Trekking & Inle Lake – day 237

Much like the night before, activity started as suddenly as it finished. The monks were out and about at nearly 5 o’clock exactly and the floorboards bounced with them marching across the monastery to head outside. Katherine rolled over and went back to sleep where I was now wide awake and ready to get going. Thus, I wasn’t taken aback or woken up abruptly when 40 young voices started chanting at 05:20. It was certainly one of the most unusual alarm calls we’ve ever had, but it was so cool. 
After another feast of a breakfast – with neither guide nor chef listening to us to serve less – we set off at seven o’clock and were soon at the counter to buy our Inle Lake zone tickets.  We were the first customers of the day and didn’t realise how far ahead of schedule we were until we arrived at a garage/shop at 08:00, when Ko Aung normally arrives there at 10:00 with his groups. Knowing that we had in fact broken our guide, we rested for half an hour before setting off again. The rain picked up a bit and we trekked along the main road so as not to be on the slippery trail all the time.     We were told that it would take us approximately 3hours to get to our destination and we could do it in 2.5 if we were fast walkers. 

Heading in to the wilderness, making for a path between the hills, the pace did slow down a bit. The soft red earth was sticking to the bottom of our shoes and needed to be removed every few steps on a root or bit of stone. The extra weight of the mud was surprisingly heavy and made the legs tired, the feet a bit cramped and the already slippy trail a bit more treacherous.  But, we started to see better views of the lake in the distance and the scramble down gullies and across ravines was becoming less and less. Soon we were levelling out and walking across a soccer pitch, past stupas and dashing across a main road towards our final destination. We had made it to Inle Lake (in 2.25hrs) where our guide pretty much collapsed. 

With breakfast less than 4hrs ago we were slightly shocked at the amount they had prepared for ‘lunch’. There was no way we could eat all of it and it was a small relief that the pineapple pieces were too sweet to eat. Waddling around the corner to the jetty it was so weird to see Gouramis (a type of fish) living in the streams. I used to sell them at Squires at £3 for the small species. There were hundreds of them and a few small shoals of killifish or something similar (the nice ones that eat the mosquito larvae and look like guppies). We thanked the guide and chef with a small tip each which they were totally taken aback by. Katherine said the chef was so confused with the money he thought I had given him rubbish and/or had dropped it. Ko Aung (still no idea how to pronounce it properly) waved goodbye to us as we popped up our umbrellas to protect us from the sun.  We were about to start our journey on the lake and he could return home to put ice between his legs and sleep some more before his next group. 

The section leading out to the lake was brilliant. There are bamboo sticks driven in to the bottom that are piled up with mud and water hyacinth and with barely enough of a gap to allow a boat through. As such, there is a tiny bit of a drop between each section, much like a mini weir.  The boat would pick up a bit of speed and we would have to slow down for passing boats and to line up for the next gate. We motored past houses on stilts and fields covered in trellises and bamboo poles. The area is used really well with the boats able to pass underneath the trellises to gather marrows and pumpkins and pass down between the dikes to harvest aubergines and tomatoes. We spotted gentleman selling veg between boats and a hive of other activity before we even got out on to the lake proper.   In total we must have been on our little boat for a bit over an hour. It was a bit nerve wracking when we stopped and had to clear the propeller of plants, with us tilting more and more towards the murky brown water, in the middle of a lake which we had no idea how deep it was and a few miles from a shoreline of any description. But, we needn’t have worried and soon we were not only in Nyaung Shwe, but our inn for the night. 

They hadn’t received the message attached to our laundry (or chose not to do it), so we had an hour and a half of scrubbing before we could enjoy a nice hot shower. With clean clothes and a pot of green tea from the valleys we trekked through, we were able to take on the town. Unlike the Dutch guy whom chatted to us over tea! On the similar 3-day trek he was heading to bed when we went in search of the market (frightening a tuk tuk driver with some karate) and a decent coffee. Katherine had an amazing Cafe Latte (noted by the absence or need for any sugar) and I had a Coconut Mocha (reminiscent of Hoolympic days).  Before the rain became too heavy we headed back to watch some friends and chill out. We headed next door to Mr. Cook for some local Shan State food to celebrate and finish the day. The Kim Pound-Kyam were pretty much spring onion tempura and the fried rice poa pyat (red bean paste) smell worse than it tasted. It was accompanied by a really flavoursome soup, but not as good as the mango lassi to wash it all down. With no sudden lights off like the monastery, Katherine checked some Facebook were I’m positive I was asleep before my head hit the pillow. 

