been modified so you don’t jump out the wrong side into the traffic. The buses! We didn’t catch any, but we did watch fascinated as the conductors spruiked fares at the bus stop along from our hotel. They jump off and try to get passengers at every opportunity or traffic light, or at least it looked that way. One thing we did notice too, was the lack of motor cycles. There weren’t even a lot in evidence anywhere in the country, but apparently they are banned in Yangon. We weren’t too sorry, it makes the roads a bit quieter and easier to negotiate than in most Asian cities.  I would do it again, especially as they did run when we wanted them to, overnight, thus saving a night in a hotel.

On the Ayerwaddy River, sand dredge

On the Ayerwaddy River, sand dredge

The highlight of our moving between places would have to be the ferry ride down the Ayerwaddy (Irrawaddy) River. You can see from the high banks what the difference in water level is between the wet and dry seasons. Travelling in the dry season shows just how much the sandy nature of the region affects the course of the river. The most important accessories for the captains of the boats are a pair of binoculars and a pair of depth sticks. As we moved down the river we saw at different points, men on the fronts of the boats using their long sticks to check if it was deep enough. We passed one unfortunate vessel firmly stuck and getting some assistance. We were also briefly bogged, but furious ‘backpedalling’ got us out and on our way quickly. Sand mining and dredging could be seen at many locations. There were clearly big operations with lorries ready to take the sand away, and some smaller single boat operations. Along the way we noticed water collection / treatment points, with pumping stations and large pipes taking water away. We passed many large barges carrying logs. Big logs. Probably teak. I felt mixed emotions seeing those going by, especially as there were quite a few of them. There were only two points where roads / railways crossed the river, the Inwa bridge near Sagaeng with two bridges for road and rail and another, closer to Bagan, which doesn’t seem to have a name that I could find.

Bagan, horse cart

Bagan, horse cart

When in Bagan, we decided to try the horse-cart option of travelling round the pagodas. You can get a taxi for the day (nice and clean and probably quicker) or hire a bicycle (slow) and you need more than one day to see everything you may want, because you need to find each location. If we’d had a week, I think we’d have tried the bicycles at least once or twice, but it was good to have someone who could take us between the main pagodas in relative comfort and tell us a bit about each one on the way. It did mean we couldn’t visit some of the pagodas further away, but we were happy with our selection although it would be good to have the opportunity to return for a longer visit in future.

where old cars go to die, Yangon

where old cars go to die, Yangon

If you don’t have the pleasure of a train journey from Bagan to Yangon, it would be a worthwhile exercise to take a trip on the Circular route in Yangon. Most of the stations are along the Yangon-Bagan line before the line loops round to the East, above the lakes and down the eastern side. As we were passing all the stations on the western leg on our way in, we were treated to the morning markets set up on the platforms and nearby as well as daily life passing by. One jaw dropper was the car graveyard. It looked like every old car in the whole country was piled here. It went on for hundreds of metres with vehicles piled maybe ten or more high. Junkyard Central!
Our favoured method of travel in Yangon was shanks’s pony. Always handy, needs exercising and can be taken down one-way streets or jumped across drains or up over footbridges. Also free. Just needs to be fed every now and then and watered regularly. This is one reason we looked for a hotel in Central Yangon. It was close to everything and we were able to walk easily to the Bogyoke Aung San market in one direction and to the Pansodan Jetty in the other. We could stop when we wanted to for a rest or a bit more investigation and wrong turns threw up some unexpected sights. Like the little community along the back road on the way to the museum and the rows of rubber stamp sellers behind Sule Pagoda Road. We decided to give the very overcrowded river ferry a miss, especially as we were there when everyone was trying to go home at the end of the day. For a parting shot, the taxi drivers are like taxi drivers pretty much everywhere, some love to chat and are happy to make little detours. On the way to the airport, our driver was more than happy to take us past Aung San Suu Kyi’s home. He even stopped so we could peep through the small window in the big gate. You can’t see much, because the whole compound is now hidden behind a massive wall. However, it was a nice way to round up our trip to Myanmar.

