Ramblings and Musings

This post is mainly intended for my own benefit so that, as time goes on and memory fades, I don’t forget some of the impressions that the trip had on me. The very poor internet connectivity combined with an iPad Mini keyboard and my clumsy fingers meant that writing the blog each night was a very frustrating experience. I therefore didn’t write down all things that I wanted to say. Perhaps mercifully for you so please feel free to ignore the rest of this post.

A series of abstracted thoughts and impressions.

People of Burma

We’re glad we saw Burma when we did as the pace of change is quite dramatic. In particular, the move from bicycles to cars has happened over the few years only and will continue to get worse. 

Burma is a complex country with 7 major ethnic groups and many more subgroups or tribes. The borders between the groups are, not surprisingly when you think about, defined by Burma’s geography. The country is split longitudinally into thirds by two mountain ranges. The middle third is the lowlands surrounding the Irrawaddy. This is the land of the Bamar or Burman group from which the country gets its name. As an aside I did ask all our guides if they preferred Myanmar or Burma and they all said Myanmar but they are all licensed by the government so perhaps they have to be careful what they say. In the east around Inle lake, which is in mountain country, are the Shan people and in the west, along the coast are the Rakhine people. There are certainly differences in how they look with the Rakhines in particular having a much stronger Indian appearance in their features which I guess is not surprising given that it’s next door. These were the only ethnic groups we saw as some areas are restricted to tourists. We did see some Kayan ladies at Inle lake (these are the ladies who stretch their necks with metal rings) but they had been brought in especially for the tourists so we didn’t see them in context as it where.

The common trait though is that the Burmese are very very friendly people which sort of surprised me given the repression that they have been under (and are still under). They seemed genuinely glad to see us. I remember in particular, the day touring on Inle Lake. We happened to be there at the end of a festival period and there were many pilgrims from other areas of Burma who had come to see the famous temple and Buddha in the middle of the lake. In a complete reversal of roles they were taking pictures of us and smiling and waving. We got RSI from all the smiling and waving back.

I should also add that they are very honest people and we never felt unsafe even walking around at night. You can’t say that of Sydney.

Hotels.

We were very happy with all the hotels we stayed in but they all left impressions for different reasons so here’s my hotel awards.

Best Run Hotel: Governor’s Residence in Yangon by a country mile. Very very well trained staff, who were courteous, friendly but very professional. Run as well as any 5 star hotel. Even though we were only there for a few nights many of the staff made an effort to know our names.  I could get used to every one calling me Mr Paul.

Runners up. The RV Pandaw river cruise was extremely well run.

Most Amazing Location: Without a doubt the Aureum Palace Hotel in Bagan. Situated on the plains amidst the stupas. Quite mindblowing really.

Runner up: Perhaps the Shangri-Lao Elephant camp in Laos.

Best Breakfast: Again the Governors Residence takes the gong. Not only beautiful food, coconut pannacotta anyone, but presented with an artistic flair. Runner up, the Victoria in Siem Reap.

Best Room: Very difficult call but I’m going to give it to the Amazing Ngapali Resort as the room was very comfortable, had lounge seats to sit on, and point blank views of the beach. Perhaps the most visually  stunning room was the Shangri-Lao ‘tent’ so it deserves an honourable mention as does the Inle Princess resort.

Best Ambience: Satri House in Luang Prabang was an absolute standout here. The overall feel of the place was quite remarkable. Whilst vastly different in style, the attention to design detail, was on par with Bidadari in Ubud.

 

Best Beer

We don’t tend to drink wine in Asia. It’s expensive and usually not the best quality. Beer is therefore our drink of choice as its pretty good and its cheap.

In Burma we drank ‘Myanmar’ beer which is ubiquitous and very good. I got to try the Mandalay beer once but its not very common. The general who owns Myanmar beer must have more stars than the Mandalay beer one. :-)

In Siem Reap we drank both Anchor and Angkor beer. The former tasted a bit  thin to my palate but was perfectly acceptable.

In Luang Prabang we drank Beerlao and it was the standout beer of the trip without question. Apparently they use rice either instead of or in addition to barley (couldn’t quite get a straight story on that one) but whatever they do works.

Buddhism

We learnt about Buddhism in snippets. This is mainly because our guide’s level of English didn’t lend itself to flowing conversation and as a result the discourse was various facts, stories, or tenets. So my still very limited understanding of Buddhism is cobbled together from the bits and pieces we learnt from each of our guides.