Tuesday 31st May 2016

Trekking – day 236

An unsettled nights sleep as we both tossed and turned trying to get comfortable on the wooden floor. It was almost a relief to wake up to the sun pouring through the windows and the several resident cockerels crowing loudly just outside. Dressed and went down the rickety staircase to breakfast outside – three pancakes with honey and cashew nuts, sesame biscuits and five types of fruit… Think Ko Aung was trying to feed us up to slow us down!!! Offered the biscuits to the toddler in the family who was delighted as she played with her toy – a piece of ginger root. Started walking with the scenery and terrain being similar to yesterday’s trek. Slightly hotter today, it was nice when we got some of ‘natures air conditioning’ on the hill top.  An amusing moment where Jayne pointed at a water store and said ‘swimming pool’. Ko Aung looked slightly horrified and said that it was the villagers water supply – definitely not for swimming!! We saw a second and third one minutes later and Jayne repeated her statement as Ko Aung looked at us as if we were insane and he explained, again, what it was really for. A joke that clearly didn’t translate very well… Using our stops in villages to buy more water we continued on our way, stopping in one village to watch an old lady do some traditional weaving. It was fascinating to watch her work the loom back and forth. It seems criminal that she sells her creations for such little money especially since they take her between 1 and 4 days to make. Loaded up with fried snacks, sugar cane cubes and some of her woven creations, we carried on to our lunch stop. Another full on meal of fried noodles, egg and enough fruit to feed a family of four, we had clearly made excellent time trekking and were told to take a rest or a siesta. Started walking again after a two hour rest, to find our guide limping slightly – with chaffed skin. Offered him some different lotions to run on his thighs as we took hourly breaks to make things easier especially as it got hotter and hotter throughout the day. Arrived at the monastery around 5.30pm just in time to see the Buddhist monks play a game of football – most of them barefooted and playing on gravel…     No ‘shower’ facilities as they were waiting for the rainy season to fill up the water tank supply so they were restricting water usage to drinking and cooking only. Thankfully, we had packed plenty of wet wipes which came away positively filthy from our skin. Another huge meal with six different curries and fruit before we settled down in our ‘bedroom’ – a cornered off section of the main temple hall. Two sheets had been tied up although they draped and gaped so much that they may as well have not been there! A shuffle to get changed into pyjamas under the fleece blanket before the lights were turned off and we fell asleep with monks walking around using head torches to light the way to their beds. 