 

Myanmar – Pagodas by the score

pagoda-4358Many years ago we visited Thailand and were ‘templed out’ after a couple of days. I think because they were all very similar, all very busy and apart from one we visited in Chiangmai, they didn’t really seem to have much to differentiate them from any of the others. There was enough variety in the temples of Laos and Vietnam to keep us interested and Angkor is, well, Angkor. You really appreciate just how magnificent Angkor must have been in its golden age only after you visit Myanmar. You can imagine what the temples would have been like with their roofs and stucco, their gold leaf, jewels and frescoes. There are differences of course, the shapes are different for a start and the temples in Myanmar all look like they had an ice cream upturned on the top. Angkor has been described as a grand Chinese dinner, served course by course. Myanmar, in particular Bagan, is a smorgasbord  Of the estimated original ten to twenty thousand stupas and pagodas, only about two thousand remain. Some have been lost over the years through attrition and earthquakes but many have simply been washed away by the Irrawaddy river as it eats into the bend of the river around old Bagan. The first temples in Bagan were probably built from around two thousand years ago, but most were constructed over about four hundred years from the mid 9th Century,  until the kingdom was over-run by the Mongols at the end of the 13th Century. We’d have loved to see the lot from an early morning balloon ride, but at nearly $300 US a pop, that was out of the question. So we went by horse-cart. Our driver Ko Ko took us around the main temples except for the Shwezigon Temple which was a bit far for our horse, but the others were just as impressive in their own ways. We set off from our hotel in New Bagan heading North to Old Bagan, stopping on the way to visit the Nagayon Guphaya in Myinkaba. pagoda-5038It was built in the 11th Century by King Kyansittha after he was sheltered by a snake which covered him with its hood as he slept. A short walk away is the Lay-Myet Hna Pagoda which has a terrace you can access via a small dark staircase, but affords you a wonderful panoramic view of all the other large temples laid out to the north and west of you. When you descend, the caretaker is very happy to show and he hopes, to sell you, one of his sand paintings. A little further on, we made a quick stop off at the Apeyadana Pagoda, before heading for Myinkaba town. Tucked in behind a row of laquerware workshops, you will find the Gubyaukgyi and Mayazedi Pagodas. The Gubyaukgyi pagoda has some rather impressive stucco detail at eye level, but it is well worth it to continue on to the Mayazedi Pagoda next door past lots of enthusiastic but relaxed sellers of sand artwork. Here you’ll find the Mayazedi pillar, the Myanmar version of the Rosetta stone. Carved into each side of the stone is the same description of Prince Rajakumar’s feelings towards his father, in four different languages, Pyu, Mon, old Burmese and Pali. I guess he was just making sure the point was made.
Ananda is surely the most beautiful of all the Bagan temples, with it’s impressive frescoes and the four Buddhas of the four ages. The frescoes are being slowly restored, and a walk around the grounds so you can view the temple from a distance is a rewarding exercise. We made sure we gave the bells a good beat as we went by for good measure. Dhammayangyi is the largest of all the pagodas and looks like one of the Egyptian pyramids from a distance. The brickwork is very well done and the fit is said to be too tight for even a fine blade to penetrate the joints. Thatbyinnyu Pahto is the tallest, not by a lot, but the golden spire makes sure of that, reaching to 62 metres. Dhamma Ya Zi Ka Pagoda is unusual in that it has a pentagonal terraced design. Four sides are for the already revealed Buddhas, the fifth is waiting for the one yet to come. We arrived just in time to climb up to one of the western facing terraces to see the sun drop behind the hills. Sunset in Bagan seems to be pretty reliably spectacular. In most places you need to have some clouds to give definition, but the sand in the atmosphere around Bagan, even if it’s not too obvious, brings out the reds and adds an extra dimension to the stupas laid out before you. Each of these beautiful buildings was worth the visit but we barely scratched the surface. A look on the internet lists far more than we managed to see in our brief time, you could happily spend a week of more in this lovely location and still not see everything.
We probably sold ourselves short by spending only one day in Mandalay, there are lots of side trips we could have done and we didn’t even make it up Mandalay Hill. The town itself, at least the part we wandered around, is quite dusty particularly once you get off the main streets, but the people are friendly and will point you in the right direction if you get lost. We found a Hindu temple down a back street, though we didn’t go inside. Myanmar is a melting pot of cultures and there are many mosques and churches alongside all the Buddhist temples.

