Thursday, 28 June 2012

Stars In My Eyes

I think travelling in Burma is the closest I will ever get to knowing what it's like to be a celebrity. Everywhere you go, even in the big cities, you're an attraction. People shout hello, run up to shake your hands and push their kids forward to practise their English with you. And while I know it's not exactly Heat magazine papping me on my doorstep, I've never been asked to be in so many photographs in my life. Burmese tourists from other towns who are visiting Bagan or Inle Lake seem to think a photo with the token white person is just as essential as getting a snap of a temple. I just really wish I wasn't wearing my poo pants in so many of them...
Must the poo pants appear in every picture?
In contrast to many countries in Asia, it's actually the older people who have a better grasp of English as a result of the former British rule and they love to pull up a chair in a teashop and ask their favourite question: "Where are you from?" Saying the UK usually leads seamlessly into a discussion about the Premier League, which they're all crazy about here. Note to self: learn more footballers' names.

One of my favourite people I have met so far is a teenage boy who, when we told him where we were from, gasped: "Do you have a British accent?" Not quite sure I'd adequately be able to explain the differences of a northern accent, I opted for yes. He was then extremely excited to tell me the two 'British' phrases he knew (as he explained to me that at school he was taught English with an American accent). Now I can only assume they were phrases he'd picked up from cable tv, although I have no idea what kind of programmes he'd been watching as the first phrase, said in a kind of weird Cockney accent, was "I love my dogs" and the second one, said in the Queen's English, was" "I'm from England". I then taught him how to say "Would you like a cup of tea?" in a posh accent (even though no one ever really says that - I just like to enhance the stereotype).   

But it's the children who are the funniest. Some of them will sit on buses and gaze open mouthed at you; while the braver ones will run after you in the street, shouting and showing off to their friends, and they'll constantly point at your camera and then shriek with laughter when they see the picture of themselves on the screen. 

"Photo, photo!"
In the south of Burma, which sees fewer tourists in general, we visited a lovely little town called Hpa'an. As we bumped along in a tuk tuk on a bone-rattling journey which would leave us aching for days, kids came running from their houses and chased us down the road shouting "bye bye". We became so used to people waving at us that I think it actually went to our heads a bit and at one point we started waving at two little boys who had absolutely no interest in us whatsoever. That's probably a sign that it's time to move on, before the attention goes to my head and I start asking to be know as the journalist formerly known as Em.

Some of our 'fans'.

Friday, 15 June 2012

The trek to Pan Kam

There have been many, many, great moments in Burma. Lots of which I'm sure I'll bore you all with when I get home (feel free to zone out when you hear the words "when I was in Burma...") But one of my favourite memories is our adventure to the village of Pan Kam, just outside Hsipaw, in the north of the country.

The guidebook had advised not doing the trek alone as "nobody speaks English" but as we felt like that's kind of the point when you're travelling, Liza, Dave and I decided to give it a go by ourselves. Armed with a map drawn on a computer by our lovely hotel owner's son (which included helpful annotations like "don't go this way, I got lost") we were about to head off when she stopped us and insisted that Liza and I needed a hat. I tried to explain to her that I never wear hats (on account of my pea head) but maybe pea head doesn't translate very well as she gave me such a mum look that I just had to agree. Which is why I began our walk with a straw hat, which was weirdly a bit too small for me, perched on top of my head and tied under my chin with a piece of string.

In hindsight it's probably not the best idea to start a five hour trek in 45C heat, but at the time we thought it would be fine. I think it was about half an hour later, when we were downing our water reserves, that we suddenly realised 'hmm...we're doing a five hour trek in 45C heat.'

Nevertheless we trudged on, much to the amusement of the people in the villages we passed. They came out of their bamboo-made houses to stare at us as we went by, giving us a friendly wave and shouting "mingalaba" (hello). Some of the younger children just gaped at us open mouthed. I seriously hope that, with my red sweaty face and tiny hat balanced on my head, I was not the first white person they had ever seen.

The kids were a bit bemused...

...and it's no wonder when they saw this!
The great thing about trekking somewhere like Burma us that none of the paths are marked. So when you arrive at a fork in the road there is absolutely no indication of which route you should take (and to be honest the map wasn't that much help). This resulted in us having to flag down motorbikes passing by and asking "Pam Kam?", while pointing hopefully in what we thought was the vague direction.