Monday 30th May 2016

Trekking – day 235

The day started with a lovely hot shower, both of us fully aware that it might be our last shower for a couple of days. Dressed in trekking gear again, we headed down to breakfast. Another feast of coffee, toast, omelette and mango before heading back to the room to reshuffle the bags – the two smaller rucksacks full of things we needed whilst trekking and the large backpack to be sent ahead of us to Inle Lake. Met Ko Aung at 8.30 and headed out of town straight away.   Walked past the Christ the King Church – built in 1882 by the British it was run by the same Italian priest from 1931 to 2000. Continued walking out of town, the sweat dripping off all three of us – a much easier trek than anything we had done in Nepal but the heat and humidity providing a new challenge! Walked through, what was described as, a rainforest although we both think it was actually a pine forest.    ‘A little bit up and a little bit down’ was exactly right – never ascending for longer than 10 minutes – it was a really enjoyable morning. Stopped for a water and snack break next to a reservoir as Ko Aung told us about issues previous clients had had… Apparently, one claimed he was running, another accused him of killing them and a third cried cause she got mud on her shoes. This then became our joke for the next three days, moaning in dramatic flare whenever the mood took any of the three of us! Continued walking, picking our way through the forest, occasionally walking along a stone road and over several boggy patches. Thank goodness Ko Aung had made me a walking stick otherwise there is no way I’d have been able to traverse the bogs using just the strips of bamboo laid down. Came out of the forest to a viewpoint and watched as local villagers tended to the tea plantation. A short walk further on was our lunch stop for the day – a purely tourist cafe with an incredible view. A couple of other (large!) trekking groups were there and, based on the dynamics of the groups, we were both glad we paid the extra couple of dollars to have our own private guide. Lunch was simple – chapatti, curry and fruit – before we continued walking. Ko Aung started mentioning that we were fast walkers, which made me smile so much since I’d consider myself a dawdler at best!!!    Got to walk along the train tracks for about half an hour, looking at the broken sleepers were the train had come off the track a few months ago – apparently not killing anyone but cutting off limbs of several people who were sat on top of the carriage… Arrived at a train station and had a snack whilst watching the fruit vendors get ready for the approaching train.   Watched the station come to life and, upsettingly, missed capturing a photo of the soldier gesturing Jayne over before grabbing her hand to kiss it!! Another couple of hours walking through the countryside before we arrived at the homestay. We were both offered a shower – turns out it was a bucket of water and concrete floor which was ‘hidden’ from view by a low bamboo fence (although the kitchen window looked out directly into the shower area!!). Jayne decided to give it a miss but, feeling disgusting from a mixture of sweat, dirt and suncream I thought ‘when in Rome’!! Used my white scarf to give myself some modesty (until it got wet and went see through!!) I had a very bizarre rub down with soap and water. Feeling slightly better, we played a few games of UNO – teaching Ko Aung how to play and then he kept putting down +4 cards on me!!! A thunderstorm was visible in the distance with the lightening flashing within the clouds every few seconds, making it look like a firework display. An absolutely massive dinner feast of five different local curries and fruit meant we could barely move. All lights were turned off around 9pm so we settled down on the floor of the barn to try to get some sleep. 

Sunday 29th May 2016

Kalaw – day 234

Having fallen into bed at 3am and promptly passing out, we weren’t awake very early. In fact, we missed breakfast but Jayne managed to use her charm and grace on the hotel manager, who sorted out coffee, mango, omelette and toast for us. Very much appreciated!! Feeling slightly more human, we chatted to the hotel manager about the local area. She gave us a map with all the most important ‘sites’. Apparently, we were very lucky as we had arrived on the day of the special five day market. Basically, in addition to the regular daily market stalls selling dried fruit, dried fish, fruit, vegetables and local liqueurs, every five days the market is easily doubled in size by traders from nearby hill-tribe villages. Armed with our map, we headed off and weaved our way through rows upon rows of market stalls selling everything you could possibly imagine – including a lotion for your skin made from rotting goat carcass… Treated both of us to some local made stone jewellery – an elephant necklace for Jayne and a bracelet for me. Also got ourselves a little pocket knife and a mango as the one from this morning had been so delicious. Popped back to the hotel briefly to check on the situation for our trek tomorrow and look up transport routes for later on this week so we can buy bus tickets before walking back into town to have some lunch. Went to the noodle cafe that had been recommended to us and ordered the local speciality – Shan noodles. Jayne had it as a soup whereas I had it as a salad. Very nice although it was kind of small portions (but for 34p you can’t complain!!) so it was great when it started chucking it down with rain as, since we couldn’t leave anytime soon, it gave us a perfect excuse to order a second bowl!! The rain lessened for enough time for us to make a dash to the bus ticket counter to get our tickets to Nay Pyi Taw (the new capital city) after our trek to Inle Lake.  Started walking back towards the hotel to drop off our tickets on the way to the Shwe Oo Min Paya when it started raining again… Hard!!!  Took shelter in a shop before making a dash for it, stopping in the bakery for a piece of cake and a proper cafe latte. Sat in the hotel planning our last few days in Myanmar as the rain pelted down and enjoyed the first proper coffee we have had in months. The rain finally stopped and we headed for a walk around the outskirts of town towards the pagoda and the cave. It wasn’t at all what we expected – the natural cave was dripping in literally hundreds of golden Buddha statues and the caves seemed to continue on for ages; twisting in and out, with statues on every single nook and cranny.  Some even were decorated with additional flashing LED lights. There are three caves in total – the first one being the largest and the upper cave being the most slippery as the rain water dropped down from the ceiling turning the marble tile floor into a giant slip-and-slide.  Had a meeting at 18:00 with Ko Aung (our guide for our three day trek) back at the hotel. Seems like a nice trek – quite long daily distances but on, relatively, flat terrain (well, in comparison to what we are used to!!).  Watched the sun set from the hotel roof terrace before going to the local Nepalese restaurant – we’ve both been craving Dal Bhat for ages and we were both secretly hoping there would be momos, but no such luck!! Back at the hotel to repack our bags for the trek and watched a couple of episodes of ‘Friends’.