pagoda-7099If you have no time or inclination to visit any pagoda in Yangon other than one, choose between the Sule Road and the Swedagon Pagodas. We were staying in Sule Pagoda Road and thus walked round the Sule Pagoda a number of times, admiring it from all angles, including from the over-bridge on the western side that skirts the pagoda itself at the upper terrace level. You can also get a wonderful view of the pagoda from the footbridge over the road, a block north. This is the space that was filled with thousands of demonstrators in 1988 during the uprising of students and monks against the government. The other rallying point was around the Shwedagon Pagoda, to the north of Sule Pagoda. It is a magnificent building, visible from many parts of the city and worthy of an afternoon and evening set aside for a visit. As with all the pagodas, temples, stupas, however big, small or seemingly unimportant, they are all revered places and no footwear is allowed, including socks. You are also requested to cover your shoulders and knees, and men in shorts will be offered a longyi to wear to cover up. pagoda-0725Apparently the Northern entrance is pretty impressive, but we weren’t at all disappointed going in at the western entrance hall. There is a separate entry for foreigners and you can safely leave your shoes in the shelves there after paying your entry donation of $5. We didn’t mind walking up the long flight of stairs. There is an escalator, but it wasn’t running and there is a lift at one of the other entrances. We stopped to buy some flowers so we could make offerings at the little shrines around the main pagoda. Which shrine you go to depends on the day of the week you were born, with Wednesday having a different one for morning and afternoon/evening. As we made our way into the complex, a young chap attached himself to us and sort of took over as our guide. We didn’t have the heart to send him away, especially as he was a mine of information. After we’d done one round, we decided we wanted to sit and wait for the sunset so we gave him a little thank you for his help and he went off happy. He’s a student at one of the universities and apparently lots of students earn a bit of income taking people around. The Shwedagon Pagoda is enormous. It is home to many monks, though not as many as before the uprising. A lot were arrested and some decided to go home. The whole complex has lots of small pagodas, stupas, shrines and each one is unique. There are gold ones, white ones, highly ornamented ones. Two huge bells have their own homes and there is a small museum / gallery where you can find out about the buildings and detailing. We found out the the finial on the main pagoda holds a huge (that’s HUGE) number of precious stones – diamonds, sapphires,  rubies one of which is around 80 carats, probably a bit big for my finger. We also learnt by listening in on someone else’s guide, that if you stand on a certain tile, you can see one of the diamonds blinking. We tried it and yes, it’s true and it changes colour as well. Taking a photo was something more of a challenge though, since it’s right up high.
By the time we’d wandered round a couple of times and watched the people doing good works sweeping or washing the floor, watched the group of local ladies in ethnic dress having their photo taken, watched the monks taking their exams, praying, meditating or honouring the deities, we decided to head back to our hotel. We weren’t the only tired ones, I spied one chap reclining in front of the reclining Buddha statue, fast asleep. I was torn. Would I take a photo or not. Would it be rude? I always prefer to get some sort of acknowledgement before or after taking, but he was out for the count. Then I noticed the lady beside me giggling away and snapping enthusiastically with her phone camera. I made a bit of a ‘should you’ expression, but she laughed some more and asked me to take some too, telling me it was her brother, so go ahead.

