Last updated: 10 Sep 2014

Myanmar Part 4 - August 2014


Travelling to the next town of Kalaw takes us from the oppressive heat of sea level up into the cool, lush hills of the Shan state. The drive through the winding mountain roads provides stunning views of emerald vistas stretching into the far distance, a marked contrast to the dusty lowlands.

The attraction up here is trekking, with trails winding through plantations of cabbages, cauli, aubergine, ginger, choko and citrus fruit, which blend in almost seamlessly with the surrounding greenery.  We stopped for lunch in a little hillside village and had a really great traditional lunch in someone's house - had tofu made from chickpeas for the first time and it was delicious.

This is the first place in Myanmar where you aren't automatically sweating and it's a fantastic relief. Even the daily downpour is welcome. Even if you're not into trekking, this stopover is a much needed respite from the heat of this country.

Shan weaver

Kalaw trekking

Leaving Kalaw, we stop in at the Pindaya cave, a spot where the worshippers come and donate Buddha images. This cave now has over 8700 statues and has become a major tourist attraction! Walking in, it's quite awe-inspiring, the statues and mounted from ground level to 5m high in some places and come in all sizes. The common element is the gold colour, which dominates the darkness.

As you wind your way through the cave, little avenues pop up out of the darkness, leading to more statues.  The cave isn't huge, but the population density of these icons certainly is.

Pindaya Cave

The next and final location in central Myanmar is Naung Shwe, a town at the northern end of Inlay Lake. The town itself is not much to speak of, but the effects of growing tourism are evident here. Every restaurant also offers western and other Asian food. There is even a french bakery and italian restaurant (and every one of us on the trip visited both of these).

But you come to Naung Shwe for the lake. This is a long, shallow lake, manually fished by locals, with a number of industries clustered around the southern end. The lake is very shallow, being only 6m at it's deepest. So the locals have built whole communities of houses, factories and farms around the shallow fringes. Many are family businesses, going back generations in silver smithing, ironmongering and fabric-weaving. Traditional methods are still used by these factories and with the rising cost of labour in Myanmar, their products aren't the cheap items you find in the markets.

Spinning thread

Inlay Lake leg rower

Filthy boat motor

Everyone gets around by boat, long skinny vessels which are sometimes paddled, but usually powered by an environment-and-hearing-destroying 2 stroke motor belching out vast plumes of pollution. By the end of the day, despite it being a temperate day, I needed a shower to wash the layer of grime off.

This is the last post about Myanmar. It has been a really nice trip here, bolstered by the fact that I stayed in hotel rooms pretty much the entire trip. The locals are wonderfully friendly and it's a very cheap country to visit for those of us from the western nations. I will admit the local food got a bit “samey” but there are already plenty of alternative cuisines on menus of most restaurants catering to tourists. Gonna miss the cheap but always satisfying Myanmar beer. Next country is Nepal, the main focus of this trip.

Jezu tin ba deh Myanmar.

Myanmar Part 3 - August 2014

The next leg is travel to the city of Mandalay via boat along the Ayeyarwaddy river. This was a laid back affair with nothing to do other than sit back, snack, drink and watch the scenery go by. The river is very calm, but with a strong current. All large rivers here seem to be the same Yarra brown, and for the same reasons. Unfortunately, all refuse and waste finds it's way to the waterways, and all rivercraft belch out plumes of black smoke as they travel. That night, the crew set us all up with mossie nets and mattresses for everyone to sleep out on the upper deck. As much as I love sleeping outside on boats, that night was a bit of a trial due to cramped quarters, oppressive heat and a spectacular thunderstorm lighting up the horizon every few seconds.  So of course I got up to take a picture of it.