So, is it left or right?
The locals had a brilliant time laughing at us and nodding encouragingly. At one point a number of them started saying "three" but we weren't sure whether they meant three miles, 30 minutes (they sometimes get their tens confused here) or - worryingly - three hours! Eventually, just as were were all ready to drop, we arrived at the village. The relief from all three of us was massive. We collapsed in a heap, fully expecting the chief of the village, who we'd been told speaks good English to come and find us. But when that didn't happen, we set off to find him.

On the way we stopped at a little shop to buy some cans of pop. The woman took them out of a dusty looking cupboard (no electricity or running water here) and we all commented on the old fashioned ring pulls. It wasn't until we'd drank the contents that I actually looked on the bottom of the can and discovered they were all out of date...

We began our search again for Omagh, the village chief, and came across two old grannies who probably had about four teeth between them. They were wearing long bright, striped skirts, colourful jackets and headscarves and had clearly been working in the fields as they hands were caked with dirt. We tried to find out from them the whereabouts of their MIA chief but in a mixture of Burmese and sign language they explained that he was working far away and would not be returning that night. Hmm...not something we had really planned for. But we need not have worried as the grannies had a plan and kept telling us to follow them and signing that we could stay in their house. By this time we were thoroughly confused. (Hotels in Burma need government permits to take in foreigners and we weren't sure how things worked in remote villages.)

We decided to go back to the shop to see if we could find out any more information. However, once there, I confused the situation even more by accidentally inviting myself to stay with them. (My sign language obviously needs a bit of improving.) In all fairness to the lovely Burmese couple who ran the store they did actually agree, but luckily for all concerned we were saved by another man who came along and introduced us to a family which actually offered homestays to visitors.

The owner instantly plied us with cups of tea and I instantly felt at home. The house was small, but cosy, with all of the cooking done on an open fire in the middle of the room. Our host quickly knocked up a meal of aubergines, vegetables and rice, which they refilled constantly.

A cup of tea and it feels like home.

Our wonderful hosts.
It was an early night for us all and before we bedded down on piles of blankets the only other drama was having to walk past the bulls to the outdoor toilet - all just another part of the experience I guess.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Driving Me Crazy...

Whoever came up with the saying: "Life is about the journey, not about the destination" had obviously been to Burma. The roads here are absolutely crazy, something which is compounded by the fact that most people drive right hand-drive cars on the right side of the road...don't ask.

The rules of the road also appear to be very vague and often even the few red lights which are dotted around are ignored by drivers. In general it seems like the bigger you are the more say you have. So the trishaw drivers give way to motorbikes, which get out of the way of cars, which in turn are beeped by trucks and buses. So the poor pedestrian doesn't stand a chance. It's usually a case of stepping out when you see a space and stopping occasionally so that the other lines of traffic can go around you.  

The funny thing is that, no matte how lovely the Burmese people are in all other aspects of life, they will never, ever, wave you across in front of them. Even when there's a huge queue of traffic directly in front of them, drivers  will put their foot down to zoom forward the extra couple of meters rather than let you cross.

So, in the short time I've been here, these are the rules I've established.

1. There's no such thing as "too full"

"Only seven people, only seven people", the man assured us as he hurried us over to the waiting pick-up truck. Judging by the normal standards of Burmese pick-ups, which are usually packed to bursting, it was a number which sounded too good to be true. But as we were about to make a two hour journey it seemed like a good idea to go for an option where both bum cheeks could occupy a seat. 

We settled in on one of the long wooden benches which line each side of the truck and, along with the other occupants, we did actually number seven. However, just as we thought it was time to go, our pick-up reversed into a nearby garage where a huge pile of spare car parts, tyres and engines was loaded on. When everything was eventually packed in around our feet and stacked up high on the roof we set off, with the two 'bus boys' hanging off the back. It's their job to shout out the truck's destination and repeatedly squeeze everyone along just a quarter of an inch in order to fit just one more person in. This was something we witnessed regularly as the truck stop-started its way through the countryside, where men and boys climbed onto the roof or hung off the back and women with huge shopping baskets and babies squashed inside, sitting on small wooden stools in the aisle when the benches were too full. At one point there was 20 people in the back alone. 