Shopping in Myanmar

Bogyoke Aung San Market, windchimes

Bogyoke Aung San Market, windchimes

Myanmar is a real contradiction. It looks like a poor country but it has absolutely fabulous, high value resources. Go figure. When we travel, I always like to do my bit to support the local economy. When I was younger, that would be ‘acquiring ‘stuff”. Now my house is full of said ‘stuff’ I always plan to go away and just buy a few carefully selected items either as gifts or something we can use, preferably not too expensive or bulky. I have always loved rubies and would love to have found some to match the ones from my gran’s engagement ring, but really, I don’t even wear the stuff I have now, so we looked and drooled, but it stayed in the showcases. The Bogyoke Aung San Market in the road of the same name in Yangon, is a great place to look around. We did a reccee when we first arrived to see what was available and saw that there was a wide variety of lovely things to choose from, locally made. Not made in China! There was lacquerware which comes from Bagan, so we looked and identified some possibles in case we didn’t find what we wanted in Bagan. There were quite a few shops selling beautiful sandalwood items. Lovely, but I’ve already got more than one fan and the carvings were either too big or too fragile. We found a few shops selling fairly well made wooden items, useful stuff, and got a few business card boxes. Mother of pearl and freshwater pearls are found in abundance and there were quite a few stalls selling these, including one with a vest completely made out of pearls. USD500. It’s still there, probably, it didn’t come home with us. Lots of lovely little windchimes made from jade, not the jewellery quality of course, that jade was in other stalls which we steered well away from, just like we avoided the other jewellery stores selling gold and silver.  The windchimes were very pretty. We brought home a few of those.When we arrived in Bagan, we asked our hotel receptionist for a recommendation for a good lacquerware shop. There are apparently lots, because there is quite a bit of competition and the one we went to first as we approached old Bagan is in the company of quite a few such shop/ workshops. We were able to see how much work actually goes into the making of a lacquerware item – 18 layers of laquer, all added by hand and dried before the next is added. Carving is all done by hand, detailed and precise. Each piece, however small takes a few weeks to make and the smell of the lacquer and the closeness of the work is surely not good for the health. The prices on the pieces were not small, but having seen how they were made we appreciated the prices that were being asked, though I’m not sure how much actually went to the artisans. As we wandered round the temples, there were quite a few people selling all sorts of things. One chap had some beautiful puppets.

The puppet man

The puppet man

I would have been interested in years gone by, but now, beautiful as they were, I didn’t really want to carry them home. Someone near and dear to me however, spied the sand carvings. As we travelled down the Irrawaddy river the day before, our boat crew were constantly on the lookout for shallow parts where we could get stuck. Depth sticks and binoculars were their most important tools because the whole area is sandy – fine sand that blows from the west and falls into the river, changing its course and damaging buildings when it strikes with force. Some of this fine sand is collected by artists in Bagan and used in their artwork. We were fascinated by the beautiful carved paintings that are made by layering glue and sand and carved as they go. We now have one that we have to decide what to do with. :-). I didn’t do the buying. I just have to organise the ‘what to do with it’ part. I think I will make a table. That will be my next project. Our trip back to the market in Yangon the morning we left for home was therefore to collect previously identified items, the windchimes and some wooden handled mother of pearl fruit forks. Then a quick walk round to the lacquerware shop for a container to keep them in. As we came through the airport when we first arrived, we were caught in the Moneychanger queue behind a group of ladies off our flight who had all sorts of complicated requirements for the USD they were changing. They took ages and were sort of amusing. I’ll bet they spent most of their time shopping while their hubbies were at the golf course. I think we had more fun. 🙂

 

Myanmar – Don’t eat the Ulam!

Where we got sick.When you travel there is one rule you NEVER break, the one that says don’t eat it if it’s raw. Two of us broke that rule this time. Luckily we weren’t too badly affected me less so, and the Chinese medicine helped a lot, but that little reminder never hurts. What did we eat, well, Myanmar food is similar to what we’re used to, but different as well, in the way it’s eaten. Our horse-cart driver KoKo recommended us to a very nice little restaurant just near the Ananda Pagoda in Bagan as we said we wanted local food. Apparently lunch is the best meal for this, a number of small dishes served with rice, soup and a bowl of raw veggies with dipping sauces. We all ate the cooked dishes and a few of the raw veggies  Baby eggplants, ladies fingers and so on. The one that probably did us in was the pegaga, a leafy little fellow that was really delicious dipped in the sauce. We didn’t stop to think what the fertiliser might be and how it was applied.
Other than that, food was not a major problem. We ate local food in the hotel the first evening after we arrived, sharing the three set menus offering different main meat dishes and most of our other meals in Yangon were taken at Sakura, at a little cafe close to the Kyauktada Police Station in Sule Pagoda Road. They serve local / Thai food as well as some basic western dishes, local beer, great fruit drinks (the papaya juice is excellent) and coffee.