Sleeping quarters

Lit by lightning

Just before arriving in Mandalay, our boat dropped us at Sagaing Hill, an area with temples and monasteries dotted all about it. At each buddhist temple, you have to remove your shoes before entering, which is why not many locals visit in the middle of the day. The powerful sun here heats tiles and stone to cooking temperatures, which is a bad combination with my soft western feet. It was only a short trip to Mandalay city from there, and after checking in, Koko took us on another of his short orientation tours of the area we stayed in. Mandalay is not what I expected. The name conjures up images of an beautiful, exotic, yet cosmopolitan asian city – this is what my imagination came up with having never seen any pictures of the place. The reality is a low rise city centre, bustling with local life on the streets, with the usual hordes of scooters buzzing about. Traffic is busy, without being life-threatening every time you need to cross the road. Dusty in the dry, muddy in the wet, but with a good feel about it. Walking about, the locals are always happy to chat to you and help you with directions. You can tell they're happy to see foreigners choosing to visit their country.

The boys are back in town

The unfinished Mingun temple

Mandalay fortress

What we have seen here is that this is a country of rapid change, as far as tourism goes. Prior to coming here, I'd read and heard from people that there wasn't a lot of tourist infrastructure in place. Talking to independent travellers here, that isn't the case anymore. ATMs now abound in all tourist towns, with most big attractions having them on site. VIP buses blast back and forth across the country, shuttling backpackers to all the hotspots. Even the latest Lonely Planet guidebook, published only a couple months ago, references places which don't exist anymore, change is happening so quickly here. I'm glad I got here pre-McDonalds.

Myanmar Part 2 - August 2014

Ever since seeing the first trailer with a backing track of everyone's favourite Blue Swede song, I've been wanting to see “Guardians of the Galaxy”. The opportunity presented itself on my last free day in Yangon and I prompted rocked up and paid the massive $2.70 AUD to see this movie in 3D. The movie was in it's native English which was great for me, but there were no subtitles for the locals, which meant I was the only one laughing at the dialogue. The locals only laughed at visual gags. Since they couldn't follow it particularly well, they tend to do what bored people do anytime they lapse in attention - pull out their smartphones. Every few minutes, glare from someone's phone would be a blinding distraction in the corner of my 3D glasses. One girl even answered a phone call and talked for two minutes. Still a great movie though, although the projection cut out every hour or so. Maybe the projectors overheat...

Downtown Yangon

We ride...

Steve takes over the trishaw

The last day in Yangon sees a trip across the river with some guys from the tour group I met up with the night before. The ferry boat (where tourists pay 20x more than the locals) takes you back in time from a city to an area where the locals live in bamboo villages. At least, we got preferential treatment with free access to the deck chairs, which locals have to pay for. We had some local boys cart us around on trishaws, an old single speed bicycle with side car. Luckily for them the terrain is all flat around there, those trishaws aren't the most efficient pedal powered creations I've tried. At one of the local villages, the kids are conditioned to come running out whenever tourists arrive, and line up behind you as you walk up to the village. The expectation then is that you go to the local shop, and buy them all some kind of snack. We did this, in the spirit of being nice to the locals, but of course there are some cheeky buggers who keep rejoining the queue...

Dala village kids

Village kids lining up for a biscuit handout

The flashpacking continues now with all accommodation on this tour being hotel based, all with air-con and wifi everywhere. Well, at least when the power's running. We've made our way to the historic region of Bagan now, former capital of the kingdom and land of 3000+ temples. The best way to get around here is on some form of two wheeled transport, whether it be bicycle, e-bike, scooter or horse cart. On the first day, we had e-bikes (mopeds) to get around on, and a couple of us travelled the length and breadth of the area. Many smaller temples are separated by small paddocks and it's pretty easy to take the mopeds “offroad” along walking paths, as long as they weren't too sandy, so of course we did exactly that. The next day, our guide Koko took us on a guided tour of some of the grander temples, travelling by regular bicycle.

It's VERY hot and humid in Bagan. By lunchtime, you've soaked through whatever you're wearing in sweat. So a number of us headed to the local golf resort (the “Amazing Hotel”) to use their swimming pool and drink $2.50 cocktails. Then the whole group was on a bus to visit another temple and a final location for glorious panoramic views of Bagan at sunset.

