Thursday, 31 May 2012

First Impressions...

Of all the countries that I've been to so far on my trip, Burma is the one I had the least preconceptions about. Despite everything I've read about the place and writing a fair bit about it for work last year, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. All I'd heard from other travellers was that the locals were lovely and visiting the country was like stepping back in time. Which is exactly what it felt like when we stepped out of Yangon Airport. My hostel had sent an old school bus to pick up its guests and as we boarded the beaten up vehicle it felt like we'd arrived. We drove through the dark streets, with a constant draft blowing in from the door which wouldn't close properly and the broken windows, with our noses pressed to the windows like little kids, trying to take everything in at once. There were the men wearing their long skirt-like longyis; there were the typical Asian pick-up truck 'buses', but filled with more people than I've ever seen before in my life and there were the thousands and thousands of Burmese residents going about their daily lives: shopping, talking, driving like crazy people and laughing with their neighbours. Because, no matter what's happening in the political world, life goes on.

The next morning  I began my visit to Burma with a 4.30am trip to the famous Shwedagon Paya to watch sunrise. What I was expecting to find was a quiet, old-fashioned temple, in keeping with the 'stepping back in time' image everyone kept telling me about. What I was not expecting was the Disneyland-esque flashing lights set up behind every single Buddha in the place - and believe me, there are a lot of Buddhas. Still, it was the perfect introduction to the country, as the crazy disco lights contrasted with the monks chanting; locals singing as they made offerings of food to Buddha and the deafening cawing of the crows which were oblivious to the fact that the feast wasn't for them.

Welcome to Burma!

And that seems to be Burma - a place of constant contrasts. Where everywhere you look construction is taking place but all of the buildings standing presently are falling apart. Where even the country's capital city suffers from frequent power cuts and flooding (honestly, the old ladies who call up local papers to complain about lose paving stones would have a field day here). Where a tiny minority drive about in 4x4s, talking on their mobile phones, while the vast majority earn just $2 a day.

But it's also a place that you instantly fall in love with - before you've even seen the sights - and that's for the simple reason of the people. The sweet, kind, lovely people who run after you to give you the change you left as a tip at a restaurant and buy food for you on the long and bumpy bus journeys. The people who stop and stare at you in the street and shout constantly "hello, hello, where are you from?" before giving you a huge grin with their red bettle-nut stained teeth - a substance they constantly chew and spit out in the street. I think it may have helped it I knew a bit more about English football through as they are crazy about it here but once I've got past the initial nodding and smiling as they name their favourite teams I don't really have anything else to add to the conversation and I think they're beginning to doubt my English credentials. And finally, there's the teashops, ah the teashops. But that's a whole other post in itself... 

A teashop on every corner - I'm in heaven!

Monday, 28 May 2012

Wanderlust Blog Of The Week

Wow, my blog has been chosen as the second ever Blog Of The Week for Wanderlust magazine! Please visit it if you have time as it will help to decide if I win Blog Of The Year.

Wanderlust Travel Blog of the Week

Sunday, 20 May 2012

#20 - Learn a new skill

I have now officially passed the six month mark of my trip. That's six months of no work and my brain is beginning to fry. Frequent swapping between countries with different currencies means that my maths skills, bad at the best of times, have become pretty much none existent; not being able to speak the language in the countries I've most recently visited has seen my foreign vocab skills reduced to being able to say "hello" and "thank you" and most of the time I can't even remember what day of the week it is. Sure, I've learned how to argue the fare with taxi drivers and the importance of using your elbows in the non-existent queuing systems in Asia, but I felt like it was time to put my brain back into gear. I decided to sign up for a Thai massage course in Bangkok, which is something I wanted to do last time I was here but for one reason or another never got around to. And before all the boys (because, let's face it, it's always the boys) start with the nudge, nudge, wink, wink, this was all perfectly legit.