Something that I didn’t know before is that the last Buddha, whose teachings Buddhists now follow (more or less) and who lived about 4-500BC, was the 28th Buddha! Buddhists are waiting for the next Buddha to appear (no-one was clear on how we would know that he’d arrived) as only then will the cycle of reincarnation cease.

Last day

Up early this morning for the early morning alms procession where the monks collect their first meal for the day.

Unlike the similar event we attended in Mandalay which had been reduced to a tourist spectacle this event still feels real even though a lot of tourists come to watch.

We find one of the back streets where the local people giving alms outnumber the tourists. It’s quite a peaceful and gently moving ceremony. The monks walk in single file holding their alms bowl in front of them. Each giver puts a small amount of sticky rice in the bowl. There are several hundred monks from the many ‘wats’ or monasteries and the givers,mainly women, seem very practiced at making their bowl of rice last so that they can give something to every monk.
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We return to the hotel for breakfast and then back into town to walk around the sights including the old royal palace which is now quite a good museum and the famous Bat Xieng Wat, a 16th century temple and monastery complex.
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We have a nice late lunch at a lovely outdoor cafe overlooking the Nam Khang river.
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In the late afternoon we go on our own private 1 hour cruise up the Mekong then off to dinner at the beautiful Apsara restaurant. It’s a Lao/Western fusion restaurant run by a very friendly Aussie chef from Melbourne and his charming French Canadian wife. A wonderful meal to end our trip.
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Early start tomorrow for our flight to Bangkok where we have a long wait until our overnight flight to to Sydney. I don’t think I will be at my best at work on Tuesday.

Shangri-Lao

Woke this morning to see the dawn light struggling to break through the mist hanging over the mountains.

At 7.30 we each have a lesson riding the elephants and then having complete mastery over the animal we head them (in other words they know where they’re going) down the steep track to the river.

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Much hilarity ensues as the elephants bathe. Janet’s elephant has a trick of splashing the water with its trunk, ensuring that we all get wet, and mine decides to play submarine and dive under the water with me on it so I get even wetter. I should mention at this point that it’s bloody cold.

We return to Luang Prabang for a bit of free time which we use to cycle around the town.

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Tonight we headed back into town for our Lao cooking lesson. We had a very entertaining young chef show us how it’s done and the rest of the participants were a nice bunch of people from around the world. The end result tasted pretty good even if I do say so myself.  Perhaps the Lao beer helped.

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Our last full day tomorrow. :-(

Paul and Janet ride an elephant

Relaxed start to the day. Picked up at 8.30 for the half hour drive to the Shangri-Lao resort.

Our tent, if you can call it that, is stunning with picturesque views over the Nam Cham river to fields and mountains on the other side.

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At 10 we meet our own personal elephant, Mae Kham Muang, and her mahout the very formal Mr Duang. For the trip across the river we both sat in the howdah(a wooden seat/saddle). It’s a bit unnerving being up that high and going down a steep slope into the river.

Along the way we meet a new 5 month old baby elephant.very cut and very hungry. we learn that elephants eat about 200kg of vegetable matter each day.

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Shortly after I am offered the chance to be a mahout which in my case means sitting on the elephant’s neck and the elephant doing exactly what it wants. Luckily Mr Duang is close at hand to prevent sidetrips into the jungle. About halfway through the hour and a half trek and after I’ve mahouted all the rough terrain, Janet get’s her turn on the flat going. Cries of ‘pie pie’, which is elephant for go, echo through the forest.

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Our destination is a series of cascades where we leave our elephants to have a well earned rest while we have a lovely Lao lunch in our own bamboo hut with a point blank view of the waterfall.

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We then embark on an hours trek on a rough path beside the cascades back dow to where it joins the river. It’s then a pleasant raft ride (a suitably upmarket raft of course) back to the camp for a swim, a g&t and dinner!

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Tomorrow mahout training continues!

Luang Prabang

Arrived in Luang Prabang last night after dark so too late to go for a wander and explore the town.

We’re staying at a charming, idiosyncratic little hotel called Satri House. It’s done in an old colonial style and the layout has little nooks and crannies everywhere. the windows are shuttered rather than having blinds and every room is decorated with art, antiques and objet d’art collected by the owner. Pictures don’t really do it justice.