Bagan Puppetry

Just another Bagan temple


Mt Popa

The last day in Bagan was a day trip to Mt Popa, a temple built up in the hills about an hour and a half away from the town. The first glimpse of this temple through the trees is eye-opening. It is built on top of a huge karst, with a covered stairway winding around the karst up to the summit. Stunning. Unfortunately, I couldn't get the photo – the best angle was from a monastery where they didn't encourage visitors. This temple is dedicated to 37 spirits, whose effigies can be seen in a shrine where a traditional band keeps up a percussive cacophony non-stop (seemingly) for visitors. The climb is several hundred steps, where you're dogged most of the time by monkeys seeking to steal food or water. The view from the summit is impressive and you can see a long way out over the plains.

The final act in Bagan was to visit one of their laquerware factories, which this region is also famed for. You can watch dozens of artists working on the many various stages of creating the product, which takes 24 weeks to produce a single item, due to the number of layers of lacquer required and drying times. The final product is quite beautiful and I've now got a new set of matched rice bowls. As if my bag wasn't full enough already.

Myanmar Part 1 - August 2014

One thing you notice from the air as the plane comes in to land here in Yangon is that the number of temples here in Myanmar is no exaggeration. Amongst small villages dotted in between a myriad of paddocks and the mighty Yangon River, you can easily see bright points of gold drawing the eye to the ubiquitous pagodas.

The air is very humid here, making it a sweaty experience as I headed out on my traditional discovery walk of a new location. Day one saw me wander about slowly for about eight hours, taking in the city centre and getting a feel of how the Burmese go about their days. As in most asian countries, no one seems to walk any kind of distance and every taxi honks at me as they pass. The city centre is a throng of humanity, with stalls lining the main streets, mainly selling food and clothing. My stomach doesn't seem to be as forgiving about street food as it used to be, so I'm reluctantly limiting myself to looking without trying here. Which is a shame, the food here is very cheap.

Shwedagon Paya

Day one culminates with some night photography at the city's number one attraction, the Shwedagon Pagoda. This is a huge 2500 year old Buddhist temple, over 100m in height and adorned in actual gold, crowned with a 76 carat diamond!  The top 13 metres of the pinnacle is made up of over 500 kilos in gold, with thousands of carats of gemstones decorating it.

The temple has four majestic entrances facing the cardinal points and you emerge from each one directly in front of the main pagoda. Then you join the mass of humanity winding their way around it, with monks, devout locals and the occasional tourist. As the sun drops, the lights come on and what was an impressive sight becomes a truly stunning one.

Bird seller

Maha Wizaya Paya

Day two sees me on a train ride around the city which takes me out to the outer suburbs. This is a truly local experience, no creature comforts or hygiene standards on this train. But it does give you a really good look at the outskirts. The locals seem to use the railway lines as a social spot, you can see families sitting down and having meals on the tracks, or drying their laundry. Just to pick it all up when a train rolls through! It's certainly not a pretty train ride, but it does show the real face of this city - there is the usual problem of rubbish literally dropped anywhere, and houses on the outskirts suffer from flooding in many areas.

It's still the rainy season and every day, you can be almost guaranteed that the heavens open up, from a mild drizzle (this is the best as it makes it quite a pleasant temp) to cats and dogs (like right now).

Musings in transit

22 Aug 2014

As I make my way around and about between countries, I notice certain changes in the way I travel. Rather than taking the public boat back from Bunaken Island, I paid seven times as much instead for a personal charter, so I wouldn't have to spend any time in the unappealing city of Manado or it's drab airport. Then of course, that boat left 20 min late and it took another 20 min to find a taxi... so I had the taxi driver do some racing driving to get me to the airport before the check-in closed. He did a sterling (moss) job and we made it with three minutes to spare. Big tip for him.

