Come along for the journey!

Come along for the journey!

Wednesday, 27 May 2015


The blonde haired goddess and her followers
Mandalay feels like a fairly big grubby Asian city without a massive amount to do. Perhaps that's just because we're in a stinking mood having been kept up half the night by monks chanting - we are in a hotel in a room with a view of a Pagoda where they've been going at it over a tannoy all night - that's some karma for the trekking incident! (See earlier post). It began as beautiful, almost lullaby-like singing, and as the night gave way to the small hours, the singing became more tired, less lullaby, and more of a dirge. Think Leonard Cohen, hung over, and in his brief 'bell ringing phase'. We asked the hotel when they stop, and the answer was "Never". Seriously, 24/7, all year! We changed room.

Here is a 1 minute taster of the chanting whilst it was still beautiful!

We went to see a comedy show by the infamous Moustache Brothers, a group of comedians who have been persecuted and imprisoned for satirising the Government. Putting up with some interrupted sleep seems pretty trivial when compared to what the Burmese have suffered over recent decades and still continue to struggle now.

It was a night of Civil rights stories, laughs, and random traditional dancing. The bulk of the laughs were derived from the host of the show demonstrating stock English colloquialisms like "Lubbly Jubbly". It was actually very Marx brothers: physical humour, jokes about wives and mother-in-laws, followed by fairly brazen attacks on the Government's corruption, lack of transparency and autocratic values. Their plight was even referenced in the film 'About a boy' when Hugh Grant takes offsets his hedonistic lifestyle with some tokenistic philanthropy at the Amnesty call centre - now THAT rings some bells! Anyway, back to our gap yar...


Lu Maw's wife - and butt of many old skool jokes

These guys are walking the walk - sentenced to prison and hard labour for their protest. Despite being a tad less sophisticated than Spitting Image, they are brave guys, prepared to do what comedy does best - get people thinking, challenge the status quo, and get some laughs. Things are definitely changing in Myanmar / Burma - the comedians prefer not to refer to their country by 'Myanmar' which was the Government sanctioned change to the pre-colonial name, but at least it's a sign of sovereignty because I still don't know what to think about calling it the British named 'Burma'.

Bring the government down!

Here's me getting all metaphoric on the theme

The only convenience store in the country - it's like a show piece

More powerful artistic subversion, yeah! It's deep.

When the country's main political opponent, Aung Sung Sui Kyi came to a show, and her photo laughing in the audience made the paper, the moustache brothers were not long after imprisoned, and Aung Sung was placed under house arrest.

I think it's going to take some more pain and sacrifice, and funny moustached blokes to change Burma...24/7. As a sign of solidarity with my hairy faced friends, or maybe just for a laugh, I'll call it Burma now.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

NO MONKY BUSINESS (Mandalay, Myanmar)

"Go back now - it's too far, and too hot". This statue sees Buddha pointing to Mandalay prophetically because of the legend that Buddha came to Burma and pointed into the valley before Mandalay ever was.
 We made a Facebook friend today: Narga Vamsa, a monk from near Mandalay. He wanted to take our photo together with him and post it on his page. Neko gets that a lot. I think there are statues built of her in some parts of the country now. We made the 920 step climb (yes, I counted, I’m that boring) to the top of Mandalay Hill. For those haters out there though, I did observe that the first large Buddha statue was 365 steps up…significant? That’s not in any guide books!

365 stairs up
Many monks make the climb to the top for English lessons with tourists. Nagar’s opening gambit included the usual pleasantries - we told him where we were from and how many siblings we had. We in turn had hoped to get down to business and ask a monk some slightly harder hitting questions that resonate with questions I have about my own faith: why were monks fighting and massacring Muslims in 2011?; how does violence fit with the Buddhist teachings?; What’s with the ‘no possessions, except mobile phones’? Narga was however closely monitored by a ‘friend’ - the young chap had wandered over from the government tourist desk when Narga was seen to be chatting with us. We began to ask a couple of things and Nagar was cut short with curt instructions in Burmese resulting in hesitation. Not wanting to look like we were being overly political and shifty, we quickly changed the subject and asked him if he had any brothers and sisters.