I opted to study at Wat Pho, which runs a course which is really well-regarded in the rest of Thailand. However the first task you have to pass before you enrol is actually finding the school. After a ride on the Skytrain and a boat down the river, I arrived at Wat Pho itself, one of the city's most famous temples. But it turns out the classes are no longer held there any more as student numbers have become too big. So there was a lot of pointing and waving arms as one person after another tried to direct me to the school. I eventually found it tucked down a little side-street. The girls on the front desk were very sweet but didn't speak much English. However they kept reassuring me "yes, yes", everything was fine. I could just come back in the morning to start the class immediately. I was a little hesitant as to how the classes would be taught though, based on our current communication problems, especially when I asked whether they would in English and they told me "yes, English and Thai".

But I decided if it was good enough for the Thais, who certainly know the power of a good massage, it was good enough for me. Signing up also meant I had to break the habit of a lifetime and invest in a pair of 'poo pants'. Many people will know my aversion to the dreaded 'poo pants' (think MC Hammer) as they are often favoured by the type of person who thinks you can't be a 'traveller' unless you are constantly wearing a pair, along with friendship bracelets up to your elbows and no shoes. However, I'm ashamed to admit this after so many years of complaining about them, but they are actually the comfiest things ever.

Starting the first day of school is always daunting, what with all of the 'what if nobody likes me?' teenage angst to deal with, But luckily for me I was immediately put into a group with other people from all over the world and we were given out introduction to massage in English. For anyone who has never experienced a traditional Thai massage, it's definitely quite different to the relaxing aromotherapy or Swedish massage we're more used to in the UK. In fact, I think 'relaxing' is probably a word which wouldn't feature in the same sentence as 'Thai massage'. There's a lot of pulling and pushing and stretching with the massuese sat next to you on the bed and even at times kneeling or walking on you. So learning how to massage is definitely one where you have to leave the English reserved nature at the door as pretty soon you're going to be kneeling on the back of someone you've just met.

After being introduced to the first two steps we were split into different groups and I was partnered with a Thai lady who told me: "This is my first time massaging" before proceeding to give me an amazing massage. It turns out she regularly gives them to her elderly parents and was only coming to the school to get her certificate so that she could open her own salon. It was the same story for the other three Thai people in the group. They had all grown up learning the technique but just needed the official qualification. After starting the course I noticed that massage is something which is very much incorporated into daily life in Thailand. You see little kids in the street giving their parents head massages; stallholders cracking each others' backs and workers having foot massages at the end of a busy day. I actually think the massage technique may have something to do with the fact that you see so few people in Asia with walking sticks. One of my teachers who must have been well into her 70s regularly asked the other teachers to walk up and down her back.

Our teachers were lovely and in a mixture of broken English and Thai soon told us if we were doing things wrong. This included some of the older ladies smacking us on the bottom if they wanted us to sit down during a particular move. Again, pretty sure that's not something you'd see at home.

Working those poo pants.
On my second day I was partnered with a very enthusiastic Japanese man who hadn't quite got the hang of the amount of pressure he should be using, particularly on someone quite small, so it actually turned out to be quite painful as he was going through the steps. However any time he made a mistake he would be mortified and would keep apologising profusely, which I then got embarrassed about and felt terrible and wished I'd never said anything, So instead I chose to say nothing and consequently spent a fair bit of time feeling quite tense.

By the third day my body felt really achey, which was quite ironic considering I was in a massage class. Throughout the course of the week we were taught all five of the steps. There was a lot to learn and it was a bit of a shock to the system having to use my brain again. But as time went by I was reassured by the teachers that I wasn't going to break someone's back by kneeling on their legs and I found a way to politely tell my Japanese friend to go easy on the pressure points.