Saturday 28th May 2016

Travelling & Dawdataung Cave – day 233

Today was a piece of massive guess work, finger crossing and generally hoping for the best!!! Kat had seen a photo on Pinterest of a stunning cave temple in Myanmar. Far too much time searching and searching for more information about it gave us three pieces of information – the cave name, it’s (very) approximate location and a blog from another traveller who had visited from a private taxi tour on a day trip from Mandalay. Spurred on by the fact it was on the way to Kalaw (our next town destination), we asked the hotel manager if it was possible to get a bus to Kyaukse and then a bus to Kalaw as there is no information online or in the Lonely Planet guidebook. A few phone calls later, he reassured me that it was possible, so we threw caution to the wind and headed off with our destinations written in English and Burmese in our notebook. Walked 2 blocks down the road to the corner of 82 and 37 street, where a very lovely man flagged down the correct shared pick-up truck to take us to Kyaukse for 500 khat each (about 30p). The locals thought it was hilarious to see two foreigners on the bus.  One elderly gentleman tried to converse with Jayne using some broken English and writing down key words. The old woman opposite kept rolling her eyes at me every time the old man spoke to Jayne… And then insinuated that he spoke too much using hand gestures when he got off (after trying to convince Jayne to go to his house, calling her beautiful and me fat!). The shared pick-up truck conductor had been shown a screen shot of the temple we wanted to visit and dropped us off outside the motorbike taxi rank in Kyaukse. Wanting to make sure we could get a bus to Kalaw and we weren’t going to miss it, we asked the motorbike taxi men to take us to the bus station first. A rather amusing conversation via writing and translating via the motorbike taxi man who knew very little English. Established that we could get a bus to Kalaw that would leave here at 8pm and arrive at midnight. Happy that it was sorted, we left our big backpack with the ticket ladies and jumped back on the bikes to visit this little known temple in the hills.  Thinking we had been overcharged for our motorbike taxis at 10,000 khat each return (about £6), it was a surprise when we rode over 20km out of the main town!

The journey itself was long. Between stopping for air in the tyres at one place, diesel at a garage and taking phone calls, it must have been an hour to get out there. The trip back later was thankfully a non-stop, but ass-numbing 45 minute trip. We passed through villages collecting money for festivals, with them shaking what must be nuts and bolts (no coin currency that we have seen) in beautifully shaped silver bowls. We passed the remains of a brick stupa and then started seeing dozens of gilded stupas in the hills and plains. And on we went! The APR Energy Plant has the air vents pointed out across the road and we didn’t slow down for the 100m stretch past the furnace. Passing a cement mixing factory and quarry I personally was worrying that the temple cave may only be a short-lived spectacle, with damage coming from the establishment on the other side of the hill. But, we drove down a road passing another factory and I worried not only if the cave still existed, but if we were going to the right place at all. Turning in to a monastery in the middle of a village we became quietly optimistic that we had arrived. With no other vehicles, tourists or signs around we were pointed up towards the hill and the beginning of some steps.  Edit   
Little did we know that the pointed finger up the steps was like ‘the Ghost of Future yet to Come’ directing Ebenezer Scrooge to his tombstone. We were being directed to a never-ending set of stairs, in the mid-day heat, with the count-down of numbers in the cement of the steps baring no relation to the end of the hike, nor to the next shelter. Katherine likened it to being tortured on a stairmaster inside a sauna for an hour. Every time we thought we were reaching a plateau we were fooled in to another stretch up and in to the hills. Until suddenly, taking shape through the branches we could make out houses! Katherine had been feeling faint at several of the little shelters en route, but it was now all seeming like it was to be worth it. 