Then there was the nine hour layover in Jakarta before my next flight. In the old days I would've curled up in some corner of the airport and hoped not to get robbed while snoozing. This time a couple of locals convinced me to go spend the night in their transit hotel. Which I did. Queen size bed, air conditioning and the first hot shower in two weeks, it was soooooo worth it.

I think the old days of trudging kilometres with the pack on in order to save $2 are over.  I guess this old backpacker has become a flashpacker.

Yangon traffic

Bunaken Island - August 2014

Seabreeze Diver's Resort

16 Aug 2014

Sulawesi is an island internationally famed for it's diving, with a myriad of stunning sites sprinkled all over. I chose to visit Bunaken National Park, a small island just a short boat ride north of the city of Manado.

This island is completely ringed by a magnificent reef, which drops off dramatically as a steep, coral encrusted wall. The wall is at least 50m deep in most places, and the coral on it is as good as the best I've ever seen. The coral brings the small fish and plenty of turtles, with some larger predators like reef sharks occasionally showing themselves. Manta rays are also found in this area, although I still can't tick them off my big fish list. The coolest sea life I saw here was a mollusc called the electric clam, which is bright red, with blue bolts of electricity coursing up and down it's lips (see it featured in the upcoming video footage).

On the local reef

Spinner dolphins

Most dives here are drifts, which means you float along, letting the current take you in it's natural direction, although there are dangers too. On a day I decided to “have a day off”, a dive group got caught in a massively strong down current, and they had to claw their way up the reef itself to make it safely to the surface. Luckily everyone in that group made it safely back, but it does show how unexpectedly fickle the ocean is – if the sea gods decide your time is up, there's not much you can do to fight it.

The dives themselves have been great value. Every dive other than one has been at least an hour long, at depths of down to 30m. That's probably more to do with the people I'm diving with though, it seems nearly everyone here is a very experienced diver, capable of great air control. Today, I experienced my first ever 70 minute dive, and I'm knackered tonight.

My seafront bungalow

Tourist life on Bunaken is pretty laid back. I wake up at dawn(ish), have breakfast, jump on a boat for a couple of morning dives, have lunch, have a nap, look at my GoPro footage from the morning, have dinner and some drinks, then sleep. All schedules are geared around diving, diving and diving. If you're not into diving (or at least snorkelling), don't come here. Each resort here includes 3 meals a day as part of the accommodation costs. There's no browsing around the island trying different restaurants. I do think this concept is very limiting, however, luckily the standard of food at where I'm staying is more than acceptable.

I opted to splash out for a beachfront bungalow, which is well worth the extra pingers. There's the soothing sea breeze and the sound of waves to drift off to. The breeze keeps the mozzies away and the waves are so much better to wake up to than the traditional Indonesian alarm clocks (roosters, dogs, motorbikes).

The local islanders are super-friendly, I guess most of them serve the island's tourism in some way or another. As you walk through the village, nearly everyone says hello to you. We had a “music night” at where I'm staying the other night, where the staff busted out their guitars, percussion instruments and home-made single string bass, and treated us to some local tunes. I joined in with them a bit, their songs only have 3-4 chords and every song is in the key of C! Good times. And all the boys who work on the dive boats have become BFFs since we jammed together.

So I've already been here a week now. Initially I thought I'd visit another dive area, but all my gear is unpacked and strewn all over my bungalow. It's too much effort to move onto another area before I have to leave the country in a few days so I'm just gonna hang out here until it's time to go. Guess that's a sign of how much I'm enjoying it here.

Music night

Next stop is Myanmar (Burma), where the whirlwind travel picks up again. Looking forward to seeing a new country. Not looking forward to leaving Bunaken.  Big thanks to the awesome staff of Seabreeze resort for a great stay.

Tana Toraja - August 2014

Hillside graves - Lemo

8 Aug 2014

It feels like it's been a long time since I've done a decent travel trip - probably not since Canada a few years ago.  I know everyone's idea of travelling is different.  My idea involves going new places with time to stop and smell the roses, or whatever other local analogy suits.  The full gallery linked up above will be updated when and where I can.  Upload speeds in this part of the world are quite slow...