Helping with the maths.

Helping with the maths.

Mandalay was a bit more difficult. Not having much time in the city, we wanted somewhere near our hotel so we walked to a local shop recommended by the staff at the reception. It was what we’d know as a coffee shop / kopitiam / mamak stall, selling freshly made food and drinks. The pancakes sounded good so we ordered three banana ones. When they arrived, they were very like Malaysian murtabak, except much less oily and a little crispy. They were delicious and we ended up having mutton filled ones at a roadside stall later for dinner. At the second stall, the little boy taking our money tried to give us back too much change and was quite bemused when we explained the maths to him.
Apart from our lunchtime ‘adventure’ in Bagan, we enjoyed dinner at the Sunset restaurant along the river a few minutes walk from our hotel, the Thiri Malar. We were glad we had our trusty little torch, because there are no street lights and there were signs in our rooms warning us to stay on the paths because otherwise we many encounter snakes, scorpions and nasty prickles. We certainly heeded that advice. Our breakfast, eggs, toast and fruit with fresh pressed juice and tea / coffee was enjoyed on the rooftop terrance, admiring the view. There are pagodas everywhere and it is a very pleasant way to wake up and enjoy breakfast in the cool of the morning, even if your tummy is not completely happy. Before we left we had lunch just round the corner at the San Carlo restaurant. Home made pumpkin ravioli, spaghetti and hone pancake filled the cracks nicely before we set off on the train back to Yangon. The long distance trains do have restaurant cars, but we didn’t try them out. We ordered food from the one on the Yangon Mandalay run, which was fine, noodles, but we didn’t feel like rocking and rolling our way through the carriages in between to actually go there ourselves.

Myanmar by train

I love trains and when we’re travelling, if there are trains available, I’ll look at using them to get about, especially if I can save us a night’s accommodation in the process. However, the over-riding consideration is that they must go where we want them to go, and approximately when we want.
It was therefore with some trepidation that I factored two train trips into our much anticipated visit to Myanmar recently. Having read everything I could find, which wasn’t much and was mostly out of date or had lots of ‘can’t guarantee this is correct’ comments, I put on a brave face and convinced my travelling companions that all would be well.
I have to say that I pulled the correct straw out of the bundle. Phew. The trains ran where we wanted and when and had sleeper cars attached.

So. Here is the latest information on travelling by train in Myanmar as at January 2013.

IMG_4113

Yangon Railway Station

First rule. You need to buy your tickets in your town of departure. Don’t panic, there should be seats available, at least our trains were not overbooked. The latest timetables and fares are posted below, it will cost you USD33 for a ticket Yangon to Mandalay, and despite it stating that Bagan to Yangon is USD50, we only had to pay USD40, plus $2 to the agent. You don’t go to the station to buy though. In Bagan, that is miles out of town and going there once is enough. You can buy your tickets from the agent in Nyaung U, your hotel should be able to point you in the right direction. In Yangon, the ticket office is a very dark building directly over the road (Bogyoke Aung San Road) from the Sakura Building. You will need your passport and nice crisp USD.

IMG_4119

The ticket office, Yangon

Get to the station at least half an hour early and you can make yourself at home once you are able to board. There is a tourist’s waiting room in Bagan, but it looked like it had never been used and anyway, the platform was much more interesting. The trains are all pretty old and look like they are originally from Malaysia. At least the sockets in the Yangon / Mandalay ones were, they had SIRIM stickers. You will be hassled by chaps taking your dinner orders (7000Kyat) in Yangon, delivery at 7pm, but not in Bagan. You should take food and plenty of drinking water. We loaded up with individual packs of biscuits and fruit we bought at the market so we were fine. There is a restaurant car, but we didn’t actually go to investigate, though the food apparently came from there on the Yangon Mandalay journey. Take something warm, jackets, a sarong to wrap up in, extra socks. They give you a thin sheet, but it gets really cold and you will welcome every extra layer you can find. This is the cooler part of the year, mid-year might be the opposite. The trains aren’t air conditioned, it’s all natural aided by a ceiling fan if you need it. We didn’t.