Locals in Burma are used to getting around this way and personal space does not exist, so its normal for your neighbour to lean on you or fall asleep on your shoulder. The baby next to me had great fun using my finger as a teething device.

The funny thing is that the only place where there is space is the seat next to the driver - the 'first class' of the pick-up - which costs more to sit in. But for most people here it's not an option and it's economy all the way. 

Looking full? No, there's still plenty of room!

2. Two wheels are faster than four

I'm not a big fan of motorbikes. My poor balance means that I'm terrified I'll somehow manage to tip the bike over, so I spend the whole journey totally tensed up, not daring to move. Unfortunately in Burma they're the main form of transport and you can't walk down a street anywhere without someone shouting "taxi, taxi?" at you (whether they're actually licenced to do so or not). 

When we arrived at the small town of Taungoo we were nearly knocked over by the group of taxi drivers who jumped onto the train as it was still moving to offer their services. As we made our way out of the station we became the Pied Pipers of drivers as they all continued to follow us, shouting out prices, despite the fact that they still didn't know where we were going. Outside the price war continued as the men pointed out their various motorbikes and trishaws. "Car?" we asked hopefully, but it obviously wasn't an option.

Unable to bear the thought of getting an old man to peddle us (and our huge backpacks) all of the way to our accommodation on a trishaw, we finally opted for the motorbike. The barely-teenage drivers confidently manoeuvred our big backpacks between their legs while we slightly less-confidently climbed behind them with our smaller backpacks. They set off at a frightening speed, dodging the pot holes and fearlessly overtaking cars and bikes.

So it's totally fine to turn into this oncoming lane of traffic, right?
The women in Burma always look so elegant on motorbikes. Often they sit side-saddle, sometimes with a baby on their knee, and they rarely look as though they are holding on. I, on the other hand, was hanging onto the back of the bike for dear life and was actually considering grabbing onto my poor driver, although I thought that might be a bit weird. At some points I had to close my eyes as we approached oncoming traffic - although I don't know whether that made it better or worse.

When we finally arrived I got off, legs shaking, with the unfortunate knowledge that we had to do it all over again the next day.    

3. If plan A fails, there's always Plan B

"The mountain is broken", the station master told us gravely. To illustrate his point he drew a diagram of a mountain split in two. We took in the news about the landslide and the fact that it would take "many, many hours" to clear and considered our options. In the end there was nothing for it but to forgo one of Burma's most scenic train journeys and head back to the hotel we'd just checked out of. The lovely owner instantly sprang into action, promising to flag down every passing bus to see whether it had three free seats to Mandalay.

We were just about to head for a quick breakfast when she came running after us. "You are very lucky", she said as she explained that a man who was heading to Mandalay would take us for the same price as the bus. Where the man had suddenly appeared from and how he had heard about our plight so quickly, I have no idea. But half an hour later we found ourselves squeezed into the back of his 4x4, while his wife and daughter shared the front seat. Unlike most of the children here, the little girl was completely oblivious to us, as though her father quite regularly picks up foreigners and drives them to cities five hours away.

We actually ended up getting there faster than if we'd taken the bus and even got door to door service to our hotel. Which just goes to show: If plan A fails, there's always a Plan B.

4. The way you start your journey is not necessarily the way you'll finish it

My journey to Bagan started like many others. I was on one of the more expensive 'luxury' buses and was being frozen by the air-con and deafened by the never-ending video karaoke. I think the term 'luxury' can be used in the loosest sense of the word in Burma. I'm sure when the buses were first made they were very fancy but seeing as that was about 30 years ago it doesn't really apply now. 

"In my day I used to be fancy. Honest."
The only thing that makes most of them stand out from the ordinary buses is that they have padding on the seats, rather than just wooden boards. Oh and the tvs, which, when they're not playing terrible Burmese cover versions of the Black Eyed Peas' Where Is The Love?, show soap operas which are just as bad. I can only assume that the Eastenders script writers moonlight for the Burmese soaps too as so far I've seen plot lines which include a long-lost brother and sister falling in love; women coming to blows over a man they both fancy and many, many, tearful girls being kept apart from their one true love by their parents.