Taking off shoes and flip-flops – not thinking clearly and/or ahead to leave them in the shade – we dashed up the staircase that could have fried an egg and gazed down in to cave. The first thing we saw was the massive reclining Buddha.  At about 12m long it took up most of the back wall of the cave. We didn’t really notice that there were hundreds of other statues around the place. We were caught up in the moment by so much at once; the stalactites with some squirrels running around the mouth of the cave, the stalacmites with hti (the top of a stupa I think) and the smell of and chirping of bats. Descending a short flight of steps in to the cave itself, the place is deceptively much longer than it appears. The floor is covered in bat droppings with puddles of pee in a few places and the far corners are pitch black. Three lads arrived later on and they tried to investigate a corner with lights on their phone… bad idea, don’t disturb the bats!!!  The statues of Buddha in his various postures adorned every available nook, cranny and level shelf space. Carved in marble and stone, some painted, none with the led lights that are popular in other places, the cave temple was richly decorated in a modest fashion. Every which way you looked and from different angles, you saw a new statue, or a new rock formation. The lighting changed depending on where you stood and that without us staying for an extended period of time or sunrise/sunset. It was/is a truly unforgettable place to visit and well worth the gamble of trying to get to.   The journey back, as previously described, was a bit painful. With a fizzy drink in us all – including the taxi drivers – we went next door to get some lunch. The funniest 10 minutes ensued, using at the Point It book, our notebook and generally pointing at food items trough the window of the kitchen.  With a bit of Myanmar we worked out a price and thought ahead, by getting the most clued up waiter to write down our order (fried rice and an egg) in their own language for later that evening. Walked around KyaukSe for a bit, bought crackers and hard sweets for the bus journey in case dinner wasn’t as successful as lunch. We also bought the most horrible tasting cafe latte from Nescafé in a tin can we couldn’t crush afterwards and an ice cream. Spent some hours transferring files around on the netbook and iPad so we could watch some Friends. We went back next door for dinner where we had a gentleman converse and watch us eat dinner. He also thought us how to pronounce the items we were ordering. Turned out he was a policeman, only stopping to pick up a packet of bedel nut and tobacco, but stayed as he rarely gets to meet or talk to foreigners. He drove off with the cherry on the roof of his car as if he were off to fight crime. 

The bus finally turned up and with progress looking to be much slower than that expected, we huddled up and got some kip. They woke us up and escorted us off the bus in Kalaw at 02:30 in the morning. With the waiting taxi drivers seeing we had only one bag and a map, they were happy to direct us to our hotel rather than pester us. We walked past a stupa adorned in glass mosaic and the floodlights made it look like it was a diamond (or a rather funky techno disco temple).  The stars were peeping through the clouds and we arrived at Golden Kalaw Inn. The gentleman in reception, being ever so polite for someone woken up in the middle of the night, showed us to our room where we passed out from a mega day. 

Friday 27th May 2016

Travelling & Mandalay – day 232

A 4am start(!) to catch our bus back to Mandalay. Both feeling the strain slightly from all the early starts, Jayne was fairing better than me which is probably a good thing since she also got the brunt of my bad mood!!! The hotel guy had called the bus company yesterday to organise a pick-up, even though we said we didn’t really need it. He didn’t turn up anyway so after waiting for 5 minutes we walked the 5 minutes to the bus stand and got on the coach. A fairly uneventful 6 hour bus journey – I drifted in and out of consciousness whilst Jayne entertained herself with the Burmese film playing on the TV. Another woeful story of love and violence with some pretty graphic and violent scenes of torture (so I’m told!!).   Stopped around 10am for some food. It was obvious how tired we both were when we foregoed the hassle of trying to order food with no Burmese from us or English from the waiting staff. Opted instead to head to the shop opposite and using one of the only phrases we know how to pronounce properly (how much is it?), we got a pack of cinnamon rolls and a couple of bottles of lychee max. Back on the bus, we watched some ‘Friends’ episodes to block out the noise from the Burmese music videos now playing on the TV – you can see that we are both very, VERY tired!!! Arrived in Mandalay and were descended upon in the bus station for taxis. Baring in mind there are two of us, with backpacks, we kept saying no to motorbike taxis only to be repeatedly brought to a motorbike taxi!! Walked outside the station and managed, with the help of our pen and pad, to negotiate a pick up truck to drive us to the hotel. Checked in and decided to stay there for the afternoon since I was still in a foul mood!! I slept for a bit whilst Jayne pottered around on the internet. She made a last minute decision to enter two of her photos into the National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year – one step closer to fulfilling her dream of having one of her photos on the cover of the NG magazine. She uploading two photos – the tiger from the Sunderbans in India and a bird from the Sinharaja rainforest in Sri Lanka. I was woken up to be told that people were already liking her photos! Headed back to ‘Super 81’ for an early dinner (the same restaurant we went to when we saw the ‘Moustache Brothers’) much to the delight of the head waiter whom, Jayne thinks, has a bit of a crush on me. I laughed it off until he brought Jaynes dinner out on a round plate and mine on a heart shaped one…  A few beers and lots of avoiding eye contact later and we were back at the hotel to plan our next few days. 