This year, I've taken time off from work to explore some new parts of the world (for me).  First stop is Sulawesi, Indonesia.  Each country on this trip only has a limited amount of time, so I've decided to focus only on certain areas.  So from hopping on the plane leaving Melbourne, it's been 35 hours travel straight to arrive in the town of Rantepao, central in the province of Tana Toraja.  During that 35 hours, I found that my personal email got hacked (sorry y'all), and the joys of the "high class luxury" bus.  Air conditioned with FULLY reclining seats.  I was in hog heaven, all the locals were dressed as if it was winter.

First impressions of this island?  English here for the average local is about the same level as my command of bahasa indonesia.  So ordering meals is sometimes a time consuming and very amusing experience, since not everything on the menu of a warung is generally available!  Other than at the airport, there aren't hoards of people attempting to separate you from your first-world tourist dollars, which is a refreshing feeling.  Despite any perceived similarity in genetic antecedents, I still stand out as a non-local here.  Part of it is that I'm not as dark as they are (that won't last long), but the main thing when I asked someone today, is that I'm wearing sunglasses.  Sure enough, I haven't seen a local in sunnies yet.

Traditional Torajan houses

Man waters buffalo - Rantepao market

The locals are today mainly of Christian belief, but it is their traditional funeral rites and methods of burial that brings in all the visitors.  When a local dies, their body is kept by the rest of the surviving family until the family can afford to send off the deceased with a funeral ceremony.  However, the ceremonies are expensive affairs, so it is not uncommon for a body to be in the family house for 2, 5, or 10 years!  The traditional belief is that the person is not "dead" until they are ritually taken from the house.  Water buffalo and pigs are sacrificed to speed the deceased's journey to heaven, in front of the guests, and this is a gruesome affair.  The sacrifice is not always clean, and a large, desperately wounded animal, rampaging in agony with sharp horns is a serious danger to any guests nearby.  Despite my penchant for  photo documenting, I chose not to capture any images of the sacrificial process.

After the ceremony, the body is moved to it's final resting place, a hillside grave.  These are rectangular holes carved horizontally into a cliff face, each one requiring 3 months manual work to carve out.  Once finished, each grave is added to by the same family until there is no more space inside - it is not uncommon for a single grave to house 10 bodies.  Status of the family is indicated by the decorations of the grave.  The lower status graves have simple wooden doors, middle status graves have more adornment, and high status graves will also have statuary decoration.

Funeral rites

Buffalo sacrifice

Tana Toraja is a rugged, mountainous region with villages dotted all over the hillsides, each commanding million dollar views.  A must-do here is to go for a trek through the mountains and villages and this is where you get to meet some true locals.  By foot, villages are relatively close together, maybe half an hour between each one.  Here you'll find the traditional buffalo horn shaped houses that are specific to Toraja.  The locals also build mini-versions of these houses, for storing rice, which is the predominant crop of the area.  Even smaller versions are built for housing bodies and these can be found dotted around the hillsides.  In stark contrast to the traditional buildings, is the inevitable satellite dish connected to each large house.

Torajan countryside

After spending a few days here, I can say that the locals are friendly, generous people.  Walking through each village, it gives a foreigner a strange feeling at first.  You are literally wandering through someone's front (and back) yard.  But everywhere we went, we were met with greetings and beautiful smiles from everyone and it's not unusual to stop for a break in any random village, where the locals would then offer you tea while you rested.  As part of the trek, my party had a night in a homestay, in the traditional styled house, where they prepared a dish of chicken pieces poached in bamboo for dinner. 

Playing Takraw

So it's been an eye-opening stay here in the Tana Toraja region.  I was lucky enough to be here at the right time for a funeral ceremony and am humbled by the hospitality of the local people.  After all the vertical ascending and descending the last couple days, my legs need some R&R now, so now it's off to the diving wonderland of northern Sulawesi.

 Kurrush umaga Toraja.

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