You will get a free massage during the trip. You get rocked side to side, front to back and fishtailed. Or if you prefer, it messes with pitch, roll and yaw. But the ‘best’ is the up and down. NOT! Our carriage Yangon / Mandalay obviously had a faulty spring somewhere, so everytime there was any reasonably hefty bump, the up & down movement took on a life of its own and intensified. One of our group ended up with a nasty bruise on his hip as a result.

On the whole, I would have to say it was a positive experience. The toilets were reasonably clean (but take toilet paper) and I at least, managed to get some sleep once I got into the rhythm of the train. If you wake up in the middle of the night when you’re in a station, you can see all the local travellers getting on and off and as you get close to your destination in the morning, you will see lots of morning markets at the stations. In fact, many  tourists take the circular route round Yangon to see how the other half lives. If you’ve come in on the Bagan train, you’ve already seen this, at the right time of day, so you can save your $1 and put it towards a drink at The Strand hotel instead.

One note about the Mandalay station. If you have a big bag, negotiate for a taxi straight off the platform. Then you don’t have to carry your own bag down millions of steps with no directions.

Enjoy!

A Look at Laos

We set off for Laos at the end of September with probably the minimum amount of preparation necessary for a self-planned visit. Cafe Le BannetonWe had booked rooms in Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang which we identified as the most important places to visit, given that we had only eight days. Based on the advice of previous travellers and our own reading of the topography as shown on Google Earth, we decided to catch the bus up north and fly back. Expensive, but well worth it, given that the bus ride back to Vientiane would be between nine and twelve hours or so in possibly cramped conditions. We are so glad we did, we had an extra day to scout around and we could still walk! We arrived in Vientiane nice and early in the morning and went straight to our hotel. Although our room wasn’t ready, we were able to leave our bags before going off to explore. Vientiane is really like a large country town, despite being the capital city of Laos. You can walk everywhere although it would be hot in mid-year. Not a major problem as there are tuk-tuks everywhere and you can negotiate the price downwards, or if you prefer, cool down with a cup of excellent coffee in one of the many coffee shops dotted everywhere. Or even better, cool off with the country’s most famous export – Lao beer. We contributed to the Lao economy in that area. As we wandered past the Presidential palace (undergoing the final touches of renovation for the upcoming Asean/EU meeting), the statue of the last King of Vientiane and the beautiful temples (Wats or Vats) we were shaded by lovely old trees, which all have labels telling you what they are. The King looks out over the Mekong river, towards Thailand, a stones-throw away. I had my wish, sitting on the banks of the Mekong sipping coffee with a bonus, the most delicious almond croissant. Then it was off again. You don’t have to worry too much when crossing the road anywhere in Laos – there’s very little traffic, even at ‘rush hour’.  In the evening we wandered through the night market. Like night markets everywhere, there was the good, bad and simply awful. The National Museum, VientianeHowever, some of the gems were the stall selling spoons and other items made from bombs, and the art student selling her work, lino prints on handmade paper. Breakfast the next morning was at the most wonderful Cafe Le Banneton. They do wonderful set menus of bacon eggs and croissants with good coffee. Or you can do a la carte if you prefer. Lunch we ate at the Tucky Noodle shop before booking our tickets to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. A tip to fellow travellers. Don’t book both legs in Vientiane – you will pay less in Vang Vieng for the next leg. The morning spent at the local markets was well worth it, so much colour and we managed to buy some tasty bananas (i.e. not the commercial sort of tasteless ones from the supermarket) and sweet pomelo. After lunch it was off to the museum. The two museums we visited in Laos could not be more different. You can’t take photos inside, so I’ll have to describe what I mean. The museum in Vientiane is a lovely old colonial building which has seen better days, but would be good for many years if it could be ‘done up’. Sadly, I read in the local paper while we were there, that it will be torn down in a couple of years to make way for a high rise building and the museum will be relocated. The exhibits are an eclectic mix of archaeological, historial and propaganda with a lot of old photos of the war years which are really interesting, but they’re not well presented and the descriptions are a bit spotty. There are some fine examples of Bronze ware, particularly beautifully decorated drums and a selection of jars from the Plain of Jars. The different ethnic communities are also highlighted, with a good display of artifacts and costumes. But the display I liked best was the one in a heavily barred cupboard, secured by a couple of tiny locks. The items exhibited were some gold religious models and apparently they were stolen some years ago but fortunately recovered. The response was to lock them in this cupboard. I can’t recall if the cupboard itself was fixed to the floor, but there must be a better way to display what are rather beautiful items, so that people can admire them and remember them, rather than the ugly case that’s protecting them. The Palace Museum, Luang PrabangThe Palace Museum in Luang Prabang, however, is a study in contrasts. Reclaimed from the last king of Laos when he was deposed in 1975, the building was both a palace and a home, and it has been lovingly protected as a national treasure. While the whole museum was beautiful and well maintained and annotated, I specially enjoyed looking round the palace garage at the back. The cars, sadly have not been well cared for, but if you want to see a genuine Ford Edsel – there is one here! The 'Old Bridge', Luang PrabangLuang Prabang is a lovely city, a mix of elegant French and Lao influences. You can wander around and feel safe and we were lucky to go just at the end of the low season, paying about a third of what we would pay even a week later apparently, for our rooms. To get into the town we walked over the ‘Old bridge’, built about 40 years ago and restricted to pedestrians and bikes. It’s really high but we felt quite safe as the rails are high and you can look out, rather than down. The bridge crosses the Nam Khan river, a tributary of  the Mekong, which joins the big river just around the bend from where we stayed. Out along the Nam Khan are a number of waterfalls where you can swim in amazingly clean cold water and ride elephants. Everywhere in the city you are not far from the most important landmark – That Phousy, the golden stupa on the highest hill. The climb up the many steps is well worth the effort, and when you reach the top, you can pay a small amount for a small basket with a pair of birds (starlings perhaps?) who fly straight up to the tree above, no doubt to be ‘re-caught’ for the next round tomorrow. I’d call this a win-win situation. You feel good, the operator makes money and the birds are well fed. Our other great find in Laos was the sticky rice. Not sticky in the way we’re used to, but when you scoop it out of the little cane basket it’s served in it’s sticky, but the grains hold their shape when gravy is poured over. Delicious. We really enjoyed mealtimes. Breakfast French, lunch and dinner, Lao. Mention must be made of Vang Vieng. We were very glad we took advice to break our journey there as the mini bus ride is not for the faint hearted. People inside, bags on top.It’s not dangerous, the roads were pretty quiet, apart from the funny long wheelbase local transport and once in a while convoys of trucks from Kunming in China. It’s more that they are rather windy and the 151km Vientiane – Vang Vieng journey took us around three and a half hours. Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang (250km) took nearly 7 hours.