Anyway, I digress.  The point is, I was on a bus which suddenly stopped - not actually that unusual in Burma. Everybody jumped out and the men appeared to tighten - although not actually change - a tyre. We then, worryingly, all piled back into the bus and appeared to coast to the nearest town. Once there we immediately went to a garage where we were told the bus was broken and would take two hours to fix. But the conductor told us not to worry as another "bus" was on the way.

The "bus" turned out to be a pick-up truck, already packed to bursting. After reassuring us that we didn't have to pay - due to the fact that we'd already paid a (relatively) huge bus fee - we were squeezed in. So I spent the last two hours of my journey sat backwards on a small wooden stool clinging to a strap above my head, squeezed between the knees of local women, many of whom were throwing up due to travel sickness. Like I said, not quite the journey I was expecting.

5. Never forget that people can be kind

Sometimes when you're travelling you can get a bit cynical about people. It sometimes feels like you're wearing a great big flashing sign saying "Tourist" which gives everyone the green light to try and scam you. People let you take a photo and then ask for some money, kids wave to you before holding their hand out for a "present". So often it's easy to forget that some people will help you out - for nothing.

We'd just come to the end of a two-day trek in the most ridiculous heat ever. As we sat under a shelter trying to summon up the energy to tackle the main road which stood between us and a shower at our hotel, a man stopped next to us in his little tractor/truck. "Hsipaw?" he asked, before waving at us to jump in. At that point we were so exhausted that I'm pretty sure we would have accepted a ride from anyone. But as we bumped out way back to town we started fretting about how much money he would ask for. "He won't be doing it for nothing" I said grumpily as we tried to come up with a reasonable amount to pay. (The general rule in Asia is to always agree a price before setting off anywhere as its difficult to argue after you've taken the journey.)

But, much to our surprise, the man dropped us off outside out hotel with a quick wave over his shoulder. Leaving us feeling very guilty and with a lesson learnt: sometimes people are just being kind.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

#21 Drink tea in a Burmese teashop

I have come to the conclusion that in a previous life I must have been Burmese. It is the only explanation I can come up with after discovering a nation whose inhabitants love the drink as much as I do.
Burma is a country I've wanted to visit ever since reading Sarah Larkin's Finding George Orwell in Burma years ago. Up until then I probably couldn't have pointed out Burma on a map but the way she described the place and the people made me want to visit immediately. However up until now the timing has never seemed right, especially as the National League for Democracy called for a tourism boycott until 2010. But the political situation appears to be changing - albeit very slowly - and when I met Cuba and Asher in Peru, they spoke so enthusiastically about Burma that I decided then and there that I would visit it during this trip.
One of the first things you notice when you arrive in the country is the teashops. While some are housed in permanent buildings, many just line busy streets and dingy alleyways and their dinky tables and chairs feel made for me. You can find them everywhere, from the capital Yangon to the smallest village, and there's nothing better than perching on one of the tiny stools, often where the passing cars almost touch you and watching the world go by. I love to see the women with their faces covered with the traditional yellowy-white makeup busy doing their shopping (you don't see many of them gossiping in teashops - it's more of a man's world it appears); kids running along in their pristine green and white school uniforms and the men who are temporary monks (something which they are all required to do twice in their life) walking along with their mobile phones attached to their robes, not quite able to let go of the modern world.

Watching the world go by - nuns collecting their daily alms.
There are many things I love about the teashops here: copious amounts of cake and non-stop people watching to name but two. However the thing I love the most is the non-stop tea. As soon as you sit down at a teashop, before you've even ordered anything, a flask or teapot of Chinese tea will be plonked on your table, usually by one of the teaboys who are ten going on forty - barking their orders to the kitchen and running back and forth between tables. Thanks to them a visit to a teashop can last an entire afternoon. Where else could you spend three hours in a cafe and get a 50p bill at the end of it?
The food in the teashops is cheap and simple, like noodles and pancakes, but so tasty. And the Burmese love their tea so much they even eat a salad of fermented green tea leaves, which are mixed with sesame seeds, peanuts, peas and garlic - yummy!

Tea on a plate? Amazing.
If you order a cup of regular Burmese tea it comes sweet and thick, as condensed milk is stirred into it. The best, although definitely not the healthiest, is a cup of tea with a fried stick (literally just fried pastry) to dip into it - mmm... Good job I'm only here for a month!

#21 done - and no, I didn't eat all the cakes...