Thursday 26th May 2016

Hsipaw – day 231

What a simple yet awesome day! Bags pre-packed and with a wholesome breakfast we set off trekking early. We hoped that by doing so we’d arrive at the sites before others and enjoy them in the peace and quiet. Also, if we got lost we thought we could tag along behind someone when they caught up. But, as it transpired, there didn’t seem to be anyone else out and about but it was easy to navigate so we needn’t have worried.  The heat and humidity were intense. We passed through areas in the field were there was what can only be described as heat bubbles, much like a thermocline when diving. We made our way down the paths and beside the streams and we had only a small uphill bit at the end before we were at Nam Tuk Waterfall. Before we could even take the bag off, cool down or find somewhere to sit, we were descended upon by a local girl wanting a photo with us. Sweating, out of breath and generally looking grim, we can’t imagine she’ll be showing the photo to too many people. The local group finished their whisky and shandy and headed off to the limestone cave around the corner. We got to enjoy the harmonious roar of the waterfall in peace and spent ages just looking at it cascade down the rock face.  We retraced our route back past the rubbish dump, with the smoke from the various fires blowing across the pathway as opposed to earlier when it blew across the fields. Back through the cemetery, each section distinctly different depending on where you were – Chinese, Buddhist or Muslim. We witnessed the tail end of a funeral, the gold-roof pick-up truck tucked away discreetly next to a funeral pyre that was still blazing. The procession headed off in three flat-bed trucks as we were arriving and we we showed our respect as best we could and carried on.  Through the local village where we presume you make the bamboo hand fans if you go on an organised trek – at 15,000ks per person – we easily found the dam that is the last significant landmark before you look for the hot springs. Deciding to be more adventurous, we crossed the river upstream of the dam in oozy, terracotta coloured mud and gravel.   At the far side of the river was one of the outlets of the hot spring, and the very clever locals had dug down a bit to form a bit of a shallow bath tub. It was luke warm and warmed up the feet nicely from traversing the river. But, all good things have to come to an end, and with three local lads jumped in the hot springs (one being completely stark naked), we carried on in to the jungle in search of a bigger, better spring.  We left our shoes off and walked up a road that soon became clear was being used as a route to a cliff, now a quarry. The sharp rocks underfoot were painful, but we were covered in mud from the walk and we wanted to get out of the rain that was about to downpour. We crossed the river again and took shelter in a cave, but fearing the idea of snakes having seen so many reptiles in this country. The rain continued and we decided that since we were already drenched to continue upstream and investigate. The river was now a fast flowing chocolate deluge akin to a scary version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The waterfall was pouring down mud instead of water and there was no hope of finding any more hot springs. So we turned around and started home.   We got a bit lost in the rice fields and then got directed to the main road by farmers feeling sorry for us.  We managed to find a trail with the wonderful MapsMe app and thus we started another adventure traipsing through shallow streams, knee deep ponds and cattle worn tracks back to town. The locals loved seeing us and it was so peaceful the entire way.  The rain had taken away the unbelievable heat of the day and we were back in Hsipaw before we knew it. A nice shower to get rid of all the mud and we were back out to the restaurant to indulge in another helping of Chinese food. Tired and starting to ache, we were kinda glad that we had an easy bus journey coming up tomorrow. 