On the road – long wheel bases!

Our hotel was just over the road from the hospital and it apparently sees lots of visitors, some who leave in body bags as a result of accidents and other misadventures. Vang Vieng is a party town. As we walked from the bus to our hotel we passed numerous bars and shops selling t-shirts proclaiming that the wearer had indulged in one or more of a range of rather adventurous activities while in town. One of the favoured activities is to ride the river in a large inner tube, stopping off at the bars you pass on the way. We stayed at our hotel, the lovely Ban Sabai Resort, but we did help catch one hapless girl who didn’t stop in time. She had to walk all the way back feeling sheepish and carrying her tube. We were happy to just bounce around in the tiny pool and watch the dragon boat crews practicing in the river, the fishermen casting nets and the kids bringing the cows home before the sun set behind the karst hills over the river. In the morning, we watched the children going off to school in the long boats and a red hot air balloon gliding along the river. Patouxay MunumentBack in Vientiane, we spent the afternoon and evening exploring the Patouxay park and monument, the Lao answer to the Arc de Triumphe in Paris. The area was already well decorated in preparation for the upcoming international gathering, with many flags and lots of beautiful lighting. A quick trip down to the night market for some t-shirts and other little trinkets and breakfast the next morning at the Cafe le Banneton while collecting the pre-ordered almond croissants rounded of what proved to be a too short look at Laos.