Picking up the techniques.
 The other nice thing about staying in a place for a while it that you quickly settle into a little routine. I loved my morning walk to the Skytrain where I would see the monks in their bright orange robes collecting alms and people eating their breakfasts of rice and noodles at tables on the street. I loved cramming onto the boat, where the ticket collectors were always shouting at us to "hurry, hurry", despite the fact that no one could actually move any faster if they tried. I loved arriving at the port where the smell of dried fish first thing on a morning turned your stomach slightly. And after class I loved treating myself to a sliced mango and wandering slowly back to the pier, watching families sat eating rice noodle soup together and the tourists cutching their maps and looking lost.

The morning commute.

My fellow passengers.
The other really great thing about the school was I instantly met a brilliant group of people and we instantly bonded over our noodle soup lunches and exam fears. Because at the end of the course we all had to take a practical test since I learnt how to drive and the fact that it took me three times to pass explains everything. Even though we all knew deep down that it didn't actually matter in the grand scheme of things we really, really, wanted to pass.

My lovely classmates.
I'd like to be able to say that it all went well and that I breezed it, but that would be a lie. In the boiling hot room, as I sat right next to the examiner, I totally panicked and forgot everything. Fortunately for me I had been partnered with an extremely lovely girl, who reminded me to breath and taught me the importance of finishing something - even if you have absolutely no idea what you're doing.

Somehow or other I managed to pass though and I am now one of those tiny ladies who can cause a great deal of pain (in a good way, obviously).

Woohoo! I got the certificate and everything.

#20 done and the waiting list is open.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

#19 Go on an adventure with my sister

The great thing about families is that even when you haven't seen each other for ages and ages as soon as you meet up again it's like you've never been apart. Within five minutes of seeing me at the airport in Bangkok for the first time in six months, my sister had complimented me on my new "Buddha Belly" (thanks to my travelling diet) and we were instantly back to the way we always are.

My sister and I are very close, but very different. While I love to be off exploring new places, she's much more of a homebird and likes to have a nice holiday where you don't have to haul your life around with you in a backpack. I've always thought it would be really fun to go on a trip together though so when my friend Kate said she could come as my plus one to her wedding I jumped at the chance to invite her.

I've met many great people on my trip and have been fortunate enough to travel with some of them along the way, which has been brilliant. But after a long time on the road it was so nice to be travelling with someone I know. Someone that gets my sense of humour; understands that it takes me hours to decide whether or not to buy a new handbag and someone I don't ever have to explain myself to if I'm having a bad day.

I love many things about my sister. I love that because I've been to Thailand before she thinks I am the oracle about everything from monks to ladyboys; I love that she laughs at her own jokes so much that in the end you can't help laughing along (even when they're not funny); I love that she loves people watching like me and that we can spend an entire dinner just spying on the people around us. My sister is the only person I know who can make me sit for hours in front of a waxwork model at a temple because she won't believe he's not real.

Real or not real? That is the question.
The great thing about doing this trip with her as well was seeing all of the brilliant things about travelling through someone else's eyes for the first time. I think sometimes when you've been on a trip for a long time or when you've been to a place before you don't always stop to appreciate how crazy something is and how different it is to life at home. It was so much fun to see my sister's expression as we squeezed onto river boats with the locals; got tough with our bartering in the markets and clung on to each other as we were driven across town by a boy-racer tuk-tuk driver.   

During the three weeks she was here we had so many fantastic experiences together. We had an amazing time getting soaked in the Songkran Festival; we cooked up a storm at our Thai cooking class; we burnt our bums together snorkelling (actually that was more of a painful experience...). We laughed so much after Sarz's first experience of a Thai massage (when she said she thought she was "going to vom" because it was so hard) and we helped each other through the traumatic day with the elephants. There were so many times when I said to her "I'm so glad I'm not doing this by myself". And, unlike, when I am travelling by myself, there were no bad days, no times when I felt lonely, because I always had my favourite person to talk to.

Takeaway: Thai style.