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This morning we went on a walk around the town centre but we really only covered at most 30% of what we’d like to see. Luang Prabang is mainly about the ‘vibe’ created by the combination of the colonial architecture, the laid back attitude and of course, all the monks. we found a lovely small ethnology museum that provided some information on the ethnic diversityof Laos. Of course they had tribal handicrafts for sale. Could we resist. Of course not.

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Had a lovely lunch in an outdoor cafe by the Mekong.

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In the afternoon we took a trip to the Kuong Si falls which were very pretty and provided an opportunity for a swim. We also got to visit a local village made up of a number of different ethnic groups and most importantly we saw our first close up game of caneball which can best be described at 3 a side volleyball played with the feet and the head!

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Temple at Meong Bleay

Today we took a tour to an unrestored temple about 65ks from Siem Reap.

It has been open to tourists for only 7 years as the Khmer Rouge calling cards (landmines) had to be cleared first.

The trip there was quite illuminating as we saw a slice through the reality of Cambodian life from the relative wealth of Siem Reap to the harsh realities of subsistence farming. In this area they only get 1 rice crop per year so life is tough.

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Not much is known about the temple as archaelogists have not been able to get to any of the carved stones that might tell the story of the temple and its real name. For the moment its simply referred to by the name of the village nearby.

We do know that it was built around the same time as Angkor Wat as the architecture is similar.

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We had a nice lunch at the Terrace of the Elephants restaurant and are now waiting for our transfer to the airport for our journey to Laos.

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The adventure continues.

Tonle Sap Lake

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Short easy day today. No early starts, a relaxed breakfast and then an 8.30 start for our 30 min drive to Tonle Sap where we catch a boat to view the famous floating fishing villages.

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Tonle Sap is a large, shallow freshwater lake that is about 3000 sq kms in the dry season but swells up to about 12,000 in the wet. Interestingly, for the engineer in me anyway, the swelling of the lake is not fed from upstream but downstream. When the Mekong is in flood from the snow melt of the Himalayas the flow is so strong that it pushes water back upstream into its tributary the Tonle Sap river and in turn into the lake.

When we visit the floodwaters are in the process of receding.

We take a small boat from a tourist departure point and motor down to the floating villages. There’s no escaping noisy diesel motor boats in Asia so its not a peaceful trip but fascinating nonethess.

Unlike the floating fishing villages we have seen in Halong Bay these villages move with the changing of the water levels. But something in common with Halong Bay is that ethnically many of these people are Vietnamese who came over in 1979 when the Vietnamese Govt took control of Cambodia post Pol Pot.

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We spend some time at a floating restaurant where our guide tells us a little more about the lives of the fishing families (who work hard to make maybe a $1 a day) but the conversation turns to learning about Bunthing and his family, the state of Buddhism in Cambodia (where it is clearly not taken as seriously as it is in Burma), the failings and gross corruption of the current government (which to our shame is supported by the Australian Government) and the most amazing life he has led.

Bunthing lost his mother and father to the genocide of Pol Pot and fled, aged 12, to camps on the Thai border where he then trained as a guerilla fighter in the civil war post the Khmer Rouge regime. He didn’t provide much detail but basically he was a soldier at age 13. He left the ‘army’ to seek an education at one of the Catholic missions in the refugee camps which in turn allowed him to escape the poverty cycle.

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We know he has been a tour guide (and a very good one) for 14 years and prior to that worked in the hotel industry. He is an active campaigner for workers rights and has led a number of strikes to try and improve conditions.

No doubt we will learn more tomorrow as we have decided to take an additional tour to one of the newly discovered temple complexes that are still enveloped by the jungle and are totally unrestored.

Spent a relaxing afternoon walking around town, having a nice lunch and then spending too much money in the markets. Apparently silk scarves for $6 are a bargain.

This evening we went to the Phare circus. Phare is an NGO (one of the few non corrupt ones here) that provide training for young people from disadvantaged families in a number of artistic disciplines including painting, music and circus skills. Tonight we saw the music and circus skills combined in a very energetic, enthralling and funny show. Highly recommended if you ever come to Siem Reap.

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Tomorrow the mysterious jungle temple!

Angkor Wat

A big big day yesterday and when it finally ended I was too tired to update the blog.

Up at 4 for the 20 min drive out to Angkor Wat so that we can get there in the dark. (On the way we stop to pay our Park fee which we later learn just goes into the pocket of a corrupt government crony rather than into preserving the temples – but that’s another story).