We gave this man on pilgrimage our only bottle of water - that's gonna hurt!

Our new Facebook friend then tried to upload the photo of us all to our page but without success. Resisting the urge to crack a joke about having no attachment to the internet, we wished him well with the new Burmese phrases he had taught us and said we’d look forward to hearing from him.

Monday, 25 May 2015


When we started to plan out our time in Myanmar, our itinerary was roughly shaped around a few key factors:
  • The cheapest flights in and out of the country 
  • The lowest number of cross country bus journeys
  • The scorchingly hot weather 
  • The hope of the imminent monsoon
In effect, because we started in the south and planned to end in the north - so we sort of saved the best for last - Bagan! We also managed to avoid the much talked about dust of the plains that inevitably wreaks havoc on tourists' sinuses during dry season by coming at the end of May just before monsoon season - it had rained the day before arrived and that was enough to keep the air relatively dirt free for our three day visit.

In case you haven't heard, Bagan is home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the whole wide world - many dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. As many as 13,000 temples and stupas once stood on the Bagan plain in a bend of the Ayerwaddy River in an area of about 40 square kilometres. About 2,200 still remain today - although many are in a state of disrepair. I personally think this just adds to the beauty of the place...although Kris is going photo CRAZY right now!

During our visit it was ridiculously hot at 45 degrees, so we started each day in the dark - cycling or riding e-bikes out to find temples to climb and watch the sunrise. After a few hours of exploring pagoda after pagoda, we'd head back to our air conditioned room for a nap by no later than 10. We did attempt to hang out at a cafe and play cards one afternoon, but it was quite a sweaty endeavour! The sunsets were actually far more stunning than the sunrises - the whole sky lit up pink, purple and red. Pretty breathtaking.
One afternoon we met a couple of Norwegians called Maria and Simen, and ended up rendezvousing atop a temple for sunset before heading off to have BBQ together on Restaurant Row. Great guys - come to Bristol and let us shout you dinner!

We've made Ryuchi Sakamoto's song Bibo no Aozora / 04 a bit of a soundtrack...check it out. Really captures the feeling of Bagan.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

RAILWAY CHILDREN (Hsipaw, Myanmar)

Cycling around aimlessly, we stopped to take some pictures on the railway line we had come in to town on. A very smiley woman, Phyu Htwe, appeared and invited us into her home with her daughter April and niece Ithsa Win, right next to the tracks.

We learned she had lost her husband recently to what sounded like Malaria. She showed us through her treasured family photo album, which included her wedding shots and a couple of other pics. I had taken more photos in the last hour than she had to show for her entire life!

She then offered to put some Thanaka paste on Neko's face from locally grown trees to keep her pale and beautiful. Clearly, Neko’s efforts to brown up were met with bewilderment! Next, she took us across the road for tea where her father runs a rail side cafe, and is the person responsible for closing the gates at the level crossing.

Such wonderful hospitality - it's good to allow space in our itinerary to wander around and be available for chance encounters life throws at you. Whilst we waited for the train to pass, we took some family snaps and portraits for them and printed them off to add to her treasured album.

Saturday, 23 May 2015


Military trim ready for the mssion...
We took two old school bicycles and rode them off road, through rice paddies, and up dirt paths, in search of a beautiful waterfall. On the way we passed through a rubbish dump. Myanmar, like a lot of Asia, is still learning how to manage modern life and tourism. 

Later, passing through idyllic little riverside dwellings, we met a couple of families who presented their children to us. Each child seemed to have a birth defect or disability of some kind. We can't help but connect this unfortunate circumstance to the pollution that the dump inevitably creates in their water supply. 
...past the noodle factory
Over the right footbridge?

We wanted to report it to someone. We enquired as to who the local authority was but it all seemed so unclear. Later, in Mandalay, we met a French Journalist, Carole, who was working with environmental NGO's in Myanmar, and wanting to find environmental projects to report on. I let her know about Hsipaw's rubbish problem. Maybe there's hope yet?

When we finally arrived at the waterfall, it was completely dried up.