Dinner is served on the overnight train.
A spot of pampering before heading home.
And now that she's gone I miss her a lot. There's no one to point out every cute baby I see to and no one to have pointless conversations with like "Who's your favourite person we've met so far? Smiley Waiter Man or Boy Who Bought Us Disgusting Sweets On The Bus?" I even miss hearing her tell me she's "hotter than the sun" on an hourly basis. And I know that's she'll be reading this and rolling her eyes saying "cheese monster sis" and that's why I love her.

Couldn't have asked for a better way to complete #19.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

#18 Learn how to be an elephant mahout (trainer)

Like many things in Asia, the training to become an elephant mahout was pretty fast. We were given approximately ten minutes to learn the six commands we needed to control the elephant before being told to jump on an animal which was about 100 times the weight of us.

My sister and I had initially discussed whether we should do something with the elephants in Chiang Mai. Obviously we were keen to see them, but we were also wary about their well-being and didn't want to go somewhere where we would see them being mistreated. When we came across Chiang Mai Elephant Training Camp, which is managed by Earth Eco Tour, it felt like we had found a place which combined the elephants' welfare with their owners need to earn money to care for and feed their animals which can eat up to 600kg of food a day. The centre limits the number of visitors to 15 a day and when we arrived we discovered that we were actually the only people there. I'm still not sure whether that was a good thing, as at least no one witnessed what happened that day but, on the other hand, it would have been good to see if other people shared the same fear as us.

After changing into out attractive blue outfits - again, what's with the outfits? - I volunteered/was volunteered by Sarz to go first. Command number one was "Sung" which made the elephant lift its leg to form a kind of step. The pros can obviously then just swing their own leg over the elephant's head. Unfortunately I am nowhere near that flexible and had to be quite unflatteringly pushed from behind by two people. My first three thoughts when I finally managed to sit on the elephant's head were:

1. I was very, very high.
2. I was very, very small.
3. I was very, very scared.

I wanted to get off immediately. There was nothing to hold onto except the elephant's head and even though I knew that Pitoon (which was her name) was trained to listen to people all I could think about was that if she wanted to a) throw me off or b) run away, there was absolutely nothing anyone could do to stop her.
Not the most glamorous start to the day.
But I'm on!
I thought I'd better get on with it though so in what I hoped was a commanding voice I shouted "Pai" (Let's go) and nudged Pitoon behind the ears. She set off, although whether it's because she was listening to me or just because she felt like it, who knew? As we got to the end of the path I changed my command to "Quay" which Pitoon resolutely ignored and continued walking forwards. Mild panic set in as my mind kept filling with thoughts about my crazy horse in Bolivia ( and I strongly suspected that if anyone was going to be put on a crazy elephant it would be me. Luckily the trainer stepped in and managed to avert me being whacked over the head by a tree branch. We started heading back and I was so relieved that I'd soon be able to get off. Unfortunately that wasn't the plan and instead I had to lead Pitoon to some giant water butts where she filled her trunk with water and sprayed both of us as she threw it over herself to cool down.

Shower time.
Eventually, when I was soaked to the skin, it was time to head back and after telling Pitoon "How" to
stop I had to wiggle my bum and shout "Jalong" so that she would put her head down and let me slide off the front of it. I had never been more glad to feel my feet on solid ground.

Surely the most unflattering shot I've ever had??
I then saw my poor sister waiting for her turn, so obviously had to say to her "Don't worry, you'll be fine. It's really fun", rather than what I actually wanted to say, which was "aaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrgggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!" (Although she did tell me afterwards that she knew I was lying, as she could hear how much my voice was shaking as I'd been shouting the commands.) Sarz pretty much had the same first experience as me and after shouting "Jalong" she threw herself off Pitoon without even waiting for her to put her head down and had to be caught by the trainer and our translator Beir. She couldn't stop shaking and we ran to the bathroom for a conference where she said: "I think we've made the wrong decision. I don't think I like this." Even though in my head I was also panicking I tried to do the big sister thing of reassuring her: "No, no, don't worry, we'll be fine." Even though I was not entirely sure that was true.