Wednesday 25th May 2016

Train to Hsipaw – day 230

Another early start to have breakfast and get to the train station to purchase our tickets before 8am. A slightly inflated tuktuk cost due to the torrential rain that stopped us walking the 2.5km from the hotel. Waited in line with the other tourists to have our passport details recorded in exchange for a ridiculously cheap upper class train ticket. Waited on the platform for the extra carriages to be added to the train as we watched locals steal mangos from the wicket baskets that were also going to end up on the train (what was left of them!!).  The upper class carriage was, predictably, full of tourists making us slightly regret paying the extra £1 each for soft, comfy chairs as opposed to wooden benches – especially when the two young men behind us starting sprouting bullshit about life – not sure how you can claim to be worldly travelled at the age of 19… The train bumped and jumped along the track so much that I was grateful that my bum had a padded seat to land on as the countryside rolled past and the rain came through the open window.    Reluctant to close it as we would then be unable to see the view, we were only one of a few who kept it open.   The occasional stop at a train station meant a new batch of people coming into the train to sell food and drinks. Got some lychees, samosas and noodles (all for a total of less than £1) as we continued along the bumpy railway track. Passed over a viaduct as one point which had beautiful views both sides that were only slightly obscured by the rain and mist. We also watched nervously as two other tourists hung out of the door over the sheer drop to the valley floor below, trying to get the perfect Facebook profile photo…

Arrived in Hsipaw around 4pm, having been on the train for nearly 8 hours and were greeted by a free hostel pick up that we didn’t even know about!! Dropped off our bags and spoke to the trekking guys about the possibility of going walking in the hills tomorrow. Not sure if the guide we spoke to just didn’t want to do it or if he looked me up and down and thought ‘no way’ (fool – does he not realise we’ve just done EBC!!) but the trek he offered us seemed very easy and very expensive for a bimble around the town and nearby villages. Went for a walk to the Mahamyatmuni Paya temple nearby to think about it. Inspired by the Mahamuni Buddha in Mandalay, the large brass faced Buddha is placed within the biggest and grandest pagoda in the town.  
We walked around, watching the thousands of fish in the pond and the boys play football in the mud before heading back into town to get something to eat. Decided to ‘do-it-ourselves’ trekking tomorrow as the route is marked out on the MapsMe app. Not entirely sure how Jayne has managed to convince me to go trekking again – my toenails still haven’t fully recovered from EBC and, I believe, I had told her ‘never again’… Hmmmmmmmm!!

Tuesday 24th May 2016

Pyin Oo Lwin – day 229

Another early start to catch our shared taxi – supposedly cheaper than paying for a tuktuk to the bus stand and then buying a bus ticket, the shared taxi picked us up at our hotel in Mandalay, drove at lightening fast speeds up the mountain roads (which were fortunately one-way for most of the route) before dropping us at the door of our hotel in Pyin Oo Lwin. Having the choice between a cheap but bad hotel or a slightly expensive one, we decided to ‘treat’ ourselves and splash out £20 for a posh hotel!!! Clearly not the only ones with the same idea, there were three other backpackers in the lobby looking as out-of-place as we felt!! Took us a while to (reluctantly) leave the room with satellite TV, a sofa and a bathroom that actually has hot water. Walked into town towards the bus station to check out train times and buy tickets for tomorrow to get us to Hsipaw. Unable to buy tickets as the station was closed, we wandered a different way back through town trying to find an ATM that was 1. working and 2. would accept my Revolut card. After three attempts, we gave up and used the HSBC card instead. Started heading towards the National Kandawgyi (botanical) gardens, walking past loads of roadside garden centres and sculptures made out of artificial flowers. The 435-acre gardens were created in 1915 by Alex Rodger with help from Lady Cuffe, the noted botanist from Kew Gardens. Now containing more than 480 species of flowers, shrubs and trees the tranquility we were looking for was slightly ruined by the funfair blasting out English (c)rap music just by the entrance. Had lunch in the cafe, enjoying the views of the gardens, the wooden bridges over the pond and the small gilded pagoda, watching hundreds of Burmese tourists pass us by – most of them waving to us. After lunch, we started following the walking tour track around the gardens. First stop was a, surprisingly, fascinating fossil museum which had animals and parts of elephant fossils that were over two million years old. Not all of them are behind glass and there are signs on some saying ‘touch me’ – was pretty awesome touching something so old. Next door was the ‘petrified wood’ exhibit. Have never seen fossilised wood before and they showed the different stages of polishing the wood to make it into jewellery and other souvenir items. We wandered over the raised wooden path in the ‘swamp’, looking for the giant insects that were making such a racket that we couldn’t hear each other talk! 