Our guide Benting takes us to the far side of the temple (not that we can see anything yet) away from the other hordes of tourists who are on the eastern side. We have the place to our selves and sitting on the steps of one of the five libraries we watch this magnificent Hindu temple slowly emerge from the gloom. We sit there in the peace and quiet for quite a while just taking it all in. A very special moment.

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As it gets light the tourists who have come in from the other side start to appear and so we give up our peaceful spot and start our own tour of the complex.  The combination of vast scale, complex engineering, grand architecture and beautiful bas relief artwork is quite over powering. From the artwork we learn not only about the Hindu religion but also about the life of the people at the time.

Throughout the rest of the day we visit four other temples that are in various states of disrepair and or restoration; the Bayon temple and Terrace of the Elephants in the Angkor Thom complex; the Preah Khan Temple, the Ta Prohm temple (the scene of the Tomb Raider movie and therefore full of Japanese tourists doing Angelina Jolie poses) and finally the Banteay Kdei temple.

After Angkor Wat the temples become a mixture of both Hindu and Buddhist influences and its interesting to learn of their commonalities but also their differences.

Hopefully the photos will show what words cannot describe.

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Siem Reap

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Flew yesterday (24th) from Yangon to Siem Reap with a 2 hour stopover in Bangkok airport (which is spectacular by the way and leaves Sydney Airport for dead).

Arrived at our hotel in Siem Reap about 12. It’s a charming French colonial style hotel that is very comfortable and I’m enjoying writing this blog on one of their business centre PCs.

Didn’t really know what to expect of Siem Reap as we hadn’t really done any research on it in particular. It turns out to be quite a charming little tourist town and small town centre area has some very picturesque bars and restaurants set in narrow laneways. In the afternoon we enjoyed some $1.50 margaritas watching the world go by from one of the bars and in the evening we enjoyed the local Amok cuisine at a charming little restaurant.

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Sometimes its the serendipitous elements of travel that become both memorable and worthwhile. While we were having our afternoon drinks some young children approached us handing out leaflets. It turned out that they were for a traditional Cambodian dance show put on by the children at a local refuge/orphanage school. On a whim we decided to go and ended up thoroughly enjoying ourselves. The kids were very engaging, the dances were quite beautiful and we also got to enjoy some of the young men from the school playing traditional Cambodian instruments. The young man who ran the centre was very transparent about their need for direct donations as they don’t receive government funding so we and the other 10 guests happily made a contribution. It’s a shame more people weren’t there so I’m going to try and promote it through Tripadvisor. I’ll add their website and facebook page asap.

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Tomorrow Angkor Wat!

a free day in Yangon

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Nothing planned today so after a leisurely breakfast we took a taxi to the General Aung San museum.

Although we in the west put Aung San Suu Kyi up on a pedestal beside Nelson Mandela it is her father who is the more revered figure in Burma.

From  fairly humble rural beginnings he rose to become a student leader at Yangon University. During the war he rose to the rank of Colonel and made many high level contacts with the British. After the war he lead the negotiations for independence from Britain. Unfortunately, he was assassinated in 1947 before he could see the independence he dreamed for come to fruition in 1948. He was only 32 and left behind a wife and 3 young children including the youngest, Aung San Suu Kyi who was only 3 or 4 at the time.

The museum is in the house they lived in at the time of the assassination. We found it quite moving to be there and to think of it’s history.  Interestingly, and disappointingly, up until quite recently the govt only allowed the museum to be open one day a year.  Although it is now open 5 days a week it is very run down and poorly promoted. Apart from a lone Japanese man we were the only visitors that morning.

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We then took a cab into the downtown area to enjoy walking through the bustling lively streets. Firstly a stop at Scott Markets to do some serious souvenir shopping and then we walked through the Hindu, Jewish and Muslim quarters. Different religions but a common theme of life lived noisily out on the streets.

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Back to the hotel for a bit of serious R&R by the hotel pool before returning to town at sundownfor a wall through the Chinatown street markets.

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In the evening we walked from the hotel to a local Mynamar restaurant. We had no idea what was going on. The menu was in Myanmar, the place was loud and noisy and full of locals and food was just appearing on our table. Eventually we found a waiter with a little English who told us that we had to go up and point at the counter at the food we wanted. Not much help when you don’t know what the food is that you’re looking at! Anyway all great fun and we did eventually get a meal and a beer for the princely sum of $10. Unfortunately, we forgot to take the camera! bugger.

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