Have you stopped shaking yet?
We headed back out to try again and the second time was actually a bit easier as at least we knew what to expect and the third time was better again. Then we got to feed the elephants some bananas and it was so funny to watch them practically inhaling the fruit, snatching it from us with their trunks and putting it in their mouths before instantly stretching their trunk back out for the next one. There was also a cute baby called Chumpoo who was naughtily always trying to get more from us. It was hard to resist giving them to her though as she was so cheeky.

Cheeky 'little' Chumpoo.
We were both quite relieved when it was time for lunch and we had a chance to relax. Lunch was at a nearby family's house and they'd prepared a real spread for us, although we found we couldn't eat too much after the stress of the morning. Over lunch Beir explained to us that all ten of the elephants at the centre were owned by different people. The farmers used to use them to take things like sugar cane into the cities where they sold it. However following numerous accidents on the crazy roads, the government had banned elephants from the city centres. While safer for all involved, this left families with a huge animal which can live for up to 80 years and needs to be fed 500 - 600kg of food a day. This is why things like elephant trekking have become so important in the area.

In the afternoon we set off on an elephant trek, much to the amusement of the locals who came out of their houses and stopped talking to their neighbours in order to watch us pass by. It must have looked so funny to see two tiny white girls trying to control two huge elephants who seemed to decide on a whim whether or not to listen to us. One moment we'd be walking along merrily and then next they'd see a tree they wanted to eat and they'd be off and no shouting of "Bai" could get them back on track.

My elephant Jokia was the worst, as she was mum to Champoo so, like any mother, all she cared about was making sure she could look after her baby, which meant eating as much food as possible so she could produce enough milk. Sarz was back on Pitoon who was (slightly) better behaved. When we were walking on the flat ground it wasn't too bad and we could actually take a moment to enjoy the ride and appreciate how amazing the elephants were but going uphill or, even worse, down hill was pretty scary. At least on a horse you have reins to hold on to but on an elephant you just have to lock your legs and straighten your arms and hope for the best. I could hear Sarz screaming behind me at one point as we came down the hill. The trainers all thought we were hilarious. The elephants are their pets and they don't understand why anyone would be scared of them. I guess it's like the equivalent of someone being scared of your pet dog in England. So their mantra was always "No problem lady. No problem." Easy for them to say.

Note to self: Elephants don't come with brakes.
I think the thing about growing up in Europe is we're quite used to people explaining what's going to happen next. Especially when you're doing something new for the first time you need that person to reassure you and tell you what's going on. But even though Beir was brilliant, she and our trainer were very much from the laid back school of training. So when we got back to the camp they walked miles away to have a cigarette and left us on the elephants, not telling us that now was the time for them to graze before we headed to the river. Sarz and I therefore spent what felt like hours, but was probably just about 15 minutes, trying to make them turn around to go back to the camp. The elephants (who were obviously a lot smarter than us) knew that this was their time to eat and were having none of it and marched off wherever they felt like. Jokia was also very hot so kept picking up huge scoops of dirt from the ground and throwing it all over her back, and me. It was at this point, soaking wet from the sprayed water, filthy dirty from the mud and rocks that were being thrown at my head, that I decided I wanted to get off. And it was one of those moments, you know when you're crammed on the tube in London or you're stuck in a lift with loads of people and you think "I need to get out now" and it needs to happen that instant? I shouted across to Beir to ask whether I could get off but I think something got lost in translation and she called back no, as we were heading to the river next. Which is how I found myself completely trapped on a huge elephant. It was at the moment that a) the panic set in and b) the photographer who was following us around decided to start getting some close up shots of us. So there I was covered in mud and dirt, tears streaming down my face and a man papping me from behind a tree. Now I know how the celebs feel on a bad day.