At the end of the swamp was an enclosure with Takin (Thar-min). Part of the goat and antelope family, it was a huge, strange and hairy looking creature that Jayne and I had never even heard of before, let alone seen. Were beckoned over by a zoo keeper to go round the back to see the baby Takin – we even got to go into the enclosure with it. 
Continuing on the walk, as it began to rain, we ended up at the walk-in aviary. The definite highlight were the huge hornbills that were eating fruit at the back of the aviary – slightly frightening when they flew towards you due to their enormous size! We then went on the timber elevated walk way, which will forever more be referred to as the walk way of certain death. Clearly not too bothered about people falling through, great sections of the railings were missing along with severely rotten floor boards. We ended up walking along the rafters on the walk way to make ourselves feel slightly better. We got to see some deer during our obstacle course so it wasn’t all bad…Popped into the orchid house and the bizarre butterfly museum before going up the Nan Myint Tower. A slightly bizarre looking medieval Chinese watch tower, we got the lift up to the viewing deck on the 10th floor of the 12-storey tower. The views up top where lovely although Jayne felt a bit uncomfortable being up there, especially after the timber elevated walk way!! We walked down the external staircase so that I could better appreciate the panoramic views, as Jayne stood as close as possible to the wall. Back at the hotel to rest for a bit, realising that we’d walked for over 20km, before heading back into town for dinner. Went to a little local cafe and got an ice lolly on the way back to the hotel. Think the shop keeper was amused by the fact we chose ‘children’s’ ice-creams – a fruity spaceman and alien with jelly chews stuck on them… They were delicious!Monday 23rd May 2016

Mandalay – day 228

 A nice and slow start to the day, the Internet was pretty good so we continued to upload photos to the blog and catch up on Facebook. Before we realised it, it was already 11:00 before we headed out to the city. 

There’s a plethora of things to do in Mandalay: temples, bridges, markets, mountains, cycling tours, etc. But, we didn’t feel like doing any of that. Temple’d out for the time being we decided that just a walk would be nice. So, off we went around the Royal City Fortress walls and moat. There were dozens of lizards, a green tree snake making its way along the fence, a type of arrawana fish in the water and dragonflies zooming around.     We stopped at the north side for some refreshments before carrying on. The heat was intense and we probably didn’t realise how hot it really was with the strong breeze blowing all day. We both suffered some headaches later on the day as a result.       Back at the hotel we only had a brief respite, enjoying a fresh Granny Smith Apple, before we had to head out to get our tickets for the show. We were off to see the Moustache Brothers. A comedy play set up by 2 brothers and their cousin, the play basically takes the piss out of the old Burmese government.   The satirical act is now performed by only one of the original three. Sadly, one of them passed away from lead poisoning from drinking the water at the prison he was sent to for performing the show. The cousin we met outside, and has a catheter and bag. The comedy is slowly drawing to an end by the looks of it. 

But, with his limited English, in a thick Asian accent, his slapstick jokes and comments were hilarious and the dancing sequences performed by his wife, sister and friends were entertaining and colourful. You could sense the resentment and anger that is still there from how badly everyone was treated and the bitterness was bubbling at the end of some of the scenes when he asked you to take photos and share them on social media.   Show over and headaches still pounding away we strolled back home. We passed the restaurant we are in earlier and were ready again for more crispy duck and BBQ ribs. But, we found some Max+ Lychee to enjoy in the room while Katherine Skype’d Clare before bed. 

Sunday 22nd May 2016