Just what you need when you're having a breakdown. Now I know how Britney Spears felt.
Luckily Sarz saw my face (which afterwards she said actually looked quite funny) and in a reversal of big sister/little sister roles took control of the situation, shouting at the trainer: "She needs to get off - now!" Fortunately he then understood and made the elephant sit down so I could get off. Shaking, and very embarrassed, I then walked to the river with Beir, while Sarz braved it out on Pitoon.

Actually washing the elephants in the river was the highlight of our day. They absolutely loved cooling down and we scrubbed their backs and threw buckets of water on them, while Champoo, besides herself with excitement, threw herself around, almost squashing us all in her enthusiasm. It was also a chance to see how gentle and gorgeous the elephants were close up, without the fear of being thrown off them.

Bath time!
Gorgeous girl.
I managed to man up a bit for the ride back and then, after a final snack for the elephants, our day was over. On the way back we discussed the trip and agreed that although it had been terrifying in parts, it had also been brilliant. But I guess that's the thing with travelling, sometimes what feels like the scariest parts of your trip turn out to be the best.

#18 Done, with a little help from our friend.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Continuing with the alphabet challenge - F to I

F is for Fraser Island

G is for the Great Barrier Reef

H is for Haad Rin Beach in Koh Phanang

Koh Phanang is most well known for being the place to be in Thailand when there's a full moon. Once a month thousands of people from all over the world descend on the island for the famous Full Moon Party. Obviously this has become quite a nice money earner for the locals and spin offs such as the Half Moon Party have also begun to appear. We arrived on Koh Phanang the day after one of these parties, hoping that we would have missed the crowds and planning on a few days of beach relaxation. We decided to stay on what is supposed to be one of the quieter beaches, Haad Rin and booked into what I can only assume are the ironically named Paradise Bungalows.

The view from paradise.
After a chilled out day we headed to the beach for dinner. It was pretty quiet as most people had already moved on. However, despite the fact that there was hardly anyone around, the locals were determined to keep a party atmosphere going. This meant cranking up the music, performing fire shows and trying to encourage those of us who were around to partake in fairly dangerous party games like group skipping with a rope which had been set on fire. Having seen plenty of "burns victims" who had failed to jump high enough we politely declined the offer. It was fun to watch the shows though, especially the little kids who are amazingly skilled at fire dancing.

The safe way to entertain the kids.
After a nice evening we headed back to our bungalow at about 1am, where we discovered that we had essentially opted to sleep in a nightclub. The bass from the music was so loud that the glass in the windows was shaking the whole night. Now I'm aware that I sound like an old granny writing this but the music went on until 6am and I wouldn't mind but there wasn't actually anyone there to enjoy it! So, that just about sums up my memories of Haad Rin, and I think probably qualifies me to apply for my OAP bus pass.

I is for Intawarorot Road in Chaing Mai

One thing I discovered about my sister during her visit is that she is not a fan of the heat. I think her most used phrase during her time in Thailand was that she was "hotter than the sun". If possible she would have had a Beyonce-style fan following her at all times. (To be fair that would probably have given us both better hair for the photographs too.) It's not her fault really. She burns ridiculously easily - as we both discovered when we burnt our bums during a day's snorkelling - and comes out in weird heat rashes. So probably visiting Thailand during its hottest month wasn't our best idea.

Anyway, needless to say she wasn't too thrilled when I decided to take us on a wild goose chase to find Intawarorot Road. To begin with, like many places in Chaing Mai, even though it was marked on the map, the road didn't seem to have any signposts on it. So we were walking along in the blazing heat down what may or may not have been the right street, with drivers stopping every two minutes to shout "tuk-tuk" at us before speeding off when we said no. Eventually, like a light at the end of the tunnel, we saw a street sign in the distance. When we finally reached it we realised out next problem was that it was too tall to get both me and the sign in the photograph. So, much to the amusement of the locals, I had to shimmy up the pole as though I was auditioning for a part in Singing In The Rain. Still, job done.